Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Embracing the Brutality--Ultrarunning Style

There is a mantra among thru-hikers of the Continental Divide Trail: "Embrace the Brutality".

"What does THAT mean?" you ask, if you are not one of the few to have tackled the endeavor. Well, it means embracing the relentless climbs, the unmarked sagebrush laden ridges. It means embracing that the 36 miles you walked today only took you 24 toward your destination. It means embracing yet another hailstorm even though the bruises from the last one are still faintly green and tender. It means embracing the fact that, yet again, there is cow shit in your water. It means embracing the snow, the cold, the heat, the constant navigation. Accepting that there is a huge difference between being lost, being Lost, and being LOST. It means embracing the fact that there is lightning striking all around--and you're on an exposed ridge. It means embracing all that comes with walking every step from Canada to Mexico through the Rockies in the span of a few months. The more you accept these "brutal" moments the more you find out what it's like to truly live--what it's like to push yourself past boundaries, through pain, and arrive with the sense of not only calm, but also accomplishment, that results.

On Sunday I ran the Yakima Skyline Rim 50k race in Ellensburg, WA. More than once I found myself laughing and thinking, "Embrace the Brutality" albeit, for only a few hours, instead of a few months. The out and back course has 10,000ft of climbing (maybe more--who knows). Most of this comes from steep single-track that climbs approximately 1,000ft per mile--the rate that any thru-hiker knows is where you balk and your legs begin to shriek. As this implies, you not only had to run up these punishers, but you also had to run down them...and then turn around and repeat the process.

The weather was sunny, and the air dry. Two big challenges for a west side puddle splasher like me. The wide open ridges were coated with sagebrush and there were views of the Yakima River, Mt. Ranier, Mt. Adams, Glacier Peak, and the North Cascades. There were also lots of fantastic volunteers and die hard ultra-runners there to make this an enjoyable escapade. As always, James Varner did a superb job putting on a challenging and amazing course.

The morning started out as many I have seen. I huddled in my car, staying warm as the gold light edged it's way down the sides of the canyon until it flooded the valley floor. We headed out at 8 across a narrow pedestrian only suspension bridge across the Yakima River. We had been warned, "You have 4 hours and 15 minutes to get to the turn around. The cut-off is strict. 4 hours and 16 minutes and you aren't going to be allowed to run back."

The course immediately climbed 2,100 ft in 2.2 miles. The runners thinned into groups, a continuous thread of bright splotches against the sage and gold hillside. My hamstring had been messed up for over a week--hurting so much that I could barely walk. Attempts to even jog across crosswalks had sent spasms through my whole leg just the day before. Needless to say, I was hiking this hill. My leg cramped and hurt and bitched at me. But there were 30 miles ahead and I wasn't stopping yet.

At the top, we spread out along a rolling jeep road for 3 miles to the first aid station. Refilling my water, I bombed down the first major descent (equal to what we'd just come up). I spent the next several miles running with a friend as we hit the bottom and cruised through sagebrush flats. Then the next climb started.

We were 8 miles in and a 1,900 ft climb to the next aid station loomed. I put in my headphones, previously having been enjoying the songbirds, and switched back to hiking mode. I was soon alone. Lost in a world of rocks, and beauty, blue sky, blessed sunshine, and the ebbing pain in my legs. I started to pass people about half way up the climb. Near the top the pain dissipated and after a refill at the aid station I was cruising along through rolling ridges.

As I climbed the next, shorter, climb a barrage of 25k runners and 50k early starts passed me going in the opposite direction. This gave me a chance to do one of my favorite things in racing--smile, say something encouraging, do a little dance, whoop, and/or give high 5's. (No, I don't do all those to everyone...but everybody gets one of them!) Soon, I was descending, skipping down a relentlessly long, rock strewn descent. There were no confidence markers, nobody slogging toward me. I stopped and looked around. Behind me there were some folks coming down, well, that doesn't matter--they're following me, but ahead nothing. Really though, there was a cliff on one side and no other trails that I could see in the sage. So I barreled ahead. On this descent I learned that there really is something to Acupressure. Occasionally my foot would hit a rock just right and a pain would shoot through my hand or arm. I almost dropped my bottle once!

At the bottom, to my surprise, was the turn around aid station. I ditched my jacket and gloves, ate, refilled my bottles, crammed some boiled potatoes into my vest pocket, and prepared to hike back up the beast I'd just run down. It had taken me 3.5 hours. I headed out, soon realizing that despite my efforts I needed more fluids, more salts, and more food. I upped my intake of electrolyte tabs and food from once an hour to once every half hour. My bottles were empty by the time I climbed into the 20 mile aid station.

Around here my body decided my homemade energy chunks weren't tasty and that paydays, grapes, and coca cola were. So, I ate a lot of each and drank 3 cups of coke before taking off again. I enjoyed the next descent and the flats, but the last long climb to the final aid station was intense. This is where I had the "brutality" thoughts the most.

The next 3 miles were rolling along the jeep road. I felt good and I ran almost all of it. Then I saw the sign pointing me to the final 2.2 mile descent and I mentally rejoiced. Ok, I think I said something out loud too. I passed someone at the top of the descent and then bombed down the descent as fast as I could. I knew it was a totally downhill stretch and I didn't hold back. About half way down my legs were cramping and I had to pause long enough to take an electrolyte tab to keep me going.

Then I saw the bridge, my downhill momentum carried me across it. I sprinted to the finish, whooped, leaped in the air. I threw my bottles on the ground and yelled, "THAT WAS AWESOME!!!"  to the general amusement of the people standing there.

Final time: 7:27:37
4th woman
23rd overall