|Early morning light looking back during the initial climb|
|John coming up behind me after I slowed my pace.|
|Looking back towards KT after departing|
|Island Lake completely thawed which is unusual|
|Smiling at the top of Grant Swamp Pass|
|This passes as a trail at Hardrock|
|Shoes intact, but filled with trail|
|If you look at this in full size you get a bit of perspective on how people descended|
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|
|Heading down to Telluride|
|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.|
|So close, but so not|
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.|
|End of the line|
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]|
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'|
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.