1 Lucky runner
October 6, 2015: A Long Way to the Top
Pikes Peak Marathon August 16, 2015
So this one will start off kind of rambly, but if you stick with me we'll get there. I just wanted to warn you.
I'd heard of this race and even hiked the course as my first 14er summit. That hike was 13 hours of some of the best misery I've experienced, rain, lightning, acute mountain sickness and a little hypothermia. Add to that the fact that I didn't know what I would need so I just brought everything, about 30lbs worth in an old ruck type pack.
My impression of the race was that only elites and mountain residents ran it. Then, one day last winter, Gretchen posted on FB that Tony wanted her to give it a try. I thought to myself, "Mere mortals don't run that, do they?" As it turns out flatlanders are found aplenty in America's Ultimate Challenge.
I've been climbing 14ers for 5 years now so I have some experience with the elevation and how it affects me. My partner in these adventures, Bob, is also a runner and likes a good challenge himself so I called him and proposed we make 2015's trip about the race. He thought it sounded "great". There was a fair amount of sarcasm in that...but he decided to give it a go anyway.
This race has a field limit of 800 and is filled on a first come first served, if you qualify, basis. Bob and I had races that qualified, so now we just needed to make the first come first served part. Bob has no internet access at work and had to work the day that registration opened so it was up to me. A few days before registration opened I received an appointment request for an inspection. I called the requester, a runner himself, and asked if we could do a different time, explaining why and could hear a bit of mirth in his "yes" that seemed to say, "If you're goofy enough to do THAT I'll not be the one to stop you."
I got us registered within 10 minutes of registration opening. Now we just had to wait for our qualifiers to be vetted. That was a loooooooonnnnng week. We knew our stuff was in order and valid, but one is just never 100% sure. My name cleared first, almost one of the first to do so actually. Bob's took almost two more days. Two very nerve wracking days. If only one of us got in it would really put a damper on things. I mean, who would I race?
Now that we were in we had to figure out how to run this thing. Fortunately the race director is really into data and numbers. In just a couple of hours I was able to take the previous 2 year's results and sort them for our age group, flatland qualifying race, flatland runner and a qualifying time of + or - 30 minutes of our qualifying times. After throwing out a few outliers I came up with an average finish time of 7:22:00.
Now we had a "window". What were we going to do with this information? The fact of the matter is that we would, without a doubt, be racing each other. That's just how it is. After a bit of thought we felt that a seven hour goal was challenging yet possible. Some days, during training, the goal seemed easily attainable but on others it seemed to be out of reach. Time would tell.
Five months and hundreds of trail miles, hill repeats and long slow miles later and we're in Colorado, camped at the USFS campground on the road to Mt. Sherman. We had decided to spend as much time above 10,000 ft of elevation as possible in the days leading up to the race. The plan was to camp at 10,000 ft and drive or hike to 13,000+ for as much of each day as possible. We arrived Tuesday and drove straight up the Sherman/Sheridan jeep road. From 12,000 ft up, about a mile and a half the road is about 2 or 3 feet wider than the car, with the downhill side being a sheer drop of sometimes a few hundred feet. We were able to get to the Hilltop Mine, where we spent some time in 2013 on our descent from Mt Sherman. We goofed around up there for an hour or so then drove back to the parking area, at 12,000 ft, when the lightning came in. After a couple more hours we headed down to camp.
We decided to attempt a summit of Mt. Sheridan for Wednesday. Bob took the standard route and I chose to take a steeper, talus covered route. My decision was based on the fact that a number of our planned, upcoming climbs will require this type of route. We spent almost 5 hours atop Sheridan then descended to 13,000 and spent another 3 hours. While lying on a relatively shallow slope on the side of the mountain a helicopter flew over us. We really didn’t think much of it until a few minutes later when a Search and Rescue helicopter flew over. We decided to make movements so as to appear to be alive so they didn’t decide to try to save us.
Thursday, I took Bob to Colorado Springs then headed to Denver to pick up Kate. She would be summiting her first 14er, Mt Sheridan on Friday. (That's another story)
Friday I summited Sherman with Kate. We stayed for about an hour then made our way down. I dropped her in Denver and headed to Colorado Springs.
Saturday was to be for spectating. We watched the start of the Pikes Peak Ascent then drove to the summit to watch the finish line. It was quite inspiring to see the first runners come across the line. They were actually running. Not sprinting, but they were running. We even got to watch two guys have a race to the finish. The speed they could run at 14,115' made it seem like it was playing out in slow motion. Then we headed back down the mountain and spent the rest of the day resting.
Well, if you stuck around, we're finally here, standing in Manitou Springs. The start line is on the main street and situated so you know you'll be running up what looks to be the older part of the town.
We’ve been grouped by our qualifying times. At 7 am those with bib numbers 0 - 199 will begin their trek. 2 minutes later the next 100, then each successive group of 100 will go in 1 minute intervals.
I’ve decided to insert a paragraph at each timing mat to let you all in on how the race between Bob and I was going and give my thoughts at that point and what they would have been if I had known how it was going.
Timing mat number one was the starting line. When I crossed this one I knew he was a minute ahead of me and would be making time on me for the next 13 miles. I was happy for the former just because it meant he was out of sight so I wouldn’t try to catch him. I was hoping the latter would not become too great to overcome.
Bob gets to go with the third group, I with the fourth. It's good that we are separated. That means we won’t be Racing each other and blow up long before the end. When Bob's group heads up the hill I silently wish him luck and breathe a sigh of relief followed by a clench in my gut because I'm suddenly hit by the reality of what I'm about to attempt. Self-doubt floods in like the tide at moon set.
Before the self-doubt can drown me, my group is sent on its way. The first mile and a half is on a paved road that travels through businesses and homes that appear to have been built over a century ago. Most are of the two story square facaded variety that would have been in style when this was a mining boom town. I started out at a slow jog and tried to keep any form of competitiveness from causing me to bolt to an early death. Though it was a paved street it was a pretty good grade. Buildings next to the course had 3 or 4 feet more prominence on the downhill side than the up. Even at what felt like a very slow pace I was inching past other runners fairly regularly. I was starting to feel like this may just go alright. Just short of one mile in I begin to hear Tom Petty singing "Runnin' Down a Dream". I, and a number of runners around me gave a little chuckle at the appropriateness of the song choice.
Mile one clicks off and I begin to wonder when we'll hit the trail. We have spread out enough that I think the transition to single track will be fairly uneventful. Soon the pavement changes to gravel and the road narrows up a bit. This helps us get organized for the upcoming single track.
Just before the transition to single track was aid station number one. Quite few runners stopped for water or whatever. My plan was to carry my necessaries, only getting more water if needed. I passed a good number of runners at A.S. one. Some would pass me back, but would burn a good bit of energy doing so.
When the single track appears it means we are about to enter the "W"s. This is about 3 miles of switchbacks that gain about 2000 feet of elevation. I've hiked up and down these once and run down them numerous times. Running down them is one of my favorite runs, just enough technical running to keep you honest and the occasional fence rails can be used as guardrails allowing one to run a little faster. During this trip up they work to sort us out a little. A few people are able to jog, but most walk. It's just a matter of how fast one can walk. Fortunately, I'm with a group that seems well matched to my pace.
I can tell you that the views of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs are quite beautiful from the "W"s. But what I saw today was shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. "There's those pink Inov8s again. I wonder why they slowed down. Wow. Asics road shoes. I don't think that's going to work so well. That’s an ugly green. I wonder why Nike did that?"
The other thing I noticed was pretty good news. I was power hiking at a pace that was almost four minutes per mile faster than I had anticipated and was not feeling stressed. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy, but I felt I could maintain this level of exertion for the duration of the ascent. I was not close to gasping for air. Yay!
I had a sodium, nutrition and hydration plan. Drink long before I feel thirsty. That's kind of tough in this area because the dry air makes it tougher to gage thirst. Salt and a gel every forty minutes. I could tell within the first half hour that sodium intake would need to be at shorter intervals so I took my first one thirty minutes in and settled on that as my sodium schedule. So now I had to keep track of the rocks, roots, washouts, erosion diverters, other runners, drink when I don't yet need it, salt every thirty minutes and a gel every forty minutes. It's hard to get bored in this race, that's for sure.
Climbing through the "W"s I matched pace with a guy who was wearing a pair of fairly bright yellow shoes. We had small spurts of conversations. What I remember is that he is a local, has run the Ascent, the Marathon and has done the Doubler (both races in the same weekend). There was a woman chugging along with us who was doing the Doubler this year. I began feeling like a slacker.
I said I could never double. Now, I'd like to think their encouragement was due to seeing something in me, but the most probable reason for their "belief" in me is good old sadism. I'm sure when we went our separate ways they high fived, winked at each other and said, "There, we got another one." Yeah, well, maaaaaaybeee...
At A.S. 2 I take a cup of Gatorade and keep on moving, trying to keep my momentum going. It’s not quite as easy as getting a 152 car train moving, but I manage to get it done.
A.S.3 is also the second timing mat. I felt good here, maybe not strong, or fast but I wasn’t hurting beyond a little occasional crampiness in my right calf. I wondered how long ago Bob had crossed but not for long. I saw no need to dwell on the subject. As it turns out he crossed in 1:01:12 and I in 1:05:37 so he was 4 minutes 35 seconds ahead of me. At my pace that amounted to about .3 mile. In most races I’d have been able to see him. Knowing the distance would have driven me crazy.
At A.S. 3. I did grab a cup of water but did not miss a step as I drank it and tossed the cup into the can. I was able to grab a few more spots here. There was something kind of startling at this aid station, a one ton flatbed truck with a 500 gallon water tank. I'm not sure how they got it there but I'm impressed.
It wasn't much longer and we topped the ridge of Rocky Mountain and got our first opportunity to run as we crossed the saddle between Rocky and Pikes. It was two miles of alternating between a slow jog and a fast hike. Depending on the direction of the grade. The trail was also quite wide here so allowed for "easier" passing. In this race one must keep in mind that any form of the word “easy” is subject to air quotes.
As a rule, an aerial shot of me passing somebody would have looked like the pass for the win in the snail race 500. And when I got passed it felt like I had found a way to go in reverse while looking like I was still making forward progress, possibly looking like a reverse moon-walk.
I have to say that even though almost everybody seemed to be running this as a race there was a feeling, with a few exceptions, of great camaraderie amongst the competitors. If I caught up to somebody they, with only one exception asked if I wanted by or made room when I requested to pass. I did the same when the tables were turned. Quite a cordial lot, we were.
Aid Station 5 was at Barr Camp, which is approximately half way to the Summit. I grabbed a cup of water and kept chugging along. A little pun there for ya.
This was also the location of the third timing mat. I felt pretty good, hadn’t let my heart rate get out of control and the cramping hadn’t gotten worse than at the last timing mat. Bob crossed it in 1:46:29 and I in 1:54:34 so now I was 8 minutes 5 seconds behind. At my current pace he was just over half a mile ahead of me, so pulling away at a steady pace. Even if I could see him I doubt I would realize it was him and I would have figured the race was out of reach.
The trail began to get a little more technical here. This meant a lot more running on my toes, which started to cause more of the twinges of cramping in my calves. I thought I had been making progress in this battle. I thought wrong! I put myself on a salt per 15 minutes schedule and drank whenever I could afford the breath.
The technical nature of the trail through the next few miles would occasionally cause bottle necks and an urge to try to pass, but more often than not it seemed like it would take an inordinate amount of oh so precious oxygen to do so. If I felt I would need to do more than three running steps to make the pass I just held back. I became an amazing study in self-restraint.
During this stretch I spent a lot of time just gaging the level of energy I was expending, trying to pay attention to the terrain for the trip down, passing cautiously and getting out of the way of people passing me. Though there were people all around me almost the whole time there was a lot of silence, with one pretty stark exception. I, ever so slowly caught up to three docs who work for the V.A. How do I know this? They were able to carry on a very loud and full conversation about their work. God bless ‘em for the work they do, but their ability to talk so much just kind of rankled me. After what seemed like three eternities I got past them. There was a 40, or so, yard gap to the next runner. She happened to be wearing a “Team Red, White and Blue” shirt that also indicated Naval service. When I caught up to her I said, “Good work Navy! If you slow down a little you can talk to the V.A.” She snorted a little laugh and responded, “No thanks.” I can only assume she preferred the quiet also.
It seems that there was another aid station before the one at the “A Frame”, but maybe it was just some of the safety volunteers. Either way, there was a small group of Search and Rescue folks stationed between Barr Camp and the A Frame. This would be the first group of volunteers I would remember to thank for being there. It seemed that most, if not all of the volunteers at the race were also on the mountain Search and Rescue. When you think about the fact that they needed to be in position before the race started and stay on post until the last runner passed them, you realize how dedicated these people are. They had a long day. Not only were they there to help us if we needed it, but they were very liberal with encouragement. It would be hard for me to thank them enough.
At the A Frame aid station a lot of people within my reach stopped for food, water or rest. I pushed on gaining a lot of positions. I’ve done this hike before and knew passing would get tougher soon, so wanted to make some headway.
This was the site of timing mat number 4. The cramps had backed off a little so I felt things were going in the right direction and now that I was above tree line I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Bob. Had I known that he had crossed that mat 8 minutes 55 seconds ahead of me I would not have bothered. On the other hand I would have been heartened to know that he had only added 50 seconds to his lead in the 2.6 miles since the previous mat.
Even though I knew it would happen, it was kind of surprising to see the first place runner coming at me soon after I left the A Frame. The sight of him was a little disheartening as it meant I would need to be making room for the runners who would soon be following him. The next three miles was a balance of trying to make time, make room for runners on the descent and paying attention for runners who might be catching me. Add to that the slow oxygen depravation, keeping track of salt every 15 minutes, a gel every 40, water before thirst and finally the terrain difficulties. I was about at mental overload
I felt I was doing ok on number one, doing a pretty good job on number two, but apparently not well with three. A couple of fellows that had been in my vicinity most of the race got perturbed with my stopping for the descenders and passed me with a bit of grumbling on their part. For the most part, after they passed me I followed their lead when a descending runner came at us. I feel they cut it close a few times but overall did right by the descenders. For my part I tended to give a bit more room, just to be safe.
There was a group of Search and Rescue volunteers in the Cirque area. They were a pretty entertaining group, with their kazoos, singing and a little dancing. These folks were really into this thing whole hog. They had so much enthusiasm they were able to spread it around to us by reading each runner’s name tag and making little rhymes for most.
It was at about this point that, unbeknownst to me, Kate was first able to see me using some pretty strong binoculars. She yelled out, “Paul! I see you! I love you!” Then she put the binoculars down and realized I was still over a mile away from her. Due to the switchbacks I was about two trail miles away yet.
Shortly after passing the “1 mile to the summit” sign I met Bob. He said, “Come get me.” I’m pretty sure he meant it, but I didn’t see how I could possibly make up a two mile deficit so I just continued running my own race. I bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya.
When I finally did get within earshot of Kate, she was actually screaming my name and various phrases of encouragement. I suspect she had been holding that in since she had seen me with the binoculars. That’s a long time for her to hold back enthusiasm.
Next was her friend Karen (who took pictures and yelled, “Way to go, Paul!”), then a relatively new friend of ours, Annie (who yelled my name, took a couple very cool pictures and then yelled some encouragement) and finally Gina. She yelled to get my attention. I looked, and saw that she had the same white board she had at Grandma’s Marathon. With. The. Same. Message. “Paul! Don’t poop!”
Gina is a hoot.
So let’s recap who was waiting at the turnaround. My girlfriend. That just makes sense, except that she had to use a significant amount of vacation to be there. Her friend, Karen. She lives in Denver so not such a stretch there. A couple of relatively new friends of mine, Annie and Gina. They were on a vacation that brought them into the area and they adjusted their schedule to be there. The fact that these people took the time and effort to be there coupled with the stress I was putting my body through and the fact that I was doing better than I had expected made me a little emotional. Every time one of my cheerleaders gave a yell I would get a little choked up. It was really a lot of good stuff.
Timing mat number 5 was at the half way point. I crossed it as it showed almost exactly 4:00:00. That would be the gun time. My chip time was 3:55:46. I had started my stop watch when Bob and I crossed paths earlier, it read 11:32. Not good and that only shows the time he’s ahead for my trip up, not his trip down. The reality was that he was 17 minutes 12 seconds ahead. I guessed he was about 19 or twenty minutes ahead and figured I would be able to cut that down but not catch him. Back to the big race…
Kate was the first and last of my little troop of supporters, I came upon as she was about a quarter mile before/after the turn around. She was almost screaming, she was so excited. One of the things she kept yelling was, “Keep going! This is the part you’ve been waiting for!” This apparently bothered a runner that was just ahead of me. I had been ahead of him but stopped by Kate to have her remove my rain coat from my pack, which allowed him to pass me. I caught up to him just as Kate yelled, “Go Paul! This is what you’ve been waiting for!” I guess it was too much for him to hear. With more sarcasm than I’ve heard in a long time he said, “We better watch out. This guy behind us is supposed to be good at this.”
I had just been getting ready to ask to pass when he made his remark. That little remark gave me more inspiration to pass. As I drew up on him I said, “Watch this. You might learn something.” With this I ran on the ledge of the path and passed him and the fellow ahead of him. It made competitive me smile. You know the one, equal parts malice, mischief and happy all rolled into a bundle of “kiss my ass.”
This part of the run was really a lot of fun for me. I was running a quite technical downhill with moving obstacles (other runners, both ascending and descending). I would jump over a rock, juke to the left around an ascending runner, swing wide on a switchback to carry speed through so I could smoothly jump down a large step. Then there would be a group of ascending runners that would split, leaving me to hopscotch through them, while looking for the right place to plant my feet. When I came upon one such group I could tell they were thinking of changing position. I said, “Stay there and I’ll step there, there, there, there and there.” While pointing to the spots I was going to step and followed my directions with my actions. One fellow, from the group, said, “Holy shit, he did it!”
Shortly after this I came upon two guys. I caught up to them quite rapidly and asked if I could get by. The guy closest to me said something I couldn’t understand, but made no move to let me pass, so I asked again. He gave a terse, “We’re racing.”
I thought to myself, “Well, what the hell am I doing?” I thought about it for a second. I asked once, that let him know I was there and faster. I asked twice, that had given him a chance to move out of the way. I think in racing two warnings are enough. So put my hand on his shoulder and put enough pressure on him to move him over enough that I could pass. He gave a startled grunt but was not able to stop me. The fellow in front of him made room for me. I guess rubbin’s racin no matter where you are and sometimes you gotta make your own lane.
After passing those two guys things kind of opened up for a while and I was able to just run the terrain with an occasional single runner to pass or meet. What fun! This led to some complacency that made for one of the more interesting incidents of the race. I rounded a switchback, a little fast and off balance, right into a group of ascending runners. They kind of split, but the trail was not very wide so I had to turn sideways to get through them. I twisted my upper body so my left shoulder was in the lead, and was still leaning out because I was not quite balanced yet and managed to not step on or run into any of them. When I came out of this little gauntlet I over corrected and found myself running sideways for a couple steps before getting straightened out. There was a volunteer not far ahead of me. He must have read my name from my bib because he said, “Here comes weebly, wobbly Paul.” and laughed. I chuckled a little myself. Both at his wit and at my good fortune in not having wiped out.
I caught up to one guy, asked to pass and he responded that he would step up at the upcoming switchback. Perfect! When we got to the switchback he went to the apex, so I prepared to turn the corner tight. Just as I hit the corner my cornering partner dropped down in front of me. I’m not sure if he thought I was past or if he lost his balance but when we collided I grabbed onto him so he wouldn’t go sailing off the corner. I was holding him in what I’m sure looked like a lover’s embrace. I had no reason to dislike him but this was a little too close for me so I made sure he had his feet and let him go. Set him free so to speak. He didn’t return so I guess he was never mine. That was the end of the craziness. The rest of the way to the A frame was just good, fast, technical running.
Timing mat number 6 was the A frame aid station. Bob’s lead was down to 11 minutes 28 seconds, which at my current pace was just short of a mile. I had gained over a mile on him but had no way of knowing and by this point was just running my own race and enjoying the technical descent.
The miles from the A frame to Barr Camp were the most technical of the race. I had a blast through this section. We were now beyond any oncoming runners so I just needed to watch for my footing. The approach speed to anybody I caught was not very fast so I had time to figure how to handle the pass. Early in this section I came upon a small group of runners. Due to the gnarliness of the terrain I would ask one for a pass, pass him then take some time to assess when I could pass the next. Eventually I had only one man left to pass.
I was looking at the ground around him to see when I could pass and I noticed something absolutely beautiful. His footwork was almost mesmerizing. Picture Fred and Ginger dancing their way through a forest. I told him how impressed I was with his footwork, he thanked me and we had a nice little conversation about trail running. It’ll be long time before I forget about those yellow Pearl Izumis.
It was not much after leaving him that I was passed by the only person to pass me between the turn around and Barr Camp. And man did she go by me fast. When I heard her footfalls I shouted, “Just say when!”.
To which she responded, “You’re fine.”
Then about 5 seconds later she ran up the side of some rocks and bounded down the trail ahead of me. I was quite impressed with this maneuver and told her so. As I was expressing my admiration I noticed she was wearing sandals. Holy Crap! So I added, “And in sandals to boot. Nice!”
She said, “Yep, it’s pretty easy. I just can’t catch a toe, if I do I break it.” And laughed a little.
I, now had to yell because of the distance, “I get that. Have a great run.” And she was gone.
I ran into her after the race and we talked about the sandals and how she had gotten to the point of running in them. She said she had always had trouble with foot and ankle injuries when she ran in shoes, somebody mentioned these flat, soft, thin sandals so she gave them a shot. The injuries went away after a couple broken toes taught her to be aware of where her toes were. Some lessons are learned painfully, but worth it.
From that point to Barr camp, with one exception, it was just running against the trail. Looking for the magical spot to put my foot amongst rounded rock, crags of broken shale and tree roots. All that while negotiating switchbacks, rock drops and a few knee high crevasses the trail went through, while running a pretty steep decline. I wish I had the ability to describe it as it appears in my memory. Suffice it to say that it was the very rare step that was just on smooth, flat ground. The slope was enough that I was constantly “pumping the brakes” just to get to have the feeling that I had some sort of control. This may sound a bit whiny, but the reality is that I was in heaven. Kate was right, this is what I was waiting for and I was loving every step of it. If I had to choose one trail to run for the rest of my days it would be that 2.6 miles.
Just before Barr Camp the slope let up a little and the techyness did also. The rocks are a little bigger and spaces between them a little more open. I still had to look for where I would step, but could actually place my whole foot on a flat surface. I started pushing for speed and kind of low hurdling the rocks. While doing this I noticed that my quads were feeling a bit tired and “ragged”. This was a little concerning, to me, as I had a little over six miles of downhill running to do and the quadriceps are quite crucial for this. First, they work to be shock absorbers. Second, they are your brakes and third, they are the muscles that pull your leg forward. That last one may seem like a no-brainer in its importance, but there’s more to it. If you trip, it’s your quadriceps that pull your leg under you to catch, and hopefully stop your fall. A big part of my downhill running style is reliant on that part, because I really just fall down the hill and keep my feet under me. Kind of like Buzz Lightyear flying. I’m just falling with style.
I caught a couple who appeared to be running together just as Barr Camp came into sight. He was talking and his voice had a tone of consolation. She seemed to be doing fine, but just about as soon as I had that thought she miss-stepped and fell. The rocks that stick up through the trail here were about the size and shape of sea turtles so when she went down her hands just reached the ground as her chest and abdomen hit a rock. Her partner and I stopped, reached to help her up, but she was already standing. It was then that I noticed she was probably a teenager and thought to myself how nice youth is to have. If I had just done what she had I surely would have gotten the wind knocked out me and would have laid there, impotently gasping, trying to get air back into my lungs.
Barr Camp Aid Station: I knew my bladder was close to empty so filled both my bottles here. Inside I was going 1,000 mph, wanting everything and wanting it now. Outside, I slowly and calmly asked to get both bottles filled, took the lid off one, gave the other to a volunteer who removed the lid while I held bottle one and a nice man used a ½ gallon pitcher to fill it with the slowest flowing water in the history of the Universe. When bottle one was full I put the lid on it and put the bottle in its holder. When I finished that and looked up the volunteers were working together to get bottle number 2 filled. I was pretty sure this was taking 4 days. In reality, the part I watched probably took 3 or 4 seconds. They were long seconds to inside me. Inside, while watching this, I was positively vibrating.
To imagine how jacked up on adrenaline I was and how it made me feel to be standing there, not moving forward while the race clock set a new standard for how fast tempus can really fugit. Think of a chipmunk who happened to get inside a coffee can that is stored in a sugar barrel and ate his way out. Multiply that by 10.
Timing mat 9 was at Barr Camp. I was now within 3 minutes 8 seconds of Bob. At my current pace he would have been about 3 tenths of a mile ahead of me. I can say that I was giving all I had to give from here as it was tamer trail, but I’m sure he was also. If I had been able to see that far down the trail it would have killed me.
Shortly after leaving Barr Camp aid station the trail mellowed out as I was now back in the saddle…I thought I’d let that one sit for a second so it could sink in. From here on it was a lot less technical and just descending a fairly smooth trail that seemed to get steeper with each passing step.
I didn’t pass another person for the rest of the race. I played yo-yo with one runner for about 3 miles, When it was flat or ascending, I would gain on him and when we were descending he would put space between us. By the time we had crossed the saddle I had been passed by 6 people. Yes, I was counting.
I also had assessed that my quads were all but used up. No biggy, I only had 3 of the steepest miles of the race to contend with, followed by about 1.5 miles of downhill road. Who needs the most important shockabsorbing/braking/stumblestopping muscles for that.
The final on course timing mat came 3.3 miles later and shows Bob 6 minutes 14 seconds ahead of me, which would have been about three quarters of a mile. He was pulling away. Normally the next three miles would have favored me, but I was pretty used up. I could only hope things were as bad for him.
Running down the Ws was at least as tough as climbing up them 5 hours earlier. My back was sore, my quads would quiver with the impact of each foot plant and my feet were starting to hurt from being crammed into the front half of my shoes for the last 8 miles. I was feeling a good bit of frustration at the fact that my quads were in bad enough shape that I didn’t dare to just “let go” and let gravity pull me down the hill.
“Just keep running.” That’s my mantra. I’ve used it in most short races I’ve done. I’ll repeat it, in my head, anytime I’m running so hard it physically hurts. This time I was using it for completely different pains than I’ve ever used it for before. My lungs didn’t hurt. My heart wasn’t pounding in my temples. And I didn’t feel like I may lose control of bodily functions. I was just wore out and feeling used up. I reasoned that I should be able to keep running because I was actually running a pretty good pace with the brakes on, so what I was doing really didn’t require any energy.
As I made my long and painful descent an occasional runner would catch me. We would do the “Switchback Tango”. Step 1. Footsteps approach. Step 2. I say, “just say when”. Step 3. A furtive look back as the approaching runner says, “Your fine”. (lying) Step 4. I say, “I’ll go wide.” Step 5. We make the quick 180 and change the lead. Step 6 Slide back down into the trail. 7. Attempt to hold closely. 8. With a desperate longing, watch them leave.
I did match one runner for a while. He caught me just below the intersection with the trail coming from The Incline. Since I was on very familiar ground I thought I would see if I could use him a little. My goal was to keep him behind me so there would be that pressure pushing me forward. I was able to keep this up for maybe ½ a mile, then my left knee just went kind of soft when I planted it to make a right turning switchback. This caused my right toe to catch ever so slightly as I brought that foot forward. Normally, this would be nothing, but in my current state it turned into a near disaster as my upper body carried it’s momentum to the outside of the turn. I had to fight with my torso, twisting to resist the force that was pulling it over the edge of the trail while trying to get my legs back in time, with each other and the speed that I was falling down the trail. When I think about it now, I’m sure I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote running around a corner, chasing the Road Runner. When I got it all under control I slowed, stepped to the side and said, “It’s all yours.” Grateful to let him go and remove the pressure. As he passed he said, “You were doing great.” (Liar) “Nice recovery back there.” (Thank you! I thought I was going to fall off the trail and die).
The rest of my time in the Ws was just me fighting myself and trying to keep things under control. There was a woman at one of the last switchbacks, she said, “A little under 2 miles to go, looking good.” as I went by. It was both a relief and a small torture to hear this. I was hurting enough that I wanted to be done and I couldn’t wait to get onto the road, which would be about the final 1.5 miles, and run on something flat. Just 3 short minutes later I would regret those feelings and that wrong assessment.
I came to the last aid station right where the trail turned to gravel road. I grabbed a cup of water and kept onna truckin’. The gravel road was almost as steep as the trail, but it was wider. Somehow that felt like some sort of consolation, I’m not sure how or why but I did feel better.
Soon the gravel transitioned to pavement. Ahhhh, pavement, this wasn’t very steep on the way up. I remember being able to jog up this part. WOW! Is this steep! And now we have to run on the side? I guess it makes sense, you can’t shut down the main street through town for 10 hours. By running on the farthest edges of the pavement we had to run downhill and deal with a pretty severe road crown. One would think that this would be easy after all the trail obstacles. One would be wrong. It took very little time for this to make my ankles hurt and give my feet an overall annoyed feeling.
It was during this last mile and a half that I noticed a very wet, slippery feeling to my foot movements within my shoes. I took a little inventory of how everything felt down there and became pretty convinced that I was going to lose 5 toenails as a result of this race and that I was probably bleeding pretty good. YAY!
The racing that was going on during this last stretch was pretty competitive, none of it by me, but it was fun to watch. From my first step onto the pavement to the finisher chute I was passed by about 10 people or so. I recognized most…”Hey, there goes Fred Astaire. Oh, hey there green Mizunos. Looking good Noosas (I was kind of surprised to see Tri shoes in this race).” And so on.
Dealing with the road crown got to be so annoying that I ran on the sidewalk whenever I could. Concrete has never been such a relief. It meant ducking overgrown yard trees, sidestepping shrubs and climbing up and down the curbs as the cross streets came along, but it was much less painful than dealing with the down slope and the crown.
Then I heard it, the race announcer as he announced the runner’s names and hometowns as they entered the finisher’s chute. I dug deep, deeper than I ever have before. What I found was a whole lotta nothin’. So I just accepted my lot and trundled along, taking in the moment and the crowd.
This chute seemed to go on forever. Spectators were lined up to the left. They were yelling my name (because it was on my bib) and high fiving as I ran by. A guy could get used to such treatment. I heard my name and hometown before I could see the finish line. That was pretty cool. Then, just as the finish line came into view I saw Kate nearly jump over the barricade, then Karen, then Bob. I high fived them as I went by and crossed the line.
I finished nine minutes, one second behind him. Almost exactly what I would expect as a result if we had run a road marathon. What can I say? Someday, when we’re in the nursing home…
Once I was finished, I was done. The volunteers were asking if I was alright and as much as I wanted to say, “Yes.” and get out of the way I really needed to get cooled down. That last mile and a half was hot and it just kind of roasted my brain. Somehow one guy could see what I needed, guided me to a chair, brought me a baggy of ice and a cup of water.
The next thing I know Bob is there, shaking my hand, congratulating me. I was able to get to my feet and return the sentiment. Once I was standing we were asked to make room for people coming across the finish line.
We took a lot of pictures, stayed in the area to cool down and rest for about an hour and then hobbled our way to the cars.