Bigfoot 200 – part 2

“…I go to my fathers, in who’s mighty company I will now not feel ashamed.”  Théoden King, The Lord of the Rings

Leaving Chain of Lakes Aid, I knew this final push was going to be tough.  Two 17 mile sections with 4000 ft of climbing and 5000 ft, respectively, along with some water crossings and the vaunted log forest…but I felt good…I felt refreshed after getting 5 hours of sleep and longer time spent in the aid station getting food, coffee, and taking care of my feet.  I felt like running. After 140 miles in my legs I began at an easy jog, we were on a section that was not as technical and easier to run…at least for the first part of the route.

My mind wandered…my strategy, if I had one…was to finish.  So far, I had been very conservative in my approach.  I mostly hiked, ran when I felt good, and worked hard at keeping my heart rate down.  I was surprised…I kept the same basic pace throughout the first two thirds of the race…my legs were sore, feet beat up, and I was tired of the constant attention to get calories in my body.  I stopped at every aid station for at least 20 minutes and many twice that long, to make sure I ate and drank enough….to change the clothing that I needed…and simply prop my legs up and get off them for a brief respite.  I ran very conservatively.

There was one area I excelled at, though, and my training in the San Juan’s maximized my conditioning.  I knew Bigfoot would have a huge amount of climbing, but I expected these climbs to be strung out and more gradual in nature.  I expected the San Juan’s to be significantly harder, steeper, more technical, and longer.  What I,…we…, found out, was this course was harder, steeper, far more technical than supposed, and the mountains much longer. It was the hardest 100 miler I had done to date…except with a catch…it was the two hardest 100 milers I have done…back to back.  And so here I was on these steep tough climbs…and as the race went on, I began to love the climbs, much more than any other part of the race.  On the level paths I would not catch any runners throughout the race, and on the descents, more than naught, I would be caught.  But on the climbs, particularly the long, tough ones, I would catch many a runner…this is where my conditioning and my natural pace, excelled.  I kept the heart rate still low, but I could press here and find a rhythm, sometimes with poles and sometimes without, but I could keep it going and move at a strong pace.

It’s this type of climb, right out of Lewis River Horse Camp Aid, that I met Luis.  I caught up to Luis just as we crested a roller and as we were descending a small rise.  Luis was a surgeon from Tucson, here with his fiancé.  While Luis and I were getting to know each other, Amy and his fiancé Allie, were getting to know each other at that next aid station.  Luis and I talked about the race and he shared experience at the 200 mile distance.  This was his third 200 miler in less than a year.  It was great to hear his story…what a race…the people you meet, the experience that has brought us together…our crews and ourselves.  I was feeling great as we hit the next climb.  As we were talking and moving really well, I heard Luis say, “you’re killing me with this pace, I’m going to have to let you go.”  I hated to let Luis go…and I thought about slowing down, but this is where I excelled and I felt like I needed to move at the pace that felt good….I would see Luis again, but only in fleeting moments.  Luis showed his metal.  While I took lots of time at Chain of Lakes Aid, Luis would bomb through.  I’m not sure how much Luis slept in this race, but I don’t think it was much at all.

big foot misc2The path to Klickatat Aid was marked by three water crossings, a log crossing and a big climb.  I dreaded the water crossings.  My feet were already so beat up and the drenching of bandages would likely mean a third taping of my feet (it did, by Nick, who had done my first taping).  I also wasn’t sure how difficult they would be…I heard at least one was waist high…I also was unsure about the log bridge and rope hand hold.  I had deliberately stayed longer in Chain of Lakes so I could hit this section in the day.  I hit the first crossing and it was no bigger than ankle deep.  The second was calf deep.  The log crossing with rope hand held was done in seconds, and the third crossing was thigh deep with a bit of a current, but not terribly dangerous.  I was halfway through this section and my mood was positive, my energy strong, and every step took me closer to the finish line.  Every step was farther than I had ever gone before in a race.

The culmination before Klickatat Aid was Elk Peak.  Another brief out and back section.  About a mile from this part, now tired and ready for the aid station, I saw a runner at the side of the path.  His pacer had a benign, almost amused look on his face.  His runner was sitting on the ground…and at first I couldn’t understand what he was saying…but as I got closer I heard the epithets about the course and this section…the words came flying at me…”…what distance do you have to the next aid…”  I heard and at first didn’t understand…aid, aid, what…distance…”I have…” I began to say after a pause to understand, “I have” he jumped in, “19 miles so far.”  I didn’t want to say to him I was at 16 miles so far for the section, but I threw out “…uh, I think around 16…”, he continued almost yelling, “mine is the route GPS, this must be the long section she talked about…”, her being the race director, Candice Burt…more curses at the mountain, the race, and the aid station that was supposed to be there.  I continued on, speeding up.  The path to Elk Peak turned out to be another sting…steep beyond steep…not too long, but now I was whipped.  I got on top of the mountain and turned around and back down.  I met the man and his pacer as they began the ascent.  I beat it but good.

Bigfoot iphone 068Twin Sisters Aid was also an out and back, down on the way in, and up on the way out.  Along the way down, I met up with Julio from Mexico, he had been lost for 12 hours, and yet, here he was.  He was going to finish Bigfoot.  Respect.  Nothing was going to stop me from finishing this race. I met Luis on his way out and shortly afterword Adam as well.  It was awesome.  Twin Sisters, Owens, and then the finish.  I was in a great mood and running down the mountain to the aid station.  I had pulled out my ear phones and was being lifted by the music.  I came into the aid feeling ecstatic.  But I wasn’t in a rush.  As much as I wanted to catch Adam and Luis, my only goal was to finish, and I was not going to let myself get in the way.  I stayed long enough to eat, put my feet up, recharge my devices (to some degree), and drink a beer.  That beer was awesome.  By the time I left I was the one charged up.

I hit the climb out of Twin Sisters in my usual manor and was moving really well.  I caught Jim half way to the top of the climb.  Jim, at 58, was one of the oldest, if not the oldest participant in the race.  But Jim is amazing.  He participated in the inaugural Tahoe 200 in 2014, and he has participated in the Vol state 500k multiple times.  This road race is 314 miles from Missouri to Kentucky.  Jim knows how to race long…and although I had seen him throughout the race, we had not had a chance to share the trails.  But again my pace was really strong coming on the up hill and my energy was good.  Jim and I talked for a bit and I continued to move up the hill…alone again…as you are so much in this race.

The climb was especially long…this was a 5000 feet of ascent section, but I wasn’t minding it.  This was one of the steepest of the whole course.  I crested the ridge and the scenery began to change.  The trail began to disappear replaced by brush and flags much closer together.  If you wondered off, the drop offs were along both sides.  The momentum I had was starting to fade.  As I bush whacked through, concentrating from flag to flag, my pace slowed…and slowed.  Flag, flag, flag…then stop, no flag, no flag, no flag…my pace almost nothing…look for tracks…this way.  Over and over I made my way through the ridge and then as it opened up a bit…the lumber yard.

Bigfoot iphone 072This section was the roughest section I’ve ever seen in an ultra.  There were logs everywhere…no path…and a couple of 12 to 15 foot pits lined with logs all around, and smaller branches and sticks over the top.  On one of these I pitched over to the side, my foot tied up in a tangle as I almost fell on a series of pointed, broken off branches, on the side of the log.  At the last moment my hand caught a dangling branch and I was able to save myself.  I screamed.  I was now that dude on the side of the path several hours before.  All of my momentum was gone and I wanted out of this jungle of fallen down trees and branches grabbing hold of my legs.  I screamed several more times…slowly working my way out of the lumber yard.

It was dark now.  The path was better, but I was still on the ridge…and I realized there was still Pompey Peak to contend with.  The final out and back, no more supposedly than a quarter of mile up and then turn around.  I was pissed and my mood was down.  I trudged on until I finally saw the sign to go up.  It was very dark, but I could see from my headlamp the edges around the mountains and I didn’t need to be in daylight to know that there was a big drop off all around.  I stayed in the middle of the path, pushing higher and higher, looking for the peak.  It went longer than expected….of course.  All around was dark, dark.  As I hit the crest, way down at the bottom I could see lights of a city far off.  I stayed for two seconds and got my ass off the mountain.  I was feeling none of the spirit in which I began this section of the trail.

I was on the ridge again, but now about to go down and descend to the final part of the course.  I should have been thrilled, but my mind was sour.  As I followed the path, a branch raised four feet off the ground, was sticking a foot into the trail.  I pushed my shoulder into the branch to brush it aside…but this was Bigfoot…and on these trails, that hadn’t had work done on them for years and years, branches don’t yield.  I felt the tip of the branch dig in my ribs and fling me back a foot to the side.  I yelled again…my blood up…I stumbled forward and stepped on a twig, which brought the other side of the twig up six inches off the ground catching my right foot sharply right into the big toe.  I stumbled and went to the ground.  I saw a small 12 inch piece of wood, about as thick as I could get my hand around it, curved half way to its length sitting right by where I fell.  I picked it up an I went back over to the offending twig and beat it into the dust.  I stopped.  I felt silly.  I beat it a few more times.  I dropped the stick and started moving forward again.  My head phone had popped out of my ear and was dangling in such a way I now couldn’t grab it.  I sat down and took off the back pack.  I sat and sat.  There were barely any stars and no moon.  The darkness closed about me.  High up on a ridge, alone…the darkness began to settle me, sooth me…my heart rate came down…these moments of the ethereal.  I stopped fighting myself, sat, and grabbed a vegan burrito out of my pack (Beyond Meat crumble, potato, black beans, and guacamole).  It should have tasted better than it did, but it was enough.

I made my way down to the bottom of the mountain and a five mile stretch of a grown over jeep road.  It went on for some time.  I caught up to a pair, a runner and his pacer, laying down on the side, their faces covered so I couldn’t see who it was.  I called out and heard a grunt…I kept moving.  Pretty soon I saw a light way behind me, but gaining on me.  I wasn’t sure if it was the two on the side, or someone else catching up to me.  The light got closer and closer…pretty soon I waited to see who it was.  It was Jim.  He had been running the down hill and the jeep trail and had caught me.  He took the lead and we made our way to the aid station, commiserating the whole way on the section we just endured.

At Owens, I got a message from Amy.  She was distraught.  She couldn’t find this aid station.  Where you meet your crew was a half mile beyond the aid.  So instead of getting food and coffee at the aid, I was walking to the crew area to meet Amy and get food there.  Just as I got the message Jim was walking back from the crew area.  His bag was at the aid station.  I walked back with him and got that coffee I passed up when we first came in.  Jim got what he needed from his bag and from his crew Karen.  Karen and Amy, as well as many others crews and pacers got to know each other, support each other, throughout this race.  Karen would tell Amy I was good…and anxious to see her at the finish line.

Jim and I talked, walked, and ran a little as we made our way from Owens to the finish line.  I was happy to make my way and finish side by side with a man of his caliber.  This was the proudest moment of my ultra career.  I was not defeated by myself, as I have been in the past.  I stayed true to the strategy…finish, that is the only goal…

big foot 2 528

footnote 1 –  We lost Sasha, our Basinji mix of almost 14 years one week before Bigfoot.  She was in our thoughts and heart throughout the run.

footnote 2 – Todd, Luis, Adam, Jim, and I all finished Bigfoot…the inaugural Bigfoot…we and our fellow 2015 Bigfooters will ever after be known as the Original Bigfooters or OBfers for short.

footnote 3 – We’ve said it before and we should say it again, if not for Amy, Karen, Allie, Adrienne, Todd’s wife and sons, Adams parents, that crewed and paced us, and everyone who crewed and paced the OBfer’s, it would not have been possible.  Amy you’re the best!

Bigfoot 200 – part 1

Bigfoot iphone 065I know not all that may be coming, but be what it will, I ‘ll go to it laughing.”  Stubb, Moby-Dick; or The Whale

 

We woke Glenn up.  Glenn is the medic at Chain of Lakes aid station.  He worked on my feet the night before.  Gwynn ran the aid station and helped me pull off the bandages around both feet.  One of which was done by Nick, Glenn’s boss, at Elk Pass aid, some 50 miles in arrears…since then, the dust and pumice from the trail continually found its way in my shoes and between my toes, particularly the big toes…I pulled off the bandages in one and replaced it with duct tape.  The blisters continued to get so big, they surrounded both big toes.  Gwynn washed my feet the night before and then took of the bandages.  Where the duct tape was, it pulled all the blistered skin off that surrounded that toe…I howled as she pulled the last bit of bandage.  What was left was the exposed under layer of skin…bloodied and raw.  Glenn said we would bandage in the morning after my feet dried.  It was now morning…we woke Glenn up.  I ate hash browns as he worked.  I thought about the miles we had come, we potential Bigfooters, the ambitions we had before we began, the views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams…why we were here at all…

200 miles?  I have had such trouble with 100 miles, but 200?  When I saw that Candice Burt (race director) was putting on a 200 mile race around Tahoe in 2014, I was mildly intrigued.  It sounded like a huge challenge into an unknown distance…and on and around a pretty scenic place…wait and see…Tour de Giants, Tahoe…intriguing…200 miles…and then 200 point to point, around Mt. St. Helens…Mt. Adams…the Pacific Northwest in 2015…my imagination soared….I was in the Western States lotto, Hardrock lotto…yet, yet,…I wanted Bigfoot…something about the distance, the place, the unknown…even the problems I’ve had with 100’s…I wanted out of the shadows…I wanted Bigfoot.

We lined up for the start.  I felt relaxed and so good…many, many races, I’m keyed up and anxious, but here at the start of Big Foot, knowing this was going to be every bit close to four days of mountains…I was not nervous, I felt the joy of an adventure, one I had been thinking about for so very long, so long…we were finally here.

The reputation of the Pacific Northwest is buff trails and easy climbs…and that is what I expected.  So when that it was we got for the first miles, with thick forest and ferns lining the trail, it is exactly what I thought we would be seeing throughout the next 200 miles, Mt. St. Helens not withstanding.  But as we continued to move up the mountain, on the south side of St. Helens, and then around the mountain north west, we began to find a very different PNW.  The ferns and the Douglas Firs faded away…and a more desolate landscape appeared.  It first started with a talus field.  We jumped from boulder to boulder…nearly a mile of trail-less talus, with flags along the way to help us navigate our way out.

Bigfoot iphone 076We hiked and ran our way into the barren landscape of the Mt. St. Helens blowout.  Still 35 years after the fact, the vegetation has not returned, the blow down trees still dot the landscape and are floating in the lake at the foot of the mountain…the ridges are parched with dust and the streams filled with silt.  We marched on…marveling at this world that is beyond what we imagined in the Pacific Northwest…no escape from the sun and on such a long section without aid…we continued on down ropes through a gorge and up with ropes on the other side.  I used my steri pen on a stream that had less silt than the others we had crossed…the would come in handy over and over on these long sections where water was scarce…I refilled and refreshed in the water and found a companion on this section of the run.

Todd was a runner from Newberg, OR.  He was here with his wife crewing and his two sons would be pacing the last half of the race.  We talked about 100 milers….he didn’t have a huge amount of experience, one finish, and one where, because of the weather, they had to stop the race.  He was out for redemption in this race…he wanted this finish, and based on his one 100 mile finish, I knew he would finish well ahead of me…my only ambition for Bigfoot was to finish.  I was not about to let an early fast pace get in the way…and Todd seemed content for the moment to follow along with me.  We headed into Johnson Observatory Aid for veggie burgers and an beautiful sunset.  Amy was there waiting for me.  Todd’s wife would meet him another 30 miles down the way, well after sunset and on toward morning.  The sun set on Mt. St. Helens as we crossed down the ridge, 2 feet width of trail with a 70 degree drop off following us for several miles…in the dark we moved on toward Cold Water aid.

Bigfoot iphone 063My night was punctuated with an all too brief rest and back around the lake on towards Norway Pass…17 miles til this aid station and the revelation that the mountains were going to be steep and long.  I made my way in the dark, lit up by my head lamp, cool and moving on even ground around the lake.  Past a corner, I came upon a runner sitting on the side of the trail…I think he was imbibing a bit of smoky assurance, but I can’t be sure…that is what I thought…moving on…I was making good time, maybe four miles in, I came up another runner.  He lost the trail.  We hadn’t seen a flag in sometime, and I couldn’t find the trail either.  We went forward a quarter mile then came back.  We looked around again…then for tracks…then back farther and forward and back…and then I saw what I thought was the trail…it was an area where the forest parted and there were rocks everywhere, in the day it might have been easy to see the trail, but at night… the faintest outline of rocks lining….maybe…I called to the runner, and we followed it.  Another runner came up and we asked him if we were on the right trail…still no flag…he pulled out his GPS and said it looked like the right way…we followed…a mile down, finally, a flag.  This would happen several more times…almost always at night…and I would do the same thing…look for tracks to see if I was on the right path.   Flag, flag, flag, bend, corner, no flag, no flag,….finally flag.  Overall the course was well marked, but whoever did the flagging did not do it at night.

I marked the sunrise on Mount Margaret.  The views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Ranier were profound…I wanted silence and to sit for a moment…60 miles in the run and with 143 left…I wanted the moment…eating a little, drinking the last of my water…taking in the view…”how are you?”  I heard to my right.   I hadn’t noticed the runner that was already there.  He was limping pretty bad.  This was one of the three out and backs part of the course.  You had to leave the trail and go a quarter of a mile to the top of this peak and then return.  He had been here for a little while I gathered.  “I’m good” I said.  “What a view”.  He nodded…he seamed to be thinking about what he was going to say next.  I sat.  And sat.  He was hunched over as I got up…the silence too much for me…I began to move back to the trail…he then said, “Not to give too much personal info, but my cheeks are so raw I can barely move.  I sent my pacer to the next aid station to bring me back some lube.”

Out of Elk Pass aid station, the scenery had decidedly changed.  Now we were in the Pacific Northwest of pine and fir and fern…and yet, the buff trail continued to elude.  The mountains were so much steeper than I thought….so much longer.  I had trained in the San Juan’s, the vaunted San Juan’s, Ouray and Silverton, horse thief and bear creek trails, hours and hours of the steep, ugly stuff…the dangerous stuff…and here I was on the trails I thought would be so much easier…and they weren’t.  I kept going, moving well…aid to aid…using my steri pen for the infrequent water streams that I came to.  I met Adam at this point.  31 and tall…his parents were his crew…he was from York, PA…and his wife was following his progress online.  He had a trucker hat on that said – ADAM.  I have rarely spent a more enjoyable time on the trail.  We talked about ultras…and vegan…and why…and how both interested and baffled our family and friends who do not do ultras and are not vegan…Adam, so sincere and serene, determined….he picked up every bit of trash he came upon on the trail, quietly putting it in his pack to put in the trash once at the aid station.  We were both going to make it to the end of this…his determination and mine, became our determination to finish The Bigfoot 200.

Bigfoot iphone 086Glenn is done taping my foot…”an hour and ten minutes”, he says.  I can’t dawdle anymore.  There will be no sleep for a fourth night…now is the push for the final 64 miles, through the toughest part of an already much tougher course…I got up and put my pack on.  Amster, with barely anymore sleep than me, is all over it…making sure my water is filled, my food is in my pack and that I am ready for this next section. Getting through this doesn’t happen without her…now Klickatat, Twin Sisters, Owens, and the finish.

 

 

Snapshot: Silverton, Ouray, and the San Juans

San Juans 007The log was about 10 feet long and 10 inches in diameter.  I’m not sure what kind of tree it was.  It had been there since the year before, cut deliberately to be used to bolster the trail.  There were six other logs laying around.  One by one we had carried the smaller ones up the steep hill, back onto the trail and through a narrow ledge, inched them forward so we could used them to repair, bolster, and even create a trail.  There were eleven of us here.  We came to “punch our ticket”, fulfill our requirement for trail work.  In Ultra running, specifically the big events, 100 miles or more, require you to do 8 hours of trail work for a race, any race, so long as you give back to the trails and you can verify the work.  We were all here to do 8 hours of trail work for the HardRock 100, although none of us were in that race.  We were punching our tickets for a future race.

Six of us surrounded the 10 footer.  I was at the back, second from the end.  I heard the trail boss, tell us again, “keep it on the outside of you…if its starts to go, just let it go…don’t go with it”…he laughed at the last bit.  We heaved it up and started forward.  Step by step we made it up the steep side of the hill, occasionally brushing grass, shrub, and dead wood away from our feet.  We set it down.  Talked casually….but I wasn’t thinking cool…it was heavy and the trail was narrow and the cliff was hundreds of feet down.  We picked it up again.  A tenth of a mile to the rock wall and a tenth of mile through the narrow path on the wall.  The Miners that created these trails…whoaaa….a different breed than us…than our world of handrails and safety first.

iphone 0715 142We laid the logs in section where the rock wall connected in a washout with the hill.  Huge rocks and scree streamed down from this point.  The hill side was our work.  The trail was washed out and barely twelve inches where there was a path.  With pick axes we went to work, breaking and clearing earth and rock.  Pounding in metal stakes and dropping the ten foot log and several smaller ones along this switch back.  Watching a trail form…creating something…you could start to see the path…breaking the mountain, clearing rock and dirt, filling patches where the wood logs lay…amazing…not fun…but…amazing.

Ouray 010

Amy and I are running the Silverton Blue Ribbon 10k…July 4th, 9200 ft up in elevation, out and back, jeep road, stream crossing, just your average mountain 10K to kick off the celebrations.  The first hill out of town explodes my heart, my lungs are blowing up, I sound rabid as we go up and over.  All around me I hear breath, straining to find the right speed, the one that allows you to keep going.  We come off the hill and I start to find the rhythm…stay on the line….push and hold.  The road turns to pock marked jeep road, leading us beside the river rushing from melted snow.  At the river crossing, I see a few trying to assess a way they might be able to stay dry….I plunge through, the water only going up a foot…years of ultra running have taught me not to worry, wasting time trying to pick your way through…no, move forward quickly…and off we go to the turning point.

The second half of the race I am catching people…a great sign of managing my race, not racing others, but racing within my self.  I see Amy on the way out….she wasn’t happy when she found out this wasn’t a typical road 10K, but then there she is, the happiest runner I know…once the race starts…running her own race, for the joy of it…we high five and that makes me happy….I keep running…the back of the hill now, a young guy and older guy, I’ve been catching up to them for half mile and now we’re on the hill.  The younger guy who seemed to be holding back now makes a move on the hill, I go with him, but this move is too much, we are the apex of the hill…the older guy was fading, but now he passes me…I go with him and we both crest at the same time, its a short distance from the top of the hill to the finish…maybe a little more than a quarter mile, we push it with all we have, our breathing now coming hot and loud…I move ahead of the older guy, but the younger has taken off.

San Juans 010Up Horse Thief trail, 12,700 feet up I pass day hikers, their dogs in tow, average people with average physiques, up steep trails, crossing ridges that give you pause on each side of the trail…these average folks out for a day hike…and I’m amazed.  The San Juans are not like any mountain range I have seen.  And after years of mountain running I have seen plenty of trails and mountains.  In all of those races and trail runs, I have been frightened of the weather or the danger of the path itself or the drop off from the trail exactly zero times.  In my month in the San Juans, I have been frightened on several occasions….the shear drop offs of 100’s if not 1000’s of feet, sends the electrical impulses in my body buzzing, hugging the sides of the wall, trying to remain poised and together….even the drives through the passes are like this.  And yet I see everyday average people without my training or experience casually hiking these high, high places.  Do they know?  I don’t know…I don’t know.  I just keep going up…

I’m ten miles in and I’ve passed all the day hikers and now I have passed several of the through hikers, big packs, high boots, food, sleeping bags and all.  I get the feeling the through hikers don’t like Ultra runners.  I pass two and the weather is starting to get dark.  I say hi and hows it going, like I do, and they say fine and …”you should probably watch the weather.”  That’s how I know…they are thinking these guys with their small packs are unprepared, they don’t understand the mountains or the elements, they run up and down but when the shit hits the fan….then we’ll see.  I smile as I pass and say I have stuff in my pack and am prepared to hunker down if I need too.  I don’t see there expression as I pass, but I think I know what they were thinking….I keep going.  San Juans 001

I enter a basin high above tree line.  This is sheep country…grassland all around, snow melt into rushing streams, peaks all around snow still capping the tops.  I trudge through a few snow fields and park myself by a running stream.  I refill my water bottles and eat a burrito.  The rain comes down softly at first…and so easy…and then just a bit of hail…the wind starting to pick up…faster…I put on my rain shell, finish eating and start making my way out of the basin.  By the end of the day I will have climbed almost 8000 ft and over 20 miles.  Crossing the street to the RV park, Amy and our dogs waiting…food being prepared on the stove, the cabin warm….

Ouray 013

Amy’s favorite holiday is Fourth of July.  Really…she loves the fireworks.  I’m too impatient and cynical, but she loves them and we happen to be in a place that loves the Fourth of July.  The week leading up to the day, Silverton fills up.  Tents are everywhere, on the hills, in the fields and in nooks that you didn’t think you could put a tent.  The RV park is filled, the hotels are booked and the restaurants have a lines out the door.  One week before you could have stayed anywhere you wanted, but now the streets are so filled you can’t get your car through the streets.

We have a great spot for our RV where we can see the full show.  We grab our blankets, set out our chairs, grab each of the dogs and position them in our laps…5 dogs, not so easy, but we manage to get everyone settled in and open a great pinot…Whitcraft 2012 Santa Barbara Co…and wait for the fireworks.

footnote:  The San Juans are mining mountains, much of it gold and silver.  Many of the trails were created by miners all around Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride.  Most large scale mining has ended and today most of the economy depends on tourism.

Cuesta Mesa, The Zen Master, and Climbing to Death’s Door…

imageJust off the gondola ride in Mountain Village, we were already over 10,000 feet up and we were following an unpaved road to the top of the mountain.  The air was cool and the scenery was straight out of your imagination, mountains on three sides, with Telluride in the valley below and high peaks all around.  Even more so to add to the moment, The Annual Telluride Bluegrass festival was going on…strains of banjos and guitars could be heard all around the mountain and as the day revved up, singing and playing could be heard miles and miles up the mountains.  It added to the ambience and mystique of Telluride, the San Juan’s, and as a runner, some of the most storied trails in the world.  It was a chance to get to see how steep, how technical, and how it really feel to be in this high country.

Brian and I talked as we climbed, easy and free, recent races, the weather in the area, his Hard Rock 100 coming up – he looked fit and ready – and running in general.  I had driven up from Durango, not realizing when I decided to head up and meet Brian, it was all of a 114 mile drive.  If you look on a map, it is a short hop over the mountains….maybe mountains that don’t rise up to 14,000 feet. I had to skirt around them, backtrack close to Mesa Verde and then up through Dolores.  Something about being somewhere new though, somewhere you haven’t been before, makes the time go so much quicker, and this was some beautiful, big country.

Our first climb was getting steeper, we were now above treeline and you could see patches of snow all over the mountain.  Just above us another 1000 feet there was deep snow around the curved basin of the mountain.  We crossed a few snow fields and started to go off road and trail and straight up to the highest point of this climb.  Hard to imagine the engineering, but the ski lift (not running) went all the way up to the top, just before the top of the crown.  That is where we headed.

Zen Master We crossed a snow field, most of which was icy enough that we were able to walk over the top of, but every once in while a hole leg would crash through almost to the hip.  We weren’t in these snow fields log enough for them to be much of an issue, but as the we climbed above 12,000 feat, you could see the snow covering more and more of the mountain.  It obscured some of the main trails that led up and over.  We weren’t yet sure if we were going to hazard some of those trails, but watching how easy it was to suddenly find your leg deep into the snow, it wasn’t hard to imagine on one of those narrow passes, the snow slipping away and taking you with it….hundreds of feet, possibly a thousand feet down.  We continued to make for the ski lift near the top.

Both of us were breathing hard, our shirts and packs damp with out effort, despite the wind and cool temperature up top.  Climbing, climbing, climbing…and then we were there.  And he was there too.  I didn’t see him at first.  He was just standing there watching us climb up to him.  An old T-shirt, khaki shorts, and Brooks Cascadia’s.  No pack, no water.  Eating a ball of snow.  I thought he had ridden up to the top in the ski lift…except the ski lift wasn’t going.  Brian said something first.  I couldn’t hear what they said…it’s always hard in the outdoors for me with the wind coming through and the acoustics all over the place…if you only have one ear you can almost never pin point where sound is coming from.

Brian seemed to know him or of him, I wasn’t sure.  He was asking where we came up from and Brian was talking about all the snow around the top.  I noticed the words on the back of his T-shirt, ‘Hardrock 100 to Everest and Back…’, it had a small rip across his chest…he pointed to the big dome of rock above us and then around where all the snow was, all across and down, obscuring the road that went around the mass of black rock sitting in front us that I presumed either was the top of the mountain or blocked the top.

I was ready to get some water out and have a quick bite before the descent, no way to go around because of the snow and then there was this dome in front us….out of my good ear, I could just now make out the words from the guy  speaking to Brian, he was pointing to the top, “My race goes through here…”…whaaa….where?  He was pointing at the black rock…”here I’ll show you”…and he hopped onto the tiniest foot and hand holds and started climbing…a rope hung done on this first part that he by passed and kept going up and around in a semi circle…I looked at Brian and Brian looked at me…both of us not sure…finely and with some nerve, Brian made the move and started climbing….I followed…both of us trusting that the stranger wouldn’t lead us to a precarious spot…which was strange because it was already precarious.  We moved forward and watched him go, he practically leaped from spot to spot, so graceful and effortless, and us….hearts starting to pound, putting one foot down, grabbing with our hands, slowly, so slowly climbing and following his semi circle…Brian leading me…higher, higher…my heart racing now….how were we going to get back…the drop getting closer and closer…and higher and higher….we were coming to a choke point.  It was a shear drop to the left and nothing but a thousand feet of snow around the basin below.  My mind buzzed…the sound of the Durango train whistle blew up in my brain scrambling my thoughts…”I’m outta here, Brian” I heard another person say….but it wasn’t, it was me…and my body with a will of its own was sliding back ever so carefully, ripping my running capris, as I ever so carefully slid my way down, hugging the black rock.

Back on the flat ground, I rubbed my face.  I walked over to my pack drank some water and pulled out some Taquitos.  Brian had gone on past the choke point.  I knew he had to be almost as shaken as I was.  But he made it past and was at the top with a man that seemed to be in his natural element, this was nothing to him, in fact on the run down he confided to me he had done about 1500 feet the day before of just such a climb…he also said sorry for putting me in a life threatening situation….I played it cool and said, “No worries…” and was that in his 55 mile race?  He said, yes, you could just go around on the road…the tiny road that was blocked with snow at the moment.

We ran down the hill…my mind was buzzing…I could barely hear them talking anyway…a bit here about the Telluride Mountain run…sore subject…Hardrock 100, and what about turning his 55 mile race into 110 next year…..I couldn’t hear it all but joined in just a bit…my mind was on other things.

Mesa VerdeTwo days before Amy and I went to Mesa Verde.  I wondered how a people, how a civilization dwelt in those cliffs, small foot and hand holds etched in rock, carrying everything up and down, food, agriculture, game, even firewood.  Kids, adults, the elderly among the tribe…all had to be able to get up and around the cliffs.  How did they do it…how did they build it…and why did they leave?  They were only in them by some estimates 200 years, by other estimates as little as 70.  We call them Anasazi, but that is not what they called themselves.  Anasazi is what the Navajo called them and the ruins….The Ancient Ones or Ancient Enemies.  This term is not preferred by the contemporary Puebloan tribes, the descendants of the cliff dwellers.

When I first moved to Denver, nearly 20 years ago, I was at a party with some friends, acquaintances really, I barely new them and was just hanging out new to the area and getting to know different people.  The subject of the Anasazi came up…..a man I didn’t know very well but was hosting the party, said the reason they left, was that over time, they threw out all of there trash over the side of the cliff and that over time the smell was so great that they were forced to leave.  Myself and others at the party nodded and thought, really, huh…then he laughed especially hard because we were all so gullible to believe that explanation.

footnote 1:  Mesa Verde is miss named, it is actually a Cuesta.  A mesa is a flat top with shear sides, while a cuesta is a slanted top with shear sides.

footnote 2:  The stranger we met at the top of the mountain was Ricky Denesik, Telluride running legend, at one time holder of the fastest know time for all 54 14, 000 peaks in CO and winner of the Hardrock 100.  If you see him and he says follow me, turn around and get off the mountain as quick as possible.

Bryce Canyon 50 Miles and 50K

image3:30 am is way too early.  Here I was again though, another ultra marathon, another alarm…coffee, teeth, breakfast, dress, relax, dress, coffee…a picture or two, then off to the 4:45 shuttle for the 50 mile start.  Amy had the luxury of a couple more hours before her shuttle for the 50K at 7 am.

On the ride out I kept thinking about why….why we do it, why we put ourselves through it, why do we get up so early, drive so far, deal with the anxiety, the queasiness down deep, the fear of not living up to expecations, to not living up to the challenge…the drumbeat of why from friends, family, and casual passersby….why?  I have heard many try to answer this question and have yet to hear a good reason. I have heard many try to explain the culture, the race, the appeal…..all fall short.  I don’t think there is one answer and I don’t think talking can capture it, explain it, understand it.

We stepped off the bus….fifteen minutes to spare.  We milled about….restrooms, food for those who thought to bring some, loosening up and stretching for others. I still had some coffee left to finish, so I just waited.  The woods around us were filled with pine and aspen which surprised me, because of how much I associate those trees farther north in Utah and Colorado.  Of course we were very high up, the race was starting at over 7000 ft elevation and we would spend much or most at over 9000 ft.  The race isn’t technically in the National Park but skirts the area around it.

At the appointed time, someone from the race casually counted down and said go….and we started running a jeep trail…at first pretty level, no real up or down.  Then we started on single track through the woods, crisscrossing, moving up,  but very gradual, easy and runnable.  A mist lay over the escarpment and the mesa above, you could see well enough, but it gave the morning a surreal feel, quickening your pulse and making you feel like you were seeing the wild…the real thing, not from a silver screen or a window pane, but the breath of the mountain, on you and about you…the red stone hoodoos began to reach through the fog, above us, surrounding us as we climbed…my heart pulsed, the why’s started melting away…

We climbed and climbed, through the first aid station, and finally on top of the mesa, the hoodoos and red cliffs now below us.  The views were stunning.  Beautiful red across the landscape, the valley below stretched out to far off mountains….maybe the most beautiful scenery and course I have ever been on.  I stopped at the edge of a cliff to take pictures, I was not going to let the race get in the way, not get caught up in my time or my place in the race, experience the place….too much rushing and worrying…be a part of the moment.  I wasn’t the only one….runners stopped as we came to the top and saw the vista on the edge of the cliff, all of us taking a pic or two, but not wanting to spoil the moment.  And then we started running.

The first 24 miles was up and around the top of the mesa.  The terrain was easy and mostly gradual, with single track, non technical and fluid running.  The only real issue in the race up to this point had nothing to do with the course, any physical issue with me, or the gear I was using.  It had to do with the aid stations.  At one aid station runners were surrounding the water and gatorade/tailwind igloos, all three of which were empty.  I looked around to see what was happening and finally an aid station helper realized they were empty and started filling them with the enourmous containers of water all lying behind the table.  This in sharp contrast to the next aid station, that had run out of food and water.  All he had left was a water jug with just a few inches left, and dirt at the bottom to boot.  This was 24 miles into the race.  What were all the others behind us going to do?  It was 7 miles to the next aid station.  We’re ultrarunners, we just ran on.  I was glad I brought enough energy bars, the variety at the aid stations was very poor, potato chips was all that look appetizing, the rest was a bunch of candy, no hot food, and an occasional pb and j.  There were some serious cracks in the organization running the race.

The second half of the race was surprising, where the first was gradual and runnable, the second half got steeper, more technical, and just plain mean.  I would hike the steep up hills, usually passing two to three people, hit the down hill and be passed by these same three people. On we went, the vistas extraordinary, the hoodoos coming in and out of view, winding up and down, up and down.  At the top of one particulary steep climb and surprisingly long, I crested and started running, feeling the joy of the mountain, feeling my body pull up and over, and pushing into an easy stride, this is why, this is why…..my head fully in it, as a root maliciously grabbed my right ankle and threw me into the trail, my right shoulder bearing the brunt, while my chest high water bottle buried itself into the rib I broke last January.  My head thudded on the soft dirt.  I lay there for a moment…breath, breath, breath…”Are you okay, man?”.  The runner behind me came up extending his hand.  I waved him off.  “You just want a sit for a minute”.  I nodded.  “You want a Tylenol?”.

I got up and was okay, shaken, but okay…I worried about the rib, but it wasn’t an issue in the days that followed.  My shoulder however was sore and bruised afterword, clearly bearing the brunt of the fall.  I ran on, ten miles later falling again, annoyed, tired, and starting to think about the finish.  The why’s were creeping back into the story.  The rain began.  The hail started.  Lightning in the distance and we were on top of the mountain.  The temperature dropped and we ran on, spurred by the elements to push on rather than slow down.  Get over the mountain or take cover.  Some runners took the former and waited it out.

The rain ceased as I made it to the last aid, 7.5 miles from the finish.  Amy had started the 50K two hours behind me.  Based on my calculations of her pace and mine, I hoped I would catch here after the last aid station.  Somewhere after that, I was hoping we would meet and cross the finish together, something we had not done before.

Out of the aid was a steep jeep trail, a plateau, ups and downs, and the red canyon walls and hoodoos started  to make their appearence again.  You veer into single track and the switch backs start on the canyon walls, beautiful, but now an interest, not the joy of before…the finish is beginning to call and the beauty is wearing down.  I rounded a corner and way up on a switch back I see the Amster trudging up, a line of other runners ahead and behind….I lept up and called, “Amy!”  I saw her look way down to where I was, her name echoing throughout the canyon.  “Get up here!” she yelled back.  I heard someone near her sarcastically say, are you going down to meet him.  I didn’t listen Amster’s reply.  The emotions always on the edge in these long runs, seem to spill over when meeting the security and connection of family and deep friendships.  And so it was here, as I pushed to meet Amy and finish this experience with her.  From below it looked like a short distance, but it was almost half a mile of switch backs to get to her.  We met staying together for the next 5 miles and the finish. But those last five miles, so easy in the beginning, now high on the plateau, the wind and rain coming back, up and down, over and under, it just wouldn’t end.  Everytime you thought you were on top and had to be heading down, it would switch again.  By the end, Amy was on the breaking point.  I kept it positive.  Negativity has no place on the trail.  It will never get you to the finish line.  We trudged on…finally hitting the finish line.  We embraced.

footnote:  There was almost no food at the finish.  We had to get shuttled back to the race registration area for food and to collect our race medal (in this case a bracelet for 50 mile, and a handmade mug for 50k, both very cool), extraordinarily low key even by Ultra standards.  The scenery is breathtaking but I will think twice before I sign up for a race with this organization in the future.  The aid was the lowest standard I have seen in any Ultra.