If it doesn’t Challenge you, it doesn’t Change you.
To me, this may be the race I have been the most challenged to finish. To start, I was under-trained for the hills but still getting in my endurance training. I even questioned if I would start the race. I had watched the videos of the course online but compared to any other runs I have done in the past, I chose to go into this race half blind. Kind of like a kid who counts down the days to his birthday, I did not want to spoil the surprise.
My parents and I drove over the day before to Bozeman and I met a friend at the Bozeman Running Company. We went out for a run and then had dinner together. It was great to see him again. Afterward, I went to the hotel and took a long shower. It might be important to note that just over two weeks before my race, I did two runs in the smoke that was worse than I thought it would be. The result was I had very bad congestion. It had been slowly clearing up so I risked it and went ahead and committed. I was overjoyed that during this shower the last of my congestion cleared out.
I then set out my gear and prepared KT tape to put on in the morning. I decided to go with a similar setup to an ultra race only I would carry two 18 oz. bottles and only have an Ultimate Direction jacket to backup my short sleeve and arm warmers. I had full finger gloves to assist on the rocky sections to save my hands. Also had a set of CEP calve sleeves to protect my legs and finally I used KT tape on my Calves, Hips, and Quads. This saved me many times on the course. But nothing could quite save me from the catchy songs I would listen to as I fell asleep.
I will be honest, I have a theory that if you start a day off with a rhythm and keep building it up, nothing will stop it. So listening to a couple songs before a 3am shower means dancing is a real way to start that rhythm. Singing may not be an option as you can’t wake up the people that are supposed to take care of you. But they have to wake up eventually if we are going to make it to the race. After getting my gear on or in a bag to put on later, we were off. I was still listening to catchy songs as we drove around an hour south to the start of the course at 7000+ ft. I got my bib while trying to avoid shivering, part from the cold and part from a silent nervousness. I decided, for whatever advantage it gave me, I would start in wave one. It is better than starting in the back because I get an urge to catch up because I feel like I am falling behind.
Off we went to the sound of the horn and the sound of a herd of runners ensued climbing up easy fire roads. First five miles to the Moonlight Lodge Aid Station, I tried to go conservative but I would end up trying to lock into a rhythm that is only easy if you are out in front. I passed a ton of runners to settle into a top twenty position so I could have the space around me to descend the downs quickly and take it a good pace on the ups. Here we were still in the trees as we did a five-mile loop to pass through Moonlight Lodge Aid Station again. That is when we really began to climb and I found myself climbing and breathing harder than I wanted to. I was running up and down around the North East side of the mountain. Every time we would descend, I just felt we were delaying the inevitable climb to the top. Finally, at the 13-mile marker, I was finally getting a taste of the mountain.
“How are you doing?” a couple of course monitors asked as I approached.
“I can’t breathe, but I am not complaining. Where else would I be on a Saturday?”
We were climbing on the first real rocky section up to the first ridge I would encounter. By climbing I mean barely moving as the air was not forgiving on my low-land lungs. As we pushed up the ridge of our first peak we were close to 10,000 ft. The rocks had their sharp edges but they were not bad for footing because they did not move when you found a place to put your feet. I encountered a good amount of wind in the exposed part of the climb, not enough to make me pull out my windbreaker but somewhat cool. We leveled off after about a mile and a half of climbing and started a slight descent over very rocky terrain with a cliff like slope to our left. You wanted to look around at the view but you knew how important each step was. It was runnable, so run we did.
I am normally surefooted as I descend like a mountain goat but when my right toe hit a rock in my little run that changed. Normally if I trip with one foot, no big deal I would just bring my other foot around and catch myself. No sooner when I tried that, my other foot caught as well. In less than two seconds of time, which felt like half a minute, I needed to save my race and it seemed like a good amount of pain was inevitable. Somehow my instincts kicked in hard and I came up with a plan seeing how the only traction I had left was my toes. I dug those in as hard as I could and I then spotted two good rocks to place my hands. I did not in anyway want to hurt my wrists so as I went down, I eased my fall with the tips of my fingers and began to slow till my hands were firmly planted. Now having four points of contact I did what I called an “emergency plank” and I stopped myself barely touching my left knee to the ground. The funny thing was instead of freezing where I landed and wondering what had just happened, I shifted my weight on to my hands and did a burpee to get on my feet and kept right on running. The adrenaline shot I got was still pumping through me as I let out a “whoooop” as I descended right down to where the camera was.
We then started the first major descent. It was brutal and I was not doing the greatest on my nutrition or hydration. I failed in filling up one of my two 18 oz bottles with water. Instead, I filled both with a drink mix which was not appealing at altitude, so I was also eating only half as much as I should have as well. We had comparatively a short climb to the next major aid station of the course known as Swift Current. To me, this climb felt like every step took an amount of energy that I did not have available. In the sun I was easily overheating and getting very queasy as I still couldn’t breathe climbing the uphill. On the corner of the last Switchback, I finally could not hold it in any longer and I puked. Yes, I was in full view of everyone lining the way to the Swift current Aid Station. I made sure I emptied so I would start fresh as I could. This was the one point where friends or family could go to see their runners. My parents did exploring today so they were not here but I would see them at the finish. Two good people walked with me and gave me some water as I staggered to the aid station 19 miles into the day.
No matter how much time it takes once I got here I would not leave until I recovered. I sat down and grabbed anything I thought looked good. I was warm but having to sit in the shade got me shaking and having ejected all calories made it worse. I was invited to go into the warming hut where I was taken good care of. I should stress how good these volunteers were. I was so grateful for their top notch service and that made all the difference. After I was convinced that I ate all I could, I put on my jacket, packed nutrition from my drop bag, and topped up my bottles with good clean water, then I was off. I spent over 20 minutes there but it was time well spent.
Leaving Swift current Aid Station around 10:30 am, I was faced with the biggest climb of the day to the peak of Lone Peak. While I felt good, it did not change the fact that I was having trouble breathing. I was walking for a few switchbacks then sitting and resting till I could move again and spent most of the climb doing this. The higher I got, the steeper and harder to breathe it was. As time went on there was a group of three to four of us that were leapfrogging with each other as we did our walk then breathe repeats. With nothing else to do, I took in as much as the view on this ridge as I could. I was struggling but in no way was I suffering. I was going to have low moments in any race or adventure but I would not let those moments define any race. It might be a placebo effect but I feel an unquenchable joy when I reach any mountaintop. Well, once I found some rock or chair to sit on, so I didn’t fall down from fatigue.
The Aid Station Captain was, as I figured, was informed of how I was doing at the bottom of the climb. He asked how I was feeling now and I responded letting him know I was feeling great and was ready for the rest of the course. Which was only a slight exaggeration because I really had no idea what was after the next downhill. After I had some soup, OJ slices, and topped off my water, I was off.
It doesn’t matter what I went through before; I was now on the most fun part of the course. Not in anyway did the elevation or rocks decrease this. I was able to spread my wings and navigate down the back side around of this mountain as a mountain goat would. The rocks where bigger which provided sure footing. There was no way to make up all the time I lost, but that was not what I was doing! I was only passing people only to keep the rhythm up. Near the bottom, I passed one guy on small loose rocks mixed with sand. I spun around facing uphill and using a spin to turn around in a fluid motion to get the best traction. To others who have not seen this before, it looks pretty fancy and fast.
“Whoa! Just like Batman!” He remarked as I flew further down the hill.
This was the first time I had that comparison made. Honestly, I really enjoyed that. I was still really struggling on the uphills, but I can say I could keep up with any runner here on the downhill even today. Once at the bottom, we had a few more miles of rolling terrain on the climb to the final aid station you begin to realize that every part of your body is able to be fatigued. Lungs are no exceptions even at a lower elevation, I still struggled to breathe even walking up the easy hills.
Ok, and by lower elevation, we were still around 8000 ft. high. The Andesite Aid station at mile 26.5 marked the final checkpoint and for the most part, it was downhill. I sat with others who shared in the suffering of that climb, getting what I needed and chatting with the aid station staff who were from the Bozeman Running Company. I don’t know what it was but having a dog here at this Aid Station was so nice; he just came up and sat near us. This is quickly becoming my new favorite thing to have at aid stations as long as they are well behaved. It takes my mind off the race.
I found my energy again as I was slow jogging/fast walking through the next few miles. I was still getting passed occasionally but I was happy and moving. I was timing stepping off the trail with the sound of footsteps behind me, wishing everyone the best as they passed, trying out various running jokes with a few. I reminded myself of the little motto I had in a time like this when I can’t run but I can walk it out. “Outlast the clock!” Like the seconds on a clock, the miles ticked by and I was reliving the day. Living in the moment I was in, I had to get to the finish line. But at the same time, I did not want this to end.
I finally saw the place we started. I had enough in me and there was no way I was not going to celebrate in my typical style. As I approached the last turn I heard one kid in the small crowd say “Sprint!”
As I got closer, I asked toward the kid and his mother, “Did I hear you say Sprint?” in an inquisitive tone.
The Mom replied “Yes!” and I lit off with all I had left. With about 100 meters left, I found the strength to push harder and harder. With that done, I knew there was only one thing left to do. So with the line right there, I lifted my feet off the ground and arms in the air above my head, clapping them both in the air at the same time. What a great way to finish. Rough day or not, I passed the tests of the mountain.
One day, I will return and take this challenge on again. There is a mountain runner in me and it won’t be too long before I climb into the thin air again.