“I feel like myself for the first time this entire race” I told Robyn at mile 29 of 40. I had spent the past 6+ hours just trying to hang on, never really feeling like I was in control. But for one brief downhill mile, while chasing the woman in front of us, I was fully in the race, euphoric for about 9 minutes. Then mile 30 hit and we were faced with a steep uphill and I slowed to the slowest possible walk. With Birdie up ahead of me, I yelled out, “I need to chill.” She looked back at me with a what does that even mean? reaction, but to be honest, I didn’t know – there was no way she could actually help me. So I just kept moving as well as I could, while she chatted gleefully with the guy next to her. That was how we spent most of the 8 hours and 34 minutes it took us to finish the race: with her, bubbling with energy, pulling me, completely drained, along.
The scenario that unfolded was of no surprise to me, though. I knew I wasn’t going to have a strong race, but I had a really good feeling Robyn would. The previous weekend, Dan and I flew to St. Louis to celebrate my mom’s retirement. We had an amazing time with family, but by Sunday when it was time to fly home, I was sick. I hoped it was just a sore throat that would go away, but it continued to get worse throughout the week. By Thursday, I felt like I was on the mend, but I was still coughing and stuffy and gross. I get a cold like this, maybe, once every five years – there’s never a good time to feel bad, but this felt like particularly unfortunate timing. I tried to run Tuesday morning and I made it a mile before I turned around because breathing was too painful on my sore throat. I jogged clovers with Robyn and Starbuck at NP on Wednesday morning, but it didn’t feel good. Thursday, I ran at PG, but again, stopped early because of trouble breathing. I got acupuncture to see if it would help. I went to bed before 9pm. I drank Emergen-C and took a turmeric shot. Though I was optimistic that I was getting better, I knew that going into a high-altitude race with already compromised lungs meant that I wasn’t going to have one of those magical unicorn days we all hope for when we race. In my head, I was rather pragmatic about it, not making excuses or sandbagging. To friends, I said I was excited (which wasn’t a lie); knowing that Birdie was well positioned to have a good day and we were going to stick together, my mantra was fake it ’til you make it.
During the drive to Crested Butte on Friday and all evening, I was constantly refreshing the IRunFar feed on Twitter for updates on UTMB and CCC taking place over in Chamonix. Three of my very favorite ultrarunners were crushing it, providing me tons of stoke. Clare Gallagher, who I told Dan I was going to channel, won CCC in beautiful form. And Tim Tollefson and Dylan Bowman were making charges late in the race in UTMB. IRunFar tweeted that Tim came into an aid station “looking chirpey” and I loved that description so much that I made ‘chirpey’ a goal of my race. DBo had been living in Aspen for his ‘summer of shred’ and that was clearly paying off for him, so I also added ‘shred’ to my race word bank. And Clare reminds me of the importance of smiling during the run, so I had my inspiration: chirpey, shred, smile. Faking it ’til I made it seemed promising at this point.
Robyn and I woke up around 4am on Saturday, with plenty of time to take a pre-race shower, eat, and hit the road for the 6am start. I wasn’t nervous. I was pretty calm, though in a bit of a fog. I ate a banana, drank a can of Blue Bottle cold brew coffee Dan surprised me with, and toasted a bagel. I couldn’t get the bagel down, though. Throughout the course of the morning, I went to the bathroom at least four times. By the time we were lining up to start, I realized that I felt depleted already. I like to feel a little fluffy on race mornings, meaning I’m well fueled and hydrated. But I felt too skinny. I had Tailwind in my bottle so I told myself if I drank all of it before the first aid station, I would be okay. I’d get in the calories that I was missing from the start. Looking back, I should have just forced myself to eat a Picky Bar or Honey Stinger chews or ANYTHING. I don’t know why I thought I could start a 40 mile race with only a banana and 1/3 of a dry bagel in my belly.
The start of the race reminded us a little bit of UTMB, with runners taking off from the town center headed toward the mountains. It was just light enough that it didn’t matter that all of us forgot our headlamps. The air was crisp and cold, perfect. I had on gloves and a buff that came in handy, both for warmth and for wiping my runny nose. In the second mile, I asked Robyn, “Can you not breathe or is it just me?” At this point, we were right around 9,000 feet and hadn’t started the climbing yet. Robyn responded with something about how she always feels that way in the start of the race, but I knew that it was just me. We wrapped around the side of the mountain on singletrack before getting on Brush Creek Road, a beautiful slightly downhill dirt road that is meant for cruising. These miles should have been effortless floating, but I was working hard. I felt like someone had stuffed weights into my spandex. We used this road to get some space from the train of people we had been stuck in on the singletrack. And it was here, around mile 8, that I asked Robyn if she was absolutely positive that she wanted to stick together the whole race. I told her that I just needed to know if I should try to convince her to go on without me, because I knew that she could. Being the friend she is, she responded that the main motivation for doing this race was to spend the day together in the mountains, no matter what. With that out in the open, I was able to focus on just moving without feeling guilty about holding her back.
We hit the first aid station at mile 9.5 at around 1:45 on the clock. We had decided on 8 hours as an arbitrary time goal, which works out to be a 12:00 pace. At this first checkpoint, I felt good about where we were, not really accepting how much harder it was going to get. So far, the course had been annoyingly runnable. I kept joking that “I was promised hiking” and Birdie told me to be careful what I wish for. As we approached the Star Pass aid station at mile 16.5, I was regretting everything. Robyn went slightly ahead with Colin, who had caught up with us, and I, slow as molasses, trudged up on my own. I was in a really rough spot here, barely talking, breathing very heavily. I thought about dropping and played out my options: if I dropped, I would have to turn around and go back to Crested Butte. I’d have to yell up to Birdie to let her know. I’d have to call Dan and tell him I wouldn’t be coming to Aspen. And I’d have to go 16.5 miles. This still wasn’t a terrible idea to me at the time, because I’d be allowed to walk the whole way and sulk by myself. But then I got to the aid station where Birdie was waiting for me and asking me what I needed. What I most needed was to be able to breathe, but no one could help me with that. I also needed more calories – I couldn’t get enough food into me even though I had finished my bottle of Tailwind and eaten Clif Shot Bloks from the first aid station. I grabbed a few Cheez-Its that I had packed and pulled out a Picky Bar, hoping that some “real food” would help.
Leaving the aid station, we had one steep mile to the top of the pass. Robyn jumped ahead of the girl in front of us then floated up, within my eyesight the entire time. I stayed behind the girl and just focused on her back. I nibbled on the Picky Bar, not able to manage more than tiny bites. I tried to look up because the views were stunning, but I was lightheaded and starting to feel a little cold and clammy. I kept repeating to myself “forward is progress.” At the top of the pass, we were graced with a gorgeous view of the basin before starting a technical descent. I was hoping for some downhill miles, but running this section would be more effort than I was able to give. I was still trying to get down my Picky Bar and had to stop a few times to swallow because I felt nauseous while moving. Eventually, I finished it and had also drank a ton of water from my bladder and was able to run again on a smoother section. I was starting to feel better, mentally, after my low points from miles 16-18 and was ready to run with Robyn the parts that we could. But, every time I would go 1% too hard, my stomach would remind me and I’d feel nauseous, and would have to back off. I felt like I was constantly treading the line, trying to gauge how I could sustainably work hard. I haven’t really felt this in racing before, likely because I hadn’t previously raced at high altitude. But it was some point around halfway that I accepted that I was going to finish the race and that would require me figuring out this balance.
Approaching the Taylor Pass aid station (23.5), I got a bit of a second wind. The trail leveled out and I was continuing to eat and drink water. The views were, again, gorgeous and I was actually able to hold a conversation with Birdie (though she did most of the talking). When we arrived, there were people sitting, digging through their drop bags, and chatting. That made me anxious and I didn’t want to get sucked in to spending too much time there. I grabbed some Coke and a few chips, then looked around like, uh, what else should I be doing? The answer to that: move. So, I told Birdie, “I gotta go. You’ll catch up.” And she did within a minute, as she continued to climb with apparent ease. Colin left the aid station with us, and he also climbed seemingly-effortlessly. We summitted the pass then headed downhill and I got excited that, what I told myself were, the hardest parts of the race were done. It was all good until we looked up and saw a wall of a hill in front of us. It was short but steep and I exclaimed, “Now this is a climb!” and we carried on with the group we were in. It was on this hill that we realized Starbuck was right up ahead. Somehow in a 40 mile trail race, 4 of the 5 people in our group were all together. Starbuck was feeling nauseous too and I reminded him to keep eating even though it’s not easy, before Robyn, Colin, and I carried on. From this point of the race at 25.6, it was *mostly* downhill. Regardless of how I’m feeling, descending is my strength. So Robyn and I were able to open it up a bit and get in some solid miles before hitting the next aid at 28.8.
As we approached that 4th aid station, we saw a woman up ahead of us. We were quick during the stop, though we probably should have taken an extra thirty seconds to pour Tailwind powder into our bottles more effectively – I ended it up with it all over my hands instead. The woman left before us but we could see her. Right after she looked back to spot us, I told Robyn that my competitive bone had just been ‘tickled.’ Finally, I felt like myself. I felt like I was racing, not just surviving. Robyn and I ran side by side, about 50 yards behind her before we decided to make a move. When we passed, it was about as hard as you could pass almost 30 miles into a race. It felt really good. Until it didn’t. We started climbing again and I was toasted, couldn’t breathe. But from there on, we would look back occasionally and no women were ever in sight. And it was here, that a guy that we had leap-frogged with so many times that he felt like a friend, told us that he thought we were in 5th/6th place for women. So though I was beyond tired, I decided we weren’t going to get passed. And that would mean we had to run.
The approach to the final aid station at the top of Aspen Mountain (mile 35.5) seemed to take forever. I was so anxious to start going downhill and get below 11,000 feet. We got to that aid station with a few people and passed around a two-liter of Coke, swigging out of the bottle. I grabbed a few chips, said some inappropriate things, and we were off before anyone else. Okay, I love downhill but this descent was terrible – the trail was steep and not great quality. I took the lead here, for pretty much the first time all day, and kept saying to myself, “Every step gets easier. Every step gets us closer.” I had no idea what our pace was because I accidentally had my watch on bike mode all day (face palm), but figured we were moving around 10:00/mile so I was continuously trying to do math. How fast do we have to run to finish with an overall pace that starts with 12? But really, it didn’t matter. We were just rolling down the mountain any way we could. We passed a few guys which was extremely motivating. And I did feel like every foot lower in elevation made it easier to breathe. Eventually, we could hear the finish line. We turned a corner, grabbed each other’s hand (with me on the right as we discussed), and we were there.
- Adidas Outdoor Response Trail Boost shoes (I’m digging these)
- Stance Run crew socks (these handled the water crossings beautifully – I didn’t have a single blister)
- Salomon buff and throwaway gloves that I used as tissues
- Nathan pack with 1.5 liters of water in bladder and bottle with 2 scoops of Tailwind
- Honey Stinger chews, Cheez-Its, Picky Bar in pack; Clif Shot Bloks, potato chips, and Coke from the aid stations
Though I told the story of our day, I’d be remiss to end this blog post without providing my opinion on the race itself. The course was stunning. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run in Colorado. I would absolutely run this route again, or at least do an out-and-back on the trail either from CB or Aspen. But, I wouldn’t run the race again. For the registration cost (over $100), I felt like what you got wasn’t worth it compared to if you did it on your own. There were five aid stations and given the nature of the course, I didn’t expect more – but of the trail races I’ve run, these aid stations were the least stocked. Additionally, the week of the race, they emailed that everyone had to have a Colorado Search and Rescue card, though no mention of it was made at registration. So, if you didn’t have one, you had to buy one at packet pickup. Transportation from Aspen back to Crested Butte wasn’t included in the cost of the race (it was an additional $40). The logistics themselves are enough reason to keep me from running this again, as it is a point-to-point that is 40 miles as the crow flies, but it was a three and a half hour drive back to CB. Thank goodness for Dan, our chauffeur, meeting us in Aspen. A few other things that are minor, but I think could be improved: The awards ceremony was held before 80% of the runners even finished. Robyn and I were 6th/7th woman and we didn’t even get to see the awards. And, they posted a photo album on Facebook of only a select group of (top) runners then said they wouldn’t be posting more because they were focusing on video this year. There were a handful of photographers out on the course, and it feels like a waste to not see the pictures they took of all the runners. I am happy that we did it and that I got to experience a true backcountry race. But for a better value, I would probably stick to other trail races, like ones in the Steamboat series.