The Road to Almost Ultrarunning

Running

At breakfast, I’m filling my plate with what I expect will look acceptable to the ultrarunners lining the cafeteria tables at the elementary school in Buena Vista, CO. Do they eat bacon? How about sausage? I guess a few eggs will do. I wonder all these things with apprehension and daintily half-fill my plate, balancing it with one hand to fill my tiny Styrofoam cup with coffee.

I notice a goofball-type man generously shaking salt all over everything on his plate. His face is down close to the food and he’s looking up at me like a mischievous second grader. “The best part about this race is I get to use as much salt as I want!” I laughed and hoped to see him again. With a group this size, I figured there was a good chance I wouldn’t.

During our meal, my race partner Katya does most of the talking with other TransRockies runners. I can barely finish the food I’d so carefully chosen for breakfast though and am worried about having time to go to the bathroom and apply sunscreen before stage one kicks off.

Turns out, we have plenty of time to pee (four times) and apply sunscreen. I even paint my nails before heading to the start line for good. “Do whatever you’ve gotta do, Jenn,” says Katya, shaking her head but understanding. Though I don’t fully appreciate it yet, that sort of supportive tolerance and accommodating attitude is key in a partner for a race such as this one, covering such challenging terrain over so many days.

As we round the street corner and come into the neighborhood where we’re beginning our 120-mile journey to Beaver Creek, I see the hundreds of racers, their families, and volunteers swarming excitedly fighting for photo ops with Bigfoot in front of the timing arch. A DJ adds energetic tunes to the roar of eager runners and the frequent slam of Porta-Potty doors.

We walk on the outside of the metal barriers covered in sponsor banners and lining the suburbanite street that looks out-of-place in this run of the mill mountain town. At the front of the line, men and women in black compression tights and lightweight sunglasses are warming up and chatting easily. I feel less at-ease than they look and am walking with my arms at my sides, fingers splayed out – to let the polish dry. So many of these racers look grizzled and experienced. I feel like a poser.

I had put in my hours – maybe not as many as I should have – and did my research. The summer was a blur of weekends at altitude and full afternoons on trail. I figured out which shoes worked for me and why, what Clif Blok flavors I like best, and how many Honey Stinger waffles to toss in my pack for a four-hour haul. But there’s really no way to fully prepare for or know what to expect in a six-day stage race – until you try one.

As we near the back of the line, I notice a different type of runner. This type is more abundant and wears bright colors, often in mismatched patterns. Some of them wear neon arm warmers and have trinkets tied to their packs. They all appear to be having fun.

Katya and I choose a spot among them and get set for our race.

* * *

We cross the bridge heading out of town and bottleneck into a section of singletrack leading to a dirt road that climbs a gentle hill before hopping onto another trail that brings us through high desert and onto an open ridge. The first couple miles are slow going, and we are stuck behind a woman who talks loudly and constantly. She’s a solo runner doing the 3-day challenge (RUN3), as are many of the other women around us. Another young female pair is running with this group, too, and Katya and I wordlessly vow to finish faster than them. Winning isn’t our number one goal here – making the cutoff times is – but seeing another team of women our age rouses my competitive itch.

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Checkpoint one comes at mile seven or so. I conservatively take an orange slice, a cup of GU Brew, and some pretzels, loading up on energy chomps for the road. We have another 13 or so miles to go.

A quick photo at a scenic vista and we start downhill. Tall pines line our path to a sandy wash that brings us around a hill and into the desert again. We catch up to a larger, diverse group of teams and solo racers and run with them to the next aid station. One team – made up of an Ironman competitor and her boyfriend – carries a stuffed animal with them and eventually become famous for their dramatic finish line kisses. Another team speaks Spanish with Katya. And the third team includes the guy who poured salt onto his breakfast. His partner Tom looks like a more serious athlete – a coach, triathlete, marathoner – but he’s friendly too. They run the descent with us onto the dirt road where the third aid station is bustling. My right knee is starting to ache so I feel less social, but a smiley volunteer fills my hydration bladder and hands over a bowl of potato chips. That helps.

A rocky tunnel marks mile 18, and we’re in the home stretch. Tom points out the finish line and Jonathan does a dance, lifting up his knees and kicking out his legs. “He doesn’t realize how much this race will drain him,” Tom confides, worried his partner isn’t conserving enough energy. But it’s Jonathan’s enthusiasm and Tom’s conversation that sustains me for the next three miles on the deceiving stretch of road where the finish line seems to never get closer until finally we’re in the flag-lined corral and the timer informs us we’re done with stage one in less than five hours – way ahead of the cutoff.

* * *

A photographer focuses his lens on my toes. They’re shriveled and sticking up out of the river, where most of us runners are soaking. Nearby is the oldest set of runners, The Old Goats – father of ultra marathons Gordy Ainsleigh and his partner Doug Malewicki. A little girl upstream of The Old Goats bends into the water and comes up with a small fish. “Dad, look what I caught,” she says, walking over to her wild-bearded and amused father. The poor fish wasn’t moving. “Leave it alone,” her dad insists, demonstrating how to release it in the water. The fish doesn’t swim away.

Quick and demanding, Gordy says, “Give it here.” He opens its gills and swishes the creature under water. “You know, I once revived a sheep …”

* * *

The TransRockies hurts less than I expected.

Don’t get me wrong; the TransRockies Run hurts. It is painful, and I feared I would cry at the start of today’s stage. The late summer sun didn’t reach the bottom of the valley where our 14-mile jaunt up and over Hope Pass began, and the bus ride from camp left my achy legs feeling stiff and unwilling – a poor combination when we’re supposed to climb more than 3,200 feet today in seven fewer miles than we ran yesterday.

A man we met during registration asked to stick with us today. Dave, who’s from Dallas, worried the altitude would get to him so he says to run ahead if we feel like it. Katya and I assured him that I do terribly at high elevation, too; he’d keep up no problem.

The journey up is a hike, partly because the trail is so narrow that passing is dangerous and difficult but mostly because the route is really, really steep. Though we can still see several switchbacks above and ahead of us, we hear whoops and yelps from runners who’d reached the saddle. We actually start jogging again until we reach the top, where we stay a while, taking photos and savoring the views. There’s no sense in rushing down to finish in 200th place anyway.

* * *

Traveling an average a 20 miles a day for a week on foot forces attention to details – the angle of a meadow, the color of a Jeep road puddle, and the flow of a trail. Though already the grand scope of our route grows foggy in my memory, the present is vivid. Each arrow pointing the way and flag confirming we’re on the right path is cause to celebrate, and the next one becomes our subsequent goal. Every move is subconsciously deliberate, and moments that would ordinarily exist subliminally become significant. Like the moment Katya, Dave, and I came upon Tennessee Pass before we expected it.

The longest and most beautiful yet, stage three challenged us. This morning’s festive start in Leadville bustled with RUN3 competitors, revved for their final hurrah, and the rest of us who were conserving energy and preserving our bodies for the next four stages. At checkpoint one, I felt like it would be a long, slow day. Even though I felt okay and had only mild blisters, we had 17 miles to go. But just before checkpoint two, we saw signs for Tennessee Pass. Katya and I looked at each other in amazement. Considering our expectations and how great we felt, we were ecstatic.

After crossing the highway, we got in a good rhythm on smooth flat singletrack, eventually turning down onto the Colorado Trail. While passing a couple of bike packers, I slowed to check out their gear. “You two are impressive!” I said, and meant it. They replied, “Not as impressive as you are!” But I was feeling good, and bike touring is grueling work.

Katya and I cruised into the final checkpoint at mile 21 re-enacting Jessica’s daily affirmation (if you haven’t seen the YouTube video yet, watch it now!), hand gestures, dancing, and all. I’d spent those last miles of downhill running – hard on my knees – repeating, “I feel strong! I feel healthy!” just like the girl in the video does. It worked!

Dave, who was waiting, told us we looked great and joined us for the final few miles, which were on a flat dirt road. Running on that road felt like torture. We could see the finish line from far away but it took ages to reach it. The three of us alternated jogging and walking, and I whined a bit. At the end, Katya and Dave wanted to sprint in. I protested, but they sprinted anyway and I tried keeping up.

In the shower truck, I discovered more blisters so got them sliced open and covered at the med tent. (I will forever preach the wonders of zinc injections to dry out nasty blisters.) Now, I’m enjoying margaritas, courtesy of the crew, and relaxing in the grass at our campsite, where we’ll stay two nights instead of just one. The sky is threatening rain but someone’s grilling up burgers and someone else is streaming music through the loudspeakers. It’s everything I want in a summer evening after a day outdoors.

* * *

We got Geezer’d.

I had only limped around camp since finishing yesterday but tried running normally during today’s stage. The first two miles were warm-up on the dirt road. Then, we had a steep climb for a few more miles. I feel so good going uphill. Katya’s ear was bugging her – thanks to a slight cold and the altitude – so she kept stopping to put her head between her knees and move her jaw to un-pop it. Once, I said, “Awww,” to show sympathy and that I wished I could help. She’s normally the stronger one and hadn’t had issues with the altitude or blisters, even during training. “It’s fine,” she snapped. “Don’t do that.” I knew she’d be annoyed.

When the trail opened to a wider landscape, we stopped at a ledge with stunning scenery and took jump photos in our party pants – obnoxiously patterned spandex shorts. My blisters hurt badly and Katya’s knee ached too, so we walked a lot. In fact, most of today was a hike. That seemed fine with Katya, and the pain in my feet dulled any sort of competitive edge I had.

I remember Gordy passing me on a wide, rocky descent and Doug coming not too far behind. So we took our time and finished our 14.5 miles in 4:24, only a half hour less than it took us to run 20.8 miles on the first day.

The Old Goats waited at the finish line and handed us “You got Geezer’d” cards, the tokens each of us younger folks got for running slower than they did. We actually feel honored, and I bet we’re enjoying our margaritas now every bit as much as they are enjoying theirs.

* * *

We RUN6 folk take over the village of Red Cliff on the morning of stage five. Yesterday afternoon, we were enjoying drinks on the roof deck of Mangos, and now we’re huddled on the floor inside the bar, keeping warm before our 24-mile day.

I run out of water during our climb up the backside of Vail ski area. We’d trekked up a fire road from Red Cliff and then found pristine, secret singletrack leading up to almost 12,000 feet elevation, where we ventured off course to enjoy the best views of the week before descending a rocky trail then ascending the back bowls through wide open, steep terrain. We climbed more than 4,000 feet in 16 miles and can now see checkpoint three at the top of Vail.

I’m pretty happy to see an outhouse up there, too. Volunteer Joe unzips my pack to refill my hydration bladder and my hearty stash of tampons tumbles to the ground. “Oh, that’s my girl stuff,” I say, half embarrassed and half annoyed. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, unfazed by the tampons and focused on not spilling my water.

Descending to the base of Vail is an emotional relief because there are only six miles to go and they’re all downhill, but the descent is physical torture. Every other step makes me tear up because of the pain in my right knee, and Katya seems so far ahead of me. She’s only leading by a few yards but I feel like I’m failing at keeping up and don’t want to discourage her with my tears. Finally I ask if I can lead, and she follows me the rest of the way.

My boyfriend finished a six-day stage race of his own (on a mountain bike) yesterday in a town nearby, and I’m expecting to see him at the finish. But he’s nowhere in sight. And the only consolation is another aid tent that offers ice and a bottle of chocolate milk. I’m upset that my knee hurts but am confusing disappointment in my body with disappointment that my (totally baseless) expectations to see him are unmet.

Katya, who’s talking with some friends, says they’re going to soak in the creek. Do I want to come? I walk with them to the bridge and, on the way, a tourist couple asks, “How far did you run today?” Being a smart ass in my pissed off state, I say something like, “I ran 24 miles today. And yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.” It’s not quite true, but I’m acting very unpleasantly right now and want to feel justified.

In the creek, I just sit shivering. I answer my friends’ concern as wordlessly as possible and look no one in the eyes. Katya insists I eat something.

After a shower and an excruciating massage, there’s still no sign of my man but at least my limp is less pronounced. I eat dinner sitting between two male runners and across from another then hope Brent shows up while I’m with them. This race is messing with my head. Exhaustion deepens every emotion and intensifies disappointments. The time I have to muse while physically suffering triggers feelings of entitlement and feeds selfish thoughts. Right now, I understand that my anger is unfounded and that trying to evoke jealousy is creating a problem rather than solving anything, but I can’t help acting this way. This race ultimately will empower me but the very things that contribute to empowerment are causing trouble when too intense.

After the awards ceremony Katya tells me that Brent is just outside the tent. I almost don’t recognize him. He’s wearing a new hat, a button-down plaid shirt, and different shoes than usual. He looks out of place at a running event and I’m still irked for no reason at all, so we interact a little awkwardly. But he thinks I’m just tired and we sit around the fire together, catching up on our week of racing.

* * *

“We bait each other with Pringles,” Katya told someone today. She slips a can of salty goodness into the top of her pack every day now and rattles it in front of anyone who needs motivation or a laugh.

We aren’t the only women baiting each other on course though. Another team – veteran marathoners and Ragnar Relay ambassadors – attached Ryan Gosling photos to their packs for motivation during dark times. Somehow, Katya and I failed to notice this until now – stage five – though. We are about two miles in and running downhill on pavement when Katya points at them. The pain in my right knee is severe, but the sight makes me laugh.

Then, we round a corner and I see a face that inspires an even bigger smile and a burst of speed. It’s my honey, sitting on a rock wall and poised to take a photo of us. Momentum brings me into his arms, where he squeezes me around the waist and kisses my cheek. He says that I’m doing great and that he is proud of me. I return to my partner and the Ryan Gosling faces, ready for the next what I expect will be 18 miles. But first, the remaining four to checkpoint one.

The trail winds across valleys and peaks over ridges, then brings us around to another mountain. And another. Those remaining four miles become five, and five become six. I think my GPS watch is wrong. My slower (okay, glacial) pace is throwing it off.

We decide that we’re definitely on the right trail but that the mileage is all wrong. Soon, we spot Brent and his yellow bike shoes. He’s carrying a 10-gallon bucket of water to a table surrounded by runners eating oranges and drinking Gu Brew as fast as volunteers can pour it. I am so happy to see him, but also glad to see potato chips and gummy bears laid out for the taking.

My watch says we’ve clocked ten miles so far, and the volunteers say that’s right. This is the first time we’d been misguided and we are so spoiled from such accurate course descriptions that these extra four miles are throwing us for a loop. We’ll be running 24 miles today, not 20. My body is weary but I am not stopping now, and Katya isn’t either. She’s strong as ever but her spirits are lower than I’ve seen maybe in the entire span of our friendship. We’re about to have a downhill stretch that will be painful and grueling for both of us, so we just eat up, drink up, and get ready to run.

After six painful miles, we’re finally on our way up to Beaver Creek. Katya had downed a beer at checkpoint two while I knocked back two salt tabs. Now, at the final checkpoint, we barely stop. She grabs another beer, I grab candy, and we keep running. We catch two or three teams before I get funny feeling in my foot. It’s like something separated. But what? A bone? A muscle? Just some skin? I’m not sure so I remove my shoe. Katya is just far enough ahead not to notice.

It looks like a blister on my pinkie toe had grown so large that the base of my toenail popped loose. I debate ripping off my nail. I wiggle it. I tug. It’s not coming off easily. I finally lay it flat, carefully pull on my sock, and lace up my shoe. I keep running.

With only one mile to go – total – I catch up to Katya. She’s sitting down at a switchback and sipping that second beer. The stretch to our very last finish line of the race is quiet and purposeful. We come into the village, where racers are gathering their bags, drinking on patios, and waiting to cheer us in.

Each of us takes one more sip of the beer and then we cross the line with our arms raised together. We no longer care if we look or feel like ultrarunners. We just carried ourselves 125 miles across Colorado in six days.

The moment Katya and I shuffled across the stage one starting line, laughing and dancing to the music despite our nerves and uncertainties, seems distant. But that moment is what got us here.

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From left to right: Jennifer Olson, Katya Hafich, and Dave

When we started this race, we joined the community that collectively aimed to finish these 125 miles. These other runners are the only ones who wholly understand what we went through and vice versa. They get the joke when “Highway to Hell” counts down to starting time each morning. They won’t judge anyone wearing compression socks with sandals. They agree that getting geezer’d is an honor. Meeting this very specific and rare goal was important, but we kept at it because of the people involved and the stories we were collecting along the way. The thought of missing out on the next stage or skipping the last stage saddened me.

We could have bailed on this race the week before or the night before, after the opening ceremony. We could’ve passed up the opportunity to sign up in the first place. We could have said – after day four’s slow hike, after the climb to the top of Vail, or after the first two miles of stage six when I was already in tears – enough is enough. But we didn’t. Getting ourselves to the finish line – through the emotional and physical highs and lows – was simply about finishing what we started. And there’s something empowering about that.

That moment in Buena Vista six days ago is when we became true endurance athletes, when we commit to finishing something we weren’t sure we could, when we really began understanding athletic perseverance. Crossing the TransRockies Run starting line marked when we became almost ultrarunners.

Katya treks uphill in her party pants, which keep spirits high.

As we near the back of the line, I notice a different type of runner. This type is more abundant and wears bright colors, often in mismatched patterns. Some of them wear neon arm warmers and have trinkets tied to their packs. They all appear to be having fun.

Last modified: August 5, 2013

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