Monday, December 22, 2008

Facing The Wind

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of Facebook requests, mostly from friends and relatives who are embracing this latest social networking craze. I’ve never quite forced my finger to the fad pulse, unless I felt it was beneficial to do so. Those close to me will attest that I’ve always followed my own path, anyway. As a youngster, when kids my age were playing football at the local park, I was home scheming a go-cart that ran on the nearby abandoned railroad tracks. While my high school classmates were pumping their fists to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne, I was nodding to Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. Instead of the obligatory Colorado skiing and mountain biking, I took up snowshoeing and trailrunning. I sold all of my ski equipment, and my bike continues to collect dust in the garage.

Aspen recently invited me to join her group, but the folks at Facebook deemed me ‘ineligible’ for membership. Uh-oh, did my hard time at San Quentin raise some red flags? I may never know. Regardless, the denial was enough of a deterrent for the time being. I’m content with blogging for now. And when the inevitable question comes up, ‘Hey, have you been to Grandma’s Facebook page?’, I’ll know I’ve made the right decision.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Catching Up With Depressed Mode

Ahhh. I know I owe you guys a couple race reports. They're coming - I promise! Hope you're having a great summer!


Friday, August 15, 2008

Race Report: The Leadville Trail Marathon

Sorry about the delay in race reports and the like. The weather's been great, and Aspen and I are usually out working on the yard until dusk. Anyway, I suppose I should briefly recap the Leadville Trail Marathon and then my most recent race, the Pikes Peak Ascent. During the Fourth of July holiday we camped near Twin Lakes with our friends Mike, Sasha, John and Ann.

Is that the Big or Little Dipper? I forget.

The mosquitoes were terrible and seemed to prefer fresh blood. I came into the race with about 20 miles of training over 5 weeks, suffering a nasty case of ITBS that mangled my performance at this year’s KM100.

Hoofin' it up 6th Avenue. White visors anyone?

I started out in the back of the pack and picked my way through about 200 competitors, taking numerous pictures and dispensing S-Caps and Advil to struggling runners along the way.

Avoiding those abandoned mines for a change

I arrived at the first aid station in 72nd place and finished 29th out of 244, and it may have been my most well-executed and uneventful race yet.

First brutal climb about three miles in.

Not me, but nice vest, dude!

That scintillating climb to Mosquito Pass.

Chilling at Mosquito Pass (No skeeters were present, by the way).

Ahh, pavement. Soft, forgiving pavement.

.....aaaand the obligatory course map.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Getting One's Bearings

As I strolled in from a run on a typically cool and quiet evening, I thought it odd that the lights were on at our neighbors Gary and Kim’s, especially this time of night, but I coasted up our driveway and a flight of stairs to slip quietly into the house. Aspen had long been asleep and the dogs were closed in with her. As I was hanging my running clothes I could hear the mutts making a commotion in the bedroom. I let them out, as not to wake her, thinking they were excited to see me. Once I opened the door, they bolted towards the patio, but I had closed the screen door, preventing them from going any further. They paced excitedly from the front to the patio doors in almost a frenzied state, the tempered ‘mruff…..mruff’ warning barks threatening to rouse Aspen from sleep. Finally, I flipped on the outside light, slid open the door and watched as the dogs peeled out, their nails treading in vain to turn the corner towards the patio gate. Fortunately for them the gate was closed, because on the driveway below was about a 400-lb black bear, dragging a full bag of trash away from the house. I had forgotten to close one of the garage doors for the night and he snuck in for a late-night snack. When the lights came on, he scuttled toward the nearest tree and attempted to climb it, before abandoning the idea and galloping down the driveway, claws clicking on the asphalt. The dogs were frantic by now, and Aspen stepped out on the porch, rubby-eyed and confused. I looked across the street to see the outlines of Gary and Kim, and I discovered that the bear had also paid them a visit. Apparently one of their burros, Mikey, spooked him over to our place. The encountered occurred so swiftly, I didn’t have time to get the camera. But the ensuing adrenaline rush will not be hibernating anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Painful Lessons in Humanity

Note: I’m still working on the Leadville Trail Marathon race report, but in the meantime I offer this short anecdote. Enjoy.

This past week Aspen and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary, and unfortunately most of the events surrounding this commemoration will not be remembered fondly, rather with disgust tempered by resolve. This year’s occasion loosely coincided with the grand opening of a sushi restaurant in Conifer. We had been salivating over the prospect of such an establishment in our own town for months, after years of frequenting various sushi dens throughout metro Denver with no clear favorite (ok, Osaka Sushi is mine). Of course, jamming a piece of raw fish in my mouth at $2 a pop does not sit well with a guy who used to eat an entire meal for that amount, so we only indulge on special occasions and during happy hour when prices are relatively cheap.

This was our Plan B. My tragic Plan A was to surprise Aspen by arranging a candlelight dinner at one of our most favorite Chinese restaurants. The place is a bit of a dive, but the food is great, and the owner always greets us at the door and routinely sends a complimentary glass of wine or dessert to our table. However, I assumed he would only recognize me by face, so I drove to the eatery a few days before the magical date in hopes of presenting him my idea in person. I had called ahead to confirm that he would be there when I arrived, only to find that he was out making deliveries and would return shortly. In the meantime, I sat in the waiting area and chatted with his ten-year-old son, a bashfully friendly kid tending to the few customers dining nearby. I asked him about school and his outside interests as the time whiled away. After about thirty minutes I began to look at my watch, since Aspen would soon be expecting me at home. Around then the conversation drifted to a subject I was not prepared to explore, involving him being physically abused by his father. I fidgeted uncomfortably as the boy matter-of-factly alluded to an incident when his dad punished him as a five-year-old (and this was much more than a spanking). I continued to ask questions, while secretly fearful of their replies, until I could no longer justify the wait. I excused myself and made a hasty retreat to the car. My thoughts raced as I sped home in disbelief. Did I misinterpret the boy’s story? Is this commonplace or even accepted in Chinese culture? Should I say something to someone? For the next few days I struggled with the idea of this man with an outwardly kind and caring demeanor, hiding the soul of a coward. I questioned what would provoke a father to strike his five-year-old son and wondered if I could be capable of carrying out such a shameful act.

That Friday, around 6PM, I pulled into the parking lot at the new sushi place with a half-hour of happy hour to spare. Aspen had just arrived and was relaxing at a table on the patio, while Nick dined on one of his favorite meals of shells and cheese. I noticed two other couples with young children, including one seated at the table next to us with two girls about two and four years old, along with a man who looked to be their grandfather. It was a typical cool summer day in Conifer, and everyone appeared to be relaxed and in great spirits. As Aspen and I have enjoyed some of our deepest discussions at restaurants, I felt comfortable disclosing the events that had unfolded a few days before. The experience had taken its toll on my disposition, and I needed to tell someone. I expected she would then understand why my initial plan fell through. What I didn’t expect was that I would break into tears after relating what I had learned, as if the weight on my conscience had suddenly been lifted. Once I regained my composure, I apologized for my terrible timing, and we talked briefly about it before moving on to another (and more cheerful) subject. I had effectively destroyed the mood, and it was only a glimpse of what was to come.

A teenaged boy filled our water glasses, and I asked him to send out the waiter. Aspen was already enjoying a glass of wine, and I needed some alcohol in my system to temper what had just transpired. We soon became aware that something was amiss with the wait service. First, we were informed that the happy hour prices would not take effect for another few weeks. My beer showed up about fifteen minutes later, and we weren’t able to place our food order until we had been seated for about thirty. We both chalked it up to ‘working the kinks out on opening day’ and made the best of it by entertaining Nick and eavesdropping on the other patrons dining on the patio. It was obvious that the mother of the two girls at the table next to us was becoming increasingly irritated as time wore on. Eventually, I sensed the same frustration in a few of the other customers, as the wait staff continued to bungle orders and make repeated apologies for the delays in the kitchen. After about an hour, the waiter brought out a portion of our meal. His hands were visibly shaking from the verbal onslaught of disgruntled diners. Then the manager made an appearance to reassure a couple that they would shortly receive their meal, offering to comp their drinks. The grandfather stood up and muttered something about ‘going to the kitchen to see what’s taking so long’ and disappeared. The father of a family seated behind me held out a plate of sushi and proclaimed loudly that he didn’t order it and anyone was welcome to it.

By now, it was getting past Nick’s bedtime, and we were struggling to keep him entertained, allowing him to splash his hands in our glasses of water and taking him on short excursions away from the patio. The woman next to us was getting more vocal in her displeasure with the service and took every opportunity to justify it to all within earshot. Her behavior was making Aspen visibly upset. We looked at each other, and I said calmly, ‘Let’s go.’ The waiter passed by as we gathered our things, and I politely explained to him that we hadn’t received our entire order but needed to get our son home to bed. Aspen offered him some words of encouragement as she signed the credit card slip, and we stood to exit the restaurant. Against my nature, I dealt some parting words to the obnoxious woman:

‘It’s only a meal.’

She sat there in disbelief as I repeated myself, and then some. 'It’s only a meal. It’s not worth embarrassing yourself’. The waiter was standing next to the table, and his eyes grew large as I unleashed my brief but pointed reminder. Not to be outdone, the woman replied with some fallacious statement about us leaving because we received our order before anyone else. I had already said my peace, so her counterattack was fruitless.

As we walked to the car, I noticed that Aspen was in tears. I drew close to console her, underestimating the impact this woman had made. Sobbing, she exclaimed, ‘I’m so glad we’re not like that.’

‘Me too, Babe. Me too.’

Monday, July 7, 2008

Getting the Pb Out

For those of you expecting another crash-and-burn trailrunning tale from the newbie world that is Funkylegs, I regretfully report that you’ll find no such account. However, if you’re interested in a crazy 4th of July holiday weekend camping trip that coincidentally included a trail marathon, I have just what you’re looking for.

Little Dipper mosquito bite patterns, head-scratching shrines to mystical deliverance, and unsanctioned Heinz 57 dog fights are an inkling of what’s to come in the next installment of The Funkylegs Chronicles.

The ' Miracle World of Resurrection and Salvation Museum' - Leadville, CO

Monday, June 23, 2008

Race Report: Mt. Evans Ascent

One of my first races in 2007 was the Mt. Evans Ascent, a paved 14.5-mile race to (almost) the summit of one of Colorado’s 14’ers. I had run the course two weeks before, with conditions deteriorating as I neared the top. I ran a respectable 2:25 that day and was confident I could trim another 10 minutes in the midst of 300 other competitors. However, race day weather proved to be some of the mildest in years, and my performance suffered in the heat of those closing miles, leaving me with a disappointing 2:33.

As the 2008 event approached, I was anticipating the opportunity to apply all of the knowledge and fitness I had gained in the last year. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, I underestimated the time required to recover from a brutal 100K. I did a short trial run on Father’s Day, six days before the race, and would determine after then if I was healthy enough to compete. The run did not end gracefully. I decided to sell my entry but was chagrined to learn that the transfer deadline had expired, as pain shot up through my legs and into my wallet.

Predawn registration near the Echo Lake Lodge

Nevertheless, I wanted to be involved in the event and enlisted as a volunteer. My Saturday started around 5:30AM as the Racing Underground crew prepared to register those who had arrived as early as 4AM. I jumped into my role as a shuttle driver, whisking runners from satellite parking areas to the starting line in my father-in-law’s Dodge Caravan (The Babe Magnet), toting first-timers and old hats to and fro. Race day pressure was off, tainted with the slightest hint of envy.

Just before eight, I scrambled to a perch facing the front line, as Race Director Darrin Eisman scattered last-minute instructions with a bullhorn. I recognized Matt Carpenter and a few other runners shortly before Darrin shouted ‘GO!’ and the entire group made their way up State Hwy 5 toward the summit. Once the last runner disappeared around the opening bend, I darted back to the Babe Magnet and proceeded to creep up the right-hand side of the highway to catch the frontrunners in action. The first mile effectively thinned out the masses; some were holding steady at a seemingly comfortable pace, others were already laboring for oxygen with 14 miles to go.

I recognized my friend Woody, all 6’8” of him, running solo in the upper reaches of the field. ‘This is awesome!’ he exclaimed as I motored by. I approached the 3-mile aid station and decided to lend them a hand, collecting discarded cups, Hammer Gel packets and banana peels, while cheering on the competitors. I waited for the last runner to arrive (coincidentally, a woman I had met during Sunday’s test run) before moving on. I then decided I would make a push to the summit parking lot, where I hoped to watch Matt finish and snap some photos of him. My afternoon volunteer duties were to shuttle finishers from the parking lot down to Summit Lake, where school buses were staged to take them the rest of the way. The switchbacks from Mile 9 to the finish were too tight for one of those monstrosities to navigate the full route.

Once I passed the lake, runner density thinned to about one per every hundred yards, and I expected I’d catch Matt shortly before the finish. But when I arrived at the summit lot I was dismayed to learn I had missed his arrival by only a few minutes. In fact, he had crossed the line and continued up a bouldery singletrack to the actual summit, bagging the 14’er in style.

Matt returns from the summit

I waited for him to descend, snapping this incredible but lo-fi photo, with a frosted range splayed out in the background. Carpenter had not only won the event in 1:37:01 but surpassed a 31-year-old course record of 1:41:35 set by John Bramley in 1977. His pace calculated out to an incredible 6:42 mile! Finishing 12+ minutes behind him was Adam Campbell from Victoria, British Columbia, then Cornelis Guijt from Colorado Springs only 2.5 minutes later. The women’s winner was Naoko Takahashi of Longmont (2:06:22, 12th overall), besting the previous course record of 2:07:14 set by J’ne Lucore-Day in 1990. Naoko is a 2000 Olympic gold medalist in the marathon and the former marathon world record holder (2:19:46). It was humbling to have a personal account of the records as they fell, rather than read about it online the next day.

L to R: Adam Campbell (2nd/1:49:29), Matt Carpenter (1st/1:37:01), Cornelis Guijt (3rd/1:52:04)

Given the limited area of the summit parking lot, the goal of the support staff was to get the runners down the hill to the buses as quickly as possible. At first, it was difficult to pry anyone from the fantastic views of the surrounding ranges. But, by the third trip there was a line of people patiently waiting their turn to catch one of three shuttles, and each of us couldn’t carry more than 7 or 8 people. The half-hour trip provided me the opportunity to hear various race reports and other bits of runner conversations, including a passenger seat tell-all from Matt’s wife, Yvonne. I also noticed that the first couple of trips were quite lively, as the younger, more spirited runners spoke excitedly about their races and upcoming schedule, while the slower runners on subsequent excursions appeared to be more passive or simply exhausted.

My last descent from the summit included only one rider, Steve Sirockin from Boulder, who spends some of his summer Saturdays on 8-12-hour runs through the most scenic of Colorado’s Front Range backcountry. He invited me on a future jaunt, and I eagerly accepted the invitation while unconsciously massaging my left knee. The promise may have been as empty as the space reserved for my 2008 Mt. Evans Ascent finisher's medal.

Course Overview (USGS Aerial photo - Google image had too much snow.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Benchwarmin' It @ Mt. Evans

I must’ve been overly optimistic when compiling this year’s race calendar, scheduling a 14.5-mile road race to the top of a 14’er, two weeks after a 100K. Real smart. Last Sunday I did an out-n-back test run of about 7 miles from the Mt. Evans toll gate to the Upper Goliath parking lot, which was enough to warn me that I wasn’t ready for the ascent. Instead, I contacted the race director and volunteered for the event, so tomorrow I’ll be shuttling runners back from the top in my father-in-law’s wood-paneled Plymouth Voyager. Sweet.

Getting involved in a race as a non-competitor will be a welcome change, as I’ll get to see Matt Carpenter, Lisa Goldsmith and several other mountain goats in action. Plus, I’ll be able to take more pictures this time.

One confused mountain goat

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Race Report: The Kettle Moraine 100K

There’s a popular tiding shared by those who have completed a long ultra with those who are considering one: “You're never the same again”. If being reduced from a confident skyrunner to a blubbering mass of sweat and drool qualifies, then I suppose the message was received loud and clear. The disintegration took place at this year’s Kettle Moraine 100 in La Grange, WI. Several factors reinforced my decision to tackle such an extraordinary event: The race start was only a few miles from my childhood home with the race date coinciding closely with both my son’s first birthday and a memorial service for a loved one. Aspen and I decided to take some vacation time and spend it with family, while touring the scenic byways of NE, IA, MI and WI. This trip alone deserves its own post, but I’ll reserve that discourse for another time. Nevertheless, the events leading up to the race would resurface as I considered the miles ahead of me during some of the most dire mental and physical challenges I've ever faced in my forty years of life.

Our first destination was a small country church in Reading, MI to attend a memorial service for my nephew Rowan, who was born prematurely on February 17, 2008 and died the following day. The service was brief and subdued, and the weight of cradling my own healthy son while my sister and her family openly suffered over the loss of theirs once again brought forth a flood of mixed emotions.

We were able to spend some time with my family before moving on through MI, with Mom joining Nick in the backseat and providing limitless entertainment for the little guy at every waking moment. Our travels brought us to Holland, home of my alma mater, where we spent a couple days with my Auntie Ann and Uncle Gary and family, marking the last day of pleasant weather for the entire trip. Eventually, we made our way north along the Lake Michigan coast, into the Upper Peninsula and then south into WI to my hometown of Elkhorn, where my parents still reside.

Unmanned aid station? Nope, it's a self-serve asparagus stand!

On Friday afternoon, the day before the race, I was posting Kettle webcast info on my blog when I received a somewhat frantic cell call from last year’s 100-mile winner, Mark Tanaka. I had offered him a place to stay while seeking a repeat win, which he unexpectedly accepted. He was still at O’Hare Airport and itching get to WI and into race mode. Shortly after the call, the wail of a tornado alarm plastered the neighborhood. I hadn’t heard one of these since I was a kid!

Mark arrived around dinnertime, and immediately asked for a glass of water, then a refill. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this guy's really thirsty’. I soon learned about his version of heat training, which involved a 2-hour drive in a Jetta with the heat on, dressed in heavy sweat clothes. Given the recent work schedule he had posted on his popular blog, it appeared he was preparing for this race like a student cramming for a test. Items succumbing to Mark’s ensuing caloric free-for-all included a couple grilled Sheboygan brats and a hefty slice of ice cream pie. For a little guy, he had quite an appetite! I broke my ‘No Spicy Food before Race Day’ rule and enjoyed a brat, too. Oh, so fatty and wholesome. After the meal, Mark, my Dad and I drove up to the La Grange General Store to collect our race packets, where Mark was instantly transformed into a celebrity by Race Director Timo Yanacheck and several others involved in the registration process. It was great to view first-hand the positive impression he had made in the 2007 event and how warmly they received the reigning champion.

We made a brief visit to the Nordic Hiking and Ski Trail to survey the race start before the mosquitoes forced a hasty retreat to the car. Casing my last race involved sand, cacti, and exposed bedrock cliffs; this was chest-heaving humidity, poison ivy and skeeters. What a contrast, and an extreme I was willing to accept. Once home, the night ended quickly for us trailwarriors, I to my old bedroom, and Mark to one of my sisters’ bedrooms, since converted to a sewing niche. I hoped the dolls and frilly dresses didn’t overly threaten his masculinity.

Just after 5AM, Mark and I left the house for Nordic, the morning’s glow heavy with water vapor. The race was still an hour away, and I already felt as if I were breathing through a wet sock. Upon reaching the parking lot, the pre-race furor was in full swing. I emptied my race bag, slipping on my hydration vest and loading it with Shot Bloks, Vitalyte servings, and the BlackBerry. I had decided to spare the iPod and place all of my music on the BB, thus ridding myself of few more ounces of redundant weight. My Dad arrived in an RV shortly before 6AM, and I handed him what was left of my race supplies, including a printout showing my expected times of arrival at each of the crew-accessible aid stations. Just in case, I had also prepared two drop bags for the Emma Carlin (Miles 15.5 and 47.3) and Scuppernong (Mile 31.4) aid stations. Mom, Aspen and Nick were to arrive later at Emma Carlin.

The race kicked off amidst a chorus of cheers, and a mass of 100K and 100-mile runners made their way through a grassy area, slightly more treacherous than a local farmer’s back forty. I took a few minutes to find my stride, which was metered by a Podrunner mix that may have been too aggressive for these conditions. After a couple miles, the hills began to take on a more distinct shape, for which the acronym PUDs (pointless up and downs) proved to be an accurate descriptor. Pointless or not, I enjoyed this section since it culminated many miles of training in the foothills where I live. The downhills were carefree, and to the average flatlander I may have looked like a crazed lunatic, flailing down each hill as if trying to outrun a landslide.

This unfettered behavior would not pass without recourse, however. Around Mile 3, I felt a twinge of pain on the outside of my left knee, and I remembered having this same sensation a few days after Gateway. I had been tending to this other hotspot on the inside of the knee, which magically disappeared a couple days before the race, and I wondered if they were somehow related. Nevertheless, I ignored the issue and carried on.

(Note: Until the splits are posted on the race website, times are approximate)

I arrived at Tamarack (Mile 5.1) at 44:22, already 10 minutes ahead of schedule. A short while later I reached Bluff (7.4) with a few more minutes in the tank. My Dad was waiting on the back end of the aid station, along with another dozen or so spectators. ‘Sixth place!’ he shouted as I strode by.

Since I was carrying about fifty ounces of water in my pack, plus twenty more in a handheld, I didn’t spend much time at either Tamarack or Bluff, topping off my bottle at each oasis, including the unmanned Horseriders (12.3). From here to the next aid station, I passed a few more runners, including Charles Corfield from Boulder, who is known for his well-paced, intelligent racing style, and Dave Wakefield from Topeka, KS and Paul Schoenlaub from St. Joseph, MO, who appeared to be running together. Dave mentioned they were sponsored by Salomon, and we talked shop for a while. I was silently envious of their sponsorship since I run in Salomons but may no longer be able to afford them.

I cruised into Emma Carlin (15.5) at 2:24:30 (-15:00), and as I expected, I had arrived before any of my family. I was so distracted by their absence that I forgot about the drop bag waiting with fresh supplies, and I passed through the aid station without stopping. I must have triggered an exodus because four or five runners appeared behind me as I left the area. All of them had been somewhat rested and easily passed me, including brothers Joel and Mark Dziedzic, of West Bend, WI. As the others pulled ahead, Joel and I exchanged the usual pleasantries, before I felt I should back off of my pace. I watched as the 'peloton' assumed various incarnations for the next couple miles until it permanently disappeared into the foliage.

Around Mile 18.7 I entered the prairie. I had been warned about this section, that there’s no shade and the sun’s heat forces humidity into unbearable digits as it evaporates the headwaters of the Scuppernong River. It was painful to learn that the warnings were quite accurate. The humidity was so harsh that my cache of Shot Bloks began to ooze through the mesh pocket of my vest. The only redeeming qualities of this no-man’s land was its uniformity and views of the adjoining forest. Soon I began to recognize my surroundings and realized that I was now running on a section my Dad, Nick and I had snowshoed the previous Christmas. That day, the snow was heavy and wet, and we returned to the car thoroughly soaked. I was sopping wet on this second visit, too, but not in the manner I would have preferred.

The familiar terrain signaled that I was nearing the Highway 67 aid station (23.9). I caught up to Joel, who complained of feeling tired. I urged him on and then attempted a strong clip into the parking lot at 3:53:23 (-20:00). But the wind left my sails once I realized I had missed yet another family connection. I grew frustrated and almost angry at the time. I deeply needed their involvement, if only something as simple as an encouraging shout or familiar face.

I took some time at the County ZZ aid station (26.5, 4:20, -17:00), eating bananas and other fruit as a kind elderly gentleman filled my hydration bladder. Charles arrived shortly thereafter and spent little time at the sanctuary, wishing me well as he moved on. I turned to follow behind him when a sharp, searing sensation stopped me in my tracks. I could not bend my left leg. Then it became painfully clear, the twinge I felt at Mile 3 had morphed into something serious, only I hadn’t stopped long enough at any of the aid stations for it to take hold.

I decided to limp forward, every other step forcing me to grunt loudly and absorb incredible pain. Eventually, the debilitating feeling retreated to where I could manage a slight shuffle. However, the downhills were filled with more limping and grunting, and reaching the base of each hill felt like coming to the water’s surface after a turn on the high dive. It was exhilaration, not in a delightful way, but a twisted, panicked way.

Around Mile 28, the first of the relay runners came into view, looking strong. He had covered only about three miles, so it was to be expected. A couple more passed, and I cheered them on as my own form quietly unraveled. My pace had slowed in the heat, and the knee pain started to creep into other parts of my body. At Mile 29 I came to a complete stop. The throbbing was such that I didn’t know how I was going to make it to the next station, much less another 34 miles. Instead of getting customarily angry with myself, I broke down. As the tears began to collect and merge with the rest of the fluids that were rapidly leaving my pores, I once again forced the stricken leg forward to emulate some sort of walking motion. On a short straight section of the trail I turned to see Joel slowly approaching. When he came alongside me, I explained my predicament, and he offered up a couple ibuprofen tabs. I took them gracefully and thanked him in the most convincing manner I could muster. Little did he know that those two little pills literally carried me into the next aid station.

I arrived at Scuppernong (31.4) at 5:29, coincidentally close to my predicted split time of 5:30. My family was there, as were many others, cheering the incoming runners. Mom was sitting with Nick, who broke into a smile when he recognized that the raggedy-looking corpse kissing his forehead was his father. I tried my best to collect myself in view of so many strangers, although I was a bit disoriented and couldn’t convey to Aspen what I needed. She attempted to get me on a scale, and if it had been working properly I may have realized that I was severely dehydrated. I walked over to the aid station table shirtless, unaware that I was wearing a heart rate monitor that had been modified using a couple of my wife’s bra straps! Despite my incoherency I was able to scan the aid station table for anything that looked appetizing, settling on a handful of bite-sized PayDays, I inhaled these and grabbed some more, then returned for a third serving. (Note to self: PayDays). A lively aid station worker suggested putting ice in my pockets, and I thought, Why not? Into my pockets it went.

During this time, I could feel my composure returning, and the ibus continued to do their job. I slipped on a dry shirt and replaced and refilled all of my gear, including more Shot Bloks (in a Ziploc this time) and a new set of Vitalyte servings. As this course was an out-and-back, I had resolved to revisit the County ZZ aid station, where I would reevaluate my condition before deciding if I should drop out. Aspen asked ‘So where do you want us next?’ to which I blurted, ‘Every aid station you can get to. Please.’ I wasn't thinking clearly at this point, and I needed someone to carry a bit of my mental load.

I grabbed a handful of ibuprofens before I left, downing a few before staggering back into the woods. The mosquitoes were becoming an increasing nuisance, and I expect that they were always there, only I was now moving slow enough for them to catch me. About thirty minutes into my return trip, that first dose of drugs began to wear off, and the last tenuous layer of comfort would fall away. The miles were slowly tearing me down again and I felt I had nothing left to prevent the slide. Then, in a brief moment of clarity, I decided I was going to finish the race. I thought of my sister and her husband, the intense grief they were enduring, and I knew that my suffering was nothing compared to what they were going through. I could manage a few more hours of this and be able to celebrate at the end of the day, while their struggles would last a lifetime.

At around Mile 34, I returned to the rolling singletrack section before the County ZZ aid station, complete with the only true switchbacks of the entire course. I began to experiment with the downhills by pointing my left toe outward and using the bad leg as a crutch. This seemed to alleviate the impact somewhat, although I was still clenching my teeth on every other footfall. The second helping of ibuprofen had yet to engage my nerve endings, and I concluded then that I would never use those generic orange ones again.

I arrived at ZZ (36.4) at 6:47 (+27:00), to the concerned smiles of Aspen and Dad. Aspen was starting to get the hang of this crewing thing and immediately took my pack and refilled the hydration bladder. I settled into a camping chair and drank a couple handhelds-worth of ice water, while chatting with a few of the race supporters. One of them was a man waiting for the pastor of his church to arrive. He said he was pacing him for the final 38 miles in the 100-mile event, and I wished him and the preacher well. What I would give for a pacer right now, I thought to myself. I handed Dad my Blackberry; the battery was about dead and the sweaty headphone cords were becoming a distraction. Easing out of the chair, I turned to Dad and showed him the names of my sister’s family I had written on my bib the night before. I could barely utter the words ‘I’m running for them', before my emotions forced me to turn away. Leaving the aid station, I passed the pastor’s pacer and asked him to pray for me, knowing he’d understand exactly where I was coming from and where I was headed unless things started to turn around.

A few minutes later I caught up to Laura Waldo from Ludington, MI, one of the cities we had just visited the week before. She joked that her hometown wasn’t much of a tourist attraction, and I struggled to recall anything remarkable about the area, possibly confusing it with Harbor Springs or Manistee. Regardless, it was a relief to have her company, and it distracted me from my other issues for a couple miles.

I rolled into the Hwy 67 aid station (39) at 7:26 (+31:00). Aspen was waiting with supplies, while Mom and Dad attended to Nick. I pulled off of the course and made my way to the aid table to research alternative fuels. As I collected a few chunks of fruit from one of the serving plates I told Aspen that if I had to eat one more Shot Blok, I was gonna barf! Mom and Dad showed up with Nick, and Dad remarked about how much better I looked than at the last aid station. Mentally, I was already at the finish line, accepting my kettle; physically, I was just a shell, hiding a temple that continued to crumble.

Exiting the Hwy 67 area forced me back into prairieland, and that’s when the incessant tune popped into my head. Over and over it played, and there was nothing I could do to ignore it. I tried singing another song out loud, hoping to cancel out the offending melody, only to stand by helplessly as the passage worked its way back into my psyche. I was missing the iPod terribly.

The open fields temporarily gave way to a short forested section, and a few spectators relaxing in lawn chairs started cheering as I passed by. I assumed I was at the Antique Lane station, with only three miles to Emma Carlin. I would be cruelly mistaken when I approached the real Antique Lane aid station (44.2) thirty minutes later. Defeated, I remembered that the previous station (Wilton Road, 41.5) had been added shortly before the race and after I had taped my splits to my handheld. Emma Carlin was still another three miles away.

I stopped to fill my bottle at one of the water containers. Bleccchhh. The water tasted terrible and smelled like a bayou. Were my other senses beginning to fail me now? Who spiked the punch bowl? A few more runners passed through briskly, and my surroundings began to take on a pleasant fuzzy white outline. I thought for a moment, ‘This is it. This is the best I can do’ and looked for a place to rest a while. There were no chairs and no shady spots in the grass, so I huddled under the table for a few minutes, contemplating my not-so-graceful exit. An SUV parked about a hundred feet down the road started and slowly drove away. In my altered state I assumed they were my last lifeline, and I would have to cover these next three miles on my own if I wanted to drop out of the race.

Around Mile 45, I caught up to a man who was moving much slower than I. As is customary when I approach someone late in a race, I asked if he was OK, and he implied having some chest pains, wisely deciding to take it easy into Emma Carlin, where he was planning to drop. I asked if he’d mind if I walked with him, remembering the tragedy that had occurred at this year’s Collegiate Peaks. Not that I was in much better shape at the time, but I couldn’t leave him behind with good conscience. I learned that his name was Craig and that he had turned in a few strong 100-mile finishes in previous years, but today was just not his day. We conversed in typical trailspeak – jobs, kids, weather, etc. Weather. The clouds were beginning to muddy the skies in the direction we were walking. The occasional muffled thunderclaps countered our conversation, and behind them, an ominous dull rumble like the sound of an avalanche under a blanket. The murmur created this swirling, cows-flying-through-the-air image as I recalled yesterday’s tornado alarm.

Craig and I rolled into the parking area at Emma Carlin (47.3, 10:08:21, +1:43), where my cheering section had grown to include my sister Amy and two of her kids, Summer and Emma. I made my way to the aid station, where my split time could be recorded. ‘Do you want some meat?’ Aspen asked meekly as she held out a pre-packaged slab of sliced turkey. ‘Meat. Yes!’ She started rolling each slice into a cigar and I ate three or four of these like a wedding crasher mobbing a tray of hors d’oeuvres. I spent a few minutes chatting with my family before the impending storm began to tug at my attention, indicating it was time to go. I said my goodbyes and reaffirmed to Aspen that I needed her at the remaining accessible aid stations.

I returned to a wooded, singletrack trail on the heels of Drew Waddell from Arlington Heights, IL. After chatting a while we learned that we were both in the middle of a year’s worth of firsts: first trail marathon, first ultra, first 100K, and so on. I eventually backed off of his pace and forged my own. By now the rainfall was penetrating the canopy, and the thunder grew increasingly unmistakable. The rain should have provided relief but did nothing more than drench me even further, as initial precipitation simply released more heat from the ground. Eventually the temperature began to wane, and I could feel my core coming back to life. Only, the storm continued to build in intensity, gathering moisture from some giant atmospheric sink. Just when I thought the downpour had peaked, the valve was opened another turn. Lightning punctured the deluge, sporadically striking the earth only yards away, causing me to instinctively shield my head from the impending impact.

I reached Horseriders (50.5) just behind Drew, and by now the rainfall was cascading from the skies in unbelievable amounts (subsequent weather reports estimated an incredible 11 inches per hour!) I moved on past him and the unmanned aid station into more undulating singletrack, overtaking a couple more runners along the way. The downpour was making navigation quite difficult for one bespectacled gentleman, and I was grateful to be wearing contacts at the time. Runoff was assuming the route of least resistance – the trail. At first I tried to thread my way through the less impacted terrain along the path, but after a while even that became a futile effort.

The worst of the storm eventually moved on while I made my way toward the next aid station. I noticed at about Mile 53 that my Garmin was dead. I had outlasted yet another gadget. As I feared, once the showers subsided the mosquitoes returned with a vengence, and every walk break was spent defending my last untapped liquid. The trail would take my sweat, my tears, and eventually the contents of my stomach, but it would not get my blood.

Around 7PM I trickled into Bluff (55.5) with Aspen and Amy waiting for me. The aid station was now almost completely covered with a tarp, and as I lingered inside to escape the assault of the Wisconsin State Bird I sensed that my body temp was beginning to climb again. I stepped outside and asked one of the volunteers to hit me with some bug repellant. He sprayed a little bit here and there before I told him to just baste me like a turkey. (Note – Garmins do not like bug spray.) Drew arrived at the station shortly thereafter and moved through quickly, while Adam Blum from Los Gatos, California rested in a chair within the tent. I wasn’t feeling particularly competitive at the moment, only more determined to finish the race and get that little kettle in my sweaty grip. Aspen said ‘Only 8 more miles!’ ‘7.5 miles’ I corrected her. Mentally, I was not gonna give up that half mile.

I had spent too much time standing in one place at Bluff and paid for it as I tried to exit. My left leg was almost incapacitated at this point. I yelped out loud during those first few hundred feet, then gradually focused that energy into a loping gait. It was only 2.5 miles to the next aid station, and by now the race had become a handful of bite-sized pieces. I entered another open grassy section and noticed a couple of the 100-milers making their way towards me. The second one was Mark, shirtless and running strong. I wasn’t expecting him on this part of the course and assumed he must have had some trouble. We exchanged a few encouraging words in passing, and Mark went on about the lightning storm. ‘I got kids, man! It’s not worth it!'

I reached Tamarack (57.8) around half-past 7, to the applause of a very friendly and able aid station crew. We traded some wit as one of them snapped a photo of me, my weathered form pacing back and forth in front of the aid table because I was afraid to stop. I downed a few banana pieces and proceeded along a tree-lined path, knowing the finish line was now within reach. ‘Five miles. I can do five miles’, I convinced myself aloud, over and over. ‘Four miles. I can do four miles.’

I struggled through the final PUD section, walking the downhills with my left leg straight as a kickstand. With two miles to go, the terrain began to soften, and I continued with my vocal self-encouragement. At this point, it felt almost natural to talk to myself. I had no music or companionship, only some rhythmic respiration and a few babbling words of support from my imaginary pacer. With about a half mile to go I instinctively turned around to find Adam closing in on me. I simply dropped my head and laughed. It was a fitting conclusion to a frustrating day. His fifth gear was spinning nicely, and he soon disappeared into the woods ahead of me.

I began to hear voices other than my own, hinting that I was closing in on the finish. I rounded the last corner to find Aspen standing there holding Nick, and I immediately burst into tears when the weight of what I had just accomplished struck me like a trunk. I crossed the line with virtually nothing left in the tank and struggled to maintain my poise in the face of unfathomable exhaustion. The man I had asked for prayer was there, congratulating me on finishing the race, and I thanked him for remembering me.

The skies slowly reopened to unleash a final watery onslaught, and I lay on my back in the grass, offering my remains to any moisture I could absorb while others sought shelter. I closed my eyes for a moment and sensed the ground beginning to spin. Aspen helped me to my feet, and I made my way to my parents' RV, where I sat on the steps in a stupor with a bag of ice on my head and a couple bottles of water to empty. Gradually my condition began to worsen, and my teeth and fingers started to tingle. Recognizing from past experience the impending signs of heat exhaustion, I asked Aspen to find someone to help me before things got out of hand. She returned with a registered nurse who introduced herself as Ann. I asked her last name and she said ‘Heaslett, I’m Timo’s wife.’ I replied in a grateful haze, ‘Ah, I know you; you’re a legend!’ She chuckled bashfully and proceeded to carry me through the aftermath by returning with a cot and a blanket. I lay there as wave after wave of heat trauma coursed through my body. On the peaks I was craving a fat slice of pizza; in the troughs I wanted to throw up. Eventually, Aspen had to leave to get Nick to bed, and Dad helped me into the RV, where I lay down on a foldout bed. Ann returned later to check on my recovery, and I related that I hadn’t yet received my kettle. She excused herself and returned moments later with Timo, who ceremoniously presented me with the distinctive award like a general bestowing a Purple Heart upon a dying soldier. I smiled incoherently, cupping my trophy like a magic lamp. I’m not sure what I said in response, unable to fully express my gratitude with dialogue, but I remember managing a few words about returning next year. Was I that delirious?

It was dark when we pulled out of the Nordic parking lot, and I hoped for as much straight road as possible. I lay there under a sleeping bag with the kettle in my hands, knowing I had squashed the voice that begged me to quit several times during the race. The triumph was not in this trinket-sized goblet of copper, but in finally confronting my weaknesses. Even in my battered state, I felt stronger than I had in years. I had received the kettle empty, but it was now full.

For those interested in the race stats:

Finish: 13:56:31 [Officially 14th out of 38; much deeper in the field of all 100K finishers. Many of the 100 milers dropped at Nordic (Mile 62.9) and were given credit for 100K.]


Entrants: 72
Starters: (will update when info becomes available)
Participants reported at Scuppernong (mile 31.4): 59
Finishers: 38
Percent Finished: (will update when info becomes available)
Winner: Christine Crawford, 38, Whitewater, WI, 11:08:12


Entrants: 123
Starters: (will update when info becomes available)
Participants reported at Scuppernong (mile 31.4): 114
Participants reported at Nordic (mile 62.9): 81
Finishers: 37
Percent Finished: (will update when info becomes available)
Winner: Joel Eckberg, 37, Downers Grove, IL, 18:10:07 (Mark Tanaka 2nd, 20:39:37)

Weather (highs for June 7, 2008)
Temperature: 88˚F
Humidity: 86%
Dew Point: 70

Course overview: Caution, it's a big 'un!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Half-Full Kettle

Crazy. Brutal. Exacting.

I hope my upcoming post will be able to capture the essence that is Kettle. I know what they mean now.

Currently compiling various photos of the event and will have the adventure online soon.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Webcast from Kettle Moraine 100

In my last-minute preparations for tomorrow's 100K, I discovered that the race committee is providing a live web feed with current standings, checkpoint updates, blog entries, even photo galleries! With a forecast high of 88 and humidity around 85%, you can watch me crash and burn in real time!

This year's 100-miler sets 2007 winner Mark Tanaka against runner-up Joe Kulak. I can't make any predictions on that one. However, I'm fairly confident that the overall winner of the 100K will be Whitewater's Christine Crawford, who placed fourth overall in the 100-miler last year. She had a 100K split time of 10:50:50, much faster than my own estimated finishing time of 11:30. Last year's 100K winner Kevin Setnes (9:56:08) hasn't shown up on the entrants list, but he may be an unpublished entry. After all, he did create this race.

As I sit here sweating at the desk of my parents' computer, I wonder how my desert-tuned body will handle this soggy air. I guess the webcast will let you know before my race report will. See you on the other side. (Hmmm, the town's tornado alarm just sounded. Interesting.)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Race Report: Getting My Money's Worth at Gateway

Getting ‘Rev. A’ of a product is like a double-edge sword. You’re the first on the block to have a ‘whats-it’, but you’re also the guinea pig upon which all future revisions of the gadget are built. The same could be said about the first draft of the Sky Pass Trail Marathon in Gateway, Colorado. I signed up on a whim and was unsuccessful in luring any of my friends to tackle the long drive for an unprecedented trail marathon. The race was sponsored by Gateway Canyons Resorts, a burgeoning getaway about 45 minutes southwest of Grand Junction. Race Director Luke Reece built this one from the ground up, supplying prospective entrants with detailed course maps and profiles, barely 2-D facsimiles of what was to come.

I made the solo trip from Denver on a bunch of podcasts from Endurance Planet and a gutful of pre-race jitters. The sun had dropped behind the cliffs of Unaweep Canyon before I could reach the sleepy town of Gateway, a smattering of tired cabins and other relics from a bygone era. Just downstream were the resort grounds, oddly modern and amenity-rich, ripe with optimism.

I had booked a room at the Gateway Trading Post, and made several passes through the old town at a decreasing rate of speed, finally parking in front of what appeared to be an antique shop with a gaping front door and the lights on inside. Before me was a row of four rooms, possibly a couple mobile homes connected end to end. A Trans Am was parked in front, doors open, and fiesta music blasted forth, amplified by the cliffs surrounding the town. ‘This cannot be the place’, I muttered to myself. This was the place. As I prepared to write off a good night’s sleep, a middle-aged man standing at a campfire near the rooms started in my direction. As he got closer, he called out, ‘You Kirk?’ ‘Yeah!’, I replied. ‘Runnin’ kinda late aren’t ya?’ I explained that I left Denver in the middle of rush hour and didn’t expect the trip to take me this long. ‘Well, I got the room all ready for ya’. He directed me where to park and how to get there, right next to the Trans Am. Several RVs, whose occupants appeared to be stoking the campfire, were scattered about the property. I’ve since forgotten the gentleman’s name, but I solicited from him a brief account of the town, which involved uranium mining, an Indian school, and a trading post that survives as the only business in the old town. He then invited me to join him and the other tenants at the campfire, who had been here a month or so, cashing in on the rapid expansion of the resort. I politely declined and retired to my room, while the thirsty traveler in me wanted to christen the next round of beers.

The room was like any other $50/night stay I’ve experienced: Lots of paneling, mismatched shag carpeting, and a resident daddy longlegs in the bathroom sink. To my relief, once I arranged my gear on the second bed and slipped into my own, the outside ruckus disappeared behind the wall-mounted AC. Since the race was to start at 8AM, I set my alarm for 4 and lined up my customary breakfast on the nightstand. When the time arrived, I even managed a photo, despite several previous unsuccessful undertakings where I looked like hell.

As expected, I was the first to rise in the hodgepodge camp, and I made my way to the resort, about a mile down the road. Registration was swift, but the race was to start another ten miles further south. I had given myself a fair amount of time, so the drive was leisurely and without sound. A couple tents on the left signaled the close proximity of the starting line, and I made a right turn toward a minor commotion in a rudimentary dirt lot.

Immediately recognizable on the side of the dusty two-track was Bernie Boettcher, squatting precariously close to a desert wildflower, digital point-and-shoot in hand. It was only fitting that while everone else stood nervously in line at the single porta-potty, Bernie was taking pictures of flora. I pulled in behind another car and slipped out to survey the scene while squeezing in a couple last-minute stretches. I looked up for a moment to catch Bernie admiring my ‘TRLRNNR’ license plates. ‘Nice plates. Mind if I take a picture?’ ‘No, go ahead! By the way, I’m a big fan of your writing.’ I say this because I know he has many fans, but all may not know he is also quite a gifted color writer, most notably for Trail Runner Magazine. Someday, maybe I’ll get a ‘Hey, Kirk! That raggedy red bandanna you always wear to races is a real inspiration to me’. Maybe not.

Kirk and Bernie - all smiles before the race

As is customary, I sized up the competition. Hmm, the guy standing near the water cooler tent looks pretty fast. I exchanged greetings with a few runners, although Bernie was the only guy I recognized at first. The actual start of the race was 0.2 mile up the road, and Luke periodically interrupted the reggae music blasting over the portable PA to ensure that we were ready when the race was to start. I chatted briefly with Scott Shine from Montrose, the guy whom I remarked earlier as ‘looking fast’. The race was shortly underway, and Bernie broke out to an early lead, with Scott on his heels. I hung around the middle of the pack, testing the waters as the hierarchy began to take shape. The course followed Salt Creek with an average grade of about 3%, perfect for a slow-starter like myself. Looking at the final standings and then remembering who was in front of me, I’d say that the positions for the faster runners of the group were cemented within the initial mile of the course, although I did my best to mess with the mix. At about Mile 2, I caught up to a shirtless Jim Mykelby, a 63-year-old legend from Leadville. We ran together until the first aid station at Mile 4.2. I noticed that a handful of runners were making gains on us, including Meg Tomcho, so I wished Jim luck and moved on. I started pulling away from this ‘chase group’ and had my sights set on the runner in front of me. At this point I had 5th place in hand and made strides to catch the 4th place guy.

The segment between the 1st and 2nd aid stations was a gentle two-track stretch with a grade of about 4%, transitioning into a cobbly climb up a wash pointing toward a distinct cliffline. Unlike Fruita, where I was in ‘conservation mode’ from the start, I allowed my heart rate to climb into the 170s, running with almost reckless abandon. That Coke I chugged before the race probably didn’t help! I wondered how long I would be able to redline in this environment, especially since I’m no ship of the desert. I reached the 2nd aid station at Mile 8.2, signaling the onset of an atrocious climb. This section was about the width of an ATV, with a small gully bisecting it into two clumsy paths. I chose to hike this leg, bouncing from side to side, whichever offered the least resistance. Soon I reached a flatter section rounding a hillside, and I could hear the gnashing of gears as an elderly gentleman maneuvered a tricked-out Jeep in my direction. I offered my standard ‘I-can’t-hear-you-over-my-iPod’ greeting as I started a welcome descent. The man said something at the end that I didn’t quite catch, but as I was already enjoying the downhill, it registered only as an afterthought. As the slope continued, I noticed that the prints I had been following suddenly turned from shoe to hoof, and by the time I had realized I missed a turn I had already dropped about 300 feet and covered 0.8 mile. I retraced my steps in disgust, certain I had mangled my odds on a top-5 finish.

A while later, there it was, the right turn I had missed because I was more focused on the oncoming vehicle. I joined a group of several who were laboring up the next steep section. I passed seven runners in this short span and wondered how many lie ahead. At this point my current self-depreciating frame of mind pushed me to the apex of the course, with the promise of an extended downhill section. At the top was an aid station at Mile 10.7 (12.5), manned by a trio of obliging volunteers, including the older four-wheeler guy. As I was filling my handheld, I playfully interrogated him with ‘You were telling me I made a wrong turn, weren’t you?’ ‘Yep.’ He stated with a wry grin on his face. I asked the aid station registrar for my current place. ‘11th, and there’s a few just in front of you’.

I thanked them and darted off along a wiry singletrack through a grassy meadow. By then, I was thinking a top ten finish would be nice. Within a few minutes I could see Jim making his way up a short ascent, within striking distance of two more runners. He was a bit surprised to see me, and I explained my temporary spaceout. We then struggled to negotiate a section of the trail that crossed private land, where the landowners had converted several hundred yards of this former thoroughfare into an obstacle course, forcing us to hurdle deadwood like steeplechasers. After leaving Jim, I passed two more runners, landing me in 8th place, before the course began its decline toward the finish. The next few miles through lush greenery were to be the most enjoyable of the entire race. My legs were literally flying from beneath me as I clicked off a few sub-7:00 minute miles in succession. Several times I struggled for control in the most deceptive of muddy sections, where balance was frequently interrupted by slippery sidesteps. Still, I picked up two more spots during this time - 6th place. The end of the gravity cruise came too soon, however, forcing me once again into the throes of the high desert.

The course followed a semi-improved dirt road through sagebrush and juniper, the ambient temps climbing in earnest as I crossed a mild highpoint with a view of the bluffs cradling the Dolores River below. Again the familiar race flagging disappeared and the shoe prints were replaced by critter tracks. I stopped and spun wildly, searching in vain for another runner, surveying the surrounding hillsides for any sign of movement. My gaze soon became fixed upon a runner further down the road. It was Meg, performing the same fruitless act of desperation. I scurried to meet her, and we commiserated for a moment or two, deciding to press forward in the supposed direction of the finish line. In retrospect, the smartest course of action probably should have been to return to familiar terrain, but at the time the thought of moving anywhere but downhill was not a very convincing one. Meg was noticeably frustrated and rightfully so; she had the women’s win in the bag. My placement hopes disappeared quickly after this second mishap, so my objective at this point was to find the finish line intact. The pressure was off, and I welcomed a new adventure.

We decided to stay together until rejoining the course, further straying from the proper route. Eventually, we found ourselves off trail and making our way through an old burn area, the carcasses of thousands of trees strewn about, preventing any kind of rhythm. At the time I thought our best strategy was to follow a drainage which appeared to lead in the direction we should be traveling. I gradually banked to the right toward a ridge, and beyond it lay an improved dirt road, painfully separated from us by a 50-ft cliff! Undaunted, we decided to stick to the cliffline as we descended toward the river valley below. We would revisit this ledge once more before abandoning our attempts to travel south. Instead, we followed a cluttered drainage that funneled into a short bouldery section. Once beyond the rocks, that same road came back into view, and about 100 yards later we were embracing it like two seasick boaters stepping onto a pier. However, our adventure was far from over. A pickup truck was parked about 200 feet to the south, and I ran towards it, hoping to find the owner inside. No such luck. Returning to where Meg was standing, we decided to head north, alternating between a slow jog and power hike. The road began to pitch to the left and climb steadily back toward the cliffs we had just left behind. Finally, our bearing just didn’t ‘feel right’ and we started to second-guess our decision to travel in this direction, retracing our route back to the south. By now both of us had run out of water, and I had taken the last of my S-Caps. My confidence began to deteriorate when I began to consider the consequences of continuing without precious water, having suffered miserably in the wake of previous miscalculations. Then, as if a prayer had been answered, a pickup truck appeared, pulling an empty horse trailer in our direction. I flagged down the driver who turned out to be a local guy named Dave tending to some livestock with his young teenage son, Caden. I told him we were looking for Gateway, and he replied that we were going the wrong way. He offered us a ride, not entirely to the town but to a junction where we could continue on our own. In my desperation, I eagerly accepted his offer, looking to Meg for confirmation. She seemed equally grateful to be rescued by these Good Samaritans.

Life Savers - Caden and Dave

Each of them offered their canteens to us, which again were gladly received. The vessels were covered in a variegated cowhide and filled with the sweetest nectar I had tasted in a long, long time. As we bounced around in the back of the pickup, I figured we had strayed only a mile or so, until the second, then third mile ticked off. ‘Wow, we were really off course!’ I remarked to Meg, and we occasionally exchanged incredulous glances as the ride wore on. Finally, after four or so miles, Dave pulled over and we jumped out, eyeing a couple runners to our left, descending a roadcut from the ridgeline. I had long since emptied Caden’s canteen, and apologized for returning it to him empty. We thanked these trail angels profusely and then made our way toward the junction that Dave had promised, thinking we were in a stone’s throw of the finish line. I noticed a vehicle parked there, and then the familiar blue of large water containers on a collapsible table. ‘Uh, I hope this isn’t the 19.5-mile aid station.’ It was the 19.5 mile aid station! We still had almost seven miles to go! I looked at my GPS – 28.5 miles!

A couple runners were refueling here, with the help of a friendly volunteer named Pearl. We began to relate our incredible tale while tanking up for the last arduous drop into Gateway, with no particular haste. The wind had long left my sails, and the only comfort in continuing was knowing that the last seven miles would be downhill. I asked Meg if she was able to finish on her own, and upon her go-ahead, I took off toward the finish. Only, the first few miles were not ‘cruising-with-a-smile-on-my-face-downhills’, but feet-slapping, brake applying, quad-blasting downhills. I simply had nothing left for those kind of slopes. I passed a couple runners on my way down, but in the wake of the preceding taxi ride, the victories were small and empty. The grade began to mellow, and I took the opportunity to coast into the finish.

With about two miles to go I caught up to Beverly Carver, a 49-year-old road runner from Colorado Springs. I decided I would stay with her until through the end of the race, hoping I could be a good motivator. We completed the course together to the applause of the finishers lounging in the grass beneath a grove of behemoth cottonwood trees. Once word got around that I had just completed a 35-mile marathon, Luke walked over and I shared my two miscues in mock frustration. I could tell he had already been compiling a mental punchlist for next year. After a few more runners crossed the line, he announced that we would be getting a reduced price for next year’s race. No matter. I would have paid full-price for another chance to also make things right. Besides, I figure I’ve already gotten my miles at a discount!

Race course details - Wait, you said this was a marathon.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Missed Turns: The New Gateway Drug

Everyone was tiring of my 'things-went-perfect' race reports, anyway. Stay tuned for the details on one of my most adventurous trail races ever! The wheels never fell off, but the steering went bad. Coming soon.....

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Circle of Love

As Nick’s first birthday approaches, I’m increasingly reminded of how blessed I am to be a father. I was reading Aspen’s note in her Mother’s Day card, confessing that “I didn’t realize how much you loved me until I became a mom”. I’ve been repeatedly playing that profound line in my head for the last few days, confident that no greater compliment could be made to one’s parent.

Being a dad has broken me as a once selfish and independent spirit. I used to snicker to myself seeing Aspen getting all choked up over some couple having a baby on the Discovery Channel; now I am sharing the Kleenex, reliving Nick’s first cry (‘un-Guyyyyyyyyy, un-Guyyyyyyyy’) like it was yesterday. I can finally appreciate the connection between us and these unknown parents in their time of bliss.

My transformation to fatherhood was much more natural than I had expected, and I attribute this to age (40) and maturity (for the most part), as if the years of independence were preparing me for something greater than I could comprehend. The bond between Nick and I was instant, like two childhood friends reuniting for good. It grew into something even greater, and I’m not sure if my love for this little guy will ever be matched with words.

Sometimes the simple thought of him brings grateful tears to my eyes, and there are nights in the dim light of his room as he’s cradled in my arms, when the joy of having a child becomes almost overwhelming. It is during these moments I pray that no harm ever comes to him, or that I'll always be able to protect him. Now, I know that being an omnipresent father is unrealistic, because he will undoubtedly inherit the scrapes and bruises of his dad. But in those times when he stumbles, I will be there to apply the band-aids.