Monday, August 16, 2010

En Route

My time and mental energy have lately been consumed by work. I have, however, managed a few necessary excursions and maintained my commitment to attempt my third 100 in as many months.

On the 4th of July, I ran a 15K on roads in San Diego. It was actually the first time I have raced on roads in years. 9.3 miles is an unusual distance, but it was just long enough for me to treat as speed training for longer distances. I set the goal of going out easy and coming in strong. I started at bit over 8’s, finished below 7’s with a 7:23 average: just enough push to leave me feeling satisfied two weeks after my last 100.

A few weeks later I finished the Headlands Marathon (4:44) as my final long run towards my next 100. I opted out of the 50 miler since my body has been feeling the effects of both my long races and of the long periods sitting at my desk.  Two weeks further of minimal running–call it a taper–and I’m sitting on a plane heading to Montana for the Swan Crest 100. I’ve given so little thought to this race that I don’t really know what to expect. However, as I head into this next adventure, my mind is finally turning back to Bighorn

The bandage is wrapped so as to hold my foot in a perfectly neutral position, neither compressing nor stretching the Achilles tendon. With a bit of work, I can come close to a 20 minute/mile walking pace on the relatively flat road. Mentally, it’s disheartening, limping along these last 5 miles, being passed by everyone I had just flown by on the final downhill. The race as a whole hadn’t really gone too well either with altitude issues and other challenges ending my sub-30hr goal. I had, however, still held out hopes for a strong finish, but now even that had gone by the side of the proverbial road.

This scene from the final stretch of my 2008 Bighorn 100 race still played through my mind as I headed back to Sheridan. I was looking for redemption from that race as well as from my more recent struggles at Massanutten. Bighorn was my first true mountain 100 and my first real experience slogging it out for a “just finish” goal. Returning, I had my mind set on replacing the image of those final miles with a better one. I wanted to run a strong race overall, sub-30 would be great, but mostly I just wanted to run to the finish.


Beyond just the running, I was also looking forward to enjoying a weekend in the mountains of Wyoming. Bighorn still stands as the most beautiful race I’ve done. When I ran it in ’08 the route had to be altered due to heavy snow at the turnaround. Not only did this mean that I hadn’t experienced the full course, but the sections of the Little Bighorn Canyon that I did see were completely in the dark. I was excited about having the full Bighorn experience.

Beat and Harry were joining me on this trip. With the early Thursday arrival and late Friday morning start time, it almost felt like three friends simply enjoying a nice vacation. We checked out the funky little downtown, hung out in our hotel room, shared some good conversation and, generally, just laughed a lot. More than the race itself, this sense of “getting away” was just what I needed. Spending the next day (and night) trotting along through some of the most gorgeous land in the country seemed a bonus.


That’s the only word to describe the impression one gets upon that first turn down the Tongue River Canyon and heading up the rolling single-track. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was. I’d also forgotten my camera back in the hotel room. I remember turning and telling someone, “you know, the one downside of this course is that it’s so beautiful, you just want to stop and setup camp alongside the trail.” It really is that stunning.

The views are quickly replaced with a distraction of a different sort as we make our way up the first major climb. Around 4000ft of ascent up and over 7800ft elevation is what Bighorn offers as an initial wake-up call. I was focused on taking things easy in the early miles, running a bit behind my two friends and focusing on keeping an even keel. However, the first downhill over the ridge made quick work of that. I think a let out a big “whoop!” as I dropped down the descent towards our first aid station.


Shortly after the Upper Sheep stop we crested the road and headed down onto single track. So excited I was to be flying back downhill that I barely heard the “Hey Steve!” up above me. Looking up I could see the trail of runners along the road that included Harry and Beat. Ah well, getting my wrong turn out of the way early in the race wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. That is, if I could keep it to just one.

I remembered the rolling jeep roads of the next section, grinding slowly up and down, leading to the big aid station at Dry Fork. I caught up with the guys at the stop then took off before them knowing I would lead the way on the steep downhill only to meet up on the following climb. I was hoping to continue along together for a while, but my stomach had a different plan. Just 15 minutes in the bushes and I wouldn’t see the two of them again for quite some time.


Cow’s Camp is sort of the separation point at Bighorn. You literally pass through a gate after this aid station, but more significantly, you enter the area that lends the “wild” to the “wild & scenic” motto. The narrow trail winding its way through the hills and into the woods with views of far off peaks was my first feeling of really being “out there” two years ago. Cow’s Camp is also where you are “welcomed back” the next morning with the smell of fresh cooked bacon and the smiling faces of fresh 50K runners. I had a long night ahead of me before that. For now my main task was to relax and try to take it all in.

The spectacular views of this section are accompanied by relatively easy trail and followed by a rewarding, downhill. At 20+ miles in I was feeling pretty good. As I exited the woods after Bear Camp, just before the steep descent, I stopped for my first view of the Little Bighorn River Canyon. Sheer carved canyon walls topped with the most interesting rock formations; I had to kick-start myself to get going down the hill. While the early course was relatively dry, there was plenty of mud on this descent: a hint of things to come. I managed to smack my head nicely, using a tree branch for breaking. Perhaps another hint to which I should have paid attention.


I was surprised to find Harry and Beat at Footbridge when I arrived. They looked well into their preparations so I asked for my drop bag immediately hoping to make good time in and out of the station. The tales of the upper course were beginning to drift down. Mud and cold were to be expected. I threw some of my warmer clothes in my pack and headed out shortly after Beat. Harry was still sitting. He wasn’t talking. A serious expression covered his face. I don’t know what was in his head, but the impression stuck with me as I out towards the race’s peak.

I didn’t know if I would be able to keep up with Beat over this next section. We were in for a long gradual uphill, climbing from around 4500 to nearly 9000 ft over the next 17 miles. It was time to focus on maintaining a level effort, to stop worrying about the entire distance, time to look around and enjoy the landscape. It was time to take another wrong turn. With night falling and mud thickening, I walked right past a sign post and into nowhere. The trail disappeared and I stood in what was basically a marsh. Looking around, I saw a trail of lights off to my left. I cut back cross-country to the proper trail; my feet were soaked and, given what was ahead, unlikely to dry up the rest of the night.


I took a few slips in the mud heading to the next aid station and wasn’t in the best of moods upon arrival so I was very happy to find Beat waiting there. While the sloppy mud leading here had been a pain, the story for the top of the climb was much worse. Apparently, it was one vast, frozen swamp. We headed out together and I told tale of my wrong turn giving Beat another opportunity to let me know what an idiot I was. Laughing at my stupidity made us both feel better. It was a good time to have a partner.

There was no exaggeration about the conditions up top. Reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Rings, we tread carefully along shallow ridges winding between marsh ponds. I don’t know how much it really helped to try and stay along the marked path. It just seemed to take more time in a vain attempt to keep dry feet. Knowing Harry’s particular distaste for mud we both remarked that it was good he wasn’t with us. Smiling, we could hear his cursing voice inside our heads. However, we were also both a bit worried about him as–being the better climber–he should have caught us long ago. We eventually reached the peak and headed down through snowfields to the aid station.


So inviting was the ranger station with its big roaring fire, people mulling about and warm mountain cabin that we were going to have to fight the temptation of staying too long. Inside was packed with people with an atmosphere a bit like a triage tent; runners in various states of disrepair being tended to by extremely helpful volunteers. I can only imagine how I looked at that point. Since I was never too cold and I wanted to move efficiently back down to Footbridge, I dumped some of my warm clothes. I just accepted that my feet were going to be wet for a long while so I didn’t even bother taking off my shoes.

Beat made sure I resisted the campfire as he led the way out and up the hill through the snow. We were following a couple of women ahead of us for maybe a ½ mile before we realized we were off course. At least this time I couldn’t be to blame. Rushing to get back on track filled us with enough ire to make it efficiently up the (proper) climb. On the other side, we just stomped right through the middle of the marsh accepting the futility of following anything but a straight line. We stuck mostly together or would meet up at aid stations. I fell behind once as I foolishly tried to run the sloppy descents in my normal fashion resulting in a few spectacular near misses and one less-than-spectacular dump in the mud.


The rest of the night was mostly a blur. One good thing about a mid-July 100 in more northerly latitudes is that the night isn’t very long. Daylight came just as we reached the final rolling stretch of trail leading back to Footbridge. Anticipation made this section take longer than expected, but both Beat and I were happy to be back at the big aid station. We never did see Harry during the night. I decided to take a little time here, mentally preparing for the rest of the course. This is where Bighorn can get a bit long. Footbridge on the return is 2/3 done, but considering all you go through to get there, it feels as if the finish should be much closer.

I took on a change of socks and headed out knowing that Beat would likely drop me on the steep climb known as “The Wall.” From my previous experience, I knew I was in for a serious grind. Grinds are best spent heads down. It wasn’t long before I watched Beat disappear up the climb. Perhaps I’d catch him on a downhill later, perhaps not. I set my eyes to the ground and just focused on making it to the ridge. The next section was one I would just have to “get through.” It was morning. My thoughts were at Cow’s Camp.


I’m not sure if you can really smell the bacon cooking on your way in, but you can certainly imagine it. This was the first place I ever tried bacon during a race and, I have to say, it is brilliant. When I arrived at Cow’s Camp, was so happy be there I chomped down three pieces of bacon immediately. Then I wanted something sweet so I grabbed a couple of Oreos. Then I grabbed another piece of bacon and an Oreo, wrapped the bacon around it and popped it in my mouth as I set out. Sweet, salty, fatty…brilliant! I headed up the road.

As I struggled to keep up with the mid-to-back of the pack 50K runners I felt slow, tired and more than a bit grungy. I tried to engage a few of the clean, chipper runners around me, but my focus wasn’t there. It’s a long 6 miles from Cow Camp to Dry Fork, but the difference between being 24 and 18 miles from the finish is huge. From Dry Fork, I could visualize the path to the finish. Beat and I joined back up here and essentially agreed to stick together to the end. Rolling roads to Upper Sheep and then a short steep climb were all that lay between us and the big downhill.


Heading up the last short, but steep climb known as “The Haul” I had another reminiscence of my last trip here. I felt good here two years ago just before bombing down the hill only to strain my Achilles jumping over a creek at the bottom. I thought maybe I should take it easy this time. I thought about playing it safe. I thought better. You need to be true to yourself and I never feel more “me” during a race than when flying down a steep hill at breakneck pace on my way to the finish.

Beat crested the ridge just before me and headed down. I paused at the top to catch my breath, and then followed. I cruised down the initial fireroad until the left turn where it becomes steep. I considered briefly keeping my speed under control. But, as I passed by Beat, I decided to just lean forward and let go. From there on, it was all out at whatever pace the terrain dictated. I’ve no idea how fast I was going, but I do know that I held off one of the top 50-mile runners who came up behind me for a while.  Once the grade became a bit more moderate I had to step aside. I pushed a bit on the rolling trail into Lower Sheep arriving breathless and grinning from ear to ear. Filled with the joy of my reckless abandon and happy to still be intact, I turned to see Beat arrive not a minute behind me.


“Nice job, dude!” I congratulated Beat on his own crushing downhill. Doing the mental math, we both quickly realized that, not only was sub-30 in the bag, but breaking 29 hours was a possibility. We made haste and agreed to push each other to the finish. While the final 7 miles of the course show as a net downhill, there’s a lot of rolling terrain and short climbs. None of these seemed to be found in my memory from the previous morning. Eventually, the trail gave way to road and it was time to erase something else from my memory.
I would not be limping to the final miles this time. Of course, that doesn’t mean they would be without struggle. The road is dusty, hot, and long. And, no matter what the course description says, the road is also, at least slightly, uphill. I’m sure if viewed at another time I would see it different, but all I seem to recall is fighting against that gradual incline. After a mile or so it was clear that Beat had a bit more left in his legs than I did. I encouraged him to go ahead. He refused vowing to push me to the finish after I pulled him down the hill.


I did my best to impersonate a runner as I cross the finish line alongside Beat. It was more than I had hoped for. My redemption was complete.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the park, savoring our accomplishment and waiting. Pride turned to concern. At first we figured Harry had dropped and was sleeping soundly back at the hotel. We eventually figured he was still out there. Martina was covering the same course in the 50-mile so we thought they might have met up and stuck together. As the afternoon went on we figured they had better be together. After many a false alarm we finally spotted them making their turn into the park. Martina’s running form is normally quite distinct, but I recognized Harry’s first this time. That special trot at the end of an epic: not a run to the finish, but just “to be finished.”  I’d used it myself just one month prior.


I started this report while en route to my next 100 mile race. That's now complete and I'm still behind a report. However, since I have trouble focusing on writing race reports when I'm not in running mode I had to go and sign up for yet another 100 for motivation. But, more on that later...