Saturday, August 15, 2015
Hundred mile endurance runs are different than other ultra-distance runs. They are a journey as much as a run. Marathons, 50K’s, 50-milers, and even 100K’s can be run as a straight-out race, but you will need a different mindset and unique strategies to get through the hundred. I’ve had five successful completions and four DNF’s at the 100-mile distance. Out of all the other races I’ve run I’ve had only one DNF—that includes 136 marathons.
Starting in the downtown metropolis of Fairplay, Colorado we ran dirt roads to Alma, which at 10,578 feet is the highest incorporated town in North America. From the unmanned water-only aide station we climbed steadily to the fully stocked Highland aide station. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the dawn’s early light suffused the landscape and Mt Silverheels dominated the scene. I left my hydro-pack at the aide station and filled up a collapsible handheld with water for the five-mile round trip to the Silverheels Mine, knowing that there was water available at the mine. The out and back is close to 12,000’ and rolling. It was easy enough to run the downs and most of the ups this early in the race. The scenery of the high country above treeline was glorious in the early morning. I counted the runners ahead of me as they came back towards and put myself at 12th place. So far, so good.
In order to raise my 100-mile completion rate I had to change my mindset from “racing” to finishing. My strategy now is to overcome adversity and to quit only for legitimate reasons—no excuses or because I’m tired of running. For instance, I know that I always suffer nausea about sixty miles into these things. Before changing my mindset I might have dropped out for that reason (excuse.) Now I’ll take a quick catnap, let myself settle down, and see if that works to overcome it. I’ve also found foods that I can take in without problems—clear vegetable broth with no spices and orange juice. I’ve gone for forty miles taking in only vegetable broth for calories. There is a fine balance between taking in just enough calories and too many calories. You don’t need a lot of calories to get through 100 miles. At least I don’t. You do need some though. It’s that fine balance that you have to achieve between maintaining the body and bonking. Tolstoy in his classic novel, Anna Karenina started it off with (paraphrasing): “All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are different,” or close to that. For me the Silverheels journey and indeed all of my 100-mile journeys are of the latter category—not necessarily “unhappy” but very unique in what I have to do to overcome adversity.
In the Silverheels run I would had to overcome three moments of adversity: a fall which produced a large goose egg on my forehead, an asthma attack while climbing the steepest and highest point of the race, and the old familiar nausea.
At 19 miles I met my crew, Rebekka for the first time at the Gold Pan aide station. Just before arrival I had plunged through a creek, so I got a fresh pair of socks and carried them back over the creek before putting them on. It was ten miles to the next aide station at Trout Creek, so I made sure I had water and gels.
Running on the old jeep road I heard a set of about six ATV’s behind me. They weren’t going much faster than I and it was annoying to hear them slowly creeping up on me. Finally they started passing me, one by one. The last ATV was driven by a woman with a toddler on her lap. She passed me then stopped because of a severe washout in the road. The driver ahead of her had gone up on the grass to the left of the road, but there was a difficult lip to traverse to get up there. While he was trying to advise her how to maneuver up there she started rolling backwards. I had my head down, pulling it up just in time to jump out of her way. I sped past them and it was some fifteen minutes before they passed me for the final time, the toddler now on the man’s lap. A set of orange ribbons marked where the course left the dirt road to embark on a single track trail. There was also a big orange “X” marked on the ground in that same direction, where I caught up to Lance Dockery puzzling over what to do. Meanwhile another runner backtracking from the single track told us that it was the right way. Lance and I weren’t sure to believe him--we thought the course might continue on the road and vandals might have moved the ribbons to confuse runners (it happens.) So, we decided to continue on the road for a quarter mile to see if there were more ribbons up there. No, there weren’t. We returned, adding half a mile to our day, followed the single track and seeing markings further up the trail we realized it probably was correct, so we went back to rub out the orange “X” so more runners wouldn’t be confused.
Lance and I ran steadily up through a meadow of high grass and wildflowers. After a while we slowed to a walk and I observed, “a good rule to follow early in these 100 milers is to ask yourself if you will be running this same grade ten hours from now or not. If not, then walk.” Indeed, fourteen hours into a 100-mile run I for one will be walking all ups and running only the downs. The single track trail crested, traversed east for a short stretch, then bent south for a long downhill. I pulled away from Lance and found myself running free and easy—down, down, down. Near the bottom of this long descent I was surprised when an older runner caught up to me. I let him go around me, but kept him in touch as we joined a dirt road. I watched him scoot under a gate, but I noticed there was a latch holding the gate so I unhooked it and stepped across. Mistake--I should have scooted underneath. I spent a good minute trying to force my weakened arms to close the gate. I caught up to and passed the older gentleman (I am three years older than him) a couple times before he pulled away.
Ten minutes before the Trout Creek aide station I plugged in my earphones and started a new audiobook on my iPhone. With the aide station in sight I caught a rock with my toe and suddenly launched—slow motion, frozen in flight, going down, no chance to avoid it, the crash is coming—Boom! Lying on the ground—where does it hurt? I reach for my forehead and feel a ping pong sized goose egg. I look at my fingers—blood streaming. Shoulder hurts, knee hurts. I rise and walk to the aide station. They had seen the fall. No bandaids, but hey! They have a nurse practitioner! I fill my bladder and press on. See you on the way back!
Five miles before the first of three visits to the Tarryall Aide Station at mile 35 where I’ll see Rebekka, my crew. First though we have a long climb that culminates in a steep climb through a meadow under the hot sun. Then down, down, down a single track trail, cross a creek, and up to the road and the long awaited chair. Decompress, change socks, shoes, fill bladder, take in calories, get up and go. Steep climb, then easy winding trail, running--mountain bikes like this trail. Next aide station, Gold Dust. Familiar faces greet me: Carolyn, Steve, Christian. Short stop before the major climb to above 12,000’. I had no idea how hard this would be, a difficulty compounded when I found myself struggling for air--Asthma attack! Can’t go. Walk three steps, stop and try for air—lungs can’t get oxygen. Climb a few steps. Stop. Other runners pass and express concern. I’m all right. More steps. Stop. Finally above tree line. Can’t be much further. A runner running down with trekking poles stops to ask me if I’m all right. Yes. Do I want to know where I’ll be going? Yes. He turns and indicates a snow field high on the slopes. I can just barely make out a few human forms way up there. Sherpa John is up there, he says. I can do this.
Climb on trails to Boreas Pass, where I had skied with Julian Smith several times over the last two years. We would skin up from the Breckenridge side and ski the very slopes above Boreas Pass that I now had to climb—only three-quarters of a mile climb--with full lung capacity now, I marched up with ease. This time I fully appreciated the expansive views that extended to Breckenridge and peaks beyond. I returned to Boreas Pass just as Rebekka pulled up in the Subaru. Sherpa John had run down to the Tarryall Aide Station to tell her to get up to Boreas Pass in case I needed anything. Every aide station for the rest of the course knew who I was, thanks to John, and closely monitored my well-being. I was back in form now though--running down the road from Boreas Pass I ran a ten minute mile pace for seven straight miles—not bad with over 50 miles on my legs.
At the bottom of Boreas Pass Road, the course turned right, following a rough jeep road that climbed back up to the Gold Dust Aide Station. I walked most of this section and in the waning sunlight felt my old nemesis nausea coming on. Soon everything I’d taken in from the last two aide stations came up. At Gold Dust I refused all sustenance, but did sit down for a bit to settle down, and returned the asthma breather, which I hadn’t used since leaving Gold Dust over two hours before. I ran and walked the easy two and a half miles down to Tarryall for the second time. Rebekka was there with fresh socks. In the waning daylight I pushed off for the ten-mile out-and-back to Camp Como. Rebekka was going to drive down to meet me there. My spot headlamp on button wouldn’t work and I was forced to trudge the last two miles in gathering darkness, fortunately making it before the lights went out totally. As I sat in a chair at the aide station with Rebekka asking what I needed I looked to my right. “Well, hello again.” I said to Lance Dockery. I had last seen him on the climb from hell as he bounded easily by me. Now he was suffering and said he planned to drop out after returning to Tarryall. We left together for the climb back, but he dropped back after about three miles.
When I got back to Tarryall for the third and final time I decided a nap was in order. I got in the car, leaned the seat back, put a bag over me and asked Rebekka to wake me in 55 minutes—after which I hoped to be able to take in food again. When I woke I was not quite refreshed, but I wasn’t nauseous and was able to take in some calories before heading out into the night with a good strong headlamp. Five miles to the next aide station--the second time to Trout Creek--but first I had to climb long and steeply. I could hear runners talking behind me—they would almost catch up to me, then they would fall back almost out of ear shot. When I got to Trout Creek and had settled in to a chair and had drunk the first of two cups of plain vegetable broth, they pulled into camp. They turned out to be Antonio and Enrique--we would travel the next ten miles together on the way to Gold Camp for the second time.
I left the aide station first, but soon became less than confident. I seemed to recall that the course should be going right climbing up slope. When there were no markers the doubt became greater, so I backtracked to wait for them to catch up. Antonio and Enrique said to continue on the road, and sure enough eventually we came on a marker. Indeed we continued for three miles before the course left this road to climb, first on jeep road and later into meadows. The climb from hell. It just would not quit. On and on we climbed. Another runner and his pacer caught us and passed us, but we would later catch them on the way down. Just interminable. Relentless. Into the early morning hours. Sleep mongers. Antonio and I agreed that we had to take a nap once we arrived at the Gold Camp aide station. When we finally arrived it was 5:30 AM. The sun was on the brink of rising, but it was still twilight. I quickly went to the Subaru and asked Rebekka to wake me after only 30 minutes this time. That was all I needed. Just a chance to get a bit of shuteye and rejuvenate. 30 minutes later, the sun was ascending, I felt like a new man, took in some recovery drink, and I was ready to go.
On the trails again I was completely recovered and running! I ran like it was the beginning of the race, passing competitors who were walking. I ran all the downs and most of the easy ups. Killing it! The climb to Highland Aide Station was very steep though and I had no choice but to walk that one. I left my pack there, filled a handheld with water (just like I did the first time through) and set off on the five-mile round trip to the Silverheels Mine. It was after 8 AM and the sun was heating things up. I ran the downs and most of the ups and reeled in more runners. After the turn around I noticed another runner who was running the downs. I made note of how far he was behind me (one third of a mile) and thought no more of it.
I stopped again at Highland, ate a couple orange slices, and met Fred Ecks for the first time. I knew of him and he knew of me, since we’ve competed in close age groups for years. Really nice guy. When he told me that I had only eight and three-quarter miles to go it gave me a real boost in spirit. I thought I had eleven miles to go. I told him that I could probably do that in about two hours if I kept on pace. Here goes nothing!
I did run a lot of the downs, but I also had to walk quite a bit. It was freaking hot! And while the course gradually dropped in elevation, there were a lot of ups in there. Finally I came to the long mostly flat road into Fairplay. With three miles to go Rebekka came out to run me in. What a sight for sore eyes! Together we made those last miles go by faster. I would say, “let’s run to that telephone pole on the left,” then “let’s run to the second orange flag,” and so on until we finally reached the pavement that meant we were almost there. With four blocks to go I told her that I was going to run it in and if she wanted to get a finish line photo she’d better head for the finish line. I ran it in and met Sherpa John at the finish line where he shook my hand. Done! 32 hours and 21 minutes. My sixth 100-mile finish.
Five minutes later someone said there was another finisher coming in. What? How could that be?? Someone had been catching me all this time? Turned out to be Enrique from the previous night's long night and the same guy who was only a third of a mile behind me at Silverheels Mine. Another strong finisher.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Julian Smith, my teammate, and I reached the first summit about half an hour later, in the middle of the pack. We were slow on the transition of stripping skins and clipping in for the down ski off the other side, and we were even slower skiing down the icy run. I’m not sure if it was true or not, but I have a feeling we were in last place by the time we reached bottom and the long walk to Brush Creek.
Crested Butte had a low snow year this year and we had to carry our skis over bare ground no short of six times in the broad valley, with the final carry being the feared “Death Pass”, which is not a pass, rather it’s a skinny trail with a 100-foot drop off down to the creek that is terrifying to walk with skis and a heavy pack. Walking a bare trail with skis off is much easier.
After Death Pass the trail climbs steadily along Brush Creek for the next nine or ten miles. Julian and I are both strong climbers and ultra-runners and we steadily passed skiers all the way up to Star Pass about 16 miles into the race. Now we were “back in the game” following our unpropitious start. For the rest of the day we never had to worry about being in last place, though our finish nearly 16 hours later might bely that notion.
The first cut off to worry about was the “Refuge Checkpoint #1”, which we had to reach by 7 AM. We arrived at about 6:10 and after taking our allotted 16 ounces of warm snowmelt water we pressed on for Star Pass. The climb was steep, but we kept skins on until the final push. The pass loomed high above and we could see skiers booting up the steep slope with their skis on the back of their packs. Below the conga line of climbers streaming up the slope a larger group of skiers was removing skis and strapping them to their packs, giving us our near term objective.
Before the race I was frustrated in my efforts to purchase a simple rubber strap to hold my skis together in an a-frame position on my pack. I had visited REI and Mountain Chalet in Colorado Springs to no avail, then two more ski shops in Crested Butte only to find flimsy Velcro straps. As we neared the staging area where we would have to strap our skis on our packs for the final climb to Star Pass, Julian spotted a rubber strap in the snow and retrieved it for my use. Someone’s misfortune became my boon.
The climb was straight forward as previous skiers had kicked solid steps up the snow slope. I forced myself to take at least thirty steps at a time before stopping to catch a breather for a few seconds. At the top of the pass skiers were scattered about removing skis from packs and clipping in for the ski off the top of the pass. The sun just broke over the mountains to the east as we glided slowly over to a steep cornice. I looked at the ski tracks and knew what to do. I steeled myself with a bit of courage and slipped over the drop off, gliding over the edge dropping about five feet before catching the groove for a traverse across the upper slopes—tracks were all over the slopes and the snow was broken up and looked easy to ski, so we hit it. Easy skiing! Almost like skiing down a blue run on the ski slopes. We made it down lickety-split. Glancing at my watch I saw we had made 18 miles and it was 7:30 AM. We were easily ahead of the cutoffs by an hour and a half.
The trail narrowed as it turned into the woods and climbed gradually—meanwhile the day heated up. Seeing how other skiers had dressed at the start (two were in shorts!) I realized that I was probably overdressed. I did, however, fortunately make the decision not to wear long johns under my Gore-Tex pants! Now, as the sun rose in the sky I stripped off my Gore-Tex jacket, tied it to the back of my pack and put on mountaineering sunglasses. The rest of the day was spring skiing under bluebird skies!
A good medium length down ski followed, along which we could see the next up climb—Julian was in the lead but I tucked in for more momentum on the downslope and skittered past him before the next upslope where we had to put on skins again. Steep climb to an aide station of sorts—no water or food, but a set of six snowmobiles and some intent officials with queries. How are you feeling? While looking intently into your eyes. I’m doing fine. I’m in this for the duration. We’re doing this thing. Where is Taylor Pass? This is Taylor Pass! Why are those skiers climbing higher up there? That’s the ridge. Soon we would find that higher along that ridge was bare ground and we would take off our skis again. Julian used this break to take off his ski boot and repair a damaged, shredded foot.
Another good down ski followed by a long uphill trek brought us finally to the Barnard Hut aide station. Here we had a mandatory ten-minute break—much needed. Ramen soup, electrolyte drink, 16 ounces of water for the bladder. Not enough really, but it was appreciated. We pulled out of the aide station at 12:15 PM. The cutoff here was 2 PM, so we thought we had some cushion. Over the next miles I crashed. Bonked. It took us three hours and fifteen minutes to traverse seven miles. Dog slow.
We tried to do as much as possible without putting on skins, because often there would be a slight uphill followed by downhill and the transitions from skins to no skins was killing us. This worked most of the time, but then we encountered a long gradual uphill—finally we put on skins. The problem with transitioning from skins to no skins was the whole production of taking off the pack, putting the skins in the pack, putting the pack back on, putting the skis on, etc. Julian suggested stowing the skins in my shirt. Well, that didn’t work but I was able to stow them in my pants, for a while at least, before they slipped down awkwardly towards my ankles. Later, Julian exasperatedly said, “give me your skins!” I didn’t argue and handed them over.
Long slow climbing—hours went by—miles more slowly—finally a pie plate with 3 miles to Sundeck. Sundeck was the top of the Aspen ski slopes after which we would have three easy miles of blue square ski runs to Aspen. The time was about 2 PM. The finish line cutoff was 4 PM. We needed to make three miles to Sundeck and then the three-mile ski down in two hours. Sounded plausible. The next mile was a long uphill slog—a 45-minute mile!! Crap! We had an hour and fifteen now to finish. Next mile had a lot of uphill—27 minutes. It was 3:13 when we came on the pie plate of one mile to Sundeck, and there was a climb from there! Okay let’s climb. Fortunately the climb ended soon and then it was downhill all the way to Sundeck—a fifteen-minute mile.
We reached Sundeck at 3:31. Now we had only a 3-mile downhill ski to Aspen. Julian insisted that I take back my skins before we skied down. Okay. Stop, take off the pack, stow the skins, put on the pack. Let’s go! We ski down a run, I go right, Julian goes left. I yell down, “He said it finishes at the base of the Gondola, the Gondola goes right!” Julian said he remembered the name of the run going to the left from the race briefing. Okay. I deferred to his memory. Julian was right. We kept skiing down several runs, Aspen was getting nearer. I glanced at my watch: 3:50. We could do this. Focus. We crested a hill and the finish line was in sight. Julian was down first. I followed and we went through the finish line more or less together three minutes before the cutoff—the last official finishers—last asses over the pass as it were. Woohoo!! Let’s have a PBR!