Pam and I drive past Western State College in Gunnison, my first time here, and make the right hand turn on Highway 135 toward Crested Butte. Cruising into town with Mt. Crested Butte off to our right, I look at Pam and say, “What the hell was I thinking? There is no way out of this place but up!”
Of course I knew this. When I signed up for the Grand Traverse 40 mile mountain trail running race a few months ago I saw that the first 17 miles were largely uphill; with miles 10-17 gaining altitude from 9300’ to 12,340’. Yet, on paper it always seems benign compared to literal feet on the ground. In total the race had about 7,000’ in elevation gain. For 20 miles from 15 to 35 it would never dip below 11,000’. It was a classic mountain trail running race. In the previous two years I had run four half marathon trail races and have done a large amount of backpacking. This year I have had eyes on running R2R2R in the Grand Canyon. My friend Mahting felt the Grand Traverse would be a good prep run for R2R2R.
The alarm starts singing at 4:20 am. The race starts at 6:00. As per my usual training I forego eating before the race. The glycogen stores are full. Eating now will just create digestive issues later. I have two cups of coffee and we’re off to Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Along with Pam, are Mahting and his wife, Erika. Mahting suffered a foot issue a few weeks back so he is here as good friend and giver of race advice. He has finished various ultras and a 50 miler last year. It pains him to not be running today. Along with Erika, we have had some training runs together in the weeks before this.
There are a few things I wrestled with regarding equipment in the past week. Largely which shoes to wear, bringing along trekking poles and using a headlamp at the start. The sky is brightening and I don’t want to bring the headlamp for just the first 20 minutes or so. My three cohorts tell me it’s foolish to risk a fall and not using it. I go with the headlamp. I also opt for the trekking poles even though the majority of folks do not have them. I want something to help me keep pace on the steep climb to Star Pass. I go with an old set of shoes that already have 450 miles of wear on them and have a newer cushier pair in a drop bag at an aid station 23.5 miles into the race.
6:00 comes and the race is off. It is slightly downhill the first mile before turning into single track as we wind our way through aspen forest. I’m forced into a pace. Hundreds of runners line out and I have no choice but to follow. I feel like I am on a elementary school trip and we are in a line “indian file” jogging through the forest.
I’m not used to running in a line with so many people as 95% of my trail ventures have been solo this year. We’re maybe four or five miles into the race and I’m trying to watch the roots, rocks and things that might trip me up. We come along a slight downhill bend and I see barbed wire on the right edge of the trail. I think to myself, “Don’t fall on that” and immediately I am on the ground! Thankfully, I fall straight on the trail and I bounce up immediately knowing people are right behind me. I am dirty, cut up but have mostly just hurt my pride. From behind I hear “You’ve gotten your fall out of the way early, you’re good to go”.
The first aid station is at mile 9.5 and I’m slightly alarmed. The pace has been faster than I want, mainly because we’ve been on some forest service road and also because everybody is running really fast in my opinion. I have a pretty good idea of what kind of average pace I can maintain for the race. According to last year’s results it would have meant about 35th place overall. But I was running way faster than that pace and there were well over a hundred people in front of me, probably more. One of two things was happening. Either a lot of people were going to blow up, or because there were almost twice the entrants from the year before, there was greater depth to the field.
Mahting’s sage advice to me, which was also repeated by Erika numerous times was that in the early parts I needed to A) go slow and B) eat a lot. I cover the first 9 miles in about 1:36 and change, translating to a 10:43 pace. This is way too fast for this early considering how much elevation needs to be ascended. I’m slightly panicked but fill up my water, move some things in my pack and move on. The aid station has broken up the single file action and after just a short while I need to step off the trail anyway. Even with not eating before the race and usual morning rituals, there is some rumbling in my gut. Nature calls. I spend what I feel is too much time resolving this issue but am much better in the digestive area when I get back on the trail.
I finally put the trekking poles to use with the steeper trail ahead. For a while it is a mix between short jogs and power hiking. I begin leap frogging with a few runners and one is a young lady in a tutu. I remember seeing her in the first few miles. As she comes by me I say “I’m nicknaming you ‘The Bishop’. Think about that for a few hours and let me know when you figure it out.” Nothing like some older guy throwing riddles about in the midst of a high altitude endurance event. (After the race I saw her again and she had to ask her parents what I meant. She was overthinking it!)
The trail is now really steep and it is pure hiking at this point, with the exception of one person coming behind. A woman on the shorter side, light in weight and my age or a little better is actually jogging up the mountain toward the aid station and Star Pass. She goes by me and I never see her again the rest of the race. She is impressive!
I reach Star Pass, 17.5 miles into the race. This is what I consider my first of three phases of the race for me. I arrive here about 15 minutes later than I had hoped. But I’m happy to be here and at the highest point of the race. I strap my trekking poles to my pack, finished with them for the day. The first bit of downhill off the pass is still not easy. The trail is very rocky and it’s a shuffle going down. But now I’m mentally preparing for what I feel will be the hardest part of the race; undulating terrain for 17 more miles all between 11,000-12,300’. In fact we’ll hit 12,300’ two more times during this stretch.
I now begin to pull people back. My strength is the long haul. I’ve sacrificed all speed in my training for endurance, the ability to diesel along for many hours at a time. This is where a life of being an endurance athlete reaps benefits. I’ve ridden long miles on bikes, and covered long miles with a backpack. Now, I only need to keep moving forward, with a relatively light pack on my back.
The next aid station is at mile 23.5 and I’ve been contemplating whether I will change out my shoes and socks. Earlier on there were numerous creek crossings, with two of them in shin deep water. The wet terrain was now largely behind. When I get to the aid station I decide to switch out my shoes and socks; for no other reason than to have a few more minutes to sit down. I’ve now been gone for over five hours and it’s all becoming a blur. By placing a “drop bag” of things I might need, I am able to don the new footwear, leave my poles here and get rid of some other items like my headlamp and a base layer that I know I won’t need because the weather is absolutely perfect. I keep the rain shell in my bag just in case and finally get out of the aid station, probably having spent too much time here. I grab a handful of potato chips from the food table and power hike up the remaining bit to Taylor Pass.
Things have really stretched out now with the participants. I can see just a few people ahead of me and the vistas are long. Where is everybody? I climb the pass with two others and we begin a “shuffle” down the other side. I am with a guy and a girl, the guy commenting that his stomach is in a bad way. I leave them behind and have two men in front of me for the next five miles. They are only a few minutes ahead of me most of the way until we arrive at the next aid station at 28.5 miles. They get in and out ahead of me and a younger guy arrives just before I leave, as I had passed him a mile or so before. I wolf down half a dozen slices of watermelon before departing and this is the best tasting thing I’ve had all day. My fuel has consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first five hours and now I’ve switched to stroop waffles and gels.
A half mile out of this aid station I realize that I have foregone hourly stretching during the race. I stop, doing some horse stretches, deep squats and twist my lower back while opening my shoulders. This feels soooooo good. When I begin running again I feel anew! On a rocky downhill section my legs feel really stable and I motor by one of the two men that had been just in front of me for the previous six miles or so.
The other of the two is ahead of me on a long climb shortly thereafter and he and I link up with about nine miles to go. I spend more time with him than anybody else all day. Before the race I had looked at the registrants and the majority of runners were younger than me. I roughly figured that I was probably one of the 20 oldest in a race of 226 registrants. This is slightly unusual because in the world of ultrarunning there are more and more people over 50 running these longer distances. My new friend John tells me about a young lady of probably 20 or so that he saw vomiting after about 15 miles. “Those of us that are older tend to do better in these ultras. We’ve experienced a lot of “suck” in our lives. So this doesn’t seem that bad”, he says.
Interestingly I had thought about this a few miles before catching John. I was far enough into the race to make an evaluation on the effort required to finish. My assessment was that while it was challenging it was not the hardest thing I had ever done physically. When compared with emotional challenges I have had in my life, it was a piece of cake. It was mainly about patience, good sense, proper fueling and perseverance. I had coined my own mantra for the day. JKM, or Just Keep Moving. As long as I moved in a forward motion it would eventually be over.
John and I worked well together and with about six miles to go a number of people popped into view. Most of them were walking and none of them looked well. There was one sitting just off the trail, head in his hands. A kid of about 19 was walking and not having a good time of it. I could now “smell the barn” and began to jog up a slight hill. I passed two more guys, one of which was holding his hip and visually limping along. All of this motivated me as I picked up the pace.
Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve always been a racer. And I’ve learned over the years how to become a good finisher. I found a true stride for the first time in 34 miles and opened up the throttle. I flew into the last aid station with one thing in mind, Coca-Cola. The gentleman at the aid station exclaimed, “It’s a 35 mile warm up and a 5 mile race”. I drank some coke, filled my 500ml bottle with the same and set off flying down the mountain. The final five miles dropped 3200’ zig zagging on single track down the Aspen ski hills. The first mile after the aid station was through dark timber, on soft peat trail. Emotion began to well up inside of me as I began sobbing thinking about my son, Ben, my wife, Pam, Mahting, Erika and a host of others that had been more intimately involved in helping me prepare for this race.
I began to catch people all the way down the mountain as I ebbed in and out of this crazy emotion that would rise in my throat and then subside. Finally with a mile to go, I was caught by a young man and I followed him in to the finish. I saw Pam holding her phone for a picture as I crossed the line. I stumbled for a bit and then fell on the grass, fairly exhausted but feeling more emotion than I have in any other endurance event I’ve ever done. The race did require an intense amount of concentration and it was a relief to relax. In the end I was correct in the fact that the field held an incredible amount of depth. I ended up being 90th across the line. The same finishing time a year before would have yielded 34th place. I remain in awe of how fast people can move across high mountains on a trail run. It is a testament to the high level of fitness people maintain. In short, it’s just pretty damn cool to be a part of it.
- Notes on my training plan in the months leading up to the event for those that find that interesting.
Having been an endurance athlete most of my life, I have experience about how my body works. However, it has taken three years to adapt to being a runner from having been a lifelong cyclist. About ten years ago I began practicing yoga, but never maintained the practice during summer months. Last November I took yoga up again and have maintained the practice all summer for the first time in my life. Yoga played a huge part in me finishing this race.
I ran throughout the spring building an aerobic base, running maybe 2-3 times a week. In mid June I did a four day backpack trip then took one week completely off before more specific training for this race. I used a very rough plan over 13 weeks to prepare for this race, mostly in 2-3 week blocks and largely going off perception of how my body felt. I do not use a heart rate monitor while running but go by perceived rate of exertion. I did this race wholly “by feel” as my Garmin watch battery won’t last for nearly ten hours. I tracked my race using the Strava app on my phone which I looked at periodically throughout the race.
My totals and averages of activity over the 13 weeks leading up to the race and including the race were as follows. I ran three days a week only four times during the 13 weeks. I consumed roughly 225-250 calories per hour during the whole of the event. I ate one last gel with 5.5 miles to go and finished it out on Coca-Cola. I never came close to bonking.
- 312 miles of total running
- 24 miles per week average running
- 2 runs per week average
- My highest week was 36.8 miles of running three weeks out from the race
- My longest run was also that week and was 28 miles and just under 7 hours
- 167 miles of total hiking
- 12.84 miles per week average hiking (this is a bit skewed b/c the backpack trip was 84 miles in four days) which was week 2 of the 13 weeks
- 35 days of yoga
- Average of 2.7 days a week of yoga
- Link to Strava Data