Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pikes Peak Marathon 2012

It was at my first Pikes Peak Marathon five years ago that I knew mountain trail ultrarunning was what I wanted to do.  Pikes being only a marathon isn't really an ultra, but anyone that has done it will say that it ain't really just a marathon either.  With spectacular scenery, awesome people and volunteers, and a rich history, Pikes will always be a special race to me.  The only problem has been that I have never really put together a good race there ... until now.

It was great to once again share Pikes Peak weekend with my big sister Regina (aka Gigi, aka Whisper).  A Pikes veteran herself, she also had some lofty goals for this year.  She has been as hungry for Pikes success as me since having a great race going at the 2008 Ascent, only to be one of the first runners turned back at A-Frame due to the storm that year.

The Incline on PPM eve?  My sister is as crazy as I am!

My approach to this year's race was very relaxed.  No great expectations, just another good long day in the mountains as I gear up for another 100-miler this fall.  Okay, cut the crap, I wanted to finally nail this thing.

Just 5 weeks post-Hardrock, and with 200 miles and 50,000 feet of climbing over the last 3 weeks, I was at least coming into this fit, if not well-rested.  So on Sunday morning, I strapped on my hydration pack with all my gear that I wouldn't even need on this day, and told myself to go have a fun day on the mountain.  I had no concerns about carrying all the extra weight, because this was just a training run.  Right?

So the plan for the climbing portion of the race was just to do what I already knew I was capable of.  A sub-3:30 ascent.  I've done it in training runs before, or at least have been on pace to do it, but that is when it is just me and the mountain.  When I race with 800 other people, I always screw it up.  Today I executed it to perfection.  I found myself in a good spot up through the W's, not having to walk too much, but not letting it bother me when things bottlenecked.  My climbing legs felt a little fatigued, but my energy levels were great.  I felt great!  As the air thinned, I would pass more and more people and notice their labored breathing.  Maybe I should have been pushing myself harder, but this was the Marathon and not the Ascent, and I knew I was right where I needed to be for sub-3:30.

I didn't meet the leader, Kilian Jornet, until I was almost up to the 2-mile-to-summit sign.  This was farther up than I have ever made it before meeting Matt Carpenter in all my previous marathons.  It was obvious that Kilian was just there to win the race and had no interest in pushing for any of Matt's records, although I don't think he could have broken any of them.

Kilian going airborne on the descent.

At this point last year, I was already wanting to hug every rock and catch my breath.  This time, I'm taking photos, enjoying the scenery on a perfect day, and still moving fast. It's fun to start seeing the leaders come down now.  I have a brief anxious moment when I see 3:20 plus on the watch at the Golden Stairs sign, but I push just hard enough and hit the summit turnaround at 3:29:28.  As good as I am feeling at this point, I know the descent is going to be fun.

I get passed by a few runners coming down from the top as I tend to go pretty conservative through the now heavy 2-way traffic.  I then see Regina just below the Cirque and she informs me that I am running in 85th place.  What?  Top 100?  You must be kidding.  I am psyched to see Regina looking great and am now finally thinking about "racing".  I decide to just try to hold my position back down to A-Frame as the course is still pretty busy with uphill traffic, but from A-Frame down, it is "game on".

Just after the A-Frame aid station, I tell myself it is time for 10 miles of speed work.  I get after it and immediately start picking off my prey.  It was a fun game targeting runner after runner and knowing that I could pass them.  Fun until some girl flies by me from out of nowhere.  I don't even consider trying to hold on and am just amazed at what I just saw over some of the most technical trail on the course between A-Frame and Barr Camp.  Wow!

I continue pushing, blasting through Barr Camp (I'm not stopping or even slowing down for aid stations anymore).  I make a watch check and start doing the math for a sub 2 hour descent.  It won't be easy, but might be possible.  As I start back down the W's things really get fun.  After passing I don't know how many other runners, I spot the same girl that dusted me below A-Frame.  She is still haulin', but so am I.  So spitting gravel off the trail at every switchback, the chase is on.

Just before leaving the singletrack at the trail spur, I finally pass her.  I'm actually a bit disappointed and urge her to keep pushing with me.  She responds and eventually passes me soon after hitting the asphalt of Ruxton Avenue.  By this point, I have no legs and, as GZ likes to say, my teeth are starting to sweat.  I try to grab a cup from the unofficial hasher's aid station, but I'm running too damn fast and would just spill a perfectly good beer.  Anyway, I still don't know if sub 2 is in the bag and I am not about to slow down.  Not long before the finish line barricades come into sight, I again pass the fast young lady one final time.  As I enter the barricades, I make a watch check and see 5:26.  A 1:57 descent!  It's high fives to the finish line and a great sense of relief knowing I reached every goal that I even had on my radar for today.  Official chip time of 5:26:30 good for 64th place overall.

While my time wasn't good enough to bring home any hardware in my uber-competitive age group, I have to congratulate my big sister on her 3rd place age group finish.  Way to go Whisper!

The new course record holder for a Maine woman!

One Erskine bringing home some hardware.

So I guess this is a pretty boring race report, with no suffering (except when I wanted to), no getting lost, not even a stinkin' bloody wound to show off.  I guess I just ran darn near a perfect race.

I sure missed seeing Matt on the mountain this year, but it was great to see him at the finish and chat a bit.  He will always be the "King" of Pikes Peak.  His wife Yvonne may well be the "Queen" with her 5:08 and 8th place finish.  Although the real "Queen" would have to be Kim Dobson with the performance of the weekend, a 2:24 Ascent!  I was also psyched to see that my nemesis on the course came in as 10th overall woman.  Thanks for pulling me along Sandi!

Definitely more European spandex on the mountain than ever before, and it is great to see the level of competition continue to rise at this race.  However, Kilian needs to lose the pink cowboy hat.

Top 3 men and women.

It was really nice seeing everyone down there!  What a weekend!  I'm still the #1 mountain runner to my girls, so that is good enough for me.

Pikes Peak 2012 Results here

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chiefs Head Peak

A fun morning tagging a couple of peaks in the Wild Basin I had yet to summit before and revisiting a trail I hadn't been on for several years.  I took off from the Sandbeach Lake trailhead just past the Wild Basin park entrance and followed the 4.5 mile trail up to Sandbeach Lake.  From there, it would be no more trails for a while.  The goal was Chiefs Head Peak, the third highest peak in the park at 13574 feet.  My route up also put me in line to summit Mount Orton (11,724 feet) as well before navigating the North Ridge approach to Chiefs Head.  This turned out to be a great route with only about a half mile of steep, but minor bushwhacking from Sandbeach Lake to timberline just below Orton.  I decided to descend Chiefs Head toward Keplinger Lake and followed the Hunter Creek drainage back down.  A change of scenery from the climb, but a bit more difficult on the "bushwhacking factor".  Eventually, there is an unmarked trail skirting Hunter Creek as it approaches its intersection back to the Sandbeach Lake trail.  A nice little morning jaunt in the spectacular Wild Basin.

15.84 miles with 5508 feet of climbing
GPS data here

A photo tour:
First light at Sandbeach Lake.

Meeker rising above the meadow.
From left: Orton, Chiefs Head, Pagoda, Longs, and partially Meeker.

The "North Ridge" approach to Chiefs Head from Orton, with Mount Alice to the left.

The Glacier Gorge as viewed from Chiefs Head, with The Spearhead front and center.

Hunter Creek (my return route).

At least today I was carrying a much lighter pack than on this prior trip to Sandbeach Lake:

Maddy, age 4.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hardrock 2012

Sitting in the cold, dark streets of Silverton early Saturday morning I'm trying to contemplate what just happened.  It is quiet.  I stare at the rock and watch the clock tick past 23:23.  The legend of Kyle Skaggs will live on for at least another year.  It's now been almost a full day since 140 of us took off together amid the festive atmosphere on these very same streets that seem so desolate now.  However, I know that soon this small mountain town will come alive again and start welcoming back the first of those to complete this amazing journey known as Hardrock.

I feel out of place with my race bib still displayed on my shorts.  I remove it and try to fit in as just another spectator as the town now starts growing abuzz.  I hang out and watch Hal, then Joe, and finally Dakota complete their amazing feats of endurance, although the order they arrive seems trivial.  I feel their raw emotions.  I see their faces and know that they too had their own struggles out there, like everyone that takes on this relentless course through the San Juan Mountains.  I finally let my family know of my unexpected whereabouts.  My premature ending after some 60 miles was not the outcome I came for but now, some 3 weeks later, I can see that the Hardrock experience was so much more than "kissing a rock".

"I'm in!"

It is often joked that the hardest part of finishing Hardrock is actually just getting into Hardrock.  Well last December, after one unsuccessful lottery the year before, I wound up #4 on the wait list for the 2012 run.  Since about 30 get in off the wait list every year, I knew that I was in.  Even though I had never been to Hardrock before, nor had I stepped foot on any of the Hardrock course, this event was the one I wanted to run more than any other.  Now just 7 months to prepare.  Luckily, I have access to some of the best trails and mountains anyone can ask for in and around my hometown, along with the best community of runners anywhere.  I felt a bit guilty being the only resident of Fort Collins getting in when so many of my friends were also worthy of the challenge.  Anyway, 7 months come and go quickly, I climb a lot of mountains, stay healthy, and come into July feeling ready.


With the car packed tight, we head off Wednesday morning for the scenic 400-mile drive from Fort Collins to our rental cabin near the top of Red Mountain Pass.  It turns out to be a great location between Silverton and Ouray and the girls love it!  Plenty of fun exploring to do in our big backyard.

As soon as we are unpacked, we get the grill going and in no time are having a barbecue feast with the wonderful Eppelman family from Texas.  It was great to catch up with Scott, a 7-time Hardrock finisher, and pick his brain for last-minute pointers.  Scott would no doubt get number 8 in a couple of days, despite having to train just outside of Dallas.

After a decent night's sleep, Madison and I head down to Silverton Thursday morning for all the required check-in procedures.

It's a "Who's Who" of mountain ultrarunning down there, meaning that 99.9% of the world wouldn't know any of these people, but I did.  It was also great to see many friends, some in the race and some just down there for support.  JT looks ready to go after finish number 4 (which he would get done in strong fashion).  Mike, just back from a trip up to Grants-Swamp pass, gives me the low-down on some of the "fun" conditions I will be facing tomorrow.  Other Fort Collins-area friends, Steph and Eric, provide me some nice encouragement.  I even meet GZ in the flesh, finally.  After getting all checked in, Madison and I enjoy a quiet picnic at the town park.

I honestly wish they would just start the run that afternoon, as all the waiting is now making me anxious.  However, it is back to the cabin for a mellow evening and early to bed.  I will be back down in Silverton soon enough for the 6am start the next morning.

The "Race"

Race morning starts at 4am with a bountiful breakfast, courtesy of Deanne, and by 5 we've got the pajama-clad girls in the car for the ride down the "hill" to Silverton.  We all hang out in the Silverton high school gym, exchanging last-minute well-wishes to each other.  As a Hardrock rookie, I am just overwhelmed by the camaraderie expressed by everyone.  This happens at other ultras as well, but here it is something even more.  I introduce my family to Dale Garland, the race director, and he ends up sharing stories about some of our mutual friends, until I remind him we have a race to get started.  Lacking any real "pomp and circumstance" we all just gather around the rock outside the gym a few minutes before 6.  I even have to think for a moment as to which direction we are going to take off in.  Dale counts us down from 10 and now, in this almost surreal moment, I am actually running in the Hardrock 100.

"Slow, conserve, drink, eat."  These words would repeat in my head often in these early miles.  I want to feel this fresh for as long as possible.  Any noticeable uphill grade, and I'm walking.  Any tricky footing to maneuver through, and I'm walking.  I feel as though I'm doing things right.  I am fortunate to settle in with Billy Simpson, and I'm like a sponge listening to his words of advice.  This guy, with the same trekking poles in hand he just used for an AT thru-hike (yes that 2100-mile trail from Maine to Georgia), makes it looks effortless at 57 years young on his way to a 33 hour finish.  Billy's best advice, "don't forget to look around at the scenery".  It is an absolutely spectacular morning and I am so lucky to be able to experience this!

I break out my trekking poles as we gain the timberline towards Putnam.  Although I didn't practice with poles nearly enough, I instantly feel a benefit in topping out our first mountain pass of the day.  I reach the top with soon to be 16-time (2nd most?) Hardrock finisher Randy Isler and he asks me how that climb compared to Towers Road.  Seems that our Fort Collins workout has gained a reputation.

The descent to our first aid station (KT) goes well and I'm loving the sweet singletrack as we drop back down to the forest.  I ended up keeping the poles in hand, even running downhill, as I was quickly getting comfortable with them and was trying to take some of the downhill pounding off the legs.  I reach KT aid station at 9:10am, pretty close to my 9am projection but that really was just a guess.

Leaving KT, I start to notice the rising temperatures and never really feel very good on this next climb right from the start.  My stomach starts disagreeing with the fig newtons I scarfed down at KT and I eventually have to find some cover off-trail for a bio-break.  As I resume the climb up to Grant-Swamp Pass, my energy levels are sapped.  This climb ends up being much more difficult than Putnam.

As I'm nearing timberline, I notice bib #126 catching up to me and immediately know who it is, although I had never met this person before.  I introduce myself to Stuart Erskine of Alberta, Canada and he is so thrilled to meet another Erskine that we stop for a picture.  "Goddamn, of all the places to meet another Erskine!" I believe were Stuart's exact words.  Anyway, Stuart cruised ahead of me on his way to a great race.

Approaching Grant-Swamp Pass, one can't help but be totally inspired by the incredible scenery.  This helps, and despite my struggles I top out the climb feeling invigorated.  Just moments later, I am scree-skiing down the back side of the pass having the time of my life.  I hit the bottom of the slope, shoes filled with rocks, laughing out loud, and I can't believe I went all the way down without falling.  At that moment, all I could think was "this is Hardrock".  I had also completely forgotten about my struggles just minutes earlier.  I again run strong on the descent, passing several people, on my way to Chapman aid station where I knew I would see several of my Fort Collins and Boulder friends there volunteering.

The Chapman "bacon" aid station is great!  I see my first familiar face, Victoria, up the trail a bit checking runners in, and then I am greeted at the stream crossing with a hug from the always jovial Basit.  It feels like a homecoming.  Steph and Eric are also there, and of course I eat some bacon.  My arrival time of 11:34 was still not that far off from my 11am projection.  I take a little longer here (12 minutes) than at KT, and soon I am heading out for the next big climb of the day, Oscar's Pass.

Again, the climbing starts to suck in a hurry.  I am totally relying on my trekking poles to the point that my shoulders are now hurting, so I try to go without them every now and then.  It is feeling warm.  There are also horseflies swarming around my legs and biting me.  At least they gave me motivation to keep moving.  All I can do is grind.  I definitely see a pattern forming.  If I can just make this pass, then all will be well again.  Oh yeah, and repeat this for about a dozen more passes.  Some early afternoon thunderstorms start booming nearby, but never get too threatening.  At least it gets cooler.  I do finally gain the pass with none other than Blake Wood (another Hardrock legend) right on my heels.

It is fun to run some with Blake, now on our descent to Telluride.  Yes, I am having fun again so the pattern continues.  For this year, we even get to do a couple of bonus miles due to a course reroute, but Blake informs me this will be only temporary (so the couse might be a whole 2 miles shorter next time).  A nice hail shower begins to pelt us to the point that I need to throw on my jacket, but it doesn't last too long.   With the course reroute, we actually end up running quite a bit of dirt road on the approach to Telluride.  I sort of let loose here, not really running that hard but again passing several people.  The road seems to last forever with Telluride visible in the distant, but eventually I get there running probably 90% of the way from Oscar's Pass.

It is now after 3pm, over 9 hours into the race, and I've only gone 30 miles?  Not expecting to see anyone I knew as I ran into the festive Telluride town park, I spot another FoCo runner, Kristel, and say hi.  Before I knew it, Kristel has my drop bag, is fetching me clean socks, and is getting a nasty knot out of my shoelace.  Unbelievable!  I have a cup of delicious potato soup and give the girls a call with a new estimated arrival for Ouray.  At about 3:30, I am ready to head out, with the goal of making Ouray by 8:30 and before dark (my headlamp is in my Ouray drop bag).  I thank Kristel for her awesomeness and take off into the streets of Telluride looking for the trailhead out of there.

I find the trailhead, commence to climbing again, and a steady rain begins to fall.  Maybe it was the cooling rain, maybe it was the wet and beautiful forest that reminded me of where I grew up in Maine, but for once I'm actually not hating this climb from the start.  I pass a few people, the first I think I have passed on an uphill since Putnam.  However eventually, unlike Putnam, somewhere around timberline I really started to struggle again.  Gasping for air and moving slowly, I make out the pass on the horizon and think, "one more pass".  I finally make it, but am disappointed not to see Kroger's Canteen, the next aid station.  Chris Gerber catches up to me just in time to inform me that this is only Mendota's Saddle and that Kroger's Canteen is up there as he points to a tiny notch in the mountains that is Virginius Pass off on the horizon.  Okay, "just one more pass".

Luckily we didn't have to drop much elevation before the climb to Virginus, so it wasn't that bad.  No doubt from the cheering, cowbells, and music, I was now finally arriving at the one and only Kroger's Canteen on top of Virginius Pass.

This aid station, nestled at over 13,000 feet, is legendary.  Roch Horton and his crew are fantastic and I sit briefly to enjoy one of Roch's famous pierogies and a cup of Sprite, passing on the shot of tequila although I think it was Patron.  I now need to make good time over some 10 or so miles and over 5000 feet of descending, all starting with another fun scree-ski.  This time I managed 2 good falls, one onto each elbow.  So bloodied elbows and all, I was pleased to see that I was still running well on the downhills.  As Ouray came into view, and knowing that I would be seeing Deanne and the girls for the first time since the start, I ran faster than I had at any other point in the race.  My arrival time into Ouray, 8:28pm, and with just enough light to see without my headlamp.

The girls greeted me with a cool sign and were glad to see me feeling well, and I was even happier to see them.  I was also glad and surprised to see another Fort Collins trail running friend Katie, who was a huge help.  With Katie taking care of my "racing" needs, I was able to just sit and chat with Deanne and the girls.  I fueled up on some more potato soup and orange slices, although my stomach was starting to sour again on my run down into Ouray.  While it was great to see everyone, I knew I couldn't get too comfortable and had to move on, hopefully seeing them again sometime tomorrow at Cunningham (Mile 93) and the finish.  Leaving Ouray, I turned on the headlamp and began the longest climb of the course toward Engineer Pass.  Only 10 miles, but 5000 feet higher than where I was standing.  "Just one more pass".

Not long after leaving Ouray, I run into my CRUD friend, Rick Hessek.  Rick is supposed to be pacing Steve Bremner from Grouse, but Steve's apparently having some problems leaving Ouray.  I feel bad that I didn't see Steve as it turns out he was resting off on the side of the trail and I must have passed him.  But anyway, after a brief chat, I move on.  I am climbing well again, as at least for now, the climb up Engineer is easier than I expected.  I am passing several people on the climb, but also am noticing that I am not drinking or taking any calories since leaving Ouray.  My stomach is definitely feeling off, so I suck on a ginger candy (my 3rd or 4th since leaving Kroger's).  It doesn't help and then, just minutes before reaching the Engineer aid station, I laid down off the side of the trail and decorated it with potato soup.

Alright, maybe that is what my stomach needed.  I start sipping on water and climbing very slowly to the Engineer Aid station, arriving a little after midnight.  I didn't realize the aid station was going to be a mile and a half before Engineer Pass.  I stop there briefly, but nothing is appealing, and I'm starting to get cold.  Not wanting to get sucked in by their campfire, I move on.  Thanks to some mysterious lights, the pass is in sight.

The next mile and a half to Engineer Pass is where the wheels came off for me.  I was obviously dehydrated, still on the verge of throwing up (I honestly don't remember if I did again or not), and getting extremely sleepy.  I just wanted to lay down.  If I can just get over this pass and make it to Grouse I can rest there.  I just leaned heavily on my poles and fixated on the trail just in front of me, or as far as my headlamp could see.  So I climbed, and climbed, and climbed, until eventually looking up and seeing that the trail I was following was not the course.  I was almost on the pass, but not the right one as I saw other headlamps heading up the mountain in a different direction.  I felt even worse that another person and his pacer followed me.  They weren't too happy with me, but I really was just in disbelief that they were moving as slowly as I was.  I didn't care to follow them back down to the course so I just laid down for a while.

After a brief (I think) nap, I headed back down the trail to where the course took a straight line up the grassy tundra to the correct pass.  It was steep!  I started hearing someone yelling at me.  Voices in my head?  Hallucinations?  No, there really was a guy up there yelling, and the mysterious lights were his RV/camper rig.  How he drove it up there, I don't know.  While his yells were actually supposed to be for encouragement, all I could say was "Dude, has anyone taken longer than me to get over that last stretch?"  I believe I laid down at least 4 or 5 times getting over that last quarter mile.  Crazy thing was no one ever passed me again.  I swear I thought I was the last person on the course.

I passed on having a drink with the man and his fully stocked bar, although a shot of something probably would have done me good.  He just pointed me in the direction I needed to go and I stumbled down the long dirt road to Grouse Gulch.  My race was done.  I was not going through another climbing experience like that again.  I'm finished!  Within minute of finally arriving at Grouse Gulch just before 4am, I was officially out of Hardrock.

Final Thoughts

Seven hours and an open cot in the "sick" tent.  That was what I had available at Grouse Gulch.  Heck, a full night's sleep and time to eat a good breakfast, or even brunch.  I probably would have been refreshed and ready to head out for the last 40 miles.  Unfortunately, I will never know.

Obviously, I was far from the last person arriving at Grouse Gulch.  The fact that nobody even passed me after I got back on course tells me I wasn't moving as slow as I thought.  Hardrock just beat me mentally.  You know what you've been through, and you know what's still ahead, and it is tough.  But that is Hardrock.

My first DNF ever has been hard to swallow.  At first, the toughest part was missing out on that moment I came to Hardrock for.  Arriving back in Silverton with my family there, jogging it in with my girls, and kissing that darn rock.  Then, as I read other race reports, I really starting regretting the fact that I missed out on that experience of the 2nd day (and night) on the course.  Experiences like standing on top of Handies Peak, running through more gorgeous country I have yet to see, and even experiencing that crazy storm I know many had to go through Saturday night.

But now given some time for it all to settle, I realize how much I got out of the Hardrock experience.  This "race" gets into your blood and now I want to take on the challenge again even more than before.  I learned so much, and this report is already too long, so I won't list everything.  I will be doing many things differently at my next 100, and certainly (hopefully) at my next Hardrock.  A few things:

Trekking poles: Not good for me.  Yes they helped propel me over those passes, but it was not how I trained and I much prefer not to deal with them.  I also know I would have taken better care of my fueling and hydration had I not had the poles in my hands.

Electrolyte drinks: Not good for me.  I'm tired of trying to figure out which one is best when all I want to drink after 30 miles is water anyway.  From now on, only water supplemented with electrolytes and calories from other sources.  The fact that I came into every aid station with empty water flasks and a full bladder of Vitalyte tells me why I became dehydrated.

Support/Crew/Pacers:  For Hardrock, you better use all the resources available.  I thought I was Mr. Tough Guy who could take this course on with minimal (if any) outside help, and I was WRONG.  Maybe at other 100s, or maybe after I've got several more 100 mile finishes under my belt, but as a Hardrock rookie?  What was I thinking?

Looking Forward

This morning was the first time in several months I had to put on a jacket as I headed out in the 4am darkness.  With frost still lingering on the tundra as I climbed above treeline, I look forward to the soon-to-be changing of the season.  My run up to the Stormy Peaks capped off one of the most fun weeks of trail running I've had in quite some time, running with more friends than I typically do in a whole year.   I'll take my first step toward a potential Hardrock return by running the Bear 100 this September.  This will be my first 100 run in the fall, my absolute favorite time of year.  Can't wait!

This report is done.  Time to go run.

Great photos of Hardrock 2012 from Matt here, and Eric here.

Also nice video from Carson here, but for the true experience of the spirit of Hardrock from a middle-of-the-packer like me, I love John's video here.