Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mount Evans Ascent

I'll admit it. The Mount Evans Ascent made me nervous.
When I head into races any longer, I'm rarely nervous. I know that if I run well, and I should, it will turn out well. There's always a question as to how I'll feel, like whether my bitchy stomach will act up, but really, there aren't many other variables. There's a few hills, and you wonder about the weather, but it never changes much.
As predictable as those races are, that's how unpredictable Mount Evans would be.
First, Mount Evans is, of course, a mountain, and the weather on mountains is, um, unstable. Generally the mornings are nice, and the race would start at 7:30 a.m. But you just don't know. The wind is always a threat and will come even on nice, sunny days. It's hard not to take it personally. Some of my friends said last year during the race the winds were 50 mph. Steady. And a storm can hit you, literally, out of the blue. I've been in nasty storms that came 15 minutes after a bright, bluebird day.
Second, Mount Evans is, of course, a high mountain, more than 14,250 feet. The air is a tad thinner up there. I had no idea how I'd do that high. I hadn't been that high in at least a year, maybe two. When I did the Pikes Peak Ascent two years ago, I was doing great until I got to 12,000 feet and got sick. It was entirely possible that that would happen again, and there wasn't much I could do to prevent it, other than train at high altitudes, and my family life wouldn't allow that. What's even more frustrating is my vast, past experience meant nothing. Altitude doesn't carry over.
Third, the race was 14.5 miles, and you gain 4,000 feet. I'd thought I'd trained well for the constant barrage of hills that would surely come, but I didn't know. That many hills can not only wear you down, they can be discouraging. I was determined to not let them get me down, but after 11 miles of them, I didn't know how I'd do.
But I needed this race. I really needed it. Kate found something she needed to do every night when I got home from work this week, which meant chaos after a long day. Friday, Jayden's swim meet that was supposed to take two hours took, no shinola, eight, and Kate was volunteering at it, which left me with all three kids all day, on a day I wasn't expecting it, most of it at a pool, which, I know, poor me, but there wasn't much to do, and so the girls were bored and expecting me to entertain them while I kept an eye on Jayden. When I went to bed at 7:30 p.m. that in anticipation of the 3 a.m. alarm, I fell asleep right away.
For the race, I set my goals at a modest 3 hours because some tough runners who I knew had done that before, and that would probably put me in the middle of the pack.
I was fine being in the middle of this pack. When I got to the start of the race, it was pretty apparent this was not a 5K. After a two-hour drive, I arrived at 5:45 a.m., and the woman next to me got out of her car to get her packet. She had on a "Pikes Peak Marathon" finisher's jacket, the other big mountain race in Colorado. The woman who parked to the left of me had an "Ultrarunners do it better" bumper sticker on her window. Sure, there were a few spoiled weekend warriors who had no idea what they were up against — one of them wouldn't use a campground bathroom because "it was too rank for me" — but it looked to me like most of the runners had either run a race much longer than a marathon, finished an Ironman or won their age groups in mountain races. I'm no slouch. But holy hell. My mountaineering experience was about the only thing I had going for me, and I've run up, maybe, three of the more than 200 ascents.
I swallowed hard and reminded myself to enjoy the competition, rather than be afraid of it, when the gun went off, and I started in the back but passed a bunch of people right away and settled in the middle of the pack of 400 runners or so (I think it was 400). I also told myself to go slow and attack the hills as they come, not to look far ahead to see what was waiting for me.
This race is all on the asphalt road that leads to 300 feet of the summit of Evans. Pikes Peak and Evans are the only 14ers that allow you to drive to the top. Pikes Peak even has a gift store at the summit and a train that leads to the top as well. Quick funny story: When I climbed Pikes for the first time, just before I walked into the gift store, sweaty and dirty, a woman looked me over and gasped when I told her what I'd done.
"You know you can drive up, right?" she said. She was serious.
This was the first race in a long time I didn't bring a GPS. Maybe in years. I knew my pace would be far slower than I was used to, and I didn't want that to freak me out. This race was about effort and feel a lot more than sticking to a pace. I did bring a watch, but that was the only way I'd know how long I'd been out there.
Right away, I felt good, which was encouraging, given that we started — started — at 10,600 feet. I was breathing a little hard on my way to the bathroom before the race, let alone running up a steep hill.
Ah, the hills. I knew there would be a lot, but they really never ended. You were never rewarded with a downhill after the uphill. Just more uphill. I somehow managed to run the whole way the first 8 miles and was comfortable. When I was through with mile 9, my attitude was good and I felt really good. My time was 1:30, and I almost allowed myself to dream big. Maybe not only three hours was a possibility, maybe 2:45 was.
It's funny how you forget during a race what's really going on. Sometimes it's OK to forget what you're capable of, as I ran a huge PR in Vegas because I didn't let what I'd done in the past dictate would I could do then. But I laughed at myself as I ran on one of the very few flat stretches into the third aid station. I was hitting probably 8-minute miles at 12,500+ feet, and I felt great. I could do anything!
Um, no, you can't.
The hill after the flat stretch was a long one, steep and unforgiving, almost mean, and I took my first walk break about halfway through it, following the lead of others. It felt wonderful to walk a bit and catch my breath, and I wonder if it was a mistake to dig myself deep out of the pain like that because once you do, it's hard to go back. To be honest, I never did go back as far as I needed to get 2:45.
As I ran up the final section of the hill, someone passed me and said, "13,000 feet baby."
13,000 feet had arrived, and I knew running full-time wasn't going to happen any longer. It wasn't the hills, though my calves were starting to really ache, and I worried they would cramp up on me. It wasn't the distance. It was the thin air. By this time, the oxygen was about half of what you'll get at sea level. Greeley is 5,000 feet, so I was a little ready. A little. But I wasn't going to be able to climb a big hill without walking a bit to catch back my breath.
Breathing in thin air is like eating a magic cheeseburger, one that never really fills you up, only it's not as much as the cheeseburger. You take a big gulp, a desperate gulp sometimes, and you never feel that click in your throat that tells you its time to breathe again. Your body's reaction is, naturally, WTF, so you breathe again, maybe a little more ragged, and your heart works harder to get whatever oxygen you're taking in to the body. It's as painful as it sounds.
I never gave up on the idea of running those last two-three miles, but as I continued to climb, my body wouldn't allow it. By the time I got past 13,600, I'd have to pick a rock and tell myself I would run to the rock about 50 yards away, then I could catch my breath again. I wasn't alone: In fact, by this point, I didn't see anyone running the entire time. Those people, the few they are, were already done and probably collecting their age group medals.
In the last mile, most of it inching to 14,000, I did more walking than running. When I did run more than 25 yards, I would get dizzy, like I'd guzzled a whiskey shot, and I'd have to walk again. It was frustrating, but I knew the altitude would get me eventually without preparing for it more
I did finish strong, charging up the last two switchbacks, probably in the faint hope that I'd finish under 3 hours. I didn't. 3:03. I'll take iSure enough, I finished pretty much in the middle of the pack. Maybe the top third, actually. 173/465 entrants. I ran into an old ultra running friend who finished seconds ahead of me, and we scrambled up to the very top of Evans' summit. We saw dark clouds. Remember what I said about the weather? By the time we ran back down and got in the line for the shuttle, the temperature had dropped 35 degrees, we could hear thunder, and it started to snow. The storm hit in 15 minutes, tops. When another runner said he had room in his car, I jumped at the open seat. I think 75 runners had to drop out or didn't finish.

I'm tired now. I'll sleep well tonight. Physically I'm beat. Friday wore me out mentally, bad, after the tough week. I'm feeling refreshed now. I know it seems sometimes like I'm this motivated runner and climber, but honestly, I really need it or else I'd go insane. Worse, I'd be a terrible father (and yes, you can be insane and be a good parent; in fact I think it's partially required) who would show a lot less patience than I already do. Nothing else renews me like a good, hard effort, and if it's up a mountain, or outside, with some good scenery, even better. Beaches don't even come close.
Sometimes I wish they did.