Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines, part 2

Crewing for an ultramarathon can be an unrelenting job, especially when it stretches out for nearly two days. Luckily for me, Beat is really low maintenance (probably too much so, because I didn't pick up on the red flags of his food problems until it was too late.) So for me, crewing was just a good excuse to travel to the different communities of the San Juans and spectate the race in the best way possible — by hiking against it.

My first chance to see Beat was at mile 29, in Telluride. I last visited Telluride in 2002 during a bike tour, and still retain many wistful recollections of the little town tucked away in a nook surrounded by huge mountain walls. My return did not disappoint — skies were blue, temperatures were warm, and the race checkpoint was buzzing with excitement as volunteers and other crew members awaited the first runners. When I visited Telluride ten years ago, I remember looking up from the campground at a trail switchbacking up an adjacent cliff. We had too many bike miles to cover to go exploring, but I vowed to return. "Someday," I said, "I'm going to climb that and see what's up there."

That trail was the Bridal Veil Falls road, which, at 10 a.m., was just the place to watch the leaders knock out the first 50K. Because my shin had a few good days, and because I wanted to do some "intensity" training for UTMB, I hiked as hard as I could. Although I was "low" at 9,000 feet, the air still scoured my lungs like steel wool. My legs, however, felt great. I even dabbled with uphill running, but my lungs couldn't process enough oxygen to make it work. There's a consistent degree of difficulty to the Hardrock course that is tough to quantify against other trail events. Even though there's no technical climbing and relatively minimal off-trail travel, I'd still rate Hardrock as closer to a mountaineering traverse than a trail run. The fact that only one runner has finished in less than 24 hours in the history of the event is telling — Hardrock is a "race" happening at four miles per hour, or less. On anything uphill, whenever I was moving faster than three miles per hour, I was working as hard as I could for a pace that felt downright speedy. This is one aspect of Hardrock I can really get behind — a person can finish the event, and even do relatively well, by perfecting their power hiking.

I was looking forward to seeing the first runners pass, and hoping that Joe Grant would be among them. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Joe in Alaska during the week between the Susitna 100 and the Iditarod 350. We had a great time commiserating about the Su100, and you could say Joe was my fan-girl favorite. Unfortunately, no one passed until I had reached a cross-country traverse, and by then I was unintentionally so far off course that all I could see were a spread-out series of bright T-shirts descending a green slope in the distance. Joe would go on to finish second at Hardrock in 25:06 (for what it's worth, more than an hour faster than he finished the Susitna 100 ... not that I'm arguing the Alaska race is more difficult by any means. Ha!) Anyway, I worked my way back to the course in time to see Karl Meltzer cruise by in sixth or seventh position, running downhill — with poles! Another one of my favorite unconventional techniques validated by a fast guy.

In those early, friendly hours, it was easy to see why Hardrock is such a popular event among distance runners. The setting was stunning, the miles were rewarding, and the challenges were variable enough to create a more level playing field between typically fast runners and determined mountain hikers. Hardrock is sometimes criticized for being overly risky, but I appreciate the fact that there are still popular endurance venues that haven't been sanitized with heavy-handed safety measures or relegated to tedious loops of well-traveled trails. The adventurous spirit still flows freely through the Hardrock 100, and although it is certainly a different kind of adventure than true mountaineering or wilderness travel, it is most definitely an adventure.

At the top of Oscar's Pass, elevation 13,100, I left a message for Beat near a rock cairn. I was bursting with adrenaline from my eight-mile climb and so excited that Beat was lucky enough to have a good excuse to travel these trails for a full hundred miles. Of course these thoughts changed dramatically as I watched his physical state deteriorate, but at the time I could still let myself believe that Hardrock was simple fun.

I launched down the pass at a full run, determined to at least jog the entire descent if my shin was up for it. Less than a half mile from the pass, a previously unnoticed black cloud overhead unleashed a deluge of hail unlike anything I've experienced in a while. It beat my exposed skin like air gun pellets and accumulated on the ground like snow. I think later in the race, such a storm would be disheartening, but for these front-runners at mile twenty-five, it was still a source of glee. Two runners passed me sprinting and giggling, one holding a shirt over her head like a child dodging the rain.

The descent went remarkably well for me. I ran most of the way — at eight miles my longest run post-shin injury, and mostly downhill to boot. It also rained the entire time, leaving me soaked to the skin and buzzing with endorphins. I was so excited that I couldn't wait to tell Beat, and had to remind myself to restrain my desire to brag about a tiny downhill run when he was in the midst of battling the Hardrock 100.

I never had a chance to see any of that same excitement in Beat. By the time he descended into Telluride at 3:30 p.m., he was already sick. I'm still second-guessing what I could have done to help deflect this downward sprial. I could have made a run to buy him a sandwich in Telluride, or purchased a pizza in Ouray. His strategy had been to rely on aid station food, but clearly this wasn't working. He wasn't eating, and neither of us had prepared anything to fall back on. Once a stomach goes completely empty it can be almost impossible to get it back — hard enough to cope with if you're out for a day run, and close to unfathomable when you have what would turn out to be thirty-six hours left in a high-intensity, often high-risk mountain effort. I have one prior experience with trying to function for long periods of time on bonked-out fumes: My 2008 Iditarod ride. It was a complicated situation — there were times I felt so depleted that I truly believed I might just pass out and die of exposure, but when I tried to stuff down any of the food I had with me, I felt so nauseated that the death option seemed more desirable. I was quite new to endurance efforts at the time, and I certainly made my share of mistakes, but I still remember that feeling vividly. It is the worst kind of pain — because it hurts immensely, and yet you know you can keep moving through it, so your decisions aren't as easy as being forced to quit.

I've alluded several times to the irrationality of all of this, the search for motivation in something like the Hardrock 100. Since I've never run the Hardrock 100, it's not my place to say. I know there were times in the night, while waiting desperately to see Beat's headlamp bobbing along the high cliffs, that I vowed to withdraw from UTMB. "It's all ridiculous," I lamented to myself. "Impossible and ridiculous." But in the next minute, I would turn to see a break in the inky storm clouds, framing an incredible depth of stars, and I imagined Beat high on the ridge looking at those same stars and feeling an even greater gratitude, hoping the storms had broken. Really, life is ridiculous and irrational. Why do we get up every morning, make coffee, beat the streets with efforts that time will erase effortlessly, in a generation? It's because these lives are all we have, they're what we are, and the things we do are as meaningful or pointless as they are to us. I believe a life spent in search of awe is not a bad life. To quote Annie Dillard (yes, again): "You don't have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary."


To be continued, again ... I know, I know. There's still more I want to write. And this is my blog. :-)