Monday, March 25, 2019

Next to the Northern Lights

"When the drugs quit you
As loyal as a fruit fly you'll mutter to yourself

'You talentless fuck, good fucking luck

Good fucking luck'"

One Night in Copenhagen,  The Tragically Hip

I didn't believe it was happening but it was. The bus pulled in and we exited. I took my sled from the bus and made a quick last check that I had everything. Entering the bar next to the start line, I sat down with some friends to eat a burger prior to setting off on a 300+ mile journey across the remote Alaska wilderness. I still could not believe I was here and going to do this. Alaska had been a childhood dream and here I was living it.

It was sometime during the impressionable early stages of ultrarunning that I first heard that, yes, people run and ride bikes on the Iditarod route, just like the dogs. It was only a piece of trivia at that point. Something to know but never to try. It was not something a below average runner, like me, could even consider. Even after gaining some competence in winter ultras, I felt that I was in no way prepared for a race like that. I was probably right.

Last March a discussion began with those that I had finished the Hrimthurs with the year before. Paul was already in ITI after winning Tuscobia and getting his name pulled for a slot. I thought 2019 might be the year but after a rough 2017 I began to think maybe I should wait another year. As usual, I was easily convinced to throw caution to the wind and apply to enter anyway. It was most likely I would get rejected and would need to do more work on my resume to earn an entry. It was a surprise to find out that I actually made it into the race. Deserving or not, I had some work to do to get ready.

2018 turned out to be what I considered a bad year for running, carrying over poor results from the second half of 2017. The joy of racing was gone for some reason. I finished Bigfoot 200 but, in my opinion, it was only due to experience and stubbornness, not physical fitness. This race, in August, was the last race I had finished.

Tuscobia and Arrowhead were intended to be practice runs this year for ITI. I failed to finish either of them. The desire was not there, either to train properly or to push through tough patches in races. All this increased my anxiety about going to Alaska. I did learn some things in those races that would help but my confidence was at an all time low.

Flying into Anchorage, I got my first views of Alaska outside the plane window. It was overwhelming rugged and beautiful. The doubts and fear were increasing as I looked down at a frozen mountainous landscape. I didn't have any business trying to do this.

Similar to my first time at Arrowhead, I looked around the room at the pre-race meeting, realizing these were remarkable people who, though unknown to most, had done incredible things with little or no recognition. I was somehow sitting here with them and felt a bit out of place.

After a couple days hanging out in Anchorage, the time came to board the bus for the ride up to Knik Lake to start the race. The skies were clear and had been since I arrived. I didn't expect this good weather to last but I would take what I could get. After the ride and the burger, we made our way out to the start line. Time for a couple pictures and then suddenly everyone is off.

The first few hours were easy going and relaxed as the trail wound westward. As the pack spread out, I began to realize that the only way to follow the trail was to follow the footprints of those in front of me, as the snowmobile tracks would often veer off in multiple directions. As dark set in, I had to rely on a GPS with route from a previous year on it. There were a few spots where foot racers were wandering about trying to find the trail. Eventually, we made our way down to the Yentna River which we would follow through the night.

Moving along on the frozen river was strange at first. The river is wide and therefore there is no cover from the wind. In the dark, with only a headlamp, it felt like I was on a vast open plain. The river is typically the low point of the surround landscape so the temperatures would be noticeably lower.

Approaching midnight, after a few hours on the river, I began to fight the sleep monster. Starting a race a 2 PM, I knew I would likely have to bivy, at least for short time, before going the 60 miles to the first checkpoint. I was also feeling that the temperatures were much colder than the forecast low of around 5 degrees. Eventually I decided to get in my sleeping bag to try to warm up and get a little sleep, which should help me get to the checkpoint in good shape.

My sleeping bag is rated for -40 degrees. Despite this, I slept very little and shivered for close to an hour. It was very cold. Later, one of the race directors would tell me it was -30 F that night. Cold indeed. Giving up the fight to sleep, I got up and tried to quickly pack everything back up. Moving briskly down the trail to try to stay warm, it became clear to me that, 30 miles from help in either direction, that if I had any survival instinct, I had better keep moving with some purpose. Much more so than ever at any other race, I felt that the danger was real. How much so is debatable I suppose but it was jarring in the moment. I wanted to be a part of this and now I was in it up to my neck.

The sun did not rise as much as it slid upwards at an angle slightly above the horizontal. The distant mountains to the north and west provided great scenery. I continued to follow the Yentna River towards the first checkpoint. I felt better with the sun up and warmer temperatures. I was very eager to get to the station for some hot food and sleep and was within a half a mile when I watched a moose cross an open field and stop right next to the trail to eat. I ended up sitting on my sled for about 10 minutes waiting for the moose to leave before moving along.

The lodge served grilled cheese and soup. I hung clothes up to dry and slept for about an hour. In retrospect, I should have slept a bit longer here as there would be very few places for good sleep in this race. After a couple hours, I set off again along the river towards the next checkpoint at  Skwentna, 30 miles away.

Very soon it was early evening and the sunlight faded away. Again I was struggling with sleep as it grew dark and cooler. This night, however, though cold was much warmer than the previous night. I was told at the first stop that there was a "trail angel" about half way through this section. Moving along the river I was surprised to see a house and several building that had electric lights on. Assuming this might be that half way stop, I thought I would go in to warm up and get some food. I wandered around the buildings, trying to follow where the foot and bike tracks went but didn't see any indication of them going into any of these building. As I gave up and walked away, I heard a voice calling out. I turned and went in to what turned out to be what I suppose you could call an unofficial trail angel. I was given a bowl of chili and was able to get a short nap.

I was back on trail by midnight. After several hours moving along the frozen river, I arrived at the second checkpoint, hungry and ready to sleep again. This checkpoint was crowded despite the large size of the main room. Gear was strewn and hung at every available location to dry. I ate a rather large plate of lasagna and went to lie down for a couple hours again. I was still feeling hungry after waking up so I added a large plate of biscuits and gravy to my bill and left feeling very good.
Breakfast of champions (and slow folks like me)

The next 20 mile section to Shell Lake was one of the high points for me. The weather continued to be clear and warmer during the day, maybe in the teens or low 20s. I was full of food and felt positive. The views of the snowy mountains were beautiful. The trail was firm and easy to move along. Everything was going right. Despite this I was still ready for a break upon arriving at the Shell Lake lodge, which served a delicious burger. I made the mistake of drinking a couple Coca Colas before trying to take a nap. The caffeine had me buzzing so I gave up and set off to the next stop at Finger Lake.

Somewhere in this night things fell apart. I suspect that in my increasingly sleep deprived state I began to neglect food and water. The trail had moved off the relatively easy moving frozen rivers to an overland route that included the foothills of the approaching mountains. My patience became very short with small things, especially trying to figure out how to handle my wild sled going down hills. My irritation increased as I moved through the night.  By the time I reached Finger Lake, I was desperate to sleep and eat.

I could see some faint lights as I neared the compound at Finger Lake. Not sure where to go,  I went to a group of cabins and found one with a small sign saying to check in. I entered the tiny cabin which was very dimly lit. The only sound was someone snoring at the back. Tired and confused, I just wanted to get my first drop bag and sleep. On an empty bunk I found what looked like scattered drop bags. I tried to find mine but this turned out to be the spot where racers would discard extra food they didn't want to carry. I left the cabin to try to find out where I could sleep when I met a volunteer who had just woken up and had the drop bags in another cabin. After picking mine up I moved to a large tent set up near the lake for us to sleep in. Opening the flap I saw the floor nearly completely covered with sleeping bags and sleepers. The only open spot was angled right near the entry. I angrily threw my bag down in this spot and tried to sleep.

This tent turned out to be marginally warmer than outside since no one had bothered to add wood to the stove set up n the corner. As I slept off and on for a couple hours, others would get up and noisily pack up and talk. After the feeling wonderful the day before, I had now reached a low point. Angry, tired and hungry I got up to get on my way to the next checkpoint in hopes I could recover there. I was given a cold rice and bean burrito, which was awful to eat, that did make me feel slightly better for a time.

The hills continued over the next 26 miles on the trail to the Puntilla Lake checkpoint (approximately half way to McGrath). I gradually sank back to a low point. After making good progress along the rivers, my pace slowed down and I began to get impatient. This section ended up taking me 13 hours to go a marathon distance. By the time I reached the checkpoint, I was mentally broken and demoralized. Despite how much I wanted to be there, doing this thing, I wanted to quit. And I didn't want to just quit this race but any future race. Here I was again, making myself miserable to no purpose. All the negative thoughts were dominating me.

A brief aside to discuss these low periods. Several people had told me this race would give me a chance to "find myself". I've heard this for other ultras before but figured the distance and difficulty would really make it true. It probably was true. Ultras do strip away the protective veneer on our personalities and reveal deep down thoughts and emotions. Whenever I hear talk of "finding yourself" it is presented as a positive but what if you don't like what you find. I certainly didn't. Impatience, anger, and a lack of will to continue. Maybe the lesson is to learn how to handle those things we all feel but at times in these events these feelings appear to be overwhelming. The peril felt in that apparent lack of control can be jarring. I considered that, just maybe, doing this isn't necessarily good. Even after a couple weeks of separation from this I am still struggling to determine what the answer is.

I reached the halfway point at Puntilla Lake (aka Rainy Pass Lodge) feeling much the same way I did at Finger Lake. Desperate to quit, I told myself that I should eat and sleep before making the final call. After some warm food, I found a free bunk and slept off and on for what ended up being 12 hours.

In the morning I finally decided to get up and head to the main lodge for breakfast. I felt better but not quite good enough to want to continue on. The breakfast was amazing and even included homemade donuts. By the time I was done eating, I was ready to tackle the mountain pass that was the next big obstacle. I told myself that the lows were due to my inattention to calories and hydration and to focus more on those. The realization that this may be my one chance at this race also fully sank in by now. So I set off determined to have a good attitude.

After crossing Puntilla Lake, the trail made a steady ascent towards Rainy Pass, 18 miles away. The trail became a narrow strip marked by snowmobile, bike and foot tracks. Stepping slightly off the trail would result in sinking to knee or hip deep snow. The views were incredible as the mountains slowly surrounded me on all sides as I continued forward.

I climbed gradually most of the day reaching the pass in the late afternoon, early evening. Shortly before reaching it, I did hear a couple distant booms, which I assumed were avalanches, which, being from flat Michigan, I was terrified of. Immediately after passing the sign that marked the pass, the trail descended into a narrowing gorge that required the trail to repeatedly cross a stream that was still unfrozen.

Soon after beginning to make may way down to the checkpoint at Rohn, I caught up with a few other racers on foot. We more or less stayed together all the way into the station which was around 1 AM. This stop consisted of a single large tent. One side was stacked with pine branches and then covered with large cloth sacks. There was enough room for 8 people to lie side by side on this make shift bed. As four of us came in, the station had a first in, first out policy so the 4 that had been sleeping the longest were asked to get up to make room. It was difficult to watch them be awakened and told if they wanted to sleep, go outside. I took a narrow open spot, which was lumpy and slanted, with my head being a good 2 feet above my head.

I somehow slept, but it was in short segments and uncomfortable. I became very frustrated as I felt I needed good sleep prior to the next section which was listed as 75 miles. Giving up on sleep around 4 AM, I packed up and decided to go as far as I could into the next section while I had daylight.

The first few miles were some of the most peaceful I had on the trail. The sun was rising slowly as I moved between the mountains on both sides. Several areas were frozen over snow melt and very slippery. I tried walking carefully but after falling hard a couple times, I put on the $10 set of Walmart spikes over my shoes, solving the issue. By this time I was learning more than ever that taking a few moments to prevent a problem was the best approach. Far too often in these races I would just go forward, impatiently, and this simple revelation was a very good lesson.

Before long the trail entered a forest fire scarred area. There was no longer much cover from the sun which melted the reduced amount of snow on this side of mountains. The days were getting slightly warmer, so controlling sweating was important, as it had been from the start. The hills were starting to get relentless and to add to the difficulty in this section, long stretches of trail were clear of snow. Pulling a loaded sled across dirt and rocks is rather difficult, especially at 200 miles of a 300+ mile race. On a couple of the hills I picked the sled up and carried it on my head which seemed easier than pulling.

I could feel the negative, low swing coming and determined to stay positive. I was successful most of the day despite the difficulty and struggle through this section. There down moments but I was well into the second half and the finish was starting to appear attainable.

Early in the evening I found a nice spot under a few pines to bed down for a few hours. I hated to lose the daylight but needed the sleep. I woke up when the group I had been with at Rohn passed by. The sun was setting as I packed up and moved on. I only made it another 4 hours or so before I felt I needed to try sleeping again. Another couple cold hours and little sleep.

These stops were unremarkable at the time but at one of these or along the way, my stove, which I needed to melt snow for water, was lost. When I realized this, I was filled with panic. How would I get another 40 miles to Nikolai with no water. Luckily there was a shelter cabin set about a mile off the trail, which I initially planned on skipping but now I would have to stop there.

When I reached the cabin the next morning, the group that passed the night before was already there. The skies had also become cloudy and a light snow began to fall. The wood stove provided barely enough heat to melt enough snow to half fill my water bottle. That and an hour or so of sleep would be enough to get me to Nikolai.

This stretch to Nikolai was a straight trail, crossing numerous frozen lakes and rivers. At times it was difficult to see where the trail was due to the freshly fallen snow, especially out on lakes. The loose snow made footing tough at times but in the night the trail hardened up and became easier to move on. After 13 or 14 hours I approached Nikolai, which, unlike the other checkpoints, is a small community of dozens of people.

My feet were soaked from the wet snow. I was famished. I had a fitful night of sleep on the floor of the community center. Waking up I thought about the final 50 miles left. It seemed impossible the way I felt. Once again it was food that turned things around. I ate as much I could and set off one last time.

The day was the warmest yet, probably approaching 40 degrees F. The trail softened up again making the early going difficult. The end was in sight, however, and I was determined to just push through to the finish. I just tried to keep from sweating and to keep moving forward.

 Late in the night, the trail emerged out onto what looked like a road with snow piled up on each side. That's because this was a road, despite it leading to nowhere, with nothing. I would follow this road the rest of the way into McGrath. The sun rose as the town came into view. A couple miles out from the finish, I saw the first car I had seen for week. I strolled along, reflecting on all that had happened over the last week. It still did not seem real.

I have mentioned in other race reports about the anticlimactic nature of ultramarathon finishes. This one topped them all. I reached a driveway with a sign hanging  out front. After 300 plus miles, I took my own finishing picture because everyone else was inside the house sleeping or eating.
Finish Photo  credit: me

And yes, the finish was at a family's house. The generosity of someone opening their home, providing food, showers, laundry, etc. is incredible but very much in the spirit of the race. Whether at checkpoints or unofficial stops, everyone was helpful and friendly. It was refreshing. And just like that, my dream race was complete. I only had a chance to eat and shower before I was off to board the tiny plane back to Anchorage.

There was so much more that happened but every detail can't be recorded or this blog would be even more unreadable. There were moments of pure joy, stretches of time where everything was perfect. Most nights I could look over to my right and see the aurora borealis arcing just over the horizon, providing magical scenery along my journey. The brief and infrequent interactions with others along the trail provided inspiration. The ever changing views of the mountains and forests along the way will be forever in my memory.

There were also moments of desperation, where it seemed like every fiber of my being was screaming at me to find a way out of the situation I was in. I was ready to quit multiple times. I was ready to quit ultrarunning forever. At these times, it is difficult to see any purpose in travelling on foot across the Alaskan wilderness. I'm still not sure what the purpose is as I said earlier.

I'm reminded often by others that I have finished some hard races but I can't help thinking that, just maybe, they aren't as hard as most think when someone like me can finish them. My expectation of stoically pushing through and finishing strong never happens so why hold that as ideal? What I keep coming back to is that what I find in those dark times will be ugly and it will be very uncomfortable. The true goal may be in recognizing these faults and seeking ways to improve instead of dwelling on them. Still though, I'm struggling with that.

A few days after the race a friend asked me what epic adventure I had next. I was taken aback because I had no answer and realized I hadn't even thought about it. There are days when I think it may be time for a long break or to quit this all together. How do you follow up something you worked years to get to do? I still don't know. My desire and motivation has been sapped over the last couple years. I'll have to let time work that out.

There it is in a not so tidy package. Overall, it was an adventure that I will never forget. I was able to spend time there with a couple of my Hrimthur friends, Paul and Jeff. It was a great chance to catch up and get to know each other even better. I also met a number of new winter ultra folks, all of whom I am very fortunate to know.  I am also grateful to each and everyone who followed along. Knowing you're watching keeps me going. We'll see where we go from here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Requiem for the Rambler

My last trail time with the Rambler. Arrowhead 2018

The Arrowhead 135 is supposed to be difficult. This year was only my third attempt and it was the most difficult of all, for many reasons. I'll spoil the story by saying up front that I did not finish the full course. However, that matters little to me now.

Going into a winter ultra the words "polar vortex" will get your attention. Driving to International Falls, the temperatures reached that magic point where the 2 scales cross at -40. It is a magic number we use in the auto industry as an extreme lower limit of vehicle and component testing. This was the weather our little winter ultra family was going to spend a couple days in, wandering about the northern Minnesota wilderness. I was concerned but also looked forward to solving the puzzle that the elements can be.

It turned out that I didn't figure it out. From the first mile I started sweating. I opened up coats to try to cool off. I even stopped to remove a layer. I tried slowing down, especially on hills. No matter what I did I just kept getting wet, which just leads to issues.

Arriving at the first checkpoint later than I really wanted to was frustrating but I was still in good shape to finish. My feet were in excellent condition, so at least I seemed to figure out that mystery for the time being. I ate some food, took care of my feet and tried drying my wet clothes. All this took me far too long as I saw many other runners dealing with the same issues, some of those dropping from the race here. I got my gear together and set out into the night, knowing that getting to the halfway point would be the key to finishing. Once there, I felt I could power through to the finish like I had done on the previous attempts.

The night was noticeably colder but my sweating issue was not improving. Now the problem of staying awake was creeping in. There were brief periods of feeling I had found the optimal temperature, where I could move along at a good pace without large swings in body temperature. These were short and rare though and I as I finally reached the crossing at Sheep Ranch Road (used as a base for the snowmobile crew checking on our safety), the periods of being cold were becoming longer and colder. I thought about stopping here but told myself that I should get to the next checkpoint and sleep before deciding to quit. Often things turn around radically with even the shortest nap. So I put my head down and moved down the trail

Within a quarter mile I was regretting my decision. The thought of turning around and returning to the road to quit became relentless. With each step I was getting further away and more committed to getting to the next checkpoint. As I kept moving I started to pass runner coming back from the other direction. They had made the decision I still couldn't make and this was making it even more difficult. But I kept going.

Finally, after what must have been two hours of staggering from sleepiness, I heard the sound of a snowmobile approaching from behind me. I was getting cold and had begun scanning the sides of the trail for a place to bivy for a bit. When he pulled up next to me it was very easy to tell him that I was done. My desperation to finish had led me to accept a 14 mile snowmobile ride at -30 degrees. It was long and miserable. This will be remembered vividly the next time I want to quit a winter ultra.

Another DNF for me. This one didn't matter. I could have gone further. I may even have been able to finish somehow but I didn't. The decision was the right one as far as safety is concerned.

Now the part I never wanted to get to.

My first memory of Randy was at the pre-race meeting for my first attempt at Tuscobia in 2016. His appearance alone made me think this was an interesting person. It wasn't until the next year I began to get to know him over the weeks that 6 of us finished the Order of the Hrimthurs on foot. All of us formed a bond over those weeks. It is not often you get to share an experience like that with someone. We shared the suffering and the joy that comes from accomplishing something difficult. I am thankful that as the 6 of us all sat together in a tiny room after finishing, that I was mindful that it was a special moment. We had completed this difficult task together and were spending this brief time in the joyful afterglow.

During the last race of that series, at Actif Epica, my GPS unit failed early in the race, leaving me with no way to finish. Randy, who was near by just handed me his and stated he didn't know how to use it and we could just stick together. We stuck together for the better part of the race. Through the rural Manitoba night we talked about music, politics (Randy's favorite), races we had run, our families. The story he told me of his life had both of us in tears as we trudged alone through the dark.

Years earlier Randy had tragically lost a young child and then his wife. He could have been forgiven for becoming a bitter, angry person but he was the exact opposite. He was silly. He was funny. He brought joy to those around him. This made it all the more painful when we were told the news last October. Just a month after finishing the Tahoe 200 mile race, he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia that was basically incurable. 

The message that he was stopping treatment and going home reached me on my drive up to this year's Arrowhead. I ran the race with a very heavy heart though it led me to realize something I already knew was true. No one talking about Randy cared about if he had finished races or not. His finish times didn't matter. The joy he brought to others is what we remember. That is what any of us will be known for in the end.

At some time while many of us were struggling and quitting our race, Randy left us. He spent his last days surrounded by family and friends. In ancient Greece, Solon the Athenian told King Croesus to consider no man happy until his death. I hope that the outpouring of love for Randy gave him that happiness and showed him the positive impact he had on all of our lives.

Somewhere in that cold night near Winnipeg, Randy talked about a writing class he was taking. He told me how he had been assigned to write a short story but it couldn't be about yourself. Randy wanted to write about his story and asked what I thought he should do. I told him that is was his story, his art and to just write whatever he wanted. If he felt he needed to share it, then share it regardless of the assignment and we left it there. Since then I have wondered if he ever wrote that story and what it said. In the days since his passing I have realized he wrote a story for each of us that knew him. I'll always cherish the story he gave me. I loved the man. I miss my friend.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Great Regression

This may be a long post or it may be short. I don't know since I am coming into with nearly no planning or preparation whatsoever. Let's just wing it and see how it turns out. Probably not well given the way that method seems to be working in races.

My 4th Tuscobia and 3rd attempt at the 160 mile distance. Since my DNF at Yeti at the end of September, I have been trying to get back into a training mode but never did find the motivation or desire. I had some good training days but a vast majority of the time I struggled to get out the door and even then I wouldn't do much. My weekly mileage barely got over 40 miles at the peak, mostly hovering around 20 or 30. From experience I know that I should be getting 70 to 80 a week to be fairly confident in finishing a 100 miler or longer. Right now I'm not even close.

The days leading to this year's race were spent repeatedly checking the weather forecast for snow. As of just two or three days prior, there were still portions of the trail with no snow. If the race began with no snow, this would completely change the method of getting myself and my required gear from start to finish. Luckily there did end up being enough snow to cover the course, however, the conditions were much less than ideal.

The start was the warmest since my first attempt. I wore a base layer and a heavier weight running jacket. I still had to manage the heat to avoid sweating and getting very cold. The trail was still firming up so the first miles were not too bad if you could avoid the puddles covered with a thin layer of ice.

I reached the town or Birchwood (16-17 miles) between 4 and 5 hours in. I was already feeling a little tired and sleepy but not very much more than previous years. After all the worrying about lack of training and fitness, I thought that I might be ok. I made a quick stop at the local gas station for a bite to eat and then headed off for the first checkpoint at mile 45.

The frustration began slight before the checkpoint. It was taking longer than I thought it should, but it always seems that way so I should not be surprised. Still I let it bother me that I wasn't meeting my unrealistic time goal.

Upon reaching the checkpoint, which is a large stone cabin, heated by a large fireplace at one end. Like always, the inside was crowded and uncomfortable, even if it was more comfortable than outside. I spent an hour eating, organizing gear and trying to dry my feet, which had started getting hot spots way too early. Much of this race is about managing the damage your feet take.

I left around the same time as previous attempts, so I was still in good shape. It was well into the night now and the struggle with sleep ramped up quickly. Over the next 10 hours I wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep, even for a few minutes. Through a very long stretch of ungroomed trail, the balls of my feet became giant blisters. It became increasingly difficult to eat or drink as I felt I was forcing down anything I tried to take in. The food that had worked in the past was unappetizing now. As the miles went by, I was falling further into the hole.

The final 8 miles seemed to take an eternity, as I know from experience, it always does. Despite my attempts to remain positive, I had given in to negative thinking and decided that there was nothing to be gained from pushing through another 80 miles and getting the finish. Logically it is probably still the right decision with Arrowhead and ITI coming up shortly. Still, it bothers me that I gave up and didn't finish. It has bothered me more than I thought it would. In the past, I could get through these negative episodes but lately I am struggling to find any reasons to push through. The question of why we put ourselves through this type of discomfort for no real reason is constantly running through my head. The answer used to be that it will make me a better person, but lately it feels like it only makes me miserable just for the sake of being miserable.

So again, I failed my main goal for this race. However, the larger goal is Iditarod and I have learned a few things that should be very helpful there. Improved foot care and eliminating gear that is not critical (and therefore, sled weight) are the two major areas that can be improved. Arrowhead in a few weeks will be another chance to work on these and more.

Despite my disappointment and frustration, I still have my major goals in front of me. I can still continue to work my way through this and ,eventually, I believe the desire and results will return. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Unicorns, Rainbows & Failure

The buckle that got away
credit: Yeti Trail Runners

I attempted the Yeti 100 mile run this past weekend. I say attempted because I failed to finish. Yes, I have failed once again and its all ok.

The Yeti 100 has become very popular the last couple of years and I was very lucky to get in. It required me to sit by the computer and begin registering the very moment it opened. After meeting race director Jason Green last year, I was committed to running this race. He is one of the very best at what he does.

The race runs on a rail to trail course in southwest Virginia, which is a beautiful place I likely never would have seen without this silly hobby of mine. The Virginia Creeper Trail runs a bit over 33 miles from Abingdon to Whitetop. It is very flat but also much more scenic than I expected. Most of the course follows a river closely, which you cross over many times. In fact there are 46 trestles to pass over with each transit of the trail.

In order to get the full 100 miles, we began at Whitetop, the high point of the route. From there the race runs to Abingdon, back to Whitetop and then return to Abingdon to finish. A total of around 3000 feet of climbing and zero technical trail makes this easier than most 100 milers, at least on paper. All this being said, a 100 miles is never easy.

The night prior to the race there was a downpour. I heard someone say the next day that it was 4 inches of rain. Luckily this did not muddy up the trail though there were some shallow wet areas early on. All this rain did cause the river to swell up into rapids the entire race. There was a constant roar with us the entire day.

Since we began at Whitetop, we had a good 16 miles of slight decent all the way to Damascus, Virginia, which is approximately the halfway point of the trail. I tried to keep from running too fast, too early but I probably did anyway. Well before getting to Damascus the first time I was not feeling well. Even though the temperatures were good for running, the humidity was causing me to sweat much more than I would otherwise. I did recognize this and tried to make sure I was getting enough water. I'm not sure whether I did drink enough or came into the race slightly dehydrated, but I felt nauseous and tired way too soon. None of the food at aid stations looked good. I focused on salty foods to try to fix the hydration issue.

Despite moving at a good pace, the negative thoughts were becoming relentless. I have been working on recognizing these thoughts and replace them as soon as I can because they will kill a race quickly. When I reached Abingdon, they had overpowered me. Less than 8 hours in, I had had enough. I wanted to quit.

I sat down in Abingdon filled with self loathing and embarrassment. Wasn't I just wasting my time doing this meaningless, ridiculous thing? This is all ground I think I have covered in previous posts. The feeling of being a fraud and not belonging there overwhelmed me. I was regressing and had no answers. Frustration and disappointment continue to grow.

With the little pride I had left, I got up and headed back out towards Whitetop, my head down because I couldn't look anyone in the eye knowing that I was failing yet again. Experience told me here was still some hope that things would turn around and I would feel better. So I pushed on despite having that voice screaming at me to stop.

At some point between Abingdon and Damascus, Scott caught up with me and we spent the rest of our day together. When we stopped in Damascus, at the halfway point of the race, I had already decided I was done. Scott got me out of the chair and back out on the course. We slogged on as the sun set. The remaining hope was that cooler temperatures would make me feel better. Since you know the end, you know it didn't.

Scott and I talked off and on, which did take my mind off some of the negativity. This did help. The trail math said we had plenty of time to get the finish but we were slowing down with each mile. We turned around again at Whitetop. From there it was only 33 miles to the finish and we had 11 hours to do it. 3 mph with 16 of those miles being downhill and the rest flat. No problem.

We made it 10 more miles before Scott's feet were too blistered for him to keep a pace that would get us to the finish. It was all I needed to say I was done too. In truth I was done 44 miles earlier. We sat at the aid station, sleeping and shivering, waiting for a ride to the finish. Our day was done and I was fine with it.

Since Bigfoot, my motivation has never been lower. I talked about the physical effects in that post and they lingered all the way up to Yeti and even today. I'm sure some time off and proper training can get me back to where I want to be. I need a reset.

Mentally, I don't know what to do. When people ask about running ultras, I typically say that being physically fit is important but you can get through nearly anything by being mentally strong. It's 90% mental. Right now I am far from mentally strong which is something that, and I may be wrong, is not part of the ultrarunning ethos.

I feel that in admitting this I will heap scorn upon myself from certain other runners. Often in our community you hear a phrase like "Death before DNF". If you're not giving 110% every minute, every day then you are a mediocre loser. Well, that's me then. I'm proud of what I have accomplished and I shouldn't worry about what others may think but I do. Could I have done more and had better results. Yes and that is what still drives me. But is pushing against a wall while destroying myself mentally helping? Not right now. Sure, I could make myself run 20 miles a day, as fast as I can, but is that going to make me any better?

Since my massive failure in the Grand Slam last year I have been frustrated, easily annoyed by trivial things, and emotionally fragile. Depressed. That does not work well at mile 40 of a 100 mile race when you know you need to "suffer" another 12 to 20 hours. I need a reset to work on that. A step back to, hopefully, take two forward.

I suppose I clung to the idea that ultrarunning would fix my problems too long. Don't get me wrong. It helps. It can build confidence, encourage healthier living and give a feeling of belonging to a community. That only goes so far, at least for me. The pressure, likely imagined, to keep up and always be the hardest, toughest, least mediocre person out there wears me down. I need to find a way to eliminate it. How I do that is still a mystery.

Part of this blogging project was to be more open, both to sharing my thoughts and having new experiences. I have noticed that has allowed me to come to know and spend time with interesting people. Hopefully that continues.

I have Iditarod 350 coming up in February which will require me to be fully prepared in all aspects. My focus over the coming months will have to be on that to be successful and safe. I am entered in Tuscobia 160 and Arrowhead as preparation races, which I still need to take very seriously because they are serious races. This will probably be the last post until then unless something notable comes up. Until then, I will be seeking a way out of this rut and be the best person that I can be.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Samsquantch or Long Dark Blues

Real truth about it is
No one gets it right.
Real truth about it is
We're all supposed to try
There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
If I got the map or if I'm lost.

-Songs:Ohia, "Farewell Transmission"  (aka "Long Dark Blues")

Mile 0
Photo credit: Scott Rokis

18 months ago I did something I thought was impossible when I finished Arrowhead the first time. It was not too long before that when I began hearing about 200 mile races. A couple popped up and then a couple more. I figured I would try one eventually when the time was right. Then running friends started doing them. The consensus seemed to be that the Bigfoot 200 in Washington state was the most beautiful and difficult. After some disappointment last year I thought I would reduce the schedule and the extra time would allow me to finally fit in a big race like this one.

A 200 mile race?

They sounded tough but not a race that couldn't be completed. The time limits seemed generous. I could run a 100 so a 200 would just mean slowing down even more and getting a nap or two in. Simple.

The Bigfoot 200 begins at the southern foot of Mount St. Helens. The course runs around the mountain, across the 1980 eruption blast zone and then meanders north towards the tiny town of Randle. 205 miles of mountain trails with over 42k feet of climbing and nearly 44k feet of descending. This was not going to be easy.

The doubt begins when I actually see the mountains in the distance. This doubt ramps up exponentially as I get nearer and look up to only see trees and trail ahead of me. As I drove to race HQ I tried to get a sense of what I would be facing. Some day I will learn this never works.

This is the portion where I run through the highlights of the race. I have a problem though. The race took place over parts of 5 days and 4 nights. It is impossible, no matter how I try, to recall notable events and when they happened. It all really does run together.

The night before the race I was calmer than prior to most races. That didn't mean I was relaxed or feeling ready to go. I finally got around to sorting out my drop bags and gear. Lately, this is a task I just put off even though it takes relatively little time. I suppose procrastinating on this makes the race seem further away when I 'm not ready. It did feel good to have it done, though I constantly worry that I am forgetting some critical item.
Pre-race organizing

We met the bus to the start at 5:30 AM on Friday. A two and half hour school bus ride is rather uncomfortable just prior to starting an ultra but part of the deal.  We arrived at the start about 45 minutes before the start so I had plenty of time to let the nerves settle in. I was not feeling my best. I awoke with a slightly upset stomach but was able to get a banana, muffin and some coffee down.


We're off!!
We left Marble Mountain Sno-Park and immediately started climbing the volcano. This was a long slow climb of over 3000 feet in the first 6 or 7 miles. At this point, we entered a boulder field which was a mile or 2 of scrambling over large stones. This all forced a slower pace which was good because this whole section was exposed and the day was getting warm. It was still the morning of the first day and I was sweating at an alarming rate.

The person on the far right gives some perspective of the boulder field. 

By the time I reached the first station, around 12 miles, I had just finished the 2+ liters of water I was carrying. Already at this first stop, nothing at the food table looked good but I got a few things down, grabbed a couple gels and moved on. I also emptied the volcanic sand from my shoes for probably the 20th time. I now understood why they were selling gaiters at the pre-race meeting.

The next section ran up the west side of the mountain and then across the 1980 blast zone on the north side. The afternoon was here and there was no protection from the sun since the trees have not returned to this area yet. While there was a good amount of elevation change, it was spread out. The footing was great as at times there was no real trail to follow.

Navigating around a volcano
photo credit: Hames Ellerbe

The going was slow but consistent until 10 or so miles in when my water was nearly empty. I tried rationing it, hoping to find a stream to refill. The landscape was stark and dry with no sign of water. My stomach began to turn as my need for calories increased. I tried getting an energy bar down but had to chew endlessly to work up enough saliva to swallow it. I was beginning to feel awful and not even to the first sundown. After what felt very long, we came across a tiny stream of water running down the mountain. The problem was that the water was milky gray from the volcanic ash. Luckily, I read the runner manual that recommended a water filter. I took a few good gulps of filtered water and moved on. This held me over until reaching what the race director called an "oasis" about a mile further down the trail. A ribbon of green brush wound down the mountain, indicating a stream of clean snow runoff. I refilled my water bottles, relieved I could try to recover from several hours of poor hydration.

photo credit: Howie Stern

It was shortly before the sun set that I finally reached the second aid station. I was as relieved as reaching this station as I have been finishing some races. I was hot, thirsty, hungry and getting tired. This was mile 28 and I already felt spent. How could I possibly get through multiple nights and another 170 something miles? I sat dejected and frustrated in the chair trying to find some food I could get down. Looking around, the other runners seemed to be feeling the same way I did.

Thankfully the next section was only around 9 miles and not too much climbing. Basically, we were headed back across the blast zone but on a more northern route. I got myself up and set off, hoping to cover as much ground as possible before losing the sunlight. The temperatures began to drop as soon as the sun moved behind the mountains. I stopped several times to just look back at Mount St. Helens in the waning light and enjoy the moment.

Coldwater Lake was up next and the first stop that was designated a sleep station. My plan was stopping to get  a quick nap either here or the next station. The next was 19 miles away so the choice was almost made for me. The last two sections were relatively easy but I was still struggling with getting food and water in. I was offered a cheeseburger, got that down and headed to a sleep tent.

The volunteers tracked who was sleeping where and when they wanted to be up. It turned out to be a very good system. I told them to wake me in 45 minutes. The sleep stations were just large tents with sleeping pads on the ground and a mess of blankets. Lying down I didn't feel like I would sleep but next thing I knew I was getting tapped on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to get up. "No but I will". I picked myself up, wrapped a blanket around myself, and sat to get a few more calories in.

Leaving this station I had no idea what I was in for. It was a long, hard stretch of 18 miles with over 5k feet of climbing and another 4k feet descending. I left Coldwater around 4:30 AM, rolling along easily along the northern edge of the lake before meandering up and through the mountains, reaching the high point of the race a Mount Margaret near 6k feet. Never mind that it took me 6 hours to get to that point from Coldwater. That time was filled with doubt and disbelief. After having made it through the heat and dehydration of the day before and going through most of the night, I felt there was no way I could make it through another night let alone 3 more based on my pace.

After returning from the short out and back to climb Mt. Margaret I met a lady with a heavily taped knee limping along. I told her the out and back was not as far as it looked, to which she responded that her knee was very painful on descents and she was dropping at the next aid so she would skip that section. I said she should just do it, get to the aid and, since there was plenty of time, wait and see if things got better. She turned around and made the climb.

From here to the final day is all very hazy in my mind and jumbles together. This stretch was long and difficult. I began trying to slow down even more on climbs to keep my heart rate from spiking and then sweating too much. The pace felt so unbelievably slow. Looking to find the top of a climb I would become discouraged. So I put my head down and just kept moving and the top would eventually come. In between these mental climbing struggles, I was contemplating just straight up retiring from ultrarunning. The repeated refrain of "you're not even good at this, you not having fun and you're not fooling anyone" just repeated over and over. "Just stop. You can't possibly go another 75 hours. This is stupid."

Relying on my previous race experience helped me through this section. Shifting my focus to my breath during a climb or just when my thoughts were becoming too negative, which was very often at this point. Thinking about the full distance was overwhelming so I tried just concentrating on getting to the next station. Despite all these methods that had worked many times before, I was convinced that there was no possibility of finishing. All the reasons for quitting just kept getting longer as I tried to find the one I could give later that would be accepted by my fellow runners.

I've known my friend Chris for something around 35 years. A cool part of doing this race was a chance to visit with him. He seemed to think this whole thing was interesting and decided to be at the start and visit any aid stations he could. The upcoming Norway Pass was the first chance he would have since the start.  He's always been a person I've admired and the thought of quitting while he was here supporting me was unpalatable.

Finally arriving at Norway Pass aid, I saw the familiar face like I'd hoped. Sitting down, I began relating what had gone on since I had seen him at the start, probably ranting like a crazy person. I relaxed and opened one of the beers I had stashed in my drop bag. Burger, beer, new socks, and replacement shoes for the second pair in two races that blew out. Half an hour or so of collecting myself and I felt back to normal again. I left feeling good for the first time in the race.

Taking care of those feet
The hardest part: Leaving an aid station

The next section were fairly uneventful. We started moving into more wooded areas which protected from the sun for the most part. I tried sleeping at the next station as I was so sleepy when I rolled in, however, I was lying on a cot outside and every time the wind picked up, it would blow under the cot making too cold to sleep, yet I didn't want to get up. After 45 minutes or so, I got up in frustration and left to face the night with not enough sleep.

I struggled with some sleepiness going into that second night. This section was fairly hard from my unreliable recollection. 14 miles and what seemed like one climb after another. Some hallucinations were beginning and I was occasionally looking around me looking for mountain lions or bears. Moving slowly and consistently I worked to just reach the next station where I could sleep. When I reached it, I followed the now established pattern: burger, sleep, breakfast burrito, refill food and water, off again.

As the sun rose again, the course descended to the Lewis River which we followed for several miles. This are was flat and populated with campgrounds and tourists viewing waterfalls or walking their dogs, giving us strange looks. This was a welcome relief from all the hills of the previous 2 days. Also, this section was significant since it bracketed the half way mark of the race. My mind could still not comprehend how it would be possible to go another 100 miles but, again, I would breathe and focus on the getting to the next aid station.

I have little recollection of the Lewis River aid station and I believe I only stayed long enough to eat, again wanting to cover as much of the next section in the daylight as I could. I was beginning to feel awful again. My stomach had recovered and was now demanding all those calories I had missed earlier in the race but I had to cover 19 miles and climb well over 5k feet to get to that food.

When I arrived at the Council Bluff station, I was hungry, tired and growing irritable. It had been around 9 hours since the last stop. I sat down and immediately one of the volunteers was saying there was no sleeping here and we needed to move on. Someone brought me a bowl of chili, which I began to eat and realized it was vegetarian chili. There were not many other options that looked any good to me. It was tasty but not what I wanted. I became more irritable. Noticing this I decided I needed to move on. The station was one of the more remote so they were limited on supplies that could be brought in, hence the lack of sleep tents and plentiful food options. It was the middle of the night, I wanted to sleep but I needed to cover 9 miles to get to the next sleep tents.

I left a bit disgruntled but settled right back into being miserable on the trail, slowly moving forward and checking off those aid stations. The is stretch to Chain of Lakes aid was only 9 miles and a couple thousand feet of climbing and descending. I was fighting sleep desperately the entire way. I did arrive into the station in just over 3 hours which meant I was moving fairly well. Rolling in I grabbed another burger and then headed to the sleep tent. This tent was deluxe compared to the others. It had cots and was heated. Pure luxury. My plan now was to get a good 2 hours of sleep and hope that could carry me most of the way to the finish.

This time for some reason I decided to just set an alarm on my phone instead of getting a volunteer to wake me. I slept a little fitfully but when indications of sunlight started to hit my eyes, I picked up my phone to check how much longer I had to sleep. I had zero time. It was 6:45 and I had set my alarm for 5:45. So naturally I went into full on panic mode. I had overslept and possibly ruined my whole race.

Grabbing some quick food, I bolted out of there a complete emotional mess. How could I be so stupid? Had I gone through all of this so far just to oversleep and not fail? It took a couple miles before I calmed down and realized I only left slightly over half an hour later than I planned, I couldn't make it all up by pushing to hard, and I actually still had more than enough time. I still had the longest and, reportedly, the toughest section coming up so I was concerned with getting through that. I relaxed and settled back into the routine. Step, step, breathe, breathe.

The next 18 miles followed along the top of ridge most of the way. The sun rose and the day became warm. For the first time in the race, I started to be bothered by insects any time I stopped. I felt better from the extra sleep but the heat was beginning to wear me down again. Fantasies of finding the perfect pine tree to lay under in the cool shade swirled around in my head. I tried a couple times to lie down and get just a few minutes of sleep, but within seconds the flies would land on me, not allowing any peace, so I would reluctantly move on. Just prior to the aid station was a required out and back to the top of Elk Peak. The climb up it was very intimidating at first but I was so focused on getting to the station I didn't hesitate going up. The round trip turned out to not be as bad as I thought and I rolled into Klickitat nearly 2 hours sooner than I expected.

I don't recall at what point I began thinking about grilled cheese but it was at least 2 or 3 hours. I was so happy to reach Klickitat. For some reason, I had in my mind from the beginning that if I made it to this point, there would be no doubt of a finish. So jogging in I felt some relief from the panic earlier in the day. I sat down and when the friendly volunteer asked what I wanted, I told her exactly what I had been turning over in my head for so many miles. I wanted 2 grilled cheese and some mayo to dip it in. Horrific I know but those two grilled cheese sandwiches may have been the best of my life. I followed this with a couple breakfast burritos. Needless to say, when I left, my stomach was overly full and it took a solid half an hour before began to feel normal again.

My feet until this point had been in decent shape, which was remarkable considering the mileage and terrain, but things were falling apart. The balls of my feet were beginning to get that familiar sting of blisters forming. I knew that at this point in the race I would be fine with however bad they got I wasn't stopping for a stupid blister. It hurts for a little bit then just blends in with everything else.

I had heard from several other runners that this next stretch was one of the hardest of the race. It turned out to not be too bad. It was around 17 miles and 5k of climbing. The climbs were spread out and by this point int he race I was just putting my head down and grinding forward without even thinking about the discomfort. It was a very long stretch, however, to get through mentally. It was overgrown by cover that made it difficult to see what you were stepping on or over. There were dozens of downed trees to climb over and around. It just seemed to go on forever.

This was the last night to get through. I never reached a winter ultra level of hallucinations, probably due to the minimal sleep I was able to get. I did have the best ones on this section. The super tall fir trees began to look like ancient Greek gods. A little more than an hour from aid station I saw what thought was a giant Zeus, 100 feet up in a tree, opening his mouth to reveal Athena. I chuckled and kept hiking forward.

I made it into the Twin Sisters, the penultimate station around 1 AM. I ate, took a 45 minute or so nap, and had the balls of my feet taped, in an effort to keep the blisters from getting worse. Overall, I took close to two hours here. My finishing time didn't matter. I had plenty of time to make the cutoff. All I had to do now was keep moving, clicking off a mile here and a mile there.

From Twin Sisters to Owens Creek was a combination of heaven and hell. Many more downed trees and the overgrowth was still bad for several miles. There was a short out and back to climb Pompey Peak. This was a tough little climb but I knew it was the last one of the race. The trail after this widened and gently sloped downward. Another runner passed me while running and I decided to try it out and realized that it felt amazing to actually run, instead of "power hiking".

The final aid station of an ultra is always upbeat and fun. Everyone at this point knows the finish is just a formality. This one felt like a party. After the tequila shot a quarter mile before, I was feeling nothing but joy. I ate an insanely delicious plate of eggs, bacon, potatoes, avocado and cheese. I washed it done with another Rainer beer. Out I went, next stop, a 200 mile finish.

I strolled out onto a beautiful wooded forest road for several miles, thinking the entire time that I could not believe I was really going to do this. The forest road turned onto the paved road that would lead into the finish. I continued to alternate between walking and running. The day was growing warmer but not as bad as previous days. I moved along, trying to understand what all this meant to me.

I passed through Randle quickly and turned toward the high school where I would finish on the track around the football field. That final road seemed much longer than it should of been, allowing the emotions to rise up to the surface.

I stepped onto the track. Making the circuit around it, I thought of how I had failed so miserably to have a similar at Western States last year. I thought about DNFs at Leadville and Wasatch. My failure to get a Boston qualifying time back in April. My terrible showing at Ronda del Cims that made me doubt I should even try to do these things any more. This made up for all of it. I needed this finish. I needed to prove to myself that I could still do this. Often, failing makes the success that much more satisfying.

Disbelief and relief
Photo Credit: Howie Stern
Mile 206
Photo credit: Howie Stern

This was easily the most remote and isolated race I have done so far. There were none of the usual signs of humans. There were no random pieces of food wrappers or a broken piece of camping equipment. This land was free of that. It was remote, alone and so very dark at night. Many of the trails were overgrown, indicating how rarely they are used, meaning we were seeing places that few people see. These are the places and sights that draw me to do these ridiculous races. There were dozens of moments where I would stop to take in the scenery and becoming very emotional, whether it be from the raw beauty, fatigue or a combination of the two.

The organization of this race was excellent. The aid stations were everything you could want. Plenty of food and attention from volunteers, many of whom, obviously, are ultrarunners and know what is needed. I never got lost so the course marking was well done as well (I could not imagine getting 206 mile course marked). I'd recommend this race to anyone looking for a beautiful challenge.

I not only had the opportunity to discover and explore an amazing part of the world but I, once again, met a whole new group of fun and inspiring ultrarunners. Over the 4 days out there, I was able to come into contact with so many new faces. I was repeatedly inspired, encouraged and entertained.

I want to give thanks to all those who have and continue to provide encouragement. It really does help. I would hope that I can and do give that back to everyone as well. The thought that I would be letting people down by quitting does help get through some of those difficult times. I'm forever thankful for this.


What have I done???
It's ok. I have a burger and a beer. 

It has been nearly 3 weeks since I finished and I am tired. It is a deep down tired. I have run a few times since then and a vast majority of these runs were just plain bad. Sleep has been getting better but it has taken time since my schedule was so disrupted. I wake up, not feeling sleepy, but as if any physical activity would be too much. I have taken days off. I have tried to go easy on my runs. I feel like I did last year after finishing the Hrimthurs.

There is not much in the tank and it feels miserable. When I run, there is little joy in it and I just want to quit. When I don't run, I feel like I am losing fitness and wasting an opportunity to improve. Just pushing through it did not seem to work last year. I should probably just take another week off but that would drive me, and, most likely, my wife crazy. I know this will eventually pass like all things do, good or bad.

Next on the schedule is the Yeti 100 with the original goal of running under 24 hours and getting a sweet buckle. However, at this point I would be happy just finishing and hanging out with some really cool and inspiring people. It's just running after all.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Not A Mountain Runner

I never expected to fall in love but it happened nonetheless. I've mentioned in previous posts about discovering new places and things thanks to running. Andorra was a place I likely would not have visited without the prospect of running a difficult 100 miles race. The race may not have gone as expected but the overall experience has had a great impact on me.

Ultrarunning teaches many lessons. This race gave me a well needed dose of humility. Since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs last year I feel like I have been coasting along and not making much progress. Training has become stale, which was a main reason I decided to run a road marathon in an effort to change things up. This helped somewhat but I did not give this race the respect it deserved. The lack of proper training was evident from the start.

I arrived in Barcelona a couple days early, which gave me a chance to do some sightseeing. It had been 20 years since I had been in Europe. I still had the same feeling getting off the plane. The weather was hot and sunny. I wandered around the city looking for museums and historical churches.

The main attraction was the Sagrada Familia, which is the still unfinished basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi. The exterior was chaotic and rough looking but the sculptures were very interesting. Stepping inside the design flipped to be very smooth and sleek. The stained glass windows were stunning, red dominated on one side and transitioning to softer blue tones on the opposite.

The next day was spent wandering the Gothic quarter and going through a Picasso and then a Joan Miro gallery museum. Barcelona gave the impression of being an art and culture oriented city and taking pride in that. Both museums very interesting. I was particularly fascinated by some of Picasso's work from when he was still a teenager, which you would think was the work of a much older, conventional professional artist.

Medieval alleys
Race HQ in Ordino, Andorra
The drive to Andorra was only 3 hours and not much over 100 miles away. It was my first time driving a manual in quite a while but it felt good, like I was driving for real again. Arriving in Andorra, the mountain roads and roundabouts made it interesting and slow going but the scenery was becoming more and more beautiful. The roads wound through the mountains, coming to village after village tucked into each valley. It was all like a setting from fairy tales. The buildings were all made from local mountain stones. Narrow alleys wound behind the buildings, hiding little creeks and small green spaces. Very idyllic. Small fields of grapes or vegetables were made wherever there was available space between buildings. Remove the automobiles and you'd swear it was a medieval town.

While stepping out of my hotel to check in and pick up my bib, I met two runners from China and gave them a ride into town. We talked about the race and how difficult it would be. I offered them a ride to the start line the next morning, which thrilled them since they could avoid the mile plus walk into town before the race. Once again, through running I have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and share in great experiences.

International relations are easy

After seeing the landscape surrounding the town, I was getting more and more nervous about the race. 105 miles with over 40k feet of climbing and another 40k descending. If those numbers mean nothing to you then I will tell you that a profile like this is very, very difficult. That is close to an Everest and a half from sea level and then right back down again. I still couldn't get my head around it as I laid down to sleep the night before the race.

The nerves were biting me a bit and I had some trouble sleeping. The lady outside my window, arguing with who I assumed was a boyfriend of husband, in Catalan at 2 AM didn't help my sleep situation. I still woke up a before my alarm went off and started preparing to race.

The start line for my first European race was a strange experience. On the way into the chute, volunteers were checking for a random item on our list of mandatory gear. A team of drummers was making music while effigies of some sort of royalty were carried around. Fireworks and lots of noise were too much this early in the morning. Finally all the festivities were done and the race was under way.

We briefly ran down some pave roads circling out of town and then quickly transitioned to single track trail going up and up and up. From this point forward there was not a single flat area on which to run. The climb never seemed to end. We would climb and turn into another climb. There may be a brief descent but that would not last. Occasionally the trees would clear and I could look down on the town where we started. We climbed steadily through the woods for a couple hours before emerging to an open valley with views of mountains and ridges in front of us. More climbs to come.

It was at about this point that I met a runner from Romania. He said we should team up as that would make the time go by quicker, which it certainly did.  We continued to make this first big climb together, talking about our experiences. We would continue this for the rest of the day, which helped get through some difficult sections.

The first climb finally ended. A couple more miles crossing the ridge and descending through a valley led to the first aid station. This was approximately the 20k mark (12 miles) and it had taken me nearly 6 hours to arrive. This pace would mathematically get me to the finish but I would never be moving like this at mile 95. I wasn't worried as I had been told by multiple people that the most difficult climbs were in the first half of the race. Still, I was already feeling much more fatigued than I knew I should be.

This was also my introduction to the European ultra aid station. I was concerned about what food and drinks would be available. North American stations are full of fruit, candy and PB&J sandwiches. Coke, Gatorade, ginger ale are all standard. I looked down at this table and saw chunks of cheese and hard salami. Nuts and olives with fizzy water to drink. I tried to eat what sounded best but ended up leaving the station unsatisfied.

My shoe with only 100 miles blew out very early

The next station was about 12 to 14 km away at a ski resort. Based on the pace so far, it would be a long haul. A long climb followed by several small descents and then more climbing. I was now fully aware that I lacked and training or natural ability to move efficiently through the mountains. By the time we reached the next station, I was resigned to the fact that I would not make the cutoffs coming later. I just couldn't move fast enough.

Looking back down at Arcalis station with some regret
The volunteers at the station let us know that we were now the last runners to come through as everyone behind had dropped. I laughed. Of course I was last While sitting there refueling I had been thinking about when would be the best time to pull the plug. My Romanian companion came up and asked if I was going to keep going and that he would do whatever I decided to do. I just said," Might as go to the next station" and off we went, climbing the ski slopes while wondering if I had made a good decision. Clouds were low and ominously rolling in over the peaks and obscuring the path ahead.

I fought the urge to turn back only a couple hundred yards away from the station. I kept hoping my Romanian companion would say, "let's just stop here." The next section was reportedly 10 km yet took us 5 hours. There were two peaks to climb and a long steep descent into the station. This was the most scenic section I had seen so far but also the most technical. We wound over passes and around mountains and lakes. There was a narrow rocky descent followed by a slide down a small snow field.

Evening in the Pyrenees
The sun hung on the edge of setting for what felt like hours. I only had to use my headlamp for the last hour or so of the trek. The sounds of the cowbells echoed between the mountains. We descended a long final valley before approaching the foot of the highest peak in Andorra. This would be the end of my attempt.

After some confused cross language conversation I was sent on what must have been a 2 mile walk, down into the nearest little town to meet the van and ride back. This was the first time I really felt negative all day. That may sound strange since I had failed so miserably, I mean, I only made a quarter of the distance, barely. All day I had enjoyed the scenery and experience so much, I didn't care about the time or not being able to finish. The race was secondary, only an excuse to be here and take all this in.

Ubiquitous Spanish beer
Here I was back at the start/finish after only managing a quarter of the distance and no place to go since I didn't book a hotel for the days of the race. Since I would get into one until the next afternoon I walked back to my car, leaned the seat all the way back and tried to sleep. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep before the sun was up and made it too hot to sleep in the car. I tried to clean up as well as I could with no shower access and then hung around the cafes near the race HQ.

The day was spent eating, laying around watching the World Cup and wondering how those that remained in the race were doing. Early in the afternoon a rather nasty thunderstorm moved through. I later learned that the storm had caused the organizers to stop runners at checkpoints and eventually cancelling the race for those who had not reached a certain distance due to lightening and large hail. This would have meant that even if I had kept going and miraculously made the cutoff, I would have had my race end anyway.

Some consolation was gained when talking to a few runners with serious resumes and they stated that this race was one of the most difficult around. I certainly didn't help myself with my training. The one true regret I have is that I didn't get to see the rest of the course. The portion I did see was beautiful and distracted me from any of the usual ultramarathon suffering. Then again, I didn't last long enough to reach a typical suffering point.

It was an extremely memorable trip. I finally got to see Barcelona. I met a whole new group of runners from all over the world. I learned about more races. I visited and explored in a place I never would have gone otherwise. Andorra was beautiful and I am looking forward to coming back to finish this race one day.

Even my trip home was memorable. After 10 days, I was looking forward to being home. I had to get up around 1 AM to make the drive back to Barcelona for my flight. Dinner at my hotel didn't start until 7:30 so that did not leave much time for sleep, which I only ended up getting an hour or two. Driving through the mountains and roundabouts in the dark at 2AM with little sleep was a bit stressful. I couldn't wait to get to the freeway. When I was almost out of Andorra, I saw a person up the road swinging what looked like a flashlight. I assumed it was a stranded driver until I saw the lights on top of the car. They signaled for me to stop. Rolling down the window, I said hello. "You speak English?" the policeman asked me.
"This is alcohol screening" and then they proceeded to hand me a package with a mouthpiece in it, and directed me to plug it into the device he had.
It was now I though about the one beer I had at dinner 6 hours ago. What was the law here? Was any trace at all too much? I kept my eyes on the digital screen as I blew into the mouthpiece. 0.00 and I was on my way. I had avoided Andorran prison, at least for now. I eventually made it home after 30 hours of car driving, plane flying and train riding. Much longer than I lasted on the course

I've struggled to run much in the time since, almost as much a I have struggle to write this recap. The decline since finishing the Order of Hrimthurs has not appeared to swing back yet. I was happy with the marathon training but overall I'm finding it harder and harder to put in the work needed to perform at my best at these events. Maybe I'm not really cut out for this. Maybe I'm not being honest with myself over why I attempt these races.

The thought of giving up on this has crossed my mind very fleetingly but even that is jarring. There is so much I feel like I want to try to do but is it worth the physical and mental toll? I don't know. Maybe a short break is needed to reset. However, the idea of training to build endurance back again from zero is not pleasant.

I am still very excited about Iditarod and will be working towards that for the remainder of the year. First though I have the Bigfoot 200 this coming weekend. Perhaps it will be the catalyst I need to get restarted and invigorated. Either way I will try to enjoy it, work hard and make it a positive experience.

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