Above pic: Me on left and Alison Miller on right just before the start.
Considering I only made it 21 miles on the course, this should be brief, but you know me better than that by now. Todd was supposed to join me on this adventure, but last minute need to be there for our Tribe had him pull the plug, literally as we were checking bags at the gate. It felt like I had been punched in the gut. I’ve never not had him there, crewing me through my most challenging races. I knew he needed to stay behind, that having him come would leave me feeling guilty throughout the trip, and I didn’t need that. We kissed goodbye. This would also be the 1st anniversary in 28 years that I can recall us not being together on that date.
Bad news aside, good news was that I had 2 amazing pacers on tap along with my dad, aunt, and cousin. I had all the love and support I needed. It was nice to have complete confidence in them. I slept fabulous the 2 nights before the race and woke up race morning feeling amazing. Got a couple of waffles and some bacon and coffee down and headed to the race start.
Said Hi to running friends I only see once a year at most, but feel so connected to. Also spotted one of the fastest ultra runners in the world, Jim Walmsley. He would be there pacing and crewing another runner. I knew the medical staff as well, as I had worked with them when I volunteered at Moab last year. Everywhere I turned there were runners, pacers, crew, and event staff that I knew, somewhat like a family reuinion.
We started at 8am sharp and I settled in to a comfortable jog until we hit the first significant incline. All of the climbing would be hiking with poles. The average feet gain per mile climbing was 800 to over 1,000 feet per mile. There was 42,000 feet of climbing on this course and near the same descending. My goal was to take it at an all-day effort and stay comfortable climbing. I would focus on the downhill and flatter segments to be efficient and fast, but not stupid quad blowing on the descending. I knew I would be in the back half of the pack for at least the 1st half of the race. I knew the carnage would be huge on this course, and as long as I stayed steady, efficient, patient, and mindful of everything I had control over, I could end up doing quite well overall.
This is a pic of Silver Basin, the first climb of the course
I had packed all of the required gear, and then some, knowing how wicked the weather can get and how quickly the temps can drop and wind and rain/hail can cut. I wanted to be prepared for anything as best I could, I wanted this race to be a success. For me a success was a finish. I knew I would be close to the cutoffs the first 50 miles. That hurt my ego a bit, but I knew If I tried to keep pace with the girls ahead of me, I would ruin my race. I knew this race would not forgive going out a little too hard. The first climb out to Silver Basin was hot. The sun was out and the temps felt close to 80 or more. There was little breeze and we were climbing. We came back down and then up to Richmond aid station. I was eating and drinking well, going between pb&Js and Spring gels for calories and water to drink. One of the aid station workers I knew, Vale Hurt, wished me good luck and told me I was looking great. I felt great.
Leaving that aid station at a little over 10,000ft, I hit the point where the course splits between 2 out and back segments. Initially we were to go to “Chicago Tunnel” a shorter out and back. I headed up, and somehow unknowingly missed a turn and kept going to a dead end. It seemed short, but I knew this segment was short anyway so I thought that was it and I headed back down to hit the other out and back to Ft. Peabody.
Ft Peabody sits at 13,000ft. This would be a much longer, more significant climb, and the highest point on the course. Below and to the right is the view from Ft. Peabody (a picture from a more fair-weather day when I did training runs)
As I ascended, I started seeing people that I knew should be well ahead of me. I realized at this point I had not done the full out and back to Chicago Tunnel. I decided to go ahead and complete this segment and go back and pick up what I missed on the other arm once I got back down.
As we started to ascend Ft. Peabody, the clouds came in and rain began to fall. No lightening close by, but thunder in the distance. As soon as I hit the peak, the clouds descended and it began to hail… hard. I pulled my water proof jacket and gloves on and descended. Within a mile, pea size hail covered the jeep road. Another mile down and the hail turned back to rain. I went back and picked up Chicago Tunnel arm and headed back to Richmond aid station.
The rain was light there, and at the aid station I scarfed some chips and cola and filled my water bottles.
The next segment would take me up over Richmond Pass at around 12,500ft and then down the other side into Ironton, which is where my crew would meet me. I was still feeling very well. Within a mile of climbing from the aid station stronger storms moved in. From Richmond aid, we would ascend another 1.5 miles in the trees. At this point it opens up to a bowel with mountain peaks surrounding on 3 sides and Richmond Pass up the middle. Howie Stern was in front of me. As we crossed scree fields he pulled ahead maybe 200 meters. We were making our way up out of the bowl, surrounded by tall peaks and passes on 3 sides. We were about a half mile or more above tree line when the thunder increased the first lightning strike that I saw hit near the pass. Howie continued to climb, while I stopped and started a couple of times trying to decide whether to risk it and go or run back down into the trees.
I was on scree at this point and a good half mile up out of the trees on solid rock. I knew even climbing hard and fast, I would not get over the pass in less than 20-30 minutes, and there would be a good 20-30 minutes of descending before I would hit the tree line on the other side. The clouds were thick and dark and rain was heavy. Lightening was coming every 1-2 minutes. I decided to turn back. I ran down and passed 3 other runners. They opted to join me. We hunkered down under tree cover for about 10 minutes. I tried to tell which way the storm was blowing. I was hoping that enough of the storm was passing, that the lightning would just be on the leading edge. I convinced myself that the lightening was easing up and I could go ahead and attempt to climb. I was hoping that it was a single storm and that it was now moving ahead of me. All 3 of us headed up. Sure enough, as soon as we hit the scree there was a bright flash of lightening right ahead of us. No one had to say a word, we all turned and bolted back into the trees. As we did I saw a huge strike not far into the tree line where we were headed. Below is a pic of Richmond Pass, Ironton side (again, fair weather day in training pic, not race day, lol!).
Regardless, I knew this would still be the safest place, but now I knew the lightening was not just ahead and to the sides of us, but behind us as well. We were surrounded. Another female runner came down and joined us. We each had our kids on our minds. None of us wanted to risk abandoning them because of a stupid decision. We hunkered again. By this point I had pulled out my puffy jacket and put it on under my rain shell, added a layer of gloves under the waterproof mittens, and donned my waterproof pants. I was very cold, we all were. We waited maybe 10 more minutes and again convinced ourselves one more time that the lightening was moving ahead. This time it didn’t take but 100 meters to be met with more lightning just ahead and to the side. By this point there were 3 other runners coming down. They had gone just over the pass when one of them had a strike within 100 feet on the other side. He said is was worse on the other side of the pass and ran back over and down to us.
I had tacked on more than 2 extra miles of running up and down attempting to get up and over the pass. By this point I knew I was not going to make it to ironton before 8-8:30pm. The hard cutoff to continue the race was 7:50pm. I was out of time and not willing to risk it. None of the other runners were either. We all made our way back to Richmond aid station. We were now another mile and a half down, and the weather was tamer. Since we were only about 7-8 miles from Ouray and we were now down out of danger, several of us decided to go ahead and run back to the start/finish instead of hitching a ride. It gave me time to decompress and go over my decisions. I was so utterly frustrated and hearbroken. Physically I was feeling so well. I had zero altitude issues, was fueling perfectly, it was the best I had ever felt that high up with over 10 hours to a race. I was solid. I just ran out of precious time.
I go back and wonder if I had pushed harder those first 20 miles, maybe I would have beat the lightening and made it over. But in reality, I knew I was truly moving as fast as I could those 10 hours. I made an error that cost me about 20 minutes, but that was it. I moved in and out of the aid stations quickly. I never sat. I wasted no time. I stayed focused and always made sure I was moving as quickly as I could without a negative return on energy spent. I never “took it easy” and I never pushed too hard. I was vigilant. I was well fueled and well hydrated. I could not blame anything. Everything was clicking. I just wish that vigilance equaled a faster pace. If I had made it to Ironton, would I have finished the race, would I have beat all of the cutoffs? I have no idea. And I’m stuck with that. Even doing the math pre-race, I knew I would only have a 30 min-1 hour buffer with the cutoffs based on my training times. There was just not enough margin of error time-wise to afford me waiting that particular storm out.
Waiting out or being willing to take the risk of going over a pass with lightening is inevitable in the San Juans over 2 full days and 14 peaks. I am quite sure I could not have moved much if any faster over the preceding 21 miles, and a year from now I will not likely be any faster than I am now. I know that I am not willing to go forward into lightening. Many did, and no one got hurt. I just never want to Todd to have to explain to my kids why their mom was gone. I only completed about 22 miles of the course, but with the up and downs I did trying to get over Richmond, and the run back to start/finish, I managed 34 miles. I ate a burger and drank a beer and went to bed.
The next morning, Saturday, I got up with my pacers and we did what would’ve been the next segment of the course, the Ironton-Corkscrew-Ironton loop. My legs were hardly sore. We got to see where the road washed out/slid from the storms the night before. I heard that road was like a river.
Sunday morning, we headed up to Bridge of Heaven. We got to encourage the final runners as they were making their way to the finish. I got to see julie Tertin, who I trained with just a few weeks earlier. I was so proud and thrilled for her finish. I grabbed her and hugged her and told her how thrilled I was for her, and of course what a badass she was! She cried and hugged back. I cannot fathom the emotions after 45 hours and 14 peaks through wind, rain, hail, lightening, mud slides with zero rest. Every runner out there conquered so much to reach that finish line. I was elated for each of them. 110 started this race, 34 finished.
I cant say thank you enough to my family and friends who made this possible. Thanks especially to James Reeves and Justin McCune who took time away from their families and careers to crew me. And of course coach Eric Orton who helps me dare great things....and back it up with the work! His experience and instinct have helped me accomplish more than my dreams.