Saturday, July 30, 2016

Schemes Unlaid

Part of the attraction to long endurance events is that so many things can (and oft' do) go awry. The ability to adapt to the unplanned is a big part of the challenge. However, finishing is never a certainty and that too is part of the lure. This I have told both myself and others on numerous occasions. But, I've also been keenly aware that if I was forced to stop a race before I finished, none of those words would really hold any weight. I expected the looking back to be full of self-analysis and doubt. What I perhaps did not expect was that acceptance may come more easily than anticipated, leaving the forward gaze to hold the greater questions.

Early morning light looking back during the initial climb
My Hardrock race began well enough, I suppose. I set myself appropriately in the back to start. I took it very easy in the initial miles, but passed a few people on some short downhill sections. Then we started the long, gradual climb and something didn't feel quite right. Neither my heart rate nor, especially, my breathing were where I wanted them to be. I wasn't pushing the pace, but I was in a "conga line" of people making up the final 1/3 of the runners. I'm quite adamant about going my own pace and like to feel as if I am preserving rather than expending energy in the early miles of a 100. Sometimes even a 1/10th of a miler per hour faster than your body wants to go, is enough to slowly drain the reserves. I slowed down.

John coming up behind me after I slowed my pace.
I let a number of people pass me and tried to find a pace that seemed effortless (or at least less effortful). My friend John caught up to me and I matched pace with him for a while. John was one of the oldest competitors in the race, but had also trained and planned meticulously for this event so I knew I was in good company. There was a bit of route confusion as we approached and then crested the final climb, but I got myself back on course for the downhill and then passed a number of people before finding myself in a comfortable position, nobody pushing from behind and no one in front to chase. My natural downhill ability just sort of took over and I let gravity do the work. The terrain was perfectly suited to my strengths and the KT aid station was in view before I knew it.

Looking back towards KT after departing
I felt pretty good at the aid station and knew that the Kamm Traverse would offer some easier terrain for a while before it started to climb over the first serious pass. I had put a bit of a gap behind myself on the downhill so I caught up to and chatted with a few runners including one guy who had flown almost directly from Ireland and was already struggling with the altitude. Not that I like to take pleasure in other's suffering, but it does sometimes help to put things into perspective when you aren't feeling quite as well as you'd like yourself.

The Traverse
But, just as others may be feeling worse than you, the perspective can be shared from the other direction as well. Watching a woman run past me as we started to climb was fairly sobering. However, I would see her later and we would do a bit of yo-yoing in the coming miles as she couldn't run much on the downhills. To each his (or her) strength. The climb continued, winding up past Island Lake.

Island Lake completely thawed which is unusual
Then, as usual, the steepest bit of climbing came just below the pass. I slowed my pace letting people catch and pass assuring myself that my time would be made on the other side.

I was petty happy at the top.

Smiling at the top of Grant Swamp Pass
However, my demeanor changed pretty quickly once I got a glimpse of the "route" down. (Those scare quotes are there to indicate actual fear.) It was basically a near vertical descent down a scree slope. The picture can't do it justice, but if you lean over your computer screen facing down you may be able to simulate what it looked like.

This passes as a trail at Hardrock
I chose to find the most continuous sections of uncleared scree and use my trekking poles to ski down, occasionally stopping to gingerly move across the barren dirt and find the next skiable section. Some people slid down on their behinds which seemed unwise to me, but then I guess they didn't have the constant paranoia of falling and breaking an ankle or imagining that their shoes were completely shreading beneath the dirt and rock.

Shoes intact, but filled with trail
Looking back up, I was glad to have made it down without any mishaps and everything in place minus maybe a bit of skin here and there.

If you look at this in full size you get a bit of perspective on how people descended
I put my camera away for the remainder of the descent to Chapman. What I recall was cruising down, taking it easy and running out of water. The day was warming up and I knew that Chapman was in the midst of a dense and swampy area. I tanked up and headed out knowing that the climb up and over Oscar's Pass was NOT going to be fun. In fact, it was downright brutal. It went from hot and humid in the woods to steep and exposed on top of rocks, rocks and more rocks.

I went slow vowing to keep a pace that felt sustainable. I kept telling myself that any progress was better than no progress and actually passed a couple of people mid-way up. They were making no progress. Ahead of me was a series of steep switchbacks and a line of people trudging along. I felt like I was going so slow, but the gap in front remained the same. I looked back and no ground was being lost there either. At that point I simply went heads down, utilizing all of my mental games to try and make time disappear. Eventually, the pass arrived.

May not look it, but I was very glad to be over Oscar's
After that, I enjoyed the run down to Telluride. I worked hard to keep the descent as casual as possible and tried to enjoy the view as much as I could. It was late afternoon and warm. I caught up with Jonathan Shark (Shark Man!) whom I'd shared some miles with last year. I asked him "Who is this Oscar guy and why does he hate us so much?" We shared a laugh and a few more trail miles before he decided to stop for a soak in one of the creek crossings. It sounded like a nice idea, but I had my sights set on the aid station.

Heading down to Telluride
The rest of the descent went well and I was feeling fine upon arrival. Harry was there along with Heather who was waiting for John. They both told me I was looking good, better than most. Jill was also there and said that Beat had left about 1/2 hour prior. Seeing all my friends and taking a bit of time I was in good spirits heading out despite knowing it was going to be a solid climb in pretty warm conditions. I once again focused on keeping my own pace and was glad to be in the shade for a while.

Looking back on Telluride as the climb started

I had to take a pit stop at the edge of the woods and found myself within a larger group of people as we headed up above treeline. The exposure, temps and altitude slowed me quite a bit after that and all I could think about was making it to Kroger's. I remember coming down from there last year and it seemed a fairly gradual descent. Memories can be deceiving. The climb was unrelenting, but at least I wasn't the only one struggling.

Often seeing how long a climb goes on makes it worse.
Kroger's Canteen is an ionic aid station. It is set at 13,100ft right at the top of a pass. Everything has to be hiked in up a steep snowfield on the other side, but somehow they manage to have some of the best support on the course. There is even a movie about it. I couldn't wait to be there, but I also couldn't move any faster. As I ascended slower and slower, it finally came into view.

So close, but so not
The last, rocky switchbacks are so steep it still seemed like forever. I remember on that section reminding myself that this is what Hardrock was. You struggle up each climb, certain that you won't make it, but somehow you do. Then as you make it to the other side and start down, you begin to feel better. You fill yourself with the knowledge that you are in a place and having experiences that are possible to only a few people in the world. You try to just take it all in, hold onto it and hope that it's something you can retain when the struggle begins on the next climb.

Arriving with these thoughts in mind, I'm have to say I welled up a bit as they welcomed me with a ringing bell and a cheer.

Kroger's. No place I'd rather be.
Leaving Kroger's is done by a fixed rope down a snowfield. It was now dusk and the snow was mush. I put my poles away and donned my gloves for the descent, but the rope was the easy part.

End of the line
After the rope, things got messy. Then they got worse. The remainder of the descent was pretty much a sh*t-show of slushy, punchy snow, loose dirt and streaming water. Everyone just made it down however they could which was a combination of slipping, skiing, butt-sliding, glissading and the most dangerous of all, carefully stepping over unstable footing.

Eventually I made it to the fireroad that would finish the descent into Governor Basin. I was tired and took it as a combination of walking and easy running. The basin is a pretty amazing place, but I don't think any photo could do it justice as you really have to be down in it looking up and around to appreciate it. It was also starting to get dark.

I felt fine at the Governor aid station, but didn't tarry as I was mostly interested in the proximity of the nearest outhouse. I couldn't really run until business was taken care of, but after I continued my pattern of walking the flats and letting the downhills dictate my pace. It was a long road down to Ouray and I didn't want to tax my legs as we approached the halfway point of the race.

I remember feeling fine, but I also remember being quite unhappy about the amount of dust that was kicked up everytime a car went past on the dirt road. It's possible that was the start of my slow degradation, but as I said at the start of this, so many things are possible in a race of this length. A runner from Texas caught up with me as we headed into town and we chatted a bit as we found our way to the aid station. Harry was waiting to pace me here and he also helped me sort myself to get going into the night.

It was later than I'd hoped and I didn't feel as good as I would have liked. Ouray is the lowest elevation of the course and I was so hoping that it would feel like it. The air was certainly thicker, but nothing else felt much better. After gathering myself and fueling up, Harry and I departed the aid station and walked through town. As we headed up into the longest climb of the race, it was clear things were not quite right.

We were barely above 8000ft and my breathing was labored. My lungs felt constrained and congested. I recognized this feeling. It was exactly what I had felt the year before when departing Telluride, but that was at mile 73. This was mile 48. It wasn't good.

There isn't much to tell about the climb up through the canyon. It's not all that steep, but we moved slowly. We took breaks and people passed us. I kept waiting for the even steeper climb to begin as I knew there'd be an aid station stop before it became really bad. We eventually made it there and sat by the fire for a spell. It felt good to sit there, but did nothing for my feeling once we left.

I wasn't relishing the even steeper climb up to Engineer Pass. However, I did tell myself that there was a nice long road down the other side and morning would be on its way. It was cold and I was moving very slowly, In fact, I felt like I was barely moving. As Harry is generally colder than me and route finding was a bit of a challenge here, we settled on him pushing ahead to keep some warmth in his body and then waiting for me after finding the way.

It seemed excruciatingly slow, but we made it to the road and I was still trying to think good thoughts about going down and the sun coming up. Unfortunately, neither of those things seemed to help my condition. The road felt like a pretty gradual downhill and running felt like an effort that strained my breathing and started me coughing which got my heart racing. So, we descended slowly.

About halfway down we saw a runner coming behind us who was moving very well. He looked familiar. As he approached we realized it was John and he looked great. I felt like crap. We chatted for a bit and then he continued down. He wasn't running, but I still couldn't keep up with him. I know that he was at least an hour behind at Ouray so I was definitely losing quite a bit of time. It didn't matter. I just had to make it to Grouse Gulch and then reassess. I couldn't even think about what was to come after that.

Harry and I coming into Grouse. I felt (and looked) awful. [photo Jill Homer]
I sat down at Grouse and didn't know how I would continue. I wanted to try and sleep, but I knew that wouldn't be possible at such a busy aid station. I ate what I could which wasn't much, but mainly I was worried about my breathing. Even resting there I couldn't get a full breath in. What would it feel like going over Handies, the high point of the course over 14,000ft?

Jill was there and offered to let me try her inhaler. My symptoms sounded pretty much like what she experiences with exercise-induced asthma. I gave it a couple tries and it did seem to feel better. Maybe that was it? Maybe that's what I needed? Jill insisted that I take it with me arguing that I needed it more than her at this point.

So it was, tentatively, we departed and headed up towards American Basin. As soon as we started the steeper climbing my symptoms immediately returned. More attempts with the inhaler didn't really change much and I felt bad for taking it.

I have to give Harry credit, because he was amazing at this point. I'd never used a pacer before and never felt I needed one, but Harry and I have done enough of these long events together that we know each other pretty well. Rather than sit behind making me feel pushed or right in front of me worrying about setting the pace, Harry just continued to go a bit ahead and wait. I couldn't talk anyways so this was pretty much the best thing. It gave me continuous itty, bitty little goals of about 50 feet at a time.

I don't know how, but somehow I made it to the top of Handies. It was extremely windy up there so Harry had to go up and over the peak to wait for me to make it. He did however capture the summit photo.

65 miles in. Feeling completely wrecked. Somehow—I don't know how—still moving...

Top of Handies, 14,058'
The initial descent was rocky and rough. The remainder disheartening. I still could barely run though my legs felt fine. It was clear my lungs were holding me back. It was warm. No, it was hot. The descent seemed endless. It was going to amount to more than 6 hours total up and over Handies to the aid station at Burrows Park and I wasn't speeding up at all. There was, however, still a small bit of hope.

Harry reminded me that I wasn't moving any slower than the other people around me going over the peak. In fact, strange though it seemed, he claimed I wasn't really moving any worse at 14,000ft than I was at 10,000ft or even 8000ft. Of course, the problem is that I wasn't really moving any better either. I thought that maybe we could get through Burrows to Sherman at mile 72 and then maybe continue on to Maggie Gulch. Though, even if we could make it that far, I doubted that my speed would let us do it before cutoff.

Burrows is followed by about 3 miles of dirt road that's gradually downhill before the final mile descent to Sherman. It isn't long, but it was around 90F at that point. This road is also a popular drive for Jeeps and ATVs. The vehicle traffic was continuous and even the most considerate of driver filled the air with dirt and dust as they passed. I kept putting my buff around my face, but it didn't help much. Breathing that in for an hour was the last straw.

I was hot, I was tired and I couldn't breathe. I was basically stumbling and falling asleep on my feet. My pace was at a crawl. Even when we left the road for the short trail descent I was barely moving. I walked into Sherman and simply uttered, "I need to lie down".

The aid station volunteers were awesome. They found me a tent, set down a couple of pads and I flopped onto them face down. It was steamy in the tent, but I dozed off for a solid 15 minutes or so. When I awoke I rolled over onto my side and coughed uncontrollably. I stumbled out of the tent, hacked up a bunch of junk and then made it over to the aid station to sit down in a chair.

Everyone was encouraging and I didn't want to admit it, but I think I already knew I was done. I asked someone how far it was to Maggie's and they said 18 miles. As Harry described it my "face dropped."

The volunteers continued trying to encourage me, telling me I could continue, asking if I was certain. I remember just looking at them as if they were speaking across a void. None if it made sense to me. Didn't they see how I felt? I couldn't breathe just sitting there. Even if there was some way for me to manage 18 more miles, I knew that it would be at the cost of my health.

My race was over.

We had to sit there to wait for a ride for a long time and then the ride itself took hours. I thought that I would be anguishing over my decision, but acceptance sank in pretty quickly. I just wanted to get back, get some sleep and then...what?


I've been checked out by the doctor with no real conclusions which is not a surprise. She prescribed a rescue inhaler because it did help a little and it can be a useful diagnostic tool. However, if I only have problems after 50 miles spent at an average altitude of 11,000ft, it's not really something we can diagnose in my backyard. I don't know why I have this specific issue at Hardrock. I had no problems training up to 13,000ft. It isn't linked to being at a specific elevation. Maybe it's cumulative time at altitude or some specific allergen in the area or the dust or dry air or some combination of these or something else altogether.

Though I've never been one to think of it this way myself, some people like to say we do ultras to discover our limits. Maybe this is mine.

I'd written a fairly somber pre-race piece and maybe that mood was foreshadowing.  However, I really don't feel that "down" about the race overall, more reflective than anything.

I did say that I was looking forward to the experience.

It certainly was an experience.


Olga King said...

Gosh, it brought memories. I waver between wanting to return to Hardrock "and do better" and never coming back to even walk the same trails. This place and run captures me, the only last from my ultrarunning past that even touches my soul. This one is EXACTLY the one that discovers our limits, even if I dropped from some races before, or felt what seemed like "I am going to die" sort of thing in my inflamed mind. I don't have wise words to add, but thank you for describing so detailed how it went - and the trail - and for the pictures.

Tony C said...

Excellent read Steve. You reached your limit sure ... for that day!

While I can't even imagine starting that race (altitude does me in) I hope to be able to crew Shawn someday there.

Love the pictures.

Jill Homer said...

"I remember just looking at them as if they were speaking across a void. None if it made sense to me. Didn't they see how I felt? I couldn't breathe just sitting there. Even if there was some way for me to manage 18 more miles, I knew that it would be at the cost of my health."

This. People who don't experience asthma symptoms tend to lump breathing issues in with blisters and sour stomach, something that can be overcome with toughness and positive thinking. No! Even if it's not, it feels like a life-threatening condition. There's nothing to gain by pushing through this. Of course you made the right decision.

I'm glad you took the time to write about your experience. I hope this is a "Hardrock-only" issue and doesn't bother you again. There are a lot of great adventures that aren't Hardrock. But if you ever feel the desire to go back, I suppose you'll find out for sure.

I hope you come visit again in the winter! Beat already has some great spots staked out for wind training.