About a week ago I went up to Horsetooth Reservoir to run the Blue Sky Trail Marathon, which technically is an ultramarathon since the course was about 27.5 miles — according to the GPS type thing some “official looking” person was holding. Marathon, ultramarathon, whatever, it’s trail running so I signed up. This was the next race on my list that seemed to grow by two for every one thing I’d complete. Do one and two more would pop up on the horizon? Funny how that works.
Leading up to the race, I’d done pretty well with my training, and my overtraining efforts. I’d just run a really tough 17-mile trail event up in Steamboat Springs about three weeks prior and was super pleased with my result there. And despite a slightly sprained ankle suffered at that event, I had lots of confidence about my conditioning. The week after that I ran a very solid 20+ miler with my friend Caroline from Chicago and after that I was definitely riding (or running) on top of my game.
Donna and I drove up to Ft. Collins the day before the race and got settled into our hotel. From there we headed over to the race packet pick up at a little Italian cafe, conveniently serving mountains of pasta at the buffet for that last chance carbo-loading. I’d already been “loading” for a couple of days and felt like I’d been sufficiently foie gras(ed), but I ate anyhow. Afterward I was absolutely miserable, again.
At 04:15 on the morning of the race I was up and moving around without much ado. I cold showered to wake myself then shifted to hot water to loosen up the muscles. Then right back to foie gras-ing myself by stuffing a peanut butter and banana sandwich into my cake hole — at 04:30 in the freakin’ morning. It’s all I could do to divine the energy to choke the damn thing into my system and get it washed down with a cup or two of caffeinated coffee. A few minutes later the cycle was complete and we were in the car and headed to Horsetooth. I think it only fair to mention here that although Donna rallied like a trooper and was ready to go well before we actually had to leave, she didn’t quite share in my “enthusiasm” for whole grain bread, peanut butter, bananas and crappy hotel coffee. We therefore stopped for a proper cup of java for her.
I love the atmosphere surrounding the starting area of trail marathons and ultra-marathons. Pretty much always dark because of early starts (race day packet pick up started at 05:45), it’s usually cold and everyone is generally still half asleep. Rather than an ocean of sleek runners looking like colorful advertisements for some well known athletic company typical of road marathons, trail runners, the few of us, are scabbed, scarred and more often than not look like the spokespersons for the Mix-&-Match Warehouse. The starting area of the Blue Sky was all of that — cold, filled with scarred, scabbed and sleepy runners and it was easy to see that most runners had probably dressed in the dark.
With a barely audible, “Okay, you can go now” from the race director, 105 of us headed north well before daybreak along the western ridge above Horsetooth Rez. The first challenge of the day would be the 1,000+ foot climb up the Towers Trail. We’d go up and over that lung-busting terrain then descend down some rather loose and rocky singletrack, eventually making our way back through the start/finish line at mile 9. After that we’d head south into the Indian Summer and Devil’s Backbone areas for the final 18-miles of fun. When I crossed through the start/finish line and checked my watch, I sort of realized I’d gone out too fast so I backed off the gas and tried to settle into a more sustainable pace.
I thought the hard part of the day was done. Mistake.
At first the singletrack along the southern part of the course was rolling, with some short, steep climbs mixed in for interest and challenge. Four miles of that and we came to the next aid station, around the half marathon mark, and that’s where the shenanigans really began.
The next mile and a half or so of singletrack climbed sharply, about 400-500 feet to gain an upper ridge of the Devil’s Backbone. It was climbing up that ridge where I was reminded that I’d definitely gone out too fast. Undeterred I geared down and ran up and over the Backbone and cruised the ensuing downhill to the next aid station at around mile 16.
When I got there I reloaded on water, Cytomax and took on a little fuel. I thought it unusual that there was a backcountry ambulance and about five EMT type folks sitting around. And they all seemed to be grinning that diabolical grin of knowing about some impending trouble. Whatever. So I passed through the aid tent and quickly discovered the long, steep hill going up Tower and the climb up Devil’s Backbone were nothing compared to the technical terrain ahead. About a mile into that five mile loop I fully realized why all those paramedics were stationed there.
The rocks on this part of the course were unrelentingly frustrating. I’d been pampering that mildly sprained ankle for weeks and this really called out my weakness (one of them anyhow) in a hurry! When the softball sized rocks weren’t rolling around under your feet on steep descents scaring the living bejeezus out of me, the ones that were solid and awkwardly slanted were pummeling my ankles and knees. And as if that wasn’t frustrating enough, throw in a couple of short steep hills to smash my lungs and the experience was complete. Though I was running pretty much alone for most of the time, you could clearly hear the battery of F-bombs being dropped from near and far! Man, this section was a killer on the mental game.
Now, I might have only imagined it, but as I passed back through the aid station where all the paramedics were, I swore I could see them grinning that sinister grin again, especially as they saw us coming in limping, bleeding and dirty from our sioree into that menagerie of misery. Okay, maybe they didn’t really have sinister grins, but I know deep down they were enjoying watching everyone suffer and were hoping to treat at least one broken leg. That entire section was a broken ankle/leg/arm/psyche just waiting to happen — but fun!
Perhaps I hadn’t paid attention to the course map as well as I should have, but I certainly didn’t remember that I was supposed to retrace my steps back through the Devil’s Backbone area, which meant climbing back up that damn hill. Geez, that was a demoralizing proposition for sure. Nevertheless, when my whine party was over after a few seconds, up I went, again. It was actually more of a power hike because my legs were seriously trashed from having run across all those janky rocks for the past hour.
As I “ran” up the hill I looked at my watch and I was way off the pace I’d hoped for. I was getting flogged physically and I unfortunately sort of let it seep into my head. Why had I gone out so fast? Stupid mistake.
When I reached the top of the ridge there was a guy and a girl who I’d sort of been trading pace with and she said something like “Nice job, we’re making good time”. Uh, no, we’re getting crushed here missy. I’m seeing 4:25 elapsed time on my watch and we’re only about 21 miles in. That’s getting our ass handed to us. Fail. (of course I didn’t say that…but I thought it)
From there we managed to pace together and squeeze out a quasi respectable run down the other side of the Backbone down into the last aid station. Honestly, my legs were hammered from the steepness of the descent…and all those rocks. As I was coming into the tent one of the girls writing down racer numbers ask if I needed anything. My response? “Yeah, a ride”. She laughed. I almost laughed too, but I was actually kind of serious, almost.
I dumped the last bit of Cytomax out of my bottles and refilled with water. The day had heated up (around 80-degrees by late morning) and my body temperature was going up accordingly. I figured water was the better choice and would present less chance of barfing it up. Four miles to go and I was at 4:50. Fail.
Looking back, it only made sense that the first steps out of the last aid tent were uphill and steep, as were the next several hundred steps. I figure one afternoon, early in the planning stages of this race, the organizers were sitting around the New Belgian Brewery, knocking back a few seasonal beverages and said something like, “Ya know, they’ll be dead or at least debilitated after all those rocks and that steep climbing. Since they’ll be the ropes anyhow, let’s just deliver the knockout punch right there!”…to which they all “high five” each other and order up another round. Okay, they probably didn’t do that, but it was still cruel. Back to power hiking.
Once I finally got back onto the rolling terrain I was able to at least dog trot the downhills and flat spots, but even the shortest uphill sections slapped me back down to a power walk. It was hot, there was NO shade anywhere and I was running on fumes for the last mile. Still determined and driving on, but a bit demoralized.
When I came around the last turn and could see the finish line, all the pain and misery sort of evaporated, sort of. One of the things I always make a point of when running long-distance events is to always finish a race actually “running” and always, ALWAYS finish with a smile. Taking those last few strides and hearing Donna and our friend April cheering me on definitely helped drop the misery meter a few degrees and both those goals were easily met.
As the guy tore the tag off my race number in the finish area he said something like “nice run, congratulations”. Everyone at the event, organizers, volunteers, absolutely everyone had been so incredibly nice and super helpful throughout the day so I just assumed that he was saying that to make me feel better.
Boy, as cashed as I’d felt for the last couple of miles, it felt so damn good to just sit in the shade of the finisher’s tent and not move. Donna and April were kind enough to scramble around and round up some things for me to eat and drink and certainly helped recharge my battery! It’s funny, after races like that it’s always a delicate dance of wanting to sit and needing to keep moving — eating like a starved animal or backing off the cupcake intake. I did my share of both, especially with the cupcakes!
After a few minutes of cooling down and some super light stretching I was pretty much ready to go home where I could lick my wounds in the comfort of my own home. I also felt bad for Donna and April for having stuck it out at the trailhead all morning. As I was gathering up my stuff, and as Donna and April were walking the half mile back to the parking area to get the car, I saw that the race organizers were posting some preliminary results. I didn’t really want to look because I still had a bit of a sour taste in my mouth from what I perceived as an abnormally rough day of running. I knew for sure that I would be at the tail end of the pack and seeing my name there wasn’t going to make it any better. But I walked over to have a look anyhow.
As I sifted through the names on the list, I was totally shocked. I had come in 46th out of 105 starters. Given the beating I’d taken in those rocks, this was a way better finish than I ever imagined. Outside of one or two elite runners coming in around the 3:30-ish range, most all others were in closer to 4:15 to 5:00 hours! What the…..? Even more startling was the stat indicating even with runners still out on course, there were already 17 DNFs! (Did Not Finish) I knew the course was tough but it had really taken its toll in a big way, and the day wasn’t done for some.
I knew going in that the course was a tough one but I had hoped for a sub five hour day, or right at five hours anyhow. After running it and seeing that I actually ran an average race with a pretty solid group of trail runners, I felt better. And the more I thought about it, only one or two runners passed me in the last hour so maybe I wasn’t exactly falling off the map as I thought I had. It only felt that way. Apparently there was lots of misery out there. When all was said and done there were 32 runners out of the 105 who started who had either dropped out or didn’t make the time cut off. That’s actually a pretty big rate of attrition for a race that short.
Yeah, I guess I’m pretty happy with an average finish at this one. It was a tough day but I honestly get some sort of sick satisfaction in knowing there was lots of misery being shared by everyone. Some people probably endured less of a beating, others more. I guess I just had an average beating. I’m good with that.
Done with running for the season? Thought about it briefly but as always, my “season” is never really over. My entire life is kind of my season. In fact, I went out this past weekend and busted out a fast, hilly half marathon to shake off some of the soreness from the Blue Sky and today I feel GREAT! This coming weekend I’m pacing my good friend Chris as he goes after a 100-miler, of which I hope to get at least 50 miles and a good 12-14 hours of good running in. After that, a few marathon-ish distance fun runs over the next three or four months to get ready for the Moab 12-Hour and/or 24-Hour Endurance runs in March.
Hmmm, I’ve done the 50 thing a few times already so it may just be time to step up and get me one of those “Hundreds”…just sayin’.
Trail running. Yeah, that.
Run long. Climb high. Paddle far. Live big.