Sunday, August 23, 2009

Leadville 100 2009--DNF

Well. The short of it, for those with better things to do than read about my failures: I roughly stuck to my pre-race plan of tritely Going Big Or Going Home and I came down on the rather more tarnished, grimy side of that coin-flip gamble. After being significantly under course record pace all day (17 minutes fast at mile 60, 20+ minutes fast at mile 70), I DNFed at mile 78. A bit more in-depth account exists below the picture, which I think displays quite succinctly what I was reduced to while coming into the Fish Hatchery aid station (mile 76.5): a person who has found himself in such a hopeless situation that all he can do is smile wryly.

("How am I still in the lead?" With Alex, my patient pacer, ~mile 76. Photo: Rob O'dea.)

Now for the (much much) longer version. The final week of tapering leading up to Saturday's race went okay. After being inspired by watching Armstrong power up Sugarloaf on his mountain bike the previous weekend I had to head down to Boulder for graduate school orientation, and to ascertain a non-Roost abode for the school year. I never felt good on the short one hour jogs I did along Boulder Creek Path and finally on Wednesday ventured onto more favorable terrain with a casual jaunt up Mt. Sanitas. This seemed to put a little more pep in my legs and my final easy runs in Leadville on Thursday and Friday my legs felt great. Fresh, rested, and absolutely ready to rock.

However, these last couple days before the race some giardia-type symptoms like I'd experienced earlier in the summer (specifically, about a week before the White River 50) reared their various heads again, but I went into the weekend unconcerned with any bearing that would have on my race.

After a typically restless pre-race night in the Roost, race morning was cool and clear, perfect weather really. The nerves were there, as they'd been for a couple of days, but it was the good kind--I was just excited to finally get rolling! With about 90 seconds until the gun I stepped to the front of the amassed ~600 runners, stripped off all of my warm clothes, probably said something sarcastic to Duncan, and we were off, striding into the idyllic night.

Immediately, running down 6th Street, with the Rocky theme blaring from someone's front yard, the rest of the top runners' strategies were pretty clear, and logical: there's no real reason to run faster than Tony. Most of the run down the Boulevard, I kind of knew that we were going a touch quick. A time-check at the bottom of the road confirmed it--we were over a minute faster for the first 3.3 miles than what I had done during training. Of course, however, my legs (and I'm sure everyone else's) felt great.

On the run over to the powerline cut leading up to the lake I consciously tried to back off the pace and run as stumble-slow as possible. In what would become a theme for the first 30 miles of my race, I would alternately succeed in my quest for this subdued rhythm and lose focus and get immediately caught back up in unconsciously racing the person I was running with (mostly Timmy Parr). Any thoughts/efforts of racing in the first third of a hundred miler are for naught, and merely waste oh-so-valuable energy and muscle resiliency (a lesson I had thought I'd learned well enough--but apparently not--in the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100).
The powerline cut up to the lake is a short but extremely sharp and technical three or so minutes of running. Every other year I've run this race I'm the only one who runs it (probably pointless and ill-advised) but this year I followed behind Josh Meitz and was trailed by Timmy. We hit the lake in 43:45 where I snuck into the lead on the singletrack (because I like having a clear view) and tried my best to go as conservatively as possible. This went well on the way to boat ramp, which we hit just under 1:01; I felt like I was a running a nice, conservative, stumbling easy pace through here.

However, a short time later I would need to make my first of many (well, at least nine) pit-stops, and being in the lead, when I pulled over into the woods at first Josh and Timmy and it seemed most of the rest of the lead group of half a dozen or so runners followed right behind me before Duncan informed them that I was indeed stopping to shit and that the trail stayed straight. A good laugh all around, but I proceeded to lose a minute and a half on the group and realize that giardia might be an issue for the day.

The rest of the way to Mayqueen, as much as I told myself to just chill out and catch back up gradually, I would periodically catch myself edging out of the stumble-slow zone in an effort to regain the front pack and eventually did catch them just as we stepped onto the asphalt for Mayqueen campground. A solid group of us all came into the station essentially together at 1:42, but--as would become an important point in the rest of my day--this was really more of a 1:40 "effort" because of my needing to stop.

(Cruisin' through the Mayqueen tent early in the morning. Photo: Rob O'dea.)

Leaving Mayqueen it was still chilly and more than a little dark but I still decided to ditch the headlamp. I filed onto the Colorado trail behind Josh and one other runner with Timmy right behind me. The pace slowed fairly dramatically on this trail because it seemed that--even though he was using a light--Josh wasn't comfortable on the technical terrain. I was more than happy with the super-relaxed effort however, and once we hit Hagerman Road (just under 2:05) Timmy and myself ran side-by-side in the lead with Josh directly behind us, threatening to clip our heels. I guess we all wanted to be on the exact same section of road.

(Tim and I heading up Hagerman Pass Road, ~mile 16. Photo: Rob O'dea.)
Once we turned off Hagerman and began the true climb to the top of Sugarloaf, though, it was just Timmy and I cruising along comfortably climbing probably just a bit too quickly. It was still the chilliest race morning I've had on top of Sugarloaf, an odd precursor to the remainder of the day. At the summit of the climb Timmy and I both pulled over for brief pit-stops, but a mere five or 10 minutes later I had to stop yet again, and longer, handing Timmy another minute plus lead. And again, I pushed the downhill here just maybe a tiny touch too much to catch back up.

We hit the asphalt road to the Fish Hatchery side by side and ran into the aid station the same way in 3:06. I was a bit more efficient with my crew, so I headed back out a little before Tim but he soon rejoined me and we cruised down the black-top, both shirtless in anticipation of the rising sun in the cloudless sky on the shadeless road. Bottom line, we both ran way too fast through here over to Treeline/Pipeline. It wasn't a hard effort because we were both fit and rested and ready to roll but the entire time I was constantly reminding myself to slow the F down, this is 100 miles we have to run today, and whenever I would consciously slow Timmy would do the same, but always half-stepping, always wanting to go just a bit faster and before I would know it I would be right there by his side again. It was frustrating for me to get distracted by this sort of external stimulus. Either way, we hit the Pipeline turn-off (normally the "Treeline" crew access point, the Pipeline section being a course re-route around a military helicopter crash site) in 3:36 and then ran another few minutes down Pipeline where my crew handed me a full bottle and we continued on our way.

(Timmy and I crankin' it on Halfmoon Creek Road, ~mile 26. Photo: Scott Nesbett.)

Here is where my problems really began in earnest. First, I knew that my left hamstring was a bit too tight a bit too early for my own good. For the past three years, my upper left hamstring has been my early indicator of leg muscle fatigue. In 2006, it was the first thing to show any hints of fatigue on the road up to the 30 mile Halfmoon aid station, the same thing in 2007, and this year was no different. Approaching 30 miles one would expect to feel some early, initial signs of muscular wear and tear. I've run nearly four hours already, afterall. However, this time I just had some intuitive sense that this was a touch too much, too early. So, I again continued with trying to back off the pace. Finally, I was forced to with yet another shit stop. Here, I lost over a minute taking care of business and I just resolved to let Timmy go so as to completely allow myself to run my own pace, my own race, and get good and comfortable.

Letting Timmy go was a bit of a relief mentally but also a downer mentally. Nevertheless, I just tried to forget about him and continue on. However, before the 30ish mile "Box Creek" aid station (probably more like 31 miles) I had to stop twice more with crapping issues and would thus feel myself still pushing just a bit too much because I had a mind to not wanting the gap to grow too large. Just before the Box Creek aid there was a long swooping, open curve in the road that allowed me to see Timmy just before he darted back into the woods and I was able to clock his lead at right at two minutes. Two minutes. That's nothing, especially with all my stopping. It is much easier to think logically, sitting here on the floor, not in the thick of the fight.

The Box Creek aid station was a mess for me, and a mental low point. I stopped very briefly to top off my water bottle and then proceeded to exit the aid station in the wrong direction, not once but twice, and then get lunged at by a seemingly rabid, aggressive-as-shit-teeth-bared-honing-directly-in-on-my-Achilles dog. All of this was fairly upsetting to me and did little to brighten my already fairly dark mood.

The forest service road that we were running on took a slight turn up after the aid station, but nothing really significant. All extremely runnable. I actually managed to forget about Tim and just run. My left hamstring and right hip were already barking at me pretty good and there wasn't a lot of pep in my legs period, so I spent this section headed up to the Colorado Trail just trying to get comfortable again. Two years ago I had kind of a rough time through here on the way out as well, so I took comfort in the fact that I could have kind of a bad patch this early and still recover from it just fine.

And then, on an annoying, fairly extended little uphill that crests right before the South Elbert Trailhead (which marks the beginning of true downhill all the way into Twin Lakes) I'm just bopping along, in a good rhythm and lo and behold, there's Timmy up ahead of me walking up the hill. Ah, the first good news of the whole morning, really. Of course, my spirits are instantly lifted, I'm sure I gained a little pep in my running stride, and I caught Tim right at the top of the rise and slowly pulled away on the resulting downhill.

I gapped him on the entire downhill into Twin Lakes, running with renewed energy (this downhill has always helped my legs recover and feel good going into the Hope Pass climb), and passed through the aid station in 5:12, nine minutes ahead of course record pace. While running through town I grabbed a singlet (just in case there was any weather on the pass), chugged a bottle of water, and grabbed a new full one from my crew.

(Leaving the Twin Lakes Aid station at mile 40. Photo: Katrina Krupicka)

(Mile 40, heading across the meadow to the river crossing and the Hope Pass climb. Photo: Andrew Wilz.)

I felt good on the run over to the base of Hope Pass, but I had to make another pit-stop in the meadow after the river crossing and had also nearly drained the water that I'd just gotten at Twin Lakes. It was hot down there at 9200'. Despite this, the climb up Hope went well. The north side is cool and shaded next to a creek most of the way, and I filled my bottle at a small stream crossing half-way up. I consciously kept everything super-comfortable by hiking the steepest sections but still running the vast majority of this uphill. It was a way easier effort than any other time I'd gone up it all summer. Before I knew it I was standing up there in the meadow with the llamas chugging water at the Hopeless aid station (elapsed time of 6:20). The remainder of the way to the top of the pass I mostly hiked and was excited to see running acquaintances Nick Clark and Bryan Goding taking pictures and providing general encouragement.

(Mere yards before summiting 12,600' Hope Pass the first time. Photo: Nick Clark.)

(Almost to the top... Photo: Nancy Hobbs)

Running down the south side of Hope pretty much sucked. The quads seemed quite a bit unhappier than they should've been and I had to stop two more times to crap. Really? I mean, really? That was certainly getting old. Also, the steepness on the bottom half of the south side of Hope never fails to surprise me. Running up the road to Winfield, however, I was in good spirits, despite running out of water before getting there.

Heading up to Winfield is often when I begin to reflect a bit bemusedly at the absurdity of running 100 miles. Each year, that road sucks. You're not even half-way and your legs already hurt a stupid amount, you've just pounded down a quad-quivering descent and now you have to turn around, struggle back up that goddamned mountain, and run all the way back to town. But somehow, it's totally possible. Certainly not easy. It's actually crushingly difficult. It just requires one to reconsider the intensity and duration of pain that one is willing/able to endure. Even with running 150-180mpw and completing regular 50 mile long runs, it's not a place that I ever reach in day-to-day life, nor an experience that one can really sufficiently physically prepare for, I think. It simply comes down to resolve, fortitude, and stubbornness that eventually must be born anew with nearly every footstep. On a good day, running 100 miles is fucking hard. Period. On a bad day, it's borderline impossible.

I reached Winfield in 7:20. This was too fast. My crossing of Hope Pass was 2:08, about two minutes faster than I'd planned, but with all the stops for shitting, the actual pace I was running was even a few minutes faster than that. Ultimately, I think that would prove to be part of my undoing--running faster to make up for all the time I was spending with my shorts around my ankles.

At Winfield I picked up my pacer, Alex Nichols, and we immediately set to work on drinking lots and lots of water. I downed a bottle of Nuun and a bottle of ice water before we even began the climb. We also ran the road back down to the bottom of the climb a bit quicker than I should've. We hit those 2.5 miles in 18:30 when two years ago Kyle and I had covered the same stretch in 21 minutes. That's a minute per mile faster. I also noted that I had an ~8-10 minute lead on Tim.

The climb back up Hope Pass was mostly fine. It's just so hard. And it was hot this year, not a cloud in the sky. Usually it's raining/hailing going over Hope; not this time. Alex and I settled into a hard hike, running only when the trail approached flat. I had a mind to take it relatively easy on this ascent because I knew I had a big cushion on the record (15 minutes at the turnaround) and I didn't want to blow up by pushing the hill too hard. Even so, once we crested the top (climbing exactly as fast as Kyle and I had two years ago) it took a fair bit for the legs to adjust to the downhill on the other side.

We hit Hopeless in 8:40 (losing a couple of minutes to Matt's record split) and navigated our way through the masses of runners making their way up the mountain. This downhill didn't go great. Again, my quads seemed to be hurting more than they have on this section than in the past (although, I thought that maybe I just had a poor memory with it being two years since I'd run 100 miles), and I was getting some pretty good cramping in my sides, reminiscent of the Leadville Marathon earlier in the summer. Some extra S! Caps seemed to take care of most of these issues, though, and by the bottom of the hill I was in very high spirits.

(Not feeling as bad as I look, Twin Lakes, mile 60. Photo: Rob O'dea.)

It was hot running across the meadow, but I opted for the full submersion in the river crossing, and Alex and I really stepped it out on the way into Twin Lakes. Despite what I felt had been a fairly poor downhill run, we had hit that split in 42 minutes, three minutes faster than I've gone in other years, and delivering us back in Twin Lakes to a raucous crowd in 9:22. A double-crossing in 4:10 (exactly what I'd been hoping for), and a 17 minute cushion on Matt's accumulative time. I was pumped.

The climb up and out of Twin Lakes went quite well, I thought. I hiked a lot, but I felt good. My right hip and my left groin were starting to threaten to cramp fairly regularly, but it was mostly par for the course as far as running 60+ miles goes. The rest of the climb up to the South Elbert trailhead and the rolling section of Colorado Trail were equally satisfying. Alex had me running mostly everything and my body was obliging. However, we were running out of water.

(Still smiling climbing up to the Colorado Trail in the hot sun, ~mile 62. Photo: Rob O'dea.)

It was hot. Later in the day I heard reports of 87 degrees, which was either a record high for race day or a record high for Leadville, period. All I can say is that I know that sounds weak by any non-Arctic standard, but temperatures in the 80s at 10,000' or higher is fairly unheard of. The power of the sun at those altitudes is unreal. Of course, we're not talking Western States or Badwater here, but it was way way hotter than any other day all summer in Leadville and certainly hotter than any other Leadville 100 I've run.

The re-route off the Colorado Trail down to the Box Creek aid station is a gradual downhill and most of it was completely exposed forest service road. With about ten minutes to go to the aid station I asked Alex for another bottle of water and I was surprised to learn we didn't have any more. I just couldn't believe I'd already chugged through all that, especially since Alex was being a trooper and barely drinking anything. Plus, it was to the point that my legs were so tired of running on the smooth, unvarying, road surface that I was just hoping for an uphill as an excuse to walk, but I knew there wasn’t anything like that before the aid station.

Again, it occurred to me what a survival, suffer-fest 100 milers are and although I always claim to anyone who appears interested that 100 mile races are essentially a different sport than even 50 mile races, this stretch of the race was making me truly believe that statement at the very core of my being.

We finally reached the 70 mile aid station in 10:42 and I was sure to dump a bottle of water over my head here before refilling the bottle and heading back out into the dusty sun. Things just got tougher through here on the way over to the Halfmoon road and crew access at Pipeline. It was a gradual thing. The road was flat and unchallenging but my legs just weren’t having it. I couldn’t believe how desperate I was to walk. So, fairly shockingly, I did.

Basically, I don’t walk flat terrain in races. Period. I don’t care how slow I’m shuffling along, it is a very stubborn, basic, animal instinct tenet in my brain that if the ground is flat, I’m running, however slow. And yet, I submitted for brief stretches of time through here and it did very little to revive me. Alex and I ran out of water again; I was just downing it. The quads began cramping regularly. Which sounds so simple and almost trivial written in an English sentence like that, but in the felt reality of life it was devastating on a physical, emotional, molecular level. The sun beat down. Life was more than a little desperate.

When we finally made it to the Pipeline crew access I felt terrible presenting myself to my crew in such a state. Jocelyn was so positive and supportive and cheerful and ready to keep us rolling, but I knew I looked horrible. I certainly felt horrible. I never stop during races, except to fill water bottles if I don’t have a crew doing it for me. And yet, I stopped here, for the first time ever in a 100 mile race, and actually sat down on the bumper of Jocelyn’s vehicle. I was actually a bit horrified at myself for stooping to such a level. This is a race! Come on! What the hell are you doing?!?! But it just seemed like I needed to do something to try to improve my situation.

After a minute or so, Alex and I got out of there, but all of a sudden running just wasn’t even an option. Crazy cramping in the quads reduced me to a humbling, pathetic crab walk on any sort of decline and something not much better on any incline. And then we hit the asphalt road and it was all over. Occasional attempts at running resulted in me either nearly falling down in a cramp-ridden mess or in a comedic, stilted, half-shuffle hop that Alex could walk just as fast. It was really kind of mortifying for me. I’ve never had my body betray me so completely in a biomechanical, muscular function sense. Metabollically I’ve had pretty incapacitating issues before, but never on the musculo-skeletal level that didn’t involve true injury.

So, Alex and I walked. Slowly. For a long time. I started looking over my shoulder, wondering when Timmy was going to come bounding by, but we could see almost four miles behind us and there was no one in sight. This was astounding. I was moving so slow. It was excruciating. Eventually, inexorably, we walked into the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 76.5, reached in 12:28. (The official race splits will show my time here as 13:50 because that's when my wristband was actually cut, but that was after spending time in the aid station, hobbling another couple miles over to the bottom of Powerline, sitting on the ground for quite some time, and then getting a ride back to Fish Hatchery to get the wristband snipped. I'm not sure why they didn't record/log my initial entrance and exit of FH.) This was only four minutes slower than during my 2007 race, and was actually 17 minutes faster than my split through there in 2006. All the walking had given me plenty of time and opportunity to rehydrate and refuel, so for the first time in quite some while I felt fully alert mentally. My legs just would not function.

(Glamour shot? Nope, just bitterly assessing the damage coming into Fish Hatchery. Photo: Rob O'dea.)
There’s not much to tell after that. I sat in a chair for a few minutes at the Fish Hatchery where Karl Meltzer gave me plenty of excellent advice and a great little pep talk. Between Karl and Jocelyn, I was convinced to get out of there and get headed towards Mayqueen. But it was just not happening. A little ways after the Fish Hatchery I had to stumble to the side of the road for yet another pit-stop but this time the legs weren’t having it and it was quite the pathetic affair trying to accomplish this task without bending my legs and if I could’ve looked at it from a different vantage point and under different circumstances, it would’ve been infinitely hilarious.
It took almost another hour for Jocelyn and I to walk the 1.5 miles or so over to the base of the infamous Powerline climb where, after walking down slight declines backwards, with my hands on my knees, I just sat down on the side of the road and watched as finally first Duncan and then Timmy stumped past in the tell-tale half-crippled strides of humans that have already run three marathons back-to-back-to-back.

That was actually fairly inspiring, but I was done, and I soon had a ride back to the Fish Hatchery where my wristband was snipped. Done. Did Not Finish.

I do not regret dropping out. I do not regret not waiting around for my legs to come back so that I could walk in the last 20 miles in seven or eight hours to notch a simple finish. I did not sign up for this year’s Leadville 100 to simply finish. Two nights before the race I had mentioned to my friend Brooks (who, by the way, ran a fantastic race to finish his first 100 in 23:21) that if things were going so bad that I was merely going to run, say, 18 hours, I would probably elect to not even finish and save my legs for something else. Of course, he said something along the lines of me being an asshole and wanting to punch me in the balls, and that is understandable.

But, I merely mention this to relate how all or nothing my mindset was going into this year’s race. I had nothing to prove to myself about being able to finish the Leadville 100, or the 100 mile distance in general. And really, as elitist as it sounds, I in no way was interested in merely winning the Leadville 100 this year, either. Any finish time that started with a number higher than 15 was going to be a disappointment on some level. Which is not to say that any disappointing race result would be better off as a DNF.
This year’s race, for me, though, was completely about pushing the outer limits and finding where the edge was while doing my very best to not step over that edge. In some ways, I feel like I came pretty f’ing close to riding the line successfully. It’s just such a hard thing to do, and enough little things accumulated throughout the day that I was nudged off by mile 70 and by mile 78 I had plummeted headlong into the abyss.

I will, however, be back, at some point. The Leadville 100 is just too unique of a production for me to turn away from, especially in defeat. I do know also, however, that I will run another, different, 100 mile race before I return. Also, Timmy Parr deserves a hearty congratulations and a job well done for his ability to make it to the finish line in one piece. Although I had a 40 minute lead on him at mile 70, he was obviously smart in letting this gap grow as I dropped and he persevered through a pretty rough patch of his own between mile 70 and 76 (somehow, despite moving at the pace of a drunken snail, I still managed to cover this distance four minutes faster than Tim) to recover, repass Duncan and take the win. Congratulations, Tim!
And now, for the truly cliché part of this treatise. (But, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, the more vapid and trite the cliché, often the more real and sharp the fangs of authentic reality that lie behind it, so this is not to be taken lightly.) This result in no way diminishes the veritable suite of rich experiences I had this summer living and running in the high mountains. I cannot overstate that. I absolutely relish the opportunity to spend a summer in the town of Leadville doing what I love most, with or without an extra box of rocks to send home with my parents.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


(Heading up Hagerman Pass into an impending storm, for the final time this summer. Photo: Rob O'dea Photography)

This morning, on the heavily traveled Boulder Creek Path, a person called out to me, "Dude, you need to eat more!" I was mostly happy to get a more creative comment than the typical "Run Forrest, Run!" (my head and facial hair choices don't help much), but I'll also take it as an indelible signifier of peak fitness.

I've made it unscathed. I'm prepared; all that is left to do is rest. The last ten weeks of training have been remarkably consistent and (historically uncharacteristically) reasonable in their volume, starting with the second week of June: 106 miles (first week really back after two months of very little running due to knee issues), 154, 150, 156, 151, 183, 113 (White River 50 taper), 155, 180, 142 (half taper week). This comes out to 22-28 hours per week of running all above 10,000' and with a heavy emphasis on vertical gain. Because running up and down mountains is what I prefer.

I have done runs of 40 miles or more five times this summer, including the final 50 miles of the Leadville 100 course in 6:58 ten days ago. Two years ago I did that exact training run two weeks out from Leadville in 7:26 and ran 16:14 during the race. I am excited to see what Saturday reveals.

(A much snowier Grays and Torreys than what I experienced.)

Last Thursday I finally made it down to Grays (14,270') and Torreys (14,267') for a go on those peaks. I was in a hurry and thus didn't have time for any sort of warm-up from the Bakerville parking lot (the road climbs steeply right from the start), and consequently ended up putting in a quite casual effort to the summit of Grays in 1:28:27.

Jeff V informed me over the weekend that that is a Fastest Known Time for an ascent from Bakerville, so I thought I would mention it mostly to just get the splits and time in a public venue for record-keeping purposes. I am pretty confident that right now I am in shape to go probably two minutes faster to the trailhead and another two or three minutes faster from the trailhead to the summit if I put forth a focused effort, so if I don't get the time to get back up there this fall with fresh legs someone else should certainly go improve upon this roughly 4500' climb.

Splits: Trailhead Bridge/Kiosk, 32:20;
Big Sign after the long flattish section, 50:40 (this first 50min of the run I was never pressing);
Big Rock Cairn before right turn onto long rocky traverse, 1:01:35;
Trail split for Grays or Torreys, 1:11:40;
Grays Summit, 1:28:27 (for a 56:07 from the trailhead; I believe Jeff has hit this fresh in 54:38).

Of course, I did the extra 500' of vertical descent and ascent for the obligatory summit of Torreys Peak as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fourteeners Fest

(Mt. Belford on the left, Mt. Oxford on the right, as seen from the south.)
My running this past week was defined by a zipper. When one is forcing existence out to the edge of its usual parameters, usually insignificant details are brought sharply into focus, highlighted, exploited. And one never really knows which small, not-even-considered component of the day is going to be brought so sharply into play while extending oneself out toward that edge, but it seems that one always is.

Wednesday morning saw me testing my recovery from back-to-back long runs with a foray up 14,421 foot Mt. Massive. The recovery was deemed good as I scaled the peak two minutes faster than my previous best, all the while enjoying calm winds and a virtually cloudless sky.

On Thursday, the weight of the fact that my summer is rapidly drawing to a close hit me and I ventured a little further afield to see what some of the area's other high peaks held for me. When I pulled into the Vicksburg trailhead parking lot for Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford on Wednesday evening, it was mostly vacant save for the abundant moonlight showering the clearing. I hunkered down in the Roost and fell promptly asleep.

One of the perks of being a runner is that I get up and down these mountains a lot quicker than most. This typically negates the need for any pre-dawn starts. Not so with the average hiker, apparently. At 5am on Thursday morning, I was rousted from slumber by slamming car doors, rambunctious voices, and the general merriment of those about to embark on a great hike. Water bottles needed filling, sunscreen needed slathering, GPS statistics needed shouting. Walking up and down a 14,000' mountain is evidently a necessarily auspicious activity.

Ninety minutes later I rolled from the sack and began my own preparations which, by now, are remarkably regimented and habitual, and take all of five minutes. Insert contact lenses; hit bathroom; eat a gel for breakfast; remove sweat pants and put on running shorts; select and tie shoes; assess weather conditions but invariably decide on the same old thing--wind shirt stuffed in waistband; lock Roost, hide key; saunter up the trail.

This morning was different because I awoke with an Everest-sized crink in my neck. I'm talking, there was going to be no view of the mountains this morning because my neck would not allow the craning. I was going to be headed down the trail sideways. I was going to be tripping over rocks.

I passed most of the early morning hikers before treeline and soon had the trail up Missouri Gulch all to myself. But it was cold. Clouds blocked the sun, looking ominously heavy with moisture. And they were. A cold drizzle started blowing down the valley, but no problem, I'm a seasoned mountain traveler, I smugly don my wind shirt. Minutes later and the wind is dry again, but still cold. I keep the jacket on.

I arrive at 13,200' Elkhead Pass with remarkably little effort. Somehow, 3700' of ascent in five miles has become routine for me. On the long, uphill traverse to the shoulder of Belford, however, the drizzle starts again and I reach down to zip up my jacket fully closed against the moisture. But it's stuck in the fabric, and my bare fingers have been curled into useless, bloodless claws by the cold and I stop and fumble frustratedly with the tiny little zipper and with little control I abruptly break the zipper off with my clunky thumbs and just stand there with the jacket whipping violently in the now quite strong wet wind, barechested and frozen fingered, and the irony of my parents' recent comedic birthday card--subject: finesse--hits me quite hard so I laugh right out loud and try to shake the hair out of my face but my crinked neck spasms like the cramping calf of an 800 meter runner and I can't believe the literal pain in the neck this has all become so I just do what I always do when I'm at a loss and I turn and continue to run up the trail.

Belford's 14,197' summit is lonely and windswept and cold, so I glance around for a while, but I have to turn my whole body because my neck won't allow simple rotation and this sort of takes the fun out of gazing at the mountains, especially since the wind always seems to be in my face and blowing water at me. Plus, my jacket is wide open and I feel silly so when a hiker approaches I scamper down the crumbling ridge to the 13,500' saddle that bridges Belford and 14,153' Mt. Oxford. Here the sun pops out for a minute and it's like coming in from splitting firewood with my Dad at home in the winter and standing next to the woodstove in our kitchen and just feeling the radiating heat, watching the steam rise off of my soggy, numb fingers, and I can't believe the cheer that the sun adds to the situation, not that I'm not enjoying myself. Seriously.

The 700' climb to the summit of Oxford is nontrivial--as is any incline above 13,000'--and when I get there, it's more of the same. My goddamn neck. I'm looking at Columbia and Missouri sideways. I think about what a nice loop the Pine Creek and Colorado trails would make with all of this. I stuff my hands in my armpits while crossing my arms to try and close off the jacket. And then I take off back down the hill to repeat the descent and ascent to Belford.

And this is when everything stops and the wind and rain cease to exist--at least on a conscious, I'm-cold-and-more-than-a-little-miserable level--because across the abyss, perfectly framing Mt. Belford is a fairy-tale rainbow. The pot of gold is on Belford's summit and the Roy G. Biv spectrum is as if painted in oil. It is stunning, and almost unbelievable. Moments of beauty like this don't happen in reality. Or, moments this beautiful only happen in reality. Of course, soon enough the clouds shift, the sun disappears yet again, the rainbow fades, and I am back again on the summit of Belford.

On the descent back to Elkhead Pass and down Missourri Gulch everything is much better. The downhill nature of the trail necessitates that my gaze be angled down, thus relieving the neck, and the temperature warms dramatically and I am again shirtless and skipping down the rocks, the Magnetic Zeros playing in my head, back into the forest, across the streams, and back to the Roost where I fix the zipper and it is hard to even remember the suffering that had been occurring up high.

Friday brings more of the same, but this time on Elbert, and minus the rain. On the summit, a man talks without shame to his wife on a cell phone and comments that the windchill is 15 degrees. I can only chuckle to myself as I sit hunkered down in the rocks in my shorts and once again broken-zippered jacket. This time the two halves of the zipper simply refuse to mate. I guess altitude affects people's judgement in different ways. This man overestimates the severity of the temperature. And I serially underestimate the importance of a zipper.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Leadville to Winfield

Three years ago I did not yet really know what going running in the mountains all day was about. All I knew was that I'd been sufficiently cajoled into giving the Leadville 100 a shot, so I'd better go see what I was considering getting myself into.

Three years ago, on July 29th, I took a significant step towards becoming the runner that I am today. There were three weeks until the 100, and I'd never run further than about 32 miles at one time, ever, so I thought I would satisfy two curiosities by A) running 50 miles, and B) making that 50 miles the first half of the Leadville 100. I felt fortunate that--due to the pure out and back nature of the course--I could see every inch of the 100 mile trail by only running 50.

I remember that things went surprisingly well--for 40 miles. Then the morass of swamp and brush and rushing creek between Twin Lakes and the base of the Hope Pass trail confused me mightily (I was going only by a printed out description of the course tucked in my waistband) and I spent precious time and calories looking for the trail. Here I was attempting by far the longest run of my life and I couldn't even find the trail over this forboding pass. Finally it made itself clear, Hope humbled me considerably, and I arrived in Winfield after 7h36 both exhilerated and disheartened. I commented to a friend, directly upon finishing: "There is NO way I can turn around and get myself back to Leadville!" Of course, after a few hours reflection, sitting around a campfire, drinking a Pabst or two, my thinking changed, and two days later I sent in my entry fee. And, of course, in three weeks I was able to get myself back to Leadville.

Today, three weeks out from the race, I completed the same run, but 28 minutes faster. Maybe my favorite part of the Leadville course (except, of course, for the upper reaches of Hope Pass) is the ~20 minutes of trail that goes from the Mt. Elbert South trailhead down into the town of Twin Lakes. The singletrack is narrow and precipitous--it is carved precariously into the mountainside the entire way. Aspen groves abound. After nearly 40 miles of running, gravity lends a rejuvenating hand. And when one pops out onto the final mile or so of jeep road down into town the views across the valley to Hope Pass and Twin and Rinker Peaks are stunning. Of course, in the back of one's mind is the thought that I must now get my body up there. Somehow.

Today was no different. My run had been encouragingly quick and comfortable as I arrived in town after five hours and five minutes of running, but on a very fundamental level there was a sense that things were about to turn south. I was hungry. A gnawing, vacuous feeling existed where a satiated stomach should have been. No problem, I thought, I still have three gels left! There was a problem, though; over the previous five hours of running I had only consumed three gels and I would soon find that my body was operating on a pretty hefty deficit. After the creek crossing I hit a gel and tucked into the climb with a measure of confidence and a conviction to keep it slow and steady. Unfortunately, I wouldn't really have any other choice.

A good, honest, high altitude climb exploits any weakness, and today Hope was unflinchingly savage. It simply did not care. It did not care that I'd already run 42 miles. It did not care that my shorts pockets only hold six gels. I held things together for all of approximately ten minutes. After that I was reduced to what I perceived as the saddest of shuffles. An embarrassing shadow of my typical uphill pep and cadence.

No matter, another gel is clearly in order, despite having downed one only 25 minutes prior. This did nothing. Less than nothing. Within minutes it seemed I was even more ravenous. Another, final, gel. Three gels in forty minutes when my previous three gels had been spread over three hours.

The walls of life necessarily close in at moments like this. Everything, everything becomes about the current step. Each step has a wall constructed around it that prevents seeing forward or looking backward. There is no thought of how far one has already come or of how far one still has to go. Occassionally, wrenchingly, the mind endeavors to poke its neck up, scale the barrier that surrounds each step, peer over the top, and see out. If it is successful the results are borderline-catastrophic. Game-ending. The enormity of the task, the context of miles and elevation that bracket each step are simply too much to bear. The only way the thing can be done is to brace up those walls around each step and do one's best to not peek over.

Of course, that is much easier said than done. All the mind wants to do is think about the end, some relief, some reprieve from the dizzy suffering. But then the darkening skies open up and finally dispense their contents, of course, when I'm staggering above treeline. Hail, graupel, rain, all come pouring down and I'm too far gone to even bother with putting my singlet on. But of course, the summit finally, eventually, comes and the downhill is life-giving, and the sky brightens and now all I have to do is shuffle my way up the road to Winfield where, once again, in three weeks, I'll have to turn around and do it all over again. But with more calories. And rested legs.