Monday, August 14, 2017

2017 Ouray 100 Race Report

Transcendence through suffering.  Exultation through exhaustion.  Or perhaps just asceticism.  All of these phrases came to mind late in this race after talking to another runner at Fellin Park after he said that he had dropped because he simply was not enjoying himself anymore and was just suffering.  I could simultaneously relate and not relate.  After all, after 80+ miles of climbing at high altitude, going out for two more climbs with somewhere north of 8,000 feet of elevation gain, which would likely take me 8 hours or more, with no sleep for the past 36 hours, was not going to be fun. However, continuing to push my body through the pain and well past any point of comfort was going to be a reward quite removed from any notion of immediate enjoyment.  

I don’t say this to put any value judgment on any decision to drop or continue racing or to hierarchize my reason above all others for entering (or continuing) an ultra, but rather just to describe my personal (and likely damaged) psychological perspective as to why I entered the Ouray 100. Just reading race reports from those that have tried, but failed, to complete the Barkley Marathons, makes me cry.  I figured entering a race with more elevation gain than I have ever seen and with only five finishers last year would get me some of that sweet painful nirvana for myself.

Going into the race, my biggest concern was the altitude.  I had never run at altitude before. No matter how much elevation change I had in my legs through training, I knew it was going to be tough to go from the mountains of Virginia (with a max altitude of about 4,000 feet) to the San Juan mountains around Ouray, where the minimum altitude would be 7,700 feet with a maximum altitude of 13,300 feet.  Nor was I able to convince my wife to allow me to put an altitude tent on our bed during the last month before the race.  Nonetheless, I set out on a plan to get out to Colorado three days before the race and hopefully give my body a chance for some acclimatization.  I became worried after experiencing some shortness of breath just driving from the Denver airport to Ouray, and then from needing a rest after carrying my luggage up to my second floor room at my hotel, but after a hike/run up to the Bridge of Heaven on Wednesday and another hike/run up the first part of Twin Peaks on Thursday, I regained some confidence that my body was going to be able to handle the thin air. The hardest part ended up being trying to avoid any of the delicious craft beer that permeates Ouray in the days leading up to the race.  

The most beautiful Interstate rest area in the United States.  Sorry Maryland House on I-95.

Bridge of Heaven (pre-suffering)
Rather than going through the entire 49+ hours of the race, I’ll instead briefly discuss and rate each of the 14 climbs of the race.  For each climb, I’ll rate it on literally how breathtaking it was (i.e. how much I suffered), on figuratively how breathtaking it was (i.e. the beauty, objectively or subjectively) and will give you my weirdest hallucination. In honor of Chief Ouray, I will rate each between 1 and 5 meteors.  While this race had more vertical ascent per mile than any race I've ever done, it also had more beautiful scenery per mile.       

Climb 1 - Fellin Park to Silver Basin

Breathtaking (literal):  2 meteors.

The adrenaline pumping through my body caused me to cruise through this section.  It’s a long, gradual (for this race) climb on Camp Bird Road and then steeper towards Silver Basin.  

Breathtaking (figurative):  3 meteors.

The view at Silver Basin was amazing.  Am I on location for a live action adaptation of The Sound of Music?  I’ve never felt compelled to take pictures at a race until this one.  However, the climb up Camp Bird Road was beset by huffing in too much exhaust from the jeeps.

Weirdest hallucination:  None.  

Climb 2 - Lower Camp Bird to Chicago Tunnel

Breathtaking (literal):  3.5 meteors.

If I was British, I would say that this climb had a sting in its tail. The last half mile of this climb up to the bib punch let me know that this was going to be a tough few days. Nothing like struggling up over 30% inclines at over 12,000 feet altitude.  

Breathtaking (figurative): 4 meteors.

Again, an amazing view from the top looking down into the treeline, made even more amazing by being able to catch my breath and head back downhill.   

Weirdest hallucination:  None.

Climb 3 - Fort Peabody

Breathtaking (literal):  4.5 meteors.

Oh yeah!  Highest point of the course at over 13,300 feet in altitude, with the last half mile being straight up a talus slope.  “No, I’m not slumped over my hiking poles because I feel like I’m going to die, I’m just stopping to enjoy the view.”  

Breathtaking (figurative):  4 meteors.

Fantastic view from the top and during the climb to Fort Peabody, made both beautiful and ominous by the gathering thunder clouds.  Only downside, though, is that there were quite a few jeep peeps along the way.   

Weirdest hallucination:  None

Climb 4 - Richmond Pass

Breathtaking (literal):  3 meteors.

Those gathering thunder clouds began bursting all around.  Lots of loose talus on the trail.  While it looked like the storm had narrowly passed to the west, some angry clouds soon arose from directly behind Richmond pass.  Why does that rain hurt?  Oh, that must be hail.  Time to fast foot it across the wilderness portion of the climb and down the trail on the other side.  

Breathtaking (figurative): 4 meteors.

The wilderness section at the top of the climb following the flags was really neat, even though I didn’t get to enjoy it too much due to the running for my life to try to get down the pass and away from the lightning.  If I could have seen through the hail, rain, and fog, the downslope into Ironton likely would have been beautiful.  However, that brief moment where a rainbow appeared on the other side of the pass was one of the most beautiful moments of the race.    

Weirdest hallucination: None.

Climb 5 - Corkscrew Gulch

Breathtaking (literal): 3 meteors.

At this point, with the rain being non-stop and the first night impending, the toughness was more psychological than due to the trail.  The psychological toughness was vitiated, though, by the delicious cheese quesadillas and tomato soup being served by the Ironton aid station.  

Breathtaking (figurative):  3 meteors.

Mmmmmmm..... Those quesadillas were things of beauty. Scenery wasn't bad either, as the sun began to break through the clouds near the summit.

Weirdest hallucination:  None.

Climb 6 - Corkscrew Gulch (opposite direction)

Breathtaking (literal): 3 meteors.

The ascent from the opposite direction reminded me a lot of trails in the Dolly Sods area of West Virginia, only much less rugged and water-logged. I made two big mistakes that would catch up to me later. First, I somehow lost my tube of lube that I had in my vest and failed to put any extra in my drop bag at Ironton. The chafing situation, with the wet conditions, was not looking good. Second, I literally tore my sock in half as I was trying to pull my dry socks onto my still wet feet. There's probably a German word for the feeling you get when you have to put a soaking wet, muddy, and smelly sock back on your foot which accurately describes how I felt at this point in time.

Breathtaking (figurative): 3 meteors.

More of the same, this time with no sunlight!

Weirdest hallucination: None.

Climb 7 - Ironton to Richmond Pass

Breathtaking (literal): 4 meteors.

Very steep climb back to Richmond Pass, made even more uncomfortable by some chafing in my shorts. It's raining on and off at this point again. At one point, I take my rain jacket out of my vest to put on and also take out my reserve Garmin watch since the one that I'm wearing is about to die. I put the new Garmin on the ground and then promptly forget to put it on my wrist after putting on my rain jacket and starting up the trail. A few runners pass me and look confused about my situation. As I stop to tell the second runner about my dilemma and decide I'm just going to have to let the watch go, I spot the watch right next to my feet. If I'm already this mentally foggy on the first night, the second night is going to be a lot of fun. Later, I will decide that losing the watch was divine intervention, as I ended up going with another runner for the rest of the climb. This will pay off at the top, where the fog is so thick that it is impossible to see the flags marking the path over the wilderness area. Myself and the other runner will take turns fanning out in circles and calling to each other when we spot the flags. Finally, after the fog lifts and we are on the descending trail, we are met with a bunch of loose talus to negotiate down to the Richmond aid station.
Again, as if divine intervention, the Richmond aid station, which is supposed to be unmanned and water-only is manned by an angel. This angel gives me manna from heaven in the form of cheddar cheese ramen noodles, something that I never heard of before the race and during my college-ramen years, and which I'm too scared to check after the race if this is a real product.

Breathtaking (figurative): 3 meteors.

This section is likely very beautiful during the day in clear weather. There is also something ethereal and beautiful about being on top of the pass in heavy fog during the night.

Weirdest hallucination:  Why won’t that 3-foot tall miniature human get out of the middle of the trail and let me pass.  I don’t like the way he’s looking at me and don't think he has good intentions.  

Climb 8 - Weehawken to Alpine Mine Overlook

Breathtaking (literal): 3.5 meteors.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Weehawken will heretofore be called Freeballin, as the chafing in my shorts requires me to get rid of my base layer compression shorts. As chafed as I am, I am also chaste and it takes me a while to make this decision and significantly impedes my progress, but I feel better almost immediately. Meanwhile, because of both the chafing and because of the trail, the climb seems to go on forever.

Breathtaking (figurative): 3 meteors.

Nice view from the overlook. Less nice view for any unfortunate runner looking up the trail at me.

Weirdest hallucination:  Those markings on the white aspen trees really start playing tricks with a tired mind.  Perhaps I should ask another runner if the marks on that tree really says “Stop Now.” On second thought, I better keep that to myself.  

Climb 9 - Weehawken to Hayden Pass

Breathtaking (literal):  5 meteors.

You can flip a coin between this climb and the Twin Peaks climb being the toughest in the race. This trail is a mixture of exposed singletrack, overgrown singletrack, and exposed and overgrown singletrack.    

Breathtaking (figurative): 4.5 meteors.

The beauty of the views to the valley below, of the rock formations, and of the lush mountain meadows somewhat mitigated the toughness of this climb.

Weirdest hallucination:  One of the runners that I kept seeing (passing me while ahead of me) was wearing a sailor’s hat.  I found his boat on the way down from Hayden’s Pass.  

Climb 10 - Crystal Lake to Hayden Pass

Breathtaking (literal):  4.5 meteors.

The climb in the opposite direction was supposed to be shorter but, somehow, steeper than the other direction.  It was definitely tough, but after hearing the bagpipes and eating three different varieties of nutella sandwiches at the Feed Your Crazy aid station, I was feeling good.  

Breathtaking (figurative): 5 meteors.

If you’ve never danced while running down the very exposed section of Hayden’s Pass while listening to Devo’s "Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA", you’ve never truly lived.  “We shove the poles in the holes,” indeed.    

Weirdest hallucination:  

You don’t see a gnome performing cunnilingus on a naked woman in the middle of a trail every day.  

Climb 11 - Twin Peaks

Breathtaking (literal): 5 meteors.


Breathtaking (figurative): n/a

Fuuuuuucccccccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.  I was told that the view at the top of the scramble was beautiful.  I have seemed to have repressed that memory.  

Weirdest hallucination:

That I somehow climbed 3600 feet in 3 miles and did not commit seppuku in the middle of the trail.  

Climb 12 - Silvershield

Breathtaking (literal): 1.5 meteors.

Easiest climb of the day.  This is the only race where a 2,000 foot climb in a little over 2 miles, after 80+ miles, could be called easy.  But there you go.  If this was rating the descent down Twin Peaks, it would be rated one long Fuuuuuuucccccckkkkkkkkkkkk, though.

Breathtaking (figurative): 2 meteors.

In this race, you only get to the beauty through suffering.  

Weirdest hallucination:

No actual hallucination, just some amnesia.  The ascent and then descent of Twin Peaks, combined with the cumulative lack of sleep, kicked my ass so bad that I could not find my way back to the aid station at Fellin Park, as the second night of the race began.  I somehow ended up in the middle of town, completely befuddled and losing any sense of not only where Fellin Park was but of the reason why I was supposed to get there.  It took one of the local residents asking me if I was part of “the race” to snap my mind back into slight focus.  “Yes, I think so, but do you know where I’m supposed to go?” was my response.  After being pointed in the right direction, and wandering around an RV park for an inordinately long while (seriously, where did all of these RV’s come from?) I finally found my way back to Fellin.    

Climb 13 - Chief Ouray Mine

Breathtaking (literal): 4 meteors.

My course map and section description paper had been long gone.  My phone had been dead and was re-charging back at Fellin Park.  For some reason, I thought this section was short and relatively easy.  I’m glad I didn’t know that on paper this climb had the fifth most elevation gain of all of the climbs.  I did begin cursing Chief Ouray for putting all of those damn rocks in the middle of the trail.    

Breathtaking (figurative):  3 meteors.

From what I could see in the darkness, this would probably be gorgeous in the daylight, with at least two passes underneath waterfalls.  

Weirdest hallucination:  

None.  I did begin feeling like an old man angry at kids on my lawn, though, as the 50 milers had begun passing me in droves and I would silently curse them for being able to move so nimbly and quickly up the trail.    

Climb 14 - Bridge of Heaven

I have pictures of myself in college with the same face.  And all it took back then were some hallucinogenics, not 49 hours of running.

Weirdest hallucination:  

As I was climbing up the Old Horse Thief Trail in the predawn hours, I could not figure out where that replica of the ivory tower from The Neverending Story that I was seeing was in Ouray and why I had not booked a room in it.   

Breathtaking (literal):  4.5 meteors.  Breathtaking (figurative): 5 meteors.

What kind of masochistic genius saves the longest sustained climb of the race, a close to 5,000 foot brute, to the very end?  Earlier that week, when I had hiked the Bridge of Heaven route, I had told myself that as long as I had saved energy and not become over-exuberant on the previous climbs, I could attack the Bridge of Heaven as hard as I wanted.  So, I did.  With a newly recharged iphone pumping tunes into my ears and coffee pumping through my veins, I managed to hit 30 minute miles going up, which although seems turtlish now, felt hare-like at the time.  Goddamn it, I was going to see the sunrise from the Bridge of Heaven.  And goddamn it, I was going to enjoy it.  I had brought a single beer with me in my running vest as well as my wireless speaker.  It was just a matter of picking out the perfect song to listen to as the sun rose over the San Juan mountains.  In my mind's eye, I pictured other runners being at the summit as well and we’d all celebrate and cheer our accomplishment and the sunrise together.  The thought of it had tears streaming down my face. Lost in my reverie, reality quickly returned.  I wanted to stop and commiserate and celebrate with another runner that was on his way down.  No celebrations were to be had.  He informed me that I still had a mile to the summit and that I had better think of a way to move quickly down the mountain because there was a cutoff to think about.  And he was absolutely right.  I spent about 30 seconds at the summit sitting down, and then had to get back to the reality of descending 5,000 feet, on a trail that had lots of loose talus, on feet that were so badly macerated that every step hurt and on quads that had been long blown.  Like clockwork, my phone died while sitting at the summit.  There would be no beer, no celebration, and no soundtrack until I got myself back to Fellin Park.  And it ended up taking me a long time to do so.  The pain of each step being both a curse and a blessing, as the pain kept me from literally falling asleep as I descended.  But I would eventually make it to cross between the two cones that stood in for the makeshift finish line, well inside of the time limit.  

And the finish, as usual, would be anti-climatic- my base needs of food and sleep overpowering any higher sense of accomplishment.  But, as I sit a week on from the race, as usual, the pain, both literal and the memory of, fades and all that is left is the transcendent beauty.  It’s really a neat trick of human cognition, which allows all of us in this silly sport to have more than but a single race entry on our ultrasignup pages.   

As I hopefully said in person out on the course, thank you to all of the volunteers. You were all awesome and a huge help to an unsupported runner like myself. Thank you also to all the runners, both those who finished and those who didn't, particularly Andrew, Andrew's pacer, Trey, and all of the other runners whose names I can't recall. It was a privilege and inspiring to share the trails with you. And thank you to the RD, Charles, for putting on a well-organized, well-supported, and wonderfully difficult race.

Cankles, the ultimate race prize.

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