Monday, August 22, 2011
Dan Jones, Kieran McCarthy, Scott Slusher, MAH, J, Nora, Mama W
This year's LT100 was my 2nd 100-mile race, and first mountain 100. I knew I would have my work cut out for me with a more challenging course at higher elevations, but was looking forward to the adventure.
Despite bouts of heavy rain and thunder in town the night before, the weather was calm enough for a light jacket and shorts to start the race. This was a relief, as starting in a cold rain would have been tough to manage. My fancy new light North Face jacket and Black Diamond headlamp worked perfectly, but I try not to be too much of a gear nerd because it's just running. It was also cold enough that I donned my alpaca wool hat for the beginning of the race. It doesn't have a brand name or anything on it, but it sheds rain better than cotton, and I bought it in a stall from the woman who made it in Aguas Calientes, Peru.
Now if you're in Leadville, Colorado the 3rd weekend in August, and somehow want to avoid the spectacle of this race, good luck ignoring the blast of a shotgun at 4AM.
With that, we were off and down the road. The advice here is to stay relaxed and easy, avoiding going too fast downhill, as we run several road and dirt road miles to Turquoise Lake. I have no idea what our pace was, but I looked at my watch exactly 3 times before the aid station: 29-something, 59-something, 1:29-something. I planned on taking a gel every 30 minutes, and a cool and underappreciated superpower of distance runners is the ability to estimate elapsed time accurately while running. It's too bad that this skill is utterly useless otherwise.
I had heard that the Turquoise Lake singletrack can get crowded, but from my vantage it was nothing to be concerned about, other than hearing an occasional runner behind with a missed step (worried about them tripping into me) or someone's dizzying bouncy headlamp. It wasn't too difficult to pass if necessary, and we were also reasonably segregated into natural pacing groups. At one point, I stepped off the trail briefly for a bio-break and ended up in a gap between groups, so I had a pleasant 10-20 minute stretch of running alone.
As we went around the lake, I did sneak a few peeks backward to appreciate the stream of headlamps around the lake. More sublime was the mist that had settled over the lake, and occasionally seeing an illuminated runner cast a shadow into the fog and then disappear. Even if I had a camera, my photography skills wouldn't do this any justice, so the image will remain burned in my memory.
A few camping groups greated and cheered us around the lake, and as we neared 2 hours and 13.5 miles, the May Queen aid station came into view. Since this is the first aid station and people are all packed together, I suggested to the girls not to come to this aid station. I think this was a good plan, as they got some rest and were better equipped to make it to Fish Hatchery without the stress of driving in and out of May Queen and trying to find me. However, the May Queen herself (Alex's wife Ean) and Celeste and crew were out here and able to spot me in the crowd somehow, so I felt pumped up by seeing them. I grabbed a few snacks here and more gels, and filled up my 2 bottles, keeping my plan of a bottle per hour.
If you're wondering, 6AM at this time of year is sufficient to ditch the headlamp. I wondered about this but then decided to transport my headlamp to the next aid station at Fish Hatchery, no big deal.
The next stretch is 10 miles including singletrack, a steady climb, and then the powerline descent to Fish Hatchery. I enjoyed the trail sections, and the rest were obvious walk-when-it's-steep, run downhill variety. The views were enjoyable as we climbed sugarloaf, although we had occasional long views of the trail ahead. It was easy to run smoothly on light uphills, and eat and drink when necessary. Finally, we reached steep downhill. I enjoyed the descents and tried to save my quads, but I don't know how successful I was.
The troubling thing was, my legs hurt somewhat at this point. This was unusual because they normally wouldn't feel this way in a 20-mile training run, and hadn't felt like that in any previous 50M or 100M. I'll need to reflect on this some more -- taper? hydration? electrolytes? The simplest answer is likely the fact that more downhill training (and less track work!) could have been beneficial for this.
Before Fish Hatch, we were on some rolling roads, and I was able to run these steadily. Again, we went from a calm run to a roaring spectacle of crowds and cheering -- and that's pretty cool. J spotted me and got my bottle, and she took off running at a great clip to get things ready while I looped through the checkin. I was also happy to see Alex's support crew and family out here as well. I accidentally dropped a glove here -- and then a subsequent F-bomb -- bad karma!
After this, it was time to get ready for a few miles of open road. For the first time in a race of any length, I put headphones in my ears. And I was cool with it, it kept my spirit and tempo up, just cruising and grooving down the road. At this point, I was down to my one large bottle, as the next aid station (Pipeline) was a flat 6 miles out, and then another 10 with a net downhill to Twin Lakes.
After filling up at Pipeline, it was time for steady climbing. Historically, miles in the mid-30s are a low point for me, but I felt consistent here, no worries. My mental focus was all about planning to get to the next aid station.
The Mt. Elbert trail sections here were pretty fun, with some wildflowers, stream crossings, and bridges. I forgot about the additional Mt. Elbert aid station -- I was good on water but topped off anyway, so I could dump some on my head and not worry about dehydration.
Now we had a fun, steady descent to Twin Lakes. I was cruising along steadily here, nothing technical at all, but I slipped and totally wiped out! No injuries or abrasions, I landed pretty well. Now you know how my shirt got dirty.
At Twin Lakes outbound, I was happy to see the girls again, as well as my first pacer, Kieran. Also saw Pete and recognized some other folks. Again, my emotions ran high from the crowd, which was important for the slog ahead.
The next part begins with a trudge through swampy marshland across the street, through calf-deep puddles and mud. You're going to get wet, so no use fighting it, and then your feet are heavy and slow bricks. Eventually we reached the creek, which had a rope across it for safety it wasn't absolutely necessary. I bent down a bit and splashed water on my legs to refresh them a bit. After that, it was a straight shot to the trees, where the climb up Hope Pass begins in earnest.
Now I was on my first truly familiar section of trail. I ran this in training, but there was no need for that today: it was time to hike. The shade in the trees was refreshing, and I kept that in mind as we headed up to treeline. Along here I saw a familiar orange shirt and thought I recognized Brandon -- with hiking poles! I hadn't seen him use them before so I wasn't sure it was him. He was moving decently but I slowly caught up so we could chat. He said he picked up the poles because his quads were blown, perhaps in part from a blazing start to May Queen. But he was still moving good, and it's a long race, so he was appropriately optimistic about the rest of the run, as was I for both of us, and I still expected to see him on the downhill as I felt I'd have to take it easy there.
Every once in awhile we'd hit a short, flat runnable section, but mostly I focused on keeping the breathing and heart rate in check, with no idea of distance or splits. But at least I recognized the terrain, and appreciated the trail opening up into wildflower meadows, then back into the trees, before finally reaching treeline for good.
"Welcome to Camp, can I get you anything?" asked a young male volunteer, maybe 11 or 12 years old. His phrasing made it even more special: here I was at the famous "Hopeless" aid station, replete with the llamas that had carried up the supplies. Although I had been to this same geographical spot 2 weeks earlier, now that it was set up as an alpine "camp," I could pretend I was out in the Himalayas or Andes on an excursion. Context is as important as the environment when it comes to experiences like this.
By now, I had also lost a bit of appetite but knew it was from the elevation, so I had a bit of soup and other snacks to help get ready for cresting the pass. I filled up on water as well and continued to climb. To my left was the familiar lumpy shoulder of Quail Mountain, with the pass itself was appreciably lower.
With a photographer on top, it was time to begin running the last bit of the climb and then all the way down. Now I would get to figure out how to deal with the 2-way traffic on the tight singletrack, but it all just worked out. I did everything possible to give the leaders room, and often enough they did the same and let us continue downhill, and they were all pleasant and encouraging. It just all worked out. Team Spandex was in the lead, and I was happy to recognize Burch coming up 3 spots later (but no pacer?). I tried to be conservative enough on the downhill and not get injured, I passed a couple folks but got passed by a few more and was fine with that, as I was on or ahead of pace.
It was getting pretty warm by now and I reached the Winfield road, knowing I was ahead of my 10-hour turnaround estimate. I ditched the shirt and stuck to the south side of the road for shade. This is rumored to be the last year of having to run on the dusty road in traffic, as they are building a parallel trail that should be ready next year, so I told myself that at least I got to appreciate the classic experience. They offered dust masks at the bottom, but had also watered the road, and it was manageable. I think I also hit at a good time, as J told me traffic picked up significantly after I left. Along the way, the fabulous mAy Team drove by and cheered me on.
The girls spotted me pretty quickly, and Kieran ran right along to get ready for his pacing duties. He was diligent about figuring out what we might need for the Hope Pass re-climb, and was perfectly stocked up with anything I might need.
And then we were off on the road again. Mentally, the whole idea of re-climbing 3000 feet again can be daunting, but it absolutely blocked from my brain. Having new company helped significantly, as well as muling some of my gear. We ran most of the road and then got ready for the climb, settling into having me in front to set a pace.
I had only met Kieran briefly during CPTR, and he graciously offered to pace by responding online. This is just another example of how the ultrarunning community works in strange and awesome ways. It was fantastic to have this boost, and although I wish I had more oxygen for more conversation, for his part he was equally encouraging, distracting (with jokes, etc.), attentive, and informative about other parts of the race. I was a bit worried about my stomach, but kept taking gels and it never got worse.
Obviously, this section was more crowded going up, now that I was spending over an hour going 3 miles while a large contingent of runners were heading down, but again it all worked out, and we were all encouraging of each other. I felt steady but slower than when I was fresh for a training run a couple weeks ago. I told Kieran that it took about 65 minutes in training, so maybe 80 minutes would be good today. We hit the top in 70! It just shows how much perception can be off at these times.
Now some more downhill to Hopeless, and I tried to take it easy technically so as not to twist an ankle. I had one little slip before I was able to open up my stride, and then Kieran ran ahead to get supplies ready. I still didn't have much of an appetite, but again had some soup and Coke, definitely more out of caloric necessity than desire. Some clouds had moved in but we had beaten any threat of a real storm -- never a given in the Colorado mountains in summer.
We continued downhill at a steady pace, my quads remained in a constant sore but functional state. We got back into the trees and enjoyed the shade and more runnable downhill again, before the final flattening to the open marshes of Twin Lakes. Again I soaked a few seconds in the river, and had the unpleasantness of small rocks in my shoes, but knew that would end soon enough.
Kieran ran ahead to get things ready for the handoff.
How would you measure the effectiveness of a pacer? How about this: my split over Hope Pass, with Kieran, after 50 miles and a loss of appetite, was 30 seconds faster than my solo split after 40 miles!
At this point, I planned on cleaning/drying off my feet and switching socks, yet keeping the same shoes, based on Pete Stevenson's advice. This ended up being a fine choice, as the fresh socks felt great and the wet shoes dried soon enough, yet still performed as predictably as they had for the first 60 miles. The only risk was sitting in a chair for the first time ever in an ultra for me, but my "pit crew" attended to me quickly: a truly fast 2-tire change, top off of fuel, a round of wedge, and we were off.
"We" now being Dan Jones and I. Kieran did great, and Dan picked up right where he left off. Did I mention Dan just ran up Pikes Peak earlier in the morning? Yeah, then he drove out a few hours for a "fun run" to help me in Leadville! I enjoyed meeting and catching up with Dan as he told me some of the PPA stories, and that they had perfect weather. I also appreciated his insights into Leadville, having successfully finished the course the previous year in his first attempt. Again, I wish I had more energy to be conversational, but I think (or at least hope) veteran runners and pacers understand this.
Dan was great at keeping me moving and motivated, eating and drinking, and getting ready at the aid stations. I had a Red Bull stashed at Pipeline (~M70) and that helped out, and it was still nice not have to carry both bottles. I think I walked a bit more of the gradual uphills here but was still satisfied with my own pace. About 5-10 minutes past Pipeline, though, I asked Dan if he had a headlamp. It turns out both of us had the same negative answer! Whoops. I had stashed one at Pipeline just in case, but forgot in my 70-mile haze to do the new math on whether I would need it or not. But I also remember thinking that most of this section wouldn't necessitate a headlamp anyway, and it turns out we were just fine, as we hit the road at dusk. Lights could have been nice for safety from (annoying) oncoming cars, but Dan graciously shielded me from harm by running in front of me. And it worked! We weren't killed, and we made it to Fish Hatch. Dan's duties were complete in spectacular fashion.
Slush spotted us before Fish Hatch and I didn't recognize him at first as he offered us a light. But he ran us in and we got ready for the return climb up Sugarloaf.
As promised, Scott injected new life and encouragement into my run. But, I use the word "run" here very loosely, because other than a bit of downhill after Sugarloaf, I severely abused Scott's generosity with a long nighttime walk. But first, he caught me up on his own PPA race experience, which involved an unfortunate exploding electrolyte tablet, but otherwise an enjoyable day on that mountain out East. Let me remind you here: Like Dan, Scott had come out to pace me after climbing 8000 feet in the morning! Through his own admission, and observations later from the girls, Scott had suffered from a coffee deficiency earlier in the day, something I can totally relate too! His enthusiasm though certainly didn't miss a beat, so I like to think that I took it easy on him for these last 6-7 hours so he didn't have to, you know, run a bunch and stuff, like when he paces people to course records and all that.
He also pointed out -- rightfully so -- how glorious the stars were above the top of Sugarloaf. Again, I wish I could have been more sociable, but for his part he kept me on track and moving along. He was also sociable with other runners on the climb that caught up to me, which helped pass the time. Sorry, but my legs were now shot. I was able to gently shuffle down on the smoother parts after Sugarloaf, but he biggest threat was a lack of proprioception, so that I was unstable on even the slightest technical section. The focus was merely on moving forward. I also wanted to lean against a tree and take a quick nap but Scott kept me going.
The focus was on May Queen. At this point of the day -- no, it is past 10 pm -- if you stop and think about having 6 or 7 more hours to run, it would be absolutely overwhelming. You absolutely have to break it up and focus on the next aid station. But the important thing is, we did arrive at May Queen, and fueled up on coffee and soup. The girls were there -- did they get a chance to sleep? -- and I told them we'd see them 3.5-4 hours later. This is still a ridiculously long amount of time to run, but you know what? We were going to finish, and we would get the big buckle.
Heading out, the remaining goals were sub-24 hours, and sub-Brownie's-time-from-last-year. And we hit the Turquoise Lake trail, which I told Slush was "flat" and "lightly technical", but now somehow it was longer, more technical, and quite rolling. My legs felt like tanks of lactic acid: swollen and slow. I could walk decently, and it actually felt good when we hit the road later, but running was out of the question. I apologized to Scott a few times, but he came up with a new positive response each time. I felt like I was passed by gobs of people. I didn't mind the act of being passed so much as the envy of not being able to run. So, as I learned, I would have enjoyed the race more if I had been in a position to run through the end. I'll even go so far as to say I would trade finishing slightly slower but being able to run through the end. But that's what you learn in these things.
Sub-24 would require just a bit more running, but I just didn't have it. In my addled brain, though, I knew the Big Buckle was ours. That's what I wanted, and that's what I owed to myself and my crew. By now, we had survived and formed all the stories and memories that would make up the race. So after the interminable Turquoise Lake, we hit a bunch of long roads that I didn't remember from the morning. I could shuffle down a slight downhill, but anything more than that and it was back to power-hiking. (In hindsight, I think I needed a better salt strategy).
Finally, town came into view (it sneaks up on you in the last mile). A full day had passed, full of adventure. Scott had kept me moving, motivated, and on-course. Kieran and Dan were there, and I was happy to have them pull me up the hill as a group together. My uphill "run" was glacial, but the important thing was that it was in the right direction.
After a few hours sleep, walking was painful, but I can always ride a bike.
Luckily I brought my junker Minnesota free-bike with me to town. I never drove anywhere all weekend.
I can't say enough about how important all of my crew and pacers were, as well as the support along the course.
That is what helped me to finish and earn "La Plata Grande"
Thanks for reading.