|Cheyenne Mountain State Park|
It’s been years since I ran a trail ultra. That’s pretty much all I did when I started doing ultras in the 1990s, there were almost no road ultras in Colorado back then. I enjoy trails, but I’m not that good at them, and I prefer to slow down so I can look at the scenery. Also, high altitude is not my friend, I discovered, after years of doing 14ers, four Leadville Trail 100 finishes in 29+ hours, and always struggling with my stomach and sleepwalking on rocky trails in the dark.
Then I started having ankle problems after a few good sprains, and had to avoid trails altogether for several years. Once I got my butt into physical therapy and rehabbed my ankles, I started doing easy trail runs, just the smooth, groomed or nontechnical trails I could find, and the Rock Repeats on the service road up Horsetooth Mountain which has just a few very short rocky sections.
It wasn’t anything I expected and I just happened to be on Facebook one evening and saw that one of our local Colorado race directors, Sherpa John Lacroix, was doing a live video so I tuned in and he was talking about his Human Potential running series of trail ultras in Colorado. I’d seen something about his Silverheels 100 and the Fairplay races. When we had our cabin in Como we used to hike up Silverheels and on those trails back there between Fairplay, Como, and Breckenridge. Back in the day, I would have jumped all over that, but I hadn’t paid any attention to it since trail ultras simply haven’t been on my radar.
When I said hi to Sherpa John on the comment feed he greeted me and said, Alene, you should check out these races since you like fixed time events. So the next day I looked into it, the Stories Ultra 15 and 30 hour races were in February in the Colorado Springs area. I was pretty skeptical at first. The altitude wasn’t high- less than 8000 feet. But it was trail, and winter in Colorado, and I am a cold weather wimp. I can make myself do it, but I am truly a hot weather runner.
I needed a long training run in February, and the 15 hour option made it seem more doable in case the weather sucked. I signed up, and took the extra step of signing up for a membership to his series because I wanted to support his philosophy, of having runs for the runners, not for the circus atmosphere, which all of the major trail races in Colorado have become.
The whole time approaching the race, I had my doubts about the weather, that was the one factor that I dreaded. Winter finally came to Colorado in February, subzero temperatures, our first real snowfall, and still we were the banana belt compared to the Midwest.
February has been a freaking weird month from the get go. During the month of January, I kept wondering if we were ever going to get winter, and at the very end of the month my friend Katy contacted me one day and suggested we run Horsetooth Rock together, something we used to do regularly but haven’t done in years. We did one single rock repeat and spent the time catching up. It was the most vertical I’ve done in quite some time- my vertical has been limited to running the hills on the Bacon Strip and Horsetooth Reservoir roads, and not very much mileage.
I was sore the day after the run with Katy and I knew I had some vertical coming up in Stories- and realized that might be the factor that did me in instead of the weather. But I pushed those thoughts out of my mind. Then the really weird shit started happening. First, my buddy Sasquatch (aka Dale Perry aka Richard Cranium) who was also planning to run Stories, found out he needed an aortic valve replacement soon after Across the Years.
Yes, this is the same Sasquatch who has myeloma and had a stem cell transplant two years ago and has still been running ultras through most of the ordeal. He fortunately got an appointment with a cardiothoracic surgeon I know, who I think is the best one in Northern Colorado, and also happens to be an athlete himself, and they scheduled his surgery for today. As I write this post, Dale is in surgery.
Since they have to cut him open- yes, crack his chest- he will be healing for quite some time and unable to do ultras for a while. He had a ton of things to do before he went in for surgery and to prepare for his down time after, so of course he wasn’t going to go down and run Stories. That was a bummer, Sasquatch is always fun to run with, but he had a lot of good reasons to get this surgery done now and he has every intention of being back to ultras as soon as possible. Knowing him, he won’t waste a minute.
Then the next weird thing happened. I am sure you heard about this, because it made international news as well as Stephen Colbert and SNL. Last Monday, on the Westridge Trail, which is adjacent to the Horsetooth Rock trail, just the other side of Horsetooth Rock itself, a local guy was running and was attacked by a mountain lion from behind.
When this happens the mountain lion usually wins and they find the runners body half buried under some nearby trail debris, but this guy fought back and killed the lion with his bare hands! DUDE! It was a young lion and about 80 pounds, and probably starving because this is weird behavior but the whole incident speaks for itself…
They runner was injured and I am sure freaked out and traumatized but he did everything right and got himself down off the trail, drove to the hospital and reported it, and he’s going to be okay (at least physically- I can’t even imagine what that would do to your mind!).
The buzz in the running community has been everything from he’ll never have to buy another beer to people freaked out about running the trails to lots of jokes and eventually it gets old, but I know the entire Fort Collins running community is a bit freaked out. The park was closed so Colorado Parks & Wildlife could figure out what’s going on and if there are more lions and so on… not even sure it’s re-opened yet.
I tried not to think about the fact that I would be running in the foothills on trails at dawn and dusk, prime mountain lion dinnertime, the following weekend.
The weather forecast wasn’t terrible- looked like a high of 40ish and low in the teens or 20s, and no precipitation expected- which isn’t bad at all. Sherpa John said we wouldn’t want it to get much out of the 30s or the trail would be a mess. He said we might need traction of a couple of the higher loops up in the trees where there could be slick spots. I packed my Kahtoolas, Yak Trax, and poles just in case.
Friday morning I was getting my act together, planning to leave town before 12:30 so I could make it through Denver before Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. I happened to glance at Facebook. First thing I saw was a post from Wheaties Boy’s other half, Megan, announcing that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I really love their family- Megan’s mom and dad live in Fort Collins, and I know them all well enough that it was pretty shocking to me, even though I deal with this all the time in my work. It’s true that it really is different when it’s someone in your family or close to you.
Anyway, I reacted exactly as I always caution people not to react- by sending them messages and offering my support-at a time when they are completely overwhelmed. I should have at least waited until next week. They all wrote back and it was fine- but I felt really bad for just giving them something extra to do- one more person to reply to- at a time when they have more than enough to deal with.
Megan’s mom has worked with people with cancer for many years, she’s a massage therapist and has worked specifically with cancer patients- and I know Megan has lots of support. Still…it felt like a punch in the gut to me- just hearing that.
I got on the road and headed south on I-25 and of course my mind was going crazy- between thinking about Megan and Sasquatch and my half-conscious uncertainty about doing this run- mountain lions and trail conditions and undertraining notwithstanding- and I was so distracted that I took a wrong turn at one point and got on a ramp taking me east on 270 and ended up in Commerce City on my way to Kansas. Oh shit. I had to correct that quickly, and traffic absolutely sucks. Then, Speer Boulevard and a few other spots on I-25 were parking lots. At 1:30 pm.
Eventually I got through Denver and it was better all the way to the Springs. I had made a reservation at the Doubletree, which is only a 10-minute drive from the race. I didn’t make a reservation for after the race because I didn’t know how I’d feel or if the hotel would be good. I figured after the race I could easily find a hotel room anywhere.
I checked into the hotel, took stuff up to my room and then drove out to the park to see how long it would take in the morning, and get a feel for the area. It reminded me a lot of southern Arizona, like the Old Pueblo 50 course. It was a nice day, cool but warmer than Fort Collins. I drove to the visitor center and walked around, then stopped at a restaurant for some food before going back to the hotel.
Later I found out Obama stayed at the Doubletree when he visited Colorado Springs. I wonder why they didn’t put him up at the Broadmoor. The hotel experience sort of sucked- the doors don’t fit very well and there’s a big gap under the door to the room so you can hear everything around you and people walking down the halls and a lot of light got in under the door. Plus, every time I went out an exit door, there were military guys standing around smoking.
Military guys are to be expected in Colorado Springs because the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson are both there. But there are a few things that go along with military culture- and yes, it’s the guys- not all of them, but enough of them- a major attitude from the macho testosterone-fueled culture of it. Anyway, it made for less than a pleasant experience walking through clouds of smoke and hearing their disgusting, sexist conversations. I felt like I was in Las Vegas. Honest, I don’t know how women in the military survive. Dude, I respect that you’re putting your life on the line for our country. Just have a little more respect for other people when you’re out in public.
I got in bed early and did some reading and turned off the light. I slept poorly, there was a lot of noise at all hours. What I didn’t realize was that outside the wind had picked up and slammed through the area, destroying some of the signs and start/finish line setup, ripping out the signage and flagging, and even driving a metal stake through the back window of Sherpa John’s rental van and shattering the glass.
When I woke up around 4, I checked my email and saw a 3:30 am message from Sherpa John telling everyone to be patient as they needed to put things back together, but assuring us that the race would go on.
By the time I drove up there to check in, you couldn’t tell that anything had happened, other than the shattered glass. It was windy as hell though, so I left Sasquatch’s sign in the car and figured I’d see how the day progressed. My friend Josh was volunteering at the check in and I picked up my number and race goodies, and visited with him. He also offered me a place to stay after the race and yelled at me for not letting him know ahead of time so I could stay with them instead of a hotel.
I went back to the shelter of my car to put on more layers before the pre-race briefing. I parked on the loop where the trail came through so it was easy for me to crew myself out of my car. It did result in me getting probably an extra tenth of a mile in between every loop- but who’s counting. It was nice to not have a table set up and worry about the wind.
We started precisely on time, and I had my headlamp. Sunrise wouldn’t happen for an hour, but you could see the lights of Colorado Springs to the east and the cloud formations were looking like a spectacular sunrise was in store for us.
The course consists of 4 different loops, each color coded red, green, blue, and purple. They get progressively longer and more challenging, with the final one as the “purple people eater loop”. In total, the 4 loop series is 19.61 miles long and has 2197 feet of elevation gain. Once you finish the series, you go out again and repeat it. At the end, for your final hour, they put you on a small 2/3 mile loop to keep you close by until you finish. That’s the “gold” loop.
On each loop, you pass through the main staging area, so you’re never more than 7 miles from the aid station. They had a variety of food and drinks. I went for the fresh pineapple- it was amazing. I never thought to eat pineapple on a run before, I do like strawberries and melon sometimes on my runs- but this pineapple
tasted better than anything I’ve eaten at a race in a long time!
Once we got out there and it got light, the course was marked extremely well. Even the purple loop- which was confusing to describe and people cautioned us to pay attention- was well marked. There were flags and laminated signs that had clear instructions. I had no problem finding my way, even in the dark.
The trails were about 50% in perfect condition, 25% ice, and 25% mud on the first go-around. On my first purple loop I took it easy so I could pay attention to the turns, knowing I’d be doing that in the dark if I made it that far for the second round. None of hills were very steep or long, there were a few that were made more challenging because of the ice chutes that had formed from melting and freezing, and the deterioration over the day of ice and snow turning to mud and then muck.
As it turned out, I never used any of the traction devices I brought. Yes it was slow and slick and sloppy, but I found myself giggling as I surfed the mud and ice chutes. It was messy, but I managed to stay upright the whole time.
I did happen to notice that the name of the trail on the upper purple loop was “Cougar’s Shadow” and found this bench which can only serve to pique an overactive mind with fresh thoughts of mountain lion attacks…but I didn’t want to think about it.
The other thing about Stories is that each runner’s number has a question written on the back of it, intended to give you something to think about during the race. After you complete 50K, Sherpa John gives you a chance to talk about your answer to the question for 10 minutes or so on his podcast. It’s optional, but I thought it was a really nice way to hear the voices of all the runners and get some insight into what goes through their minds. I haven’t heard the episode yet but I look forward to listening, and I’ll link it here when Sherpa John posts it.
As it turned out, I arrived at 50K before dark and Sherpa John was standing right there at the aid station so I took the opportunity to do my interview then. He had all his recording equipment set up in the van- yes, the same van that had the window smashed overnight and was now taped up with cardboard.
My question was, “Are you remaking the world, or yourself?” I can’t remember now what incoherent things I said, but they are recorded forever on the podcast, so you’ll be able to listen. I also talked about Dale and how I admire his attitude- not letting adversity get in his way and pushing forward, and how I wish more people would do that, instead of letting things defeat them.
After talking with Sherpa John I went back to my car to dress for night and get my headlamp and put more layers on. I slammed some Starbucks doubleshots to stay awake. I knew I’d have to pay attention to the markings on the purple loop. I texted Josh and took him up on his offer of a place to stay, knowing it would be about another 4 hours before I finished and I was already feeling a little sleepy.
I did put some music on and it helped a lot. By the time I got up to the really muddy section, it was getting cooler and already noticeably more solidified than earlier. It was still shoe sucking mud in some places but it was overall better footing than earlier. Everyone was spread apart on the course and I didn’t hear or see any voices or lights as I approached the climb to the top of the Cougar Shadow trail.
I actually ended up negative splitting my second purple loop. Probably due to the footing, but the music helped me move faster, too.
I had time for at least two gold loops after I got back to the staging area. I did two of them, and might have been able to do a third if I pushed myself, but it was only 12 minutes to spare. I know better than to get greedy. I didn’t want to trip over any rocks in the dark and ruin what had been a perfect day by doing a faceplant. Plus I had over 40 miles, which was my ultimate goal- I would have been happy with just 50K- so I picked up Dale’s sign, said good-bye to Sherpa John and thanked him, and headed to Josh and Jeana’s.
It was an exceptionally well-done race. Well-organized, well-marked, and the unexpected wind didn't seem to put a dent in anything from my perspective as a runner. The volunteers were super nice and the aid station was simple enough but well-stocked and all the basics were there. There was a nice t-shirt and you got a finisher's award and a water bottle, and it was well worth the entry fee and the effort to travel there. Not crowded, but with enough participants to make it fun and social. Best of all, no circus atmosphere. You just show up and run.
I visited with Josh and Jeana for a while and then took a shower and crashed in the comfortable bed. In the morning, we talked briefly before I left- they were headed out to help in the final hours of the 30 hour race.
It was a beautiful, warm, clear morning in Colorado Springs. By the time I drove back to Fort Collins, it was overcast and 23 degrees. Ugh. So much for the banana belt- I was in it on Saturday.
So, now I’m home, I am not very sore, surprisingly. I can feel where I was slipping in the mud- some different muscles got used there, but other than that I feel unscathed. A little brain hangover, as usual, from sleep deprivation and cytokines the day after. I’m actually thinking about signing up for Sherpa John’s next fixed time trail race in May- the Tommyknocker 12 hour near Golden. I’ll give the idea a few days to settle.
Sasquatch is hopefully out of surgery by the time I finish this post and I will look forward to hearing from him as soon as they pull all the tubes out of him, the heavy drugs wear off, and he is coherent enough to communicate.
And I will give Megan some time then check back in with her. I know she will be well-cared for.
Enjoy your adventures- and your routines. They all make good stories.