I trained really hard, especially after fracturing my ankle this past November. I ate properly. I hydrated extravagantly for the week prior to race day. I packed my lucky socks and wore them. I wore the same clothes that I’d been training in for weeks and weeks so there would be no surprise rubbing or chaffing. The morning of the race I was up three hours beforehand to eat my customary peanut butter and banana sandwich and sip my one cup of caffeine. I was more than ready both mentally and physically.
Then, about six miles from our friend’s house in Moab on the way to the race start, I got that aggravating nervous feeling that something wasn’t right. I went slowly and methodically through my mental checklist and then it hit me. No, it actually slapped the living crap out of me. I’d left my hydration pack back at the house. Panic hit me like a sledgehammer and I immediately pulled off to the side of Highway 191 with the intention of going back. I checked my watch and it was just too close to race time (or so I surmised) to return. My mind was churning at a pace I rarely let it stray. Damn it. How could I have been so careless?
In my thought processes I went through every step of the backcountry course, debating whether I had a chance of making it to the few and far between aid stations without my gear. Mile 7? Mile 15? Finish at mile 21-ish? It’d be a super risky gamble, but I was pretty convinced that if I ran a smart race I might be okay. I pulled our Subaru back onto the highway and continued to the Gemini Bridges Trailhead where I’d start the race.
The one thing that surprised me when we drove into Moab the previous day was the enormous amount of snow covering the desert. It was more than I’d ever seen out there and it truthfully made me a little nervous. I knew from running the ultra-distance event there last year that the course was tough enough in normal desert conditions, so any amount of snow would make it really challenging. However, I’d received an email the day before from the race director saying the course was icy and snowpacked, but very runnable. I tried as best I could to factor in the positive email and not think about how hard it “might” be.
After the initial four miles of the race, the track switches from Jeep roads to singletrack and starts a strenuous climb up slickrock, through arroyos, over boulders and along exposed ridges. Add the element of snow and ice and you get the picture…it was pretty darn hard, but like the email claimed, “runnable”.
After I finally reached the first support station somewhere between mile 7 and mile 8, I drank some water, sipped a little of some kind of hydration drink and nibbled a little fruit. So far so good and I was in and out of there in just a few seconds. I figured I’d taken in just enough fuel to get me to mile 15 and the next aid station, but it’d be close.
From there the track got a bit icier and the technical aspect came more into play. There were lots of places along the trail where I had to jump, scoot, ponder and sometimes just commit and hope for the best. I fell a couple of times on the ice but they were always just minor events and never anything major, thank goodness. However, because of the snow and ice, I was simply working harder than I wanted. I was aware of this increased effort and did my best to conserve, but I was getting a full dose of “beat down” and I knew I had no way to refuel for several more miles.
Through about mile 13 or so I was running quite strong and was keeping on pace with finishing in the top 30 runners or so (out of 168). There was a small pack of us running together, maybe four strong, and we fed off each other’s enthusiasm and pace. However, when I got close to mile 15, I unfortunately started to feel the wheels come off a bit. I was running out of gas quickly and needed that aid station desperately.
I sort of remembered the landmarks of where the aid station had been last year and knew I was probably getting close, but before I could think too much more about it, word came back down the line that because of the amount of snow on the course, the aid station had been moved another three or four miles farther. Needless to say my mind was in full gear trying to reconcile the situation and keep all systems on go. I tried to use the rationale that if it were only another three miles I should be there in about 25-27 minutes and I knew I could do anything for 20 minutes. What I didn’t want to factor in was the steep terrain separating my current position and the next aid station.
As I started scrambling up the next steep hill, my calves cramped without warning and it almost dropped me to the ground. I hopped a little and tried to keep running but my legs wouldn’t have it. I was able to walk backwards and the knots waned a little, but they were really hurting. I begrudgingly paused, tried to stretch them some, but was afraid of tearing something given how tight they were. After just a few more seconds I tried walking at a brisk pace, but the cramps immediately came back. My little running posse was leaving me behind and there was nothing I could do.
I tried and tried to run but it was futile. And I’m not sure if it was a result of the dehydration, frustration, fatigue or pure stress on my body, but about 30 minutes after the cramps started, I actually barfed up what little I had in my system. I had no water to rinse my mouth so I was also grossed out along with suffering. Sick and hurting, all I could do is walk.
When I finally reached the aid station, I was really struggling, both mentally and physically. I wasn’t sure whether to eat or not given my stomach issues. I knew I had to drink but was afraid of the sports drink because it was pretty much untested in my system. I finally sipped a tiny amount of soda to get some sugar and caffeine, sipped a little water and hesitantly grabbed a Hammer Gel packet to take with me.
About 100 yards out of the aid station I squeezed about half the strawberry flavored Hammer Gel into my mouth. Twenty five yards later, I threw it up. My system was shutting down for the day. I knew it and I could do nothing to stop it.
The most frustrating part of the last three miles wasn’t the pain in my legs, the complete fatigue of my body or the sharp pains in my gut, but more so the fact that people were passing me and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. They’d all say “good job” or “nice work” and I appreciated it, but it still would almost bring me to tears as they would run over a small ridge and out of sight and I was helpless to catch them. The physical pain I could deal with, but the mental pain was excruciating.
With about a mile to go I decided that I had to try and least do something to appease myself so I resolved to run to the finish regardless of the amount of pain. For the most part I was able to do it, save for a few places where I had to run uphill and my legs would cramp again. I was also afraid of falling on the steep, rocky downhill trail into the finish because I couldn’t pick my feet up as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
When I crossed the finish line the few people that were there enduring the cold were clapping and saying things like “good job”. While I appreciated the sentiment, all I wanted to do was go home. I did eat a little and got some hydration going, but I didn’t linger long before I was in the car and gone.
Frustrated, disappointed and just downright pissed off doesn’t even scratch the surface of how I felt all afternoon. And for the first part of our drive back to Vail, the frustration and disappointment were literally consuming me. How could I have been so careless that morning? I’d basically wasted weeks and weeks of training because of my carelessness.
But after a while I started trying to turn the entire experience into something positive, even though I still wanted to be pissed for a while longer. I realized that in the end, it was just a mistake, albeit a costly one. And what that mistake uncovered was just how much I’m willing to endure to see a job to the end. I needed to manage an unexpected situation that would require everything I had in the way of mental and physical resources…and I’d done it. It wasn’t the race I wanted, but it was the race that exposed more about who I actually am. And that’s the real reason I run those crazy events to begin with. They’re hard, even brutal at times, but the feeling of working hard and finishing is always, always rewarding to the soul. Once I let go of the anger, I realized that the entire experience, the good and the bad, was the very reason I do the things I do to begin with.
After seeing the race results the next day I was still sort of disappointed that I didn’t place much higher in the overall standings, but what I found was that despite seriously struggling for the last few miles, I still managed to get in the top 40% of finishers. I felt a little better knowing that I’d actually built up a rather large cushion before things went so wrong. It was a start for me to get my chi back in order, but I still needed some time to sort through everything properly.
That was three days ago.
This morning I sadly got word that Jenn Gruden, one of the elite ruuners who ran way up at the front of the lead pack had been killed in a tragic, tragic car accident the evening after the race as she made her way home to Steamboat. In a split second, I realized just how petty my stupid concerns are about a stupid race that means absolutely nothing in the scheme of life.
I didn’t know Jenn personally, but she was part of the small family of ultra-runners, therefore she was my family. The news crushed my heart and I now feel a deep, deep sincere sense of loss. Be it climbing, paddling, ultra-running or whatever, it’s the people who we associate with that are the real reason we do the things we do. They are the few who inspire us to look deeper, go higher, push harder, run farther. It’s also these people like Jenn who understand what living life is all about and who willingly provide comfort to us while they’re suffering themselves. Jenn was uniquely Jenn, but she was also personified in every person who passed me during the painful late stages of the race and offered me a kind word while I struggled to find reason and meaning.
Reality hurts sometimes and losing a member of the family is difficult to reconcile. However, the equal tragedy would be to waste Jenn’s enthusiasm for life and not learn from a fallen member of the family.