Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Grand Mesa Ultra Marathon

One of my biggest sources of inspiration to keep running, are books about running. The first inspirational running book I read, and probably the most famous, is "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. If you haven't read it, do. Even if you're not a runner. It's great book and just may inspire you to start. This book is what first introduced me to the crazy world of Ultra Marathon running! A few months later I read "Eat and Run", by Scott Jurek, a famous Ultra Marathon runner, and a subject in McDougall's book. His book got me even more interested in Ultra Marathon running.

An Ultra Marathon is defined as any distance over that of a marathon - 26.2 miles. Many ultras are typically 50K, 50 Miles, or 100 Miles (although they can be any other distance, as long as they're over 26.2 miles). The 100 mile races are typically what I'd read about, and they're definitely the most intense. Runners continue through the night without sleep to complete these! It's pretty amazing! 

Because of my sparked interest in Ultra running, I was really excited (and I won't lie, a bit nervous) when Brad, a runner I do speed work with on Wednesday mornings asked if I might be interested in pacing a runner on the Grand Mesa Ultra Marathon on July 27th & 28th. Brad was going to be pacing Gary, a runner I had met once before on my Imogene Pass training run a few weeks ago. Well it turned out that Gary had been doing some training with a girl named Rachel, who was in need of some pacers. And thus my weekend plans were made!

During longer Ultras (typically 100 miles or more), runners are allowed to have pacers with them. But pacers do a bit more than just helping with your pace. They're typically allowed after you hit the 50 mile mark and are there to help with motivation, making sure you stay on course (it can be hard to remember to look for trail markers when you've been running for 50+ miles already), and making sure you're eating and drinking enough.

When I told people what I was going to be doing, I got a lot of, "are you going to be able to keep up?" and "what kind of pace?". Well that's the other thing about Ultras, particularly ones run in the mountains on trails (which is a large majority of them - especially in Colorado). Except for the elite, most runners don't run the whole thing, or even close to it. A 15 minute per mile pace is really good in an Ultra - especially as you're getting farther along in the course.

The Grand Mesa Ultra Marathon is in its fourth year running and has three different distances - 60K (37 miles), 50 miles, and 100 miles. Rachel, who I was pacing, was doing the 100. This was her 9th, 100 Mile Ultra so she was no stranger to them. We wrote several emails back and forth and spoke on the phone so I could get a feel for what she wanted me to do. The original plan was for me pace her on the toughest climb - 5.5 miles and about 5000 feet of elevation gain on Saturday night (the race starts Saturday morning) and then again on Sunday morning for the last 15 or so miles to the finish. 

The mileage and elevation gain were going to be perfect for my Imogene training, so I was really looking forward to it. Rachel and her crew (that's the other thing about ultras - you typically have a crew to drive around to the different aid stations and bring you food, drinks, change of clothes, etc.) were renting a house in Cedaredge, about 30 minutes from the Grand Mesa Lodge, which was the start and finish area for the race. To make it easier, they invited me to stay with them at the house for the weekend. So I left work a little early on Friday afternoon and headed up to the top of the Mesa to make the 5:00 race briefing and dinner. I was a little late getting there, but still heard most of the important bits - like to make sure to look for the pink with black dot trail markers (as opposed to pink without dots)! 

After the briefing was over, I met Rachel and her crew for the first time. Heather was her main crew member, along with Dan, who would be pacing Rachel in between my two sections. Also along with them was Rebecca, who was there to run the 60K. We chatted briefly and had a bit of food (I wouldn't really call it dinner - it was pasta salad, corn on the cobb, and cookies). Then we headed back to the house, relaxed for a bit, and then discussed my pacing plans in a bit more detail.

After looking it over, we decided that I would actually pace Rachel a little bit longer on Saturday night - starting at an earlier point. I would be starting at Carson Lake, 9 miles earlier than originally planned, making my Saturday night stretch into 15.5 miles. Not a big deal as my opinion was the more miles the merrier since I was trying to make this into an Imogene training as much as I could. After getting all the details worked out, and Rachel's Aid Station bags packed, it time to get as much sleep as we could!

The next morning, I got up around 3:45 and we were out the door a little after 4:15 to make the 5:00am start. It was still pitch black at this point and we made it to the lodge with only a few minutes to spare. I lost the rest of the group and I didn't have a flashlight or headlamp so I just followed the mass of people heading to the starting line (which was down the road a little bit). I stood around for awhile until I found Rachel, said hi and good luck to her real quick, and then they were off! I'm glad I decided to go to the start - it was neat to see everyone with their headlamps off into the darkness.

After the racers were gone, I waited around for the sun to rise before heading back into Cedaredge for a shower and breakfast. Once I gathered all of my running gear for later that day, I headed to the Flowing Park Aid Station where I would hang out for awhile until Rachel passed through a second time (she had already passed through once), in which I would drive over to meet her at Carson Lake where I would start pacing. Other than the large amount of bugs, it was a beautiful afternoon spent relaxing by the lake. Heather and Dan had the place decked out complete with a grill, cots, and a tent from the Korean War! We had a late lunch of burgers and then waited around for Rachel. 

Beautiful sunrise on my way back down the Mesa!

Our "camp" on Saturday afternoon.

She came back through the aid station slightly behind her planned schedule at around 3:45pm. She was tired but seemed to be doing okay. I guess the section wasn't all that well marked so it took several people longer than expected. She ate some grilled cheese, drank some coke, and then headed on her way. I headed out right after her, drove to Carson Lake, and quickly got all of my gear ready to go.

Rachel made it to Carson Lake Aid Station a little before 5:00. She ate some Ramen Noodles, and we were on our way! This section went pretty well. Overall we weren't moving as fast as I had anticipated, walking most of it. But we were at an okay pace and made it the 9 miles down to Kannah Creek Aid Station in 3 hours. We just barely made the race cut-off time of 8:00pm (if you weren't to the aid station by 8pm, you were not allowed to continue). Rachel's stomach had started to bother her so she didn't want to eat anything at this aid station. I on the other hand devoured a bunch of chips and crackers, and then packed us some food to go.

We were off a few minutes after 8:00pm. By this point another racer named Paul had caught up with us and decided to stick with us for the time being (he did not have a pacer - and thought being with us through this tricky section in the dark might be helpful). We only had about an hour of daylight left so I did my best to get everyone moving quickly. Not too far in, Rachel's stomach still wasn't feeling right and she had to vomit. However, she was still moving pretty well and so the first mile went great, at about a 20 minute pace. Shortly after mile 1, the rain started picking up and it was getting dark, so we stopped briefly and I pulled on my rain jacket (which I am SO incredibly grateful I had - my mother-in-law had just bought it for me a few weeks prior when I was in Alaska, and it seriously saved me! I cannot imagine if I hadn't had it with me).

Mile 2 got slower and slower, but we were still moving, and we reached mile 2 in about 40 minutes. After mile 2 is when all hell broke loose (forgive my language). By this time it was now pitch black, the rain just kept pouring, and then, the worst of all, the trail just turned to pure mud. And not just any mud, but inches thick, really slippery, stick to your shoes, kind of mud. And we were trying to go UP through this. The next 3 miles were 2 steps forward, 1 step back, the entire way. IT WAS NOT FUN!

However, we kept moving through it. Unfortunately, this mud just really slowed us down, and Rachel was now going on an empty stomach for over 2 hours after completing 50+ miles already. So she was really having trouble (plus whenever I tried to get her to eat anything she would just throw it back up). Thankfully I had Paul there to help me motivate her. We would stop and rest every so often when she needed it, and then it was time to continue on. And on. And on...for hours and hours (literally).

I believe it was around 1:00am (remember we started this 5.5 mile section at 8pm), and we were still a long ways from the top. Rachel was not doing well AT ALL. She stopped and said she felt like she was about to pass out. This was the point where I asked Paul if he would go to the top by himself and send someone down to help me get her the rest of the way to the top. I was a little hesitant to have him leave, as this meant I was going to be the only coherent one on the mountain, in the middle of the night, (and still raining hard) with another person...but I knew it was the only option.

After Paul left, we continued on, but very slowly. We would go about 20 yards, stop and rest for a few minutes, and then go another 20 yards, stop and rest, etc. It wasn't ideal, but it was working. As much as it didn't feel like it, we were moving and we were making progress. I kept telling Rachel this...I think she started to get annoyed at my same "we're almost there" comments (after all I had been saying that for hours now). But we kept moving.

About an hour later is when I had my first (and thankfully only) panic attack. We had been alone for awhile now, and it just didn't feel like we were making any progress. Rachel asked if we were still on the trail. She said she didn't remember this portion of it (she had done this section in training a few weeks prior). So I told her she could sit tight and I would go ahead a little ways and see if I could find a trail marker. Well I went a ways, and did not see a trail marker, but I did hear rustling in the leaves...I freaked out just a little (okay, maybe a lot). I had been doing my best to keep it together for the last several hours, but hearing that rusting noise, and a lack of a trail marker, and I freaked out. I mean, here I was, the sole person responsible for getting another human being to the top of a mountain and it wouldn't stop raining, we were both getting colder by the minute, and I felt like we were never going to make it to the top...and where was someone to come help us out already?? It had been at least an hour since Paul had left us, and I swear we had to be less than a mile from the top.

Well panicking didn't help, so I eventually calmed myself down enough to tell Rachel we should keep moving up. Even if we weren't on the trail, we were on a trail, and we were going up, which was important! So we kept moving and thankfully a few yards past where I had been earlier, I saw a trail marker! And it was pink with black dots! I felt SO grateful. This gave me some new found hope, and I kept pressing Rachel to keep moving. We were getting there! Shortly after my panic attack, the trails also cleared up a little mud-wise, and we were able to move a little faster. So I kept moving her along.

Finally, after what felt like forever, we heard voices up ahead. Rachel called out and sure enough it was the Race Director and Dan, who had come to help us! The best part about it - they said we were only about 200 meters from the top! That was probably the greatest feeling in the world! By this point in time we were both FREEZING, as the rain was still beating down on us, and the temperature had obviously dropped pretty low (although I never checked what it actually was - I could see my breath at one point though). Dan took over the task of getting Rachel up, and I could just follow them the rest of the way up.

It felt longer than 200 meters, but we finally made it a little after 3:00am! I don't think sweatpants, a blanket, and a warm car have ever felt so good! I practically threw my shoes off (they were about 10lbs full of water weight), pulled my recently purchased (at the Grand Mesa Lodge earlier that day) sweatpants on over my completely drenched shorts, took off my rain jacket, and wrapped a warm blanket around me.

The race officials didn't know how bad Rachel would be when they got to us (we were closer to the top than they had expected), so they had already called an ambulance to be there for us. So we waited in the car for them to get there and then both Rachel and I got checked for hypothermia. After being in the car for a few minutes, I had been able to warm up and was feeling a lot better, so I was pretty sure I was okay, but got checked anyways. Rachel was okay too, other than just being severely dehydrated (she had not eaten anything since before 8pm, and had barely drank anything). But we were all, for the most part, alive and well, so they let us go, and we headed back down the Mesa to the house in Cedaredge.

I don't remember much of the drive, as a I kept dozing off, but it was raining heavily and there was a lot of fog! It was pretty scary, I'm glad I was sleeping for part of it! We made it back to the house around 4 or 4:30am, chatted briefly with Rebecca (who had done the 60K earlier), and then I headed to bed. It felt amazing. I slept until about 9:30, got up, and then we left around 10am to go get my car (it was still up at the Carson Lake aid station). And it was STILL raining out. I couldn't believe people had ran through the entire night in this! Obviously Rachel had to DNF (did not finish). Even if she had been in better health and had been able to continue, she hadn't make the cut-off time of 1:00am.

After I got my car, I stopped back by the lodge on my way down, just to see if there were still racers going. And sure enough there were! According to the race director there were about 4 still out there. I asked if Gary had finished, and he had! Came in 6th place in 29:13! That is an incredible time had we been in good weather, let alone with the constant rain and fog all night! And this was his first one - I was impressed.

There was an article in the local paper (actually just came out today - so maybe it's a good thing I waited to post this) about the race, and it said that one of the racers, Hans-Dieter Weisshaar, who holds the world record for the most 100 mile races (136), didn't finish. Now that is saying something! Of the 30 or so that entered the 100 mile run, only 10 finished (including the first ever female finisher)! It's a good reminder of what the Imogene Pass Run website says:

"'The Mountains Don't Care'. The reality is that despite whatever emotions we may have for the mountains and their environment, they are in fact unfeeling objects and they follow the natural rules of physics which are not always benevolent toward living creatures, great or small."

As much as I love mountain running, this is definitely something I always need to remember and something this experience taught me. Yes they can be beautiful, but they can also be dangerous and you need to be prepared for that!

So overall, I think I would sum up the weekend as an "adventure." I definitely learned a lot about Ultra's and I think being in a tough situation like I was, was actually a good thing (as much as I was not enjoying it around 2am). It definitely will make me more cautious before ever entering a 100 mile race (not saying I want to do one, but if I decide in the future that I do, I will be sure to be more prepared for inclement situations)!

Some more pictures:

The wildflowers were incredible!

The pink with black dot trail was such a relief whenever I saw these!

Still foggy on Sunday morning!
When I bought this bumper sticker on Saturday morning, I didn't realize I was going to have to earn it!

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