AZ (can you see the end?) pt 2

The day before the race I went to the finish line so I could visualize it when things got rough. I packed a drop bag for the first time that would wait for me at mile 37. I filled my vest with the same things I had been eating on my runs all week: cucumber slices, blueberries, avocado, and Larabars. My legs felt tired. I hoped a good night of sleep would change that.

At 4:45 I boarded a bus that would take us to the start in Mayer. It was full of runners, and you guys, sometimes I’m disparaging about runners but it’s because most (not all) of us are self absorbed assholes. Mostly they were posturing; talking PR’s and saying things like “a marathon is a really honest distance” and comparing toenails lost (which, ok, that is a fun pastime among us). There was a lot of buzz before the start, and especially at the start line, which has always been one of my favorite things about racing.

The very moment I started running, both of my calf muscles seized up (gastrocnemius, if you’re wondering), and not only would they stay that way, but my other leg muscles would follow suit over the course of the very long day. I don’t race much, but I have cultivated a long practice of staying rational when shit goes wrong, and this was no different. I Scott Jureked the sitch: what is wrong? My calf muscles hurt and are barely working. What can I do about it? Run anyway. I put myself in a solid 5mph pace and stayed there.

I’ve heard other runners say they race to experience community, which is missing from our long training runs, even when we’re out with a running buddy. But I’ve said it before, runners are assholes, and they will literally push you off the trail if you don’t let them pass you quickly enough, and nobody spoke a word to each other besides “on your left” for almost the entire day.

20160227-145157.jpg

There was a 4 mile stretch or so that my legs started to feel strong between mile 23 and 27, but that was the only 4 miles that I loved running that day. My hip flexors began spasming, which sucks (besides being painful) because if they’re not working well it’s very hard to climb. My thighs seized. By the time I made it to the 37 mile aid, running on my legs had escalated to the worst pain I had ever been in. I’ve never had problems with my legs cramping, and this was so far beyond cramping. I have no explanation other than putting in too many miles that week. While I was getting some food in me and repacking, a girl was checked out by the medic, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The runner next to me leaned over and said: “dizzy? Nauseous? Welcome to ultras.” I checked the time, I was still looking at 5mph, and if I had managed this far, I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t keep it up. I was still eating and drinking fine. I looked at my phone. My dad had texted “Sarah take it up a notch, you can do this.” I tried, and I did.

20160227-151119.jpg

The 9 mile stretch to the next aid station contained the biggest climb of the day. I powerhoused up it, ascents being my strength, and when my hip flexors failed I pulled my legs up by my pants with my hands. My left knee had been hurting on descents for a while, but now my right knee started throbbing in the PCL area on ascents. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. And I thought, human relationships and support are good, but I must be able to overcome the worst by myself. The worst pain, the worst fear, the worst day of my life. Nobody can be in my head and fix this but me. Then the nausea started, and let me tell you, once you start vomiting the fun don’t stop (I had a lot of time to think about what I did wrong and I’m going to go ahead and bet it was the salt tabs someone suggested for the cramping). I finally staggered into the remote aid station just as twilight gave way to full dark.

And what a motley crew I found there. Nearly everyone at mile 46-47 was miserable, and while the wonderful girls working tried to bolster our spirits and pump me full of ginger, we all discussed dropping. “I’ve just been so miserable for so long, I don’t remember what it was like to be happy” which sounds melodramatic NOW, but at the time we all thought “that’s exactly how I feel!” It was 4.5 miles to the next aid station, 5 of us set out with the hopes and dreams of dropping if we could just make it there.

It’s funny (or terrible) how misery makes you so apathetic. Earlier in the day, I would not have considered dropping. I was thinking, Sarah if you can just make it to the finish you never have to run again. But suddenly, I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing (or anything), I just wanted this terrible day to be over. We staggered in to aid, mile 51.2. Here again was an unbelievably supportive staff, rushing around trying to help us as much as possible. Two of my dropping compatriots had a mental turn around and set out on the last 11 miles. I sat next to a 4th. Finally, I asked the crew what the process was to drop. They weren’t hearing it, and said all sorts of encouraging things, including lies about how far the next aid was. They lent me a jacket (as I had forgotten mine 14 miles back), and just as I was gearing up our 5th came in, shouting “I’m done! I’m dropping! Enough!” I left, and the 4th not too far behind me.

Very soon I realized, I had gotten my feet wet after dark and they were starting to burn. My spare shoes were back at mile 37 with my jacket, neither of which I needed at the time, in the daylight my feet had dried quickly. The burning intensified into crazy sharp pains: the formation of about 40 blisters (that is not an exaggeration). On the tops of my toes, between my toes, all around the perimeter of my feet, all over my heels. I don’t generally get blisters, so I faced another new but major problem that I didn’t know what to do about. At about mile 55, the weeping started, and by 58 I had
a. Gotten slightly lost
b. brushed a cactus that stabbed my foot with spires (which are like FISHING HOOKS) that sliced right through my shoes and deep into my feet
c. Taken more than one weeping break

I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but I hadn’t eaten in 20 miles and my body felt like very painful metal. Rather than pass me, a very nice man convinced me to pick up the pace and stay with him, and having company pulled me just enough out if my misery to keep on.

When I staggered across the finish line, I just wanted this day to be over. Another very nice man, the official finish line greeter and hugger, congratulated me with great enthusiasm and sincerity. He hugged me and said “you did it! You finished! You did a great job!” And I realized, I DID finish. It wasn’t how I thought it was going to go, but I DID do a great job. I sat down with my new friends, 4/5, and we talked about how we would have dropped if it weren’t for the rest of us and those wonderful aid station crews. And some insane number like 100 did drop. As we were eating our finish pizza, number 5 crossed the finish line. All 5 of us had picked ourselves up and carried on to finish. I was so miserable that I wouldn’t have been ashamed to end it by dropping. But it wouldn’t have been me.

20160227-154750.jpg

I couldn’t have imagined how bad the recovery was going to be. It subsided after several days, at which time it became obvious that something is actually wrong with my left knee. It’s a repetitive motion injury, probably from the cumulative week of overdoing it (including the race, I ran at least 130 miles). I’ve wondered over and over, when is enough, enough? Sometimes I’m psyched to get back into training and redeem myself. Mostly, I think it’s time to give it up. Long distance is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve justified pushing my body so hard because I believed I was making it stronger. But am I? Really? Naysayers tell us we are destroying our bodies. Are they right?

In Kilian’s book he says you have make running your whole life. Every other part of you has to work together to support it. I know I can do this right.

Obviously it is not time to give up yet.
I identify as a runner not because I have nothing else, but because I know it’s who I am.

20160227-162011.jpg

Advertisements

ARIZONA (can you see the end?)

It’s been about a week and a half since I got back from AZ. That trip is definitely in the running for favorite run trip, but the aftermath is forcing me to think very hard about my future in long distance running (and while it’s not the first time, I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to giving it up).

20160226-201137.jpg

Hooptie and I rolled out of Leadville on a Sunday morning and drove straight through, fueled by Coke and pb&j’s. we arrived at the South entrance of Grand Canyon National Park around 8pm. The forest roads that were recommended as good places to sleep were gated closed (this would become a theme in AZ, as if the sad remnants of a couple inches of snow constitutes winter) so I parked in front of a gate and hoped for the best.

I set an alarm to wake up before sunrise, and drove into the park around 5:30a. I had never been to the GC, I stopped at the first overlook and watched the sun come up over it for the first time.

20160226-201803.jpg

Teddy Roosevelt first saw the GC in 1903, and proclaimed it to be “the one great sight every American should see.” Despite his enthusiasm, a bill to make it a National Park failed 6 times from 1882 to 1919. 13 other National Parks gained their status during that time, making the GC the 15th (Yellowstone had long been a NP, since 1872). The Grand Canyon, 45 miles long, and 5-18 miles wide, is often considered one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”, a list that is apparently frequently changing and now, according to Wikipedia, includes the internet. The original 7 were things the Greeks had seen, and included a mausoleum. Some current lists are 2-3/7 NYC buildings. The most legit one I saw is “natural wonders” like Aurora Borealis and Victoria Falls.

I geared up and headed down into the canyon. I had never had the opportunity to destroy my legs on a big descent at the beginning of a run, so I did exactly that all the way to the Colorado River in less than an hour and a half. Many people said many things as I passed them, but they will mostly remain a mystery as I was listening to my new 90’s hip hop playlist. Arriving at the river had a larger than life quality. Maybe it had something to do with the sign reading “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY” with an illustration of a man dying of exhaustion (marvel of graphic design). Maybe it was that just weeks ago I’d run to and from the CO river in Moab. Idk, maybe it was that I’d just run to the base of THE GRAND MOTHERFUCKING CANYON, which was carved out by the river 5-6 million years ago and has been a Native American holy site for 5,000 years.

20160226-203414.jpg

I didn’t go on, partly because I still had a cold (oh cruel fate!) but mostly because I couldn’t see how to cross the river (I would eventually find out the trail turned East before the river to a bridge that I couldn’t see). I ate a Larabar (sorry GCNP, I know you recommended 4 sandwiches but I didn’t, ok?) and headed back up. About 2 miles from the river, I saw an older gentleman that I’d passed early on the trip down. This is notable because we were far below the turn around point for nearly everyone, and I had only seen 2 or 3 backpackers. He stopped me, “do you remember, you passed me earlier?” I did. “I don’t think you heard, but I said ‘get the lead out!’ And I started running! With these legs! I haven’t ran for years!” He continued on, and so did I.

20160226-205150.jpg

The last 1,000ft up was a bit of a struggle because I could really feel the tightness from the fast high-impact rocky descent that my winter-in-Leadville legs were undertrained for. At the top I sat on the sidewalk and ate rice with vegetables with my camping spork out of my tiny camping bowl. I was high as shit (from running, not drugs); it was a wonderful run. I thought about where I might sleep (?) and what I would do tomorrow (run to the river again?) and chose to leave. Interestingly, I bought a bag of chips in the park for $1.29 which is like normal grocery store price, then bought a Coke just outside the park for $3.38 which is more than 3x regular price.

I drove to Flagstaff where I stocked up on food for the week, used a real bathroom for the last time, and noticed one of my tires was down to the steel. I drove to Sedona, hoping I’d find a place to sleep in the canyon that’s full of campgrounds and recreation areas, but they were all “closed” and worse, gated! Finally, almost out of Cottonwood I saw a sign for a trail and turned without knowing where I was going. The road turned into dirt that became BLM land! I had accidentally stumbled across the northernmost TH of the Black Canyon Recreational trail, that I would be sleeping, running, and racing on for the rest of my trip!

After a good night’s sleep, I went back to town to buy not two but FOUR new tires. The tire man pointed out that my tires are 11 years old, and that he believes they are being held together by sheer will, as he could not even put air in them and expected that they would disintegrate into thin air. On 4 new tires I headed to Bumblebee road.

20160226-210621.jpg

I could not have been more thrilled. This 80-mile section of BLM land housed a most excellent rolling technical trail and it was 85-90 degrees and sunny all week. I ran as fast as I could, and I saw at least five different types of cacti. It was as if someone painted a cartoon of Arizona for me to run in all week. I had a sweet Biolite stove with me and cooked real food on it in the evening. I ate pb&j’s, as usual, but also fresh fruit and copious amounts of avocado and cucumber (which are CHEAP in Az!). I slept 10-13 hours every night. I did yoga several times a day. I sweated everywhere (that’s a novelty for us highlanders, where it’s too cold and high to sweat). Every day I ran somewhere different but it always looked like:

20160226-211546.jpg

I knew I should taper for the race, but I couldn’t help myself. I ran 4-5 hours a day. It just felt so good. SO good! And that was how the whole week went. I rode my bike on any paved roads I could find. I resupped at this adorable little shack of a grocery store, filling several gallon jugs with water for a quarter out of a rickety machine in the parking lot and selecting vegetables from the tiny produce section next to the canned meat and salsa isle. I read books and went to bed early, to the regular howling of the coyotes.

Sooner than later, it was time to race. I’m going to cut it off here and make the race its’ own post since this is already pretty long. TO BE CONTINUED…!

THE DARKNESS (watching TV and changing my life)

Every once in a while, I have a week that differs significantly from my normal life and I don’t know where it comes from but I’ve finally figured out why it needs to happen. Near the end of last winter (read: late May, because it seems as though our weather is worse than Alaska), I wrote about this week. I re-read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, it stormed and raged every single day, and nothing would make me leave my apartment. I struggled so hard with my psyche that week, feeling pathetic and abysmally lazy; furious that I couldn’t turn it around.

Tonight, I finished re-watching season 3 of True Blood and hopped on my bike for a few intervals before bed when I realized that I’ve just had another one of those weeks (…slightly longer, like 9 days). It didn’t look much like May of last year (exception being that I submerged myself in dark distraction). I still trained, and I got back on the Nolan’s course:

20160202-200441.jpg

But the energy I was wielding was frantic and wild. Every day I’ve felt desperate to take risks, to make big changes, and feeling like you’re on the brink of something great or terrible 24/7 is exhausting. I’ve started calling it a rolling life crisis; it peaks, but it doesn’t resolve, and builds again like a wave. As it consumed me I scrambled about either putting a huge effort towards completely changing my life (and applying for grown up jobs and looking at houses in other parts of the country) or dulling my mind completely. There are two common factors to these weeks: whatever I’m doing, I can’t change the course, no matter how unhealthy it is and how angry I get at myself. And I will face the darkness that I’ve finally come to love (as of tonight, while doing sprints to Die Antwoord).

20160202-201318.jpg

There was a good, long, blissful time when I lived in Denver while I was teaching yoga, and more importantly living yoga, that I was calmer and more content maybe than any other time in my life. I didn’t watch TV or look at Facebook, or read the news, or listen to hard music. But while I was going around studying and chanting and existing out of love for my students, I saw the darkness in other people (other TEACHERS) and was honestly shocked by it. And hurt by it. It burst my bubble and I would spend another year or so doing my best to take care of my students but feeling increasingly worn down and beaten. Light without darkness is not the real world. I didn’t understand it then.

I didn’t understand it when I was injured last fall, or this past week of extremes. Or any of the very many times in my life that I’ve panicked, starved, and beaten myself until I was raw and ragged, made myself sick, wept, or looked upon the world with horror.

It’s no secret that I believe that you do not value your life until you’ve risked it. And you don’t understand risk unless you’ve both lost and won. I didn’t know how to feel free or full of joy until I had been trapped and full of pain. I’m not a victim of anything, and I’m not broken, I just feel with great intensity, and I believe that is the greatest gift of being alive. Someone asked me once what my biggest fear was, and I told her my biggest fear is that I’m fucking crazy. I don’t know what my biggest fear is anymore, but it’s not that. All those dark bits of myself are a very important part of me, and blocking them out doesn’t evaporate them. I can’t burn or starve them out. I have to love them. Without darkness there is no light; and you have to love both just as much. I’m always going to be imperfect. I’m capable of deceit, impatience, hate, jealousy, laziness, and destroying myself and everything around me. And so are you. It’s what makes us human. Sometimes I’ll have days (or weeks) when I eat crap and drink Coke and watch TV. Some days or weeks I’m going to feel panicky and desperate and angry and question all of my decisions; but without that why would anyone be motivated to strive for better? We’re also capable of great kindness, of trust, compassion, incredible strength and endurance, and love without expectation or exception. I have to love all of it, all the good and all the darkness.

20160202-203450.jpg

MOAB (running for freedom)

I went to Moab because I had forgotten why I love running. Training has become a miserable chore that I have to force myself to do, leading me to constantly bash my own self discipline and question pretty much my entire life (including and especially living in Leadville, and pursuing a serious race season this year). I had 3 days off coming up, and what could solve my problems better than a run trip?

The area that would become Moab was first populated by settlers attempting to cross the Colorado River between 1829 and 1855, when it became a trading post of Latter-Day Saints. Another group settled there in 1878 and Moab was established as a city in 1902. The name Moab is either biblical, referring to “the far county” that’s populated by sinners apparently (because of which the city dwellers have petitioned to change the name unsuccessfully multiple times) or the Paiute word for mosquito, maopa. Moab has about 5k permanent residents, boasts millions of tourists, is home to an incredible amount of restaurants that are mostly closed, and has weather that’s generally better than forecasted. [in the course of the extensive Moab research I just did, I saw a statement that the Potash mine near Moab dyes the water in its evaporation pools blue to speed the rate of evaporation, is that a thing? Does it even make sense? If you understand why, please leave me an explanation in the comments]

Friday morning the sky was dumping snow over my mountains so hard it was challenging even to get out of the high Rockies at all, it took over 5 hours to drive to Moab. But it had stopped snowing by the time we hit Utah, and by the hwy 191 exit to Moab it was sunny and getting warmer in spades. I drove straight to the Hidden Valley TH, jumped out of Hooptie, and started running up. The Hidden Valley trail goes up to a pass that marks a gateway to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area, something like 50,000 acres of un-trailed wild desert.

20160119-095258.jpg

At the top of the pass, you could go straight to remain on the Hidden Valley trail down to the mesa, or you could go right. Going right was rewarded by walls covered in petroglyphs.

20160119-095930.jpg

Petroglyphs are rock art carved or otherwise scraped on (as opposed to pictographs that are painted on). Apparently there’s some evidence as to the period the petroglyphs represent, but they can’t be geologically dated, and the best guess is that they were made by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in Utah between 200 and 1200.

20160119-101033.jpg

The social trail I was on descended and connected back to the HV trail, that ends when it meets the Moab Rim Road. West from that connection is desert as far as you can see. The downside of desert running is the sand and the cacti, but the upside is the vegetation is sparse and allows you to run easily wherever you want without a trail. I kept a close eye on the landmarks of the pass from when I came, but was overcome by the thrill and fear of going nowhere as fast as possible, how easy it would be to get lost, and that scarce possibility of what if I don’t make it back? It’s been a long time it seems like since I’ve felt that thrill.

20160119-102028.jpg

After dark (since I had indeed made it out of the desert safely) I took Hooptie West of Moab, a ways down an access road bordering the CO river to a parking lot along the Poison Spider 4×4 road, to sleep where I would run in the morning. Eat, sleep, wake up, eat, run. On the network of 4×4 roads in this area, you could run all day easily over sandstone and past arches, caves, and all kinds of interesting terrain without seeing a single person. You can stick to the roads or you can wander off in any direction, hoping you can figure out the way back (which takes a surprising amount of time and energy to think and worry about, thereby pushing any other problems you’d been worrying about straight out of your mind). Safely returning to Hooptie again just before dark, I headed to the south side of the Kane Creek Canyon, past all the TH parking lots, stopping at an overlook to eat and sleep.

20160119-103318.jpg

I woke but didn’t run where I was, by Hurrah Pass, I drove back to town (for coffee) then East to the Sand Flats to run the famous Slick Rock Trail. Running on sandstone for 3 days was starting to get a little rough, but something turned over and I picked up speed, flying over technical for 12 miles up and down rock formations wild and free. The previous 2 days, and the previous 3 months or so, had caught up with me, and I was finally free of all of it. I continued on a 4×4 road called Fins N Things (I know, I know), but at the end I just wasn’t done running.

I went back to the canyon I’d slept in the night before, already 22 miles in or so, and went flying down the Amassa back road at almost 10 miles an hour (which is really fucking fast for me) and continued that ridiculous pace for over an hour.

20160119-104035.jpg

Past the point when your muscles can’t keep up and you’re out of breath, past the soreness of joints worn from 3 days of impact, past the achilles tendon pain and tightness I’ve been dealing with for a few weeks. Past the questions of success, age, choices. Past fear. There was no question of where I was (I had gone so far I had no idea) or if I would get back. My feet didn’t stumble over obstacles, they landed softly and in perfect balance; just brushing the ground and rocks that technically anchored me to the earth. I’ve tried to explain what long distance running feels like over and over, both because I’ve been asked and because I want co-conspirators to share in this extraordinary adventure. It’s like this: suddenly you feel very light, and it’s as if the molecules that make up your body and spirit evaporate into the environment around you. Simultaneously, the molecules of the terrain and the sky are evaporating into you. And you know that you are inextricably linked to the earth and the sky, as the smallest piece of a vast working universe, but every tiny atom of you exactly the same and just as important as every other atom that exists now or has ever existed. It is freedom and joy that are hard to find in the world that we’ve built where we work and buy things and interact with each other in strange ways, with little community and a lot of dishonesty.

20160119-105524.jpg

I remembered why I run. Why I’ve made the choices I have and how I’ve come to be here. It doesn’t happen like that every time, to be sure, but every time it does I remember how important it is to live honestly, to bare my passions and dreams, to take risks. It’s time for positive change.

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

My sister and I were texting this morning and I finished the conversation with something like “you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. With gratitude, imagination, and enthusiasm for the present moment.”

Immediately thereafter, I left my cozy house to ascend La Plata. It’s been winter here for a while now, much longer than most of the country. I spent the first few weeks transitioning, I took a few trips down to Boulder for long runs (where winter is mild at worst) and things really started looking up when I picked up alpine touring (a sadistic form of skiing where one puts on a full but specialized downhill ski setup, then adds “skins”- long strips of rubber that have glue on one side and fake fur on the other side- in order to first ski uphill before removing the skins and skiing down) which is nowhere near as fun as mountain running, but is at least 75% more fun than running in the snow. AT is very popular amongst runners (in fact what put the idea in my head in the first place was an article about Rob Krar coming off a season of AT to win Western States with little distance running) but I had a nagging feeling that I know I need to be on the Nolan’s course this winter regardless.

20151210-180659.jpg

Some of you might remember what I might refer to as a “4-part series on the challenges of winter” last year, but was really 4 posts in a row of my relentless bitching and misery. In the last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my attitude towards the weather, the mountains, and particularly the snow. How to run with it instead of against it. Having a sense of humor about the challenges, finding fun in there somewhere, becoming tougher. Acclimating to my environment, until it feels comfortable (instead of avoiding discomfort at all costs). I thought I was making good progress.

20151210-181221.jpg

Today I arrived at La Plata TH and noticed dozens of tracks heading back from the parking lot, which I took to be an overwhelmingly good sign, and which caused me to leave my snowshoes behind. I pulled on my new “booties”- tall neoprene sleeves with a thick sole and miniature crampons built into the sole, Kahtoola’s answer to Salomon’s Snocross I think-then realized my gaiters wouldnt fit over them and left those in Hooptie as well (there’s two big mistakes already, if you’re counting).

20151210-181859.jpg

Within the first mile, all of those promising tracks disappeared except one lone set of snowshoes. By the end of the second mile, the trail reaches a section prone to slides and drifting where the snow gets deep and the trail becomes harder to locate, and it so happens that the lone snowshoer turned around here-when the going got tough. The first time I post holed to my upper thigh I tried to think of it like “here’s where the tough get going” but after an hour of glorified swimming it became harder and harder to stay positive.

20151210-182359.jpg

I lost the trail, but found it again. I stumbled over rocks underneath deep snow that I couldn’t see. I tripped and fell and floundered a few times. There is a profound difference between snow that is less than mid-thigh deep and it’s evil, painful counterpart. It’s the difference between post-holing and “swimming”; post-holing sucks, but swimming is 1000x worse. I don’t know what compelled me to keep going. I kept thinking “basically anything else would be better training for Nolan’s” and “I’m wasting an entire day”. Because the only thing post-holing and snow swimming are good training for is more of the same. After hours of misery, I ultimately put down 7 miles and 1500ft gain if I was lucky. I turned around once I’d lost the trail for the 3rd or 4th time, after it had become clear that the snow would never get better and even the dogs were over it.

20151210-183115.jpg

After turning around, I almost immediately caught a rock with my spikes and fell face first into the deep snow. After righting myself, I burst into tears that quickly froze to my face and I shouted “WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!” I wish the sky had opened and spoken to me, “IT’S FUCKING WINTER SARAH, AND YOU’RE CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT??” But the sky didn’t say anything at all, and neither did the snow or the trees. And in the complete silence of the mountains in winter I remembered what I had just told my little sister: you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. I struggled to remember in that hopeless moment what the tools are for overcoming it: gratitude. Imagination. Enthusiasm for the present.

As frustrated as I was, I gained some perspective, because at least I had a strong body to take into the mountains in the winter. I remembered these mountains are my playground and my home; they are neither the enemy nor the source of my suffering. The source of my suffering is myself, and my expectations that the mountains in winter should be anything else. I choose to be here. Amongst the mountains, the sky, the forest, and the snow that blankets the scene with the most peaceful kind of quiet, that is complete without being deafening or lonely.

Maybe I’ll always struggle with this. Maybe I’ll move past it onto the next challenge. In retrospect I am so grateful for the opportunity to be challenged so forcefully and painfully sometimes, to struggle and ultimately learn and grow. It’s getting easier all the time, I know it is. Sometimes you really have to face it though, like today; to cry and yell at it, to really fight the darkness. Always coming out stronger.

20151210-185013.jpg

So I actually made up my race schedule for 2016 finally, and I’m really jazzed although there are a couple contingencies to be discussed in the future. My first race of the season will be in February in Arizona to get my hands dirty and take a break from winter (the Black Canyon 100k). Nolan’s is going to be the first week of July, the absolute earliest I can go after the snow’s run off. That’s all I’m going to say for now.

Night Ascents (are you afraid of the dark?)

If you type “why are humans” into Google, the third option that comes up is “why are humans afraid of the dark?” Mostly, the internet says that fear of the dark is an evolutionary response-built into us over 100’s of years of big cats prowling the Savannah at night much like our fear reactions to snakes, spiders, and fires. This supposedly also explains why most of us are afraid of the dark and not of cars or saturated fat (mountain lions kill less than one person/year on average in the US and Canada, spiders average 2/year (from allergic reactions), while 610,000 die of heart disease in the US per year and 32,000 die in car accidents in the US).

I’ve said before that I’m most afraid of navigating in the dark on Nolan’s. The last time I was in the mountains in the dark was towards the end of last summer when I had that big 5 summit day and came down Harvard in the dark in a storm. I was so afraid of what lie past the edges of “safety” ie the light of my headlamp that I sang Sanskrit devotional songs at the top of my lungs, comforting myself and hoping to stave off the hungry, evil predators that were sure to be waiting just on the edge of the dark. I didn’t know then that mountain lions don’t even kill one person every year, but I don’t think that makes it seem less scary when your headlamp is reflecting on felled trees and you’re sure you’re seeing things that go bump in the night.

20150813-132841.jpg

Things that go bump in the night here in Colorado:
Rattlesnakes (there are 7-8,000 venomous snakebites in the US/year, and 5-6 fatalities)
Black Bears (2-3 fatalities in the US/year)
Mountain Lions (2 attacks in the US/year and .8 fatalities)
Lynx (I could not find statistics, I assume that speaks to how common deaths are)
Grizzly Bears (are not believed to exist in Colorado, which means there have been no attacks or fatalities in a loooong time here)
Wolves (there’s proof this year that they’re back in CO, but no attacks or fatalities in years either)

So all of this means I’m 610,000 times more likely to die from Mozzarella sticks than a mountain lion, and 6,400 times more likely to die in the car on the way to the trailhead than from a rattlesnake bite. WHAT ARE WE SO AFRAID OF!?

This whole time I’ve been in Leadville, I haven’t run with a buddy one single time. Incidentally, I finally met another female mountain runner here and she asks me if I’d be interested in a night ascent. How serendipitous, since Nolan’s is coming up fast and that’s the one thing I haven’t been willing to face (the other night on the phone I said “No I’m sure not going to practice running at night, I’m only willing to take that risk ONCE and it’ll be during Nolan’s and never again”). The very next night, at 11pm after work I find myself driving Half Moon Rd to the TH.

And let me tell you, not only was I not scared at any moment during our run, but it was incredible and fun. Even living up here, at high altitude and in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never seen the stars glowing quite like they did above treeline. There was a lightning storm maybe 30 miles in the distance. We couldn’t figure out what was causing so much lightning but it was so incredibly beautiful-and just for us, because who else was up high enough to see it in the middle of a Sunday night? The felled trees reflected in our headlamps weren’t mountain lions at all, they were felled trees. And I only fell a couple times which isn’t really even above average for me…(and I expected closer to 50).

Now that I know how not-scary-at-all it is with a friend, I wonder if I’ll go right back to terrified next time I’m alone…or if I’ve faced the things that go bump in the night and overcome my fear of the dark.

PUNISHMENT VS DISCIPLINE (how do you really feel about running?)

Someone told me the other day that I’m trashing my body. It bothered me because I know exactly what it means to trash your body, and I’m most definitely not doing that anymore. Then I spent 35 miles thinking about the difference between destroying your body and making it stronger.

35 miles is a good long time to think through serious issues...and fucking gorgeous also

35 miles is a good long time to think through serious issues…and fucking gorgeous also

I started running competitively in 8th grade. The only thing I remember from my first year on the cross country team is that throwing up during practice or a meet is a badge of honor. During subsequent years I discovered that so is running through an injury, and also if you’re still standing after you crossed the finish line then you didn’t go hard enough. Our coach used to say “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and I thought about that constantly then and for many years after. The summer before 10th grade I was running twice a day every day. The greatest running buddy I ever had was during that time; we were perfect together because we were evenly matched and we hated each other. Nobody has ever made me train harder.

I took a break during my first year of college, then started running again the summer after my freshman year. I honestly thought it was good for me. I ran around campus by myself and trained intervals on the track. I still believed more pain more gain; I’d run sprints until I’d collapse on the finish line, and if I threw up then I knew I’d worked hard enough. I started racing again, short distances, always obsessively hoping to break my personal best times from high school. Have you ever read Once a Runner? Let loose your demons and wail on.

I was destroying my body and I knew it and I glorified it. I think in a lot of ways our culture supports that mentality. I stopped running when I started practicing yoga seriously and I finally realized how valuable my body is and how important it is to take care of it (and how very much I wasn’t taking care of it). I believed then that it was the running that was the culprit and I demonized it.

Years later, I realized that as good of shape that I thought I was in from a daily yoga practice, I could barely make it up to my third floor walk up without getting out of breath. I decided I would start running again, but barely. Feeling the way I did about running, I considered it a punishment and I forced myself out the door every day. I made a deal with myself that I would run one whole mile every day, but that was all I had to do. One mile on the trail around Cheesman Park. I had a friend that was just starting to get into running and we’d hike together sometimes. Somewhere along the way we started running together, and at some point we started running trails. I was tentative to get back into what I considered to be such a cruel sport, my mind was resistant to change. But something miraculous happened, and it was that nothing bad happened. I got stronger but my knees weren’t hurting and I wasn’t getting stress fractures. Where I’m from, a cross country race might include one “hill” that takes a couple of a minutes to get up. Here in Colorado, you can spend hours ascending and I fell madly in love with that challenge. On my first fourteener hike, I remember barely dragging my ass up it when a woman ran right past me. I thought about that woman a lot, and it was why the first fourteener I ran up was Gray’s. I especially could not believe that people RUN DOWN mountains, but after I started it just takes a little bit of practice and you start to feel this amazing flow-picking your route, placing your feet, feeling the rocks.

This was one of those days I didn't feel like going out...but once I did I felt so good.  Getting out there that day was discipline, NOT punishment.

This was one of those days I didn’t feel like going out…but once I did I felt so good. Getting out there that day was discipline, NOT punishment.

My view of running has fundamentally changed. It’s an incredible challenge, but it doesn’t hurt me anymore. I won’t let it. Anything can be punishment if that’s the way you see it. Just like anything can be an opportunity for freedom. Anyone can run themselves into the ground, it’s much harder to take good care of yourself. I don’t always want to run; sometimes it’s really hard to drag myself out there. I used to tell my students to go deeper, to stay longer, not because I told them to, and not because they think they should. But because they want to, because it feels good. And let me tell you, it always feels good. Even when it’s hard or I’m sore or the weather isn’t good. Several of the best moments of my life happened running in the mountains. Some of the worst, too, but I will not let those break me. This world that we live in gives us few opportunities to feel the full spectrum of human emotion. I feel bad for those that aren’t willing to suffer, to feel the lowest of lows, because there is nothing like the highest of highs. I run mountains because it makes me feel strong, powerful, and free.

dads (and how they can get you to do 80 miles)

I’ve known my dad was coming out to Leadville to visit for months, and he warned me that I’d better get good on the passes (on a bicycle). But alas, it was winter still until just a couple weeks ago and thus I’d only been on my bike a dozen times or fewer by the time he arrived to visit.

My father is the type of guy that can ride over 100 miles per day every day for weeks.

total badass

total badass

So we were making plans for what we’d do while he was here, and he asked if I wanted to do Independence Pass. I said yes immediately, because that’s just how I roll, but after the fact I had to think about it very seriously and I discovered I was nervous. He asked what the longest distance was I’d done in a day so far, and it was somewhere in the thirties [it is tragic how I rode 25+ every day in Denver and now I only do that once or twice a week!]. He told me Leadville to the top of Independence Pass and back was about 70 miles.

I did spend some time thinking it over and the reason I was nervous was because I was concerned I couldn’t do it, and kind of legitimately so. The thing about out-and-backs is that at the point you turn around, you’re going to have to do just as much distance back. What a mindfuck. If you can’t, you never get home. Let me tell you though, the premise that if you stop you’ll never get home is EXCELLENT motivation. The other thing is that 24 back to Leadville is miles and miles of brutal and relentless uphill.

So yeah, I was worried. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. But what on earth was I going to tell my [totally badass] dad? Like I would puss out. No, I would do this thing.

My dad told me in the morning that it was more like 76 miles. We set out with tons of snacks and water. From Leadville to CO 82 is pretty much downhill (which explains the evil uphill) so we were cruising pretty good. We made good time to Twin Lakes.

la plata TH

la plata TH

The trail over Independence Pass has been in use possibly since prehistoric times, and most definitely by the Ute Native Americans that occupied the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s pretty much the only way through. Like most of the High Rockies, Roaring Fork and Aspen were rushed by miners in the 1870’s (slightly later in the decade than the mining towns to the East) and in 1880 one of the boomers paid a crew using hand tools to build a real road over the pass. At each bridge a toll was charged-$.25 for horses and $.50 for wagons. Also in 1880, a town developed around the ore mill three miles west of the pass. It was called Independence, and at its peak housed 1000 residents. The last resident of Independence left in 1912. The pass had previously been known as Hunter Pass, and was re-named in honor of its new neighboring town.

To say CO-82 is scenic is a wretched understatement. I’ve spent so much time on Fremont Pass (between Leadville and I-70/Copper Mountain) that I forgot how gorgeous passes can be. The road to Independence is winding, forest-lined, and right in the middle of a beautiful valley. Rushing rivers, canyons, and completely epic mountain views line the road. I wasn’t really that tired when we approached the first switchback, but my crotch HURT and the steepness of the switchbacks was terrifying. [I still don’t understand the steep/steepness deep/depth conundrum, despite how much time I spend thinking about it].

I’d never done a mountain pass on a bike before, and I’ve discovered it’s much like ascending a fourteener…you always think you’ve gone further than you have, you always think there’s less left to go than there is, and most of the time you can’t actually see where the route goes in the future (so you spend a lot of time thinking about it). At first I had a can’t stop-won’t stop mentality and I somehow thought I could bust ass up THE WHOLE PASS without slowing or stopping…but I think each time you turn into a new switchback, it’s like realizing you’re on a false summit, and I’m not going to lie my friends I slowed down and took two breaks during that ascent. It felt great though. Someone spray painted encouraging things along the road for cyclists…YOU CAN DO IT!.

Yeah it was a lot of work but trucking up the final ascent to the pass felt light and triumphant. At this point (much like on fourteeners also) I was thinking “the hardest part is over” but that was not at all the case.

20150709-100500.jpg

In most endurance sports, you can plan to race twice the mileage you’ve been training. The 80 miles (yes, 80) we ended up doing for the round trip was definitely more than twice my previous high mileage. I hadn’t written the last post yet, about the physiology of endurance, but I knew well enough to eat as much as I could before I got too hungry and drink more than I could stand [here’s a fun fact-if you drink solely to thirst you’ll be about 70% hydrated. Most studies agree that your body can still operate very well at 70%, and that at the end of the session you can catch back up]. I still had to take a few breaks though. By the time we got to 24 my vag hurt so much I could barely put it on the seat anymore, and now my shoulders felt like they could barely support my torso on the handlebars. I think we had about 15 miles to go at this point. Uphill.

20150709-100652.jpg

So here’s what I mean about another person helping you push past your limits. It would not have occurred to me to ride 80 miles on Monday, let alone in our mountains and up a pass, because 80 is so far beyond my comfort zone. But because my dad asked me to, I said yes and attempted it the best I could. And we made it. From Leadville to the top of Independence Pass and all the way back home (for pizza, fries, and Cokes). I don’t know if I even believed I could do it until we were ascending, but I went for it anyway. My dad literally rode circles around me. The whole thing was such an eye-opener; I surpassed what I believed to be my limits running and climbing in the mountains in the past year to such an extent that I stopped believing I have them. But now I can see that it’s not full circle-I still see limitations in myself when faced with different types of barriers. Friends, this is a new frontier.

BONKED (hitting the wall)

Hiking 30 miles and running 30 miles are incredibly different endeavors.

I’m used to very long distance hikes, and in those cases I carry food and eat along the way. When running, though, I adopted the philosophy over the winter that if I’m going out for less than 20 miles I don’t need to carry food or water. When it’s cold I lose less water and it’s available to me periodically in the form of snow and snowmelt [yeah yeah, it’s dangerous to drink wild water, I don’t care]. In the case of a big ascent, I might bring a little snack but I definitely haven’t spent much time considering my “refueling plans”..until now.

20150703-102528.jpg

I suppose it’s about right that I set 20 miles as the magic number, because now that I’m regularly exceeding it I’ve noticed that something terrible happens right around 21. I’m feeling great, then suddenly I’m barely dragging myself along; in pain and miserable. I don’t hang out with other long distance runners, so I’m figuring it out as I go and during my first 30 mile run, I learned about THE WALL.

First, let’s talk about how our muscles get energy [WARNING: shit’s about to get science-y. If that sounds boring, skip the next 5 paragraphs]

Digestion breaks down energy containing nutrients and sends them to your cells via blood. Once they’re in your cells, the nutrients are either built up into proteins, lipids, and glycogen OR converted [to pyruvic acid or Acetyl CoA] for energy production. If you’re wondering why people say B vitamins are important for energy, it’s because they’re very important in conversions to Acetyl CoA. There’s more detail here that we just won’t go into.

So now we head to the mitochondria. There’s basically two ways your body creates energy (and by energy I mean ATP- the official energy currency of your body). Glycolysis is quick and dirty- it gets results fast but isn’t very efficient, and there’s a lactic acid problem. Kreb’s Cycle is the tortoise- slow and steady, and much more efficient. This stuff is cool because it explains exactly why lactic acid (what makes muscles stiff and sore) happens. Glycolysis is anaerobic, it can happen without oxygen (like during strenuous activity when you just can’t breathe enough in) BUT it creates extra hydrogen, and that hydrogen needs to be pawned off somewhere. If oxygen is available, hydrogen will go home with him (creating water-nbd) but otherwise hydrogen gets dumped on pyruvic acid, and that’s how we end up with sad little lactic acid, gumming up the works.

Basically, when you start running your body is going to use ATP it’s already made to make your muscles work. It’s constantly working to produce more, but you’ll use it faster than you can make it. Desperately, glycolysis will bust ass for you (most of us are at this point when we exercise). But what happens if you keep going? Incidentally, your body stores enough glycogen to keep producing ATP for 20 miles of running. (I fucking knew it)

Once you’ve used your ATP stores, your cells raid the glycogen stores to make more. But WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR GLYCOGEN STORES ARE GONE!?

That’s when you “hit the wall”. Your liver will start converting fat and protein to use in the energy making process but it’s not terribly efficient and takes up energy. Now refueling makes a whole lot of sense: GET MORE GLUCOSE INTO YOUR BLOODSTREAM!

20150703-104649.jpg

So I did a lot of research about refueling and I have to say, most of it sounds gross. Eating while you’re running sucks. Period. The big problem I guess is getting food down without puking it back up. Yuck. So you need things that are palatable and go down easily. You’ll also want a good mix of simple carbs that get into your bloodstream asap (in minutes) and complex carbs that break down slowly and release small amounts of glucose into your blood over a long time. You don’t want to refuel with protein or fat; those two are the professional ebay sellers at the post office-holding everybody else up.

Here’s a knowledge bomb for you: compared to the type of machines we can build, our body is EPICALLY efficient. Through these processes we capture a whopping 38% of the energy available from what we consume (and the rest is RELEASED AS HEAT-boom. Why do you get hot when you work out? That’s why. You’re welcome.)

There’s a psychological aspect to hitting the wall for sure. I read somewhere that your discomfort when you’re dehydrated or under-fueled has a bigger effect on your performance than the physiological problems themselves. I’ll say firsthand that hitting the wall HURTS EVERYWHERE. I’ve noticed that I’m basically never sore anymore, muscle-wise, but when I’m on really long runs everything starts to ache. I get dizzy and woozy. My legs don’t feel like jelly, it’s more that I become the tin man. Yeah, it’s so uncomfortable it’s hard to continue. To cope, I’ve started counting. At first I count up to high numbers, and the deal is that when I get to 780 or something I can stop, but when I get to 780 I tell myself okay, now you just have to get to 780 again. Then when it gets really, REALLY bad I’m counting to 20. Interestingly, the promise of a fuel down is not an incentive anymore when I’ve made it past the wall; the idea of eating anything is gross and horrible and the only thing I can stomach the idea of is bananas or plain romaine lettuce.

Yeah, I know this post sounds terrible to those of you who haven’t experienced it. It’s so very hard to explain why we do what we do, especially when there’s a fair amount of suffering. I like to think of my training program as RELENTLESS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love doing it. That first 30 mile run that I mentioned earlier; yeah it was painful and terrible and taught me lessons I’ll never forget. It was also when I realized that I can do Nolan’s. As far as I can tell, there are two barriers to cross: long distance and elevation gain. But you only need to cross them each once, after that you’re just building. Long distance mountain running is the highest of epic, joyous highs. And it’s the lowest of soul crushing, wish-you-were-dead lows. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
20150703-091957.jpg

Mt Lindsey (will I EVER finish the 28?)

Decisions made in the mountains are so different than in the real world. There’s also something to be said from beginning any endeavor with a “it’s in the bag” mentality.

from the meadow just after the TH

from the meadow just after the TH

After the Capitol attempt, I felt really good about the 28…basically like that chapter was almost closed, and it was just a matter of finalizing it. I knew I wouldn’t head back to the Elks again until I do Av training and buy an ice axe, so I estimated that the official 28th would be Mt. Lindsey. I put it off a couple weeks so that I could go with Mark, and celebrate proper. The day before, we were texting things like “finally finishing the 28th!” “28 is in the bag!” the weather was forecasted to be clear, sunny, high of 42, 10mph winds. Not bad, not bad at all. The round trip was 8.25, all class 2, and aside from some snow and ice it was in pretty good condition.

20141031-095331.jpg

We even didn’t plan to leave until 6:30a because we weren’t worried about getting an early start. And we went to Slohi, where the people are very sweet but it takes a very long time for them to make your drinks (do they realize how funny that is?) It was a four hour drive from Denver, there’s a long network of forest service access roads that will be totally impassible come winter. We started off at the TH at like 11am. The hike in was nice. We got mildly lost when the snow blocked a twist in the trail, but we found it again. Arriving at the saddle, the wind picked up. The route seemed obvious, we took a dip down from the ridge on the snowy side and it was a little tricky with the ice but definitely okay. When we got to the point where we could see the gully we’d be ascending, it was very icy and long. We chose to ascend early, climbing the rocks in a rockier, less snowy part and heading to the ridge. I knew there was a ridge route so I thought we’d be able to summit from the ridge. I was route finding.

from the saddle

from the saddle

On the ridge, things were definitely a little dicey. Lu was okay, but I was getting a little worried about her. The wind was picking up quickly, making the climbing feel unsteady. I saw what was ahead and stopped suddenly. Mark caught up and said “I don’t know about this” and I was strangely optimistic. I kicked my foot out on a ledge to the left to see better, and saw what was below me (nothing). It was like a mini version of the knife edge. And on the other side was the crux wall of the ridge route. I was enamored by it, but I couldn’t think of any safe way to get Lu to the other side. The wind was whipping at this point, throwing bits of ice into our eyes (10mph my ass). We decided to head back, and almost immediately regretted taking the ridge back, trying to down climb on the ice. Lu couldn’t find the way that we got down one part and she spent the better part of 5 minutes pacing back and forth and whining, freaking out. She could get down fine, but she just didn’t see the way down. It was terrible, poor girl.

Mark, descending the ridge.  Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

Mark, descending the ridge. Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

We found a way down from the ridge back to the trail, and headed back out towards the saddle. Arriving at the saddle, we estimated if we should go back and try the route the way we were supposed to, going up the gully. The wind I’d estimate was nearing 50mph, as I could lean into it 45 degrees and be held up. We agreed to call it and headed down the saddle as fast as possible (by that I mean we glissaded on the ice! Or rather, I did). It wouldn’t have been that hard or taken that long to finish it. I’m not actually sure why we gave up and headed back.

Mark and I, over the icy river

Mark and I, over the icy river

It was a nice trip back. I didn’t feel that bad about not summiting, it was a gorgeous day in the mountains. I would like to finish the 28. It’s been an epic journey and now that I’ve done 98% of TWO 28 attempts, it’s going to be nice to call it closed. I’ve talked a lot before about how good I feel in the mountains, how I want to be a better person. How just existing there is enough. Then we go back to the city…it’s enough to make me move out there…

20141031-095209.jpg

In other news, I’ve been training for the next adventure. I’m about ready to make it official.