Jul 11, 2013
The title phrase is stolen from Jared Campbell, who correctly applied it to the barkley, but I like it here as well. [2013 digression: I’m a bit late with my report, following in the tradition of last year, but it’s actually kind of a fun way to sit in silverton and get psyched for the race again. I just have to keep getting past the lottery and choosing to go! It also may be a benefit to the reader, since the report might be shorter than otherwise, but unfortunately for you I did take a few notes to myself right after the event…]
I haven’t completed a 100-mile race other than hardrock since 2008, but it’s hard to stay away from this one – a beautiful and extremely tough course, with a great group of people and sense of community. Although I’ve never been accused of overtraining, and this year was no different, I decided to try something new and work with a coach (I almost wrote “couch” – freudian slip anyone?). I had met him (Matt Hart) in person once, but we did everything by email during the three months before the race. This definitely got me to do more core work than otherwise, and more regular workouts (including intervals), so overall I was probably slightly better trained than usual but without a lot of long runs (no fault of Matt’s). On the whole the coaching was a good experience, but since I don’t care too too much about times, and since I want to enjoy as much of my training as possible, and since to be frank I know exactly what I need to do if I ever choose to take the time to really train (viz: run more), I probably won’t repeat it.
I showed up in silverton (9300’) about a week before the race, which was a bit less than previous years and a bit less than optimal, but happy news in my personal life has greatly increased the opportunity cost of being away so it was an easy decision. Maybe the extra training would compensate… or maybe not. I stayed at my usual place (the prospector motel – recommended!) and the first scary thing happened: some non-runners staying there actually remembered me from the year before. It’s true that I know the town fairly well by now, but I’m not sure this was a good sign.
I also did my usual two days of trailwork – to get an extra lottery ticket for next year, and to hang out with folks, and to give back a little, in that order (joking! well, sort of) – and riding in the back of the pick-up truck to/from the worksite may have been the most dangerous part of my whole trip. My father and his wife came out to crew for me, which was great (my mom had come last year), and I spent some time with them and showed them how to get to grouse and cunningham aid stations. I think they really enjoyed the trip, and I certainly appreciated it.
Finally, Brett Maune (whom I had originally connected with via our mutual caltech connection) came out to pace me and to scout some of the course for a future attempt. He very generously said, “I know you don’t actually need a pacer, but it will be fun to hang out and I’d like to see parts of the course that I haven’t been on” and indeed this was the first time I’ve had a real pacer in a race; a couple of other times a friend joined for 12-18 miles in the middle, which is different. I didn’t think I needed a pacer either, but we shall see how that went.
So I showed up at the start, a few blocks from the hotel, around 5am on friday. There was a lot of energy in the room, and a lot of nervous happy jitters, but I also felt a palpable sense, from me at least, of “Holy shit what did I get myself into… again?” That’s normal in anticipation of the marvelous crazy long adventure ahead, along with knowing that so many things will happen (but not knowing what they will be), so I just tried to ride the wave. We all started, and after two minutes I promptly realized that I had forgotten my phone in the pocket of the jacket that I was wearing until the last minute, so I turned around and headed backwards.
The spectators and cameras and clapping had all mostly dissipated, and they were surprised / worried to see a runner turn up again so soon, but I quickly found my dad and the phone and started off again. I don’t normally carry a phone, but given the new person in my life (labas Asta!) we both wanted to be in touch. I tried not to sprint to catch up to everyone, but I’m sure there was a bit of it going on anyway. In fact it looks like I was back up to 62nd place at chapman (mile 18), out of 140 starters, so I passed almost 80 people in that first stretch.
But first came the south mineral creek water crossing (mile 3ish?) – very low this year, and easy so early in the race. In 2011 (a very wet year!) it was high and fast and cold, and hard so late in the race, but this year (my third hardrock, but first in the clockwise direction) was straightforward. Lots of people around to watch, which was fun. I don’t remember too much now of those early miles afterward… maybe chatting a bit with Robert Andrulis. I do remember some bothersome flies going up to oscar’s pass after chapman, and it was warm in the sun (for me), especially with the heat of the day, but overall the weather was pretty good – cool later, which I like.
We headed up from telluride (mile 30) to kroger’s canteen at virginius pass, probably my favorite aid station in all of running. I think Roch Horton and Fred Ecks were there with other volunteers – these guys are simply amazing, creating a wonderful break spot out of a small rocky pass at over 13,000’. I enjoyed a feast for the gods: warm noodle soup; cold mountain dew; and chocolate pudding (best of all). As I headed down the steep hillside, I enjoyed it all again (mixed together) in a loud burp, which elicited a cheer from above. I gave two big thumbs up and continued slip-sliding down.
Overall everything was a bit slower than I had hoped (dream goal of 36 hours, vs 39 the year before) but basically fine, and I headed into the big aid station at ouray (mile 45) around 9pm, giving Asta a quick call once I was in range. I’m often slow in aid stations, but managed to change shoes here and eat quite a bit and change for the night and get out in 25 minutes, which is good for me. What follows is the longest climb on the course (in this direction), over 5000’ to engineer pass at just over 13,000’. I like this section a lot, but it turns out my stomach did not. Just after the switchbacks above the highway, I lost everything that I had eaten and more.
This was seriously not good. I was feeling shaky and weak from throwing up, and feeling plenty of stomach upset even after sitting for a spell, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to take in any calories for some time. Engineer aid station is about 1000’ below the pass, but it was still a long long way off, and it’s totally remote with no way to drop. If I continued on, I would have to make it all the way to grouse (mile 60). For some time I considered heading back to ouray to see if I could recover there, since I still had plenty of time before the cutoff. In the meantime I sipped water and had some ginger candies, hoping my stomach would come back to life. In the end I wasn’t feeling any better or stronger, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing ground or giving back distance, so I decided to head upward.
Digression: I’m still not sure exactly what went wrong. I’ve thrown up at races before, but not often and only in the heat. My best guess is that I ate too much at ouray, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. I think I need to eat more consistently during races, but in smaller amounts, since I don’t usually find myself actually losing energy / speed from hunger. The sages of the ultralist would probably agree with this diagnosis, and I make it in part from reading many reports and morsels of advice online. Adding to the problem may have been my waist hydration pack (not liking bladders), which I am sentimentally attached to and find very convenient, but not always comfortable. Eventually I turned it around to reduce the pressure on my gut, although it looked ridiculous (and carried poorly) with the water bottles upfront. But in the end I’m still not 100% sure what happened.
It turns out to be true that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you get where you’re going, and I arrived at engineer aid station just before 2am, after 4.5 hours of trudging slowly uphill. According to the results I spent an additional 45 minutes there, staring blankly into the fire and monotonously working my way through a couple of saltines. I still couldn’t stand the thought of food. The volunteers were supportive, although they couldn’t do much to help. My thoughts were bleak, but eventually (seeing as how no helicopter appeared out of the blue to rescue me, or to put me out of my misery in some other way) I stood up and started uphill once more. According to the results, I was in 95th place at this point, just to give a sense for how much I had slowed.
There is a short steep slippery grass slope just below the actual pass (which consists of a 4WD road at this point), and I could hear someone above me from a ways off. As I slowly got closer, it turned out to be a rather enthusiastic but unusual lone figure, shouting “That’s what I’m talking about!!” at the top of his lungs, and offering various adult beverages (remember this is about 3am, and there is no one else around). Trying to decipher this, I wasn’t sure my brain was working properly. Normally I would have partaken (in the middle of a race, yes), but obviously not in these circumstances, so I declined politely and went on my less-than-merry way.
From here it’s just a long downhill on dirt roads to grouse, which ought to be runnable, but instead I continued trudging. My crew and pacer were supposed to meet me there, although of course I was going to be way past my expected time. I dreamed of stopping my race, as appeared likely, and sleeping. After grouse comes handies peak (at over 14,000’ the high point of the course), and that seemed impossible without taking in nutrition, which wasn’t happening. I turned over in my mind how to tell them that I was stopping, feeling bad that I would let them down (especially Brett, who would be keen to get out there). On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had much choice (can’t do anything if you have no energy, and at this point it was many many hours since I had ingested and actually digested any food), and I felt like it would at least prove to family and friends that I was a reasonable person (unlike those other runners, you know), stopping when appropriate. I was disappointed but not scared of a DNF per se.
I finally made it to grouse just after 5am, happy to see everyone but feeling guilty for keeping them awake (thank you all!) and for nothing in the end. In my mind it wasn’t quite 100% that I would quit (miracles can happen, even to one’s intestinal tract), and I didn’t run over to the officials to immediately cut my bracelet off, but it was 99%. I sat down. I tried to get warm. I ate a little bit of very plain food, and drank some ginger ale. I told them what had happened. Brett was indeed keen to go, and he said “You can’t quit at 5am! – everyone feels terrible at 5am – you can only quit after the sun comes up.” I tried to argue, claiming that I didn’t really want to quit, but this was about calories and I had no choice and blah blah blah. My father was a bit anxious (as was everyone at home, it turned out later, naturally enough – sorry!), but Brett was persistent. At some point the sky got lighter, and he pointed to a small copse of trees a little ways up the first slope to grouse-american pass and thence to handies. “Let’s go at least that far, and you can decide to quit there if you really want to.”
After 40 minutes in the aid station, I reluctantly headed out, still thinking it was probably a waste of time and we wouldn’t get far. But it turns out my resurrection had just begun: we never looked back, passing over 30 people from there to the finish, and not being passed by anyone. I was slowly able to take in real food again, as well as some jet blackberry gu packs, with double caffeine and turbo boost. Brett, by the way, only consumed gels. We talked about his training methods (which are fascinating, but I’m sworn to secrecy), and optimal child-rearing strategies, and nature vs nurture. When I got engrossed in the conversation, he would say something very subtle like: “Should you maybe be doing a little less talking and a little more running?” Hard to argue with that, unfortunately, although I occasionally wished I had chosen a slightly less hard-core pacer. For those who are unaware, Brett broke the assisted speed record on the john muir trail while unassisted, and he is the only person to have finished barkley twice (where he also holds the course record). A super nice guy, unburdened by sympathy for slow people. Which is to say: the perfect pacer.
Of course it wasn’t all fun and games, rainbows and unicorns. The weather was capricious, with sudden rain squalls blowing over, and lightning strikes near yankee boy basin. At some point closer to the end, when I knew I would finish, I got to the usual stage of wanting it all to be over. Why do I have to spend these last few hours / miles out here, when I know pretty much what’s going to happen? At the same time I felt in somewhat of a trance state, willing to follow the little orange markers until they stopped, wherever that might happen to be. If there were three more big mountains to climb, so be it. Lead on. One sour note was seeing a runner (and pacer) accidentally get off course, and then when this was pointed out to them they cut back on route, shaving some distance and elevation. Not a big time difference to be sure, and there were no awards at stake in our shared place back in the pack, but disappointing to me.
Brett was helpful in actively prodding me to run, and reminding me to eat, and getting me out of aid stations, but also just because I think highly of him and didn’t want to look too weak. Normally I go fairly quickly uphill, but also stop and rest briefly at regular intervals (at least on hardrock-type climbs). But now I just kept going a bit longer to avoid having to say I needed a break, and a bit longer, until we often found ourselves at the top without a stop. Brett was even strategic enough to say a couple of times that he didn’t think he could go much faster if he were on his own, and nothing cheers a runner like hearing his pacer say that! Probably a lie, naturally, but given that he wasn’t acclimated and was coming off a minor injury, and that we really were moving pretty well, I remain in a happy state of plausible deniability.
The trail down to cunningham (mile 93) hugs a steep face and is spectacular. Among other things, you can also see the steep face on the other side of the gulch, which constitutes the last real climb of the race. Brett was unsure whether he wanted to continue for the last 9 miles and risk stressing his injury, given that I was now feeling good (relatively speaking, of course!) and had plenty of time to finish. But it was too tempting and he couldn’t help himself, which was great for me. We had been moving so much faster than schedule since grouse that my dad missed us in Cunningham, and I think I may even have seen his rental car like a tiny bug below, when we were already high up the far side.
At the top of Dives-Little Giant, I started thinking about time (just as a carrot to keep moving) and wondered whether we could beat my 39:02 from the previous year. It seemed possible, and we ran much of the way down the road section. I was filled with adrenaline once again, but unfortunately that doesn’t really last for an hour plus. Finally we reached the turnoff and the undulating trail back to silverton. I thought we were close and had it in the bag. But I had hiked out from town a mile or two this way earlier in the week, and was now desperately trying to remember exactly how far I thought I had come, since nothing looked familiar. It was getting dark and neither of us wanted to get out our lights, though we occasionally risked tripping on tired legs under the tree branches. Our spirits dragged as much as our feet. Every short uphill Brett would say “This is bullshit!” and we would press onward, running many of the ups. Finally, finally, we got to places I remembered and then the ski resort on the edge of town and I knew we were going to make it.
But one little adventure remained. At the bottom of the hill next to the ski resort, we saw in the dusk a runner and pacer, not moving particularly quickly. One final ‘victim’, I thought to myself – not that my placement mattered (seriously), but more as tribute and incentive for all the hard work I had put in these last miles. We reached them on the edge of town, and somewhat to my surprise it was Blake Wood, one of the true hardrock greats (umpteen-time finisher and former winner, among other things), whom I know and with whom I had chatted much earlier in the race. We said out mutual hellos, and I kept running. He picked up the pace to match. Those who follow these things will know that Blake is a very fast masters runner when he wants to play on the track, and I’m quite sure his mile time is better than mine. We were now less than half a mile from the finish. We ran silently next to each other, pushing hard and breathing hard after 102 miles in the mountains, both surely thinking the same thing…
Finally Blake broke the silence, more courageous than I, and asked: “What’s your pleasure, Julian?” I responded: “It would be an honor to finish [thinking especially this race] next to you” and I meant it fully. He agreed, and we kept running to the end, if perhaps less than full bore. The racing purists (Laz, I’m looking at you) may not approve, and I have myself run hard to stay seconds ahead of competitors at a couple of other ultras so I’m sympathetic, but in this case I think it was the right solution. And that’s how I came to finish the 2012 hardrock with a 2-time barkley finished to my right and a 1.9-time barkley finisher to my left, Blake having been stopped only by a dangerously high river on an unfortunate fifth loop some years ago. Two guys I respect tremendously, as runners and as people.
Final time was 38:49, tied for 51st place out of 98 finishers, squeaking in below my previous best. Brett and I ran the 42 miles from grouse in 15 hours, making him perhaps the only pacer in the history of hardrock to do that entire stretch in this direction without using a light. [Lots of people have done it much faster, of course, but they tend to leave grouse before daylight!] We did the final leg from cunningham in 2:49; the average split for the top ten finishers was 2:35; so yes I’m pretty happy with that. Allow me my moment, since it was as much a surprise for me (rising from the dead or otherwise) as for anyone.
At the end I kissed the rock, shook RD Dale Garland’s hand (saying “it feels sooo good to be done”), shook Brett’s hand, shook Blake’s hand, shook my dad’s hand, wobbled a little, smiled a little, took some photos, went into the gym and sat down and stared at the wall for a while. I called Asta to let her know I was done and basically okay, which was true. My friends Dima and Karen said they knew I would finish since I was so relaxed beforehand, which I took as a compliment but would have been news to the Julian on engineer pass in the middle of the night. I thought I knew what it meant to have a low spot and come back, but I had no idea until now. I’m so glad I kept going, since it feels so damn good to finish, and I have to once more thank Brett and my dad and all the volunteers and inspiring other runners for helping me get through.
I wasn’t sure I would feel the same need to go back (the first time is the first time; the second time I wanted to prove the first time wasn’t a fluke; the third time I wanted to see the other direction), but here I am again in 2013. Now I’m starting to think about the 5-time-finishers jacket, and how I can shave off a few minutes here and there, and oh-my-god the view from handies peak or grant-swamp pass…
Happy trails (and roads) everyone!