Friday, September 4, 2015

Running with purpose : Hardrock 2015

My journey to Hardrock started 4 years ago when I was first accepted to the race...but I was pregnant with Amelia and had to withdraw for the race in July of 2012.  I patiently awaited another acceptance to the race. Low and behold, it came in late 2014....but I was pregnant with Benedict. The difference this time is that I would be 3.5 months post part for the 2015 running of the Hardrock.  Most would say I had yet another momentary lapse of common sense when I stated I would attempt the run. I disagree. I had a goal. This is my story of how I came, I saw and I conquered the toughest 100 miler in the country. 

March 17,2015 - The chances of an emotional collapse at the latter stages of a pregnancy are almost certain, especially when breathing through an oxygen mask while your doctor (in my case Dr. Z) was telling me that my unborn child was not responding well to any attempts at labor and would have to be removed via C-section.  My world came crashing down on me as things in my control spiraled out of control at mach speed.  In typical fashion I blamed myself for the outcome as tears streamed down my face.  I was thinking I had shorted my child of experiencing a natural childbirth.  Additionally, I would need to forfeit my hard-won lottery spot for the Hardrock 100 in July.  How could I possibly recover from a c-section that tears one’s core to shreds such that you cannot even get out of bed on your own for several weeks?

Twenty minutes later when I was holding Benedict in my arms none of the above mattered anymore. I basked in the joy of holding my newborn son.  This is when my race to the starting line began.  Benedict and I would commit (him unknowingly of course) to get me to the starting line of the Hardrock 100 with the attitude of giving the endurance run my all; even if the training circumstances and opportunities were less than ideal.  The run would not be about my athletic prowess but rather about participation and commitment to the purpose. The attempt seems absurd at all levels. I questioned the selfishness of trying to juggle full time motherhood and a fulltime job. However, I have found though that I am a better mother when I apply some of my energy in pursuit of my own goals.  This allows me to be fully present when with them, resulting in true quality time with my children.  I’ve tried to cut out the pursuit of happiness and peace that I find in the solitude of the mountains and running, but I get antsy and impatient.  I can’t channel the few positive qualities that I have into anything that results in greater good for our family.  The results far outweigh the sacrifices, as these also create the memories that we will carry forward with us.  These are the memories that will help our children to learn about perseverance and following one’s passion.

We began our training with daily walks to get coffee, gradually increased to a few miles and then to running.  It was a slow journey and on terrain I would generally consider urban suicide – circles around the paved flats of Stapleton.  My only consolation for this mental torture was the fact I was able to run with Benedict alongside me.  Over time, I graduated to running on trail as Benedict accepted a bottle from his Oma and Opa (without whom any attempt at training would have been a monumental failure). While his sister mightily resisted any attempt to introduce the bottle, Benedict was far more practical and accepted his bottle nourishment at only one month of age.  I had newly found freedom which allowed Scott and I to train on trail one day a week, together.  I also had purpose that propelled me forward in my desire to get back to my kids as quickly as possible, especially the little one.  I carry Amelia and Benedict with me on every run because I am always running back to them as quickly as possible, even if the distance is far.  And so went the training, a little here, a little there, but always with purpose.  Some days were better than others but I always had the satisfaction that my first responsibility was to Benedict and Amelia, and that the rest would follow.  I did know that the likelihood of getting injured from overtraining was slim to none. I did not know what the outcome would be.  For someone who likes to control things and know the outcomes, that was hard to accept.

I showed up at the starting line in Silverton full of nerves.  It is good to have a healthy dose of fear when you show up to the starting line of any 100-mile run.  Unfortunately, I had all sorts of irrational thoughts running through my head that led me to question what I was doing.  How could I possibly disappear into the remote wilderness of the San Juans for two days without my kids; knowing my chances of being struck by lighting, falling through an ice bridge, or sliding off a cornice were all real possibilities?  Lucky for me, I ran into Darcy Piceu (Africa), three time champion of Hardrock, and she instilled some words of confidence in me.  She too is a mother; and a bad-ass mother runner.  She was running to defend her title.  I was running to finish my first Hardrock alongside with Scott, who was running for his 10th finish.  I would also be nursing (pumping at least 12 times throughout the race).  Regardless, both of us were running to get back to our children.

Shortly after we lined up outside the starting line, Dale sounded the starting gun and told us to “get outta here.”  This is when the nerves finally subsided and I let my feet take over.  I had done as much preparation as I could under the circumstances.

Scott and I climbed into the clouds as we set off on the first of the 13 climbs that we would face over this 100.5-mile journey.  We emerged out of the clouds and the peaks where bathing in the morning sun all around us.  The columbine flowers reflected the frosty dew off their petals.  It was heaven!  Several hours later we descended into Cunningham aid station, where we would see our crew for a few minutes before we said “see you tonight”.  Tonight was some 31 miles, 4 climbs and one 14er later…. lots could happen.  The energy we gathered from seeing my Dad and Brian, as well as the friendly faces at the Cunningham aid station would have to carry us a long way.

On that 31-mile stretch, we encountered a snowstorm, hailstorm, several rain showers, heat, wildflowers, electricity, and solitude.  I found solace in the fact that even though the miles were long and slow going, Scott and I chipped away at them together.  On the descent down Handies Peak (mile 36), I noticed that Scott was not catching up to me as usual.  This seemed odd.  In all the years of running together he had always taught me to make time on the downhill.  He mumbled, “my legs just don’t have the mojo”.  Only after the finish, did I learn that he had a pain in his knee that he had not felt before.  This caused him to run much more conservatively than normal.  It was on this descent, and the descent into Grouse Gulch aid station that the private negotiations in my head began.  Normally these negotiations are between body and mind.  In this case, they were with my ego.  Scott and I had started the run with the intent of finishing together.  It never occurred to me that this meant that one of us would give up their race for the other, and I certainly did not fathom this might be me. Scott had 9 years experience on the course, generally faster legs, and better skill on steep descents.  I thought for sure he would be picking mushrooms and smelling the flowers waiting for me.  I tried to encourage him to move faster, letting him know that we were on a solid 40-hour pace.  A 40-hour pace would mean that I could likely convince my Mom to bring the kiddos to the finish line so we could run in together.  When I waited at Grouse Gulch aid station, Engineer aid station, Ouray aid station, and Governor aid station it became apparent to me that he was going to run his race, regardless of my attempts to move him along a bit faster.  I would have to decide whether I ran with him to pursue our common goal, or whether I would let the ego win and continue on solo.  This was perhaps the most challenging part of the run for me as I watched the time slip away.  Somewhere around Virginius Pass at 13,000 feet, I surrendered the notion of running for time and crossing the finish line with my kids.  In other words, I surrendered control, a foreign concept to me.  Some would say this was a wise decision for my marriage, and I agree.  But it did not make it any easier.  

The battle with my ego had kept my mind occupied, which kept my thoughts away from the fatigue, and the painful trenchfoot that had set in.  More importantly, I was finally at peace knowing that I could find happiness in crossing the finish line with Scott.  That doesn’t mean I did not have my “what if” moments.  But I had moved to acceptance of the present moment and focused on execution of what one might call Plan B.  A successful project manager rarely has only one plan.  Rather, they know when to let go of Plan A and switch gears so that forward progress is not lost.  For me, switching gears meant enjoying the journey, and sticking to our original commitment.

We descended over Mendota Saddle into Telluride where we said goodbye to Ken, our trusty pacer that took us through the night and stuck by Scott's side as he was sleep walking up toward Governor Basin.

Much to my surprise, I did not hit any other low points in my run until I met Oscar (Oscar’s Pass).  The climb out of Telluride into the Wasatch Basin was nothing short of breathtaking.  The beauty just kept coming; one false summit after another.  After several hours of solid climbing and a few rainstorms later, I stood at the top of what I thought was Oscar’s Pass. Nope, it was just another false summit (Wasatch Saddle).  It was one false summit too many. I sat down and remember telling Scott that “I hate Oscar.”  To finally meet Oscar required a glissade down, a traversing climb up a snowfield, and a scramble over a cornice.  It was then that I remembered Viktor Frankl’s wisdom; "The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me.  The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”  It wasn’t the distance or any other physical ailment that was so demoralizing.  It was the fact that I just wanted to be at the Chapman aid station.  To me, safe arrival and departure from this aid station meant I would finish Hardrock.  It was my point of no return with only 18 miles and two backcountry aid stations to go.  It was also where Brian would meet us to bring us “home.”  Brian has been my “closer” for more than one race and I also knew that he had been waiting for 82 miles to run with us in the San Juans.  I was not about to disappoint him or myself.  I chose wisely and did not let Oscar win.

We left Chapman in the heat of the afternoon.  However, we had flashlights near at hand, as we would most certainly experience nightfall again.  My ego made another appearance and reminded me that these big flashlights would not have been necessary had we been able to maintain the pace I had settled into before my surrender.  I climbed in solitude as I worked out these mind games.  Next thing I knew Grant Swamp Pass was staring me in the face.  It was then that I realized I needed the moral support of Scott and Brian to climb up this pitch of scree which extends straight up for several hundred feet.  The air was thin.  My breathing was heavy.  We topped out at 13,100 feet in silence.  I sat down and shoved a PB&J sandwich into my mouth.  We had more climbing to do before we would arrive in Silverton some 16 miles later, but we all knew that this was the last of the big climbs.  Two more climbs totaling 2700 ft. in elevation seemed like child’s play now.  As we descended we meandered through fields of columbines, caught glimpses of Island Lake, and crossed the infamous logjam over a raging creek.  Eventually we arrived at KT aid station.  The sun was getting low by the time we arrived.  It was chilly.  For the first time in 89 miles I chose not to keep moving as I pumped breast milk one final time.  Rather, I sat in the warm medical tent and let the rhythmic noise of the pump lull me into a short sleep.  Somehow, even though not fully alert, I still managed to consume a bowl of hot soup and mac-n-cheese that Scott had fetched for me.  Twenty minutes later we forded the waist-deep river and wallowed in the muck and mire on the other side of the crossing.  As darkness crept upon us, we retrieved our flashlights.  We climbed higher and higher and crested Porcupine Ridge.  The air grew colder and colder, and the fog moved in as we navigated our way up Putnam Peak.  On a clear day this stretch is tough to navigate, as the grassy knolls hide the trail markers.  However, in this fog storm at 12,500 ft., we were really struggling to navigate.  A group of about eight of us fanned out in the general direction of the trail in our best attempt to find the next trail marker.  Were it not for my veteran husband who knew the course direction, we might all have gotten stuck for much more than the hour we already lost.  Experience does pay off.  I thanked my lucky stars that I had not let my ego run the race, and that I was with Scott.  We’re also thankful that we had not lost Brian in the process.  Onward we went, huddled together so that we would not lose each other in the fog.  We eventually stumbled into Putnam aid station, which was nothing more than a group of dedicated volunteers huddled around a tent and a camp fire with one sole purpose…. feed us, warm us up with hot soup or coffee, and kick us out to descend the last 5.4 miles into the finish.  Onward.  The three miles to the river crossing seemed endless.  I was nauseated from the coffee as the acidity chewed apart my stomach.  Nevertheless, I still wanted to run and “get ‘er done”.  Scott was taking his own sweet time.  Brian, my trusty pacer (now turned marriage counselor) mediated for me as he tried his best to encourage Scott to move along, and instill a little more patience in me.  He finally said, let’s just wait for him at the bridge before the river crossing.  I laughed and turned to Brian saying “What bridge?   It’s a crossing of South Mineral Creek and there is no bridge. There is a rope and if you let go of that, we’ll see you in Durango, not Silverton.”  This appeared to be news to Brian.  I know I had warned him of this crossing and that it had the potential to freeze his man parts if running high.  It would get the heart pumping so fast that we could make the remaining 2.2 miles into town in a jiffy.  It was, after all, just another adventure with the Olmer’s. What else should he have expected? 

After the “refreshing” river crossing, Brian set the pace and led the way back into town.  I was fighting to hold back tears the whole stretch, and trying to enjoy the last two miles under the starry skies.  I recalled the experiences of the last two days.  We passed the Christ of the Mines Shrine.  I turned left and thanked God for the safe journey that started with Benedict’s arrival, and would end in about three blocks when we kissed the Hardrock and the clock stopped.  The three of us turned left and ran down the hill onto the paved streets of Silverton.  I saw my Dad waiting anxiously in the street.  It was nearly 3 am.  I thought I was hallucinating it was so surreal.  Early on, my Dad had barely agreed to help with the kiddos during the race.  It was his means of making a statement that he was not in agreement of my running the Hardrock just 3 months after giving birth.  Now he was waiting for me and ran the last two blocks into the finish with us.  Clearly he had found peace with my determination to make it to not only the starting line, but also the finish line.  I was at peace knowing that I had overcome my ego in order to finish the journey that Scott and I committed to together.  The journey was magical.  Regardless of whether runner, pacer, crew, or babysitter, I think all would agree that the San Juans have the power to transform.  We all carry our own cross in this world and have to find a means to carry it with courage and determination.  My only hope is that the energy gained from an experience like Hardrock can also be channeled into other challenging areas of my life.  The Hardrock 2015 chapter may have closed, but the lessons and self-discovery can be applied for a lifetime.  Oftentimes we learn best in the face of adversity, and it is only fitting to end my report with a quote from Ken Chlouber of the Leadville 100, “You’re tougher than you think you are.  You can do more than you think you can.”  This certainly proved true as I took on the Hardrock 100 and “won” the breastfeeding division!

And that is how I came, I saw, and I conquered the 2015 Hardrock 100:
- 100.5 miles
- 34,000 feet climbing, 66,000 ft cumulative elevation change
- Countless stream and river crossings
- Enough electrical storms to charge your i-devices
- Snow, hail, groppel, rain and more rain
- 1 breast pump and 12 pumping sessions on trail
- Severe cold and severe heat
- 1 fog storm at 12,000 feet
- Memories that will last a lifetime...or until I next have the opportunity to run Hardrock again

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