16 days shy of my 66th birthday, I completed the Highlands Sky 40M Trail Run. I can unequivocally say it was the most physically challenging thing I've ever done.
I wondered if I would
ever see the finish line.
Those of you who have followed my blog from late winter through race day, know I was terribly worried over cut times through the aid stations. During the first trainer, I hit the FS Road after 10 Bridges in 5:50. Even though we didn't push it during the trainer, that time planted just the seed of doubt I needed to worry. I knew I had left minutes out on the trail, while trying to clear small limbs and such from the trail, but I really was concerned about making Aid Station 4 in the allotted time. I was really hung up on AS4.
June 16 dawned clear and cool at the Lanesville ranger cabin. Typical pre-race scene: lots of energy, runners making last minute checks of fluids/nutrition, lathering on Glide, all the usual. Dan Lehman was working his butt off trying to get everyone checked in. Then, without a lot of fanfare, the entire race field was off. I purposely lurked at the back of the pack, 'cause I was gonna run my race and not someone else's. I thought the pace was a little fast going up the Red Creek Road, but didn't try to keep up with the main group. There were 5 or 6 of us running together when we hit AS1 and the pace seemed OK. (Hollis Lipscom, one of my ER nurses was working as a medic. His wife Jen is a runner and I believe this was Jen's 4th HS. Anyway, Hollis and I gave each other a high five and I went through the AS).
After leaving the road, the course began a gentle climb through some grassy, transitioning into forest areas. As we approached the steeper (that's a relative term) part of Flatrock Trail, it seemed to me as if I was part of an Everest Expedition. As far as you could see, there was this long line of runners walking the trail. It seriously reminded me of the lines waiting to navigate the notch going to the summit of Everest. The walking part was fine, but I felt they were walking too slowly and there wasn't any place to pass. I began fretting cut times again, and wanted to hit AS2 with a significant cushion. Remembering Dan's admonition about the Stinging Nettles, I stepped off the trail and speed walked through 100 yards or so of the little boogers, but did manage to pass some of the slower folks in front of me. When I was a kid, I used to get into the Nettles all the time, but I had forgotten what they were like. I just figured it's mind over matter and kept going. Sure enough, the steep part of Flatrock Trail took my mind off the burning, and by the first creek crossing, the burning was gone, to be replaced by burning in my quads.
I hit AS2 with about 35 minutes to spare. I was really pleased, and thought for the first time, I can really do this. I jammed a couple of PBJ wedges, refilled my water bottle (the amazing volunteers did this for me), grabbed a handful of pretzels and trucked on down the road towards Boar's Nest. I was feeling strong and was running more than walking, thinking life's great. Due to Dan's flagging, I saw the Boar's Nest junction and turned left. I began recalling from the Trainer, the brutal downhill section that was coming up. I hated that part then and hated it again Saturday. The only positive thing about it was it was much drier and was mostly cleared of downed branches (thank you Dan). I managed to make it down in one piece and enjoyed some relatively flat running for a while. Soon enough we began the climb up the South Fork of Red Creek (does it really have a name?). I kept thinking someone must have moved the creek crossing. I kept telling my group that it was just up the trail. After finally crossing the creek, we began the climb to AS3. Within 200 yards of the AS I pointed out the skyline (indicating the road), and as soon as I looked up, I took my first fall. Wasn't bad, just a superficial scrape above my right wrist. We rolled into AS3 and Hollis was there. I brushed off all the "what happened to you?" questions, filled my water bottle (by the amazing volunteers), jammed some cookies into my mouth, grabbed another handful of pretzels and set out for AS4. The splits were still good; we were still about 30 or 35 minutes under the cut time. I'm thinking, this is good. Our little group made it up the climb from AS3 onto the flatter portion of the South Prong Trail. We had a great group of runners in our "pod." A Navy doc (thank you for your service) from Walter Reed. She was recently back from Afghanistan, and commented that Afghanistan was easier than HS. I said, "yeah, but for the IEDs." There was a nurse and a couple of other folks in our group. Somewhere around mile 18 or so, I took a seriously hard fall. Who knows what happened? I was just on the ground wondering how I got there (I'm such a klutz). Following a quick self assessment that nothing was broken, I began getting back up. My knee was flat ugly. I could look into the wound and see my kneecap.
At the finish line, some 6 plus hours post fall.
Three hours later following much debridement,
this baby took 10 stitches. (Davis Memorial
Hospital ER docs ROCK)
Rupa (Navy Doc) Dainer had some Bacitracin in her pack and after a feeble attempt at irrigating the gash, she lathered it up with Bacitracin. Another guy (apologies as I don't remember your name) helped me up and "checked my nose and eyes" (that wound looked worse than it was) and we all got back on the trail. "Time's a wastin" and in the immortal words of some famous cowboy "...we're burnin daylight..." I settled in with Rupa and we're on cruise control for AS4 (my long imagined nemesis). I told Rupa there would probably be a fight at AS4, as my wife and daughter, Danielle were going to be there, and I could hear an admonition to drop out. Our little group was still in the sub 30 - 35 minute cut time, so I felt very good about that. I actually got a little teary eyed coming into the aid station. It was really an emotional moment for me. I believe Cindy was kind of in shock and didn't say anything. I swapped stuff out of my drop bag with the help of Danielle and Cindy, got my water bottle refilled, had some cursory first aid on my knee (the first responders/first aiders really need gloves -- I preached at the young lady who was helping me, as she was glove less) and headed up the Road Across the Sky, after grabbing more cookies and chips.
My old nemesis, Aid Station 4. Cut off 6
hours, 5 minutes.
My wonderful wife, Cindy, mother of Danielle &
Hillary, Captain of my support crew. I am forever
grateful for your support and understanding
over these last several months.
The ever popular drop bag!
My approach to AS4. I'm gonna make the cut! What's
with all the traffic? Some guy in a pickem up, nearly
bumped me as I was going into the aid station.
I felt reasonably strong at the beginning of the road, and managed to run to the first significant climb, where I took the cue from everyone else and walked it. AS5 had watermelon that was to die for, plus more water (yummmm, water). At some point on the road, I joined up with Abbi Crowe and her sister. I settled in with them alternating between running the down hills and flats (there really were a couple) and walking the uphills. Where was AS6? I mean, it seemed to take forever to get there, but finally from the bottom of a very long hill, we saw it. Beat the cut time!!! Time to celebrate for a few seconds, get more fuel, more water and hit the meadows.
At some point my race plan fell apart, and I can't remember when. During all of my training runs I worked at "eating" and drinking every half hour. I did it, religiously for every training run between 10 miles and 50K. Anyway, I got side tracked. I think the food at the AS's threw me off. I ate at every AS, but I know I wasn't getting 100 cals from the cookies and pretzels. I ate on schedule most of the first 20 miles, but after that, I missed more of the half hour "feedings" than I made. In retrospect, I think I was getting pretty hypo-glycemic. Everyone told me "don't forget to eat." I just went brain dead. I had Hammer Gels and other easy stuff, just didn't use it.
I think the 6 miles between AS 6 & AS7 were the "longest" of the entire race. My lacerated knee was beginning to slow me down. I felt OK on the climbs and level areas, but I began dreading the downhills, and by the time I got to the boulder field I had to force myself to put any downhill pressure on my left knee. I finally rolled into AS7 and the cold water was amazing. I didn't (read couldn't) eat. One of the wonderful volunteers was opening a can of potatoes and I thought I was going to puke. I didn't recognize the signs of hypoglycemia, so I threw down some eCaps, took another big drink of water and headed for Salamander at Timberline.
Going out of AS7, the trail was very runnable, but my legs were so wasted I could only run a few steps and then there would be a handful of rocks on the trail prompting me to walk again. I just did not have the confidence or energy to "dance" through them at this point in the day. The last thing I wanted to do was fall again. I knew if I fell and hit my injured knee again, I'd probably just crawl off the trail and let the coyotes have their way with me. When we came out of the woods onto Salamander (a great beginner's slope that goes forever) I thought "we have to go up there?" Actually the climb up wasn't as bad as I expected, even though I walked most of it. I was a little worried about missing the trail back into the woods, but Dan had done a great job of flagging the route and it matched the pre-race briefing perfectly. Finally, out of the sun and back into the shade of the trees. Little did I know what lay ahead.
Oh, did I mention the "butt slide" was fun too? As we started our decent into the valley, the trail got steeper and steeper. A couple of runners passed me and I caught up with some others, but just fell in behind them. I was running on fumes by then and had no interest in passing anyone on the steep single track. I'm thinking to myself, "these mountain bikers are crazier than hell." I mean, it was bad enough trying to negotiate that section of trail on foot, let alone on a mountain bike. There were a couple of places where our little group actually had to hang onto small trees to get down the really steep pitches. I kept looking at my watch and at this point, I was convinced there was no way I (we) was going to make the finish line under 12. Even after the "butt slide" we were still in the woods for what seemed like miles. Finally we broke onto a gravel road and soon saw AS8 in the distance. The final leg! We were going to make it!
As I ran into the AS, I saw my family complete with our two Golden Retrievers on the side of the road. I cannot tell you what a boost that was. I refilled my water bottle (no food now--what good would it do?), with the help of volunteers, and began running up Freeland Road. I was actually running fairly large chunks of road. I would run the flats and walk the hills. That seemed to work. As we approached the intersection with Rt. 32, the course veered left into a fairly large, grassy meadow. There was a tread, but I was reluctant to try to run much of it. I nearly twisted an ankle on a rut and a clump of grass, and the last thing I wanted at that point was a debilitating injury. I figured I could walk backwards by then and still make the cut. Across Rt. 32 and into CVSP. The paved road into the park was hot and totally exposed to the sun. I ran the flats (mostly) and what downhill there was and walked the uphills. The trail turned back into the woods and we were inside a mile. A girl I was running (walking) with told me she had fallen several times on this section, last year. Don't fall. Watch your step. Concentrate.
Bang! Out of the woods onto manicured grass and then the final yards to the finish line. I (we) had made it. So much was racing through my mind at that point. John Logar was standing at the finish line with his patented grin. Dan Lehman was dutifully taking pictures of all the finishers. My daughter Danielle was taking pictures and Cindy was doing a great job controlling our Goldens. It was over. Was it as bad as I thought it was 3 hours earlier?
I can't believe I made it...
The allusive Finish Line
My greatest fans
A congratulatory hug. (I know I smell bad)
Danielle and dad, with the ever present dog leash
Triage by "Coach" Logar
Calling the ER. I'm on my way.
It's post race day 6 and difficult to put into words everything I'm feeling. Physically, I'm doing well. The lactic acid finally metabolized on Tuesday and my quads are totally back to normal. Had it not been for my stupid knee, my normal routine of a post race day 1, one or two mile walk, followed PR day 2 by a two or three mile gentle jog would have sped up the recovery process. But, I feel good. After my first marathon, back in the late '70's, I had to walk down the stairs backwards for two days. Following HS, even with my gimpy knee, I could go down the stairs frontwards. The knee is looking good, although it will be forever ugly, no signs of infection and healing nicely. Stitches out Monday. Some gentle running next week. It's time.
I met so many extraordinary people out on the trail. I am just so impressed by the women athletes who participate in HS. In an iRunFar blog last week, Bryon wrote about being "chicked." I told Abbi Crowe she and her sister "chicked" me. I think it's great. I have two wonderful daughters and I will tell you, a woman can do anything a man can do. Back in the 'bad old days' of the Boston Athletic Club (and others) women were not even allowed to run in marathons because they were the weaker sex. Well all of you ladies out there may (on the count of 3) thumb your collective noses at them. Great job!!! There were so many "trail experiences" I can't begin to mention all of them. Even though it was a competitive environment, there was a huge sense of comradery too. When I took my spill at mile 17, everyone around me pitched in to get me back on my feet and headed up the trail. Seconds here and minutes there all add up, but everyone (throughout the race) really showed outstanding sportsmanship. I wish I could remember names from the trail, but alas, that is one my several (many?) weaknesses. I dated my wife for over a week before I could remember her last name. I know, I'm just lame.
I have rambled much too long. Before I post this, I want to thank Dan Lehman and his amazing crew of volunteers for a first rate event. I can tell you, it's not easy being a race director, even for a little 10K. Way to go Dan! Next I want to thank Adam Casseday for all of his support and coaching during my months of training. I met Adam for the first time in Cooke City, MT. He and my older daughter Hillary went to high school together. Adam and Kadra are having their first child in August. I told Adam that will change his life forever. Adam, Danielle and I are looking forward to crewing at CMMM. Then there's Logar. What can I say? He always makes me laugh and he is a wealth of information regarding the world of Ultras. He was especially helpful with fueling suggestions, electrolyte management, and always said, "just keep moving forward." Matt Young pulled me back from the ledge early in my training, when I didn't think I could do it. Even though we haven't met, we exchanged a series of eMails that got me refocused. I really regret not meeting Matt at HS.
Thanks to everyone, athletes, volunteers and families. /jim