Monday, June 18, 2018

Leadville Trail Marathon Race Report: The Summer of Leadville Begins

Before I toed the line at the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday, I was already registered for 3 of 4 running races in the Leadville Race Series this summer: the marathon, the Silver Rush 50 miler in July, and the Leadville 10k race in August. (Missing from my list of runs was the Leadville 100, which you have to enter through a lottery or qualify for.) Several of my friends and teammates are racing in each of the mountain bike races and runs in Leadville this season, so much so that we've dubbed this the "summer of Leadville." The marathon kicks off the race series.

I've been looking forward to this marathon more than any other race this season, possibly because it would be my first-ever race in Leadville, the place I've been dreaming about since pacing Doug at the Leadville 100 last year. It was meant to be a training race on the way to my "A" race of the season - the Silver Rush 50. I've only been brave enough for a month or so to say out loud that I'm going to attempt a 50 miler. But at the start line of the marathon on Saturday I had another dream in mind - anyone who finishes the race within the 8.5 hour time limit would be eligible to enter a drawing for an entry to the Leadville 100.

Eight and a half hours for a marathon: that's more than double the time of my marathon PR. But it starts at 10,200 feet, climbs to 13,100 feet, and includes 6,000 feet of elevation gain on steep, rocky trails. Even with the thin air and tough terrain to contend with, I didn't think it would take me more than 7 hours to finish.

I'll say it right now: I completely underestimated this race. From the moment we crossed the start line, we were hiking (walking) uphill out of the town of Leadville. Doug started before Whiting and me, and as we huffed and puffed up to the 1.5 mile mark and 30 minutes had already passed, Whiting received a text from Doug: "it becomes bearable after about 2 miles."
I soon learned that although I am incapable of turning around and looking backwards while hiking uphill without getting dizzy, I've really improved at moving quickly uphill. I didn't realize that Whiting wasn't behind me anymore until I stopped to take a Gu after maybe a little more than an hour. I realized that I would be spending this really long day all by myself and although I was sad not to have a giggly fun time with Whiting, I dug in and embraced the challenge.

It seemed to take forever to get to the big three-mile climb up to the top of Mosquito Pass and the turnaround point. As I climbed up and up, picking my way through loose rocks and trails that were muddy with snowmelt, the weather changed and it began to lightly rain. My teammate Chris came back the other way and then Doug passed by on his way down. Both offered encouragement; Doug snapped a photo and told me that Lance Armstrong was racing today, too. (What?)

Doug took this photo. The only reason I'm smiling is because I saw him before he took it.
Such relief and happiness to reach the turnaround point after 3 miles of climbing straight uphill.
I was eager to get to the turnaround because the second half of the race was basically downhill. Even though it took me four and a half hours (!!!) to reach the halfway point, I assumed that running downhill would be easier and that I'd still be close to my 7 hour goal. But as I began picking my way down the steep trail strewn with large loose rocks and gravel, I understood that my day would be longer than expected. I became quickly frustrated with my inability to run quickly downhill. I just couldn't do it. I helplessly watched people that I'd passed on the way up run nimbly by me.

When I reached the aid station at mile 16, I heard someone else ask the volunteers about the time cutoff. "You've made this cutoff," the volunteer replied, "but you're about five minutes behind where you should be to meet the next one." What? It took me a moment to understand that the consequence of not getting to the next aid station fast enough would mean getting pulled from the race. This was a brand new experience for me. I began writing my race report in my head. "Humbled," I imagined myself writing. "I completely underestimated this race."

I made a conscious effort not to get discouraged. Even though mile 20-21 was nicknamed the "trail of tears" because of its cruel incline after so many hours of racing, I ran as fast as I could towards it, and once I approached it, I hiked with purpose. As I passed other competitors, they congratulated me on my pace. I felt hopeful.

Eventually I approached the mile 21 checkpoint. When I asked a volunteer to confirm that I'd made the cutoff, she exclaimed, "you're 15 minutes ahead of it!" I was jubilant as I ran through the aid station.

As soon as I passed it, the next challenge loomed. The next 5 miles to the finish would be nearly all downhill. My quads were screaming and my fear of falling prevented me from doing anything more than a little shuffle down the miles of trail. Frustrated, I watched again as all the people I passed going uphill ran by me with ease. "I need to learn how to run downhill," I wrote in the race report in my mind.

Finally I reached the town of Leadville and ran at my pitiful 13-minute mile pace down the long, straight stretch toward the finish line. I knew I had definitely left everything I had out there on the course. Whiting, who had had to DNF due to altitude sickness, was running up the road towards me and encouraging me to continue. It was wonderful to see my family and friends as I approached the finish line, and at 8 hours and 2 minutes for my final chip time, I crossed the line with so much satisfaction. What a day! Even as I crossed the finish line I was plotting how to improve my time next year.
So much joy to cross the finish line, especially with Harper running down the chute with me!
We sat and drank beers and ate post-race food as the final finishers crossed the line. Then the awards ceremony began. First the winners were given their awards. Then 50 qualifying slots for the Leadville 100 Run began to roll down. Just like in an Ironman race, the slots were allocated by the size of the age group. The winners were offered first dibs and then the slots rolled until they were gone. I listened hopefully as they called out the names in my age group, but the 4 allocated slots for females 40-49 went as quickly as they were called.

Once the rolldown was complete, another 50 slots were raffled off to anyone who had finished the race within the cutoff time. What seemed like a hundred people scrambled to place numbers into a fishbowl and then we all waited impatiently to hear our number called. I wasn't sure whether to hope for my number to be called or not. But when my number came up, I screamed, "I want it!" and ran to the front to claim my coin.

The Coin.
Just like that, I'm registered for the Leadville 100 and I have a new "A" race for the season. With legs still sore from this ridiculously difficult 26.2 mile race, I have to question my ability to complete four times the distance with only 2 months to prepare. It's like a dream. The last time I impulsively leaped for something like this, I ended up jumping off a ferry at Norseman a few months later. That journey was one of the greatest, most memorable, crystallizing times of my life, and I'm reveling in such similar feelings that come along with the golden coin to Leadville.

The Summer of Leadville would not be possible without the inspiration of Whiting and Doug Leary!
At the start with future pacer Josie (she promised!) 

I was informed that Lance Armstrong felt the same way about the downhills as me - here's proof from Instagram.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Wyoming Marathon Races 50k Race Report 2018: That'll Leave a Mark

"There's been a shooting. They won't let you run through the crime scene, so we have to modify the course." With a start like that, we should have known it would be an extraordinary day. The announcement from the race director quieted the small gathering of runners. We were waiting at the top of a hill on the dirt road behind the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Monument near Laramie, Wyoming to start the Wyoming Marathon Races half marathon, marathon, and 50k. The race director went on to explain that instead of running the intended out-and-back course, the marathon and 50k runners would repeat the half marathon course until the prescribed distance was met.
This event was low-key to say the least.
I took a bunch of still pictures from the drone footage posted on the race's Facebook page. Here's the small group of runners waiting to start.
The crowd gracefully digested this information and one of the runners led the gathering in singing the national anthem. Moments later, the pack was off and running down the road. I kissed Trent and reminded him to be careful: he planned to spend the morning fishing while I ran. "You be careful!" he laughed, and I ran down the hill to start my 50k day.

The plan I'm following for the Silver Rush 50 includes a couple of "training races" along the way and this weekend the plan required a 50k race. Laramie is only a couple of hours' drive from Denver, so this race seemed like a cool way to get the training done and to see a little bit more of our world. The race is at elevation (it starts just below 9000 feet), and although it isn't on trails, it is on mostly dirt roads so it seemed like a good pick.

Two things about the race made me nervous - surprisingly the altitude wasn't one of them! Because of the small field of runners, there was a real danger of coming in last place. And, the first 5 miles of the course was straight down a hill, which meant that the last 5 miles back up the hill would be tough. I had these things in mind as I trotted slowly down the hill: in the last few months of longer-distance trail running, I've become acutely aware of how easily you can ruin your day by running too fast in the first few miles.

A drone pic from the first few miles.
As I ran down the hill, I considered what it was going to take to run back up and down it 3 more times. But after about 45 minutes had passed, a pickup truck drove along beside us and the driver shouted out to the runners that the crime scene was cleaned up and we could resume running the original course. Hooray!

The sun shone brightly as we approached the half marathon turnaround point. As the half marathon participants turned around, the pack of runners thinned out and I continued happily along the dirt road, running mostly by myself with just 4 or 5 other people around me. I gazed at the gorgeous mountain scenery and felt joyful about the light wind that ruffled my clothes. Off-road running is amazing! The races are so much smaller and you spend time by yourself, just enjoying what's around you. Why didn't I start this years ago?!
Drone shot of the gorgeous scenery of Medicine Bow National Forest.
There's a short segment of the course that goes along the access road of the highway, but apart from that the entire course is on gravel roads. On the way out the course rolls mostly downhill, and I spent miles 8-15 marveling at how strong I felt. My goal was to spend less than 7 hours doing the race, and that seemed very possible when I hit the turnaround at 15.5 miles. Then I realized that I'd basically been running downhill for the last few miles and it was time to climb back up. That's why everyone who was coming back the other way was walking. Yikes. Also, it was getting hot and there was no shade on the exposed dirt road. For the first time ever, I fought the nausea that comes with pushing the pace too hard at altitude in warmer conditions. Although my pace already felt painfully slow, I slowed down. Ugh. This is so uncomfortable! Why did I decide to do all of these ultra-distance races this year?!

As usual, one of my favorite things was meeting all the people out on the course. I'd noticed a guy in a Kerrville Triathlon Festival hat at the start, and as he ran towards me from the marathon turnaround point as I was still on my way out, I stopped him and asked if he was from Texas. Ken from Austin and I became friends immediately - what a small world! At the marathon turnaround point, there was an aid station where I filled up my water bottles and grabbed my first cup of delicious Coke. The volunteer there was a Laramie local who's running a couple of big ultras this year. Yes, I stood there and chatted with him about it as we leisurely filled bottles. I guess at some point I'll have more urgency in racing these longer distances, but that was not the case last Sunday.

As I shuffled back along the out-and-back course, I spent miles 16-20 feeling pretty crappy. My legs were starting to hurt, I was feeling dehydrated even though I thought I was drinking plenty, and I was tired of eating Gu. But then, along with a little bit of downhill on the course, my mood turned around, and I tirelessly trotted back towards the finish line, marveling again at the scenery. I was alone on the course but aware that there was a runner slightly ahead of me and another one slightly behind me, both just out of my view. I saw a line of dark clouds slowly approaching and felt smug about having a raincoat in my backpack. I am sooooo prepared for mountain running. The shifts in mood that you experience in a long day of racing feel more intense to me in trail running than in triathlon. I'm not sure why I felt so much better at that point, but I welcomed the happy mood that replaced how I was feeling just 30 minutes earlier.

Approaching the last five miles back up the hill, I willed myself to run when possible and to walk as quickly as I could when running was too difficult. With about 3 miles to go, I saw Trent driving down the hill towards me! He offered some quick encouragement and then told me that he'd see me at the finish line. I complained that I might not make my goal time. The only thing on my mind was getting to the line before my watch hit 7 hours.

Then, the storm that had slowly been coming towards us for the last 2 hours made its dramatic entrance with a loud clap of thunder. I hurried to put on my super-light amazing new trail running raincoat and congratulated myself again on carrying it. The rain started to come down. I briefly considered that lightning was dangerous, but kept on running. Then, the rain started to fall harder. Wait, that isn't rain. It's hail! I started laughing at how ridiculous this last couple of miles was shaping up to be.

With one mile left, the pea-sized hail became heavier and stung my unprotected legs. The volunteer from the aid station that I'd chatted with earlier came driving down the hill from the finish. He opened the passenger door and told me that if I wanted a ride back I'd still be considered a finisher, but I was free to wait for the hail to stop if I wanted to make sure I ran the full course. I also had the option to continue running up the hill in the hail. I climbed into his car and decided to wait for the hail to slow, but then he started to drive down the hill, away from the finish line! He needed to check on the runners behind me. At that moment, I saw Trent driving back down the road and we signaled to him to stop. I jumped out of the volunteer's car and into Trent's.

As I sat in the passenger seat laughing, catching my breath, Trent handed me his thick Gore Tex fishing raincoat. "Take this," he said, "it's strong and will protect you. Finish the last mile!" Neither of us considered driving to the finish line to be an option. I jumped out of the car, we both laughed, and I continued up the hill into the hail. The whole situation seemed hilarious and ridiculous. Then the hail got bigger. A lot bigger. I watched the large pieces fall and shatter in front of me on the road. Then one hit me on the head. Another one hit me hard on the shoulder. For the first time, I looked around for shelter, and ended up crouching under a tree to protect myself from the larger pieces of hail.
Running in Trent's fishing jacket. Soon the road would be covered in white hailstones and looked like it had been snowing.
Moments later, Ken from Texas came driving down the hill in his rental. "Kris from Texas!" he yelled, "take shelter in my car!" I leaped gratefully into the car. The hail was coming down like crazy now. Ken found a little tree to protect the car and we chatted as the loud hail bounced off the windows. He said we could wait as long as necessary, but that with only a mile left, I couldn't not finish the race. I agreed. I texted Trent to tell him my plan.

After about 10 minutes passed, the hail lightened again and Ken drove me back up to the main road. He wished me well and I started my journey once again. At this point, the 7 hour mark was long gone. Although the hailstones were smaller, they still stung my bare legs as they fell, and I could see small welts starting to form. This is stupid. Not the kind of stupid where you wonder in a state of exhaustion why you picked endurance racing as your hobby. It's like stupid, stupid. 
"It's all fun and games until God starts throwing golf balls at you." - Trent Wunstel
The hail got bigger again and there were no trees to hide under. As another large hailstone hit me hard on the shoulder, for the first time ever in 10 years of endurance racing adventures I thought to myself that I could actually die from this. The next car that came along offered me a ride, and I unquestioningly dove into their back seat with a growling dog, grateful to escape the painful hail. They drove me to the finish line where Trent waited in the car.

Trent pulled up next to the car in which the race director waited, and I told him through a partially opened window that I was safe and off the course. He said, "oh you earned the belt buckle." He handed it through the window to me, along with a hailstone that he picked up off the ground. "A souvenir of Wyoming," he said, laughing.
Earned it!
Trent and I laughed all the way back to Denver in our car that is now coated in hail damage. What a ridiculous day! In my mind this was technically a DNF, but I'm listed as the last finisher in the results online. A last-place finish - that's a first. But I also ran as fast as I could up a hill at the end of an ultrarun to try to escape the hail, so now I know I can do that. That's a win!

The following day, I ran the Bolder Boulder 10k as my "second long run" of the weekend. I've been doing these back-to-back long runs for a couple of months now, and every time I do it, it feels better. I'm astonished that I ran 60k in one weekend. The way the body adapts to training is incredible! After this, I feel much more confident about the big races in Leadville that I have coming up in the next month and a half. Hopefully they'll be hail-free.

All joking aside, this was a really cool, well organized event. The volunteers were wonderful and the race is perfect for someone trying their first ultra at a little bit of altitude with terrain that isn't even a little bit technical. The drive to Laramie was gorgeous and the town itself was fun to visit. Hail or no hail, I don't think this will be my last time racing the Wyoming Marathon Races! A quick thank you to our wonderful friend Doug who recommended it, although we certainly gave him a hard time about the weather and the car for the couple of days after the race.

I want to say a big thank you to Doug, Whiting, and Maggie for providing cheers, inspiration, and encouragement through texts to Trent throughout the day; I could certainly feel the love. Thank you to everyone who followed and commented on Facebook. And thanks as always for reading! See you out on the trails.

Bolder Boulder was my friend Laura's first race and first time ever running 10k. Here we are at the start line. She crushed it and I was so proud to get to be a part of her first road-running experience!
Another Bolder Boulder pic - I loved running and celebrating with teammates in our gorgeous Big Sexy Racing Ownway Apparel kits!