I have learned of a few sayings in the trail running community over the span of the past two years:
The mountains are calling, I must go
Not all who wander, are lost
I am pleased to share that after studying each saying, reflecting on them with
granola crunchy hipsters trail runners, and dreaming of the cliche world of tattoos with these sayings on my wrist, back, foot, and heart…that I have come to a solid conclusion:
Both of these sayings are just traps set by higher powers in order to snare humans into despair, misery, and quite possibly death…or worse…all three.
Our story begins within the confinements of Arc’teryx. No, this is not a French statue, nor is it alphabet soup. Instead it represents some weird, dead bird-animal-thing that would make Jurassic Park blush if they knew how evil it truly was. In 2018 the dead bird-animal-thing has taken on an even scarier presence for people like myself; an outdoor clothing store. It was here, within the center of Denver, Colorado that I ran into two people that should have immediately been my indicator that I was in the mix of bad company, and eventual poor choices:
While chowing down on a burger** after hearing Adam speak about his endeavors and remarkable recovery, with Caleb, Kelsey, the manager of Arc’teryx, the winner of the 2017 High Lonesome 100 (Anthony Lee), my wife, and other random people throughout the region, I began to wonder if we’re all connected through bad ideas, good beer, and uplifting stories of perseverance.
Translation: I was near several insane people at the same time that can easily give way to an awesome opportunities to make some really stupid choices.
There is a certain camaraderie*** that exists with trail runners. There is reference to family, tribe, running spouses, and other exciting words that speak of uniting this strange group of people. The theory is that you could travel to any race, any run, and pizza place with appropriate beer selections, and you could find a group of people like you. I was able to test this theory in Pine, Colorado for the North Fork 50K.
My wife and I had traveled out to Colorado the day after school got out for the summer.
We She drove through three states in one day while I configured in my head how I was going to run 32 miles through the mountains, at elevation, in the heat, with little mileage under my belt for 2018. Upon arrival in Denver, Caleb contacted me to invite us over to Arc-teryx to listen to Adam speak, drink beer, and just catch up since last years adventure. As it turns out Arc-teryx is not just an outdoor shop, it is literally its own brand of dinosaur running clothes. I was already nervous about the upcoming race in two days, and I spent the next 90 minutes talking to old friends and letting loose my fears of Saturday. Recall; both races that I have had in the mountains resulted in me being way over on cutoff times. Caleb reassured me that it will be fine. His first ever 50 was at North Fork, and he had done zero training for it. Make no mistake; it was miserable, but he still got it finished.
Realizing that I was 800 miles away from retreating from this obvious mistake, Friday, I sat down at a coffee shop after hiking a bit in Pine Valley, and hashed out every possible detail for the race. A blend of nerves, ADHD, and caffeine resulted in the perfect opportunity to hyper-focus on the event prior to it transpiring.
Knowing that physically I was way in over my head, would likely die, and be tossed out
to the bears; I tried to focus on the mental elements of the race:
I tried to map out the course in my head; knowing where the elevation gains were, the aid stations, knowing when to stop, when I would be primarily exposed to the elements, the peak heating of the day, and the average pace that I should keep to ensure that cutoff would not creep up on me. I mapped everything out with the elevation chart, a topographical map, a calculator (sorry Mrs. Jones, I failed you), and a course map. After compiling all the data, I transferred the contents into my magical list application on my phone. After this point there was nothing left to do except wait, pray, and know that the next morning I would be trying to do “something” in the woods for a very long time.
4:30 AM hit in a way that I have began to become accustom with. An awareness of one self, ones alignment with the universe, and a tranquil sensation sprinkled in with a touch of inevitable doom. I put my clothes on, slid into my new Ruhn Co. shorts, grabbed my pack that I had already packed and triple checked, and walked out to the car with my wife. An hour later along the intoxicating alpine way of US 285 we pulled into Pine Valley. We parked the car and got onto the shuttle to get to the start line. Shuttles are dangerous because you wind up with strangers that know each other, don’t know you, are friendly, but you’re so nervous you may pee yourself so you just wait silently, awkwardly eavesdropping into their stories. Unfortunately, this is yet another temptation because if you are not from the mountains and you listen to the people who are from the mountains you begin to hear words that are ‘triggers’ for your respiratory system to shorten your breath. In that short, 5 minute bus ride the following words were said:
Anyone familiar with any of the terminology above would immediately know that a green-stick, social reject like myself was a fish-out-of-water in an amazing fashion. These people weren’t talking about some YouTube documentary about these races…THESE PEOPLE RAN THESE RACES…MULTIPLE TIMES…FOR FUN.
I wept silently next to my wife.
At the start/finish line we found Caleb, Kelsey, and the rest of the Golden Mountain Runners. GMR is a running group based out of Golden, Colorado. Somehow, through sheer good fortune, I was added to their Facebook group and I get to be a groupie without actually committing to being a real athlete. Really, for me it’s a win-win. The GMR people were busy trading poop stories and admiring the fact that one of them was going to handle this race without any anti-chafe cream (brave, brave soul…I smelled like I fell asleep in a beehive for the amount of SNB I had smothered across my thighs, arms, ears, eyes, and so on).
Ten minutes after these strange conversations, the most amazing, surreal moment (at the time) happened: the race started.
It was at that moment that reality, dreaming, excitement, and fear meshed together in something beautiful along the river, across the bridge, and into the mountains. The first section of the course, to no surprise to anyone, was uphill. 1000 foot incline in the first 3 miles. I had converted it to multiple Oggs from back home that I would need to climb to cover the beginning. Most of it was surrounded by trees, the morning was still early so the shade was set, and the temperatures were floating around 50 degrees. Frankly, it was a beautiful time for a hike. The first five miles clipped by quickly before I found myself ahead of schedule by an hour according to my digital list. Homestead, the first aid station, was a quick greet and leave since I had no purpose to stay. A few HoneyStinger gels while I moved and I took off on a quick 5 mile loop, being passed by a man name John who would refer to me as “Kansas City” for the rest of day. In fact, by the end of the race each aid station, and at least five random people had spoken to me solely as “Kansas City” (*nerd gasp…I felt so cool…I had a nickname for a day).
The loop provided its own entertainment by the name of Marshall. Marshall was a kind, older gentleman that was keeping a steady pace that I could stay with. Hiking the uphills and trotting alongside the downhills. His stories made the miles fly by. I had no idea until much later who exactly that was I was running with for those short miles. After hitting Homestead the second time, Marshall went on his merry way and I backed off the throttle just a little bit. At mile 10 I was already 90 minutes ahead of schedule. This caused a bit of concern. I did not want to start out fast, and then burn up on the backend of the race (remember, this is relative to what I call ‘fast’). However, I also did not want to slow down so much that I spent forever in the mountains. It was a balance. I kept my pace under 15 minutes from Homestead to Buffalo Creek (all down hill), and prepped for the mile 14 to mile 20 section afterwards. Entering Buffalo Creek you begin to see the burn scars that many people talk about in relation to this race. A good section of the course is exposed due to past forest fires. For the runner that means that it can get very hot and very exposed, very quickly. By the time I made it into Buffalo Creek I needed to apply sunscreen (again…skin tone of Casper), refill my 2L bladder with water, and eat a few more gels. I was hesitant leaving Buffalo Creek because on my list I knew mentally the next section would be the hardest. It is a straight incline to the next aid station, and also the longest distance between aid stations. That meant in this area I would be on my own and alone for six hard miles. I accessed Tramway Trail and started hiking. The scenery was beautiful, a true alpine forest. Something someone from Missouri is unfamiliar with. The climb though, while beautiful, was daunting. From Buffalo Creek to Shinglemill aid stations you’ll experience the highest point of the 50K course at 8100 feet. For many that does not seem like a lot, but I can attest that, that section you felt the heat, the incline, the mileage, and the altitude. I hiked most of that section and it destroyed what extra time I had made in the beginning of the race.
Shinglemill was the only spot for crew for the 50K, so I was able to see my wife (per all other races, she passive aggressively tried to kick me out of the aid station), and read a quick letter from a former student. The letter was just the mental piece I needed to remind myself that I don’t completely suck, the end is out there somewhere, and when I think being alone in the mountains is bad…there’s always a classroom of 30 middle school students waiting for me.
From mile 20 to mile 25 my wheels started to come off. When I wasn’t dodging a mountain biker, or analyzing how square pieces of marble wound up in the dirt, I was noticing an increasing, ongoing pain in my right glute. I was slowing down to 20-25 minute miles and the concept of panicking was starting to kick in, and per my list I was also in the peak heat period of the day. The goal was to get to Buffalo Creek, sit for a moment to reevaluate, and get moving again. The uphills weren’t the problem, the impact on the downhills were destroying me, and from Shinglemill to Buffalo Creek it is all downhill (4ish miles), and 100% exposed. It took everything in me to continue to move (and the realization that I was in the middle of the mountains and you don’t get to just randomly drop a race in this death trap), but thankfully through Narnia or other miracles, I arrived painfully at Buffalo Creek. Working with some very aged veterans of the sport, I worked on hydration, potassium intake…aka…“EAT THE BANANA! DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY 100’S I’VE RAN IN MY TIME!?!?” I’m pleased to report that I did not sit for any longer than five minutes at that station, but for a change I am glad I sat down, something about that readjusted my body, and allowed it to catch its breath.
Plus, I only had 7 miles left. 3 miles uphill, one mile across, and 3 miles down to the finish line.
Leaving Buffalo Creek I did not feel amazing physically, but mentally I felt better. I had more control over my situation, and as my therapist would tell you…control means everything to me (even in the back of the pack). Halfway up the incline I had to stop due to the same pain. It felt like an electrical charge starting in my glute and shooting down my right leg. Painful enough to immobilize me on the spot. I sat on a large rock and started different yoga postures to get to those deep muscles. After three minutes of rolling around on a rock like a crazed lunatic, I saw a GMR runner from the distance screaming, “Kansas City!’. That, knowing my social complexities, was enough to get me moving against because of, “Oh man! I don’t want to look anymore like an idiot then I already do in front of another cool person!” Like all other runners that day he did not offer me an S-Cap, but instead a fist bump, a smile, and some encouraging words. I kept crawling up that incline, slowly but surely loosening up a little bit at a time. Somehow, by slowing down, eating, and working some stretching out I had problem solved the sore spot. I still do not know exactly how that happened.
Nearing the final peak, Stu Johnson passed me (50M runner). Stu is from Kansas City, husband to the incredible “Mad Hill Bomber” Deb Johnson who I am occasionally graced with on the trails back home. I had seen Deb and Stu right at the start, but after that…well…they’re fast. Stu came up next to me at mile 29, and said some of the most encouraging words I’ve heard during a race…
Well. I’m impressed. You look like you’re suffering, but you’re still moving along.
I do not know a ton about Stu, but I know he has ran Superior 100 a staggering 20 times. That’s enough to add weight to his words. It was kind, just straight up kind. I strolled into Homestead one final time. Sat down to stretch, drank a can of Coke, and after five minutes I started my decent.
One more downhill…and the pain was gone.
Some of my fastest splits for the whole race came in the final three miles. For me to attempt to run downhill surrounded by trees and not fall, pull a Logan (spoiler), or just straight up fall off of a cliff is quite impressive. I felt good, and I was also an emotional mess. After Marshall had split from me, to calm my nerves a bit, I put on some songs I had downloaded the night prior. Since I was near the back of the pack, I have the luxury of some music. However, if you play it long enough you will hear the same songs 5, 6, 7 times before finishing your adventure.
While I was cruising, taking selfies, and acting like an idiot; I was enjoying the breeze,
the cooler temperatures, and the feel good music of Owl City. In all of the excitement I had forgotten that the course was longer than 32 miles (33), and that there was a 500 foot climb halfway through the downhill. Frankly, it could have been 1000 foot because I power climbed that incline while trying to belt out Fireflies through the sobs of happiness. I was a designated mess and no one would ever know.
The final mile flew by, I listened to Kibou Ni Tsuite on repeat for any entire mile in the final moments of that race! I understood how Cheire Sono felt when she went Center Nova in episode 26 of AKB0048! I knew how Nagisa become Acchan the 14th through her turbulent training career prior to episode 25! I cried the whole way down that mountain while listening to Cheire-san’s solo in the final episode that brought music back to the universe and defeated the DES (…you just had to be there…)!
I WAS TOUCHED (in the head)!
Around the final corner, the trail was redirected to the finish line. I saw the race director and other official people, so needless to say I couldn’t let them know about my last adventure with Kibou Ni Tsuite, so I powered my phone off. My watch was at 3%, and I was determined to have this race be my first entry into Strava (all the kudos!). My wife yelled across the lake from shoreline like some cheesy runner movie about dedication and finishing the race, blah, blah, blah…I turned to the right to see the finish line, and…I kid you not…the entire group from Golden Mountain Runners were standing at the finish line cheering, screaming, peeing (?), and taking photos of my finish.
All random jokes aside…everything was perfect. My body fell apart for a while, but I recovered by using my brain and using the tools I had discovered during the off season. Outside of that stint of issues…honestly…I had a great race. Everything went according to the plan (minus the extra mile on the course and the finishing time which I completely ruined). I finished a 50K with absolutely no chafing. In fact, there was only one bad physical issue and that was 100% my fault. I switched my race day socks at the last moment and it was stupid. I wound up with a blister on my big toe the size of a half dollar (that I had no idea was there until I took my socks off).
I sat down, opened a beer, and watched as the Co-RD of High Lonesome (Kelsey) came in twenty minutes later to finish her first ever 50 mile race. Everyone shared stories, took photos, enjoyed Avery’s beer, and just laughed. I also learned that two of the guys that were ‘joking around’ with us from GMR also took 2nd overall in the 50 mile and 1st overall in the 50K.
In the end; the mountains called and I went. I wandered around, but I was never lost. As strange as it sounds (especially considering the finishing time) this race is the one I am most proud of, and just like every. Single. Race. To. Date. I’ve had an amazing community to share that experience with.
*My parents were not those
**Check out Cherry Crickets in Denver, Colorado. Order a standard cheeseburger with cream cheese, bacon, jalapeños, and raspberry jam. Just trust me on this.
***You have no idea how many times it took me to spell that word correctly; auto-correct is worthless!