Last Saturday I demonstrated that I could suffer through about 11 hours on the trails around Big Sky, Montana. I’m proud to have finished the Rut 50K. But I knew after the first hour that the smart thing would have been to drop out, take my DNF, and vow to try again next year. So call me proud, but also kind of dumb.
The race started out at dawn in a gray half-light with light rain — beautiful.! I felt OK up the first climb and down the first muddy and twisty (= FUN) descent, but after that my race pretty much went pear-shaped. Every little uphill shot my heart rate through the roof. I couldn’t really catch my breath without hiking, slowly. I had diarrhea. This was not a good way to be feeling on this difficult course so early in the race. The big climb up the Bonecrusher Ridge to the summit of Lone Peak was still several kms away, but I was already completely done with racing. I was just slogging, hoping to save enough energy to self-extricate myself off the course and back to the finish without requiring a ride in the back of a truck or a on a chairlift.
My relentless forward progress eventually got me to the second aid station perched above treeline at the bottom of a huge bowl below Lone Peak, where I stood around eating gummy bears and PB&J burritos. My hands were cold and I wanted a hot chocolate and a nap. From where I stood I could look up at the ridge leading to Lone Peak and see lots of tiny dots, most of which were runners that had passed me long ago. They were climbing up into the cold, wet clouds that obscured the summit. That view alone made me colder and more tired and convinced me I should quit right away. On the other hand, looking down, I could see runners approaching the aid station behind me. They were all smiling, talking about how fun the race was, how much they were looking forward to the big climb ahead, and even though I knew some of this was intra-race bravado, I began to believe it would be wimpy to DNF right then. The aid station volunteers were so positive and optimistic that it was shameful in their presence to admit to any suffering at all. Even though I was still light-headed, cold, and weak, the peer pressure was taking effect, and I shuffled out of there thinking that maybe those gummy bears would turn things around.
We had a small descent from the aid station down to the base of Bonecrusher, and I did feel better after that descent then I had for a while – mostly because my hands weren’t as cold (and probably because it was the uphills that were causing my problems). I started to think that it would be so lame to DNF before the Lone Peak ascent, because that ascent was the major selling point of this beautiful course. I had come all the way up to Montana to do that climb, and anyway, I could always DNF when I got to the summit. So I started up the ridge.
And immediately I felt like shit again. I could only manage a slow walk, and I had to step off the route several times to allow people who were walking faster than me (all the other racers behind) to pass. I was passing no one. I would take six or seven steps and then stop for fifteen seconds to catch my breath. I could have made a strong argument for turning around and going back down, but that’s not how climbs like this work. Once you start, there’s an enormous momentum that gathers behind you and pushes you up, up, up! I was constantly thinking, will I need to be rescued on this climb? Am I getting hypothermic? Hypoglycemic? Any pulmonary or cerebral edema? Is my problem just that I’m climbing this mountain slowly? In that case, my lack of speed is my own problem and eventually I’ll be done. Or, am I about to fall over and require help from the Search and Rescue volunteers stationed along the climb? In that case, my problem will soon be their problem, too, and I’d better turn around. Always, the answer I gave was that this was just me climbing slowly. I didn’t have a headache, the short stops always were enough to catch my breath, I wasn’t dizzy, and I wasn’t nauseated or vomiting. Although there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t need a rescue in another five minutes and twenty feet higher up the mountain, I thought it was reasonably likely that I could continue my plodding until I got to the top. Luckily, that turned out to be correct, and I eventually made the summit.
Time to grab some more gummy bears and sit down. Although the aid station workers seemed much more worried about me here than they seemed to be at the last aid station, I actually felt about the same. Must have looked worse! I was surprisingly still about an hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the cut-off time. The rest of the course was, overall, downhill. Back to lower elevations with warmer temperatures and less wind. It would be silly to DNF here, right? The tough part was over! I should keep going.
The descent from Lone Peak turned out to be a relatively good stretch for me. It was a reasonably technical route down a bunch of large, loose stones, without much of a trail to speak of, just a ridgeline down, down down. Follow the always copious and easy-to-see course marking flags and hope you don’t break your ankle or fall on your face. Since I wasn’t having any joint problems at that point, I cruised down this part feeling pretty good, managed to pass about five or six people, and got back under treeline without any injuries. Oh, how I would have loved to feel like this during the rest of the race!
Alas, it was not to be. After a brief period of tagging along with a Missoula college student and another twenty-something runner along some rolling terrain, I lost touch with them on a downhill just before an insanely steep climb up to the final aid station where the volunteers happily told me I was a full 45-minutes ahead of the cutoff time and that there were only five downhill miles to go. More M&Ms, more gummy bears, a change of shoes, and I set out again feeling bad but knowing that that the finish was close.
The downhill went pretty well, but there was about 500 feet or so of uphill left, hardly even noticeable, but that climb made me feel so bad that I had to lie down next to a log for about ten minutes, less than 2K from the finish. A few more people passed me. “Yes, I’m OK, just need a break” was what I told them when they asked if I was OK. Then it started to rain, and I was actually worried about getting hypothermic within bowling distance of the finish line. So I stood up and zombie-shuffled to the finish in just less than 11 hours. Done, and without a rescue. Strong work! I got my finisher’s cowbell, and the free can of Montana beer that was my most-deserved beer ever. I had managed to finish just before the awards ceremony, and I was able to watch it. Then it was back to the hotel room to sleep and try to analyze why this race had gone so pear-shaped. (I love that phrase. “Pear-shaped.” Especially because pears aren’t badly-shaped.)
Could it be that I had a subclinical virus? Did I rest too much after Pikes Peak, or not enough? Is my diet not up to snuff? Did the four hours of sleep I got the night before slow me down? Do I have a V02 max of 35? Did I not eat or drink enough during the race? Did I not run enough this summer? Or did I just have one of those bad days?
I don’t have enough experience yet to know what exactly went wrong. I do know that this race was amazing; the organization and the course marking was flawless; the aid stations were full of great food and greater people; there were several beautiful athletic dogs hanging about the start/finish line all day. All of that makes me think that if I had a good day, performance-wise, at THIS race, it’d be spectacularly fun. I hope to come back next year and have a good day. I’d like come early, and bring my dog. He’d LOVE to run these trails!