Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Race Report: Turquoise Lake 20-mile Snowshoe Run

The 19th annual snowshoe race encompassing the Turquoise Lake area near Leadville, CO was my fourth time dragging my sorry carcass through miles of knee-deep powder. Each time has been a unique experience altogether. The first time was in 2002, and I figured it couldn’t be much harder than the snowshoe treks I was l already doing that winter. Toward the end of the race I found myself doubled over trying to preserve the contents of my stomach and attempting to resolve the errant hallucinations. I stumbled in toward the end of the pack, vowing never to subject myself to such punishment again. Four years went by, long enough for the painful memories of that ordeal to lapse. I had just started running in September 2005 and had about three months of training under my belt when I entered the 2006 race. I did much better and felt encouraged to continue with this running thing. Last year I caught a cold a couple days before the race and thought I could shrug it off by race day. What I didn’t predict was the sub-zero wind chill and a DNF about seven miles into the race. The walk back to the start was easily five miles, and Aspen happened to be driving by, sparing me further humiliation. This year I had logged many more miles, including three months of hill training around our new digs. I was getting over a cold and briefly considered passing on this year, but in the end my pride won out, and I entered with the goal of at least finishing the race.

Since Aspen was ill, I decided to make the solo journey to Leadville. My room at the Timberline was huge, allowing me to spread out my gear for the next day. Upon a cursory inventory, it looked like I remembered everything. But to my dismay, a leak in my hydration pack bladder thoroughly soaked my running clothes. (Our tap water is so good that I’ve become a bit of a drinking water snob, so I tend to haul my water from home, when possible). I hung up what I could, knowing the mountain climate would make short work of the drying process. I set my alarm and drifted off to sleep. The next morning arrived too soon, and I chose to delay race preparations to enjoy few more minutes of bliss. When my feet finally hit the floor I drew the curtains aside to a steady accumulation of snow. Realizing that I had a few miles to drive to the race start, I quickly threw on my attire, which was considerably less than what I had sported the year before. Outside, I brushed the snow off the Jetta and forced this sled down the hill toward the starting line at Sugar Loafin’ Campground. By now I was to pay for those extra 15 minutes in the sack, as people were already lining up, and I had yet to register. I scrambled to get signed up and ran back to the car to add the rest of my gear. I arrived back at the start line as RD Tom Sobal was going through the course directions to about 60 runners, only to realize I had forgotten my bib number in the car. I made a second trip back at slightly less than a sprint and returned as the race started. I slipped in at the end of the pack and spent the next few hundred yards pinning my bib number to my shirt and setting up the iPod for a 5-hour workout.

The opening leg was spent in single file at a brisk hiking pace, and it was evident that my cold still had a tenuous hold on my energy. My heart rate jumped into the 160’s and I was out of breath. I attributed this mostly to nerves and the adrenalin generated during my late arrival. Soon I calmed down and was able to shake off the cobwebs. During this first mile the course follows a series of overhead power lines via a swath cut into the forest to install them. Every time I travel this section it reminds me of the photos I've seen of the Klondike Gold Rush. I estimate that a few hundred feet of elevation is gained immediately. On several occasions I stood in place as some of the slower climbers in front of me navigated the steeper sections. It’s really tough to move at this speed when anxiety takes control and you feel like you’re losing ground to the frontrunners. One must keep in mind that there are 19 more miles to assume your place in the food chain.

The climb peaks at a service road, then drops to Turquoise Lake. The trail enters a clearing marking the edge of the shoreline, where a runner gets a glimpse of the frozen horizon beyond. Only this year, the lake was socked in with low-lying snow clouds, and visibility was poor at best. The course would begin to cross the snow-covered ice cap, and here is when I made my precipitous move towards the frontrunners. I passed approximately 20-25 people during this time, while keeping an eye on my heart rate. When it rose above 160 or so, I would slow to a power hike, but I found I was able to run most of this section. Occasionally the course would cross a section of slushy snow, where snowmelt settles in depressions in the ice surface, and there’s no easy way to navigate except go through it. I noticed that the trail banked to the left toward the opposing shore, which seemed to deviate from previous years. Soon I was climbing the shoreline toward the trees and tracing a fresh snowmobile trail. I could see two more runners ahead of me, and I was slowly gaining on them. As I rounded a smooth curve, the two were standing at a junction, studying a map. As I got closer, I noticed several snowshoe tracks leading to the right. However, I remembered this being a left turn. One of the two others was certain that the frontrunners had made a wrong turn, so he began to hike in the opposite direction. The other followed him and I in turn. But I soon relented and began to run toward the rest of the tracks, knowing that Tom was in the lead group and would not have made such a rookie mistake. By now a few more runners had collected and agreed with the first guy, yelling out to me that I was headed in the wrong direction. So, I turned around and attempted to regain the ground I had lost by getting in front of this group (which had quickly amassed to about 30 people). I had covered about 0.3 mile when the road began to descend, suggesting that I was indeed heading in the wrong direction. It was soon confirmed by a couple of support crew walking toward me who said that we were only a couple miles from the finish line. At this time, many in the group were considering a hasty return to the finish, since they believed we were far off course and would not be able to make the 7-hour cutoff time. I wasn’t about to hang it up just yet and returned to my original course.

The next five miles followed the main road that circles the lake. It was here that I reaped the rewards of my recent hill training. I found I was able to run almost the entire way. I caught up to an older gentleman, and we talked for a while, concluding that the course was being run in reverse of previous years. I passed two young women who were trudging along and appeared to be in poor spirits when I greeted them. I did my best to cheer them on and continued at my normal pace, overtaking a young guy who was taking very small steps. Usually, that’s the sign of a death march, and I was quick to recognize his troubled state after experiencing those same symptoms first hand. He said he was OK, so I moved on. At Mile 11 I was approached by a guy on X-country skis. He asked if there was anyone behind me, and I gave him a quick synopsis of what happened at the junction. He appeared to be quite concerned about the rest of the group and mentioned something about the cutoff time. He also noted that the aid station was 10-15 minutes away. I was relieved to know I would soon be putting some liquids into my system, since I had been prepared for an aid station at 5 miles in, not 12. Arriving at this oasis, I filled my handheld, drank half of it and refilled. I also had a smaller, empty 8oz bottle with Vitalyte powder, and I filled that, too. At this point the course becomes an out-and-back, where the trail steadily climbs to a 10th Mountain Division hut at 11,370 feet and returns to this aid station before heading to the finish. The aid station volunteer was helpful, and I was grateful that he properly assessed my condition before deciding whether to send me home. I was catching my second wind at this point, and it helped me through the toughest leg of the course. I was about halfway to the hut when the race leaders passed me on their descent. I did not recognize the two frontrunners, but I did spot Tom right away, in third. Shortly behind him was Keri Nelson, and then the staggered chase group. Nine, ten, eleven, I counted each runner as I was being passed. 19, 20, 21…Wow, they’re not as spread out as I would have guessed! I began to wonder where I would have been in the standings had I followed my instincts back at that junction, since I must have lost at least 20 minutes in that fiasco. I passed one more runner as I ascended, and about 200 yards from the hut I came upon Kurt who yelled out my name in excitement. He had suffered a cold spell and spent a few minutes in the hut to get warm. He said he’d be running slow so I could catch up and we could finish together. I reached the hut, tagged one of the walls and began my descent. The first few hundred yards were a bit out of control as I struggled to maintain balance with tired legs on a steep grade. Once the slope became manageable I could feel yet another gear kicking in. I quickly caught Kurt and we took turns leading on the downhill. Upon arriving at the aid station I learned that I was the last one to be allowed up to the hut. The confused pool of people I had passed earlier were directed to the campground with a DNF. This meant that I would be second or third to last place at the finish. However, I was relieved to still be an active participant.

Leaving the aid station, Kurt and I cruised a long descent on the main road. At this point I was still feeling really good. However, Kurt mumbled something about calling it a day. I told him I'd make sure he crossed the finish line, and that seemed to energize him as he pushed on. We began to pass some of the DNF’d runners, and I could feel their pain; not so much from exhaustion, but from regret. No one likes a DNF. Kurt and I made a right turn off the main drag into the woods, quickly dropping to the lake ice. Our entire crossing would be done as a power hike, since by now an additional 5-6 inches of snow had accumulated on the ice, and I assume that only the strongest of athletes could have run this section. We stopped briefly so Kurt could snap some photos of the eerie terrain.

A guy in front of us was moving at a crawl, at one point pausing to rest his hands on his knees. When we approached him, he asked how much further we had until the finish, and I reluctantly reported that he still had another 2.5 to 3 miles to go. I asked if he was OK, and he said he was getting dizzy but otherwise all right. At this point I had little water and one bite of food, which he politely refused. We continued on for another 1.5 miles or so until we reached the shoreline, rejoining the trail we covered earlier that day in the opposite direction. I was a few yards in front of Kurt and took the opportunity to consume the remainder of my supplies as he caught up. Once at the top of the ridge, we flew down the utility corridor singletrack with haste, and the return trip seemed to last forever. About 0.25 mile from the finish, I stepped aside and let Kurt take the reins into the finish line, and the 63-year-old grand master powered through those last few yards of powder like a champ. Kurt finished with a 5:24:20 and I with a 5:24:25. My GPS showed 21.3 miles.

Once the rush subsided, I took stock of the incessant snowfall and made a beeline to the car, now huddled under a blanket of heavy snow. I had planned to change into some dry clothing and rejoin Kurt at the small campground lodge for some homemade grub (entry fee to the race was $20, or $10 of you brought a dish to pass). I slipped off my snowshoes, gaiters, shoe covers, and finally my running shoes. All were thoroughly saturated. I then stepped into my boots and began to relieve my Jetta of about 100 lbs. of wet snow. The windshield was already covered by the time I made it around the car, and my concern over the weather began to grow. I started the car and picked out my exit strategy. The Jetta inched forward ever so slightly and the wheels began to spin. About 20 minutes later I had finally broken free. Now the decision was apparent: Do I hang out, eat a good home-cooked meal with friends, or to I hightail it outta there while I still can? Of course, I went with option #2. I spun my way back to Leadville, went straight to the Timberline and booked a room for the night. I had hoped that Kurt would figure out why I left and we could catch up later.

Further disrobing ensued in the rustic dwelling; each article of clothing more soaked than the next and hung on every available hook or nob in the room. I’m sure I was carrying at least one or two lbs. of snowmelt in my outfit alone. I checked my cell phone and I had two messages, one of which was certainly from Aspen, since I mistakenly told her the race started at 9 (it was 10, actually), it would take me about 5 hours, tops, and I would call her as soon as I finished. The phone was about dead at this time, so I had to charge it a while before making any calls, further lengthening the waiting process. After suffering the residual effects of my last year’s DNF, she was relieved that I finished and was happy with my performance. The accumulating snow and the serenity of being trapped in it made me even more homesick, and an extra night away from Aspen and unGuy was almost too much to bear. However, I went to the ‘Hut, ordered my traditional post-race pizza and settled down for the night. Kurt was able to track me down and invited me to join him and his friends who lived in Leadville, but by then I was hunkered down and ready for a second full night of rest.

The next morning, I noticed an additional inch or two of snow had fallen in the city, but the sun was now drenching the hills in a wintry glow. I collected my race garb, which had dried to a nice cardboard consistency, and packed the car. Kurt returned to invite me to breakfast, but I had already set my sights on the drive home. We said our goodbyes and each went on his way. The return trip was beautiful, as the recent snow had wrapped every tree like a gift. I was reinvigorated and blessed to be the fleeting owner of such beautiful country.

Postscript – After receiving the race results from Tom a few days later, I learned that the frontrunners had lost their way while crossing the lake and decided to head toward the nearest sign of land. Once they determined their location, they chose to run the course in reverse. Out of 64 runners, only 25 completed the full 20+ mile course; 39 did not. Kurt and I finished 20th and 21st, respectively.

Post-postscript - I’ve uploaded a Google map version of the race course and have added rudimentary green lines and arrows showing which direction the course should have taken (counterclockwise instead of clockwise). Looking at the map, you can see the split once the course reaches the southern shoreline of Turquoise Lake. The route should have stayed right and reached land directly north of the entry point. Instead, the frontrunners drifted left and then beelined it southwest to the shore. You can see where I doubled back a few times as shown by the blue section of the line. Ultimately we ran most of the course in reverse, except toward the end we would have continued south-southeast on the main road and then crossed back over the ice just above the dam. Ah, well.


Dave T Butler said...

Eesh-ga-bobbles. This sounded like fun, nutso, challenging, and hectic all in the same breath/race/hill/lake crossing. Sounds like you are primed for a breakthrough year. But that's just me.

Dave T Butler said...

And, by the way - I think you've convinced me to do the Screamin' Snowman - the 5K version.

funkylegs said...

Good choice for your first race! Figure on about a 45-min run (and those are 45 loooong minutes!) Maybe we could venture through Eldora and Hessie afterwards……