Thursday, August 16, 2018

High on my own supply

This feeling always trickles in around the beginning of the month. My mood begins to brighten. I read the morning news, and while it still bums me out, I don't feel utterly hopeless about the state of affairs. I scroll through horrors on my Twitter feed and think, "good can still come of this." The chronic rash on my shins and feet starts to clear. I check my blood pressure; it's down again, along with my resting heart rate. My gym visits are encouraging; I'm finally back to increasing my weights again after a little slump. Then the effortless personal records start accompanying my runs and rides — best Fern Canyon amid a long run; fastest-yet 68J climb on a fat bike. And I wonder, "why are things going so well? Oh yes, it's August."

Around here, August is generally not a great month for training. It's hot. It's dusty. The dirt roads and trails have been drying out since spring, and are now coated in wheel-sucking sand and loose gravel. Wildfire smoke fills the air every morning, leaving a haze over the horizon and an acrid sting in our lungs. The weather service regularly issues air quality warnings. The UV index is extreme. Historically August has been my least favorite time of the year. Even as a child. August is my birth month, so I feel rationalized in disliking it — the sun is hot, the air is noxious, and I've been languishing in summer doldrums for too long. 

Until recently, that is. Last August was a giddy, high-energy time for me, and this month is shaping up similarly. How do I make sense of it? It was about this time last year that began to notice this pattern — a rollercoaster of both mood and fitness that seems to top out every four months or so, and hit bottom at similar intervals. I started to dread late February, June and October. I looked for biological justifications, and found few answers, so I have to conclude it's self-fulfilling psychology. And yet, how can such wild fluctuations not be anchored in some type of hormone cycle? Today I revisited the thyroid forum I used to frequent (I was a lurker, as you can see by my post count) and found a somewhat useful thread titled, "Can my thyroid fluctuate?" I left this reply:

After posting this question, I wondered: Am I in effortlessly amazing (for me) shape right now? Could I just decide to go out and set a PR, and do it? I realize there's a lot of positive reinforcement in just trying, but this exact moment may not be one of my best. Last week was a 180-mile week (21 miles running, 159 miles cycling) with 25,000 feet of climbing. A fairly big week for me, and just yesterday I pedaled 7,000 feet up a 14'er and got a bit altitude sick in the process. My legs are tired. And I have to ride into town later today. Still ... what if? 

So at 10 a.m., I stepped outside to test the air quality ... deep breath ... not terrible ... and launched my mountain bike down the road. The Homestead Trail is always a solid effort for me — I'm not constantly trying to complete every ride or run as fast as I can, but when I hit the Homestead Trail, I am. This trail plays to my strengths, and it's close to home, so it makes for a great "tempo ride." The segment itself is a two-mile-long doubletrack climb that gains 800 feet in steep bursts. Springtime is PR season in Boulder — the dirt is still hero and the days are generally cool. By August the Homestead Trail is a sand pit, and the steeper climbs are littered with loose rubble. But I already snagged a PR here on Monday. Perhaps I could do it again. 

I cued up some Panic! at the Disco on my iPod an clicked the shifter a couple of notches above my usual granny gear. The power climbs flooded my legs with lactic acid, but I was amazed how much oxygen filled my lungs. Mash, mash, breathe, breathe. Last August I took my PR down to 21 minutes, and was proud of that number. I didn't see anything lower until early May, the last time I had a decent fitness surge. On Monday I nearly broke 20 minutes. Could I break that? A patch of sand caught my rear wheel. I spun furiously to get out of it. Mash, mash, breathe, breathe.

The final pitch is the worst of them all, and it almost broke me. My wheel spun in the sand and I dug deep for the power to climb out. In doing so, I felt of wave of nausea and nearly threw a foot down. How long has it been since I rode so hard I almost vomited? It's been a long, long time. Usually I can't take in enough oxygen to go hard. I composed myself as well as I could and soft-pedaled the rest of the way to the top, still feeling nervous about losing my breakfast. 

The final result: New PR! My three fastest times on this segment happened this week.

And most surprising of all: I snagged the fastest time on Strava. A real QOM! Homestead is a lower-level, less frequented segment among Boulder cyclists, but it's not nothing. I couldn't believe I (barely) surpassed Poot Sook's fastest time. I do not know her, but admit to Strava stalking her a bit when I figured out she lived nearby and rode many of my regular haunts. She is much faster than me. 

So I set out to try it and I did it! I will admit to taking much ego-boosting satisfaction from this little Thursday morning jaunt. 

 It's been a great week all around. On Sunday Beat and I headed out for what will likely be our last James Peak visit this year. I looked into a few different options for a mountain excursion, but Beat's big races in the European Alps are coming up soon, and we both wanted something predictable, with fewer opportunities for injury. Plus, the 21-miler with a loop around Rogers and Rollins passes is just endlessly amazing.

This time, I almost kept up with Beat (okay, he was taking it easy and waited for me at times, but still.) I hoofed my way to the top in 2 hours 33 minutes, and was stoked about that. At altitude my climbs are generally 100 percent hiking — I just don't feel a strong desire to spend limited oxygen intake on shuffling — and still snagged 10th woman on Strava.

 Between Roger's drop bags from Hardrock and Beat's from the Ouray 100, we have enough snacky junk foods in our pantry to last until 2019. For my summit treat I grabbed one of Roger's leftover Snicker Bars and didn't realize it said "Meh" until the peak. Yeah, this is pretty meh.

 The last time we visited James Peak, three weeks earlier, the tundra was still bright green and dotted with wildflowers. On Sunday, patches of crimson and yellow signaled autumn's swift approach. I'm starting to see golden leaves on cottonwood trees in my neighborhood. These signs of autumn always boost my mood, even when it's still 90 degrees outside.

 Between the peak and Rollins Pass are seven gorgeous miles where one can trace the actual spine of the Continental Divide. I love this section for its beauty and views, but find it mentally exhausting. The tundra walk is a patchwork of rocks and tussocks, with uneven footing for the duration. Paying attention to where I'm putting my feet is somehow extremely difficult for me, and I'm trying so hard not to roll my ankle. I've improved on this technique somewhat over the summer, but I still have a long way to go before I am even a proficient technical walker, let alone runner.  My right Achilles also has nagging pains, so I'm trying to limit my running and steep uphill hiking as well ... one 21-mile mountain outing a week is probably okay.

 It was an extremely hot day at 12,000-13,000 feet. Beat and I were begging for the appearance of an afternoon cloud, and there were none. Between the high-altitude UV rays and unbelievably windless conditions on the Divide, if you asked me to guess the temperature, I would have put it around 100 degrees. In reality it was closer to 75, but the "feels like" was intense. I couldn't take in enough water, and my head was pounding. But overall I felt great. I wish my Achilles would let me climb all of the mountains ... but I am trying to keep this from becoming full-blown tendonitis.

After two summers of failing to make time for this classic road ride, on Wednesday I finally rode a bike up Mount Evans. This 14'er has a paved road leading all the way to the top — it's bumpy, cracked and frost-heaved pavement, and narrow with tight hairpins. But it's well-graded and endlessly gorgeous. I'm surprised there aren't hoards of cyclists riding up this road every day of the summer, even though I purposely went mid-week to minimize exposure to car traffic (which wasn't bad, despite perfect weather — less hot than Sunday, with a surprisingly cold but not overly strong wind above treeline, and most importantly, no thunderstorms.)

 Steady, minimally technical climbing on a bicycle is my absolute favorite form of motion. We all have our quirks, and this is mine — I love all of the tedious bits and tolerate anything that requires skill or adrenaline. For this ride I started in Idaho Springs, just off the Interstate exit at 7,000 feet elevation, and pedaled up 7,000 more feet without a break. The road snaked up a narrow canyon, rising out of the pine forest into patches of scrubby spruce, and finally wide-open tundra. I slipped into a meditative rhythm, breathing steadily, oscillating between concentration on the sweeping surroundings, and happy recollections of the past.

The only thing that broke my revery was an occasional iPod moment — my favorite being a song I haven't heard in at least 20 years, "Mary Jane" by Alanis Morrisette (yes, I recently downloaded Jagged Little Pill for five dollars.) This song was on a mix tape that we listened to en route to my first-even snowboarding experience, of which I remember the date — Park City Mountain Resort, October 28, 1996. Wonderful and embarrassing memories of that day 22 years ago filled my heart, and I just had to belt them out, despite wasting a lot of oxygen to sing at the top of my lungs while climbing on a bicycle above 12,000 feet:

It's a loooooong waaaaay dooooown,
On this rolllllllercoaster.

 If there is such a thing as heaven, this will be mine. (And if there is such a thing as Jill Hell, it will involve terrifying whitewater and an eternity of fiddling with buttons on a duvet.)

I felt great as I snaked my way to 14,130 feet and pulled my bike up to the overlook beside the observatory. It wasn't until I hiked the final 150 feet up to the true summit that a wave of nausea overtook me, so intense that I had to lay down on a nearby boulder. And older woman in sandals walked past as I languished there, about 20 feet below the top. "I'm about ready for a break, too," she said.

 I ate a snack and walked around the observatory for a bit, but at that point I was really not feeling good — dizzy, foggy-headed, and still nauseated. I figured it had to be the altitude, and going down would help me feel better. But I was nervous about starting the descent in such a condition. I chose Beat's gravel bike for the ride because it had a beefier set of tires and disc brakes, but it still felt too squirrelly for the initial switchbacks. For all of these reasons, I had to take four or five resting breaks just to manage the 7,000-foot descent, when I needed none for the climb. At least there was incredible scenery and wildlife to make the breaks all the more worthwhile. Look, baby goat! Awwww.

And Summit Lake, adorned with autumn tundra. Ahhhhh. Whether the cause is biological or psychological or a futile attempt to make sense of a chaotic existence, I am going to ride this high for all it's worth. Yay, August. 
Thursday, August 09, 2018

Searching for inspiration

I've always been a person who races to train, not the other way around. The impetus for my first race — which was the 2006 Susitna 100 on a mountain bike — was the realization that Alaska winters would turn me into a marshmallow if I didn't do something. Past attempts to engage in a regular exercise routine like a normal adult didn't really take — in fact, after a bad personal spell in the summer of 2005, I was already a marshmallow by the time I moved to Alaska that September. If I wanted to improve my fitness, I needed a project.

"If I were to just head out at 10 p.m. and ride laps around the Homestead Trail in a blizzard, you'd think I was a total nut," I explained to a co-worker at the time. "But since I'm training just to survive this crazy 100-mile race across frozen wilderness, it's completely reasonable."

"No, you're still a nut," Sean replied.

My inner nut continues to crave that daily dose of adventure. With a few exceptions, ever since those fateful night rides in 2005, I haven't been without a project to generate excuses for "training." Like any addict, I swore I didn't need endurance races. I wanted them — for the way they gave shape to my endeavors, expanded my perspective, pushed me beyond comfortable perimeters, introduced me to places I'd otherwise never see and people I'd otherwise never meet, and materialized into intense and life-affirming experiences that would have never happened if all of the ideas were mine alone. Races were fantastic for these reasons and more, but they weren't the end-all. I'd still endeavor to be outside, in any way I could, even with an empty calendar.

With the health difficulties I've had in recent years, it seemed prudent to empty my race calendar and try just living my outdoor life, unburdened by fitness obligations and the stress of daunting adventures in my future. I actually thought I'd get more writing done, keep better pace on housework, renew my drawing hobby, maybe even engage in more social outings that didn't require athletic clothing. But decade-plus-long habits don't die easily. After my muscles recovered from the ITI 350/White Mountains 100 leg-shredder, I was quick to slip back into old patterns. A day is just better when I spend six hours on a bike rather than six more hours staring at a computer screen. And when I thumb through all of the nonsense I've written, I also have to concede that even aimless miles are less of a waste of time. (Although how do we even qualify "time well spent" or "productivity" outside actual life-sustaining activities? A philosophical argument to mull in future nonsense writing projects.)

Then the dog days of summer arrived to test my dedication to unaffiliated adventure. Breathing air filled with smoke from near and distant wildfires, raising a Buff over my mouth to protect my lungs, wearing too much clothing and eye-stinging sunscreen to block harsh high-altitude UV rays, scorching patches of skin anyway, withering in the heat, drenched in back-chafing sweat, slapping at biting flies and mosquitoes. Maybe I don't love the outdoors. Excuses started to form. Excuses not to train. Excuses to sleep in on Sunday rather than venture into the mountains. These excuses scared me.

Brainard Lake and my old pal Sworxy
Not that I'm becoming a marshmallow just yet. It's more of a state of mind — lacking purpose, my brain becomes annoyingly wistful. On Monday, I had to drive into town early for renewed allergy testing. After nearly two years of allergy shots (biweekly injections of noxious substances that cause painful arm swelling and make me feel blah for the rest of the day), I hoped for a positive outcome. The result: All good news! I'm not allergic to pine pollen, as I'd assumed. My reactions to grass are half what they were in 2016, now just "bad" as opposed to "hypersensitive, a few notches below anaphylactic shock." And they actually cured my allergic reaction to cats. I can adopt a kitty again! If only we didn't travel for such long periods away from home.

Anyway, this trip to town was a great excuse to take my neglected road bike for classic ride from Boulder to Brainard Lake. My back was on fire from being poked with dozens of allergens, but beyond that, I felt pretty good. My mood and general fitness seems to be on an upswing right now, and everything tends to come more easily on this side of the rollercoaster. I headed up Lee Hill and Old Stage Road to Lefthand Canyon. After a sporty little descent on rough pavement, nothing lay in front of me but a solid 5,000-foot climb — relentless and leg-crushing.

Among 2,000-plus women road bikers on Strava in Boulder, Colorado, I fall on the slow end of the spectrum, and find perverse satisfaction in letting this erode my self esteem. Diffidence can be motivating, and I chided myself to keep my climbing pace above 10mph. ("Okay, we have to at least crack the top 500 for this canyon.") As the grade steeped, 6 mph was okay, then 5 was good enough. No need to kill myself. I may aspire to athletic adequacy, but I'm still a Type B personality through and through.

After 25 miles and nearly three hours of constant climbing, I congratulated my road bike. "You made it above 10,000 feet!" I said to Sworxy, forgetting that our last excursion, nearly three months ago, was above 12,000 feet on Trail Ridge Road. I parked at a bench beside the glistening alpine water, chatted with a few hikers, and nibbled on a Honey Stinger Waffle. Views were stunning and the weather was ideal — an excellent reward. I wanted to feel that fleeting sense of accomplishment, but instead I felt restless. I missed having the bigger picture just beyond view. I missed the chase.

Perhaps for that reason, when Wednesday's commute ride rolled around, I went on a bit of a chase. Forest Road 509 is the only route that climbs out of Lefthand Canyon toward the beautiful and seemingly seldom-visited forest trails surrounding Gold Lake. I've wanted to do more exploring in that area, but it's so hard to get there. Either I need to ride all the way to Ward and drop down from the Peak-to-Peak Highway, or I need to climb FR509. This jeep road washed out with the floods of 2013, and was subsequently closed. Since then, the "road" has become the domain of motorcyclists and crazy downhill mountain bikers. Going up is just silliness. There's nothing but boulders, loose rubble, and deep, slippery moto-dust that gains 1,800 feet in less than two miles. It's a stout hike-a-bike. I first ventured here last October in a less-stable emotional state and ended up crumpled on the ground, expelling literal tears. But I'm stronger now. Or so I like to think.

It's true that the climb was uneventful, mostly because I now know what to expect. Whether I'm actually stronger, is also mainly a state of mind. It still took me an hour to cover two miles (and climb 1,800 feet, which isn't much worse than my Fern Canyon ascent times, without a bike.) My forearms and shoulders ached, my clothing — a long-sleeved shirt and three-quarter-length tights because I'd inadvertently sunburned my legs on Monday — was utterly drenched in sweat, and I was a little dizzy from exertion motivated by a turn-around deadline that was closing in at a rate inversely proportional to my snail pace. Both my left ankle and right Achilles — my latest problem areas — were complaining due to the fact I was wearing awful shoes (I've been using the same pair of Montrail Mountain Masochist for biking for at least four years, and the tread is entirely gone.) But I felt stoked, because, ha, I beat you, Forest Road 509. You did not make me cry this time!

The trails at Gold Lake were as lovely as I remembered, but since it had again taken me almost four hours to reach the lake, I'd run out of time to explore. Next time, I will leave the house by 8 a.m. at the latest instead of 10:30 (to be fair, I left later than hoped because I spent time faffing around with a leaking plug in the front tire and a problem with one of the pulley wheels in the rear derailleur.) Also, next time I will wear better hiking shoes.

It is funny how inspiration happens. Where my road ride to Brainard Lake left me feeling dissatisfied and wistful, the slog to Gold Lake left me determined. What will it be? Should I just throw prudence to the North Wind and return to the Iditarod Trail this coming winter? Plan a lonely and potentially arduous bike tour around the deserts of Utah and Arizona in March? The 2019 Tour Divide? The Tor des Geants if I can get in? The details hardly matter, as long as there's something, out there on both near and unseen horizons. 
Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Angry skies, peaceful mountains at Beat's Ouray 100

Two days after I drove home from Southwestern Colorado amid a crushing headache, a near-collision with a distracted driver who drifted into my lane in Montrose, then accumulating hail, flash flooding and long delays in Bailey, Beat and I were back on the road west for the Ouray 100. This hundred-mile run is the creation of an accountant and "high-functioning crazy person" named Charles who wanted to create something grand in Colorado's highly coveted San Juan Mountains. (Sarah Lavender Smith wrote an great background / preview of the Ouray 100 on her blog.) Charles purposely set out to design the biggest, baddest course for which he could still obtain a permit — a somewhat convoluted series of arms reaching up every mountain out of Ouray, like a sadistic spider. As such, there's nothing flat on this course. Not even remotely. Nearly every step is either climbing the rubbly Stairmaster or skidding down it at a rate of 1,000 feet per mile. The finished product has almost 42,000 feet of climbing over 14 major passes or peaks in a measly 100 miles.

Beat has finished a lot of difficult mountain events in his life, but he was genuinely worried about this one. As a realist who is good at math, Beat weighed his training efforts against the statistics on the course and determined that the cutoffs weren't trivial for him. The race has a 52-hour cutoff, but is heavily weighted to favor speed at the beginning and trudging at the end. Beat knew that meant a lot of hustling for him early on, and he worried that going out too fast would result in the high-altitude angry stomach that plagued him at his last two Hardrocks.

Still, spirits were high during the civilized 8 a.m. start from the town park. Beat even made kissy faces for me as he strolled amid the nervous pack of 80-something runners.

The first crew-accessible aid station didn't come until mile 27, so I figured I had eight hours to myself. I used a couple of those hours for French toast breakfast and copious mugs of coffee, then headed up the Old Horsethief trail toward the Bridge of Heaven. This trail is the final climb on the Ouray 100 course, an out-and-back between mile 91 and 102. It rises from 7,700 feet at the edge of town to 12,500 feet, with enough small rollers to boost a cool 5,000-foot ascent then descent to end a 100-mile mountain race. Ouch. But when you're well-rested in the late morning, it's a rather pleasant stroll — hopped up on coffee and a belly full of French toast, ascending through a tangle of wild raspberries amid sun-dappled shade, with just two other folks on the trail and their nice dogs to say hello.

Last year I connected this climb with a ridge walk to the Bear Creek Trail, but rockslides and flooding had closed that narrow connector, and I didn't think I had the time to complete the full loop anyway. Still, it only took me 2:20 to climb to the Bridge, so I hoped to carve out another hour or so to trace the beautiful ridge.

As the clock closed in on noon, afternoon storms moved in with a vengeance. As is common around these parts, skies shifted from stark cerulean blue to black and menacing within an hour.

I noticed a smear of gray above the Camp Bird canyon to the south guessed that Beat was probably getting dumped on at that moment, but I hadn't yet seen or heard any lightning, so I wasn't too worried. I dropped off the Bridge of Heaven toward a lovely cirque.

I wanted to take few minutes to relax and eat lunch down there, but then I swung around a switchback and saw this monster storm barreling down on my sun-dappled ridge. Claps of thunder rang out from rapidly approaching clouds, which meant it was time to skidaddle. Conditions became rather unnerving quickly, with thunder booming and gusts of wind raging all around me as I descended through thin stands of evergreens and exposed traverses across steep slopes. Humans find misguided security in the idea that they're not the highest thing around, but I know that lightning does not care. The ominous mass angled ever so slightly to the south, so at a trail junction I veered north, knowing I was running on a deadline and not having a clue where this new trail would take me. The New Horsethief trail connected with a rugged jeep road, and I ran until the French toast and liters of coffee turned on me. After that, I jogged and waddled with an increasingly upset stomach for an extra five miles, 17 miles total ... but I managed to avoid even a drop of rain, and I still got back to town in a touch under six hours. Win-win.

The sky unleashed less that five minutes after I'd returned to the hotel room, and the deluge continued as I slowly made my way though weekend traffic and lane closures to the roadside trailhead at Ironton. I arrived less than ten minutes before Beat, but I did make it in time! He was still in great spirits, reasoning that this storm was not bad at all. It only produced "small hail" and "far-away" lightning. I grabbed his burly rain coat and the heavy cooler with his liquid nutrition, and sent him on his way. I particularly love this photo for Beat's over-exaggerated happy face as he puts on his coat, juxtaposed with the nonplussed expressions from checkpoint volunteers. "Oh, you poor crazy bastard."

Beat heads out in the deluge for his first loop around Red Mountain Number One.

I heated up the first Tasty Bite package I've consumed in 15 years (lentils) and more coffee for dinner. Meanwhile, the low clouds moved away as quickly as they'd arrived. Afternoon settled into a clear, cool evening, with temperatures quickly dipping into the low 40s. After Beat went out for his second lap, I decided to grab two hours of hiking for myself. I thought if I felt strong, I could return to a spot that I've wanted to revisit since my brief excursion to Ouray last August. This spot sits at the edge of a tiny tarn near a shoulder of Red Mountain. When I hiked there on a clear evening last year, I was a mess of weird anxieties. Sometimes these emotions accumulate and fester inside of me, and 2017 was a year to amass such unease. On this day in August 2017, I was obsessing about the avalanche that came down on me in Juneau, Alaska, several months prior — picturing the snow cascading toward me, my snowshoe-clad feet balancing atop slow-rolling blocks, my right leg encased in white concrete, panicked stabbing with my trekking poles to free myself, hiking atop un unnerving pile of new debris, then looking back and realizing how precariously close I'd come to being pushed over an eternal edge. These images haunted me for months, and I'd managed to fuse them with disquietude about my health, until glancing memories gained the power to ruin my mood for the rest of the day. So I was in dark spirits at the beginning of my first Red Mountain Loop, until I reached this spot, pictured here in August 2017:

It's a simple place, but incredibly, almost inexplicably, I felt a waterfall-like deluge of peace and tranquility wash over me. I couldn't even guess where it came from, and understand I can't just recreate it on a whim, but that moment was a huge boost for my mental health. At the time I didn't even understand how completely it would wash memories of the avalanche from my thought loops, or how much peace I made with my health concerns. It was just a moment, an extraordinary moment, that solidified this becoming my favorite outdoor adventure of 2017 — a nondescript evening walk along eight miles of an ultra race that I wasn't even participating in.

I didn't even fully connect how significant this moment was until recently, when a friend asked me about the avalanche, and I realized, "you know, I don't think about it much anymore." That's actually rather incredible for my anxious monkey mind, which still loops back to a whitewater rafting incident that happened 17 years ago. I have the Red Mountain loop to thank, and built up some excitement about returning to that spot in 2018 — maybe it will cure another anxiety! (I don't really believe this, or else I would have made more of an effort.) Sadly, my stomach was still a little borked from my morning hike and the misguided Tasty Bite, and my right Achilles has been giving me fits of what I fear may be a touch of tendonitis. So I couldn't push all that hard on the climb, and by the time my hour ran out, it was nearly dark and I hadn't yet arrived at my spot. Strava tells me I made it within a couple hundred meters — so close, yet so far away. Ah well.

Before the Ouray 100 started, I'd made a goal to meet Beat at every single crew-accessible point offered on the course. I've never managed to do this before, but this race makes it particularly easy with out-and-backs to aid stations that are either in town or just a few miles away along Highway 550. Fueling was Beat's biggest concern in this race — the high altitudes and constant climbing make it difficult to take in calories, which combined with nausea can slow him down to an unworkable pace. So I hauled around his cooler full of chocolate milk, ginger beer, Perrier, tonic, and other drinks I procured along the way so he'd have frequent access to cold, appetizing, stomach-settling, and easily digestible liquids. The crewing effort wasn't necessary for Beat's success, but I love the guy and enjoy trying to be as helpful as possible in his endeavors. So I selflessly cut my own hikes short and only got six hours of sleep (ha!) before it was time to head over to Crystal Lake and enjoy stunning morning light and 37-degree air on the tranquil shoreline.

The volunteers at this aid station were half-frozen themselves, and a little confused why they'd only served 10 people so far — at mile 65, in a race that had been going on for 24 hours. "Where is everyone?" an older gentleman from Orem, Utah, wondered aloud. I pointed toward the mountain. Beat rolled in just after 9 a.m., still in a surprisingly good mood.

After serving up ginger beer and one requested Diet Pepsi (which I'd been guzzling liberally, but didn't want to admit to Beat we were almost out), I changed into hiking stuff and headed out about 15 minutes behind Beat. Although I didn't want to push my Achilles too hard, I thought there was a chance I could catch him near Hayden Pass, which I'd heard was spectacular.

The second morning is the point of these mountain races where people really start to show the strain. Selfishly, it's fun to witness because there is so much emotion in their facial expressions and movements. As I ascended Hayden Pass — which gains 2,500 feet in two miles and is just one of the smaller mountains among 14 that runners must ascend and descend — I was struck by the scope of it all. I got a little teary-eyed as I watched runners skitter down the slopes in a rush to meet a cutoff — which was posted as 11:15 a.m., but then the race director decided that was too tight and let people leave as late as 2 p.m. So they still had time, but their fierceness and determination was heartening.

I did catch and pass Beat, and was able to take a few photos of him dwarfed by mountains.

Unique rock formations near Hayden Pass.

I'd surpassed my deadline, but the ridge was so inviting. I hoped I could descend 2.5 miles and drive down to town in the time it took Beat to descend more than 4,000 feet in 5.5 miles. I barely made it!

Traverse on loose rubble — just par for this course.

Views toward Ouray. The Bridge of Heaven is the ridge in the center of this photo. Another interesting aspect of the Ouray 100 — from high points, you can look out and see much of the course.

I'd hoped to squeeze in one more hike to Twin Peaks, but the course veered closer to the main part of town, and the Beat's aid station visits started coming closer together. I also got lazy, and then the thunder and drenching rain returned. Beat motored along, becoming annoyed when we finally ran out of chocolate milk and ginger beer (I was surprised, as I thought we had tons, but Beat really did successfully stick to a mostly liquid diet.) So I scoured Main Street for San Pellegrino and cans of Diet Pepsi. I decided to call the trek through town in the pouring rain good for an evening adventure.

Beat managed to hold everything together until that mean, mean final climb to the Bridge of Heaven, where his stomach finally turned on him. But he still eked out a finish by 4:20 a.m. for a time of 44 hours and 20 minutes — exceeding his expectations of squeaking in before hour 52. He was his usual adorable finish-line self — ecstatic and chatty one minute, then snoozing in a chair the next, back to chatting without even realizing he'd dozed off.

This photo is a group of 50- and 100-mile finishers who were still awake and standing at noon Sunday. One man arrived less than a minute before the 52-hour cutoff, at 11:59 a.m., and another woman arrived just seven minutes after — denying her a buckle and an official finish, which is always a little heartbreaking, although she did accomplish everything else about this intense endeavor. We met some great people at this race, including a woman from Texas who was crewing for her brother with exceedingly thorough preparations (she donated her Ouray 100 "Bible" in case I'm ever inclined to run it), and a couple from Mexico City who invited us to visit.

I'm proud of Beat and how well he did, even if he'll now proclaim it was just a "training run" ahead of his upcoming European adventures. It was also fun to bump into our friend Eszter, who raced the 100 last year as her first hundred-mile run, jumped into the 50-miler this year on a last-minute whim, then finished third in 18 hours and change. What I wouldn't give for that kind of fitness, or at least to once again have similar confidence in my abilities, even if it was misguided. Perhaps someday. But until then, I'll keep enjoying the atmosphere of this intoxicating brand of craziness, and dreaming of peace to be found in future mountains. 
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

As the Hardrock Turns

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Roger asked whether I'd be interested in joining his Hardrock 100 crew, as a sort of liaison / shuttle driver. I think Roger would readily agree that it's ridiculous for any amateur race runner to require an entourage, but the overarching idea behind crews and pacers (at least outside the sharp end of competition) is a fun weekend for everyone involved. My desire to actually run Hardrock came and went a few years ago — the exclusivity of this race turns me off a bit, and I'm now operating under acceptance that I am a terrible mountain runner whose only unfulfilled racing goal left in life is to finish the Tor des Geants (oh, and Iditarod Trail South Route.) Still, I love lurking on the periphery of these events. It's a sort of interactive front-row seat to an oddball soap opera full of drama and intrigue. 

On Thursday I headed toward Silverton, hoping to tag a mountain on the way. When cramming an adventure into an eight-hour drive with a deadline, proximity to the highway and straightforward routes are paramount, so I chose Mount Harvard. At 14,421 feet, it's the third highest peak in Colorado and fourth in the contiguous U.S. The standard route gains nearly 5,000 feet in 13 miles round trip, so it's not exactly a brief jaunt. But it is solid trail, even through the talus, with only about 50 meters of scrambling. Easy peasy.

I was having a good day — no labored breathing, and a reasonably relaxed pace that got me to the top in 2:48. The mountain was all but abandoned on a late Thursday morning — I saw three other hikers above tree line — and the weather was unbelievably ideal. Temperatures were in the 70s and there wasn't a wisp of dark clouds or a breath of wind.

About a mile from the summit, I smugly thought "I've been hiking less than two hours and there's only a mile left." Then I switched my GPS screen to altitude and realized I was still below 13,000 feet. Oh.

That last mile is blissfully brutal, with the soaring altitude and frequent 45-percent grades. Although I was breathing well, my body still felt like it was being crushed by an invisible force, and I ran out of water more than a thousand feet above the nearest creek (because I'd frozen two liters of water overnight, and six hours later most of it was still ice. Doh.) So I was chuffed when I still hit the top in under three hours, and grateful that I'd budgeted six for the trip. It took me just as long to walk down — between the mild dehydration and altitude, I was a little too nauseated to do any running.

The Hardrock 100 started at 6 a.m. Friday, under clear skies and what I imagine for runners were disconcertingly warm temperatures. A hot day on these high mountains does not make for a comfortable run. This photo shows Australian contingent Andy Hewat and Roger Hanney. Our crew for both of them was Roger's girlfriend Hailey, Andy's daughter Larnie, and me, token American with cultural and geographical understanding of the region. Also on the periphery of our entourage was Jean-Luc Diard, one of the founders of Hoka One One who was in Colorado for Outdoor Retailer, and his assistant Amanda. Jean-Luc contacted me multiple times to connect with Roger but became more of a ghost, filtering in and out of view while embarking on his own strange adventures. But Amanda was welcome company late in the race.

Larnie, Hailey and I drove the rented camper van around to Telluride. With several hours to kill before Roger's arrival, I headed up Virginius Pass to spectate the race leaders. Among the Hardrock crowd, Virginius is a famously steep and rubbly pass, but I was going up and down the "easy" side — only 4,000 feet of climbing in eight miles round trip.

There were still a few sphincter-clenching traverses near the top, only because I hate loose scree and sand on steep side slopes. Good views, though.

The weather had been iffy with bursts of rain (surprisingly no thunder, though.) I didn't linger long at the top, not wanting to descend the steep rubble in wet conditions.

With the rubble behind me, I caught my first glimpse of the race leader, Xavier Thévenard. What struck me most about him in this section was his body language — hunched and straining, and his breathing — noticeably labored as he passed. Clearly he was dominating the race, but I was surprised how hard he appeared to be working, just a little over 30 miles into 100. Whenever I'm as taxed as he appeared to be, I'm dangerously close to a cracking point. Perhaps he was not as strung out as he appeared, or perhaps that's a key difference between elite athletes and clumsy hikers with asthma.

Anyone who cares even remotely about this sport already knows about the drama that went down with Thévenard's disqualification for taking ice and water from his crew a few miles beyond the Ouray checkpoint, so I won't rehash it here. My opinion falls in line with those who believe the consequence was overly harsh for what amounted to a poor choice, but he did break a important rule necessary to establish more fair parameters for all of the competitors. Crews and pacers are a unique aspect of this sport. Ultrarunning requires complete self-sufficiency in extreme environments, then allows moments where an entourage of people are removing your shoes, spoon-feeding you soup, and massaging your legs at designated spots. I find it humorous, and a little bit ridiculous. Although I truly enjoy being a crewperson or pacer for friends, I'm not as inclined to use them myself. Of course I've had pacers in the form of Beat running entire races with me, and there was the Bear 100 sleepover party with my friend Danni. But I tend to shy away. There's a lot of satisfaction to doing something near your personal limit and entirely on your own, as I experienced when I gutted my way through the 350-mile Iditarod Trail hike this past March.

Eventual race winner Jeff Browning. He was more than a mile behind Xavier at the time, but appeared much more relaxed.

Eventual second-place finisher Jeff Rome. All of these guys were more chatty than I was expecting, asking me how my day was going as they hiked past.

Eventual women's winner Sabrina Stanley. I asked if I could take her photo and she responded, "Oh, my mouth is full, let me finish chewing." I admittedly did not let her finish chewing, as she was moving too quickly to wait.

Bryon Powell, editor of iRunFar, with whom I spent some time in Fairbanks before the White Mountains 100 last March. At one point during that week in Alaska, he did a training run on soft, new snow and declared the WM100 would be "absolutely harder than Hardrock" if those trail conditions held. Following this race, I teased him to reassess the two courses, and he admitted that Hardrock is much tougher.

Beat's frequent PTL partner, Daniel Benhammou. He's run Hardrock seven or eight times, and nearly always finishes between 36 and 37 hours. This year he finished in 37:06.

Roger leaving Grouse Gulch, around mile 60, on Saturday morning. Surrounding every brief instance of 10 quality minutes with your runner are prolonged periods of hurry-up-and-wait. Larnie and I left Hailey in Ouray to pace Roger for a 14-mile, seven-hour segment, grabbed maybe three hours of sleep on the floor of a hotel room in Silverton, and then fired up the camper van for the rugged approach to Grouse. Along a narrow bench with a cliff on one side and a gorge on the other, we encountered an oncoming vehicle around a tight corner, where neither of us had enough space to yield. The other driver pulled over as far as possible and I attempted to creep around him, but misjudged the clearance on this unfamiliar vehicle, so the front wheel slipped into the embankment. Larnie yelped, no doubt aware that she was about to die in a fiery explosion, but I yanked the stick in reverse and managed to recover it before we toppled down the gorge. Scary. 

Roger rolled in looking sleepy but strong. After a few bites of food and a 20-minute nap, he seemed good to go. Team Australia Crew did serve a more useful purpose when Larnie's dad stumbled in, declaring his intent to quit. He hadn't kept any food down since Ouray, and couldn't fathom the next 40 miles. Hailey is a personal trainer who has a relaxed but insistent coaching style, and laid down direct orders involving sleep, soup and a rough plan for the next climb. Andy ended up leaving Grouse, something I'm skeptical he would have done on his own.

In Silverton, Hailey and Larnie went back to bed, which is something I suppose I should have done. But it was another beautiful morning, and I wanted to check out another iconic Hardrock setting that I haven't yet seen, Grant Swamp Pass. This hike has huge scenery bang for your buck, and popularity to match. Even though I live in the Front Range, I haven't hiked through crowds that thick in a while. Worth it? Yeah, worth it.

Nearing Grant Swamp Pass. The colors in the San Juans are unreal. Cloud cover washed out some of the intensity, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Views from Grant Swamp, looking toward the zig-zagging ascent to what I believe is Oscar Pass.

The iconic Island Lake, shadowed by the nasty clouds that were bearing down on me. I intended to climb a small peak above Grant Swamp Pass, but sudden thunder claps prompted a quick retreat instead. Two people on the ridge above the pass decided to bound down a scree slope directly toward me, knocking several not-small rocks my way. One rock sounded so close that I dropped onto the narrow trail and put my hands over my head, sadly my only defense. As soon as I stood, I went off on a screaming rant that would probably alarm and amuse anyone who knows me as my usual mild-mannered self, then took off running down the trail. Between the thunder and the idiots on the scree, my adrenaline surged to near record highs, and I was off the mountain in an instant. Perhaps I can learn to be an efficient downhill runner — I just need to operate in a persistent state of high stress.

Back on the tundra, my adrenaline calmed and the worst of the storm moved away, so I took the opportunity to detour over to Ice Lake.

Along the shoreline of Ice Lake, all anxiety and anger washed away completely, and I felt satiated and tranquil. So blue! Photographs under the overcast sky do not capture the intensity of the blue, but the otherworldly hue had a calming effect that was greatly appreciated in my sleep-deprived, slightly strung-out state.

The clouds settled in and it rained for much of the descent. I was surprised to see many of the folks I'd passed early in the climb, before I detoured up Grant Swamp Pass and Island Lake, still working their way up to Ice Lake amid the rain and thunder.

In the evening our crew — now four women in an amusing state of overtired silliness — headed to the final checkpoint at Cunningham Gulch, mile 91. Roger had been moving so well that we anticipated seeing him before sunset, rather than previously anticipated midnight. We watched an eerie sunset as ominous clouds gathered (sadly I have no photos of this on my camera, even though I was certain I took some.) Then the lightning started — blinding bursts followed within a second by deafening thunder. This storm was very close. Roger, I knew, was somewhere along the high traverse above us, well above treeline. My heightened state of stress came roaring back. Hailey mused that she was worried about Roger being cold, and I said nothing, because I was worried about Roger being a lightning rod.

We huddled in the camper van and the storm continued raging for more than a half hour — longer than I've ever sat directly underneath an electrical storm that refused to move on. Twilight faded to darkness, the patter of rain quieted, and we emerged finally to clearing skies. We stood under the open hatch and watched moonlight stretch across rain-saturated cliffs. The air was still, and I was viscerally reminded of the Iditarod Trail earlier this year, when I walked through the subzero night beside the moonlit cliffs of the Happy River Gorge. This became one of my favorite experiences ever. But I couldn't quite relax and relish the memories, because Roger was now overdue. An extra half hour passed. Then another.

Finally, we saw a headlamp bobbing far overhead along the cliffs. Hailey called out "Cooo-eee!" — something I've only ever heard my friend Leslie shout when hiking in bear country, but just learned is a common Australian bush call. To our relief, the person on the cliff called back in his distinct tone, "Coooo-eeee!" He hit the final descent, hundreds of feet overhead, and took off at a full sprint. The headlamp was flying down the rocky trail and we heard an amusing barrage of shouting and cursing: "$@!*@# LIGHTNING!" Turns out Roger and several others hunkered down in a depression on the other side of the ridge as the storm raged all around, throwing bolts into the valley both below and above them. They'd been above treeline for hours, so hunkering down near rock outcroppings was their only option. I've been there before — just a few meters below Utah's highest mountain, Kings Peak, in the Uintas — and few experiences of my life have been more frightening. This is another reason I have little desire to run Hardrock. I'll just stick to smaller, more escapable doses of Colorado mountains, thanks.

Hailey joined Roger to pace the final segment, and Amanda and I loaded back into the camper van to wait for them at the finish. Along the rough road out of Cunningham, we encountered a runner far off course, who turned out to be our friend Dima. Dima escaped from the storm down a drainage and then followed a jeep road to Cunningham. He told us he was lost and asked where the aid station was. It all happened quickly, and Dima walked away before I had a chance to clarify anything. My assumption at the time was that he was already out of the race but refused a ride just in case he could return to the spot where he went off course. Another vehicle drove toward us, so I waved them down and asked them to relay the news to his wife, who was no doubt also worried about him being overdue. They alerted the aid station volunteers about Dima's situation, and he found himself disqualified by the time he'd arrived. He was supremely unhappy about this, but accepted it and went on to finish the race — unofficially, but he traveled the whole distance under his own power. It was an admirable move, but I inadvertently found myself mixed up in his upset about being only the second person to be disqualified from Hardrock, ever, and may have lost a friend.

Hardrock: The Drama and the Intrigue. Roger and Hailey strode into the finish just after 3 a.m. For a rookie from low altitudes on the other side of the world, Roger seemed to have a nearly flawless race. Difficult, sure, and dangerous — that lightning storm was the real deal. But he executed it about as well as one can. I'm really stoked for him

Andy became the runaway Cinderella story, though. After barely leaving Grouse Gulch, he surged for a while and then faltered again. By the time he reached Cunningham, it was just 11 minutes before the cutoff. Although the cutoff is 2 a.m., it's generally accepted that at that point, traversing the final section in four hours is almost impossible. It took Roger four and a half, while feeling good. As the clock crept toward 6 a.m. and we waited for Andy, I went through the chart to assess how long that segment took most of the runners. There weren't many sub-four-hour segments after those who finished in 36 hours, let alone 48. We stood in the emerging dawn, watched, and waited. Andy's daughter was so nervous. Finally, a headlamp rounded the street corner. With less than four minutes to spare, Andy sprinted full-speed into the finish with his Kiwi pacer in tow.

It was a beautiful moment, of which there are many in an event such as Hardrock. Thanks, Roger, for the opportunity to tune in this year. I hope to catch the next episode.