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. 


  1. Nicely done Beat!!! And Jill you crack me up. What's wrong with Tasty Bites?

    1. Before our road trip to Alaska in 2003, we bought a huge case of Tasty Bites at a warehouse store that sold heavily discounted — and likely expired — packaged goods. Those comprised most of my dinners for nearly six months between the Alaska road trip and my cross-country bike tour, where we sent them to ourselves along with stove fuel and pancake mix via USPS general delivery. After October 2003 I vowed I would never again eat another Tasty Bite, and I actually stuck to this vow until this year, when I saw them at Target and thought they looked okay. They're probably okay, but I didn't have a happy stomach on Friday.

  2. Wow! Sounds like it's at least as tough as HardRock if that can be believed.

    1. I've never run either, but it looks harder than Hardrock to me, mostly because of the 8,000 extra feet of climbing. That may be counter-balanced by having lower overall altitude, but you're still exposed to the same difficult mountain weather and terrain.

    2. Quite a bit harder. The extra cut-off doesn't quite make up for the more challenging course I think.

  3. What a great crew-buddy your are...squeezing in your miles and elevation fixes around Beat's schedule. and Ginger Beer? Does it have alcohol? I know some marathoners who swig beer during a race and swear by it.
    Box Canyon Mark, Lovely Ouray.

    1. No it's not alcoholic (at least the kind I had). Very nice change from coke etc though. In euro races there's usually beer at the aid stations and I enjoy it, but it's of unclear status at the race (I think it is assumed to be forbidden since alcohol was on the no-doping list, though thats changed this year). For sure in Fellin Park you're not allowed to drink alcohol I think. So I just opted for non-alcoholic stuff :)

  4. Those pictures of the mountains dwarfing Beat are great. I see the Skyline to the sea shirt. Probably No one there knew that's from California Santa Cruz mountains.

    1. Beat was wearing a Diablo shirt at the start, and there was a Bay-area runner there who recognized it. Skyline to the Sea is a quiet classic. I only ran the trail once, but it was beautiful throughout.

  5. This is written so beautifully. Thanks! I love that area, and I'll be there soon!

  6. I'm always in awe of ultra run races. Mostly because I can't run more than a half mile. This races sort of reminds me of the old Montezuma's Revenge mountain bike race with all the climbs (from what I've read).

  7. Love the pics of Beat: ala Munch's Scream and looking casual in his orange jacket. He looks like a local miner who's come down to see what the crazy runners are doing!


Feedback is always appreciated!