Wednesday, October 2, 2013

URoC - Ultra Race of Champions

100 kilometers from Breckenridge to Vail.  The Ultra Race of Champions was to be my capstone race of the year.

Driving over Vail Pass the afternoon before the race, the temperature read 33 degrees, the snow was blowing sideways, and I was wishing I hadn’t put off getting new tires.

Being a cheapskate, I’m normally happy to sleep in the back of my car the night before a race.  This time, I thought we could make a nice family weekend out of it, so I splurged for a two night stay at the host hotel in the heart of Vail.  I got there in plenty of time to check in and re-pack my 4 drop bags before the pre-race meeting.

I had downloaded the maps and aid station/mileage charts as soon as they were posted and had poured over them for hours, calculating my pace over every single mile, adding in time at the aid stations.  As I sat in the pre-race meeting, listening to the course description and trying to follow along on my map, I was more and more confused.  There were climbs that I didn’t see on my maps and the mileage didn’t quite match.  I tried not to worry too much, as no one else around me seemed to be concerned.  Then they told us to expect knee-deep snow going over the Ten Mile range.  Now I was starting to worry.

After a short break, they assembled the elite runners for a round-table interview.  This was truly inspiring and intimidating – more than a dozen of the top ultra-runners in the world.  Not the state, not the country, but the world – France, Norway, Italy, Mexico, etc.  They each politely dodged the question of who was going to win, but what made my heart stop was when they were asked what the winning time would be – 10 hours!  Holy crap.  I was assuming the winning time would be closer to 8 hours.  I figured that if I had a decent day out there, I would finish in 1.5x the world class winning time – 8 hours for the top pros, 12 to 13 hours for me.  Now the equation changed dramatically – 10 hours for them would mean 15 for me!  That would be a very long day.  I quickly went from being nervous to being downright scared.  I dodged back to the hotel room, got a spare headlamp and threw it into an earlier drop bag, just in case.

Brenda and the girls were going to be coming in late, so I sat in our room, had a dinner of hummus and flat bread, then sewed my hand-held water bottle straps.  After saving my hands on a number of falls, they were starting to come apart.  By the time they finally drove in, I had to carry both girls to our room and they quickly went to sleep.  I, unfortunately, was not so lucky.  I tossed and turned for hours, trying unsuccessfully not to worry too much about what lay ahead.  By the time the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, I had totaled less than 2 hours of intermittent sleep.

Everything was carefully laid out the night before, so I quickly and quietly went through my pre-race prep and headed out to the lobby to hop onto a shuttle van that would take us over to Breckenridge for the start.  With the start scheduled for 7:00 AM, we were all grumpily wondering why we had to leave Vail at 4:30, for what should be a 45 minute drive.  Turns out the race director and the drivers were all nervous about getting us there on time, and with good reason.  Vail pass had been shut down for a period of time overnight.  The roads were still slick and the going was a bit slow, but we got there in plenty of time and the running store that was hosting the start had enough room to keep most of the runners out of the early morning chill.  I got to mingle with lots of runners from all over the country.  I even ran into Shannon, the Breckenridge police chief.  I had met her a year earlier at the Rocky Mountain Program and knew she was a runner also.

One week ago, at the Javalina Jangover race outside of Phoenix, the starting temperature was 99 degrees.  Now it was in the mid 20’s – a full 75 degrees colder!  The whole evening before, I kept waffling about what to wear on the course.  I wound up going with two thin long-sleeved jersey’s, shorts, a thin hat, and gloves that I that didn’t think were going to be adequate.  I had also found a few left over hand-warmers and had one inside my glove.

I tried to wait as long as possible to take off my sweats, but waiting even a couple of minutes for the gun to start was a combination of cold and nervous shivering.  And then we were off.  Boy, it felt good to be actually running after all the nerves and anticipation.  As has happened in the past few races, no one seemed to want to be at the front (expect for the pros), so I wound up starting much further up than I would have preferred.  That didn’t last long, as runners streamed past me.  I know a few were simply better than me, but for most of them I was thinking “Hey guys, there’s 62 miles to go.  What’s the rush?”

After a short bit on the pavement, we hit a gravel road and then made our way straight up a ski slope.  This was the first modification from the maps that I had relied on.  What I had initially planned on as a 2.4 mile, 200’ gain leg to the first aid station at Grand Lodge had been upped to 5.8 miles and 1,500’.  After that initial climb, things settled into a gently rolling trail down to Frisco.  It was nice and cool in this shaded section, with a little bit of snow and some intermittent ice patches that I was able to navigate around.  Despite having to stop every 20 minutes due to over-hydration, I fell into a bit of a rhythm and was able to have some nice conversations with runners from all over the country.

With the additional mileage and climbing, I got into Frisco almost an hour behind schedule, so I wasn’t at all surprised that Brenda and the girls weren’t there.  I was actually rather relieved that they weren’t sitting around waiting.  The aid station was very well stocked, as had been advertised.  I filled bottles, got some snacks and then found my first drop bag.  I tentatively made the decision to drop one of the long sleeve shirts since we were going to be climbing soon.  I did take my Ultimate Direction running pack with a jacket in the back, and snack pockets in front.

A bit out of Frisco, we started climbing up a rough forest service road.  One of the runners with headphones in his ears almost got knocked off the side by a passing pickup truck and trailer.  He was pretty annoyed and rude to the driver, but it was his own damn fault.  I tried to warn him but he didn’t hear me until the last second and then he seemed to think that sharing the road was a foreign concept.  That driver did nothing wrong and he had as much of a right to the road as we did.  I hate it when jerks like that are stupid and rude, making it tougher for the rest of us. 

Just before we got to the next aid station at Miners Creek Road, I passed a gal who wasn’t looking so good.  Apparently she was feeling the altitude and throwing up repeatedly.  Much to my amazement, her plan was to continue on past the aid station, climb 3,500’ over the Ten Mile range and drop out at Copper, where her friends were waiting for her.  I tried to nicely relay to her that it would be stupidly dangerous.  I’m not sure what she decided in the end.  Hopefully the volunteers were able to dissuade her.

After the Miners Creek Road aid station we were back on the trail and climbing up toward the Ten Mile Range.  I was feeling pretty good, pacing myself just right.  By the time we got up close to tree line, the snow was getting deeper and I started to pass more runners.  It was beautiful up there, though I was glad that others had broken the trail before me.  It was mainly packed, with some intermittent post holes.  I opened up another hand warmer as the wind was picking up.  Luckily it was mainly coming from behind.  A few runners were clearly struggling with the altitude, but I loved being up there, though I was wishing I had brought a pair of sunglasses.  12,500’ with fresh snow and a clear, sunny sky can be pretty blinding.  At times I was alternating keeping one eye open at a time.  The last thing I wanted was to suffer from snow blindness, especially once it got dark.

Though the trail was packed, parts of it had enough of a side camber that it took some effort not to slide off.  Where it leveled, I was able to run.  There were quite a few false summits to the pass and I was pleased when I finally hit the real top.  In the mid 30’s, with a 15 mph wind, it was pretty chilly, but I didn’t want to stop.  I knew that even the one minute that it would take to get my pack off and put the jacket on would send me shivering.  I figured I would be fine as long as I kept moving and soon enough, I would get back down into the trees.  It was truly beautiful up there and running down the other side on a snow packed trail was a blast.

The decent towards Copper felt good after the long climb, but I was having so much fun, I made the mistake of sticking with an Italian runner from Connecticut.  About 2/3 of the way down, I realized that I was moving way too fast for this early in the race.  I eased up and enjoyed the undulating downhill.  I was happy to get down to the bottom and figured we would cross the road and quickly head on into Copper Mountain Village for the next aid station.  Wrong.  This was another of the route changes from my maps.  We actually turned south, headed part way up the ski slopes, then traversed across before finally dropping down to the aid station.

I was about an hour and a half behind my predicted time and was not too happy about the unexpected detours.  As I stopped to resupply, Kirstyn and Amy came running up behind me.  I was thrilled to see them, even though it was only for a minute.  I felt bad because Amy wanted to show me a rock snake that she was making and I was in such a rush to move on.  As I ran out, I told Brenda I had no freaking idea as to when I would be at what aid stations.  I had given her a detailed breakdown, but with all the changes, it wasn’t worth it for them to be sitting around indefinitely.

I looked for the course out of the aid station when I was pointed right back the way I had come.  Instead of getting on the bike path as I had anticipated, we headed straight up the ski slope.  Now I was really unhappy.  Not only did we have this climb to deal with, but also some sloppy muck to navigate through.

After the seemingly needless climb, we eventually made our way back down and onto the paved bike path.  I had been pretty conservative in planning my pace on this section and had secretly hoped that I could make up some time.  Unfortunately, with fatigue starting to take its toll (in addition to my unhappy attitude), I wasn’t able to make up any time at all.  The climb was relatively slow.  Going down the other side, I was able to roll along at a decent pace, but still not making up any real time.  A couple of miles down from the top of Vail Pass was the next aid station.  On most races, I’m looking for ice to put in my bottles or down my shorts.  With the temperature starting to cool off again, I enjoyed some warm chicken noodle soup.  Not only did the salty soup taste good, but it was served up by none other than Geoff Rose, one of the top ultra-runners in the world.  In what other sport can an average schmuck like me be served by a world class athlete?

There was a slight but cool headwind coming down off the pass, until we got back into more trees.  I hooked up with another runner and we stuck it out until the next aid station at Two Elks trail where we would finally turn off the pavement.  I don’t mind running on pavement that much, but being right up against the interstate, and compared to the beauty of the rest of the course, this was my least favorite part.  Killian Jornet was chided by some for calling this section “boring”.  I’m assuming these critics didn’t actually run the course, because I would definitely agree with him.  I don’t know if there would have been a better way to connect from Copper to Two Elks, but maybe they can figure something out if this race course is utilized again.

Once off the pavement, the Two Elks trail crossed under the highway and started climbing up a valley.  The bottom was moist from the dripping trees, yet still reasonably warm from the sun.  As we climbed farther up, the snow got a bit deeper and the temperature fell.  It wasn’t too cold so clumps of snow would periodically fall from the trees, but luckily none plopped down on my head.  That would not have been fun.  The climb was long and I was getting tired so I kept to a pretty conservative pace.  I still managed to pass a couple of runners and by the time we got up above the trees, I felt stronger and passed a few more.  This upper section of Vail Mountain, heading up to the Two Elks Lodge aid station was gorgeous, but unfortunately the previous night’s snow had melted into nasty, gooey mud.

At the aid station, I enjoyed some more warm soup as I re-stocked my supplies.  I took the extra headlamp with me as I wasn’t completely sure I would get to the Minturn before dark.  I was also going to enjoy a refreshing and hydrating can of club soda.  I had put one in each drop bag.  When I reached in, I felt a soggy shirt and a very light and empty can.  Apparently it had made too quick of a trip up the 3,000’ in altitude and had exploded inside the bag.  Luckily it’s nothing but carbonated water and I didn’t need the extra shirt.

The next mile and a half were even more unpleasant than the asphalt.  What would have been an easy jaunt on the dirt service roads at the top of the ski area became a slippery slog through more mud.  I let a few choice words fly as I was slipping this way and that, but eventually, we got back onto a trail.  This section heading down to Minturn was one of my favorites - gently downhill rolling single-track, with the sun setting on hillsides of golden aspen.  It was just beautiful.  I wish I had carried a camera, but I’m way too stingy with any extra ounces.

It was on this section that I hooked up with Rick Valentine from Idaho.  He caught up to me near the top and I thought he would just pass me, but he stayed on my tail the whole way down.  It was nice to have someone to chat with and share the beautiful scenery.  Neither one of us had a GPS so we guestimated our progress and were disappointedly corrected when we came up upon a couple of hikers and runners lower down.

We finally made it into the small town of Minturn, right around the 12 hour mark and just before it got dark.  I reloaded my supplies, grabbed my better headlamp, and headed back out through town chugging a can of Coke (good thing that didn’t explode in my drop bag).  Rick caught up to me shortly and we flicked on our lights as we navigated back onto the trail for the final climb of the day.  Only 10 more miles to go, but there was still a 2,500’ climb in front of us.

Shortly after we hit the trail, we caught up to Mark, from Breckenridge.  Given how we caught him, I thought we might just pass on by, but Mark wasn’t ready to be passed.  He kept motoring on up the climb with me and Rick following.  Parts of the climb were steep, but other areas were more moderate and these guys started running.  I wouldn’t have been running if I was on my own at this point, but I didn’t want to get left behind, so I walked when they walked and ran when they ran.  I was amazed and proud of myself that I could actually run uphill after 60 miles!

It was a beautiful, clear, and dark night as we made our way back up to Vail Mountain.  The stars were magnificent, though I couldn’t look up for long.  We eventually arrived at the top of the Vail gondola and our final aid station.  I had a cup of Coke and asked one of the very helpful volunteers to pull my jacket out of the pack.  I hadn’t used it all day, but with the temperature dropping and my energy reserves running low, I knew I would need it to keep warm.

After navigating a bit more mud at the top, we got on the dirt road that would take us down the mountain and to the finish line.  They told us 4.5 miles to go at the top, but it turned out to be 6.  I ran pretty well, but Rick and Mark broke away as they were stronger and more fearless.  That final descent seemed to take forever.  There were lots of switchbacks going back and forth across the face of the mountain and the lights at the bottom were only slowly getting closer.  The road was smooth, with intermittent soft spots and the light of the headlamp shone hypnotically in front of me.  I had stayed upright all day and I didn’t want to do a face plant so close to the end.

I hadn’t bothered to look at my watch for quite a while but from Minturn, I had calculated that we would finish somewhere around 14:30.  When I crossed the line, with bright lights blinding me, the clock read 14:27:21!  Almost 5 hours and 16 miles longer, and 4,500’ more climbing than any run I have ever done.  I was ecstatic, but it got even better.  Being almost 9:30 PM, I figured Brenda and the girls were long asleep, but no.  Kirstyn and Amy came running out of the shadows for a big hug.  I was shocked and thrilled that they had stayed up to share this moment with me.

I would have been happier knowing the correct course before the start and not having to deal with the sloppy mud, but oh well, that’s what ultra-running is all about, dealing with the unexpected.  The course had magnificent sections like the snowy, alpine crossing of the Ten Mile range and the incredible golden aspens on the back side of Vail Mountain.  Even better were all the connections that I made with various runners along the way, especially Rick and Mark who practically pulled me up the final climb.

This was an awesome and epic race.  I was so scared before the start and so proud after the finish.  My overall placement (36th out of 78) was one of the worst I’ve ever had, but I couldn’t be happier.  Half of the runners in front of me were pros and 45% of the field didn’t even finish.  I know it’s still a 50% increase in mileage and 20% increase in elevation gain to Leadville, but I feel like I am a huge step closer

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