Monday, September 5, 2022

Summer of Leadville 2022: Leadville 100 Run Race Report

It took me two weeks to unpack all my stuff from my trip to Leadville. It just sat on the floor in the closet and I put a few things up each day until all evidence of my adventure was packed neatly away. I think it's taking longer for me to unpack my thoughts about the experience, but if I don't write about it now, I won't write about it at all, so here we are. 

When I signed up for the Lead Challenge, my big goals were to get an official finish at the Silver Rush 50 run (I missed the time cut in 2018 by 8 minutes) and to finish the Leadville Mountain Bike 100. I love running the marathon in Leadville and the 10K is pretty fun too, so what would be the harm in signing up for a challenge where I felt fairly confident about everything except the final event, the Leadville Trail 100 Run?

Nothing went the way it was supposed to this year, but I have learned that that's part of the adventure. With a knee injury in April, it was clear that I wouldn't be running a 50 mile race in July. Luckily I was able to switch to the Silver Rush 50 bike ride instead, and that was one of the best race days of my life. You can read about it here. But if I couldn't run a 50 miler in July, I certainly would not be ready to run 100 in August, and that's what I've been trying to unpack.

With the switch to the bike race for the Silver Rush, I placed all my attention on getting ready for the 100 mile mountain bike race. You can read about that race here. I'm incredibly proud of my effort that day. I feel like everything else is completely worth it for the amount of growth as an athlete that I experienced on that course. I'm determined to get stronger and faster and more skilled at mountain biking and cross that finish line in the future. But that's not what this story is about today!

By placing all my attention on the bike, I barely ran at all this summer. When I did, I ran easy on pavement in between days of biking. I can count the number of times I ran on a trail this year on one hand. I hated it. After falling in April during that 50K, I was scared to fall down. In general, here are all of my excuses: running in the heat and humidity in Arkansas in the summer sucks, my knee is still not 100%, running doesn't feel good, and I hated doing it. For some relief, I ran on the flat river path where there was a little bit of a breeze, but even then my longest run was 12 miles, or just over 2 hours.

My logic was that I was able to muscle my way through the marathon in June without much run training, so I wondered what I'd be able to do at the 100. It would be pretty cool to make it to mile 50, up and over Hope Pass, and get to see the llamas at the aid station up there. It seemed silly to invite people to crew and pace for me, but I did it anyway. Amy and her friend Jen came up to crew, and Lindsey came to pace if needed (pacers aren't allowed until mile 62; it was highly unlikely that I'd need a pacer). I am grateful to these girls who kept me company up in Leadville for the weekend.

I toed the start line at 4:00 in the morning. I noted that there's far less fanfare and energy at the run start line as there was at the mountain bike race, but maybe that was just my own energy reflecting back at me.  I ran down the familiar gravel road that gave way to trails after three miles. I ran and smiled and felt fine until I didn't. 

All smiles at the start line.

By mile 13 at the Mayqueen aid station, I was feeling nauseated and my feet hurt. I smiled for my crew who surprised me by showing up there, and then headed with as much purpose as possible up the trail. Then, the Colorado Trail portion of the course kicked my butt, more mentally than physically. I picked my way so cautiously over the roots and rocks and cursed trail running the whole time. I was just so scared to fall down the way that I did during the 50K that I DNFed in April. Time ticked away and after I finally popped out onto the gravel road up to Sugarloaf, I had resorted to a "run for 30 seconds, walk for 30 seconds" strategy. 

I'm telling you now, if you can get Amy Machael to crew for you, get her.

Turning onto the Sugarloaf climb, I smiled to myself thinking about riding up it the previous weekend, and how much more energetic and confident I had felt then. Picking my way down the Powerline descent on foot, I laughed to think that I was so scared riding down it last weekend, only to be wishing for a bike now. On my way down, I was passed by a few runners who were still making an effort to get to the next time cut on time. I knew I would miss it because I was walking too slowly. I stopped to talk to a chipmunk. I called Shelly to tell her that I was on the Powerline and wished she was there, because it had been so fun practicing on it a month ago with her. I texted Amy, who was waiting at the Outward Bound aid station at mile 23 that I would not be making the time cut.

Finally, gratefully, I walked onto the paved road towards the aid station and texted Amy again, "if I drop a pin, will you come and pick me up?" Almost instantly she drove up in her car. I tapped out at 22 miles. The time cut had come and gone.

I didn't even get all the way to Outward Bound for a hug from the cutoff queen, so she sent me a virtual one.

We went for burritos and beers and I wasn't particularly disappointed with my day. I mean, what could I really have expected? It's kind of funny to think of the difference between my effort at the run and how I felt the previous weekend on the bike. During the bike race, I was absolutely not going to make that time cut and I knew it, but I raced like my life depended on it anyway. This time I just didn't bother. That's what I'm unpacking. 

Should I even have stood on the start line of something that I wasn't going to do my best to finish? Should I have started something that I knew I hadn't even done my best to train for? That's what I'm thinking about.

After lunch, Amy and Jen drove home and even though no pacing was necessary, Lindsey drove into town anyway, just to hang out. We watched the first place finisher cross the line, which was insane and inspiring. It was great to catch up with Lindsey and spend time around the infectious energy of people who love Leadville. The following morning, it was even more inspiring to walk outside the airbnb and hear people cheering for finishers who had been out on the course all night. As I packed up my car for the long drive home to Little Rock, the town was filled with the cheers for people who had fought like hell to finish this insanely difficult event.

Now that I'm home and have had a little while to think about it, I'm still unclear on my feelings about ultra running and even trail running in general. I know that don't want to do it right now. Give me roads and easy gravel paths. I don't like being scared to fall down all the time on a run. On the other hand, I've been out a couple times on my mountain bike since I got home because I'm more determined than ever at working on my skills. I used to be afraid to fall down on my mountain bike, but now the determination outweighs the fear. Will the same thing happen with running?

What's next? In 15+ years I have never finished one big event without having the next one already lined up. This time I don't know what the next big thing is! I haven't figured it out yet, and I admit that I'm not really excited about whatever it is yet, but I'm grateful that I know I want the journey to continue. 

Thank you as always for reading. 💗

Leadville: even though you keep hurting my feelings, I'll keep coming back for more. 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Summer of Leadville 2022: Leadville Mountain Bike 100 Race Report

At the athlete meeting for the Leadville Mountain Bike 100, the founder of the race Ken Chlouber said, "Just finish. That way, when someone asks you, 'did you finish?' you can say 'yes' instead of spending the next 30 minutes telling them all the excuses why you didn't." He went on to tell us you can do more than you think you can, you are stronger than you think you are, and to DIG DEEP. We ended the meeting shouting together, "I COMMIT! I WON'T QUIT!"

I don't need 30 minutes to explain why I didn't finish, but I do want to talk about the events of my day and the lessons I learned.

The athlete meeting is held outdoors now instead of in the gym due to Covid.

The race started at 6:30 last Saturday morning. We were divided into corrals that stretched down Harrison Street towards Twin Lakes. As each corral went off, racers turned left onto 6th Street, crossed the start line, and raced up and over the hill, turning to the right at the bottom instead of to the left, where the run will go this Saturday. With the other Lead Challenge participants, I was seeded in the Orange corral, which is right in the middle of the pack. We started at 6:40.

I knew that the key would be arriving at the Twin Lakes timing mat at mile 41 before 10:50 am. That would require a 10 mph pace for four hours, which I've only rarely achieved on a mountain bike. I would race to that checkpoint as if my day depended on it, because it did.

As soon as we left the corral, the other Orange riders left me behind. That's okay, it takes me a few minutes to warm up, I know I'll be fine. Then five minutes later the Blue corral went by. Rick, my Silver Rush trail angel, was in that corral. He slowed to talk to me and I yelled at him not to wait and to have a great day. I didn't want to be responsible for slowing anyone down and I wanted to race my own race. 

We turned onto gravel and then turned again up St. Kevins, the first climb of the race, a fairly steep doubletrack road with plenty of loose rocks. People were still jostling for position and the chaos freaked me out. As soon as someone in front of me got off their bike to walk, I did the same. I walked more than I should have. I was too scared to try riding my bike next to all those people who were racing erratically passing each other.

I'd been told I should reach the Carter aid station in an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes: I arrived at 1:20 into the race. I was not worried about time yet. As soon as I turned past the station onto pavement, I picked up my pace as much as possible and hurried down the hills. The next climb was up Sugarloaf. I ran up Sugarloaf in 2018 as part of the 100 run, so I was aware of what it was like — another loose, rocky climb, but not as steep as St. Kevins. Also not as crowded, because by this point there were only about 20 of us riding together after the rest of the race had left us behind.

When we reached the campsite at the top, I knew we'd soon be turning right onto Powerline, a steep four mile descent that was chunky at the top and loose and super steep at the bottom. I had practiced this in training just a month ago, and I'm so glad I did. I was still terrified as I turned onto the steep, rocky descent with several other riders. On my way down, I stopped to walk a few times. I was shaking with fear. I passed another woman who was crying because she was so afraid. I was so proud to ride down the steepest portion, a dusty, loose, 20% grade towards the bottom. I said to myself "I'm doing this, I'm doing this," and once I made the final turn towards the gentle grade along the fenceline, I screamed "WOO HOO!" and my self-talk turned to "I did it, I did it."

I caught up to a strong-looking bearded man in blue who had climbed Sugarloaf with me but who had dropped me on the descent. I knew we were now behind schedule to get to the Twin Lakes cutoff. "Let's GO" I shouted at him, as I climbed on the pavement. I knew I had to race as fast as possible from now on or I would miss the time cut. I decided I wouldn't take the time to stop to eat, I would just drink sports drink from my hydration pack. Who cares if I'm fully fueled if I miss the cutoff? 

A few minutes later, the guy that I'd passed caught up with me. This was the flat section where we'd been instructed to work together. "Get on my wheel," he said, and I did. I told him, "pull off to the left when you want me to take a turn." "No," he insisted, "just stay on my wheel. We're getting you to your goal." I didn't argue. I just pedaled behind him for the next few flat miles, until we turned onto the doubletrack towards the Pipeline aid station. At that point I passed him and thanked him. He told me to keep moving. I didn't see him again.

I blew through the Pipeline aid station without even noticing that my friend Jen was there taking pictures. I was so completely focused on getting to Twin Lakes in time. I caught up with some other riders and rode with them, then passed them. There was some beautiful single track on the way to Twin Lakes that reminded me of Marshall Mesa where I rode all last year with my friends. I smiled and thought it would be really fun to run here. Then laughed as I realized that thinking about running during a bike race was probably not a good sign.

Racing through the Pipeline aid station.

The minutes ticked away faster than the miles. I saw the pros start to come back along the out-and-back course. They yelled encouragement at me as they went by. Oooooh this is LEADVILLE. But where was Twin Lakes? At each turn I expected to see the dam with all the tents and spectators. As the time of day ticked past 10:50, I knew I had missed the time cut. I didn't let off. What if they changed the time? Every race I've done up here this summer has had an adjusted time cut for one reason or another. I kept racing.

I passed riders who had clearly given up. Finally, I saw the dam, and I smiled. As I rode along the corridor of tents and crew and spectators, they all cheered for me even though they knew I wasn't going to make the cut. Eventually I saw the timing mat and rode towards it as fast as I could. Matt, the timing guy who'd shared a sandwich with me at Silver Rush, yelled encouragement as I went by. 

At the far end of the dam, a race official stood in front of the timing mat, telling me to slow down. I let off the gas and prepared to feel the disappointment of not making it. I knew my crew was just on the other side of the mat — I had told them to set up after the timing mat in case of a down-to-the-minute situation.

As I slowed and looked at the race official who was talking to me, an arm reached out from the other side, grabbing my handlebar and pulling my bike towards him and away from the timing mat. I went down with my bike onto the dirt in front of the timing mat and laid there with my bike on top of me, one of my feet still clipped in, confused. What had just happened?

"You didn't have to do that," a spectator was yelling at the man who had pulled me over. Another man helped pick me up. "Are you okay?" he asked. No I wasn't okay. I burst into tears, ugly crying as they removed my chip from my plate and dragged me and my bike to the side of the mat.

The man who had grabbed my bike came over and put his arm around me. "Don't cry," he said, "it's okay that you missed the time cut." I'M NOT CRYING BECAUSE I MISSED THE TIME CUT. I'M CRYING BECAUSE YOU KNOCKED ME OVER. "No I didn't," he said. I didn't argue, I just grabbed my bike and pushed it over to an empty place behind the row of crew tents, then sat down and cried heavily. 

I cried for only getting to see the first 42 miles of the course. I cried for being out of the Lead Challenge. I cried for all the early morning workouts at hot, humid Lake Sylvia this summer. What had it all been for? I cried in anger about the race official who had found it more important to prevent me from crossing the timing mat than preserving my dignity.

A man and woman ran over to comfort me. They asked if I was okay and if I needed anything; I didn't. I saw Becca, my friend who was crewing me, approaching. "Are you okay?" she asked, but I was still hysterically crying. "You can keep going," the other woman told me. "They will never know." Later, I learned that the woman had done the race before and knew they wouldn't stop me from continuing. 

This encouragement was what I needed to hear. I let them help me up. Becca rolled my bike to the tent where all the supplies were. I briefly saw Chris and Erika McDonald and Kellie Ramirez who were there crewing my amazing friend Michael from Texas. "I'm going to keep going," I told Chris, looking at him for approval even though I'd made up my mind already. He said, "good, but you know they took your chip, right?" I didn't care.

I dusted myself off and got back on my bike and headed up towards the Columbine Mine turnaround, which was 10 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing away. I climbed as people from the gold and silver corrals passed me going the other way. Then came green and orange and blue. I saw my friends Maggie and Jorge and Rick descending. Nearly every person who passed me offered encouraging words. It was amazing. This is Leadville. I decided to try to catch up with someone, anyone heading up the mountain in front of me. 

As I pushed higher up the mountain, I ran into Lead Challenge participant Ricardo, who I've called my brother all year because we share a last name. He was standing taking a breather with another rider. "We've been waiting for you for 45 minutes," he joked. We pushed our bikes up the hill together. At some point it had become impossible to ride. I pushed on, and eventually found myself alone again. I'd push past another racer here and there, but the crowd was thin at the top of the hill. I saw Michael riding back down. I cheered him as he went by, although we both knew he had already missed the next time cut.

Suddenly, a large thunderclap crashed across the sky. What should I do? The smart thing would probably have been to head down the mountain instead of heading up towards the storm, but I was beyond doing the smart thing. I was fixated on seeing the turnaround at the top of the climb. I don't care if I die trying, I thought to myself. It's kind of terrifying to think back and know that I meant it.

It started to rain. Another cyclist came down towards me. "They're turning people around up there," he said. I pushed on anyway. Sure enough, a moment later two ATVs came down towards me and asked me to turn around. A jeep carrying the contents of the aid station was behind them. I put on my raincoat and headed down the mountain back to Twin Lakes, past all the folks I had seen on the way up. Descending on slippery rocks was scary but eventually the terrain changed back to smooth gravel, and I rushed down, knowing it would be warmer at lower elevation.

Eventually I sensed that the ATVs were behind me again. I realized that they were following me to Twin Lakes. All the other riders had accepted rides back to town. "We have a bike rack on the back of this ATV," I was told. "You can quit anytime you want and we'll drive you back." "I want to ride back," I said, "is that okay?" The ATV driver said yes and we continued down the trail, a ridiculous procession of a slow, exhausted biker and two search and rescue ATVs, all the way back to Twin Lakes where Becca was waiting with the car. 

When I saw Becca I stopped my Garmin, thanked the ATV escorts who both gave me fist bumps, and finally breathed. My day was done after 62 miles, 6000+ feet of gain, and nine hours of riding. Matt the timing guy approached. "Oh it's you!" he said, "I was supposed come and take your chip but I know it's already been taken." I smiled sheepishly. "Everyone's been talking about how you got tackled at the timing mat," he said. He also told me that I was not the only one, and that apparently some guys actually got in a fight about their treatment at the mat. Good lord.

Becca and I drove back to the condo in Leadville and got cleaned up, then headed over to the finish line to watch the finishers come in. I was so jealous of the people crossing the line. I had so badly wanted the full experience of the day. 

I had a personal pity party for about two hours. I told Lindsey, who plans to crew and pace me for the 100 mile run this weekend, that I was just going to go home and skip it. I was out of the Lead Challenge and I'd spent all my energy training for the bike race, so what was the point of even starting the run? She told me to think about it. I talked to Laura who reminded me that I've already paid the race entry and some nonrefundable airbnb fees. I'm already here. I should go out there and have as much fun on the run course as they'll let me have. I have some really smart and wonderful friends.

I got up the next morning feeling like garbage after the effort of the bike race. There was a 10K run that was part of the Lead Challenge. I had to at least start that race to be able to move on and do the 100 mile run the following weekend. I went to packet pickup and got my bib and ran the slowest 10K of my life, feeling tired but feeling more positive as the miles progressed. 

As I jogged down the 10K course that also makes up the first and last 3 miles of the 100 mile run, I visualized running there again in one week. I also reflected on the previous day. Surprisingly, I wasn't devastated about the DNF. I knew that I tried as hard as I could. I kept pushing myself to try to get something that I wanted. I committed and I did not quit. Even when my chip was pulled, I didn't quit, and whether that was smart or stupid, I'm incredibly proud of myself for continuing on and giving the day all I had. 

I raced my heart out to get to that time cut at mile 42. I dug deeper than ever before — in 15 years of endurance racing I have never dug so deep. I was stronger than I thought, and I did more than I thought I could. All of the motivational talk from the athlete meeting applied to the race day that I had. I walk away from that mountain bike race amazed at all I learned and excited and interested to see how far I can go. I feel energized rather than defeated.

A 10K finish line with Becca, my lovely crew.

I'm glad I listened to Laura and stayed here in Colorado instead of going home with my tail between my legs. I'm working from "home" in an airbnb in Keystone this week,and I'm heading back up to Leadville tomorrow to start another 100 mile journey all over again. While the Lead Challenge is over for me, the Leadville challenge is not, and I'm excited to see where it takes me. This is Leadville, and I love it.

A little shakeout ride yesterday at Lake Dillon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Summer of Leadville 2022: Silver Rush 50 MTB Race Report

The Silver Rush weekend features a 50 mile run on Saturday and a 50 mile mountain bike race on Sunday, both on the same course. The race starts in Leadville at 10,200 feet. First, you run or push your bike up a ski hill. You reach 12,000 feet 4 times in 50 miles, with a total elevation gain of 7,000 feet. The surface consists mostly of jeep paths and gravel roads, with a little bit of single track and a little bit of asphalt. Runners get 14 hours to complete the course and cyclists get 8 hours and 20 minutes.

In 2018, I failed to reach the finish of my one and only 50 mile run before the shotgun went off — at 14:08, I was eight minutes late to the line. One of the reasons I signed up for the Lead Challenge was to get an official finish at the Silver Rush run, but I injured my knee in April and had to scale back my running dramatically. There was no time to recover and then train for a 50 mile run. The only viable option for completing the Silver Rush requirement of the Lead Challenge was to do it on a bike. 

I clearly remember spectating the bike race, standing at the Printer Boy aid station and watching the bikes squeeze between two large boulders and down a short, steep hill. I thought to myself I could never do that on a bike. I also remember watching the cyclists going up and down the out-and-back hill into the Stumptown aid station at the halfway point and thinking I could never ride up or down that on a bike. It was so rocky and steep. One cyclist lost control at the turn at the bottom of the hill and crashed. I thought: I would never do this on a bike. I remember during the run, using poles to pick my way down a rocky, steep descent, at least I'm not doing this on a bike. Five years later...I was about to do all of that on a bike.

Building Confidence

My new Little Rock friend Ari talked me into doing one small local mountain bike race here in May. When Trent and I drove out the day before and pre-rode the course I was so nervous that I was almost in tears. It was ridiculous. I panicked at a creek crossing and tried to stop, couldn't unclip in time, lost my balance and fell over. After that I was terrified to clip in on my mountain bike and I switched back to flat pedals for the race the next day. It worked fine and I actually had fun instead of being scared. Finishing that race gave me a huge boost of confidence. I even got to stand on the podium in third place in my category!

Category 3 podium at the Ugly Gnome MTB Race!

At the Unbound Gravel 50 miler in June, as I floated up hills on my gravel bike, I realized how much stronger I've become. I gained just a little bit of confidence for the mountain biking I'd be doing this summer in Leadville. Another confidence builder took place two days before the Silver Rush race — I rode my bike up and down the Powerline segment of the Leadville 100 MTB course. Even though there was definitely some pushing of the bike uphill and walking of the bike downhill on that ride, knowing that I navigated the scariest part of the 100 course was a relief.

Pre-Race Joy

I decided to drive to Leadville to make it easier to transport my bike and avoid the hassles of flying. When I was mapping the route, I realized that one of the options took me through Oklahoma and past Amarillo. Could I talk a friend into driving up from San Antonio to go with me?! Shelly was up for it and we met on Wednesday night, leaving her car at the Amarillo airport. I can't say enough about how wonderful it was to share this experience with Shelly. I miss my friend so much and it was just incredible to spend several days together doing what we love to do. Shelly was even able to sign up for the Silver Rush 15 mile run on Saturday, so she got to have her own experience racing in the mountains. I know she's hooked. 

My Gravel Girl friends, Amy and Terri, were also racing the 15 mile run, and we all stayed together in an Airbnb that looked like it was built from Lincoln logs. It was adorable and we had a wonderful girls' weekend. Because they were all racing on Saturday, after I saw them off at their start I was left to my own devices. I hopped on a shuttle to try to get out to their turnaround point. The shuttle wasn't running to that aid station, but it was running to Printer Boy for people spectating the 50 miler.

At Printer Boy, a small group of spectators and crew gathered to watch their runners come through. As I watched the runners navigating the steep hill and the two large boulders that I remembered from 2018, I took a deep breath and wondered aloud if I'd be able to make it up and through that little section on my bike. "Of course you can," said my new friend Matt, who was running the timing mat right there at the rocks, "and I'll be here to cheer you up it tomorrow!"

Cole Chlouber, the son of race founder Ken Chlouber, was out there spectating too. When someone commented on the difference between a 50 mile race and a 100 mile race, Cole said matter-of-factly, "it doesn't hurt more. It just hurts for longer." I sat there soaking up the experience and the knowledge from the folks around me for as long as I could, then realized I needed to scoot back to the finish line to see my friends cross it. 

Around the four-hour mark, they started coming through. Of course they had all made friends during their race. One of Amy's new friends was Matt the timing mat guy's wife! It's a small world in Leadville. I love it. I love the people and the experience and the community and everything about it.

Three happy finishers: Shelly, Amy, and Terri.

Race Day

There were two waves to start the race: one at 8:00 and one at 8:05. I opted for the second wave because I didn't want to get in anyone's way. The gun went off for the first wave and the song that played to kick off the race was "Kick Start My Heart" by Motley Crue. That's my favorite pump-up song — Terri and I had even been talking about it the night before! I shrieked when it began to play. This was the sign of a good day.

My Team SFQ teammate, whose husband was also racing!

As I lined up for the start, the man next to me noticed my Lead Challenge plate. He had one too. "I did the run yesterday," he said, "did you?" No I did not, thank goodness. Then he said, "Remember the Trail of Tears from the marathon? I can't believe they're making us go up and down that." What? I was going to have to ride up and down the steep, rocky, one-mile segment that makes you question your will to live at the marathon?? I pushed it out of my mind as I pushed my bike up the hill. 

That Hill.

My plan was to keep moving forward while remaining aware of the time cuts. The first cutoff was at the halfway point at the Stumptown aid station at 12:30. That gave me almost four and a half hours to go 23.5 miles (the course was short at 47 miles this year because of a water table survey that was taking place). I had to stop and take a deep breath at the top of the hill. It felt like T1 of a triathlon. I stepped over my bike and was on my way, uphill for the first 11 miles of the race.

Because I started almost dead last, I began passing people right from the start. I assumed they would pass me back again on the descents, because that's how it usually goes when I run trails. They didn't. You guys, my descending has improved so much. 

I felt so joyful riding the parts that were rideable and walking the parts that weren't. There's a steep uphill segment around mile 10 that makes you question your sanity, and then you turn onto a four-mile descent. I was so happy to make it up that first long climb and descend into Printer Boy. When I got there, I zoomed up the little hill and saw Matt at the top of it. "I did it!" I exclaimed at him. I don't think he knew who I was. Then I panicked and put my foot down trying to maneuver through the two boulders. Oh well, at least I made it up the hill.

Onwards to Stumptown and up the Trail of Tears. I swear that after the marathon they went through there and dumped out more rocks. As I pushed my bike up one side, the winners were descending the other side. They had no choice of what line to take because of all of us on the right side, so they just rode over all of the loose, large, baby heads. They floated down, actually. It was amazing to watch.

As I turned the corner to Stumptown where I'd seen the guy wipe out a few years ago, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I was doing something I'd said I could never do. I choked back some tears. I'm doing this, I thought. I am a mountain biker.

I reached Stumptown with time to spare and hugged Shelly, who was prepared with a cooler full of my stuff. She switched out my water bladder, two bottles, and a supply of gels while I stepped into a porta potty. I took a couple of motrin for a headache and ate an incredible banana and two squares of grape uncrustable at the aid station. Shelly said she'd see me at Printer Boy inbound and I was on my way again.

Four hours into this race and I'd been having fun! I heard a spectator yell the familiar, "Go Pinky!" at me, which made me smile. The other racers were so friendly and encouraging. I was eating and drinking and feeling good. And, it was probably all downhill from here, because it had been all uphill on the way out, right? Nooooo. Pretty much as soon as I turned back towards the start, it started getting tough. 

I stopped to have a snack and another cyclist pulled up next to me with an orange Santa Cruz Blur identical to mine. He told me he had a nickname for me, that he had been calling me "Pink Joy." "We have the same bike!" I exclaimed, and instead of telling him my name, I said, "my nickname for my bike is 'Santa Baby.'" He looked a little bit confused. "You're so joyful on this course," he told me. Perfect. That's exactly what I was trying to do, and the fact that it came across to other racers was not lost on me.

Rick and I ended up riding together for the rest of the race. He's done the Leadville 100 six times, but this was his first Silver Rush. When I asked him what he thought of the course, he told me that it's been described as "the Leadville 100 with all of the easy parts taken out." I'd heard that before. "Is it true?" I asked. He confirmed that so far, it was definitely the case.

He rode ahead of me through the Trail of Tears and told me to stay within myself and take what the trail, the bike, and my body had to give. "Come on, Pink Joy," Rick would yell. I still had to stop and catch my breath and collect myself halfway down. It was scary to try to navigate a line down the steep, loose, rocky section. But I made it!

There was some unnecessary walking.

When I reached Printer Boy, Shelly was there taking pictures and yelling. I stayed on my bike through the two large rocks. Matt recognized me this time and yelled "you did it!" and tried to give me a fist bump. (If I'd returned it, I would have fallen off my bike.) I was so excited for this small victory as I flew down the little hill to the aid station. Amy and Terri were there and they helped to refuel me again. I asked them to confirm that Rick with the Santa Cruz was indeed standing there at the aid station — I thought I had hallucinated him because his encouragement and presence on the course was helping me so much. They confirmed that he was indeed there and we headed up the four-mile hill. Just 15 miles to go.

Amy and her freezing cold ice towel at Printer Boy.

It was difficult to climb the hill, but not that difficult. I thought to myself that I'm much better at riding bikes in Leadville than I am at running there. I was scared to turn onto the rocky descent, but again Rick was in front of me, literally riding my same bike, proving to me that it could be done on the equipment that I was using. I descended well, stopping to walk on a few of the sketchier, ruttier sections. I watched a guy slide out in front of me and do a perfect cartwheel off his bike, dismounting with his arms up like a gymnast. "Did you see that?" he asked in disbelief. He was fine and his bike was fine. It was wild.

With about seven miles left the storm that had been threatening for a couple of hours finally opened up and rain poured from the sky for the last part of the race. I was soaked and frozen and my glasses were difficult to see through. As usual time had ticked away rapidly in the second part of the race, so I didn't waste time stopping to put on my raincoat. Rick had arm warmers that he'd been pulling up and down all day. I made a mental note to do the same thing at the 100 next month.

We rode though the cruel mile of single track at the end that I remember from the run (Amy called it "the bullshit section"), down the steep hill to the finish (I walked my bike down), and finally across the finish line. As I finished the race I was laughing hysterically with joy and relief. My friends were there to greet me, including Sarah, another Gravel Girl whose husband had finished hours earlier, who has been giving me advice and encouragement for Leadville all year. Other racers standing there under the tents congratulated me. I had made it across the line at 8:01, with 20 minutes to spare before the cutoff.

A failed fist bump from trail angel Rick at the finish line. 

With the help of my friends I changed my clothes. Shelly and I went back to grab some food (it was all gone at that point) and a beer. It was still raining so we didn't stand around long. We jumped into the car and started our long drive back to Texas.

I cried when I left Shelly in Amarillo to continue on my own to Little Rock. It was just such a joyful weekend. I'm so grateful to my friends, new and old, for making this experience so incredibly positive. I'm so grateful to my coach, Nell Rojas, for helping me become a mountain biker over the past year. I know that the Leadville 100 mountain bike race will be really, really hard, and I'm so motivated to train for the next few weeks to get as strong as I can to do all of those climbs and descents. I know that if I keep the positive attitude and bring "Pink Joy" to the race with me like I did at the Silver Rush, that I'll have a good day out there. I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Summer of Leadville 2022: Leadville Marathon Race Report

With 40 minutes left before the final cutoff of 3:30 pm, I was rushing towards the finish line of the Leadville Marathon, fully aware that I was in trouble with time. My friends were expecting me in ten minutes based on my prediction from previous finish times (8:03 in 2018, 7:57 last year) but I was three miles away from the finish. My Lead Challenge was almost over before it even began. 

When I signed up for the Lead Challenge in December, I was confident about running and very, very intimidated by the 100 mile mountain bike race. I was so intimidated, in fact, that when given the choice of a 50 mile run or a 50 mile MTB ride at the Silver Rush race in July, I selected the run option.

Who would have known that six months later, I'd be feeling so much stronger and more confident on the bike, but feeling weak and wobbly on the run. Moving to a new home in February meant new running routes, most of which are asphalt and concrete. As my training ramped up, running on hard surfaces started to take its toll on my body. Then I fell off my bike a couple of times, as you do when you're learning to ride a mountain bike. Then I fell twice during a trail run. All of these things led to an injured right knee in April. 

It's still hard to even type the word "injured." After being in denial about it for longer than I should have (aka wasting two weeks wishing it away), I spent two months at PT rehabbing my knee and strengthening the muscles around it. I could only run short distances every other day. I felt super strong biking, but I really questioned my ability to run the marathon. 

Eventually, one week before the race, I went out and ran 12 miles on trails - my first "real" training run for the race. My knee was fine, but my feet and legs were very sore afterwards just from the time on my feet. I knew that my body would be feeling miserable for at least the last half of the marathon. I also knew from prior experience last year (stress fracture in February) that it's possible to do this marathon off a lot of bike volume and not a lot of running.

I was really excited to get up to Leadville, but I was also really nervous about how my body would feel. Would it be impossible to breathe? I live at sea level now. I flew into Denver on Thursday and stayed the night in Lafayette with my lovely former neighbors Lindsey and Mackenzie. It felt really weird to be back in my old apartment complex. Lindsey and I headed out for a shakeout run on Friday morning, and I loved running on one of my old routes and saying hi to the prairie dogs and bunnies that I've missed so much! I was happy to note that running felt pretty normal in Lafayette, in fact, it felt better than running in Little Rock's heat and humidity! This was a good sign.

Lindsey and I drove up to Leadville on Friday afternoon. We checked into our perfectly located airbnb and headed over to the expo. I was thrilled to get to meet my Team SFQ teammate, Kara, and to see my former BSR teammate Zach, his fabulous wife LindsAy, and their ridiculously cute puppies. We also took the opportunity to meet ultrarunning legend Courtney Dauwalter. The exchange went something like this:

Courtney: Hi, what's your name?
Me: Hi, I'm Kris.
Courtney: Hi Kris. I'm Courtney.
Lindsey: *shakes head, apologizes on behalf of her friend

Lindsey and I headed back to the airbnb and got our stuff ready for the next day. We made our own dinner (she had pasta, I had my favorite meal of late: rice, eggs, and avocado). We watched some TV and went to bed fairly early.

Race morning came around and before we knew it we were off and running. I knew what to do. You just have to keep moving and spend as little time as possible at zero miles per hour. I preach this all the time. That turned out to be hard to do with so much socializing happening on the course. My absolute favorite thing about the day was that every few miles I got to see someone I knew. But even knowing a lot of people out on the course, I basically spent the whole day alone. I was moving slower than usual. I'll blame the altitude and my lack of run training.

Josie! My wonderful friend from Lakewood Masters, who crewed me at the 100 run in 2018!

Jess, my Gravel Girl friend!

Holy cow, y'all. I think it took me SIX YEARS to meet Cheryl Miller in person, of course I was going to stop for a photo.

The race starts at 10,200 feet in Leadville and then climbs up to 13,200 feet at the top of Mosquito Pass. There are some other climbs and descents in there as well, so you end up with 6,000 feet of gain by the end of 26.2 miles. As usual, I felt better climbing than descending. I had my poles with me and I pulled them out at the bottom of Mosquito Pass for the climb. I used them for the rest of the day - they were more useful for descending than climbing. I used them as makeshift crutches to protect my knee. 

I saw Lindsey running back down the pass as I was heading up, on her way to fourth place overall female and first in her age group. Then I saw Josie and Kara on their way back down. Finally, as I was reaching the top of Mosquito Pass, I saw Zach on his way down. He stopped and said we should take a picture. "I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS, ZACH," I yelled, "I have to make the cutoff!" But he had his phone out so I stopped to snap a pic.

Zach commented later that he was worried I'd miss the cut by a minute and then he'd feel responsible.

I was four hours and 30 minutes into the race when I reached the turnaround point. I didn't even stop to take a selfie at the top of the pass. I knew I was in trouble with time. I hurried down as fast as my legs and poles could carry me. I stopped at a porta-potty at mile 20 and then headed up the Trail of Tears, the one-mile segment that is straight up a steep hill, with loose rocks and no good line to take. I saw a man sitting on the side of the path about 3/4 of the way up. I told him he had a quarter of a mile to go. A few minutes later, he passed me on the descent, jokingly complaining that it had been more than a quarter of a mile. We had about four miles left to go.

At this point, I switched my watch from race time to show the time of day. I knew the finish line cutoff was at 3:30. I kept moving forward, slower than I'd like, but my legs were done. Approaching the final aid station, there was a volunteer standing at the top of the hill. "Once you pass me, it's less than three miles to go," he said. I looked at my watch. I had 40 minutes left. I know how great I am at wasting time on Leadville race courses. I thought to myself that it would be completely humiliating to not even officially finish the first race of the Lead Challenge. 

Passing the aid station, I saw someone lying on the side of the trail ahead of me. It was the man who had passed me earlier. I yelled to the volunteers that there was someone in trouble. They rushed up to help him and I heard him protesting: "I'm just resting." A few minutes later, I guess he was fine because he ran by me, telling me to hurry up, that the race was almost over. What the heck. 

I ran as fast as I could towards the finish and counted down the miles. My quads, feet, and calves were burning.

My watch buzzed: It was a text message from Shelly. "I'm thinking about you." I ran, grateful for the encouragement, grateful to her for somehow knowing that I'd need it.

My watch buzzed: It was an Instagram message from Jess. She was sharing the pictures we'd taken on the course. Great, but uggh. I still had more than a mile to go.

My watch buzzed again: It was Lindsey calling. God DAMMIT Lindsey do not call me to ask me where I am and why I'm not done yet. (I love you Lindsey.) 

As I approached the final descent into town, I knew I was going to make the cut. Lindsey and Kara greeted me and ran in the last tenth of a mile to the finish with me. The time limit had been extended for some reason - we had been given an extra three minutes. I crossed the line at 3:25. I'd made the cut by 8 minutes.

My teammate, Kara, who had finished an hour earlier. And Lindsey running in her slippers.

I am so grateful to my amazing coach Nell Rojas who got me to this start line. I know that with her guidance I'm in good shape for the rest of this series. I'm thankful for my amazing friends and Team SFQ teammates who cheered and supported both in person and from a distance. And I'm so grateful to have a husband who understands me and supports this training that's taking hours of my time (I'm also grateful that he's not mad at me for being faster on the bike now than he is. 😉 )

My love.

I'm so happy and relieved to still be in the Lead Challenge. As long as you start one race, you get to start the next one. I just really, really, really want to finish all of them. My next start is the mountain bike race (yes, that's right, I switched from the run to the bike) at the Silver Rush on July 10. 

Wish me luck because I'm going to need it! 💕

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Unbound Gravel 50 Mile Race Report 2022

It's been almost ten years since I first heard about the Unbound Gravel race in Emporia, Kansas. These are the facts that I knew about the race formerly called the Dirty Kanza: the race was all on hilly dirt roads, it was 200 miles, and my most accomplished cyclist friend Jenny had just completed it, during which she had a crash that resulted in her stapling her thigh back together with an actual stapler. Jenny and I had just finished our first full distance triathlon at Ironman Texas, and when asked which event was more difficult, Jenny did not hesitate to say it was the 200 mile bike race, no question. Holy cow. Also, hell no.

Flash forward ten years and I've got a gravel bike that I love riding and I'm living in Kansas City, Missouri, only an hour or so away from Emporia. Of course I needed to check this event out. With other big goals on the calendar and still harboring an unhealthy amount of fear of the 200 mile route, I opted for the 50 miler. I convinced Orissa to drive up from Texas to ride as well.

In early January we learned that both of our applications for the race had been accepted. In February, Trent and I moved to Little Rock. Kansas City would have been pretty far away to make a comfortable home base for the race, and places in Emporia had been booked since before the lottery for the event even opened. Orissa and I got a cute little Airbnb in Wichita. 

Because packet pickup for the 50 mile race was on the same day as the event itself, we drove to Wichita on Friday, settled in, and drove over to Emporia in the morning for packet pickup and our 9 am race start. We got there early enough to grab a donut and take our time getting to the start line. The 100 and 200 mile races had started a couple of hours earlier. There was even a 350 mile event that started the day before.

As we lined up in downtown Emporia for the start, Orissa and I shared that we were both feeling quite nervous. I wasn't sure why, because we had decided ahead of time that this would be a bit of a joyride with no goals except to stay upright and enjoy the day. We rolled out with 500+ other riders and slowly made our way out of town and onto the gravel.

Oh, did I mention it was raining? It was sprinkling before the start and we'd decided to start the race with our rain jackets on. I think I can confidently say that there was some type of rain falling from the sky for the entire duration of our race, but it was light and lovely enough for the first 20 miles that I eventually took off my coat. It was difficult for the first little bit of the race to get into a rhythm because of all the people around us. We passed politely, staying in the doubletrack lanes. I felt surprised every time someone went outside the lane to pass, but eventually Orissa and I started to do the same thing. 

I had an idea that we would follow the same pattern that I've been using on my training rides - stop to take a gel every hour and use that opportunity to stretch. It became clear after a while that neither of us wanted to stop because that would require making our way back through the packs of people that we'd just passed. It felt like the course would just stay crowded for the entire event, but eventually the crowds thinned and we mostly were by ourselves. Just us and the cows. That was probably about the same time that it started to actually rain. 

We shrieked when we heard a loud clap of thunder and I hustled to get my raincoat back on. From that moment on (I think we were around mile 25) it was nothing but pouring rain. We decided to bypass aid stations to avoid getting tangled up in other riders. We had backpacks filled with sports drink so it wasn't necessary to stop anyway. The water began to pool on the roads, making it difficult to see ruts and pot holes. Our bikes became noisier as they picked up grit from the road. We stopped at one point to check Orissa's front rotor, but there was nothing either of us could think of to do to fix it. As we passed other riders, some of their bikes sounded insane. One man laughed that his bike was about to fall apart under him, and I worried that he might not actually be joking.

They hadn't published the routes for the race until a couple of weeks before the event. Orissa and I had speculated about how much time it might take for us to complete the 50 miler. For my Leadville training, I've been riding a very hilly 50 mile route on my mountain bike that takes about five hours each time, so we surmised that a five hour finish might be reasonable. We were thrilled to find ourselves heading back towards town much earlier than that, and we ended up coming down the chute at 3:48:02. What a fun day!

It was really fun to race and it was really fun to feel SO GOOD racing. The hours of training around Lake Sylvia that I've put in have helped so much. Learning some skills from my new MTB hero friend Ari and racing on single track at the Ugly Gnome mountain bike race last month has helped to sharpen my skills and my confidence as well. I felt like I was flying up every hill with no effort on my gravel bike. The shocking part is that I felt myself flying down the other side of each one with confidence - confident in my handling skills and my ability to choose a line. It was great to practice riding with other people in a race on rocky double track and I feel so much more confident about the upcoming bike races in Leadville this summer.

At the finish, Orissa and I were soaked and freezing but we chose to take the time to take our bikes to the complimentary bike wash sponsored by Muc-Off. What an amazing feature at a gravel race. We rushed back to the car to change into warm clothes and watch the other racers come in. At some point the sun came out and it felt hot as we stood along the chute watching the mud-splattered pros and other heroes of the 100- and 200-mile races coming in. We even claim that we saw Peter Sagan cross the finish and coast around the side of a building on his bike, away from the crowds.

The event was inspiring and exciting and I can say for sure that I'd come back and do the 100. I'd even do the 200 if I can find a way between now and then of being less fearful of riding on dirt roads in the dark. In the meantime, I've got one week until my first race of the Lead Challenge next weekend - the Leadville Marathon. The Summer of Leadville is about to we go!!!

It wouldn't be a race without donuts.

Another cyclist told me "you look like a magical fish." I love these beautiful kits!

Monday, April 11, 2022

Ouachita Trail 50K Race Report (DNF): A Blessing in Disguise

I have always firmly believed that DNF (did not finish) is always better than DNS (did not start). After my experience at the Ouachita Trail 50K on Saturday, I think I still agree with this statement, but not for the reasons you'd expect. 

A month or so ago, I joined the Arkansas Ultra Running Association page on Facebook to try to get some ideas of trail running routes that I could use in my training for Leadville. Since we moved to Little Rock in February, I've been running on asphalt and mountain bike trails - nothing like the rocky fire roads of the Leadville courses. The first thing I noticed was that a 50K race was coming up, five miles from my house! Even though I wasn't really quite up for the mileage of a 50K, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to do a trail race at Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

The event had a 50 mile and 50K option, and both races started at the entrance to Maumelle Park, about two miles from the Pinnacle Mountain visitor's center. I've been riding and running frequently on the road that makes up the first two and last two miles of the course. From there, the run goes onto the Ouachita Trail, up the east side of Pinnacle Mountain to the summit (about 700 feet straight up), down the other side, and back onto the Ouachita Trail for an out-and-back course that would eventually bring you back to Maumelle Park, bypassing the mountain climb segment on the way back.

I did a practice run on a section of the course a few weeks ago and it didn't go very well. I got lost on trails covered in roots, rocks, pine needles, and leaves. I don't know if runners around here would call the route technical, but compared to the fire roads, groomed trails, and gravel paths that I'm used to running, it was technical AF. Although the only real elevation gain was the part up Pinnacle Mountain, the rest of the course that I practiced on was basically an undulating up-and-down course that was never particularly flat or gentle. I thought I'd be fine for the race: I'd just run what was "runnable" and fast-walk the rest. There was no real time limit for the 50K, just a 13-hour time limit for the 50 mile run that you had to meet.

The race started at 6 am. About 150 runners were led up the road by an emergency vehicle, the blue lights flashing in the dark. Right away, a runner came up next to me and introduced herself. Like everyone else that I've met in Arkansas, she was so incredibly friendly and began giving me tips on how to pronounce the names of things around here (for example, Ouachita = Wash-it-ah). She also told me about a trail running group and encouraged me to join it.

The first two miles passed quickly, and we were at the top of the hill at the end of the road section, ready to turn onto the Ouachita Trail. We turned onto a downhill segment that led to the road below, and as soon as we took our first steps downhill, I stopped to wave others past. Noelle was gone in an instant. I was sad to lose the company but knew that I needed to take the steps (both natural and man-made) carefully. I had taken couple of tumbles on my mountain bike in the past week and my right knee was at about 75%. It really didn't like going downhill; it felt like it was going to hyperextend or buckle under me. So I took baby steps down the hill and wondered if it would be smart to tap out at mile 3. This was a training run after all, it was not the type of situation where I was in a "die before DNF" mindset. I kept going.

Some meandering through the woods with a little running and a little walking led me to the bottom of the big climb up Pinnacle Mountain. I could see the runners ahead of me climbing up the steep boulders, and I wondered how hard or scary it would be to climb up. I learned very soon that it would be pretty hard (like climbing the boulder field at the top of a fourteener for 700 feet) and pretty scary (but not quite as "I'm going to fall backwards and plummet to my death" as ascending the Manitou Incline). We were all in a line using hands and feet to climb up the boulders and it reminded me of the photos I've seen of the traffic jam at the summit of Mt. Everest. Except that I was holding up the line. I stepped aside a couple of times to let others go by. At one point I squealed, "I think I'm stuck," as I stood paralyzed not knowing where to place my foot next. A kind gentleman behind me offered to spot me, and I scrambled up, more out of embarrassment than confidence. 

The climb was cool. I'm glad I got to do it.

The way down on the other side was less technical than the way up and I baby stepped my way down, cognizant of the other runners nimbly skipping by. I cursed my unsteady right knee but continued on. Finally, about six miles into the race, I arrived at a section I'd call runnable: a straight stretch of flat trail covered with soft pine needles. Can you guess what happened next? I tripped over a root or a rock or whatever was lurking beneath the pine needles, went full superman and landed on my left knee and my face. My chin bounced off the ground and my hat and glasses went flying. I felt the squish of my water bottles as I landed hard on my chest. My immediate response was to roll over and curl into the fetal position, trying not to cry. I think I was less physically injured than I was scared and angry, but other runners were coming up behind me so I tried to get it together. I gingerly stood up and worried that my left knee was now the injured one - I took a few gentle steps and decided it would be okay. I brushed the dirt and leaves from my clothes and slowly started walking down the path.

There was a perfect opportunity to bail out at mile seven. I arrived at the next checkpoint and decided I was okay to move on. I would just be really careful. About a mile later I was overjoyed to find the trail popping up onto a section that would be paved, and I jogged gleefully towards it. I tripped again. As I pitched over onto my side and into a thorn bush (at least I didn't land on my face this time), I screamed out my patented phrase of "FUCKING FUCK," and just laid there for a second. Again, I could have turned back at this point, but I chose to keep going.

I continued on for a while, irritated that I was too scared to pick up any speed, angry that I apparently can't pick up my feet on the trail enough to not fall down every mile or so. Eventually, probably because of the falls or maybe because I'd been wandering in the woods for four hours, my right knee, the one that was not at 100% when I started the race, began to hurt, like actually hurt. I realized that with 20 miles left, I should probably go ahead and DNF the event. 

I was out in the middle of the woods. I could turn back or I could continue on to the next aid station and drop out there. I wasn't fully committed to the idea of dropping out at that point, so I continued on. Runners started coming back the other way, first the winners, then the rest of the 50K participants, then the winners of the 50 mile run. 

On Sunday morning when I woke up with the same terrible headache that I'd had the night before, feeling nauseated and sensitive to light, I realized that when I fell and whacked my chin, I probably gave myself a concussion. I think that's why when I decided to DNF, I chose to text the group chat and ask for any of my friends to call me. I wasn't thinking clearly and needed 1) reassurance about dropping out and 2) advice on whether to turn back or continue to the next aid station. My beautiful friends all called me and said 1) YES drop out and 2) TURN BACK. So I continued on to the next aid station. I called Trent and told him I'd be DNFing at the halfway point and that I'd probably get a ride from there back to my car. He said, "Are you sure you really need to quit?" This is why I love him. But I replied, "yes." He told me to be careful and I kept going. After six and a half hours on the course, I finally reached the aid station at mile 16. I told the volunteers there that I wanted to DNF and one of them asked, "are you sure? You still have plenty of time." Yes, I was sure. 

This would be the point where I'd say, okay, I learned all these lessons, onward and upward, all those good things. The end. But I'm not done yet! 

The volunteers at the aid station were so kind. They gave me a cup of soda and a cheese quesadilla and told me to sit in a camp chair. One of the volunteers pointed to a man in a Leadville 100 finisher's hoodie with his cute dog sitting on the other side of the aid station. "George will drive you back to the start," she said.

Holly runs with George and has completed marathons and 50Ks!

After waiting a few minutes for the outbound time cutoff to pass at that station, George motioned that we should go. I gratefully hopped into his car with him and Holly the dog. I asked him about Leadville and he said that he'd run it about ten years ago. When I mentioned that I'll be racing there this summer, he asked me where I've been training. I explained that I'm new to the area: I've been running on the roads and on the trails we were just running on. Where should I be running? And then I just started taking notes on my phone as he listed the places I should go and the events I should look up online. George is the president of the Arkansas Ultra Running Association and he's an absolute wealth of knowledge.

We continued to the turnaround point of the 50 mile run and waited there for a few minutes for anyone to drop, then turned back and went to another checkpoint to do the same thing. A man named Jim dropped from the 50 mile run at that point - he was at mile 27 and had two hours to make it eight miles back to the next checkpoint, and he was over it. He joined us in the car and we headed back to the start. It turns out that between them, Jim and George have finished Leadville, Western States, Run Rabbit Run, and the Wasatch 100. I'm sure they've got more incredible ultra running accomplishments that they didn't even mention. I was in the car with ultra running royalty, and these two guys did all their training for these races in Central Arkansas. This was such inspiring and exciting news for me! They told me where to go to train and even mentioned a friend who did the Leadman Challenge last year and completed it, commenting that he'd likely be happy to give me advice about it if I reach out.

If I hadn't started the race, I wouldn't have met Noelle and learned about the trail running group that trains on Saturdays. If I'd turned back to DNF or decided to finished the race, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet Jim and George or to learn about all the wonderful places to run around here. As my very wise friend Linda told me, the DNF was absolutely a blessing in disguise and "the universe gives us what we need even though we often do not understand until later why things unfolded the way they did." 

It's Monday as I type this and I feel so much better than I did yesterday. My head isn't hurting anymore and my thoughts are clearer. My chin and left knee are bruised and scraped, I have cuts from the thorns on my right side, and my right knee is still swollen and iffy. But I am full of inspiration and motivation to get out there and train for the races this summer that are approaching so quickly. I learned all these lessons! Onward and upward!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

First Stop on the Way to Leadville: Vegas Baby!

A Rock n Roll Marathon event would not usually be on my radar. Several years ago, their contract with the city of San Antonio prevented other half marathons or marathons from taking place in the city within a timeframe around their race, which shut down multiple local events. When that happened, I said I'd never do another Rock n Roll event. On top of that, I'm training for a trail running series this summer, so there was no need to do a road race. I guess if you're going to compromise your principles, Las Vegas is the place to do it.

A flurry of peer pressure and discounted race entry fees last December led Orissa, Shelly and I to meeting up for a much needed girls weekend in Las Vegas for the half marathon at the end of February. Bonus: it was Shelly's birthday weekend! After a brief moment of panic when Shelly texted NINE HOURS before their flight was scheduled to depart that it had been cancelled (thanks American Airlines), Orissa and Shelly figured out a solution and we all arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday around lunch time.

We checked in at the Aria and headed over to the expo, checking out some delicious dining and enjoying some day drinking on the way. It was disconcerting at first to find that Las Vegas was just as crowded as ever, pandemic or no pandemic, but we quickly got used to all the people around us. I also didn't realize that they still allow smoking in casinos -- yes, you can describe me as an aggressive nonsmoker who can sniff out the smell of smoking from a mile away (more about this later).

We purchased some snacks in the store downstairs so that we could avoid any temptation from the minibar and returned to our room. We settled in, drinking wine and cosmopolitans while we admired the view of the Strip. Orissa and I had a hilarious moment when we tried to rearrange the unrefrigerated portion of the minibar. Above the refrigerator was a large decorative display with Fiji water and bags of cashews and other snacks. We tried to lift the display box up to move it out of our line of sight, only to find that it was connected with wires to the rest of the cabinet. Shelly warned that even if you so much as touch items on the minibar you can be charged for them! So we put the bottles and snacks back where we'd found them and hoped that we weren't going to get in any trouble.

Pre-race fueling

By this time it was 6:30 pm and I'm embarrassed to say that we were all ready to go to sleep. We forced ourselves to get up and go to see some sights. The Bellagio fountain and conservatory were just as beautiful as ever and Caesar's Palace was lovely even though we were politely discouraged from being seated at one restaurant for looking like we couldn't afford to eat there. 

The next morning we got up and spent a full day shopping, dining, and sightseeing. The race didn't start until 4:30 pm, so we had plenty of time to spare. We even got to see the Van Gogh Immersive Experience and all three of us were grateful to get to sit down on the floor for the 35 minute show -- our feet were already tired! As we walked back to our room to get dressed for the race, we congratulated ourselves on how well we had planned. We had about an hour to put our feet up before heading over to the start line.

It took one second after walking into the room for me to shriek, "WHY DOES IT SMELL LIKE WEED IN HERE??" Gross, it was probably coming through the air vents from another room. Moments later, Orissa exclaimed, "WHERE ARE THE CASHEWS!?" The large bag of cashews from the end of the mini bar display was gone. Immediately we surmised that someone had stepped into our room for a smoke break and helped themselves to a snack when the munchies kicked in. We checked the rest of the room and found nothing amiss, then called down to the front desk to report the break-in. We were nonchalantly told that someone from security would come up and take a report. The security person did not appear and we found it more important to get to the start line in time than to wait for them.

Arriving at the Start Village, we were late for my corral. The start area was somewhat chaotic because there were waves but they were based on no particular criteria. My wave was one of the first and Shelly's was dead last -- she had signed up late -- and there was an hour between the two start times! Our friend Q was also running the half marathon and had left the corral at her designated time. She texted me to say that they weren't checking bibs and to just go with the next group because there would be another mile to walk before the actual start of the race. What? Orissa and I talked Shelly into jumping the line and we nervously squeaked through the gate and into the chute to start. Then, as Q had said, we walked a mile to the start. Weird. I don't remember ever starting a large race without pace groups or corrals based on time.

The Strip looking ghostly as it was cleared for runners.

As we started the race, our conversation was drowned out by loud music and an energetic race announcer dressed like Britney Spears from the "Baby One More Time" video. Shelly, Orissa, and I wished each other well. My instructions from Nell were to start at a 9:30 pace and work my way down from there in the second half of the race if I was feeling good. I hoped for any time under 2:10, which would be an improvement over the last half marathon I'd run in August. Shelly and Orissa, who have not been running much distance at all lately, decided to aim for anything under 2:30 and hope for the best. 

As I ran the first three miles from Planet Hollywood towards Mandalay Bay and out of town, the sun was going down and I tried to run at 9:30 or slower to conserve energy for the second half. It didn't feel as easy to run 9:30 as it has on recent training runs, and I wondered vaguely if I was just too tired from all the training I've been doing. Then I reached mile 3 and the course turnaround. We had been running uphill! Suddenly I had to really work to slow myself down. I remembered that the old Las Vegas Marathon used to start in the desert and finish on the Strip and that it had a net downhill course. That meant we would run slightly downhill until the next turnaround, then run approximately the last 3 miles back up to the finish. 

It was awesome to have the Strip blocked off for only foot traffic. However because of the weird start, I was constantly running around people for the entire race and could never get a rhythm going. I felt the energy to pick up my pace at mile 7, but that's also the point in the race where you run onto the less populated part of the Strip. The sun had set and it was really dark outside! Without the bright lights of the casinos, the road was difficult to see and I had to step carefully to make sure each footstep was solid. As I ran past the wedding chapels, discount liquor stores, and cannabis shops, I felt myself losing momentum. At the aid station at mile 10, I felt tired. I took my last gel and willed myself to hold the pace to the finish. On the out-and-back section somewhere between miles 10 and 13, I heard Shelly and Orissa screaming from the other side and I was happy to know that they were running together.

Finally, the finish line appeared! I ran across in 2:06, feeling super stoked to reach my goal. I smiled and soaked it in. The only other finish lines I've crossed in the dark were at Ironman races, and that plus the loud music and bright lights of Vegas made it feel so festive. Another woman nearby was clearly enjoying the moment as she took a selfie right at the finish line! I laughed and then took a second look - it was Q! We couldn't have timed it better.

Q was just minding her business taking a selfie.

Photobomb! Q is like, who is this ridiculous woman ruining my shot?


Q and I waited for Shelly and Orissa to cross the line - they made it in 2:29! Goals had been met all around. We went out for pizza and girly drinks to celebrate. It was so much fun to catch up with Q, who we haven't seen since she moved to Las Vegas a few years ago. We talked about San Antonio and and how hard the Wednesday night workouts at Dawn's house used to be when we were all training for triathlons together.

When Shelly, Orissa, and I returned to our room, we were happy to note that it didn't smell of pot anymore. We got cleaned up and examined our feet for damage (Orissa's was extensive - she had a broken toenail, Shelly had a couple of bruised toes, and my feet were freakishly fine). We called down to find out the latest on our dramatic break-in situation and hotel security had no record of our call down earlier in the day. We made enough of a fuss that a representative from security came up to take our statement, but he didn't seem too concerned. He said they'd find out who had swiped into our room and let us know. We still don't know, but the hotel didn't charge us for anything in the minibar and as an "act of goodwill," they didn't make us pay the "resort fee," whatever that is. 

The next day we had a lovely shakeout swim in the hotel pool followed by a delicious brunch with a server who was so entertaining and attentive that Shelly left her a thank you note. As the three of us sat in the airport waiting for our flights, we exclaimed about how wonderful the trip had been. Orissa commented that it couldn't possibly have gone better, which made me laugh. Their flight had been cancelled and our hotel room had been used as a pot smoker's break room. But we had such a good time that it cancelled out these minor inconveniences. 

I can definitely recommend the Rock n Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon and I really do hope to be back again next year. Shelly, what do you think about making this an annual birthday celebration trip?