For the past two years, I have gone with my two adventure friends Candy and Gary on an epic journey. First it was running/hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail in eight days in 2012. Then it was a double crossing of the Grand Canyon (R2R R2R) in 2013. So, when Candy asked about climbing Mt. Whitney this summer, it was game on.
Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the lower 49 states, taller than Mt. Rainier but shorter than Alaska’s Denali. There is an 11 mile (22 round trip) trail that takes off from 8000 feet before topping out at 14,496 ft. It wasn’t the easiest trail, being mostly of granite steps, boulders, and 99 switchbacks. The grind only made reaching the summit that much sweeter.
Mt. Whitney is in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains in southern California. This is where the famous naturalist, author, and early advocate of the preservation of wilderness, John Muir spent so much of his time. His words resonate with me so much that I thought it fitting to use them in this post with pictures from the trip. Be sure to enjoy the video that follows.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!
Sunrise on the trail
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
In my zone
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.
Junction of the John Muir Trail
Who wouldn’t be a mountaineer! Up here all the world’s prizes seem nothing.
Summit of Mt. Whitney
It was the afternoon of the day and the afternoon of his life, and his course was now westward down all the mountains into the sunset.
It took a lot of nerve to sit here
Keep close to nature’s heart and break clear away once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
Pristine lake just off the trail
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
One of the 99 switchbacks
Now that you are inspired, go watch the full (4 minute) video. (For best results, view in 1080HD in full screen)
“You know, one little slip and it’s all over. It’s a fatal drop off on either side,” the voice said. “I know, but you hiked up more than 10 miles. You are so close to the summit. You can’t quit now!” said the same voice.
I had heard you could summit Mt. Bangs, the highest peak in the area at just over 8000 ft. Two years ago, we had hiked up to within about a mile, but it was winter and we had no intention of summiting that day, just exploring. Ever since, it’s been on my mind and list.
Mt Bangs, also known as Hancock Peak, is actually located in the far northwestern corner of Arizona. Several of us had talked about summiting but never seemed to get around to it. Most were talking about driving to within about 3 miles and going from there. I preferred the longer hike up Elbow Canyon, one I’ve done many times. The opportunity finally came and five of us were in.
Heading up Elbow Canyon
Gary, my awesome friend and running partner, and I chose to hike Elbow Canyon and meet the other three at the upper trailhead. That meant about 7 miles of hiking and about 3500ft gain just to get there. I knew there was a trail part way up the mountain from the trailhead, but also heard there would be a lot of bushwhacking on the final stretch. Little did I know, the tough part would not be bushes but boulders.
Discussing the trail options
We met the guys and all five of us continued up the trail, chatting and enjoying the scenery. As we got higher, the views got better and better allowing us to see vistas in both directions for many miles. To the south and west we saw the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument and Gold Butte. To the north and east we could see St. George and Signal Peak, even as far Zion National Park.
Nearing the end of the trail
Though someone had nicely marked the trail with cairns and cut the brush back, the trail ran out all too soon. We hit a stretch that required us to scramble up a steep embedded granite boulder. Everyone else climbed right up, but not me. It’s where I got the first twinge of fear. These rocks can be slippery and I didn’t trust the shoes I was wearing. Gary suggested dropping my pack in hopes that would make me more nimble and secure—it did.
The area above that rock was ok but the ridge was narrowing. Looking straight ahead along the ridge, you could see both sides from the corners or your eyes—and it was a long way down. The guys scrambled up another set of larger boulders, waiting for me to follow. I had some serious hesitation. But, with coaxing, I made it up that set only to find more boulders and an even narrower ridge.
Boulders on the knife edge ridge to the summit
This was becoming a real test of my will and wits. “Go ahead, I’ll just wait for you here,” I said several times. But they wouldn’t have it. They extended hands to me and encouraged me to keep going and not to look down. I scrambled a few more and stopped again. The internal battle in my mind continued. I mean, after all, what’s the big deal about making it to the top? How important is it anyway? I haven’t even seen my new grandbaby yet. It’s not worth risking my life!
With my heart pounding and my body physically trembling, I scaled another boulder wondering how in the hell I would get ever get back down. I imagined myself like the woman recently stuck on the side of a hill, afraid to move, ultimately rescued by a search and rescue team. This climb topped the list for being one of the times I was the most afraid ever. The guys were so great, encouraging me, grabbing my hand, placing their own bodies on the outside so I could climb up and through with more confidence.
Mentally exhausted at the summit
After every scary boulder set, I desperately wanted to stop right there and wait. It often took several minutes to get me to agree to carry on. With their help I pushed on, climbing a few more boulders and finally, we were all up. At the top, I held tightly to the rocks – staying low. I enjoyed the view but never really relaxed. And, I was happy when we decided to head back down, but apprehensive about having to actually do it. Strangely, it wasn’t that bad and we were off the rocks pretty quickly.
Although we still had another 9 miles to go back to the car, I was happy and proud to have conquered the mountain. I could never have done it without the help and support of friends. And, the best part is, I never have to do it again.
Basking momentarily after conquering fear
Fear can be so paralyzing. So, when you are able to do something to break through it, you feel free as a bird. I spread my wings a little that day.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. – Nelson Mandela
Three nights before my second 50K, I sat down with the course map and elevation profile and plotted my estimated time. Funny, my estimate of 7 hours 45 minutes was within just a couple minutes of my first 50K finishing time. But I wanted better. I recomputed what it would take to get a finish under 7 hours. I was ready. Bring it on!
Horseshoe Bend in Page, AZ
I chose the Antelope Canyon 50K because I wanted something new that was still relatively close to home. The course offered some amazing views which I thought would make it that much sweeter. And, lately the weather had been unseasonably warm. Little did I know, my visions for the day were going to be radically changed.
It may have started when I got a cold four days out. Or maybe when the weather forecast was changed from 40/70 to 22/45. Or maybe when the race started before my GPS was aligned or when the snow started falling in the first five minutes. Whatever it was, it was a sign that things weren’t quite right.
My GPS aligned about 3 minutes into the race, then off I went into the darkness. I would have been last except my running partner Gary was still in the porta-potty. I passed a few people quickly and headed down the hill toward the mob of runners–only now, they were coming back up the hill at me! Every single person had missed the turn onto the trail. The extra mile I ran blew the first part of my plan right out of the water. It’s like getting a triple bogey on the first hole. You immediately want a do over.
Snow fell on the Page rim trail for about 2 hours.
The trail ran level along a rim around the northwest side of Page (AZ) and along the Colorado River canyon. The sky got brighter but the snow fell harder. It snowed for two hours, but it was amazingly pleasant–the views were great and I wasn’t cold at all. Thankfully, there were volunteers guiding us to the first aid station. Goal time was :58 and I was in at 1:06. Not super bad and maybe I could make that up?
Really nice couple took my picture…more on that later.
We finished the rim trail with a super fun, super sandy downhill. At the top of the hill, I met a nice couple taking pics and I asked if they would send me some later since I chose not to carry a camera. They agreed and said, “Smile!” I turned around in time to get my picture taken before bounding down the hill.
Slogging through miles of sand.
Well, the sand didn’t stop there. The next several miles across the desert were sandy with places ankle and shin deep. It was not run-able for me at all. So I walked as fast as I could, knowing my goal time was slipping away. I refilled my water bottle and left the next aid station running across a bit of sandstone but that quickly gave way to more sand and more walking.
Following the fence line to Horseshoe Bend
I reached the 14 mile aid station at about 16 miles. I grabbed a few items and quickly left, ducking under the barbed wire fence and toward Horseshoe Bend. Runners were starting to thin out at this point but I was able to keep someone in sight for a while.
Literally running on the edge
Going along Horseshoe Bend was pretty cool. Slick rock scrambling and hopping right along the edge. The view was spectacular but there was to be little to no running. Too many ups and downs along the slick rock. But, it was fine with me, I love that kind of scrambling. At least, unlike the sand, I had footing on this stuff.
Eery feeling to be all alone in the desert
About two miles towards Horseshoe Bend, I now only saw runners in the far distance. I started noticing how hard it was to find the next flag. I’d walk or run to a flag, then stand there scouting the horizon for the next one. At first, I could find another. Then I couldn’t. Pretty soon, I was all alone in the desert. No people, no flags, nothing moving, just a whisper of a wind. I felt like I was in some bad western movie.
I kept moving, getting more and more frustrated. I probably went for about 30 minutes, climbing every high point I could find. No flags and no runners. I kept moving in the direction I thought was the route when Marie, a 50-miler, caught up to me. She was young and cheerful but had no idea which way to go. Together, we kept going and continued to scout for flags. We saw none.
Just kept moving forward
I pointed in the direction of the highway and told Marie that was where I was going to head. My fear about following the canyon too closely was coming to a dead end with either a chasm to cross or wall to scale. So we stayed “inland” and made our way towards the highway. Marie was much younger and faster than me, and she was on a tighter timeline. So, she politely excused herself and headed off.
I gave up trying to find any more flags and made a beeline for the highway. As I got closer, I could see some cars and what looked like an aid station. I grumbled and huffed as I made my way there. But, to my dismay, it was just a house. Now I was at the highway, behind a barbed wire fence, not knowing if the aid station was to my left or to my right.
Marie had called her husband to help her find her way. Fortunately, he saw me, stopped, and told me it was two miles to the aid station–just follow the fence to the south and there will be an opening. I got more and more angry about the whole situation. I trained hard for this. I followed a plan consistently. I wanted to run a great 50K and here I was 23 miles in with two more miles to get to the 21 mile aid station. The sand had taken a toll on my lower back and it was all I could do to get myself to that fence opening.
I couldn’t imagine another 10 miles in deep sand with no course flagging. IF I made it, it would certainly be night by then. I told myself I didn’t care about finishing anymore. I didn’t need a stupid finisher necklace anyway. So, when I popped out under the fence and the aid station volunteer, my friend George, asked what he could get me, I said, “A lift!” I told him that this was ridiculous and I am done. He sat me in a chair and gave me his down jacket and a blanket. I stewed about the incompetence. I felt awful I’d talked my friend Gary into coming. He’ll never listen to my suggestions again. I was mad and sad.
I would not have finished without Omar and Lynne!
I always marvel how quickly things can change in these long distance races. You go from happily running along to stomach or body issues that you think will take you down to happily running again. Well, this race was no exception, only it didn’t happen quite like that. After about 15 minutes of sitting and sulking, my photo friends showed up and chided me to join them.
“Come on! You got this!” he said. “You can finish with us, we’re mostly walking.” she said. After a few more grumbles and groans from me and a few more words of encouragement from them. I put my pack back on and we all headed out.
Four of us going through Waterhole Slot Canyon
This next section started off with crawling backwards and downhill under a very large rock that might make some feel claustrophobic. Then a slide and jump down the slick rock into a slot canyon. And, to my surprise, Gary shows up! He came back to find me saying that after climbing the first ladder, he worried I might be alone and not able to manage it solo. He would have been right. There would have been no way I could have maneuvered the ladders alone.
One of many scary ladders up the canyon
The four of us, Lynne, Omar, Gary, and I, worked our way up the slot canyon. At times it was so narrow you had to contort your body to fit through. Other times, we climbed ladders not quite long enough to reach the top. Some ladders were precariously placed on piles of rocks. It would have made for an awesome hike, but was harder to appreciate when you were in the middle of a race and hoped to make it back in daylight.
Omar running in socks
Once out, the four of us motored down the packed sand road, following the power lines to the next aid station where our drop bags were. Omar had shoe issues and could barely walk. Lynne suggested taking his shoes off, putting his insoles inside his socks and going sock footed. Perfect solution! Note to self.
We got ourselves in and out of the next aid station with just 5 miles to go–still hoping to finish before nightfall. The course doubled back on itself but I thought I remembered it splitting off at some point. As we approached a major intersection, we saw lots of footprints, in the deep sand again, heading downhill. We double checked the sign but couldn’t tell if we should go that way or not. Lynne and Omar were already at the bottom, so we said screw it, let’s go.
Handmade finisher necklace
We knew we had lost the course at that point, but just made our way across the desert, back towards the town of Page. We chatted, laughed, and bitched about the race and other stuff. We also made plans to share dinner together. Finally, after 10 hours and 20 minutes, we hit the finish. Unceremoniously, we walked into the building, told the race director we were here, and he gave us a time. He also gave us our finisher’s necklaces even though were technically past the cutoff time. We ended up doing somewhere around 34-35 miles.
Afterwards, we ran into our friend Justin who is an awesome runner. He was leading the pack through about mile 20 when he came across the race director still laying flags! The race director said there was no way he could keep up with Justin, gave him a handful of flags, and told him to continue marking as he went. When Justin replied that he didn’t know where to put them, he was told to just follow the canyon. Unfortunately, Justin quickly ran out of flags leaving much of that section unmarked.
Terri, Gary, Lynne, Omar, Nick
Though the race didn’t even come close to playing out like I planned, it gave me a chance to meet some really cool people. Lynne and Omar were so much fun. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch. We also invited Nick, a 50-miler who finished at the same time, to join us for dinner. Lynne and Nick are both Aussies and chatted about that. We all had a wonderful evening getting to know each other and talking about what we love doing.
*With special thanks to Omar, Lynne, and Cory Reese for the photos.
“I’m too old for all that. My body won’t let me do that anymore,” my friend said.
When people hear I run, especially some of the distances and places I run, I often hear replies like that. There’s a kind of sadness in their voice. Almost like the loss of childhood.
I live in an area that is populated by many seniors. I play golf and softball with them. I hear that sadness in their own voices. Bad knees, bad hips, achilles, poor foot structure. The sadness extends even into things they can probably control. Overweight, lack of confidence, fear of failure, resignation.
I’m pretty lucky. I was blessed with a strong body and never really suffered any serious injuries that limit what I can do. I’m blessed to have had both good genes and a good childhood where I am not overweight, nor do I have any issues of confidence. Perhaps I’m just too naive to think that I can’t do something.
My father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma this year. It’s been awful. In the three months since the diagnosis, he’s suffered nothing but extreme pain. It’s hard to watch. This is a man who was/is my role model. He loves the outdoors. He was an avid hiker, camper, and backpacker. I’m fortunate to have inherited that same passion to be outside and be active. But now, he’s spending more time in the hospital than at home.
So, I run for him. I run for those whose bodies have broken. I run for those whose spirits have been broken. I run for those who never thought they could.
Honestly, I’ve been afraid to face the elephant in the room–my lack of speed. As with any activity, we tend to spend more time on things we think we’re good at and less on those we think we aren’t. I’ve always given the excuse that because I’m not fast, I might as well go long. But, the opportunity came up to run a local 5K charity race and for once, I didn’t have to help put it on. The race organizer asked me how fast I thought I would run it and I offered up that I’d be lucky to break 30 minutes. Surprise surprise! I ran it in 28:33. That’s just under a 9 minute mile pace!
As it happens, in October I was extremely busy putting on the Huntsman World Senior Games Track and Field Meet, hosting over 400 athletes from all around the world for three days. Following on the heels of that was the Gold Butte Days 5K and Half Marathon races, along with the Gold Butte Days Festival, that I helped put on. So, not much time for running and certainly not any long runs. And, probably for the first time, I was forced into recovery – resting this body that has seen so many miles in such a short time.
Without a particular goal, I decided to start all over with a 50K training plan. Of course the first several weeks call for short runs of 2, 4, and 6 miles. At the same time, my training partner Gary decided he wants to build speed again (and thinks I should too), so we’ve started weekly track workouts as well. It all seems to be coming together nicely.
My road runs have gotten much faster. Instead of 10:30 to 11:00 pace, I’m at or under 10:00 pace. I even hit a 9:22 pace on a 2.2 mile run from my house, with a big hill. At the track, I’ve been running 200’s at around 50 seconds, which is pretty fast for me. And, this has all translated to a great trail run a few weeks ago to the Bunkerville Train. It’s about a 13 mile round trip with about 1800ft gain. I went up at about a 15 min pace and down at 11 min pace.
But, the speed work is sneaky tiring. You get home and feel fine. In fact, you can do several runs and feel fine. However, it soon catches up to you. After about three hard weeks of this, I’m feeling a bit beat up and tired. For once, my legs want to quit before my lungs.
I’ll press on, adding a few miles a week, looking for that next big goal.
Today was my first day back on the trail since the epic TransRockies Run in August. Sure, I’ve been running short distances on the pavement, but it was nice to be back out in nature–just me and the lizards. I find it beyond therapeutic and it was especially so today.
See, I’ve been running an endurance race this past year that is tougher than anything I’ve ever done. It’s called Life. It’s one of those endurance races that keeps getting tougher as it goes. Much like TransRockies, every time you think you’ve reached the top of the hill and couldn’t possibly take another step, you’re presented with another, bigger hill.
The gun went off last summer and the first challenge was a doozy. It was my marriage – or the end of it. It was probably THE most difficult decision I have ever made, but so far, I’ve passed. I’m on my own and for the most part, really liking it. For probably the first time in my life, I only answer to me.
But, that first challenge presents even more challenges. It means I’m on my own financially too. And, wouldn’t you know, exactly every month this past year, something in the house has broken and required fixing–sometimes small things like the hinges holding my patio shades, and sometimes big things like the pool cover motor which cost $1400 to fix. I constantly joked about what the next month would bring and sure enough, it did.
Also this year, some interesting health issues cropped up. First, a scare about some unknown “thing” living in my uterus. Apparently, uterine issues are more common in women who have taken Tamoxifen after breast cancer, which I did from 2004-2009. I guess the drug reduces the risk of cancer occurrence above the waist but actually increases the chance below the waist. Don’t remember knowing that before.
At the same time, I found two lumps under my arm on the same side as my previous breast cancer. Really? WTH? So, the doc said let’s do a D&C and find out about the thing in your uterus and then let’s do a biopsy on the lumps under your arm. I had them done the Friday and following Wednesday after TransRockies.
About the time I got my results, I learned my dad was seriously ill. He had severe back pain and was becoming quite forgetful. This is the guy who just last summer had been hiking and backpacking. Fortunately, my results were negative. Unfortunately, his were not. He has a cancer of the blood called multiple myeloma.
The trail, still going uphill, took another unexpected turn. My youngest finds out she is pregnant at 23 years old and not married. Good news is, she is in a steady relationship and I like the guy. But really? Not what you want or expect for your kids.
Just when you think, “OK, I can do this. These things suck but we’ll get through them,” another hill. Just this week, my dad’s diagnosis was changed from medium risk to high risk. He’s now going through weekly chemo treatments and a continual battery of tests.
So, today’s trail run felt like an aid station. It replenished my soul. Where will this race go next? When do I get to my favorite part, the downhill? Only the universe knows. Just hope it really is making me stronger.
All I could think about was 11 miles over 11K feet and how, in previous years, people experienced altitude issues like headaches and nausea. Being somewhat sensitive, especially to stomach issues, it definitely tempered my excitement about doing the 2013 TransRockies Run–a 6 day, 120 mile, 20K feet stage race in Colorado.
I signed up just about a year ago with my running partner and good friend, Gary. We entered the 80+ Mixed category along with 35 other running pairs. The race starts in Buena Vista and ends in Beaver Creek, though it’s not completely continuous. You are shuttled to and from race start and finishes. When you’re not running, you’re camping with 350 of your new best friends.
We took two days to drive to Buena Vista. Along the way, we stopped at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. What a beautiful canyon-so steep, deep, and dark. Pictures don’t do it justice. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to see it. It’s not too far off the road.
Next, we stopped at Monarch Pass, which is on the continental divide and sits at 11,312ft. We took the tram up to see the view and also see how we handled the even higher altitude of over 12K ft. The view was stunning–a 360 degree look at the Rockies and the altitude was not an issue (though we were only there a short while).
Day 0 – Buena Vista. We checked in and picked up our race bags and goodies. The bag they give you is pretty big, but it must hold your sleeping bag, pad, pillow, race snacks, clothes for running and for lounging (both warm and cool clothes), race gear, and anything else you bring. Because I have smaller sleeping gear for backpacking, I had a slight bit of room left over, but not much.
We contacted our soon to be new friend Monica. She had to go solo this week after her partner had to drop out. We connected with Monica ahead of time to work out a way to bring our cars forward along the race. We ended up playing leapfrog with the cars which worked, but cut into rest/social time. It was a fortunate friendship though. Monica is a totally fun girl who is sharp-witted and smart. We had a great time while transporting cars and at dinner, though we never saw her during the races since she’s a speedy one!
Day 1 – Buena Vista to Railroad Bridge: 20.9 miles/2550ft elev. gain. It was a cool morning, as every morning would be. We started at the back of the pack and stayed there most of the day. You get lots of time to chat as you huff and puff your way uphill. I met Deana, a water researcher from the midwest and Christina, a woman doing the 3-day solo from Seattle.
It was also on this first day I met Phil and Barbara from Brooklyn. They started each day with us and were great fun to be around. We had told them about our nicknames of “Dirt” and “Skirt” and they greeted us each day this way. It felt good knowing there were other racers who knew you were out there and cared about how you did.
Seeing friendly faces was such a welcome sight. My friend Sherry that I met at Desert RATS in June was working the aid stations by day and doing massages at night. Her smile is infectious and warm. You can’t help but feel good when you are around her. She took good care of me and all the other racers during the week. She and the other aid station volunteers were always cheery and helpful. They were a welcome sight indeed.
This first day seemed to go on and on but did end with a nice foot soak in the river afterwards. Because I had some leg pain that started before we arrived, I decided to get a leg massage. It felt so good I vowed to do it every day afterwards. Unfortunately, I never found the time again.
Day 2 – Vicksburg to Twin Lakes (via Hope Pass): 13.3 miles/3250ft elev. gain. The bus ride to the start took about 30 minutes–enough time to build up nerves of anticipation. I was going to crest the famous Hope Pass. It sits at 12,600ft and is challenged twice in the Leadville 100 race. Thankfully, we only had to go over it once. It was a crazy grind to the top, following along in a conga line on a narrow, steep single track. At one point, someone yelled out to whoever was leading the line at the time to “pull over if you can’t keep up!” I desperately did not want to be that person, so I pushed hard to keep up with the stream of racers. Climbing over 3000 feet in about 3 miles may not sound like much, but when that goes from over 9K to over 12k feet, your lungs are begging for mercy.
At the top, Gary (still in race mode) told me to go! There was to be no lingering or savoring the view. It was time to pass those who did. So I never even got to turn around and see what I’d just climbed. This is where I really found my strength. I flew, almost wrecklessly, down the hill. I was passing people left and right. I probably passed two dozen people. The best part, probably for the whole week, was being called an “ass-kicker” as I passed a group of racers. You never know that what you might say to someone can really make their day, or even their week! I’ll never forget that moment.
Day 3 – Leadville to Camp Hale: 24.2 miles/2800ft elev. gain. Leadville is a cute old mining town–almost. It has potential but it hasn’t been realized. Stage 3 began in Leadville and ran through the town and down the highway before turning up a dirt road. The dirt road immediately began to crank up. It seemed like every time you might reach the top, there was another hill to climb. The uphills are not my strength and took so much of my energy. Plus, my legs were sore to the touch from the previous two days!
I managed hydration and nutrition fairly well, but the continual climb eventually got to my psyche. So much that when it finally flattened out, I could hardly run. It was the only time I tripped and nearly fell, which made me even more angry. Reaching the aid station at about mile 14, you leave most of the climbing behind and begin a steady descent. It’s over 11k feet there and you cross the continental divide. It was a great, run-able portion of the trail, but my legs (and lungs) would not cooperate. I ran some and walked some, but it was more walking. I was frustrated with myself. After crossing the highway, with about 6 miles left, we entered a nice forest trail.
For whatever reason, I got a second wind. Again, I flew down the hill for the next 3 miles to the next aid station. I passed numerous racers and felt fantastic. The final 3 mile stretch is a flat dirt road. Gary pushed me to my capacity there, but no one passed us on this section and we finished pretty strong.
Day 4 – Camp Hale to Red Cliff: 14.1 miles/2900ft elev. gain. The morning began with diarrhea. Perhaps nerves? Then I found out I wasn’t alone. The “camp crud” had made its appearance and about 25% of the racers had it, including Gary and I. After a second time in the bathroom in short order, the medical team gave us Imodium. Fortunately, though it continued after the race, I never had any episodes during the race and it really didn’t impact my energy.
Although this was a shorter stage, I knew it was also a steep one, climbing quickly with crazy grades of 29%. About two miles out of Camp Hale, the road turned up the hill and the climb began. It was innocuous at first, but turned ugly and angry. We were climbing rutted roads that even a jeep wouldn’t want to take. People were using their toes to dig in and make the climb, some slipping and almost losing their balance. “This is nuts!” I kept thinking. But, for the pain, you are rewarded. These were the views you saw in the brochure–the ones you paid the big bucks for. And, you deserved the great views after sacrificing all your energy to get there.
As you crest, you traverse a bowl and then a ridge for a few miles, continually taking in the amazing views. I met Silas, another racer’s partner who had never done more than a half marathon before. As I flew down the hill with him and his partner, he said, “You are amazing!” His partner said, “Who? Me?” And Silas told him, “No! Her!!” Made me smile as I bounded down the hill. Reaching the creek crossing, I waited only briefly for Gary and we trudged through the water. The trail goes about 1/4 mile directly through the creek which felt good at first, until my feet started going numb. Again, Gary pushed me to the finish. I was finally figuring out his M.O. Push me hard to finish, then apologize later for doing so.
Day 5 – Red Cliff to Vail: 23.6 miles/4200ft elev. gain. Each night after you finish and limp around camp, you don’t think you can take another step. You start questioning how on earth you will wake up and do it again! Somehow, morning comes and you get caught up in the moment. Today, I was fearing the extremely long, extremely high-altitude day. I knew there were probably 11 miles over 11k feet and I’d heard of so many people having altitude sickness on this day. Although I brought a drug called Diamox with me, I decided not to take it since it can also cause dehydration. I’m not the best hydrator to begin with, so I took my chances going without. One thing I did do was take Gingko Biloba for the week. I’d read that it was supposed to help. Maybe it did since I never suffered any altitude issues.
Red Cliff is a darling town out in the middle of nowhere. We were bused in and the local sports bar and grill served up coffee and hot chocolate. They even had a fire going outside. It was a beautiful day but I was still nervous. The music they’d played at the start every day, Highway to Hell, started playing and we were off. I was immediately surprised I wasn’t tired at all. I began walking faster and faster, even running some. Having started off nearly dead last, I passed many racers in those first 6 miles. Even Gary wasn’t keeping up and that was a first! I actually had to wait for him at the first aid station and he actually had to hustle in! There’s a rule in this race that you must be within 2 minutes of your partner at each aid station and at the finish. Although you’d assume you’d always be together as partners, you’re not. So, sometimes it can be a challenge.
The road turned to single track and climbed even steeper. I motored right on up and we finally reached an opening with a wonderful view. The trail went up and down for a bit before we reached the back of the Vail ski area and climbed the switchbacks of one of its bowls. Although tiring, it was the most beautiful section of the whole week. The trail wound through wildflowers of all colors while Rockies stood watching in the distance. You could see the train of racers marching up the switchback trail.
We stopped to take a few pictures, including this one on the rock. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the legs or mental focus to do anything other than stand there and smile. Usually I try to do some kind of crazy pose, but not today.
The trail continued along the top of the ski ridge, passing by a couple chair lifts and finally finding the singletrack descent through the forest. By now you’re getting a sense that I LOVE running downhill, especially a soft, carpeted forest trail. I hammered down catching up to our friends Rachel and Helen from the UK. They always finished ahead of us but not today! What a sweet couple of “proper” British girls….so I thought. Turns out Rachel flashed her boobies for the photographer. Some people will do anything to get their photo on the nightly slideshow! She’s a fun gal.
Having lost Gary again, I waited briefly and together, we flew the rest of the way down, running some pretty fast miles. I nearly petered out at the finish but he pulled me through. Working that hard for so many miles with such focus at the end took its toll. For no reason at all, I broke down and cried, The tears just fell and I couldn’t stop them. I suppose it’s a form of stress release–not sure. But I got myself together and felt proud of how we did on the hardest day, so late in the week.
Day 6 – Vail to Beaver Creek: 20.9 miles/4900ft elev. gain. The night before, I sneezed more times than I have in a long time. Was it allergies of some kind? My head and chest felt heavy, though my legs still felt pretty good. By morning, I realized I had a full-blown head cold. Really? A head cold now? I hadn’t had a cold in several years. But I guess that’s what you get when you’re sharing things at camp. It sure doesn’t help when you need every ounce of energy and every breath you can take to run at altitude.
This stage was my least favorite for a number of reasons. It wasn’t fun racing while being sick. Any other day and I would have been in bed! As the trail got steeper and my breath got shorter, I got frustrated and sad. I had to keep stopping and let other racers go by. I knew we were losing ground but there was no way I could keep up. It was a slow march up the hill and the only thing I could think about was not quitting. I’d come this far and had done so well. I also owed it to Gary who was the best race partner I could ever ask for. He often towed me up the hills, dragging me by the hand. Though I knew there were times he could have gone much faster, he was always patient with me.
The ascent went on for about 11 miles and I felt awful the whole way. At that second aid station, the trail turns and goes down a very gnarly singletrack. You could hardly even call it that since it was narrow and cut like a V. It was more like a narrow dry water trough. It took a few hundred yards to get my legs again, but then I was in my zone. I let gravity and momentum pull me down the hill. I passed over a dozen people as I danced and hopped my way down the rocky terrain. Four miles later and I was back in town.
The route winds through the town of Avon in a sneaky and cruel way. Because you’re back in civilization, you feel like you’re almost done. But really, you have 5 more miles and about 1300 more feet to climb. Leaving the last aid station, you climb once again. Up, up, and more up. Every time you think you see the racers in front of you top out, there’s another hill. I had slowed considerably and now my stomach wasn’t feeling so hot. I forced myself to drink but didn’t want to. Gary was patient, sometimes pulling me and sometimes letting me catch my breath. I just had no energy left.
After nearly 4 excruciating miles of climbing, the route finally turned downhill. I tried to run and just shuffled, even though I could hear the finish. Even crossing the final bridge with the finish only a hundred yards away, I was walking. Gary grabbed my hand and pulled me through the line where I just broke down. I cried about how lousy I felt. I cried about the hard work I’d put in all week. I cried that this adventure was over. I cried that I had accomplished something so difficult yet so wonderful. Our racing friends Phil and Barbara were there and gave us big hugs. Our other racing friends Rachel and Helen also gave us hugs. We all hugged celebrating everything we had gone through, everything we had done that week. How can you ever top an epic adventure like that?
We finished 22nd out of 36 in our category. The 120 miles and over 20K feet gain took 33 hours to complete. Lessons learned: 1. If there are aid stations, use them and don’t carry a pack full of stuff. 2. Identify your strengths and weaknesses ahead of time and work on the weaknesses (like uphills). 3. Turn around and look at the view once in a while. Who knows if you’ll ever be back!