Tuesday, June 7, 2016

North Fork 50: Life is hard, running is easy

I wanted to run the North Fork 50 because it was more of a "real" mountain ultra.  The other 50 milers I've done were either in the flatlands (Frisco Railroad Run) or the Bear Chase--which I've done twice and don't get me wrong, it's a great race--but one of its selling points is that you can see the Denver skyline from the course. No thanks. It was time for something different.  North Fork involved drop bags at 2 different aid stations (honestly I've never done drop bags before), and it was not a loop course (I love loop courses).  I will never be able to run the kinds of races that Rob runs (like Quad Rock and Never Summer), but the North Fork 50, with its 7,500 feet of elevation gain, seemed like it was within the realm of possibility for me, and logistically, it worked out for my schedule. It would be a challenge, but a challenge I was up to. That is: most likely, a search and rescue mission would not have to be called.

Training went about as well as I could have expected (I blogged the whole thing here).  I was sad, however, for @angelmurf, who had to make the call to opt out of the race just a couple weeks beforehand. I had been hoping to see her again and run with her, but I know it was a good decision, and North Fork will be there if she decides to go back in the future.

Also just before the race, Rob bought a camper van, which is something he has been keen to do ever since we moved to Colorado.  This turned out to be a huge asset.  The van has a bathroom and kitchen, plus very comfortable sleeping areas, all of which would make us more "glampers" than "dirt bag," but would be a vastly preferable way to spend the night before the race and get ready on race morning.

Happy Glampers
Rob cooked us all pre-race pasta in the van. (Photo by Rob)
Everything went very smoothly leading up to the race and throughout.  I have to say, the North Fork 50 is just about the best organized race I've ever run, and Janice (the RD) seriously does a fantastic job in every way.

Course map from race website

Both the 50K and 50 Mile started at the same time, on the same trail, but it never felt too crowded.  It was uphill from the get go. The incline was not super steep, so it felt very runnable, and I tried not to get too caught up with the 50K runners, who could afford to burn energy this early on.  

Start line photo by Rob. I'm wearing my fave colors: teal and red. I didn't plan this, but that matched my new Altras. A lot of people (other runners and aid station volunteers) complimented me on my outfit throughout the day. (And yes, those are cut up socks on my arms as arm warmers. Because I'm still dirtbag).

The vast majority of these people are running the 50K.  It really didn't feel congested though. (Photo by Rob)

7,500 feet of elevation gain over 50 miles. Elevation profile from race website.
Before I knew it, I was already at the Strawberry Jack aid station 5 miles in.  The RD had explained that many of the aid stations were being staffed by Hardrock runners who were using North Fork to earn their volunteer hours.  This was an asset.  These people knew what they were doing.

I had already drank both of my 10 ounce Jenny vest bottles of Nuun, so I had the volunteers refill the bottles with water, and I dropped another half Nuun tablet in each. I did the same thing when I circled back around to Strawberry Jack at mile 10.  I had some orange slices and watermelon to supplement the Trail Butter I was eating on the run.  So far so good.  I felt like I was keeping up on hydration and nutrition.  Self care would get me through this race.

Out of Strawberry Jack the second time, it was mostly downhill to Buffalo Creek at mile 14.7.  We had drop bags here, but I didn't take anything.  We'd be hitting Meadows in less than 2 miles, and that's where everything was.  Meadows was a central location that we'd hit 3 times during the race.  That's where everyone's crew was, and we had drop bags there as well.

Out of Buffalo Creek and going uphill around mile 15. The 50K runners would be splitting off from us soon, and I was looking forward to that. Up until this point, it seemed like everyone I encountered was running the 50K race, and it was messing with my mind to be mixed up with people who were going 20 miles shorter than I was.

I was so thrilled to see Rob and Will (and the camper van) as I rolled into Meadows.  They ran to greet me, and Rob expertly filled my hydration pack with water and ice and refilled my Jenny bottles while I stuffed my face with potato chips at the aid station.  I asked the volunteer who was handing me chips if he was running Hardrock this year and he said yes, it would be his 10th time.

Coming into Meadows aid and seeing Rob and Will at mile 16-ish. I've already ejected my bottles from the Jenny vest and am ready to hand them off for a refill.

It occurred to me that I kind of had to pee (yay, hydration! I'd had 60 ounces of electrolyte and at least 20 ounces of water by this point), and there had been no porta potties at any of the aid stations so far.  The camper van (and its bathroom with a flushing toilet and sink) was relatively nearby. I decided hold off on a lengthy off-course pee stop because I'd be back at this aid station in just 6 miles, and I was very eager to get this section out of the way.  From Meadows this first time, we went up Green Mountain, which I'd heard was one of the hardest parts of the course.  It was also the only part of the course I'd run before (back in November, when it was covered with snow). I hadn't remembered thinking it was that hard back then.

It was very hard now.  With the 50K runners having split off, I was alone for almost the entire loop.  On the bright side, I ran right past a campground bathroom at the start of this section and veered off for a pee-break without losing too much time.

I had done a lot of walking up to this point in the race, but now on the Green Mountain loop, I did a lot of walking.  It was 3 miles straight up, and I still was at the relative beginning of the race. So many more miles needed to go on these legs. During the descent, I lapsed on nutrition and hydration a little--it was good and runnable but technical enough that I really had to pay attention to where I was going and not be distracted by eating and drinking. No matter. I'd be back at Meadows soon.

Rob and Will greeted me and efficiently filled me up with water, ice, and Nuun, while I resupplied my Trail Butter packs and filled my vest pockets with baggies of boiled, salted potatoes.  I felt like I'd just climbed a mountain but still had some 30 miles in front of me.

Rob's photo. I think this was when I was coming back into Meadows from Green Mountain at around mile 22.

I wasn't exactly sure what was next. I knew the Colorado Trail section out to Rolling Creek was supposed to be hard, but I also thought it was supposed to be more rolling (hence, the name), than straight up like Green Mountain had been.  I don't know.  It was tough. It was 5 miles mostly uphill.  The trail was rocky and pretty steep in sections, and there were several areas with giant downed trees you had to maneuver over.  There was also some sort of firing range off in the distance and for a couple of miles could hear rifle shots (and see signs warning us to stay on the trail).  This was a little disconcerting.  The main thing, though, was that it was an out-and-back, which meant I got to see exactly how many people were ahead of me as they bombed down the hill I was trying to climb up.  There were a lot of them.

The Rolling Creek aid station (which involved one final big, crazy climb to get to) was one of the best aid stations I have ever encountered in an ultra.  The volunteers were fantastic. One lady gave me a shoulder massage while a guy filled my pack and got me all ready to go.  I headed back out on the course and before too long, high-fived @tagreen60 who was on his way to the aid station.  In total, I figured there were maybe 10 people behind me in this race.

Near the end of the Rolling Creek descent, there was a dirt road to cross--exactly the way we had come before.  When I got to the dirt road, I could not find where the trail started up again. I stood there, dazed for a second, looking for the orange flags marking the trail. Everything had been so well marked up until this point. I wandered back and forth for a bit, knowing that the trail had to be right there.  I thought back to the last time I'd been at the Meadows aid station, when the leader of the 50-mile race had been coming back from this point already and telling the volunteers he'd gotten lost crossing the road.  This must have been what he was talking about.  Shit.

"Over here, over here!" I heard a little pack of 3 runners call out. Three of the 10 people who'd been behind me.  Now I saw it clearly, the orange markers.  But were those runners on the same trail I had come from?  Had a taken a wrong turn somewhere before the dirt road? It didn't seem possible.  There was only one trail.  Shaken at my mistake, I called out "Thank you," and ran to catch up with them.  

I wasn't in the best mind set as I made it back into Meadows for the last time. My GPS said 32.2 miles, and I was supposed to be at 31.9, so at least if I'd taken a wrong turn, I hadn't added or subtracted mileage drastically.  But I wasn't thinking very well, and I couldn't figure out what I needed from this aid station before continuing with the race. It would be the last time I saw Rob and Will until the finish.  I couldn't remember what the elevation profile was like from here on out, but I knew that these last 18 miles might take a long time.

I left Meadows aid mostly with the small cohort of people who had gotten me back on course at the dirt road.  It started off downhill, and that felt good. I ran with this British guy for a while (at least I think he was British, I could have been hallucinating the accent) who was wearing long sleeves and long pants.  It was like 80 degrees. I hoped that outfit was some kind of special cooling fabric, because otherwise, I had no idea why he was wearing it.

The downhill gave way to an ever increasing up, up, up.  Tramway trail. It was as much uphill as Green Mountain, but less wind-y and more rocky.  I had passed the British guy and was now on my own.  After my navigation kerfuffle at the dirt road, I was really starting to second guess myself.  Was I still on the right trail? At our pre-race briefing, the RD had said all turns would be well marked (they were), and there would be "confidence flagging" at intervals in between.  I began to scan the trees ahead for these markings (now yellow instead of orange), and whenever I saw one, I would raise my fists into the air and say, "Confidence flag!"

I was definitely behind on nutrition by this point.  Calories just did not want to go in.  My memory of the timeline becomes a little bit foggy around here too. It might have been here that I caught up with a guy who was struggling on the uphill.  I gave him a word of encouragement as I passed.  He caught back up to me once we started descending and we talked for what felt like many miles.  He'd been vomiting and felt terrible.  The uphills were hard for him, but he could still bomb the descents.  He was an absolute veteran of ultra running, with 17 hundred milers under his belt.  He was 9th on the wait list for Hardrock.  He told me about one time when he was running Cascade Crest and they got 6 inches of rain during the race.  So much mud.  He was so exhausted. He'd lain down and fallen asleep right there on the trail.  I'd thought he was going to tell me that race was a DNF for him, but it wasn't.  He'd finished.  "You get back up and run, it's what you do," he said.

We made it into the next aid station together, which I think was Shinglemill.  The British guy arrived about the same time too. I didn't feel good. I couldn't get any more calories or electrolyte in me. I thought about Rob saying how in every ultra, there comes a point where you know you are not going to be able to eat or drink anything more, and you just slog it out until the end. I wondered how soon I would start throwing up. 

It was all downhill to the next aid station at Buffalo Creek, though, and I made it there.  I think the British guy was with me.  "It is a brutal climb out of here," a volunteer cautioned us. "No shade."  They filled me up with ice.  I put ice in my hat and down my sports bra. I tried to take a salt tablet, but I gagged on it, and it came back up.  I picked up another tablet and put it in my pocket, hoping I'd be able to get it down later.  I was concerned about the cut off times.  How close was I to getting pulled from this race?  The guy I'd been running with earlier--the one who was 9th on the Hardrock waitlist-- said we should be fine.  We had 8 miles to go and something like 4 hours left on the clock.  Or maybe it was 3, I can't remember.  "You could walk it in from here if you had to," the Hardrock waitlist guy said, and I felt better because I thought maybe I could do exactly that.  I could finish DFL but still finish.

I left right behind the British guy to head up this brutal climb.  At first it wasn't so bad. I walked several paces behind him.  Every once and a while the trail would flatten out a bit or even dip downwards. The British guy ran.  I winced.  But when he ran, I forced myself to run too. Even if it was only a few steps before I walked again.  Every step that I could run, I would run.

The trees went away and we were completely out in the open.  Like desert and cactus and sun beating down open.  I racked my brain to count every asset I had.  Miraculously, my legs didn't hurt too bad.  That was an asset.  There weren't as many mountain bikers to dodge during this section: asset.  I had less than 8 miles to go: asset. I could still walk: asset.  I felt terrible but it was not nearly to the level of hyperemesis nausea: asset.  I was going to finish this: asset.

The trees came back eventually.  I lost sight of the British guy as he went on ahead.  I kept moving forward, by every means I had.  I desperately wished that there were porta potties at the aid stations, because my stomach was a roiling, broiling mess and I could really use a bathroom.  I had to get myself under control. I reached into my vest for a packet of Run Gum and began to chew. The jolt of caffeine brought me back to life. For the first time in almost 4 miles, I could run again. I felt like laughing.  I didn't feel like throwing up anymore.  "I rode the fucking wave," I said out loud.  This was it, the thing that happens in ultras.  Going to the very, very dark place and then finding your way out. "I rode the fucking wave," I said again. 

When I made it to the last aid station at mile 46, Coke sounded like it would be amazing.  Calories and caffeine rolled into one.  But there was no soda left at the aid station.  This is what life is like at the back of the pack.  

"Do you have anything that's like Coke?" I asked.  One of the volunteers, a Hardrock runner, suggested beer.  I studied him and thought about this.  "How technical is the trail from here?"

"Not at all. Smooth," he assured.

"Don't we have like another 1,000 feet of elevation gain?" my voice wavered.

"No," the guy's girlfriend (also volunteering) said.  "It is all downhill to the end."

Clearly, I had read my GPS wrong.

"I've never had beer during an ultra before," I said, but I desperately needed something to get through these last 4 miles.

The Hardrock volunteer told me that the carbonation in the beer might help settle my stomach.  It had helped him in many an ultra.  He went to a cooler (which may actually have been his own personal cooler, not associated with the race) and said, "Well, we've got Coors Lite, and then some crappy kind of beer."

Wait a minute. Coors Lite was not the crappy kind of beer?  "I'm from Fort Collins," I said.  "I'm kind of picky about my beer."

"Oh!" he nodded in recognition. "I've got some New Belgium, Upslope..." 

I shook my head. I wasn't at a brewery tour.  I didn't want something Belgian style or high ABV.  "I'll go with the Coors Lite.  That's what people drink during the beer mile, isn't it?"

He got out a Coors and poured me a dixie cup of it.  Down the hatch.  That was all I could swallow.  I thanked everybody there, popped another Run Gum, and then took off down the hill.  4 miles to the end.

Parts of the descent were actually pretty steep and more technical than my bombed out legs wanted to handle at this point.  A couple people passed me like I was standing still. I didn't care.  All that mattered was that I was going to finish this race.  Maybe two miles from the end, I caught back up to one of the women who had passed me, and her pacer.  She had been with the group that helped me get back on course so many miles ago.  Now they were walking again, and not feeling good.  I shouted some encouragement and kept going.  So close to the end.

I began to see people along the course--spectators to cheer their runners-- and the lake at Pine Valley Ranch that signified the finish line.  I felt like I was flying, but I didn't know how long I could last.  "How much farther?" I rasped to a spectator who cheered me on. "Not far!" she called.  "Two tenths of a mile!"

I could do this. I heard footsteps behind me.  The woman I'd been leap frogging with, and her pacer! She had rallied and was running again.  I ran harder, flying down that hill.  The trail gave way to pavement, and I could see the finish line.  Rob was there, and so was Will, with his hand out.  I extended my palm to him and he ran with me for a second, then stopped.  I kept going.

When I crossed the finish line, the RD herself said, "Congratulations, Melissa!" and handed me the finishers award pottery. That was just like her-- to be so organized, she even know my name.

In just a bit the other woman and her pacer crossed.  I wondered if she'd be upset that I kicked it hard at the end, but I don't think she was. I told her great job, and she said the same to me, and we had a little hug. The long sleeved British guy was there too, and gave me a cheer.  I laid on the grass so numb I couldn't even think.  As I tried to recover, the other guy I'd been running with, the one who was 9th on the Hardrock waitlist, finished.  I found out that he was none other than Sherpa John.  I'd been running with ultra royalty and I hadn't even known it.

The comfort of the camper van beckoned. I had a real, actual shower and then curled up in the bed while Rob heated up some vegetable broth.  The jury was still out as to whether I would post-race vomit.  But thankfully the salt and calories replenished me.  We made it back to the campsite and called it a night.  I had trouble sleeping because my mind wouldn't shut off, and my wrecked legs thought they were still on the trail.  I couldn't eat, but at least I didn't feel sick anymore.  I was happy to have finished this race.

(Photo by Rob). The next morning Will was running laps (to train for The Barkley) at our campsite. I felt good. And I felt more at home in our camper van than anywhere we've ever lived, except for maybe Urbana or Ometepe.
I don't even know what my finishing time for this race was.  Sometime between 12 and 12 and a half hours.  A personal worst.  It doesn't matter.  Life is hard, running is easy. That's why I do this.  I was slow, but I stayed vertical and kept moving. I never freaked out.  I did the best that I could to take care of myself and get to the end.  But I know I never would have finished without everything that Rob and Will did for me and without the support of everyone who thought of me that day. Thank you all for carrying my heart in your heart.

Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

CONGRATS ON A SUPER RACE!!!!! πŸ’ƒπŸΌYOU DID AMAZING!!! πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ»I was exhausted JUST READING about your day!!! 😳soooooo PROUD of you ! Some of those DETERMINED genes have to come from grampy!!! He was probably right there beside you telling you ' keep going ' ! πŸƒπŸΌ so glad APOLLO11 🚎 helped too!! Fantastic!!! Loved the picture with YOUR littlest support crew member!! he's a trooper!! Luv and hugs mamaπŸ™‹

angelmurf said...

You did so great! There were some big climbs out there for sure and I'm so proud of you for your strong finish. It's always good for me hear how other runners deal with that dark place and you've taught me so much about riding the wave and staying positive. Keep moving and the rough patch will pass. Acknowledge your assets. Eat or drink something. Great, great job friend!