Ouray, Colorado. July 31st. Friday.
Let's set the stage.
At over 12,000 ft above sea level, I was dancing in the clouds. It was a paradise of sorts, a misty, mountainous paradise, snow still capping some of the highest peaks in the San Juan mountains, quaint little shops lining the sides of the streets down below. It was beautiful, picturesque, a scene stripped from a poem.
An Edgar Allan Poe poem. Or one of Salvador Dali's paintings. I wasn't dancing with Prince Charming; I was dancing with my trekking poles, and the clouds were actually below my feet, off to the right, ringing another mountaintop like the evil of Mordor from Lord of the Rings. Perhaps my mind was there, or somewhere else outside my body. It certainly felt like it.
The mountains that spread as far as the eye could see might be a sea of blues and greens and oranges, but the earth that comprised my immediate surroundings was brown-- layer upon layer of brown, all the way to the stratosphere, it seemed, where this godforsaken mountain and all of its switchbacks ended.
"I can't!" I bellowed, heaving out a hoarsely croaked breath. A jeep blasted by, spraying mud in its passing; and, then another and another and another jeep followed. My face was melting off in the freezing rain. My arms were like frozen dead tree branches, wet gloved hands petrified in their contorted expression of agony, half clutching the poles. My lungs were on fire. And it was thundering. "I can't do it anymore", I screamed. And then I dutifully continued to climb. For an hour.
I've written before of the things I've carried, the things I've left behind, the layers I've shed, and the things I've remembered and forgotten. I don't think I've ever experienced, however, anything quite like waking up in a convenience store parking lot, or watching in horror as a bear tears off into the woods with my hot dogs and Fritos. Or hearing that Cheerleader song on the radio for the 34th time in a 36 hour span. I was hoping to find something magical during this trip, to fall in love, to embrace a lifelong dream. Instead, it was like coming home from a blind date with Ted Bundy. I'd survived, but I was jaded. And broke. And, that was just half of it.
Ouray was supposed to be my call to the wild. I'd registered not long after Barkley, realizing my passion is in the mountains and that climbing was my true forte. I tested my endurance first with a 28 hour finish at Indiana 100, and then 6 weeks later at the heartier Mohican 100. In between, I did a bunch of 20-30 mile trail runs, and repeats on one of the hardest hills I could find. It wasn't Alpine training, but it was the best I could muster in a state known more for its cornfields and abandon steel mills than its mountainous landscape.
Despite everything that had transpired in the days leading up to the event, the race itself started great. I was powering up the first mountain feeling like a million bucks, chatting and looking forward to really getting into the grittier part of the race after the sun that hadn't yet risen finally set again. The climbing was consistent, but the terrain wasn't difficult, and I realized as the first aid station came into view that I was doing well. I was surprised to find that many of the typical aid station staples such as Heed, gels, and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches were absent, but it appeared the ladies manning it had been in a rush to get it even as functional as it was; and, being so early-- barely over an hour into the race, I wasn't overly worried. Water and a bite of a rice crispies treat would do for now. After all, there were only 5 miles until we returned, right?
Right. I got my first taste of mountain running in the throes of high altitude after about a mile of climbing up a service road. The ascent started innocently enough: beautiful shaded trails, not totally unlike what we have here in Ohio...barring, of course, you know, oxygen. Or, a lack thereof, I should say. But, I knew that was coming, and I handled it gracefully at first. I was calm and calculated in my steps, but aggressive enough that I discovered I was leading the women's field at the turnaround at 8 miles. This continued into the descent back toward the aid station where, lungs again filling with air, I was buzzing from the oxygen struggle, and hungry enough that candy and water weren't particularly appealing anymore. I pecked around at the fare, condemned myself to 3 more miles of climbing, hoping that maybe I'd find something to eat at the next aid station. I still felt ok, accepting that the headache was normal for high altitude, and that this was the piece I'd bitten when I registered for a mountain 100.
Miles 10-13 were my least favorite. The service road, exposed to the sun, was dusty and endless it seemed, and the climbing was such that I was just uncomfortable enough that I couldn't run, but not so much that I was wheezing and gasping, searching for a rock to use as a temporary stool. That came later. It was here, however, that I found myself trekking with the same handful of people that I would see for the duration of my race. I arrived at the aid station with Krystie Martinez in 3:58, still leading but feeling extremely hungry. I really wanted a sandwich, or maybe some fruit-- even some potatoes, but a quick scan indicated nothing of the sort was available here. Anxious and frustrated, I asked for ginger ale, which the lone volunteer at the aid station retrieved from a cooler. I was hot, hungry, and my lungs were tired. Two advil and a ginger ale later, I was left with a faint fogginess that accompanied the headache, and a nagging sense that things were just kind of off kilter. Food-- why wasn't there real food here? Who runs 100 miles in the San Juan mountains on hydrox cookies and sour patch kids? Especially, I realized, when there were 9 miles and massive, epic climbing ahead of me-- including a 13,365 ft peak...and no water drops along the way. "Get it together, Kimberly", I said out loud, took in a deep breath, a huge pile of sour patch kids, and headed out, Krystie right behind me. This wasn't the time to hit a wall. Not this early.
The next 9 miles were a series of ascents and descents for which words simply cannot do justice. I remember, at one sad point halfway up the ascent to Fort Peabody, thinking about Nazi altitude experiments, and how awful my lungs and head felt. Don't Cessnas fly at 10,000 ft? I sat down at least 6 times, and passed a number of other people who were doing the same. At times I wasn't sure if I was even moving at a 1 mile per hour pace. I drank when I remembered, which wasn't enough; but, even that much led to a near catastrophic turn of events when I came within 2 oz of running out. I was eternally grateful for my trekking poles which were taking the edge off the brutal thigh and quad crushing climbs, and by the time I reached the peak, I felt like I was on Mars-- not because I was staring out over what looked like another world, but because I was so starving and out of breath I felt like I'd transcended the land of the living. Could I float back down the mountain? Or slide? I sat down and took some pictures, dizzy and dogged. The descent wasn't going to be easy, but at least it meant getting more air, and doing something that resembled running. I'd fallen into 4th place, and didn't particularly care. I had two miles to the bottom, and then one more climb and descent until I came back to the aid station.
Imogene Pass wasn't easy. If you've ever been lost in the woods and really, really hungry and desperate, you get the gist of what I've been building in this recount of my experience in the Seventh Level of Hell. Granted, I wasn't lost and there weren't any woods, but I was definitely really, really hungry and really fucking desperate. If you don't get the gist of it, by all means, take a bottle of water and a bag of sour patch kids, go to the nearest skyscraper, and start walking up to the top and back down, over and over for 8 hours. If you don't get arrested, by the end you'll have either found the secret to nirvana, or you'll look like I did when I came into the aid station at 22 miles.
"How far?" I asked, scooping up as many sour patch kids as would fit in my hand, washing them down with warm ginger ale.
Cheezits. At least there were Cheezits here, even if there weren't any sandwiches, eggs, potatoes, or anything else that I typically eat during 50+ mile races. I suddenly felt like I understood that poor bear, fleeing with Fritos and Capri Sun pouches, into the woods. Fuck. I'd eat a dirty piece of pizza abandon on the side of the trail. Or finish someone's half drank can of Dad's root beer, warm and flat with a dead fly floating in it. Boy, was I going to eat when I got done. All I could think about, between the gasps for breath and waves of foggy headache, were cheeseburgers with french fries and cole slaw piled on top, and chicken wings. Ice cold pop. Beer. Big fruit salads with marshmallows and jello mixed in. Potato chips with cold french onion dip. Hell. Half that stuff I don't even eat anymore, but I wanted it all in a giant spread at the finish line. I was going to bathe in it like a god in sacrificial blood.
The climb that waited for me was a difficult experience of scree, hunger, and altitude that left me frolicking like a kid on Christmas when I finally departed the trail for the grass, snow, and boulders that waited at the top. It was confusing at times finding the orange utility flags that marked the course, but not completely impossible. The cliffs next to the trail that resumed were overwhelming to view, but made navigation easy, at least, for a while. My legs felt good. My lungs and head did not. Krystie and I had been running, or climbing anyway, closely for miles, but I left her here, running ahead down the mountain. There was a mix of trees and sun exposure on these switchbacks, with a lot of little offshoot trails and intersections. I took the trail that seemed to lead, and kept moving, watching as the campground down below got closer and closer each time. Well, until I didn't see it at all. Or anyone else. Or any course markings, for that matter. I realized, in a moment of sweaty, lightheaded, hungry terror, that I had been passing all sorts of trail intersections and hadn't seen any type of course marking for a long time. Where was I? And, where was everyone else? I stood there, at the bottom of the mountain, hot and confused and scared. "Hello?" I shouted. Nobody answered. I tried again. And again. And, nobody answered. Had I really gotten that far ahead of Krystie?
This was probably That Moment: the climax of the story where gears shift, and it all kind of comes together in a display of fireworks. Or, in my case, an explosion of tears and rain and sour patch kids. I started climbing. Well, first I stood there, dazed and confused and desperate for a solid 90 seconds. Then, the shouted "hello" metamorphosized into a cried "help!" Then, I started climbing back up. Up. Up. The sweat was pouring. I stopped drinking water. How had I missed a turn? I didn't know what else to do but go back, back until either I found someone or confirmed my direction. About halfway up, I ran into Krystie and a guy named Doug, and together we began the long descent back to the bottom of the mountain. Once there, we continued on for quite a while before finally encountering a streamer tied to a tree branch. My fear had turned to frustration.
Crossing a road that led to a dirt path, two girls were waiting who told us it was a half mile to the aid station. I swear it was the longest half mile I've ever run. At one point, we were standing in the midst of an open camping area, staring vacantly around like a bunch of children. By the time the aid station came into view, I was exhausted. There was food, hot food, a bounty of food, but I had lost my desire to eat. Officially, we were at 27+ miles, but I'd covered well over 30 already, and although we'd been out for nearly 11 hours, I was still nearly 3 hours ahead of the cutoff. I choked down half of a cheese quesadilla and a piece of watermelon, and some coke. And then, Krystie and I left the aid station together for a long 8 mile section up and back down Corkscrew Gulch. And here, the story swings back around to the beginning: cue the rain, the thunder, and a series of retraced steps. And miles that could only be longer if they were in Frozen Head State Park.
I quit. I quit not even halfway into the race, somewhere between 35 and 40 miles, at the top of the mountain. If ever there was an image for the phrase "I threw in the towel" it was here, except instead of a towel it was my trekking poles. And if anything embodies the phrase "I literally can't even", it was me when I got picked up by the Texas preacher who drove me down the mountain in the back of his jeep. I couldn't even stay awake. It was a first of many feelings, namely the first time I didn't feel bad about dropping while I was in the process of doing it. Afterward, of course, there's that walk of shame from the car to the house when I'm left wondering why I hadn't toughed it out, at least to the next aid station. Why I hadn't eaten, napped, and changed clothes. But, at the time, I was just glad to be done with the whole thing. It was over.
And, all the restaurants were closed. I couldn't even celebrate my failure with a cheeseburger and a beer if I wanted to.
I drove back to Ohio with a sense of having lost sight of what I'd wanted to accomplish in Colorado. I felt let down and lost. I felt like I'd been bottomed out, and exhausted from racing. With six weeks until the Barkley Fall Classic-- one of my few remaining races, I'm ready to wind down 2015. Tunnel Hill 100 will be a nice change of pace from the aggressive climbs, and I've raced Oil Creek 100k before. You learn a lot of things, every time you're out there on one of these adventures. Sometimes you break records, and sometimes you go home broken. I found out that I'm not invincible. I broke. And, for a little while, I lost my heart. In the weeks that come, I intend to find my way back again, and have the race of a lifetime at Tunnel. It's the adventure I crave most, after all, and the freedom of exploring myself without the parameters of everyday life closing in around me.