Monday, July 29, 2019

Neverending Ouray

They say no one escapes the Ouray 100 experience — not runners, not volunteers, not even the race director, an impish and ambitious creator who, while attempting to plant a radio repeater on the top of Mount Abrams, ended up spending an unplanned night in the woods and missed the start of the race. 

As a mere crew person, my moment came while descending the Million Dollar Highway just after 11 p.m. Friday — in my car, mind you. An incredible storm raged overhead, streaks of lightning and sheets of rain so thick that the fastest setting on the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. I'd just watched Beat and two other runners set out in this storm, bound for exposed slopes of Richmond Pass. I'd also watched a number of runners drop out of the race at Ironton aid station, spooked by lesser storms that rumbled across the region all evening long. The worst arrived just after sunset. Several spectators joined me at the shoulder of the highway, jaws slackened as an ominous black fog boiled upward from the valley. I didn't have my camera on me, and the light was bad anyway, but I now wish I had a photo of this moment. "It's The Nothing," I thought, and recoiled with a chillingly visceral reaction to pop culture reference that hadn't occurred to me in years. Funny, the images that remain in memory. The more vivid the imagery, the more difficult it becomes to separate fantasy from reality. 

Like many children of the 80s, I loved the macabre fantasy films that were all the rage at the time, with their terrifying puppets and traumatizing storylines — "Labyrinth," "The Last Unicorn," etc. My favorite was "The Neverending Story." I frequently watched a version that I recorded from television on VHS, pausing the tape to cut out the commercials. It's been about three decades since my last viewing, so my recollections are vague, but the gist of the story is that human imagination is dying, disappearing into "The Nothing" — an electrical storm that swallows our fantasy world and leaves a void in its wake. Growing up in mountain climate of Salt Lake City, thunderstorms ranked among my deepest fears, even as a child. I was an animal-lover who found the murderous wolf in the film to be compelling, even cute, but The Nothing — that was stuff of nightmares. 

I watched my love walk into The Nothing, and then headed back to town to catch a few hours of sleep before our next connection. The Million Dollar Highway, often regarded as one of the scariest paved roads in the United States, cuts a narrow path over the Uncompahgre River Gorge — there's hundreds of feet of dropoff on one side, no guardrails or shoulder, and a sheer cliff on the other. Once you start down the gauntlet, there's nowhere to stop or turn around. With visibility as poor as it was, I had been thinking about pulling over to wait out the rain, but suddenly I was in the narrows, and it was too late. Powerful waterfalls cascaded over the cliff and created veritable rapids on the road, roiling whitewater over cobbles and sand deposited by the storm. The pavement was littered with these rocks, some fist-sized, and in the headlight beam could see more tumbling down the cliff. As I crept through the cascades, I could hear pebbles hitting the roof of the car, like hail. Another image flashed through my memory, a scene in The Neverending Story when big rocks blew away. I wondered when my Nothing would come down. If the flash flood didn't sweep my car off the edge, surely we'd be crushed by a boulder. That would be just my luck. I'm not even partaking in a dubious adventure this time; I'm just on the periphery, experiencing my worst childhood fear. 

(Addendum: Here's a YouTube video illustrating what this scenario would look like during the daylight, in what looks like lighter rain and smaller waterfalls.) 

But let me back up. It's summertime in the San Juans, where, if places could be bipolar, these mountains would be an ultimate case study. Heart-rending in their beauty one moment, heart-stopping in their ferocity the next, sometimes literally the next heartbeat. Beat was preparing to run a race here, the Hardrock 100, but it was cancelled due to record snowpack. So he returned to another that he swore he wouldn't do again, an unmasked monster with 42,000 feet of climbing in 102 miles, which he managed to finish in 2018. The amount of time it takes to cover such ground puts anyone at the mercy of the heartless whims of these mountains, whatever that may be. To battle through this race once is a classic experience with the archetypal journey: exploring the heart of darkness, discovering one's true self, hopefully emerging victorious. To return is ... well ... probably foolhardy. 

Of course, this is just what Beat does. He's embarked on so many preposterous journeys that he doesn't even keep track anymore. And he'll never be satisfied with defeating a challenge; he always feels compelled to return, for his own reasons. So we were back in Ouray this past weekend for the 2019 Ouray 100. 

 We arrived in town early enough the evening before the race that I was able to get out for a hike up/jog down on the Portland Trail, which started just a few blocks from our hotel. My hiking and running efforts since my mid-May MCL injury have been uneven, to put it nicely, and I'm still having issues with pain and instability that my physical therapist insists are normal (I've cleared nearly everything I've attempted with her, as I do not what to have to deal with this indefinitely. Not that her approval is any guarantee, but believing in a voice of reason gives me comfort. However, I went a little hog-wild with the miles this weekend, and there are multiple reasons why that was unwise. It's just that these sinister mountains are so good at luring in victims.)

 This was a fantastic outing. The Portland Trail reminded me of hiking in the Pacific Northwest, lined with lush green conifers and ferns. I felt strong; it was admittedly quite fun to just float up a mountain without the burden of a heavy machine underneath me (really, climbing on a bicycle is my favorite form of motion, and it's usually faster than hiking, but that doesn't change the fact that it's often incredibly strenuous.) Suddenly, seemingly without effort, I was at a high point on the trail to Chief Ouray Mine, looking at my watch and realizing that I needed to turn around. By running downhill I was able to nearly stick to my timeline, and felt surprisingly secure doing so. However, tinges of pain in my knee bothered me during the night. Laying in the dark room, I made my decision — I'm just going to ignore this.

 The race began at 8 a.m. Friday, with volunteers directing the start because Charles the race director was still stranded somewhere high on Mount Abrams. It was an auspicious start nonetheless, with 90-some bright-eyed runners heading out from a playground at the town's center. Beat noted that there were few Ouray veterans — mostly rookies in this year's field. "They have no idea what's coming."

 Skies were already overcast, with a strong chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I wanted to squeeze in another hike, and opted not to waste any time by heading directly to the Old Horsethief trailhead, where I planned to climb as far as I could before thunder scared me down.

 The Bridge of Heaven is the final climb of the Ouray 100, miles 91 to 102, gaining and then descending 4,800 feet over those mere 11 miles. That's just par for this insane course, but the Bridge of Heaven in itself is not a small thing, and can be quite exposed above 12,000 feet. So I skedaddled as much as I could manage, so drenched in sweat that even my lower pants were clammy, which I've decided is a good strategy for me at these altitudes — to cover up my sun-sensitive skin and sweat out my clothing until it cools me down. As long as I have enough liquid and electrolytes to keep my system working, this has been effective. However, if the storms begin to move in and the air temperature plummets 20 or more degrees with high winds, suddenly being soaked is not so ideal.

 Thus I found myself on top of the Bridge of Heaven in record-for-me time, squinting suspiciously at the dark skies and shivering profusely. I set up for this selfie on the trail sign and accidentally knocked the Ouray 100 hole punch onto the ground. Due to wilderness restrictions, the Ouray course is forced to make a series of out-and-backs to high points. On a map the course looks like a deranged spider. This allows for the maximum amount of elevation change, as there are no flat connectors between the big climbs. It also requires these hole punches as proof of arrival. The small plastic device bounced several times and nearly rolled off a cliff as I chased it frantically, not wanting to be the idiot who lost the punch before the first racer even arrived. "There's no way this is going to survive the whole race," I thought as I scooped it up. Amazingly, this one did, although most others were lost.

 One selfie taken and core temperature dropping rapidly, I began racing down the hill as much as my braced knee would allow. The sun came back out for much of the descent, which calmed my anxiety enough to finally take a break at a trail intersection two miles and 2,000 feet lower.

 Here I followed a faint social trail to the edge of a short knife ridge. I was chuffed at my rare bravery in the face of exposure for crawling to the end of this ridge. But I did it in an ugly way, stooped over with four-point contact on the ground at all times, and thus decided this feat wasn't something to brag about (but here I am, mentioning it anyway.) It was nice to crouch at this overlook and gaze into the lovely town of Ouray, one of those places Beat and discuss among our ever-lengthening list of fantasy places to retire (for the record, the top places on my list are reserved for the Far North, and always will be.)

I decided to take the long way around on the New Horsethief Trail, with a fair amount of jogging to make it back to town in my allotted timeline — 15 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing in five hours. It was just barely enough time for a shower and a quick pack-up before I needed to head up the highway to meet Beat in Ironton. It would be another weekend of endurance crewing where there is only a handful of excess hours for either hiking, eating or sleeping, and you only get to pick one. Since I always choose hiking, the lack of the others often tires me out more than even racing does.

Indeed, as soon as I sent Beat off on his first Red Mountain loop, I decided I had at least two hours to spare for another outing. Moving slowly on sore legs, I only made it as far as the upper waterfall — another 4.5 miles, with about 1,800 feet up and then down. It was a lovely diversion.

 While shooting photos of the waterfall, I saw Brett Maune making his way up the slope. Brett is one of the understated legends in this sport. He's a multi-time finisher of the elusive Barkley Marathons and I believe still holds the course record. He has a number of thru-hiking accomplishments as well. For his successes, I don't think he has any sponsors and stays under the radar for the most part, for which I respect him all the more. Being a bit of a fan girl, I admit I shadowed him for a short time as he continued to climb. "It's so steep," he said meekly, and after that only spoke in low-rumbling groans. Racers were only about a third of the way through the course, and even Brett Maune was hurting by this point. No one can escape Ouray's heart of darkness.

 In the seven hours I spent at Ironton as Beat made the two loops, the evening was mostly pleasant with intermittent rain, and a few close thunderclaps — but nothing I considered too ominous. I was surprised as I listened to several runners hand in their bibs at the aid station, citing concerns about weather. "I'm not going to risk it with lightning," one said to a course marshal, who replied, "Well, then you signed up for the wrong race."

When the The Nothing moved in, the skies opened wide, and lightning lit up the clouds as sheets of rain pummeled and nearly collapsed the meager canopies housing the aid station. Nothing was left dry. I hid in my car, but finally decided I didn't care and stood around in my best rain jacket, using a borrowed umbrella to protect Beat's drop bag. I counted the seconds before every thunder clap, and never heard anything terribly close, but the lightning illuminating the darkness was dramatic. More runners dropped out. Beat prepared to head out and I was deeply concerned, but I know it's futile to project my anxiety on him.

"I have everything I need to wait it out if necessary," he said, indicating he would stay below tree line until the storm passed.

"Make good choices," I replied meekly.

The next morning appeared as though the storm never existed. Skies were clear and blue, the road was dry (but still littered with rocks.) The air was warm and calm. Only a few small dents on the roof of the car gave any evidence of the few seconds of terror I experienced. Beat also didn't have a bad experience. He and two others climbed together in the pouring rain until they reached the pass just after midnight, when the The Nothing broke apart and retreated, as quickly as it arrived.

 Crystal Lake is about two thirds of the way into the race, 66 miles in 25 hours. Beat looked strong, and although he said he was having stomach issues, he was still moving well. Similar to last year, I had two hours to spare after he left the aid station, and decided it would best be used climbing to Hayden Pass. Last year I was able to catch and pass Beat near the top. This year, I managed to climb the 2,300 vertical feet a few minutes faster, and did not see him.

 We all grasp for our own sense of accomplishment, and I was chuffed that I was able to climb Hayden Pass a bit faster than 2018, even though I was in better hiking shape last year, and didn't stop to chat with as many racers as I did this year. Lately I've been working on bolstering my self-confidence so I can again attempt something huge, which will never happen if I keep telling myself I can't. The bicycle training has been fun, but feeling strong while hiking means a lot to me, right now. And the strenuous bicycle training no doubt has helped with that.

During this climb, with my tired legs and wobble knee, I still managed the illusion that I was a warrior and nothing could touch me. I was amazed that such a fearsome night could lead to such a beautiful morning. And of course my mind wandered back into memories of The Neverending Story, which I hadn't thought much about before, but it really does serve as an allegory for the adults of my generation, the insubstantial and ever-fading GenX. The Nothing represented the loss of hopes and dreams, the vacuum that remains in the absence of imagination. The heroes of the story aren't raging against anything more or less than the dying of the light. The villains of the story are existential despair and those who would exploit that. The cute wolf even voiced this prominent dilemma of modern culture: “Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control, has the power!”

The villain in my heart is this nihilism, a fear of nothingness so intense that I seek out these extremes, the inhospitable mountains with their bipolar weather and frozen tundra containing nothing that can sustain my life, just to assure myself that an incredible world exists beyond me and beyond all of the machinations of humanity, and it will go on. I go to these places, I shiver with the discomfort of cold wind and a primal fear of the darkening sky, and I feel a depth of peace. I know everything will be okay.

Meanwhile, Beat just kept marching along, unfazed by much of anything. My two hours of hiking passed and I made it back to town just in time to watch another bout of The Nothing move in, with intense winds that blew away tents and more drenching rain. It continues to amaze me how strong and steady Beat remains, and how seamlessly he can knock out these incredible efforts. I'd be thrilled if I could manage just a single Ouray 100 in my life. Even if I manage to make the math work out based on my own experience and training, my self-doubt will likely never let me try (what I wouldn't give to once again possess the hubris of my "mountain-running years" — 2011-2014 — although they were marked with enough trauma and failure that I can't fathom why I'd want to go back. I suppose the answer remains: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light.")

The morals of this story, I suppose, are: Beat is incredible, and knocked out yet another near-impossible challenge in 44 hours and 20-something minutes, one of only 18 to 30 finishers (the number I keep hearing is different) from a field of 95. Nature is frightening, but it's a force that will save us, not end us, even if it does, technically, end us. We all need to end somewhere. But the world goes on, and the story never ends.

🎶Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah 🎶


  1. I really want to hike the Colorado Trail but the storms prevent me from doing it. I'd be one of the runners dropping out.

  2. Great story and introspection! Your "It's just that these sinister mountains are so good at luring in victims" made my day and laugh out loud at a great absurd framing! :) Beats comment "They have no idea what's coming." Sounded empathic to the newbies but also a ominous under tone for himself.

    Jeff C

  3. I forgot to add...starting the race from a children's playground in town has some subtle humor and irony to it....intended or not :)

  4. I was just hearing about all the out-and-backs in this one. Sounds tough on multiple levels. I’m super impressed by Beat as always. Sounds like you got a million miles in too without catastrophic injury! Yay!

  5. The only thing missing from "mild mannered" Beat's attire was a cape with a big red "S" on it. Oh, and your 5 hour Bridge of Heaven hike deserves honorable mention :)

  6. So I stopped back in to gaze at your pictures as I only had time to read your post earlier. Anyway I zoomed in on the start photo to see how many had walking poles and how there gear looked.....I noticed a guy towards the center rear of the pic in a blue plaid button down shirt and kinda blue shorts and a orange ball cap.....sorry but my first reaction was he was a "hold my beer" entrant...but then I gave him cred as he was there and I was not :)

    Jeff C

  7. Jill, that's so funny! I tried to introduce The Neverending Story to my kids this last weekend (as well as watching it myself for the first time in almost 30 years). The kids weren't impressed, but I still love it! I guess they're right. There's no accounting for taste. Oh well, maybe when they're older they'll see it in a different light. Atreyu!

  8. Beat is crazy. And I say it with out most respect. I missed your writing. Congrats to both.


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