Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bridger Humility

The mountain is winning right now. With it’s 60 mph gales from the west blowing my body around like a prayer flag on this ridge.  I’m wearing all the layers I brought. A singlet, a long sleeve, a wind jacket, a rain jacket, gloves and a beanie. The rain jacket almost flew to Billings as  I tried putting it on with cold stiff fingers. The layers and fingers both are no help.  I am soaked by the rain and gutted by the wind.  And the fog. And the lightning.  Oh, and it is 3 am and my visibility is not limited by my headlamp, but by this living cloud in which I have suddenly found myself.

This is not the normal way to spend the night before running the Bridger Ridge Run just outside of Bozeman, MT. With 6700 ft of ascent and 9600 of descent over 19.6 miles, the Bridger Ridge is truly one of the most rugged and scenic mountain courses in the United States.  I don’t say that as hyperbole, but as fact.  The numbers alone deserve respect, but it is the aesthetically brutal technicality of the course itself which sets this race apart! Rocky, mean, and steep are words I would choose to describe it. In real mountain style, the race organizers barely even mark this open course. You start at the start. And you finish at the finish. In between, you just follow the ridge. Simple and burly.

                                                        The Bridger Ridge

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I should explain the reason I found myself in the heart of a thunderstorm at 3 AM on the at 8200 feet in the Bridger Mtns. attempting to make it to the start line in an unconventional fashion. Four letters should do the trick. U. T. M. B.  A 103 mile mountain race in Europe just 3 weeks away at the point of this run. And my goal race for the summer.  I’ve always loved putting in a crazy day of training about 3 weeks from a big race and I’ve always loved any opportunity to run the Bridger ridge.  Turns out I was able to kill two birds with one stone on this particular occasion. Well kind of.

After falling asleep sometime around 10:30 on Friday night I got up at 1 am and attempted to eat Nutella on a tortilla and drink a cup of coffee.  “Attempted” is the key word here.  Although I mentally was OK with this early of a start to the day, my stomach refused to be cajoled from it's normal rhythms. The bars haven’t even closed yet for god sakes! This I found out, dodging drunks, on the drive across town to the M trail parking lot. 

With hopes of running the course in reverse to the start, I started my watch around 1:30 am with hopes for an easy effort 5 hr push before getting my bib number and flipping around to do it all over again. Mother nature, it turns out, had a different plan. The rain began around 30 minutes into my first 5000 ft climb.  And then came the wind. And those streaks of lightning I saw in the distance from the parking lot, they didn't seem so distant anymore.  By the time I crested Mt. Baldy I started to have my doubts about standing on my own two feet, let alone running another 15 miles of exposed technical ridgeline. The fog was so thick I could barely see the trail, and twice I could only count to two between the bright flash of lightning and the following roar of thunder.   I historically have taken pride in both a high tolerance to adversity, but also in an ability to know when to turn around on any given objective. I got to test both of those characteristics on this early morning. I would not be making it to the race start via the ridge today, and that was just fine by me.  Instead I relegated myself to another steep lap on Baldy before sticking my thumb out in the predawn light for the other Ridge Runners smart enough to drive to the start. 

The race itself was tough and I gave it an honest and hard effort.  The weather had succumb to a clear and cool morning perfect for racing.  I started a little mentally timid afraid to ditch my rain jacket and pack I had already run with for 4 hours. The first few miles of the race felt more like survival mode, though I came around for a hard second half push. 

The course itself unfolded in a predicatable manner. There were good friends and good lucks at the start line. The views from the first climb, Mt. Sacagawea, were breathtaking. The section from Ross pass to Bridger Ski Area took FOR-EV-ER. The last couple miles to Baldy Mtn were relentlessly runnable (ugh!) and the stomach-in-your-throat decent to the finish was blissful quad thrashing. The cherry on top was the 5 minute PR I somehow managed along the way.

(Cresting the top of Baldy before the aforementioned quadthrashing)

Oh, and my good friend Mike Wolfe had a decent race I suppose.  Setting a new Course Record in a cut off western button up!

Style!  (photo by John Morris)

And now here I am a week later writing about it.  My legs feel normal again. I hope.  And UTMB is right around the corner.  Here is to creative ways to trash your body and pummel the mind! They tend to make the best stories.

Monday, July 23, 2012

This is the reason why...

I think I became most sold on the Sport of ultrarunning when, as a neophyte looking for advice on training, a good friend told me that there is no better way to prepare for an ultra than BIG days in the mountains covering miles.  Turns out I love big days in big mountains covering big miles,  and this is the time of year where I get to call the best days of my life, "training days."

Here are some images taken along the way:

(Cirque of the towers. Wind River Mountains, Wyoming)

(Upper Fremont Glacier in the Wind Rivers from Fremont Peak)

(View of Glacier Park from Great Northern Peak in the Great Bear Wilderness)

(Great Northern ridge line)

(Mike Wolfe hammerin' it in the Mission Mountains, MT)

(Big Sky Country!)

(More of the same. Mission Mountains)

(Summer in Montana)

(Runnable Ridges)

(Swan Mountains, MT)

(Fremont Peak. Objective of the day. Just left of center. 3rd tallest peak in Wyoming)

(A trail runs to it. Titcomb Basin. Wind Rivers, WY.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of Moose and Men: My 2012 Bighorn 100 Mile Race Report

Last summer I ran a 100 Mile Mountain Race in Europe.  There were 2400 runners hailing from all over the world.  I ate LOTS of cheese and sausage and ran through three countries.  I raced alongside ibex, helicopters, and beautiful Swiss children screaming “America! America! America!”  To top it off, the entire experience seemed to be infused with a potent mix of techno music and cow bell.

Two weeks ago I ran my first 100 Mile race since Europe: The Bighorn 100 Mile Wild and Scenic Mountain Run.  There were 118 runners.  The race was contained in (Gasp!) one state and the moose easily outnumbered the screaming blue-eyed Swiss children. And instead of chest thumping techno music at the start line, a lone elderly gentleman standing on a dirt road struggled his way through the Star Spangled Banner.  After attempting to hit the high note of  “the rockets red glare” three times without success, the entire crowd of anxious skinny ultra runners put aside their game faces to sing with him to the finish. I was without a doubt back in the US ultrarunning scene!

Not too long after the National Anthem I suppose a gun went off, or there was a count down, after which we all started our endeavor in an underwhelmingly slow jog (100 Mile starts are notoriously anticlimactic!).  As often is the case, the race started with a group of a dozen guys up front chatting leisurely while cruising up the stunning Tongue River canyon. (Seriously. It’s gorgeous!)  Upon reaching our first aid station a few miles into the course, most everyone stopped to top off water bottles.  I jogged through into the lead to start the long 4000 ft. climb into the heart of the Bighorns.  I didn’t know at the time, but that was the last section of trail I would share with another racer that day. In fact, my last running partner before picking up my pacer at Mile 66 was somebody’s dog who followed me 7 miles from the first to second aid station!

After parting ways from my K-9 friend, the course, bit by bit, unraveled in front of me in the form of singletrack trail, doubletrack road, and vistas of the characteristically Wyoming high mountain plateaus.  As an out and back race, the first 50 Miles of the course draw you higher and deeper into the mountains.  In your short shorts and tank top, you cannot help but feel progressively small, vulnerable, and “out there.” Twice, in fact, I was stopped in my tracks by moose blocking the trail.  If you have ever spent time with moose in the wild, you know they can be ornery. One must be extremely diplomatic in persuading a moose to move along.  And, you heard it here first, nothing says diplomacy like throwing rocks and yelling “Git on outta here!”  And that is how the first third of this story went: putting one foot in front of another, and throwing rocks when necessary.

From mile 33 to 48, the course climbs and climbs and climbs.  That brutal grade that is relentlessly runnable when all you want is to hike. Cranking away the miles to the highpoint of the race, which is also the turn around, one gets the feeling of a tightly wound spring storing potential energy for the long downhill to come.  For most of this climb I never felt any sort or real rhythm.  The thinner air, and perpetually tricky footing, never really allowed me to find that cadence and flow. Chipping away at the mileage and focusing on the stretch of trail between one aid station to the next became the strategy. The first shot of energy and excitement I received came as I was nearing the turn around aid station.  Through the mental haze I could hear this obnoxious noise in the distance.  Something akin to an extremely ambitious child blowing into a broken Kazoo. Sure enough, I round the corner to see Mike Wolfe blowing through the skinnier section of a bright orange construction cone making a complete scene with his self proclaimed redneck vuvuzela!  As the current Bighorn 100 course record holder, I accepted his cheering as a mixture of grace, humility and hilarity.  A true sportsman!

With the big climb behind me and the excitement of seeing my crew for the first time in hours, I threw my headlamp on and grabbed a layer before heading back down the trail. Not far from the aid station I passed the two closest runners behind me, Jared Scott and Dan Olmstead.  By my estimate they were only 20 minutes back.  At the turn around I knew I was only 5 minutes behind Mike Wolfe’s course record splits from 2010, which meant I was running fast and so were they.  I also felt confident I had some fuel left in the tank though and they were going to have to run fast to close the gap. 

So with that came the looooong descent into darkness.  I pushed as hard as I could to cover terrain before the light completely faded and I would be relegated to the tunnel of light created by my headlamp. I stubbornly waited to flip the switch and, through the darkness, had to announce my presence to multiple folks still chugging uphill so that they weren’t surprised by me.

Less than an hour after sunset I reached the Footbridge aid station (Mile 66) and picked up my pacer, Justin Yates.  A quick switch of socks and we climbed hard out of the aid station with Justin in the lead setting a strong pace. As a good pacer does, he kept me on a strict schedule of shoving down necessary, yet undesirable, calories and electrolytes.

As the nights tend to go, the miles between 11:00 pm and 4:30 am just blended together. Powerhiking the steeper climbs, shuffling on the flats and trying not to completely blow the quads up on the descents. Looking constantly for flagging to reassure ourselves we were still on course.  Praying that each light you see in the distance is an aid station and not some wayward RV camped on a remote dirt road.  (These are the tricks the mind plays on you.)  Somewhere in the midst we saw my fantastic crew again.  We put on layers and stripped them as the temperatures varied on hillsides, valleys and passes.  We ate food, drank water, spooked up unidentifiable wildlife, stared at the brilliant stars and covered miles.

And then late in the night, or was it early in the morning, we began the seemingly UNENDING decent back into Tongue River Canyon.  This may have been one of the few downhills I have run in my life that felt longer going down than it did going up.  I guess the 80 Miles between the two had something to do with it. At this point I began to mentally prepare myself for the flat 5 miles of nondescript dirt road, which I knew would carry me to the finish.  I knew I was somewhere in the vicinity of a course record time, but refused to think about it until the mountains spit me out onto that road.  

Sure enough, as the sun was rising and I turned my headlamp off I was suddenly at the trailhead and last aid station with 5 miles of dreadfully monotonous road to the finish.  Justin and I did the calculations and I would need to run HARD to squeeze in under the course record. What happened from there was what, in the business, we like to call “going to the well.”  And the well was where I went. My favorite game to play from the well is the  “how much pain for how long” game. 30 more minutes of pain. 20 more minutes of pain. 10 more minutes of pain. 5 more minutes of pain. This is what all runners alike do. They spread the last bits of energy as even as possible to get themselves to the finish. Turn the legs over. Turn the legs over. Turn the legs over. 

At first the road was just an isolated ribbon of brown weaving its way to the horizon with no distinguishing landmarks. Slowly I began to see houses, and then more houses, and then suddenly pavement, and finally the finish line. From there the adrenaline took over and I crawled out of the well to begin my hollering and whooping into the finish.  I assume I managed to wake dozens of people up in the adjacent campground as it was only 5:30 in the morning. When I crossed the finish line I looked at my watch and I had snuck in with not just the win, but a new course record by the skin of my teeth, in 100 mile terms, shaving off just 7 minutes.

And now, three weeks later, I’m sitting here still trying to process it all. There is something that is so overwhelmingly satiating about the hundred mile experience. And I’m not just talking about the day of the race. Or winning for that matter. It’s the preparation.  It’s the months of physical and mental buildup and breakdown leading into it.  It’s the staggering support from a strong community of friends and family who gracefully put up with the insanity. It’s the fight between confidence and doubt. It’s the crescendo of it all when you arrive at the start line. And it’s the going within oneself and embracing whatever that days holds for you.  Whether you are sharing the trail with  mangy moose, European children, or just your own two feet, a good day in the mountains is hard to beat!