As the sun rose over craggy desert mountains near Arizona’s McDowell mountain range, 60 some odd racers toed a start line and a race director was counting down from 5, 4, 3, 2… 1. At that same time, standing at a tent 20 feet from the start line in the warm desert dawn with headphones in my ear, I was filling the bottle to its 20-ounce capacity and casually realizing that these few seconds may not matter as much as the next few hours or the task ahead: to complete my second 50-mile ultra marathon. I told myself all week I was ready for this; after all, the course only offered one ascent to a 3914′ mountain and my mantra for the day was: I only have one mountain to climb! Seconds later with a topped off water bottle, I snuck into the back of the pack. I adjusted my pace to pass enough people to get some breathing room and eased into averaging 9-minute miles, my target for the day and a pace that would keep me ahead of mid-pack, ready for a charge after 30 miles if I did everything right.
I live in the mountains in Telluride, Co. and my gear closet has more shiny sharp edges, clangy items and weather-bleached nylon than dusty running shoes, so to be here in Pheonix, Az. on a weekend in December (a time I would normally be skiing Silverton or in past warm winters rock or ice climbing) was quite foreign to me. Then again, climbing this one mountain in the middle of an ultra distance race — 3914′ Thompson peak with cell phone towers on it and a partially paved road to the top — was even crazier. But this year marks a new chapter in my quest to explore peaks, one that will require greater fortitude for distance than I have exhibited in the past, and so running 50 miles and climbing one mountain in the middle is all part of the process… on paper. The reality of ticking off goal after goal in a longer process I’m scoping out but can’t reveal to you guys just yet today has taught me things I wish I had learned earlier in my mountaineering career and am incredibly grateful to be learning now.
I traveled to Phoenix for this race with a Telluride region local and experienced ultra runner, Rhonda Claridge. Rhonda has won a few 50 and 100-mile races and is a great person to travel with for an event like this, one she took second place in. On the eight hour drive, we recounted stories of long solo training runs in the San Jaun mountains, the seclusion and self reliance they often demand and the stunning beauty that we have been so lucky to experience triggered by curiosity and driven over summits and ridges to further summits and ridges, all because of running. For Rhonda, the goal was to win the race. For me, it was to have a fantastic time finishing as I think that at this stage of the game, entering my second 50 mile ultra in only six months of high mileage training after years of trail running alone, I enjoy just being there — and the training runs that I do to get to the start line.
Much like climbing mountains, racing them demands specificity in training. Whereas in the Himalayas I may sharpen my skills on mixed ground before attempting a climb on a steep line, for this race and my next two afterwards in February and May, I must train in the desert. Thirteen days before this race, I went out from the Wildwood trailhead in Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Co. and traversed the whole park and then back again completing a 25-mile run knowing that if I felt good and could move steadily, this desert race would be a lot of fun because it was at substantially lower altitude. This training run took me just over four hours. Mostly because I am a newbie to frequent weekly big distance runs, consistently now clocking mileage over 30 or more on most weekends and up to 70 a week, a nasty non-detrimental hindrance to joining the ranks as a distance runner popped up during this run — an irritated IT band. This is a common overuse condition that occurs frequently in runners escalating mileage and sitting for long periods at work as I often have to. At about mile 20, I started having less fun picking up my left knee and by mile 25, was reduced to a shuffle, albiet still at a running pace. I chalked it up to a lesson learned and completed the run as I couldn’t bail out anywhere anyway. Later that week I went to see a physical therapist and was cleared to taper off and keep my fingers crossed it didn’t spring up during the race but if it did, I could keep going as long as I could handle how it felt. “Ok, so I can race” I thought, “I can do this and get through it but I will have to have a day where I do everything right.”
The morning of the race, after the pack spread out onto the trail, I had a fantastic time shuffling along at a decent clip in 50 degree temps and passing many racers on my way to settling into the 9-minute pace I wanted to keep for 30 or so of the 50 miles. The trail was smooth, sandy at times and the low altitude meant that I could run uphill endlessly at the same clip without ever suffering as we do here in the mountains. It was bliss really and a great start. Around mile 11 I started to feel the IT band as my left hip got tight and my knee wanted to lock up a little. I told myself, much like I would on a nasty day in the high mountains, that like cutting cold weather, this condition would go away and everything would be fine if I just kept moving. Miraculously, by mile 15 it did and I had neither slowed down nor given in to the pain that had completely disappeared, and everything was plugging along on the desert trail exactly as I had wanted, as I had trained specifically for.
The crux of the race came around mile 19 as the ascent up Thompson peak loomed two miles and a couple thousand feet overhead up a steep partially paved road cut. I settled into a rhythm that felt totally relaxed and just motored my way up, passing several people who did not seem to anticipate the joy of reaching this summit and still having over 26 miles left in the race. I adhered to my mantra, I only had one mountain to climb and I was going to enjoy it! Having a moment to myself on the summit amid buzzing cell towers, I felt good, stretched and then let it rip on the “blisteringly” steep descent. My joy was short-lived as I reached the bottom of the climb at mile 23.2 and suddenly, after changing my shoes and beginning uphill again, my IT band flared to the point that lifting my knee initiated a stabbing pain. Apparently this suffer point was common as many racers were blistered, spent or out of gas after the climb and friction-producing descent of the steepest “paved” road any of us have climbed, one I could only imagine driving up with a winch and a few hours.
Undeterred and reeling from endorphins, I figured oh well, like the episode earlier, this shall pass. But it didn’t and so for the next six miles I would run about a minute or two, stop and then rub my knee cap as my physical therapist had instructed and then proceed pain free for another minute or two until it came back. This became a trying effort as I had seen the first half of the race fly by and set me up for a nine hour or so finish and now I would spend more than two hours going six miles, all the while feeling energetic and optimistic, just in pain in one critical spot but patiently trying to work it out thinking “Ok, I can do this in 10 hours!”
As I passed the aid station at mile 29.5, I ran uphill one last time and began the epic process of deciding what to do over a seven-minute stretching session that proved fruitless to the pain. I struggled with the decision to continue with more than 20 miles to go. I thought to myself, “there is no way I can run for two minutes at a time, stop, rub my knee for a minute and ever get to the finish line,” as I continued forward mile after painful stop and go mile. The worst part about an IT band issue is that although it might hurt then, in all liklehood, the next day it wouldn’t even be there, not even a trace. I continued forward, being a stubborn mountaineer and aware that I had to get somewhere if I was going to quit anyway. Soon, people started catching up to me and as I looked over my shoulder just past mile 33.5, a “large” tan shirtless man in his 50s with a giant belly approached and I began to suffer the agony of defeat, knowing I would be passed and bested by someone who even despite an unlikely appearance would beat me on old man strengh alone… NOOOO!
So I accepted my fate, called my wife and began a hobbling hike forward knowing I had to get to at least mile 39.5 before I could drop out of the race and told her what I thought I would do. As usual, we laughed and chatted about other stuff, it was fun sharing the time alone crossing the flat expanse of desert with my wife on the phone. She would never do this type of activity and for good reason, you have to get through some major barriers before you can experience the real pleasure of ultra distance and I was suffering this common one now in a race. I agreed to drop, hung up the phone and plowed ahead in the still 80 degree air for few minutes… but then, I looked at my watch and realized it was only 3:30 and I had travelled 35.6 miles in 8 and a half hours despite all this complication. I stopped and rubbed my knee and felt now that after a few miles of pure hiking I could walk with minimal pain and adjustment to my gait… hmmmm. This race was not going to be possible to finish at the six and a half mile an hour pace I had trained so hard to be able to run but I had a lower gear, one that would still get it done, one I had used many a time pounding out long approaches back to civilization after draining mountain climbs.
Playing hurt has been part of the game since frost-biting my foot on my Everest summit day in 2003, that is real pain and a pain that lasts. This, well, this was just something I would have to live with for a day. I was not going to make my goal of a sub 10 hour top 10 finish but I had gone fast enough in the beginning that despite burning nearly four hours on a measly 9.5 miles of running and stopping for maintenance for two minutes every two or so minutes of running, it became clear that with only a little above 14 miles left that if I just hiked like I knew I could, I could still finish under the 14 hour cutoff time. So I picked up the pace and motored to the end finishing in 12:24 minutes, the last four hours were at nearly a four mph pace hike. I didn’t care if I couldn’t run, I was just there to get the mileage in and yet still, improved on my previous 50 mile time (especially the first half) and beat nine other finishers to the finish with nearly 20 miles hiked after a painful 30 mile run.
In the midst of this “successful failure” I learned something, something that I think is important. I learned that I could overcome a mistake I had made eagerly two weeks before by running too great a distance too close to the race and taking as much joy and enthusiasm in training as I thought I would experience in racing. It happens, I have to balance a family, work and an athletic schedule and ultra running is one more arrow in the quiver of being a mountaineer and I am taking a real liking to it. After all, I’m doing these races because I have a secret bigger distance mountain goal coming up and this is the only way I can solve the puzzle to get there. But unlike the field of 55.4 percent of people who entered this race and dropped, many after the mountain climb long before nightfall and some champions afraid to lose, I could claim I hung in there and solved the problem. I didn’t let my ego or expectations get in the way of doing what I love doing, being outside all day. After all, I only had one mountain to climb all day — the icing on the cake: the next morning there was no pain in my knee, none…that’s an IT band for you.
Can’t wait until the next race 2/16/13!