Thursday, December 10, 2009


Although the calendar may claim otherwise, winter has arrived. In the past I've been pretty vocal about my lack of love for the things winter involves--copious snow, plummeting temperatures, treacherous ice, a disappearing sun--but for whatever reason I've really been enjoying it here in Boulder the past couple of weeks.

The end of the semester has completely swamped me with homework since a week or so before Thanksgiving, but today I finally finished everything...took my Hydrology final, dashed off a final paper or two. But, neither of these two things--winter, school--have impacted my running too drastically. In fact, as has seemed to be the case for me in previous years, winter seems to have almost inspired a new bout of hard training. Of course, my relative health is usually the arbiter of such things, but it seems as if sometimes I need some sort of resistance to push back against. If it's sunny and warm everyday I almost get a little complacent.

So, to accommodate my studies, I've been running to the top of Green Mt and back every day at 6am--summiting 17 times in the last 22 days. It is dark and cold at this hour. It's been really cold lately. Yesterday morning I awoke at quarter to six, and in my bleary-eyed delerium mistook the -10F on the computer screen for a +10F. This is when I learned that the mind can play some funky tricks. As I hit the streets headed towards Flagstaff Road, I thought to myself, "Hmmm, the beard is icing up even sooner than usual today. Interesting." Or, "Boy am I glad for this neckwarmer today." However, stuck in my mental reality of +10F I never was uncomfortable at all. Only upon returning two hours later and seeing that the temperature was still only -7F with a windchill of -32F did I realize just how cold it had been.

The snow makes things beautiful, though, and that's been my major motivation lately. I usually get to the base of Flagstaff Road just as the horizon is beginning to brighten. First white, then orange, and eventually a brilliant red. With the trees and mountains all covered in snow, the first alpenglow usually hits just as the sun crests the horizon after I've started heading east on Green's West Ridge Trail. And the mountains are showered in pink.

Every day I'm claiming fresh tracks up on the backside of Green, so the usually crowded summit is gloriously lonely. After hanging out for a few minutes just generally surveying life, the real fun begins. Descending 2500' of singetrack trail knee-deep in fresh powder is a delight. Floating down Ranger and then Gregory Canyon, I think I catch a glimpse of why so many people are so obsessive about downhill skiing. Even if I do fall, it's into a pile of pillowy fluff.

Back down in town, I tear through the streets relishing the extra cushion that the snow offers the usually bone-jarring pavement. Cruising through a corner of campus, I blow by sleepy students slipping and sliding their way to class. Many gawk at me with looks of poorly-hidden horror--who the hell is this crazy creature in tights with tangled hair flying and a big chunk of ice where his face is supposed to be?

When I step in the apartment Jocelyn dashes back into the bedroom lest I do something terrifying, like kiss her with my icicles. So instead, I go to the bathroom for a towel and a shower to defrost the beard and re-enter the "real" world. But really, I'll take sunny and 50F whenever whoever decides such things is ready to dish it out.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

50,000 miles

Today, Halloween 2009, my personal lifetime odometer flipped over to the 50,000 mile figure.  It took me 14 years, six months, and 19 days of recorded running (since April 12th, 1995) to reach that mark.  Over my lifetime of running thus far I have achieved a mathematical average of 9.4 miles per day, which includes vast stretches of non-running days due to various injuries.  I guess I should shoot for 100k by my 40th birthday?

Today's particular run was not much different than any of my other runs recently, of course.  I took a run to the top of Green Mt. here in Boulder via Flagstaff Road and the Ranger trail.  Despite getting ~30 inches of snow here earlier in the week, the sun was strong enough today to run shirtless as long as I wasn't in the shade.  The Ranger trail had been superbly packed into a trench (likely by the crowd of Basic runners) that provided some surprisingly tacky footing, which made for an unexpectedly easy ascent and descent.  It was just another glorious day in the mountains.  Which is not meant to be a trivial statement.

The funny thing about noting a landmark milestone such as this is that I find myself increasingly unconcerned with the number of miles I rack up in a given time period.  Especially since moving to Boulder, where the mountain trails are particularly steep and rocky, keeping too close of an eye on the number of miles covered is fairly silly and even counterproductive. 
And yet, I do keep track.  Maybe it has to do with my running roots in the hills of Nebraska where most of the dirt roads are surveyed on a perfect mile by mile grid, denoting the section lines.  There, it was almost impossible to not notice how many miles I'd gone.  Maybe it has to do with the classic standard that a "mile" is in the running world.  Most American distance runners quantify their training volume with this arbitrary unit of length.  Nevertheless, even given the assured amount of error in my total, I think it is still worth it to continue to maintain such records, if only for historical comparison, and to be able to--with some level of veracity--claim that I have run the equivalent of twice around the globe at its equator.

Tonight I dashed out into the Halloween darkness for another easy seven miles in the moonlight to supplement this morning's 18.  The legs felt splendid and clicked over effortlessly.  And, when I was finished I was sure of at least one thing--even after 50,020 miles, I have yet to achieve redundancy.  And I don't expect to anytime soon.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Backside Loop (sort of)

Heading out the door this morning I wasn't really sure what I was going to run, only that I wanted to be out for a long time (four to six hours) and I wanted a couple of good climbs.  With that in mind, I tucked four gels into my shorts, chugged a quart or so of water, and carried another 16oz of water in a handheld bottle.

After the 20ish minute jog up to Chautauqua, I started with Green Mountain via Amphitheater, Saddle Rock, and Greenman.  That climb has certainly become a default for me already.  It's the most immediate, most fun way for me to get up high.  Right up from the Gregory Canyon trailhead I could feel some nice pep in my legs.  Running easily up steep, technical terrain is such a pleasure, definitely the most satisfying thing about building fitness.  I had a fresh pair of New Balance 100s on my feet and the extra protection and responsiveness that the rock plate in those things offers is perfect for the terrain here in Boulder.

Thirty-four minutes and 19 seconds and 2500 vertical feet later I was standing alone atop Green feeling fresh but a little chagrined at the lack of a view to the west.  The Continental Divide was completely socked in.  I still wasn't sure which way I wanted to go--down the West Ridge to Flagstaff Rd for the true "Backside Loop" or over to Bear Peak for some more vertical.  I chose Bear.  When in doubt, go higher.

My legs felt lickety-split headed down to Bear Creek and then going up the West Ridge trail I still had a surprising amount of pop in my stride.  For whatever reason, I usually really drag on this exceedingly moderate climb up the ridge, but not today.  Even when I hit the last stretch up through the boulders and talus I was still feeling in control, except for the wind trying to knock me over, which it would attempt to do all day.  Twenty-three minutes after crossing the creek I was on the summit of Bear Peak.

On the summit of Bear, I noticed that a gel had fallen out of my pocket at some point--probably the downhill off Green--so I was going to be stretching the calories a bit today.  Leaving the summit of Bear, I hadn't yet decided if I wanted to tag South Boulder Peak or not.  The short distance between it and Bear always makes for a tough decision: it's trivial, so why do it?  or, it's trivial, so why not do it?  Today, I chose the latter, mostly because I enjoy the view from SoBo the most and because it's always hard to deny the trifecta of the 8ers here in Boulder if one has enough time.

SoBo had the iciest footing of the day, but I made quick work of it and was still feeling great as I headed down Shadow Canyon.  I love the upper stretches of this trail.  There are very nice, reasonable switchbacks that, for some reason, remind me of the Barr Trail just below treeline.  Soon enough, however, the track devolves into ever-steeper and bigger rock drop-offs really, and it always drags on longer than I think it should.  Today it took me 15min flat to descend through the canyon and I emerged with my legs still feeling great even after two hours of running.

From there I hooked up with the Old Mesa trail, which is notably rocky.  It is very skinny, almost overgrown singletrack through a gorgeous little valley, but the tread is so full of embedded (not loose) rocks that I could barely lift my eyes off the ground to take in the views.  But, after a few minutes it dumped me out in the gorgeously quixotic little hamlet of Eldorado Springs.  It was my first visit to this little corner of the area and I loved it.  Ramshackle houses, breathtaking setting, dirt streets--this is my kind of "town".

I hadn't touched my water yet, and was holding off on hitting my first gel, but I figured if I was going to get some water this would be the place to do it.  As if on cue, as I was running past a strange, Alamo-looking type of building, a couple of other runners called out my name.  So I stopped to chat, there in the sunshine.  They were doing the Backside loop in a much more traditional manner--having run down Flagstaff Road and through Walker and Eldorado Canyon already--and were refilling their Camelbaks at this weird little water-dispenser thingy in a wall.  They said if I had a quarter, it would give me a gallon.  I had no quarter, but they were kind enough to let me have one, even if I had no idea how I could drink a gallon of water right there on the spot.  I elected to save the quarter for my then planned-for return-trip past the water dispenser.

(Looking back out at the entrance to Eldorado Canyon.)

I wanted to get into Eldo, but I didn't want to pay.  So I ran.  All the way back to County Rd 67 and up the Fowler Trail.  I knew there was a secret little shortcut trail to sneak up to Fowler more directly, but even with my eyes peeled I couldn't spot it.  I didn't really want to go poking around in people's back yards if I didn't know where I was going.

I love the Fowler trail.  The views are just incredible.  And the Eldorado Canyon trail was even more of a treat.  The climbs on that trail are much more like what I am used to running in Colorado Springs.  Reasonably steep, largely non-technical switchbacks that are runnable the whole way.  And, the tread and line of the trail is perfect the whole way.  Weaving in and out of woods, trending slightly up or down, expansive views into the canyon.  Before the big drop down to South Boulder Creek and the Walker Ranch Loop I finally hit my first gel because I could finally start feeling my legs dragging a bit.

Walker Ranch totally surprised me.  I elected to go clockwise because at this point I was contemplating bailing on doing the full lollipop, but I still wanted to see as much of the trail as possible.  South Boulder Creek is such an idyllic mountain stream up there.  And the entire trail was more of the same reasonable up and down on very nice singletrack.  However, on the final climb up from the Creek to the Flagstaff Road trailhead I was hurting.  Definitely dehydrated (still nursing a couple more mouthfuls in the bottle) and just generally feeling the grind of having run for nearly four hours.

So, that's when Flagstaff Road decided to kick me in the teeth.  Ouch.  I was not expecting that climb to be so tough.  It was only about 700' or so in the span of one and a half miles, but it freakin' hurt.  I knew there was no way I was going to skip out on a second summit of Green for the day, though.  What's another 500' of vertical?  Plenty, that's all I can say.  I finally made it, though, hit my final gel on top (the new Gingerbread GUs ain't half bad), and made the descent down Ranger.

It took a tremendous amount of will power to convince myself that summiting Flagstaff was worthwhile, and I spent the descent motivated only by visions of the water fountain waiting for me in Eben G. Fine park.  Of course, once I got there I knew I was only a slightly downhill 2.5 miles away from home and I didn't want to burn the energy to go the extra 50 yards to the fountain.  Long runs in the mountains often have deleterious effects on my logic.  

Five hours thirty six minutes, 9000' of climbing (my watch said 9500', but my brain only calculated 8500' when adding up the big climbs, so I split the difference), five summits,  and ~37 miles later, I was back at my doorstep.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snowy Morning

Lying in bed this morning I could already hear the rain falling outside my slightly open window. I have a bit of a head cold, so the sleeping hasn't been the best, and I was awake before my 6:00am alarm. Full tights and rain jacket today. Out the door and into the inky wet darkness. It was cold so I was sure it was snowing up high, which I was looking forward to; give me snow over 32F rain any day.

Yesterday I'd sufficiently taxed the legs with a nice loop that involved summits of both Green Mountain and Bear Peak, so today I was looking for a nice relaxed run with more moderate climbing. When that is the case, I've found myself heading for Flagstaff Road, and that was the goal this morning. The road offers a welcoming predictable surface that would normally induce frustration. However, when the quads are heavy and the hips are tight it is very nice to be able to gain significant altitude by just pitter-pattering along with short, quick steps unhindered by the countless logs and boulders that typify most other routes up Green Mountain.

Jogging up through the neighborhoods on The Hill, I hunkered down beneath my hood, merely tolerating the water hitting me in the face and comforted by the knowledge that it would soon turn to snow. Near the base of Flagstaff it did just that, and I slowly ascended into a different world. I absolutely love mornings like this. At Realization Point, I took my customary turn down and to the left to hook up with the Ranger trail at the stone cottage there. Whereas I'd been running on a gradually more slush-covered, paved surface before, the Ranger singletrack was like stepping into a fairy tale. There are at least three amazing things about snow, when considered in the context of running:

1) Snow is soft. The cushioning effects on downhills and on paved surfaces is immediately noticeable. In great enough depth, it completely smooths out all the rocks and roots on what would normally be an exceedingly technical trail.

2) Snow absorbs sound. Running alone through a snowy mountainscape has to be one of the most singularly silent experiences possible. When everything audible is cancelled out like that, the run inevitably takes on a certain kind of magic.

3) Snow is beautiful. I am a fairly vocal critic of winter, mostly because of snow's mountain trail-drowning qualities. However, any landscape garnished with a fresh inch or two of powder is often breathtaking. I have found the Flatirons to be especially so. (Although, I must say, I am quite partial to either the Garden of the Gods or Red Rocks Canyon in Colorado Springs when it comes to snow-covered vistas.)

This morning, the summit of Green was more symbolic than scenic. The heavy layer of clouds enveloping the mountains precluded seeing more than a few yards into the soupy air, but I reveled in having it all to myself, not seeing another soul out there. I've had the privilege of standing on the summit of Green 16 out of the past 18 days, and each day is different. That may sound cliche, but I believe a mountain summit to be one of those rare entities that works the same way in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Each time, it offers an invaluable opportunity for perspective.

On the descent back down the Ranger and Flagstaff trails (no paved road descents for me!) my crushed out New Balance 152s road flats offered surprising purchase on the just-right moisture content snow, and as soon as I stepped onto the Creek Path at Eben G. Fine Park the flakes disappeared, but the feeling still remained of having gotten away with something special.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Skyline Traverse

(Boulder's mountain backdrop...missing Flagstaff and Sanitas to the north, however.)

Driving into Boulder from the East, five peaks (well, more than that, but all of these have connected trails) provide the meat of the backdrop of town: 8549' South Boulder Peak, 8461' Bear Peak, 8144' Green Mountain, 7000' Flagstaff Mountain, and 6863' Mount Sanitas. Seeing as they are connected, it presents a tantalizing and obvious traverse. This weekend I completed the first of what I expect will become a nearly weekly outing (hmmm...we'll see once things get truly snowy and icy).

I jogged the less than 20 minutes from my house up to the start of the Mesa trail at Chautauqua Park and could tell that the previous day's flat and easy 90 minute run had did my legs good. The Mesa is nice. It is such a classic Boulder trail with its accessibility, views of the Flatirons, and ubiquitous hikers of all stripes, often with dogs in tow. I was happy for my short-sleeved shirt as the trail bops in and out of drainages mostly in the trees, but could tell that it was going to warm up to be a glorious autumn day.

The Mesa Trail is only "flat" in comparison to the craggy peaks whose bases it winds along. The highest point is ~6600' (compared to the 5300' that my house sits at) and there are several 100-200' rollers to put some sting in the legs. I cut down Big Bluestem to make the nearly 1000' descent to the South Mesa Trailhead on Highway 170 and started the traverse from there having already run 1:17.

Leaving South Mesa TH and climbing up the Towhee trail, it is easy to think that one is running "uphill". That all changes when Shadow Canyon is reached. In anticipation of the effort, I took off my shirt at the mouth of the canyon and headed up. This trail is yet another wench of a rugged climb that Boulder has to offer. Apparently these mountains don't really know any other.

This stretch of trail is only allegedly 1.1 or 1.2 miles long and I did it in 22:50, not killing it, not feeling great, but definitely not slacking either. It gains 1700' in that 1.2 miles which is absurd now that I think about it. The Incline in Manitou climbs 2000' in a single mile, so for anyone who's been on that, that gives you an idea of how crazy Shadow is. But, after seeing it for the first time today, it's definitely possible to nail this thing on a day when I'm feeling good and I have dialed in some of the rock step-up footwork sequences. Come to think of it, I would bet that, time-wise, this and the Incline are pretty comparable. I mean, sub-20 on this stretch would be nails (as it is on the Incline).

(The saddle between South Boulder and Bear Peaks.)

Anyways, I got to the saddle and was righteously greeted with a horizon-wide view of the snowy Continental Divide. But, from there I had another ~300' and 5min of vertical to the top of South Boulder Peak. The final forty seconds or so of this is a scramble on boulders, so that's kind of annoying, but I do really like the views from over there, looking down into Eldorado Canyon. The run down and over and up to Bear Peak was actually quite nice. I'm getting better at this stuff. After running up Shadow I was thinking, "Damn, I just want some real trails with actual switchbacks and some actual tread instead of these glorified rock staircases." 

(Looking north to Green Mountain, from the summit of Bear Peak.)

But, on the way over to Bear, I decided that it's actually 100% fine. This seems to be true mountain running; I think it's good to have the opportunity to get as proficient as possible on really technical up- and down-hills where you have to mix a running cadence with occasional huge step-ups and then get right back into the cadence and then learn how to rock-hop on the way down. It's actually a huge blast when the trails/rocks aren't covered in ice and snow (they weren't today). And, since I'm gonna be in Boulder for a while, I think it's worth it to adapt to the terrain and get really good at it. Plus, I appreciate the more natural and wild aesthetic of running a rough trail to the top of a mountain and then having to scramble over boulders the last minute or two to gain the true summit. It is how it should be, really.

(View of Bear Peak while descending on the West Ridge trail.)

Anyways, I hit a gel on top of Bear and actually felt pretty solid on the descent down to Bear Creek. The top of Green was a bit of a dissappointment with a bunch of people clogging up the summit rock so I didn't even feel like elbowing my way up there to get a good look at the Divide.  Not that I hadn't already had at least two world-class, people-free views of the high mountains so far.  Going down Ranger and then over and down Flagstaff I just tried to keep the legs feeling good and actually pounded some pretty good descents.  Earlier in the morning I had contemplated forgetting about Sanitas mostly because it's on the other side of the Creek Path (my route home) and also because it's just such a heinous grunt.  However, I got to thinking about climbs late in various races and decided that a 1300' ascent in 1.2 miles was exactly what I needed to finish off the day's endeavor.

(Sanitas: it looks so benign, but not with more than 5000' of vertical already in the legs.)

So, at Eben G. Fine Park I chugged a much-needed bottle of water and refilled, ate a gel, shuffled over Red Rocks and then got to work on Sanitas. It's a good little mountain, that's for sure.  Tons of log and rock steps but also a few actual flattish sections, too.  Problem is, because of the beautiful day, it was crawling with folks and I was mostly a salty, slobbering mess at this point, so I felt a little self-conscious about the effort it was taking to just keep moving. Three days before Leadville I had jogged over to Sanitas and ran easily to the summit right at 19min flat, so I was really hoping to groan my way under 20min today on my untapered, not-as-fit, tired legs.  I didn't quite make it, but hit the top 2h38min after leaving the South Mesa Trailhead.  At the top there was the usual mess of humanity with visors and dogs and sunglasses and cell phones, so I mostly just caught my breath and jogged down the mountain, which was actually a lot more fun than I remember it being that Wednesday before Leadville.

On the way back down to the trailhead I elected to take the Dakota Ridge singletrack instead of the Valley trail and right at the bottom Jeff Valliere caught up to say hello but was just out for a short hike with his wife so he soon turned back. Which was fine with me, because I was pretty worked and was super-psyched to get back to the top of Red Rocks because it was all (slightly) downhill from there back to the house.  It was a good ache, though, one that I haven't gotten to experience in a couple of months.  It's always good to get to the end of a long hard effort like that and still feel pretty solid. I took a soak in Boulder Creek afterwards, but the water was so cold that I could only stand it for two minutes because my toes had gone numb and the rest of my legs were hurting so much from the cold I was gettting sick to my stomach.  I think I've gotten a bit soft since this summer, but hopefully I knocked a little inflammation down.  All in all, a unique day in the mountains.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Boulder is a city. Most of us live in cities. I'm finally becoming reaccustomed to doing so. Boulder, in many ways, however, is not a lot like other cities. It is the meeting point of the mountains and the plains, so its mountains--the iconic Flatirons, Green Mountain, Bear Peak--carry a certain abruptness, a certain drama that make them especially compelling.

Nevertheless, I spent most of the first month of my residence here dwelling on the fact that Green and Bear aren't Pikes. That Boulder isn't Manitou or Colorado Springs. Pikes Peak is the ultimate in dramatic topography that the Rocky Mountains has to offer: 8000' of vertical--Kansas-esque plains, and then BOOM, alpine summit. And, also, for whatever reason, it seems the human spirit tends to gravitate towards the familiar (i.e. the Pikes Peak region, for me).

(The Flatirons on Green Mountain's face--much how they looked this morning.)

However, the past week has represented a turning point in how I feel in relation to my new surroundings. I've been taking some down-time since Leadville, but this week the running has began again in earnest. From the upstairs graduate student computer lab in CU's Guggenheim Hall, there is an in-your-face view of Green Mountain. I can run to its trailhead from my doorstep in less than 20 minutes, a perfect amount of warm-up. From Guggenheim, Green Mountain seems so close as to be able to reach out the window and touch it, rearrange its features.

Instead, this week I've been letting it rearrange me. I've been up Green each of the last six mornings. It has been good to finally go about learning the idiosyncrasies of the mountains most immediate to my current existence. My preferred route up Green is so rugged, so varied, so challenging, that I don't anticipate tiring of what it has to offer, and I relish the opportunity to learn every stone and perfect every foot placement on its ascent. Because, for now, Boulder is definitely home.

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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mt. Elbert and the Shortest Season

The high mountains share their craggy wares with the bipedal traveller begrudgingly. It seems their default is that of wintry chill, cutting winds, uncomfortably low temperatures. And although they let go their security blanket of frigidity for a couple glorious months each summer, the mountains are always quick to remind us who is in charge and what season really reigns at the highest elevations.

It has been cold in Leadville. I went to bed last night wearing a wool cap and a sweatshirt. There are still brilliant moments of sunshine, but when the clouds roll in they are darker than usual and when they finally roll back out they reveal an ever-so-slight dusting of fresh snow above 13,000'. Is it July? Really?

Nevertheless, the high peaks beckon, and I cannot resist. This morning, the summit of Mt. Elbert is my goal, and I can only occasionally see it as its upper reaches appear intermittenly from within the swirling clouds. Sitting on the Roost's tailgate, a few drops fall from the sky and I reach for my windshirt to tuck in my waistband. I debate about donning a singlet, and maybe even gloves, but, against my better judgement, the patches of blue in the sky convince me otherwise.

After a mile or so of warm-up on the road, I hit the trail. My legs feel good from the last few easier days that I've taken to recover from the weekend's race, and the gain in elevation comes easily. Today I am running in a cloud. I love the sensation of popping above a cloud layer that an inversion has created and right at tree-line the clouds end and the sun warms my back. The expansive view is as if from an airplane window.

In Ashland this winter, many mornings the town would be consumed by the dreaded "ice fog" that would sit in the bottom of the valley and not burn off until late morning. However, upon a mere three or four hundred feet of vertical gain, one would emerge from this chilled blanket into exceedingly warm air. Stepping onto Elbert's alpine tundra I am reminded of those southern Oregon mornings except for one key difference--here, on the mountain, the air above the clouds is even colder than further downslope. And, now out of the trees, the wind kicks up in ever increasing bursts that alternately serve as a helping hand or a frustrating hindrance, depending on the switchback.

Maybe five hundred feet below the summit I reach the fresh snow that I could see from town. Not surprisingly, this morning's conditions have thinned the troops out on the trail and I am allowed to make my final push to the summit without an incredulous audience. My cadence matches the beat of the chorus of a raucous song by The Dodos stuck in my head, and soon I am alone on the summit, hunkered down behind a crudely-constructed rock wall, desperately warming my fingers in my armpits.

Despite the wind and cold I have made the ascent four minutes faster than a month ago. On the way down I am soon enveloped in the clouds again and during the last few minutes on the road back to the Roost a light rain begins to fall. Even if this week is representative of only a freak weather pattern, it nevertheless serves as a reminder to get to as many summits as possible before the real winter elements make their inevitable return.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

White River 50

This year's White River 50 was my first "real" ultra race in over a year. Although I ran the Dogwood Canyon 50K in Missourri last fall with Kyle, there was very little real racing occurring that day. Before that, I had raced the American River 50 and Zane Grey 50, both in April 2008. So, White River was planned as a chance to re-engage in the ultra scene a bit again and as a fitness check heading into the Leadville 100 next month.

I came into the taper with about six weeks of solid training after finally kicking a case of patellar tendonitis in early June. However, the final week before the race I was dealing with a couple potentially troubling issues: a bout of something that seemed to be very much like giardia, and a mildly inflamed/swollen peroneal tendon in my right ankle. Fortunately, both of these issues cleared up mid-week while attending the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City where Hal and I sweated it out in the Uphill Challenge. Nothing like throwing a little tempo run into the taper.

After catching a ride up to Crystal Mountain with Jeff Browning, Hal, and Carly, I had a great night's sleep at the race cabin. I usually sleep fitfully the night before a race, but this time I conked out and didn't awake until ~5am when Jeff started rustling around in preparation for the day. I usually just lie there, waiting for the alarm clock to sound, but this time I felt like sleeping in. I was a little worried that this signified a certain lack of nervous energy, not to mention inconsistent sleep all week, but I was mostly just happy to have actually gotten a good night's rest.

I didn't warm up very much for the race--no more than a mile of jogging--even though I anticipated a fairly quick start; my legs just didn't feel like they needed it, probably because of the judicious taper I'd employed most of the week.
As a USATF National Championship event, the race sported some pretty notable competition. I was most concerned with defending champion and consummate road racer Mike Wardian, but the entrants also inlcuded such luminaries as Hal Koerner, Scott Jurek, Greg Crowther, and Lon Freeman. Not to mention a bunch of other guys who are always a threat to pop a good one (Justin Ricks, Joe Grant, Phil Kochik, etc.).

(200 runners rarin' to go. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.)

After waiting for Scott to finally toe the line, we were off. Greg and Lon shot right to the front while I was content to hang a few dozen yards back chatting amiably with Scott as we strided down the initial gravel road. Kami Semick soon ran up next to us and admitted she felt stupid running in front of us, but I was more than happy with the fairly quick pace we were hitting.

(Chatting with Scott out of the gate.)
After a mile or so we all filed onto some fairly technical, rooty singletrack that looped us back by the starting area. I followed directly behind Scott as he led the way for me with Greg and Lon maybe fifty yards in front. However, we soon caught them at the first highway crossing. On a short uphill Lon stepped aside to let us past and Scott and I followed directly behind Greg all the way to the first Camp Shepard aid station at mile 3.9, which we reached as a group in 28:20, and where there was also a sizeable crowd of spectators. I had four gels in my shorts pockets, a number of S! Caps, and a bottle full of water, so there was no need to stop, as no one in our group did.

We were definitely running quickly through this section but it felt extremely comfortable and I could tell I was likely going to have one of those days where everything just flows. The tread was technical enough to keep it interesting but the pace was discernibly quicker than typical training pace. It was fun to be racing again.

Greg stopped momentarily at the station, so Scott assumed the lead and I followed closely behind. Soon, the trail started climbing up in impeccably graded switchbacks. This trail was gorgeous, as would become the norm for the trails all day. After a few switchbacks, and a particularly steep section where Scott broke into a quick hike, I stepped past him into the lead and held it for the rest of the day.

I quickly opened a bit of a gap as the trail climbed pretty steeply through here and then hiked quickly up a short, steep flight of stairs. After a few more switchbacks I could see Mike Wardian gaining on me, but I just maintained my comfortable pace and certainly didn't worry about making any sort of meaningful break less than an hour into the race.

The night before the race Uli had approached me in the race cabin with a sticky note that outlined his splits from his completely unparalleled (except by himself) 6:32:43 course record run in 2004. Previous to that, Nate McDowell had raced a 6:50:39 then-CR and Mike had run a 6:52:50 just last year. These were the closest times to Uli's--a sobering 20 minutes back. As such--having never run on the course--I was pretty reluctant to even consider approaching Uli's times. Sub-6:40 had a nice ring to it if for no other reason than that it represented 8 minute miles, but shooting for a sub-6:50 time seemed much more realistic. Nevertheless, I had committed Uli's splits to memory so as to have an irrefutable definition of "fast" for the various checkpoints.
In addition to the aid station splits, Uli had mentioned to me two other intermediate creek-crossing splits on the initial climb, which I vaguely remembered the sticky note saying he had reached in roughly 49min and 1:14. I hit this first creek crossing in 48:55 after which the grade of the trail mellowed considerably and Mike caught up to me. I let him know that he was more than welcome to go past me if he pleased, and he responded by saying that I was more than welcome to lead, until the end, of course. Something about that comment rankled me mildly, but I just concentrated on running comfortably and evenly up the hill.

The trail briefly broke out of the thick forest to pass above some cliff bands, which offered expansive views of the White River valley below, but we were just as quickly back at it in the forest and Mike and I crossed Uli's second creek together in 1:12:20 or so. I was a touch apprehensive at going faster than Uli through these early miles, but everything felt easy so I just concentrated on keeping it that way, even with Mike quite literally breathing down my neck.

(A typical view of Mt. Rainer from the Ranger Creek trail.)

After a couple more miles of gorgeous, sometimes technical, singletrack Mike and I arrived together at the Ranger Creek aid station (11.7 miles) just under 1:39. At this point we'd already climbed over 2500'. I quickly refilled my water bottle and exited at 1:39. Mike, however, must've taken a few moments longer because leaving the station I was running by myself and it was that way all the way to the Corral Pass turnaround at mile 16.9.

This section of out and back trail was incredible. The views of Mt. Rainer were impossibly huge. The singletrack was buttery smooth. On this section I just tried to not get too carried away and run too fast; I was barely 1/3 of the way finished afterall. Mike caught me just as we came into the Corral Pass aid station turnaround. I again made quick work of filling my bottle and grabbing a couple gels and left the station at 1:22:50. It was the last I would see of Mike all day. I was also surprised to see that my accumulative split here was only about 30 seconds slower than Uli's 2004 run.

(Cruisin' the perfect ribbon of trail at Corral Pass. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.)
On the run back to the Ranger Creek station I was able to check out the competition and also derive a lot of energy from all the runners racing towards me. At times the singletrack caused some narrow meetings, but I tried my best to be polite while still efficiently moving forward. There were some steep downhills on this portion of trail that surprised me because I had effortlessly run every step on the way out. I guess that should've been some indication of how good I was feeling. However, it was on this rolling portion of trail that I started having the first hints of fatigue and I worried a bit that it was a touch early to be getting tired.

I rolled back down into the Ranger Creek aid (22.1 miles) feeling good, though, mostly because I couldn't see Mike behind me on any of the many switchbacks. I stopped only long enough to refill my bottle and was out of there at 3:00 flat, less than 1 minute behind the ghost of Uli. It was also a mental boost to see March--a good friend of mine from college cross-country--out on the trail here getting some quality time in the mountains.

My legs relished the steep drop from the Ranger Creek aid station. On this ~5 mile, 2500' descent back down to the White River I felt great. The trail could not have been more perfect and I felt effortless pouring down the trail. I took this chance to drink a lot of water and try to get ahead a little on calories and salt, too. I'd been dreading hitting the bottom of this descent and having my legs feel dead on the flat terrain, but that wasn't the case.

(Smiling my way down the Ranger Creek descent, mile 22 or so.)

(The trail initially drops pretty steeply.)

Instead, they readjusted quickly and I came into the 27 mile Buck Creek aid in 3:34:30 or so feeling appropriately fatigued but ready for plenty more. I left the station right around 3:35--still about a minute off of Uli's pace--and was actually really looking forward to the Sun Top climb so as to give my quads a break.

I got a high five from Scott McCoubrey, turned back onto singletrack, and started the climb. It went really well. Many people had told me it was pretty steep, but I found the grade quite runnable, and fast. Whenever there was a 20 or 30 yard steeper-than-normal pitch, it seemed it was always immediately followed by a decent flatter pitch that allowed recovery. Additionally, a nice layer of clouds had rolled in to give me a little extra cover in the clear-cut zone, so my one-bottle gamble paid off.

This being the second/last big climb of the race, I opened it up a little and settled into a cadence that was ambitious yet totally doable; seeing as I never had any idea what was lying in wait for me, I didn't want to get in over my head. However, this was the one section of the course that I figured I might be able to match or even exceed Uli's course record splits. I turned out to be right as I was soon running into the Fawn Ridge (31.7 miles) aid in 4:15:30ish and leaving right at 4:16. I was now evenly matched with Uli.

It was here that I began to think that I might have a shot at getting the record. I had essentially been hitting his splits the entire way and had somehow managed to even gain back the minute or so that I'd been in the hole. The second half of the climb went equally well. Before I knew it I was descending down to the Sun Top road and then it was just another five or six minutes before I topped out to the crowd at the summit of Sun Top (37 miles).

(Charging to the summit of Sun Top. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.)

(You could say I was focused. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama.)
I hit the aid at 5:05:something and was sprinting down the road at 5:06. Uli was there and informed me that I was about a minute and a half under his record pace.

I flew down the road. Scott had informed me that I'd only had a 3 minute lead on Mike at Buck Creek and the last thing I wanted was a 2:21 marathoner flying down the road after me. With a 2:42 marathon PR, I don't have the greatest confidence in my legspeed. As a result, I probably over-did it a bit on the downhill. I knew that Uli had covered it in 39:40 or so, and I figured I would have to be all-out to equal that, so I went pretty much all-out.

The final mile or so coming into Skookum Flats the road levels out a bit and I felt really slow through here as my legs readjusted to the flatter terrain. I hit the aid at 5:42:high, filled my bottle as quickly as possible, and got out of there at 5:43 flat with two gels left in my pocket. I knew I was three minutes under Uli's split, but I also felt it was going to be tough to equal Uli's 46ish minute split into the finish for the final 6.6 miles.

I was right. The last 45 minutes of running was pretty tough. I'd really cranked the road--averaging 5:45 miles--and now I was paying for it. Gradually the legs came around and I felt like I wasn't crawling anymore but I was soon out of gels and still hungry. With maybe 15 minutes left to run there were a couple short downhills that got the legs moving again, but it was too little too late and there was no chance for me to break 6:30, like I'd thought I might be able to going into the final leg of the race. It also would've helped to have done a short pre-race out and back on the final couple miles of the course so as to know when I could truly start ramping up the final effort into the finish.

Soon enough, though, I was rounding the final corner into the finish and I when I could see the official finish clock turning over to 6:32 with only a few dozen yards remaining I knew I would finish under Uli's standard.

(Getting my sprint on; how I ever used to run 5Ks I'll never know...)

(The secret to hands-free minimalist running revealed...tuck the bottle in your shorts!)

(A congratulatory handshake from the legend himself, Uli Steidl.)
Immediately upon finishing I was pretty worked. I drank lots and lots of ice water, jogged a short cooldown, and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at the finish catching up with friends.

Mike did a good job of hanging on and actually improved his time from last year by a minute or so to finish just under 6:52. Greg Crowther backed up his fast start by rounding out the top three in 7:02.

Here's a video of the finish:

Everything I'd heard about the organization and execution of Scott McCoubrey's race proved to be true. The course was impeccably marked and the finish line food and crowd was excellent. White River is definitely a race I can see myself returning to in the future. It's obvious why it's such a classic event on the ultra racing circuit.
A couple more accounts of the race: