Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the 2011 Bear Chase 50k ultramarathon

I'm not exactly sure when the idea first popped into my head, but apparently, sometime earlier this year I decided I was going to run an ultramarathon. Since this October happens to be my 30th birthday, and since I have some wonderful friends in Denver... the Bear Chase 50k in Lakewood Colorado seemed the perfect choice. Run 31+ miles on rugged trails/hills at 6000 feet above sea level in sunny 86F degree weather to celebrate my 30th birthday - seems logical, right? What I call "fun", others might consider cruel and unusual punishment.

Sunday, September 25th, 2011. It's five o'clock in the morning and my iPhone's alarm is "quacking" me out of the bed in my friend's basement. I do the normal raceday morning routine while trying not to wake anyone else - bathroom, breakfast, etc. My wife is running the Bear Chase half marathon race, so together we slip out the front door into the crisp Colorado morning. After a quick 15 minute drive we're pulling into Bear Creek Lake Park along with a decent dose of race day traffic. We park in the overflow lot and get bussed a half a mile to the start/finish area. It's 50F degrees outside and just fifteen minutes from the 6:50am 50k start time. I'm sporting my white Fleet Feet singlet and a pair of 5 inch New Balance shorts. Did I mention it was 50F degrees out? Yeah, so I'm shivering a bit but trying to hide it and look cool. But judging by the starting line photos, it didn't work. I look more like a deer in the headlights.

Then it's go time. And we're heading out into the great unknown. This is my first trail race, my first ultramarathon, and my first time running in Colorado's altitude, all rolled into one... yeah, "gulp". One hundred and twenty one of us are now barreling down the trails, having a go at 50 kilometers. The trails are golden and glowing in the morning sun with all the colors of Autumn. The first loop is a mostly wooded 10k loop winding this way and that, up and down gentle hills alongside a swift mountain stream. The 10k loop is the most enjoyable section of the race and I float through as though something is pulling me along. I can't tell if my feet are even touching the ground. Four miles go by before I know it. I can't tell if I'm actually here doing this, or if it's some kind of beautiful dream. Sensory overload. Too... much... beauty...

After the 10k loop I hit the aid station at the start/finish for a water refill and some Fig Newtons. Mmmmmm. Then it's back to work. The 2nd and 3rd loops are 12.5 miles each and I have no idea what I'm in for. I wind through the golden wooded trails some more while the rising sun and gentle breeze help me scoot along with what seems like very little effort. Grinning ear to ear and listening to the stream at my feet - there is no place I'd rather be. I hit another aid station for some more water, pretzels, Fig Newtons, an S!CAP and a pee break. Things couldn't be better...

I burst from the wooded section of the loop and down the trail out onto the fully exposed second half. I'm jogging along when I suddenly realize I'm heading for a gigantic hill. It's the highest point in the park, high enough to easily block out the rising sun, and I'm heading right for it - oh and there are tiny little white and black and neon colored ants walking up this enormously steep beast. Oh, wait- those aren't ants. Those are runners. I'm going to have to go up (and down) this beast. TWICE. Luckily it's too steep to run up, so everyone slows down and hikes to the top. It's rough but not terrible and the run down is fantastic - winding along a steep wildflower riddled ridge, down down down and back into some trees.

Next come the water crossings, which for some reason, I thought were going to be the worst part. The cold clear rushing mountain water feels so good on my feet and ankles and calves. Refreshing and reinvigorating. I splash through the 3 different water crossings and continue on down the trail with new life breathed into my feet. Hit another aid station. Water, pretzels, S!CAP, pee break, and before I know it I'm back at the start/finish and my wife and friends are there cheering me on. I'm 19 miles into a 31.25 mile race and feeling pretty good, all things considered. But knowing I have to dance with that 12.5 mile loop one more time, I dig into my drop bag at the start/finish and pull out my secret weapons...  my iPod shuffle and my CEP Calf Compression Sleeves. I also change into a fresh pair of Drymax socks since I have to take my shoes off anyway to get the calf sleeves on - and oh, and I've unintentionally started a rock collection in my shoes.

I reluctantly head on out for my final loop. 19 miles down, just 12+ more to go. I make it through the fun golden shady happy part and head out into the 2nd half of the loop to face the monster that awaits. The fat prairie dogs sunning themselves along the trail make me smile, but the smile quickly fades as I hike my ass up the monster again. Hands on my hips, sucking wind, one foot in front of the other, up and up and UP... the sun is really beaming now. I'm about 24 miles into this thing and it feel like someone just turned on the oven. I make it down the monster and my quads are trashed. I hit those 3 water crossings again, only this time I want to lay in them. Seriously. They don't just feel refreshing - they feel like HEAVEN. After the streams I stop to empty the rocks from my shoes again (good excuse, eh?), and then I push onward.

The sun is kicking my ass. The trails are kicking my ass. The ALTITUDE is kicking my ass. Right about now, there isn't a thing in the state of Colorado that ISN'T kicking my ass. I hit another aid station for a water refill, a small cup of Mountain Dew, and some more pretzels and Fig Newtons. About two more miles down the old dusty trail, just after mile 28 to be exact, I vomit. And then I vomit some more. And then some more still.  Luckily no other runners are around to witness this display. I get my shit together and press forward. Relentless Forward Progress. That's the name of the game.

It's hotter than a mother, and I'm walking at this point. It's hard to tell how much I'm actually sweating because the sun and dry Colorado air are evaporating my sweat almost as fast as my body can make it. I check my pulse- my heart is pounding rapidly. I drink some water and start to jog. I make it about 4 steps and I'm walking again. What the hell? Hey there, um, body? My brain says you should run so we can finish this thing and go drink beer and watch the Packers. Okay? You hearing me? Let's try this again. I try to jog and after 5 steps I'm back to walking. It's the most humbling experience of my racing "career". In all of my 18 months of being a runner, I've never had to walk during a race. Yet here I am, WALKING the last 3 miles. There's no way in hell I'm giving up at this point. Unless I literally pass out on the course. Which is actually not that far-fetched because I'm dizzy and nauseous and weaving this way and that as I force my legs to walk.

I check my watch. I've been running for five and a half hours. I'm hoping for a sub-6 hour finish, but those hopes are fading fast. The only thing that I do have going for me is that the runners that pass me are genuinely cheering for me - saying things like "stay with it" and "you can do this". The camaraderie is truly inspiring, but I'm mentally and physically exhausted. Baking in the sun and on the brink of collapsing. Honestly, if there had been any shade at all during those last few miles, I might have curled up and laid in it until someone came and got me. Words cannot express how sore and spent I am, on all levels, mentally- physically- spiritually- DRAINED. My feet feel like extremely heavy cinder blocks. But with the encouragement of my competition - I painfully stumble on.

I make it about a half mile from the finish when I hear (and then see) my cheering section. My wife and friends are screaming my name and hootin' & hollerin'. I'm overcome with emotion and dig deep to find the strength to trot the final third of a mile. I mean, they have cameras and stuff - I can't look like a wimp, right? 20 feet from the finish my friend's 3 year old runs onto the course to run with me across the finish line. Someone hands me the biggest & heaviest medallion I've ever witnessed and I stumble towards the shade. My eyes want to cry tears of joy and exhaustion, and my face starts twisting up to oblige but I fight it off. Twice. My wife and my friends meet me in the shade. I lay down and peel off my shoes and socks. I did it. I really did it. And it's even more satisfying than I imagined.


The numbers...

I placed 65th out of 112 finishers. There were 9 runners who did not finish.
I was the only person from Illinois to run the race. 85% were Colorado natives.
High temperature for the day was 86 degrees F.
Altitude of the park is approximately 6,000 feet. (Chicago altitude is 590 feet).
My total time on the course was 6 hours 11 minutes and 30 seconds.
My average pace was 11:58.
3400 calories burned.