Palmer Lake is a tiny town at the base of the Rampart Range, tucked away off I-25, protected from the madness of the nearby big cities of Denver and Colorado Springs. I haven't been there in 20 years. Before we moved away to Arizona, I ran a trail race there in 1998. I remember it being beautiful and quiet.
The entire reason I love 24 hour runs is the nighttime. Especially under a clear sky with stars and meteor showers. Life doesn't get much better than that, in my opinion. If I were more of a night person in my regular life, I would do all my running at night. The cover of darkness under the moon or starlit sky is the best venue for running, for losing yourself, for therapy, for clearing your mind into a blank slate, and renewal of your spirit. That's what it does for me.
Surrounded by mountains with pine-forested slopes, a forgiving dirt trail around a quiet lake reflecting the landscape, and just the right number of people- not too crowded, but well-attended enough to provide the just the right social atmosphere, with enough of a weather challenge to keep things interesting without being miserable- I think this might be the essence of ultrarunning.
The only drawback of this event, that I found a bit annoying- was the frequency of the trains that thundered by at least once an hour- big, long coal trains along the tracks on the west side of the course. There is a railroad crossing on the north end of the lake, and the horns would go off, waking you out of whatever stupor you were in, followed by earth shattering railroad cars, followed by hundreds of screeching wheels that sound like nails on a chalkboard. Other than being subjected to this music- and conversation-obliterating nuisance on a regular basis, and one that the race organizers are powerless to change- I would say this event is one of the best ultras I've ever attended. I'd say if the noise bothers you, bring earplugs, it certainly won't stop me from coming back.
Sasquatch (a.k.a. Dale Perry) told me about this event a few months ago and the timing was perfect for me. Then I signed up for it and discovered it was a bargain. Other than Fat Ass runs, this one doesn't cost much more than those. There is, of course, no timing system, it's an honor-based system where you keep track of your own miles. They provide a tracking method where you can write down your lap count. I found that it helped me if I wrote my laps down every hour, that way I didn't have trouble keeping track of too many at a time. To help me remember, I also wrote down the time of day when I finished the last recorded lap.
I wasn't expecting much more than a Fat Ass event based on the price, but I was pleasantly surprised to find just the right number of well-stocked portapotties, a tent with a few unexpected snacks, trash cans, and chairs to chill out off your feet if needed, which was where the lap-tracking activity occurred. We switched directions every 4 hours, which was a nice distraction, and it was convenient to set up your table or crewing station right along the course without adding any extra steps.
Not only that, but they provided race goodies- a water bottle, flask, sticker, and finishers medal, much more than I'd ever expect from a race priced this low.
After being supervised by Velcro and Gypsy while packing everything under the sun due to the weather forecast of snowy, cold, wet conditions, I decided to stay overnight in Monument, about 10 minutes drive from the event. I made a reservation at the Fairfield Inn and headed south on I-25. Sasquatch also decided to drive down Friday so we met for dinner at Chili's- not too many choices besides McDonalds, fried chicken, and a few other fast food joints. Sasquatch advised me to get there early in the morning to get a good parking spot to be able to set up for crewing along the course. He said he would be there at 6. I told him I would look for him around 6:30 am, as the race start was at 8 am.
When I woke up in the morning, I looked out my window on the parking lot. It snowed overnight and puddles were forming on the asphalt. The clouds were barely above the ground- a thick fog obscured the view. I drove slowly to the race and got a parking spot alongside the course, with enough room to set up my table next to my car and the trail. I went to the tent to check in and found Sasquatch, who got one of the primo parking spots and parked right next to Eric Pence, another ultra friend of ours from Eagle. Eric is back to ultras now, a few months after surgery to donate one of his kidneys to his sister. Eric has always been a great athlete, and he seems to be recovering extremely well.
It was already muddy on the course, and the wet snow wasn't letting up. There was also a 10 mph wind out of the north that was worth an extra layer or two of clothing. I started out with my long compression shorts and my calf compression sleeves, which together are long enough to cover my entire legs. I wore gaiters, and on top, I had 4 layers, plus a neck gaiter, hat and headband. I brought so many clothes, I knew I would be okay.
As it turned out, I was dressed perfectly, because I was completely comfortable. There was a noticeable difference between the east and west sides of the lake with the wind in our faces or at our backs, I'd rather stay warm and be a little overdressed when the wind is at my back.NorthCoast in 2013, exactly 5 years ago to this weekend! I've run in worse, and it was actually quite pleasant here by comparison.
I started out by running a lap every hour to save my energy, and that went well for the first four hours, until the course started to get sloppy, slowing my pace down. Each lap of the course is 0.82 miles. I wasn't doing the math in my head but I knew I wanted to beat my distance from Across the Years in December, which was 61 miles. I was hoping for 70 miles but in these conditions you can't always predict. I decided to concentrate on keeping a steady but moderate walking pace, because the footing was not great on the sloppier west side of the course.
Lots of people were running steadily, and seemed to be putting in a ton of mileage. After a while it was easy to see who was in it just to run 25 or 30 or so, and then stop. The crowd started to dwindle later in the afternoon, and while the weather forecast hadn't been exactly right- the sky did start to clear a few times off and on during the afternoon, and was visibly clearer by sunset, promising a colder but dry evening.
During the race Brad Bishop from Fort Collins joined me on one of his walk breaks from running. He didn't have any particular plan but seemed to be moving well. We talked a while and then he went back to running. I had the opposite strategy- mostly walking with a few running breaks. At one point somebody remarked that I reminded them of a locomotive. I'll take it as a compliment. I was moving solid and steady, but I wasn't exactly in "Walk like you're possessed" mode. It was too slippery in the mud and puddles.
I only stopped twice for short breaks- once to eat some real food out of my cooler after about 6 hours- and another time after 10 hours I changed my socks to take a look at my feet and put on an extra layer of tights for nighttime. My feet were holding up surprisingly well. I greased a few hot spots but everything looked good.
I tried to save on my phone battery and I posted on social media a few times throughout the day, and to my surprise, my friend Josh Holer commented- I wasn't thinking and forgot he was nearby in Colorado Springs. He asked if I needed anything. I asked for Starbucks. Then I thought of Sasquatch and decided to ask if he wanted anything- maybe food or hot drinks. When I saw him on the course, he said a burger or a burrito. The burrito sounded good to me. I asked Josh if he could bring us some burritos and coffee.
I was trying to figure out how to contact Josh because it was so cold my phone wasn't charging. Fortunately the people at the car parked in front of mine were crewing another runner, and offered to text Josh for me to help him find me when he got there. They were so nice- a group of people from Boulder. Ultrarunners are always looking out for each other. Such a great crowd.
Josh came out before sunset, with his girlfriend I haven't ever met, Jeana, who was super nice, and their new puppy, Ember, a black lab. They had a vanilla latte with extra shots, and two burritos. I haven't seen Josh in a couple of years, it was such an awesome treat! He walked a few laps with me and we caught up on life. That was the best tasting vanilla latte I've ever had- and it worked well too!
The burrito place mismarked the burritos- I ordered chicken and Dale ordered beef- so I unwrapped the burrito marked chicken and bit into it- and it was Dale's. We waited for Dale to come around the lap so we could give him his food. I told him we gave him the defective one. Typical Dale response, which I won't print here.
The other thing that happened at the same time was that as I was waiting for Josh to show up, I stopped at the timing tent to record my laps, and I ran into an old running buddy from years ago- Sandee Miller. She and her husband Geoff live in Palmer Lake and I used to see them all the time back in the 90s when I used run a lot of trail races and go to Leadville. Geoff was out along the course, so Sandee and I walked a lap and found Geoff. It was so great to see them!
After all the food, coffee and socializing I felt completely recharged. I cranked up my tunes. The sunset was absolutely stunning with the light on the peaks of the Rampart Range. Sandee, Jeana and Josh took a few pictures.
When I wasn't talking with someone, I got absorbed in my music. People always ask me what I think about when I'm out there. I really don't think. It's an opportunity to clear my mind. What did go through my head was watching Pete Kostelnick, who is one of the young, fresh, talented ultrarunners on the scene these days, effortlessly circling the course. I think he got about 120 miles. I was thinking about my own competitive nature, and how hard it's been at times to let go of that.
It was fun and it felt fantastic to be in such good condition, to be able to do all those miles and make it look so easy- up until just a few years ago I could do that. I know I could do it again if I put my mind to it, but it just doesn't matter to me now. It is hard to not compare yourself to what you were. As we get older, we are able to accomplish some things that we couldn't at a younger age, but physically, you do lose some of that steam- especially in the speed and smoothness departments.
I have to be accepting of my ability to cover distances- not as far as before, not as fast or easy as before, but be okay with it. Stop comparing to the younger me, and be okay with where I am now. I don't think I was okay with it until now. At Across the Years I did find myself mentally comparing myself. The challenge was to separate the need to be competitive, to have the athlete's body, to train hard and see the results in my times and distances- from being in a different mindset and body than I was a few years ago. I don't need to prove anything to myself or anyone else. I always find validation when I think of Marshall Ulrich saying, "It's not about being a badass."
A good lesson for those younger runners, especially as they start to approach their late 40s and find that the consistency of performance just isn't there. I listen to some of the conversations at night- it's so funny that the people who were flying by, effortlessly running and lapping me all day long are now dragging their beaten and tired bodies- barely moving- in that zombie walk/death march, depleted of energy and calories- feeling like giving up- and I want to impart advice to them- as they start telling me how good I look as I power past them in the dark- I'm still moving the same way I was at the beginning- but that's because I didn't wear myself out by running all day.
But it's up to them to figure it out, so I don't say anything unless asked.
I have a playlist on my iPod called "night music" that ranges from headbanging to just loud and obnoxious- to keep me awake in the middle of the night at these events. I didn't have to listen to too much of it, as the coffee was keeping me plenty awake.
I went through a whole variety of music. I kept singing, the whole time. "I LOVE ROCK N' ROLL SO PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX BABY I LOVE ROCK N ROLL..." at the top of my lungs, echoing in the portapotties at 3 am.
During the night I walked with Eric Pence for a while. He told me he and Anne are getting a puppy soon- a mini black tri Aussie. Anne showed me a picture- so cute! We talked Aussies, ultras, and healthcare, and stuck together for quite a few laps.
I didn't get sleepy, just a little hungry. I kept a few calories going but didn't feel like eating too much. Just kept moving at a very steady pace. I started to do the math. Sasquatch left after 50 miles- that was enough for him. When I got to 50 miles then I started thinking about how far I wanted to go. I decided I had to do the 70 just for my own mental satisfaction. If I kept my pace up I should reach it between 6 and 7 am. Then I would reward myself with a nap in the car before driving home to Fort Collins.
The sun started to rise- the light was reflecting on the mountains and lake. I finished my 86th lap, which was 70.52 miles- at 5:42 am. I was satisfied. I didn't care about sticking around for any more miles- that was good. I broke down my table, thanked Jun who helped me find Josh, and moved my car out of the way so I could warm it up and take a little nap.
I dozed off for maybe 5 minutes when another train came blasting through- it woke me up, so I decided to get going and see if some food and coffee would revive me. When I got to south Denver I pulled off and went to a Starbucks, got a coffee and a sandwich, and felt so much better, I was ready to drive. I drove home and got there around 9 am, Dennis helped me dump my stuff out in the garage, and after being attacked by the girls, I took a shower and climbed into bed.
photo credits: Josh Holer, Jeana Connaughton, Sandee Miller