During the past week, I've finally started feeling better, and I know I need to kick it into high gear again to get ready for Bear Chase. What I needed was a long, hard trail run.
With Will back in school and my semester still going fairly light, I decided to do it yesterday (on Friday) so as to free up the weekend for time with the family. On Thursday night, I ended up going to Black Bottle Brewery with a friend (she insisted on taking me out as a thank you for one time over summer when I took care of her kids), and as we chatted it up over drinks, I told her, "I'm going to run the Quad Rock course tomorrow."
I hadn't told anyone that; I hadn't admitted it to myself and I certainly hadn't told Rob. It is a brutal, punishing 25 mile mountainous loop through Lory State Park and Horsetooth Mountain Open Space. When Rob ran the race last June, I'd looked at the course map and thought it was completely insane. Why would anyone do that? On purpose? I mean, I'd run probably about 60% of those trails, though certainly not all at one time, and with considerable walking through vast portions of it because it was so steep and rocky I thought I'd die.
I took a swig of my Peach Ripper Double IPA (possibly the best beer I've ever had), and told my friend, "If I don't make it back, that's where you can tell Rob to start looking."
Always let someone know where you're going, that's a good rule of thumb.
But in all seriousness, I didn't really think that I couldn't do it. I knew it would be hard (I had trouble sleeping that night because I was so nervous), and I knew I would have to walk a lot. But I thought it would be good training in heat and on difficult terrain, and I thought that worse case scenario, I wouldn't make it back in time to collect Will from the bus stop and Rob would have to go out to the corner to meet him (which he has been doing every day this week anyway).
Besides, my new North Face Ultra Cardiac 8mm drop trail shoes had arrived a few days prior, and with lugs like these, what could possibly go wrong?
The first two miles are easy--on the wide dirt park service road--and even after that, the gentle valley trails are the ones I run on all the time. Everything was awesome. I even began thinking that maybe, just maybe, there'd be some way I could run this race next spring. I was sure Rob would want to do it again, but maybe we could have somebody watch Will so I could do it too.
I got down to Sawmill and Stout Trails, which are slightly more rocky, but still, everything was great. Stout Trail spit me out onto Towers, and *bam* it was Melissa's time to shine. The temperature was closing in on 80 degrees, it was completely shadeless, and from that point Towers goes straight up for something like 2 miles. Hard, yes. But it is a park service road that's wide and not technical. It is one of my all-time favorite places to run.
Instead of going all the way to the top of Towers, this course has you turn off (almost at the top) onto Spring Creek Trail. I'd never been on this trail before, but I've been on Westridge (which is parallel), and I knew that was difficult for me (steep, rocky) but doable if I just took it at my own pace. I figured Spring Creek would be the same.
Right from the get go, the trail was skinny and very steep downhill. Lots of rocks, often covered with a thin layer of sandy gravel. I felt myself slip a couple of times while descending (mostly at a walking pace), which surprised me, considering the souped up lugs on my shoes. They'd handled well when I tested them out on a fairly steep trail the day before.
Then it happened. A little more than 7 miles into my run. One instant I was moving downhill, aiming my left foot for a seemingly safe rock, and the next instant both feet slipped out from underneath me. The instant after that, there was searing pain.
Instead of my foot landing on the rock, I'd gone airborne and landed on my butt. Hard. I'd also scraped the back of my left knee in the process. It knocked the wind out of me, but I was too shocked to even panic. There was just the thought that I needed to get up, except I couldn't get up because the searing pain was loud and black. Fine then, I won't get up. I will stay in this position until I can breathe and move again. Everything is going to be fine.
When I finally managed to move myself back into a standing position, everything did not seem fine. My legs were complete jelly, my knee was bleeding, but most of all there was the hot, searing pain throughout my pelvis. "I've fractured my tailbone," was my one thought as I gingerly tried to put one foot in front of the other. I am miles from civilization, I'm supposed to run a 50 mile race next month, and I've fractured my tailbone.
I pushed the thought from my mind as a ridiculous worst-case-scenario that couldn't have possibly happened. Everything was going to be fine. I'd taken a really hard fall when I'd done the Farmdale Trail Run the first time, landing on my kneecap. I'd thought the race might be done for me, but eventually it stopped hurting, and I ran another 25 miles on it. This was probably going to be like that time. I'd walk for a while, it would start feeling better, and everything was going to be fine.
I did start running again, but the pain did not go away. It seemed manageable enough if I just took it easy, and it didn't actually seem to hurt any more if I was running as compared to walking. So I ran when I could. Still, all of it downhill on steep rocky terrain. My least favorite terrain, the kind I am most afraid of. I'd already fallen once, and I didn't want to fall again. There were times when I unceremoniously crab-walked or grabbed on rocks where most people would have just bounded down completely unconcerned.
After about 2.5 miles, I neared Horsetooth Falls--a popular hiking destination. There were tons of people on the trail, and it got less rocky. My pelvis still hurt, but I was moving along pretty decently. I ran out of water about a mile from the trailhead, which surprised me. I'd thought that the reservoir I was using held 70 ounces, and there was no way I'd drank that much. But no matter. There was a water fountain at the trailhead, and I would be there soon enough.
Just before I got to the bottom, I saw the Quad Rock race director (who happens to be a World Famous Ultra Runner and also is friends with Rob) and his young daughter relaxing on a bench by the trail. I waved at them and said "hi," like I was totally cool. A part of me wanted to call out him that I was running the Quad Rock course, and a part of me was mortified that I'd had so much trouble on it already. I wondered if he saw the blood on the back of my knee. Still 15 miles to go.
I refilled my water reservoir at the fountain and realized there was no way it held 70 ounces, all smushed up inside an insulating container and then further smushed up in my pack. I didn't know how much it held, but it had only lasted me less than half of my run. There wouldn't be any water on the course until I got back to my car, and the temperature outside was only going to get hotter.
This didn't concern me as much as it should have. I drank and drank at the trailhead water fountain, which was teeming with people. This was my chance, my one and only chance to bail on the run. In a dire emergency, I could call Rob and have him come pick me up. As I thought of this, it also occurred to me that I didn't have cell signal here. In a dire, dire emergency, maybe I could find someone who did, or I could go back up the trail and tell the Quad Rock RD that I needed him to contact Rob for me, or else just take me back to my car at Lory.
This was not a dire emergency, I told myself. My pelvis still hurts. But I am able to move. It isn't getting any worse. I will finish this thing that I started.
So I went up Horsetooth Rock trail, and up and up. I usually go on the more gentle and scenic South Ridge trail that parallels it, and by comparison, Horsetooth Rock was very, very steep. And rocky. I wasn't exactly running, but I was moving more quickly than the loads of hikers who probably had no idea how much pain I was in. Uphill (especially very steep uphill) seemed to hurt a lot worse than down.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally came out to the junction of Horsetooth Rock and Wathan/Westridge, which I was supposed to take back over to Towers. I've done this trail before. It's not easy for me me on a good day, and I walk a lot of it, but it's doable so long as I go my own pace.
The tourists were all heading up to Horsetooth Mountain, so there was nobody on the trail once I turned off at Westridge. I'd been looking forward to solitude again because it took too much energy to navigate crowds.
Westridge was hard. And rocky. And steep. I hadn't remembered it being so much uphill. The ups hurt so bad. I wasn't even running anymore. I told myself, fine. This section is only about 2 miles long. I can walk the whole way if I had to. Once I get back to Towers, I'll feel more in my comfort zone again.
Except that comfort zone would not last long. The hardest part of the course was ahead of me. From Towers, I'd get on Mill Creek (a 3.5 mile section of trail I didn't' know much about), then there would be Arthur's Rock Trail--full of tourists and barely runnable for me even on a good day. But the thing I was most afraid of was what came after: Howard Trail. I'd only done it one other time, in the downhill direction, which was the opposite way I'd be heading today. Granted, it was a little rainy that day, but it was so steep, so gnarly, had so many switchbacks (I think I lost count at 12?), and was so terrifying that I thought I was going to die. Howard Trail was the thing I was Most Afraid Of when I'd been considering running the Quad Rock course. And by this point, all bravado was gone. If Westridge was this hard for me, there was no way I was going to be able to go up Howard.
My head was pounding and my lips were throbbing as though they'd been sunburned. I felt like how I used to get during the dry season in Nicaragua, when I'd be out in the unrelenting sun all day, with never enough food and water, and so hot I'd start running a fever. I took off my pack and ransacked it for some lip balm, which I could have sworn I'd put in one of the pockets but now couldn't find. What I did find, though, was my baggie of Emergency Ibuprofen. It occurred to me that this was the exact kind of thing I had packed Emergency Ibuprofen for. If I get hurt on the trail and just need to make it back to the car.
Here I was, almost 14 miles into this thing. I had one last chance to bail on my attempt at the Quad Rock course. If I made it back to Towers, that was smooth, and I could take that to the valley trails, which were also smooth, and I could take those back to the dirt road that began at Arthur's trailhead and would lead me to my car. It wouldn't be easy, and it wouldn't be short. I was still looking at 9 miles ahead of me. But it was 9 miles of trails and dirt roads that I was comfortable with and knew well. It was mostly downhill and didn't involve any more climbs up any more mountains. And most importantly, it did not involve Howard Trail.
When I finally I got to the junction Westridge and Towers, I could have wept with joy.
The ibuprofen was starting to kick in, and for the first time in hours, each footfall was no longer excruciating. I slowly began to glide down Towers, noticing how much better it felt not to be going uphill.
When I got to the junction of Towers and Mill Creek, it occurred to me that Mill Creek would probably be the shortest way to get out of here, cutting around 3 miles off my return trip to the car. But I didn't know what Mill Creek was like. The brief parts I'd been on before were steep, rocky, and narrow. But was it all like that? What if I just did it and saved myself 3 miles?
I had cell signal there so I broke down and called Rob. I asked him what Mill Creek was like and he said that for the most part it was no worse than Westridge, except for a few treacherous descents. Uggh, Westridge. Westridge had just broken me. Even with the pain at a manageable level, my mind was completely shot. I decided to take the longer way because it was easier and didn't hurt as bad to run on it.
Rob told me to just get to the bottom of Towers and he'd come pick me up at the Soderberg trailhead (still a 20 minute drive from my car over at Lory), but I didn't want him to do that. It wasn't that much of an emergency anymore. I could still move. The pain was manageable. I probably had enough water. It would take me a while, but I could make it on my own.
And I did. The sight of the car was like a miracle, enough to momentarily blot out the gray gloom of having been unable to complete the route. It had taken me 6 hours and 17 minutes to go 22 miles.
I spent a miserable night wondering if I had some kind of hairline fracture and had ruined myself for Bear Chase. Today I'm still in pain but I'm able to move around well enough that I'm pretty sure nothing is broken. I can't quite shake the pathetic feeling I have from not even being able to complete the Quad Rock course as part of a training run, much less as part of the race. Rob can definitely have dibs on Quad Rock next year, and for the rest of our lives. If I manage to recover from this, I'll run Bear Chase, and then maybe I'll go back to road marathons.
Thanks for reading.