I’m taking a break from writing about emotional grief and depression to talk about something I’m much better equipped to deal with–physical pain and suffering. You may remember that before Adelaide was annihilated by that driver, I was training for a 50-mile trail race. That race was this past weekend. It was awesome. I did not finish.
But I did finish the 50K race. At 34 miles long, it seems like a cop out compared to 50 miles, but at the same time I’m pretty happy with it. Here’s how it went down:
My alarm went off at 3:25. That right there was the worst part of my day. I drove our rental car, which we’ve been using to get around since Adelaide can’t ride bikes, to south Boulder. I met some other fairly groggy runners and piled into someone’s van for the carpool to the race, which took place south of Golden in Pike national forest.
The atmosphere at the start/finish area was cheerful and pretty laid back. There were around 130 runners, most of which were doing the 50K event, gathered in the dark with headlamps talking excitedly and chomping a bit more food before the day-long effort that lay ahead. I could sense a little nervousness in the air but obviously no one was jostling or shoving each other out of the way for a front row line up like a bike race. For one thing, it still wasn’t even 6AM yet, and ultra runners are just more mellow. A race like this is more about pushing your own limits than beating someone else. I can certainly appreciate that…I lined up near the front anyways.
Heading out into the dark in a large pack of runners was a surreal experience. The only sound became the crunch of gravel under foot and lungs pumping. The course was hilly and started out with a two-mile climb. The small group that formed around me was going quite a bit faster than I’d planned on starting, but my excitement got the best of me. Plus, my headlamp was pretty weak and I wanted the extra light and the company of some more sure-footed runners in front. We chatted as we leapt over rocks and around switchbacks.
The forest opened up 30 or 40 minutes into the race and gave a luminous view of the city far down below. Seven miles in and the pain in my knees temporarily, which had started at mile three, subsided; darkness and joint pain gave way to the soft orange glow of sunrise. I was now running alone through a field of waist-high flowers with bright red cliffs jutting out in the background. I relished the beauty of the early morning as best as I could, then the dull, aching, pain came back to take its place.
I was averaging 10:52 minutes/mile at that point, which doesn’t sound fast because it’s not. Though, when you factor in nearly 12,000 feet of elevation gain over 50 miles, 10:52 seems a bit better. My original goal, two months ago, was to break 9 hours. But my knees had never really gotten any better at adapting to the pounding of the ground since then. I can hold a fast pace for up to 10 miles, then my tendons and joints just go to complete shit. So 12-minute miles, a 10-hour race time, was my new goal for the day. Actually, my real goal was to just be able to finish, which I knew would be a very long shot. I’d never run more than 18 miles before, and I was pretty wrecked after that run. Wrecked enough to develop tendonitis actually.
In an ultra race you walk the hills. Most people walk the hills anyways. The really fast guys and girls can run them, but I was happy to power walk most and shuffle up some in order to save my knees for the flats and downhills. I picked off a few people 10 miles in, which was just past the first aid station.
The pain was holding steady and my pace, now 11:11 min/mile, was still better than I’d hoped. As I approached the second aid station at mile 15, which was also the conclusion of the first lap, my spirits rose. I’d been trying to block the bad thoughts about Adelaide’s crash, but had been failing. If you’re depressed, long workouts always tend to bring out those negative emotions. A few days after the crash I’d gone on a long hike/run and had spent the first 2.5 hours crying uncontrollably. I’d only paused once when I almost got in a fight with someone. It’s a side story but worth it: I was approaching Shadow Canyon when I passed another hiker going the opposite direction. I nodded and said hi. I turned back after I passed him to call Maybellene, and also took out an earbud to call her back from playing with the other guy’s dog.
At that point the guy angrily said, “Hey THANKS for asking, pal.”
“Huh? Asking what?” I replied.
“I asked how’s it going and you just ignored me,” he said.
“I had earbuds in. Do you not see that I’m currently listening to music and have earbuds in my ears?” What’s your problem anyways?” I said.
He said fuck you. I said fuck you. I can’t remember the exact exchange over the next 30 seconds but it escalated quickly, to the point that I began following him down the trail as he hurriedly walked away.
“If you don’t stop following me I’m calling 911 right now,” he said.
I think I laughed at that and asked what good that would do way out here. Then I screamed and swore at him until he was out of sight. He got the last word in: “Go back to the east coast!” Then I screamed/roared as loud as I could like a mountain lion or some tormented jungle beast. I thought of chasing him down but decided that would be stupid. It’s never worth getting into a fight over a misunderstanding, no matter how upset you are. I continued on my route and began laughing at how strange the encounter was. Then began crying again.
Anyways, back to the race:
One of the volunteers filled my Ultimate Direction hydration pack at the aid station while I gulped down a few small handfulls of chips and Cliff Bloks. Knees were okay, motivation was good, energy was still perfect. Aerobically speaking, I’d never left zone 1 and I’d eaten well over 1000 calories.
The course consisted of three laps. The first was 15 miles, the second 19, and the third 16. This gave us two chances to access our drop bags at the start/finish. In addition to the main aid station, there were a couple others stocked with additional goodies: sandwiches, soda, chips, candy, gels, water, quesadillas, etc.
I played leap frog with six other runners for 20 minutes after that first lap. My knees and hips were worsening and I ran ever more gingerly. In addition to joint pain I began experiencing the first disturbing jolts from my increasingly angry bowels. I’d needed to take a shit before that first lap was finished but I didn’t want to waste the two minutes it would have taken to visit the porta potty. I’d pay the price for this.
I began doing math and realized that I wouldn’t be back at the start/finish for another 14 miles. That didn’t sound too bad, then I remembered I was running not riding. That would take me like two or three hours (in reality it would take longer). Shit. literally. I kept an eye out for some lush leaves hidden somewhere within this dry, barren pine forest.
As I continued running, two old sticks presented themselves on the trail in front of me. They were covered in sand but the bark was gone and they looked somewhat smooth. I picked them up and continued on, eagerly awaiting something more desirable to present itself in the next, oh no…14 to 16 seconds. I saw nothing but rocks. I dove into the bushes, threw my shorts off, and unleashed fiery hell. Who in their right mind eats chilly for breakfast before a running race?
The two sandy sticks worked well and I was back on the trail within 90 seconds, feeling like a new man.
Mile 20.5 and the third aid station appeared. One of the volunteers said the fourth station was three miles away, but it was all uphill. This was actually good news for me. Since I was hiking the hills, they were less painful on my joints than the flats or downhills.
Four miles later (not three) and I got to the last summit of the climb and the aid station. My legs were really wrecked at this point and I was hobbling quite a bit. Waddling like an injured duck. My pace was now 11:43 but I continued holding out hope for an unrealistic sub 10-hour race.
Two miles later and that changed. I was now 26 miles in. Only half way done. I could barely run. I’d shuffle for a few minutes and use every little bump as an excuse to walk, swinging my arms wildly to propel myself forward. My hips and knees were trashed. My goal became to simply finish.
The next climb was long. Like five miles. Half way up I realized that couldn’t run at all anymore. I longed for the lap to be over so I could join up with my two pacers (Galen and Joslynn), who would have to walk with me instead of running like we’d planned. Running was out of the question for even one mile, let alone 16.
By mile 31 I was done. I wasn’t even power walking anymore. I was doing 16+ minute miles and slowing down with every step. Limping was an understatement. I realized that it would take me six or seven hours to finish the last lap at this deteriorating pace. I’d be done with the 50K in that same amount of time. One more lap would cripple me for a month, which I couldn’t afford to do with the bike training season approaching. I decided to end things with that lap.
I came through the finish line at 6 hours and 59 minutes with Galen and Jos cheering me on to run for the last hundred meters. I DNFed the 50 miler but came in 27th in the 50K. So that’s kind of cool they let you do that. I wasn’t too upset, because plates of pasta, and later ibuprofen, awaited me.
It was hard. It was fun. You should do a running race sometime soon too. Might as well be over a marathon to make it worth your while. Here’s where you find out about ultras: https://ultrasignup.com/