There I was, up at 10,300 feet somewhere along a pothole’d dirt road in the dark, wondering where the other runners all were, and was it snowing? My eyelids were getting heavier and heavier with every step, I just wanted to lay down, but I knew that my tingling toes wasn’t due only to the altitude, but to the below freezing temperatures. I wanted to sleep, or puke, or both…. but really I wanted the nausea to pass because after 55 miles I had barely been able to eat more than a few hundred calories…. so what was I doing and how did I get here?
I guess this adventure started the week before in Telluride. A good friend was nice enough to let me stay at their house and take me hiking all over the Hardrock course, of course that left me with Hardrock fever..but that’s for another day.
Anyway, the hiking, even at 13k felt good. I did some yoga, saw some beautiful places in Co, and relaxed. By the time I got to Steamboat Springs I was all mentally and physically ready, or as ready as a girl who lives at 800 feet can be anyway.
So there I was, beautiful rainbow to welcome me to Steamboat, excited, not too nervous, and ready! The night before rained, and as it turned out, snowed up at the higher elevations. Our start was at noon. By then the rain had moved on and the sun was nice and warm.
The ski slope was undergoing some maintenance so they race directors broke the news that the course would be shorter… oh, but only by a few hundered yards. Which basically meant they were cutting off the switchbacks and sending us directly up the mountain for 4.5 miles; up up up from 6,500feet to 10,500 feet. Starting at the bottom the climb looked quite daunting, almost vertical, but once we got hiking it was actually quite doable. I opted not to wear my heart rate monitor. I know what it feels like to push my limit, and I didn’t want to be reminded how much harder my body would have to work not being use to elevation. No way did I want to chance any sort of mental negativity. I already knew that being up higher where my brain doesn’t get as much oxygen it naturally puts me in a tougher mental state.
So anyway, there I was climbing and climbing, thinking about all those hours I spent on the treadmill in preparation for this… thinking that maybe someday I could find a treadmill that goes up this steeply. Either way though, legs were feeling good, I was feeling good. The sun was shining, everyone else felt exactly like I did…I was having a great time.
We finally hit aid at the top about mile 4.5 and I got some oranges and filled up my water bottle. For the next 5+ miles the course meanders through beautiful, albeit muddy and icy forest until the next aid station. Here was the hard part for me. Up above 9,000 feet I couldn’t do more than a shuffle. Legs felt great, brain felt good…I wanted to run, but if I did anything more than trot my arms and legs would go numb and my heart would race to get me oxygen. A few runners passed me, but I stayed positive, I knew the course would wind its way back down the mountain soon… and would I be able to run eventually. The next aid station was Long Lake, and the view across the water was stunning in the afternoon sunlight. I saw the runners who had passed me and noted they weren’t more than a handful of minutes ahead of me, so I trotted on.
The next 10 miles took us back down from 10k to 6,5k and over some beautiful, yet technical rocky trail… it was great! The leaves were changing, the waterfall off to our left was raging and I had my running legs back! Down, down, down I went. I had hiked this section, fish creek falls, the day before so I knew about how far down I had to go and was excited I was descending so well. Though I wasn’t able to have a real pacer as a rabbit, we were allowed someone to join us for the few miles of paved road where there was no shoulder. My husband was there, and I was so happy to see him! I had been looking forward to it for several miles by that time. Though I was feeling really good, I was mentally holding myself back. I know that many people get sucked into the excitement and the competition of RRR and would be dropping early, and I didn’t want to be part of that. I think I was somewhere in the top 15 at this point, and just wanted to stay steady.
In and out of Olympian Hall and onto what turned out to be the most runnable section for me. From about mile 20-45 the race rolls up and down all under 8,500 feet so I could run it. This is where we started to see the front 100 mile tortoise runners. I made note that several of them looked much worse than the 40 miles they had just run, and reminded myself to stay steady.
The sun was setting as I got into Cow Creek so I added several layers a hat, and grabbed my headlamp. I saw bacon at the aid station and asked my crew to go back and get me some. Unfortunately this would be the last time I really ate much of anything, once it got cold it would be impossible for me to eat without gagging.
Anyway, out of Cow Creek, and back around to Olympian Hall. This section was quite wonderful. Now that I could run I was catching and passing lots of people both up and downhill. As I descended back into Olympian Hall I was finally feeling like I had gotten into my groove and relaxed into the smooth downhill.
I was a tad confused as to where to go in the dark, but looking across the field from the aid station, I saw headlamps, a few trained on some animal. I heard my name and ran towards it. “Rachel, my crew called to me.”. “Yep” I answered, “Is that you?” they called back. I was still feeling good enough to reply with a cheeky “no, its not me, I just answer to Rachel”. As I laughed, happy to see the aid station and my crew(the last water stop had NO water in it. Apparently the water jugs were emptied by mountain bikers hours earlier, and even the tortoises who had a 4 hour start on me had no water either.) Inside the aid station people were starting to look a bit rough. I added a jacket on top of my lighter jacket and another headlamp for I would be going back up technical Fish Creek Falls and didn’t want to walk off a cliff, which I almost did anyway.
Leaving the aid station I talked my husband into running me back up the dark road again, he obliged and we headed out together. He told me that several of the women in the lead had already dropped and even if I hadn’t passed any women (which I think I did during this section) I had moved up closer to top 10 and he was excited for me. I sent him back to the aid station early in this section because he didn’t bring a headlamp and the street was no longer illuminated by streetlights.
Once I hit Fish Creek Falls a second time I turned on my music for the first time ever during a trail race. I listen to music when I train at times, but never for a race. I decided this one I would to help me cope with my altitude blues. It did help immensely. I passed people left and right who had gone out too fast in the section. I was cruising, feeling great and enjoying the technical uphill, I was getting into my groove . There were a few sharp switchbacks that I nearly missed and almost walked off the cliff over the falls.
It was getting cold and and colder, and many people made remarks about my bare legs when it was clearly below freezing. I wasn’t actually cold at this point, or rather I wasn’t feeling the cold..too busy trying to pay attention to the race..but when I got back to Long Lake and stopped to add layers I noticed I was freezing! I left the aid station with a cup of cocoa and my pockets full of bars that I was too cold to eat. I was back up to 10,500 and back to the slow slog. The combination of the cold and the fact that I couldn’t run fast enough to warm myself up was probably the beginning of the end for me. During the run up from Fish Creek I had accidentally stepped into a puddle and at this point my shoes, shoe laces and all, were frozen solid. I had passed half a dozen people on my way up to long lake and I was just waiting for them to catch back up to me now.
And here I was, back to pothole’d dirt road with my eyelids getting heavy while my teeth chattered. I rememberd about the bacon in my pocket and tried to eat some, gagging I put it back in my pocket and looked around. I kept thinking it was snowing, but I think it was just the moisture in the air freezing and being caught by my headlamp. Eventually I headed into the next aid station. There was a hoard of people who had dropped waiting for a ride down to where crew could meet us. I sat for what seemed like forever trying to get warmer. There wasn’t too much for me to eat. All the warm foods had gluten in them. I thought about coffee, but decided against it since it tends to make my lower GI track very active and the last thing I wanted was to have to drop my pants several times in the cold. I picked some eggs out of the breakfast burrito trying to be careful not to eat any of the burrito.
After what seemed like forever, I still wasn’t getting warmer by the fire, so I decided to take the long road back down to where I knew my husband would be. I thought maybe moving again would warm me up. Sadly it didn’t. I was back to my high elevation shuffle, which just barely kept my legs warm, I definitely couldn’t feel my hands or feet. I tried listening to music, I tried picking people and staying with their pace, I tried talking to myself, I tried to eat again… gag..
FInally I got to where my husband was nicely waiting for me in the freezing cold. I could tell he was quite uncomfortable and shaking in his sleepingbag. I changed out of my cold wet things and told him I was dropping. He cocked his head at me not expecting those word to come out of my mouth;
“I’m not going to try to talk you back out there” He said, as he watched me shiver. I called a friend, I texted two more. They all encouraged me to go on… so I did. 4 more miles down to where my other crew, Ringo, was waiting. This was the worst section for me. No calories, no fuel to stay warm or mentally positive. I had wasted hours at the aid stations trying to get warm, trying to stop shaking, and now I was realizing that the sun was coming up and I was only getting colder. My jaw was getting really tired from chattering and clenching. I just wanted to be warm and to make the chattering stop. I thought about my options. No food since 10pm the night before, I was cold and sore from shivering. I knew I had to climb back up to 10,500 where it would be freezing and where I’d be forced to shuffle again. I knew I could do it, but at what cost? I had planned and trained to race RRR. There are certainly races I train and plan on just getting through no matter what, but this wasn’t one. I had planned on racing, and if the race was over, I let it be over.
It felt weird, but good to let them know that I was officially dropping. I sat for nearly an hour waffling over the decision to drop. I was immediately at peace with the decision and already thinking about what I would do differently next year! I will beat you next time RRR!
Things I did right:
- I stayed within myself and didn’t get sucked into the race up front in the early stages of the race. I know I had much more left in my legs, had I not been so cold my legs were still ready for that last 30 miles.
- didn’t panic when people passed me at 10,500 because I passed them later when it was lower in elevation
- I sucked on mints at higher elevations to keep the nausea at bay until mile 60 when I ran out of them.
- Orange mud pack was great, as always! It was easy to reach, fit all of my gear, and the bottle didn’t freeze in the cold temps like a hydration hose does sometimes.
- No chafing anywhere!!
- Music helped at altitude
- Long hours on the treadmill and lots of lungs and squats helped, no leg soreness after.
- Meditation helped me stay relaxed before and during the race
- Had fantastic crew, thank you for your patience, for the bacon delivering, for your positive thoughts and for believing in me enough to make the trip out with me.
Things I would change next time;
- Stop at Olympian hall and really have a meal. Its a lower elevation so digestion would be easier.
- Don’t rush through aid stations, but don’t stop at all of the ones I don’t need to.
- Wear a real down jacket at night up at 10,500 feet. Better to be too hot than too cold.
- Drink more, it might have had a different affect in the cold if I had been better hydrated.
- Hot chocolate, and maybe a small canteen I can carry to keep it warm.
- Rather than plan a 2 week vacation after, plan a 2 week vacation before in CO with some elevation. I think the week in Telluride helped, usually I get headaches at altitude and I didn’t. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to help me run.