We stood at the entrance to the trail head and looked around. John and I felt like posers. We both kind of gave each other that look that said "We are wayyyy out of our league. What are we doing here?" Actually, I think John did say that. Neither one of us knew what lay ahead. And that is a good thing!
The atmosphere was very different from the traditional road marathon. Packet pickup consisted of a long white table right at the entrance to the trailhead where we would begin. They gave me my bib number that said "50k" and explained they were simply using numbers from last year. Ok, this was NOT what I was used to. I mean, we were the first 25k people to even register. Why wasn't my bib assigned? Who is in charge? How disorganized! I could almost hear myself say to my OWN self "Shut it, city girl. This is how they do things around here." No signing a waiver in case you become dismembered or die from a fall. No frills. Gallons of water on a table next to a few off-brand energy gels in case you needed to fill your bottles before the start.
However nothing was quite as intimidating as the participants. At a marathon, you see all kinds of types and shapes. You see the stone cold elite, super fit badass and you see the recreational jogger, who maybe got in one good 20 miler and is running their first marathon. The runners here were not the latter. This is where John and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable in our skin. Everyone had on trail shoes.... that were definitely used. They all had a similar "look" about them. The type of look that said, "I run these mountains for fun every day. In fact, I do hill repeats on them." The girls were all slim, muscular and seriously fit. The men as well. Nothing told us maybe we weren't ready like looking around at the runners. We had on the right trail shoes, socks and gear. But having all that stuff was NOT what was going to get us up that mountain. And we weren't quite sure we had what we needed for that.
The race director (or some cute volunteer in braided pigtails... which for some reason many of the girls sported. I didn't even know this when I opted for pigtails that morning) shuffled us to the starting line. A red chalked line drawn across the gravel driveway. She gave us a few instructions and then said "GO!" As we entered the trail head and on to single track trail, we were running single file. Essentially, you were doing everything the guy or gal in front of you was doing. If they walked and you wanted to keep running, too bad. At least in the beginning. We had two gals who we assumed were friends running in front of us. They had what I considered at the time, the perfect pace and so I mimicked what they did. We came to our first creek, which many people tiptoed over rocks to get across. John and I tried to do the same, but John quickly realized that would be a sure fire way for him to slip and fall so he began to run right through all the creeks, soaking his shoes immediately. I worried he would be blistered early on and that would NOT be good. However, I began to do the same.
Up the mountain we went. First running, then walking, then running when we could. The first 1.5 miles wasn't too bad. It was mostly running, but not at a ridiculous incline. At about 1.5 miles, things began to get a little more technical. The trail became rockier and more difficult, as well as steep. The majority of runners ahead, no let me change that to ALL, were doing an alternate run a little, then walk a little. Even walking was becoming tiresome the steeper the incline got. You could not look up unless you were walking or stopped. You would surely fall. We continued to climb and at times were forced to stop and take a breather... even while walking. This was when I would snap an occasional picture as I stopped and marveled at how incredibly gorgeous it was. I vowed to enjoy the view and not get caught up in time. I emailed a few pics to Sarah, who was likely having a fit that I was leisurely snapping pictures while there were "runners" ahead and a race going on. Those pictures were taken when I just needed a second to ease the burn in my legs and lungs.
One of the things that had me concerned the night before was when I was reading Scott Jurek's new book "Eat and Run". He describes the day he knew he was ready for the Western States 100, a race he won seven consecutive times. He happily reported a mile split of a mountainous hill repeat as a 14:00 min/mile. I looked at it again to make sure I was reading correctly. Who is happy about a 14 minute mile? Now I know.
I couldn't believe the effort I was putting forth and then splits that were appearing on my Garmin... 14:06, 16:15, 22:29.... up, up, up we went. The track got steeper, the terrain rockier. We were nearly mile 4, the top of the first peak. I looked around and began to feel a little lightheaded. So I decided to look not to look around for a bit. Especially when one false step to the left would send me tumbling down a rocky steep mountainside. I am assuming that was the change in altitude. When we reached the peak, I was thrilled that I was not feeling sick or crazy or any of the other things that people describe when they run at higher than they are used to altitudes. John seemed to be doing well also. Like me, he experienced some dizziness, but nothing that stopped either of us.
There were race volunteers at the top with gallons of water. They filled my first bottle and said it was all the water they had for the rest of the race. I suppose they had to conserve as I still wonder how the heck they got up there with all those gallons. I can tell you right now that no vehicle got them there! I looked over the edge and saw nothing but snow and a huge downhill slope. Um, not sure how I was going to get down THAT. So after a quick pic of John and I to prove to my family we were alive, I began sidestepping down. One quick misstep and I was suddenly on my ass, zooming downhill. Next time I will wear lycra shorts. My running shorts immediately produced a wedgie, which meant I was flying bare assed on icy snow down this hill. I felt like razor blades were rolling across my backside as I braced myself for the stop. I dug my shoe into the snow with all my might to try to stop myself. Finally, I stopped and stood up. Unfortunately my shorts stayed put and the dude behind me got a lovely moon shot of my scraped up cheeks. Oh well.
For the next 4 miles, we were able to "run" the majority of it. You'd never know by our splits that we were indeed, running, but we were. We averaged anywhere from 12:00-14:00 min/mile during this segment. It was EXTREMELY technical and much of the time was spent hopping laterally down narrow, rocky trail. One false move and a total disaster could have happened. It was taking all of our strength to stay upright and to hold ourselves back. The price for that was that my quads took an absolute beating. By the time we reached the bottom, I was begging for some uphill! That thought quickly changed once we had hydrated, eaten and were on our way uphill again. All we had to do now was go back up the way we came and go back to where we started. Out and back course. One of the things that warned me of how difficult this would be was when I saw the first place guy coming back up after he had turned around. I was on my way down and he was pushing his quads as he walked up the hill. He was the first place male. I was scared.
We ended up in a single file row of runners. We chatted with the girls who I remember seeing at the beginning. It was then I learned they were doing the 50k. I could not fathom how anyone could do more than what we were doing. It took us 2 hrs and 38 minutes to do the first 8.23 miles! My clue as to the difficulty of this course was that JFK allotted a 12 hour time limit for 50 miles. Old Gabe allotted a 12 hour time limit for 30.
Mile 10 -12 were the two most difficult miles I have ever done. One of those miles took 34 minutes to travel. The incline was so steep that at times, we were reduced to a crawl on our hands and feet to gain any distance at all. We remained single file for awhile and then began to separate a bit as we all took breaks when needed. I would occasionally get a "second wind" and pass whomever was ahead of me. Those brief periods of energy lasted all of about for 20 steps then I was dragging again and that person would pass me. This happened a lot and was pretty comical. We finally reached the mountain peak again. All we had to do was go 4 miles downhill and we were DONE! Four miles SOUNDS so easy to a road runner, doesn't it? In my mind, I winced at the thought of four miles. And all steep downhill... the same way we had come up in the beginning. We began running and for the most part, ran the entire way down the mountain. Again, we were sporting 14-15 minute splits during this steep downhill portion. The passing through creeks washed all the mud that had accumulated on our trail shoes from the second uphill portion (where the melted snow had produced thick, slippery mud that sometimes you'd slide BACKWARD in!). I wasn't sure how much more my quads could support my weight. Each step down was like an electric jolt.
We finally came to the trail head entrance and finished. No music, no announcer, and NO MEDAL... (WHAT THE HECK???). Just a few volunteers and some runners saying, "here are 500 and 501. Good job, guys." That was it. It was the best :). Our official time was 5 hrs 27 minutes (and some seconds). Yes, that is for 16.66 miles. Average pace was a 19:40 min/mile. I finished 49th (John 50th, hee hee) out of 70 registered 25k racers. Five were DNF's and five or so were DNS (which I assume meant "Did not start" or geez, maybe it's "Did not survive". Hope not!) We were not last. HURRAYYY!!! And for two city people from Ohio running a race where EVERYONE is from Montana or Colorado or Wisconsin, we certainly held our own on those mountains!
So what do I think? I think that was the hardest thing I have ever done physically, but also the most incredibly rewarding and wonderful thing. This was harder than the JFK 50, hands down. I am proud that John and I took a blind leap of faith and just went out west and ran the mountains with virtually no mountain trail running training. I think so often I over think things to death and paralyze myself, therefore I essentially cheat myself out of some unbelievable life experiences. I worried incessantly about my calves and my Air Force training. I nearly had myself convinced to cancel the trip and just go back to Key Biscayne and not bargain with getting hurt. Ironically enough, Miami had thunderstorms nearly the entire weekend! That trip would have had crappy weather for the first time in 6 years. Compare that to the sunshine, low humidity and awesome weather we had in Montana the ENTIRE WEEKEND, we definitely made the right choice.
And maybe this helped, maybe it didn't, but I am inclined to think that coincidence is more rare than we think. I can no longer train and push myself the way I do, get through disappointment and injury the way I do, run side by side with my favorite people the way I do... without knowing who I owe it all to. John and I talked about this after the race. I told him that during times where I could not put forth any more effort than I was, I found myself happy, smiling internally, thanking God for what I am able to do. I thought often of John's grandmother, who is dying at Bailey Place. She has a broken hip, possibly a broken arm and is in tremendous pain. She is swollen from head to toe, unresponsive and under 24 hour nursing care. I know how hard it is for John to visit her, which he does most days on his lunch hour. We are all praying for the same thing... eternal peace... and QUICKLY.
I thought of my sister, Maria. I thought of Mitch. I thought of my friends, the Yuskos and their sweet baby Nora who has much to do with how I view things nowadays. I thought of the fact that I have two living, active parents. Two living, active in-laws. I have seven siblings and always have. I have four healthy, crazy, funny kids. I have friends I would trust with my life. In a nutshell, I have more than I deserve and I realize that. So if I thought for one second that this was "HARD" and found myself internally whining a bit, I was quickly brought out of that mindset. Instead I focused on the strong smell of the Montana pine trees, the indescribable view from on top of that mountain and the fact that I was doing what I love with the person I love most (thanks, Deb :)
Would I do it again? Nope. Not the 25k. Next year John wants to tackle the entire 50k course. You know, John... my husband... who hates running.