Sitting at Grouse aid station, mile 59, I see that line again. I see it in front of me, kinda like a mirage. Imaginary, but real, tangible but elusive. Like the end of a rainbow or the floating heat waves off of a hot highway. You squint to see it clearer, drawn to it. You want to chase it, touch it, but you can’t ever quite reach it. There it is again, “come... try to step across” it whispers. “Follow me”. I just didn’t have the heart, or quite honestly the back, lungs, or legs to follow that line, to reach out to it again. My quads were completely trashed. I had tip-toed, hopped, and danced a funky chicken sorta run down the 3-4 mile descent into Grouse. I was still moving, but it felt like my quads were tearing apart. I had been struggling on the previous 2 climbs as well, with my breathing and effort. I felt like I had a rope tied tight around my chest, pulling a heavy sled behind me on that last climb up Engineers.
We started at 6am at the Silverton school gym. I gave the kids and Todd one last hug and kiss and joined the rest of the runners at the start line. The weather was perfect. We made our way out of town, across a stream and up into the San Juan’s. I kept my effort in check, running the flatter and downs easily and hiking the climbs. I used one pole in my right hand as I climbed. I had torn my left rotator cuff last year during a fall on Hayden trail while doing trail work for the race, and ended up having 2 complete tendon tears that were repaired back in November. My left shoulder still not strong enough to use a pole. The sunrise was amazing as we hit Putnam Cataract Ridge, sitting at around 12,600ft, just 9 miles into the race. I ran easily down, staying relaxed and comfortable, knowing my quads were in for a looooot of downhill running. Coming down, we ran into volunteers representing the Golden Gate Dirty 30 race organization. They gave us kisses and well wishes. Below a pic of what a Hardrock aid station looks like for those who always ask..."what do they have at aid stations?" Well...at Hardrock...a little bit of everything served by angels.
I entered KT aid station at about mile 11 and emptied out granola bar wrappers, filled my hydration pack, and gobbled up a BLT sandwich made by the aid station volunteers and took off. About ⅛ mi from the aid station, I realized I had forgot to grab more fuel. Grrr. Back to the aid station, I grabbed a granola bar and a PB&J sandwich for the next climb. As we made our way up toward the next mountain pass, I met up with Louis Escobar, a very accomplished ultra runner, race director, and photographer. Although physically and cognitively far more superior, he has the cool accent and demeanor of Cheech, from Cheech and Chong. I was climbing with my PB&J in a baggie in my left hand and pole in my right. My intent was to have that sandwich eaten by the time I hit the peak. After a fair amount of climbing and no eating, Louis started making fun of me and my “sammy”. “Is that your security blanket?”, he teased. “Are you going to just carry that with you for 100 miles?”. I let Louis ahead of me as we got close to the pass and finished off my “sammy”.
We were now up at near 13,000ft and I was severely anxious about going over Grant’s Swamp Pass. I picked up a stone on my climb, and set it down at the memorial of Joel Zucker. He was a beloved Hardrocker who passed away shortly after his 3rd consecutive finish. I had been up there a few weeks earlier and peered over the edge. It’s a rock/dirt scree field at least ¼ mile long and STRAIHAIT down. My options were to ski on my feet or sit on my ass and slide down. Sliding down a rock scree on your ass is about as pleasant an experience as, well, sliding down a rock scree on your ass. Standing and skiing, I risked toppling over and rolling down the mountain; again, about as pleasant an experience as.... Louis looked like he was jumping off a diving board. I Don’t remember what he said, but he whooped and hollered and jumped landing feet first in the scree, surfing his way down. The hilarity of the scene removed my terror momentarily, and I jumped in behind him. Below PC @silentsummits.typepad.com.
The trick was to not send rocks and boulders down onto the person below while at the same time, avoiding any rocks being hurled at you from above. We all tried to pick different lines, but invariably I heard “roooock!” from above, and had to dart a few times to avoid getting hit. It was rather like skiing on top of an avalanche of rock and gravel, the whole mountain feels like it’s sliding out from under you. It turned out to be a blast.
The next 5 miles down the mountain were gorgeous. We ran across a grassy bench, then down around into a canyon of rocky dirt trails, grass, streams, and across rock slides. We continued to switchback down the meadows and rock into the pine forest. We reached an old, no longer used, jeep road and crossed a low river to get to Chapman aid station at mile 18, around 10,000ft elevation. I refilled my water, grabbed more bars and a couple of sandwiches and headed out. My feet were wet from stream crossings, and I was starting to notice a few hot spots on the bottoms. My feet were sliding around just ever so slightly in my shoes and creating friction when I ran. I tightened up my shoelaces, which took care of the problem.
The next climb was up Oscar’s Pass. Not a terrifically long climb, 3 miles, but a terrifically steep one, or seemingly so. It would top out at 13,400ft. I struggled up this climb. Breathing hard and moving oh-so-slow. I felt like a caterpillar on valium. My lower back was starting to ache as I climbed. “Pain is not a catastrophe... explore it” was the comment made by Dr. Halvorson, one of the medical directors at the pre race meeting. Pain automatically triggers anxiety. “Fix it, make it stop,or do something different”. But pain is just a signal. It doesn’t mean death is eminent, and it doesn’t always mean action is required. The pain I was experiencing was to be expected, it was not a dangerous sign, it was normal for the situation. Just tired muscles that wanted rest. Just seeing pain as nothing more than that helped me relax and climb. And, funny enough it dulled the pain. Yep, this is gonna hurt. Nope, it’s not serious. And, it will ease up when I get to go downhill, it always does.
Once again, the downhill revived me, relieved my pain, and I was witness to beautiful streams, meadow shelfs, rocky trails, and thousands upon thousands of wildflowers popping pink, purple, blue, yellow, and orange all around.PC@irunfar.com
The skies had intermittently thrown a little rain and thunder around, but very little at this point. We had a good 4 mile descent down into Telluride. All systems were go when I arrived. It was around 4:30-5:30, about 10 hours into the race. I was definitely behind my anticipated ETA. I sat for the first time and ate soup while my crew prepared me for the night. Knowing I wouldn’t make it to Ouray before dark, I added to my pack a headlamp, warm base layer top, and rain jacket. With full hydration pack and plenty of fuel I was in and out in about 9 minutes. I gave the kids and Todd kisses and headed out and up again.
We headed up the next mountain toward the infamous Kroger’s aid station. This aid station is perched precariously at a 13,000ft jagged tip on Virginius Pass. PC@FRederick Marmsater Photography. The volunteers here back pack up this aid station. They all have hard hats on. Complete with cook stove, and elite athletes Joe Grant and Anna Frost preparing perogies on demand. This climb proved even more challenging than the last. By about 2 miles into the climb, I was struggling again. Dog sled behind me. As I approached the first ridgeline, I could see that line again, wavering in front of me, my edge, my outer boundary... would I actually reach it on this climb. Each climb my breathing was more labored and my pace slower. That sense that something was pulling me backward while I was fighting forward was returning. It was here I was starting to wonder if the little hole in my heart the cardiologist found the week before was making things harder for me.
I have always had difficulty with altitude races. I love them, but I have always felt like i’ve had way more difficulty than I should when I do them. I just never seem to perform to my ability at altitude. I’ve always chalked it up to not living or being able to train much at altitude, and just maybe lack of mental or physical fortitude, but when I came out to Silverton 3 weeks ago for a training week, I had severe problems and became worried enough to seek medical attention.
3 weeks prior to the race, I had planned a BIG training week in Silverton. I was planning to get as many miles on the course over a week as I could, up to 20 miles/day for 5 days. With each consecutive day I became more short of breath, more swollen, and slower. By the 4-5th day, I could hardly walk from the car to a restaurant without stopping to breathe. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, tender and sore over my stomach and right upper abdomen, and very swollen by day 5. When I got back I had an echocardiogram and EKG done. I have a patent foramen ovale (small hole between the upper chambers of my heart) and some EKG changes. I also have a genetic mutation causing me to have high iron levels. This too can cause heart problems. As I write this, I am still in the process of having all of this figured out. At this point, we don’t know if this is actually impacting my performance at altitude or if it is just incidental, but either way it definitely impacted my psyche on this race. The cardiologist felt I had also created a lot of my own misery on this training week, creating a perfect storm by going from 600ft elevation to 9,000-14,000ft elevation and exerting myself over high mountain passes within less than 24 hours of arriving. We reviewed my electrolyte supplementation and fluid intake and I overdid it there too. The cardiologist encouraged me to run the race, assuring me, I was not in any significant danger as long as I allowed myself to acclimate for a week and avoided electrolyte tabs and only drank to thirst, no regimented water/fluid intake. So needless to say, when things started getting tough, I had this in the back of my mind as well. I had plenty of slow uphill miles to convince myself I was going into heart failure. By the time I reached Kroger’s I was pretty shaken and It wasn’t about to get easier. The freshly cooked perogie was amazing, and I sat until I caught my breath and a little more sense of mind.
Three weeks ago, I had climbed Virginius with now 13 hardrock finisher Chris Twiggs. We descended the other side, sliding down scree and bits of trail. I had assumed this was the route we would take down again. I wasn’t prepared for what we were about to do. I had heard there would be a rope to help with the down climb, but I didn’t realized the rope would BE the down climb. A gentleman with a hard hat and a rope dangling the length of a football field or more down stood to the right of where I had gone down in training. We would not be taking the trail, we would be down climbing the rock and scree face. No harness. No hard hat. I had not downclimbed in years, and never without a harness. Not to mention that bum left shoulder that can’t even lift a cast iron skillet. I did have gloves. I did have gloves. Ok, “I can do this”, I told myself as the bright blue-eyed gentleman gave me a 30 second in-service. I grabbed the rope and took my first step off. My left foot planted on a rock sticking out of the mountain, which immediately crumbled out from under me. It sent me swinging out wide to my right, hitting the mountain with the entire right side of my body and swinging me back to where I started. I dangled free of the mountain, hanging onto the rope looking despirately up at the gentleman with the bright blue eyes, eyes that were now the size of saucers. I’m sure I had the same look on my face. He was too far up to help me. I looked down, I couldn’t hold on like this forever. My options were a 50-75 meter fall, or get my feet back on the mountain and work my way down dammit. I did my darndest to accomplish the later, and finally gained footing and remembered how to down climb...feet out front, keep that left hand behind your butt, right hand in front of your face and work your way down. And I did it. Once again, at the bottom of a gnarly descent, but this time not so sure I wanted to remember that moment forever like the descent of Grant’s Swamp Pass.
Grateful to have that over with, I slid and skied down the next 2 pitches to the jeep road at the bottom. Now would be 8 miles down a secure jeep road to Ouray. The first mile or two were ok. The next 6 my quads become more and more tender. By the last 2-3 miles I was barely running on veeeery tender quads. They felt like they were bleeding. At Governor’s aid station, about halfway down I refueled, ate 2 cups of soup as quickly as I could, and turned on my headlamp. I ran with several different runners. I met a few Aussies and came upon Kirk Apt, working on his 24th finish. Yeah, fathom that! In retrospect I could’ve run faster down, it wouldn’t have hurt any more and it would’ve meant less overall time banging my quads.
I finally made it to Ouray, still somewhat convinced I was in heart failure, or maybe just wishing I was so I could call it done. Good friends Chris and Janet Cantwell were working Ouray aid station. Janet, “doc” checked me out. Normal oxygen level, normal lung sounds….I wasn’t dying. Damn. “I guess I don’t have a good reason not to keep going”, so with my tail between my legs I took some dry clothes to the bathroom to change out of sweaty shorts, bra, t-shirt and into warm dry clothes for the long night ahead. It was about 10:30pm. This was mile 44, and time to pick up a pacer. James Reeves would be running the night shift with me. When I changed clothes, I took off my bad attitude and in my brain, put on my superhero clothes. With each new piece of clothing, each bite of soup/food/whatever-the-heck I ate, I felt stronger, more confident, happy again. Headlamp back on. Backup batteries in pack, gels, water... let’s roll.
I ran the streets and as we started to climb out of town, I ran the flatter sections. When we hit the Bear Creek trailhead we started the steeper climbing and the long hike began. We were headed 8 miles up to Engineer aid station at around 12,000ft. Bear Creek trail had been closed to the public due to damage from rock and dirt slides caused by flooding during some heavy rains earlier in the week, only the Hardrock runners and their pacers were allowed to go up. I’ve decided Bear Creek trail is far less nerve wracking at night. You simply cannot see how far down you would fall if you took a misstep. Hundreds of feet in some places. We could hear the creek roaring beside and below us. It runs and falls, and is beautiful to see during the day, but a bit daunting to hear so far below at night. I felt pretty good for a while, but after 2ish hours of climbing, my back was spasming pretty good on the left side. I stopped every little bit to stretch and try to release it. It worked temporarily. The higher we got the worse it spasmed, and once again the rope around my chest tightened and the proverbial sled behind me felt heavier pulling me back as I pushed forward. I no longer feared heart failure, I was just pissed off that it was so f’ing hard.
We entered Engineer aid station and ate more soup and regrouped for the final push up Engineer. Another hour or more of back spasms and heavy breathing and we were at the top. I was determined to continue to fuel and hydrate, and take such good care of my body that I could know I had given myself every chance to feel better, to hurt less, to make it as far as possible as fast as possible. About that time a gel exploded all over my gloves. Nice. We hit the pass and started running down, 3 miles down to Grouse aid station. Once again, my quads were pretty busted, feeling like they were ripping apart as I went. We made it into Grouse at mile 58 at 5:30am. I ate, I slept a little, promising myself I would refuel and rest before I made my final decision. After an hour, I told James I was done. I felt like I had at the very end of 100 miles of other mountain races. I could not coax my back or quads to climb and descend another mountain. They were done. I knew without a doubt I would not be able to make it over 4 more peaks/passes on these legs. I wasn’t willing to torture myself any further to go any farther. I didn’t want to hate the experience.
A big part of racing for me in these mountains is the joy it brings me. Pain is part of it, it always is, and sometimes lots of pain. But going on would be torture. I finished my race with not an ounce of disappointment. I wished I could’ve taken James over Handie’s peak. That was my only sadness, that he would not see it, but I was wholly satisfied. Back in Oklahoma, I’m still grateful and pleased with how hard I worked, how far I went. I was the best me out there. Now it’s time to take care of myself, check out the ticker, and start working on the next adventure! Onward and upward.
Thank you to everyone who has followed and supported me on this journey. Todd, my rock, my love, my biggest fan. My kids who love and support me, and tell me to keep going. James and David, who have crewed and paced me on more than one mountain adventure, and their families who sacrificed their dad/husband/boyfriend to support me and help me through the race. Jeremy Harrison, pinch hitter crew. Thank you Jeremy for stepping in last minute to crew, sorry you didn’t get to pace me….although I think it was a blessing for you that you didn’t have to! Thank you to coach Eric Orton, coaching me now for over 6 years. Best coach in the world, bar none. Thanks to my Dad, ever present on my runs in my heart and in my head. You all are a part of who I am, and forever hold a piece of my heart.