Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jemez 50mi 21 May 2011

My heart drops, knees buckle, and I stop dead... staring at the front of my pack, where I had attached my wedding ring. It was gone. The strap was gone too. I was stunned. My hands had swollen very early on, so I had to take my ring off and attach it to my pack. Casting my thoughts back, the last time I knew it was there, was back at Caballo Base. My ring and the strap it was attached to had most likely snagged somewhere between Caballo and here in the Caldera. Rarely did I ever take it off my hand in 17 years.

There is something about Los Alamos and the Jemez Mountains that lights me up. These mountain races are what trail running is all about... to me! Elevation hangs entirely between 7000 and 10000 feet, with three 10-ers and a few other significant ascents, as well as a few tasty descents as well. The weather is to die for... between 40 and 60 degrees and gusting cool now and then.

The first 25 miles are forgettable, Guaje Ridge, Caballo Mountain, the high ridge overlooking the grand valley, and the steep drop down onto the Caldera. I forgot it all when I realized I had lost my ring. My perspective shifts, my eyes open and refocus, I wake up! My hands are still swollen, but my feet and stomach are fine. I realize I'm hungry, so I pull out the trail mix and shove some down, wash it down with half my bottle of water... and start running.

The Valle Grande aid station volunteers are in a fine mood and helpful. I have some food while they top off both of my water bottles. A track wore down by all those before me is beaten into the grass for more than a mile across the open meadow. The rock flow waits just inside the trails: big rocks, huge rocks, busted, and piled one on the other, and the flags mark our route directly up over them. My climb is slow and methodical, determined and patient. After the rocks, then the timbers, and after the timbers, the grassy tufts of the wind swept upper reaches of Cerro Grande. Only one hour to the summit, but it seems to go well.

Losing the ring has lit a fire in me, but this downhill is where I get back in the game. Six miles of downhill. I start easy and slowly get faster. My momentum slowly builds til I'm running full out... for the first time today. I haven't seen many people in a long time, so it feels strange to see each of the people I pass. Pajarito Aid Station is a full-on aid with a big crowd and lots of activity. I ask for a beer and get one. They top off my water bottle while I stash the spare bottle and get a bit to eat too.

The next section is not very tough, a gentle four mile rise, up along a creek, a shallow ridge, then along the Camp May Road. Power hiking keeps me moving well from Pajarito to the Townsite Lift. Ann offers to help and again I ask for a beer. I'm in an odd mood it seems, but beer seems the right choice. So, I have another while they top off my water and eat some orange slices. All the while, I listen to a guy who has decided to quit and is explaining why to his family. I ask him to come with me... but no.

Its all up from here. This is the last big climb and the final cutoff that needs to be made. Pajarito Mountain is the final test, so I dial in a good cadence and start moving. I'm bone tired, but it really feels good.... all of it. Being in the mountains, being this close to the final climb, knowing that I will get it done, it's exhilarating. I cross over and up a few ski runs, all of it steep, toes pointing at the sky. Into the tall trees, then in the open, back into the trees again, and repeat. Hard to say which way the trail will turn, but it's always up. I top out and thick the climbing is done, but I'm a fool for even thinking that way, because it has not been that way at any time today. One false summit follows another endlessly over and over again. The top of the ski lift is also not the top, even though I think this is it again. Past the green chair, and then a bit more up again. Then when we start down, we go back up again. It all seems to be twisted up in circles and I'm surprised that we don't cross over our same path.

The path does eventually go down a steep chute, then a bit more, and then the big laundry chute strait down the mountain. Its marked right down the middle, so thats where I go... right down the middle. The wind is gusting, so I pull off my visor and spin on down, passing a couple of people along the way. I roll into the Ski Lodge with 30 minutes to spare on the 5:00 PM cutoff. It feels so damn good to be here, right now. I am only 36 miles into the 50 miler, but because there are no more cutoffs, I feel like I'm done. Now, all I have to do is walk home the final 14 miles.

Mark Blenden is getting ready to head out and says he's not doing well, so I agree to hang with him. I'm no longer in a hurry, and figure to have a nice stroll and visit. Takes us about 45 minutes to reach Powerline, where we sit down to make ready for the night. I load my pack with jacket, gloves, and light, then change my shoes as well.

I force a brisk walk and hold to it, going up or down the rolling jeep road. There's a few climbers, but nothing really bad. The brisk conversational walk keeps us from thinking much about the time of day, but the sun is surely sinking. With lights in hand, its irrelevant really, but more of a curiosity. We leave the road for single-track trail that wraps around another ridgeline and deposits us into the Guaje aid station. Two people manage the station with one remaining silent and the other in a very talkative mood. It's very pleasant.

We enter the burnt out haunted forest next, but it's not so spooky in the daylight. I start pushing the walk pace a bit more now that we have tilted downhill again. I begin to wonder if we will reach the Rendija aid station at mile 48 before dark. I have heard that this canyon is beautiful and I'd love to see it. Los Alamos peeks at us now and again off to the right. With every step, we keep dropping down. Mark is having a really tough time, but mixes running and walking. He talks about backing off, but refuses to turn lose. I have it down, the high cadence forced downhill walk that keeps us rolling. Our trail becomes a road and then a mile later, back to a trail again. The small slot canyon is gorgeous, rock formations, and rock faces. It's a generous downhill that I am hard pressed not to run... so I walk even faster.

The light is fading quickly now, but we roll into Rendija with the last rays. Deb & Steve greet us with a cold beer, a warm hug, and friendly smile. It sure is nice to be with friends. It's a cozy gathering but we don't stay long. One last climb, a short set of switchbacks, and we're out and completely in the dark. With two miles to go, we have finally lost the light.

I like to play this little game where I go as long as I can without a light, so I keep moving. It lasts for 15 minutes before I turn on my light... more out of concern for missing a turn than I am about tripping. Funny how it is that when you turn on your light you see so much less. What I do see is one small spot just in front of me.... and thats it. Reminds me how much my focus shifted today.

After the tunnel, its lots of reflective markers, intersections, and choices. We mosy along taking our final mile casually... comfortably. Life is good... but what am I going to tell my wife?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Grand Canyon 2011 : R2R2R

R2R2R (Rim to Rim to Rim) Grand Canyon, AZ 7 May 2011 joe prusaitis

The Canyon, like my life, is full of interesting characters, has plenty of ups ands downs, and the longer I'm in it, the slower I get. Without difficulties, you learn nothing, so I came back to the canyon for the 3rd time to grow and evolve. I need something challenging in my life to make me feel alive. It's not just about the accomplishment... but more about the journey. The jigsaw puzzle of my mind and body is a problem looking for a solution. What to do when my body begins to fail, or my emotions start to flake. The canyon is one of those places so big that it changes my focus... visually and spiritually. Like most desert places, the landscape is deceptive and hides the beauty in plain sight. Each bend in the trail hides the next bend, and the next... each false summit hides another, and another... The endless expectation beats you into a numb state of C' est la vie.

Because of the long uphills and downhills, one direction is not equal to the other. I know what to expect, but distance and time are distorted. My perception of the time it takes is way off the mark. The only thing I know for certain is... the canyon is big and I am small. I have already run this route twice: a permanent memory etched into my brain. But, the devil is in the details... and what I don't know is... all the small details: how my stomach and feet will feel after 48 miles of desert heat, altitude, warm water, hot food, biting horseflies, swarming mosquitos, sand in my shoes, and endless drainage bars. With all the difficulties that lie ahead, I plan what I can to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. I pack as light as possible: an empty water bladder, one empty water bottle, one full one, food for two light meals, apple, avocado, a dozen gels, gloves, and super-lightweight rain jacket. The pack is light for now, but it'll be much heavier after Cottonwood, where I plan to load up on water.

There are 49 of us (mostly from Texas), with 30 going for the R2R2R, and the rest have various other destinations: Indian Gardens, the River, Phantom Ranch, and Cottonwood. We're scattered across the South Rim in whatever we can find and afford. From our room, it's a 5 minute walk and a 3:30am start. Some start down South Kaibab, but most take Bright Angel, and all leave between 3am and 5am. Some are buddied up and some go solo, but once it starts, there's a long string of lights that I can see from rim to miles down. They all know the route and the logistics, but I can only hope they all make smart choices when it comes time to make them. This is a run you can't quit without some cost. The sign of the day that says it clearly... 'Going Down is Optional - Going up is Mandatory'

The only plans Joyce and I have are to do what we can. We expect to do the whole thing, but will cut it short if we must. It's a warm morning, so we start in shorts and T-shirts. We drop in and go down fast. Its pitch black and I can only see a few yards ahead in the direction I point my light. I wear it on my head, but its difficult to see well until I take it off and hold it down low in my hand. We swap places with Wade, JoAnna, and Les now and again as we each stop for various reasons. I take a look behind us during one stop to see dozens of lights spread across the night like fireflies.

From the top of the rim to Indian Gardens, the cross-trail drainage bars keep our feet from getting lazy. We skim the 1.5mi and 3mi rest houses, dropping 3000 ft like a rock, to Indian Gardens where we top off quickly and continue. We lose the drainage bars in exchange for rocks and more rocks. Being somewhat blind and running without glasses, you might think I should be nervous about running downhill in the dark... but it aint so. I love to run at night, and especially downhill, so we pick up speed and let it roll. The whole idea of running into the Grand Canyon seduces me to run faster. Out of the lower Indian Garden greenbelt and onto the Devil's Corkscrew, my aggressive downhill glide seems to instill confidence in Joyce too, as she doesn't miss a beat. A bat begins diving through my headlamp beam and then goes to play with Joyce.

The sun's ambient light reaches down to us deep in the canyon for the first time today, and we are close to the river, but we're still a long way from being touched by the direct light. We test our balance, hopping the uneven stepping stones across Garden Creek on multiple occasions. The sights and sounds of the cascading creek alongside the trail is soul soothing... an exquisite rock and water garden in the desert... an oasis.

We pass a group of boy scouts heading up, each wearing a pack bigger than they are. A few minutes later, we pass a sleeping bag in the middle of the trail, dropped by one of the scouts, no doubt. We reach the river at 5:30 AM, stop for a few, and continue with Les, who arrives as we start again. The trail traversing the south face is full of deep beach-like sand, and it's slow going til we reach the suspension bridge, but we are done with the long downhill anyway. I suspect we wont get anywhere near that speed again on this trip.

The visual look and feel of crossing the Colorado River on this suspension bridge is disorienting. You can see right through the metal grate floor and walls. Nothing blocks your view of raging river 100 feet below, the massive canyon walls, or the wind. The wind gusts are loud. You can hear them as they come at you, and they appear in sync with the rushing water of the river underneath. The sensation is of me being carried away by the waves. Its almost an out of body feeling, knowing damn well that I am well above the water and feeling like I am right on top of it. I try to quit looking at the water, focus on the hand rails that lead to the other side instead... and start running. I don't realize til I get to the other side, Joyce & Les are right behind me, having followed my lead. Minutes later, we're at the bathroom and pump on the north side, near Phantom Ranch, roughly 10 miles in. We top off again and load the 2nd water bottle too. Jon & Dawn come in as we finish up and head out.

At the intersection of the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel trails, we make a left to start up the north side. The trail runs parallel Bright Angel Creek, with the campgrounds on the opposite side. We take the path that avoids Phantom Ranch, and are past it quickly. Inside 'The Box', walls rise strait up for as far as I can see. The rock walls are long sweeping turns that redirect the creek from side to side. We run on the east side for a few turns, cross a metal bridge to the west side for a few turns, and back again on another bridge. The water is moving very fast and dangerous, which explains the large retaining walls on some of the turns. As loud as the rushing water is, I can clearly hear a bullfrog's throaty croak echoing off the walls from one of the backwater swamp areas. I don't know where 'the Box' ends, as the high walls continue for a miles and only gradually begin to open up as we approach Ribbon Falls and the Cottonwood area. The whole time we have been gradually climbing up as the sun-line on the canyon walls has been dropping down, and I have been dreading what it will bring when we intersect. Minutes before we reach the comfort of the shade trees, it finally happens... and then we are at the oasis called Cottonwood.

David & Lino are sitting there when we arrive, so we sit with them to eat. I pull everything out of my pack, so I can load the 100oz water bladder and Two water bottles. The sunglasses come out as well as a sandwich and an apple. Quite a few others roll in and out during the 20 minutes we are here, but this is not a race... and we do get to visit with quite a few of our friends. The next part of our adventure... from Cottonwood to the North Rim and back is expected to be the most difficult for a couple of different reasons. ONE: The only water available for the next 12 miles is the Pump House just one mile in (possibly 5 hours). TWO: there remains 4000 ft of climb between here at the North Rim. THREE: The sun is bringing the heat. FOUR: The higher we climb, the worse the deer flies and mosquitos swarm. This, I wasn't expecting.

The Pump House is immediately after another of the metal & wood bridges that looks like a superstructure. These bridges were built to stand just about anything Mother Nature sends. I suppose they've had to rebuild these bridges so many times, they decided to build something semi-permanent. This is also where the switchbacks begin. We are now in granny gear. The already dynamic scenery suddenly gets even better in magnified close-up. A 360 panoramic captures perfect views at the same time Steven, Pete, Robert, & Megan come by us. They had started on the South Kaibab two hours after us, and are obviously much faster than us. Our uphill momentum is very slow and methodical compared to the speedy foursome.

The altitude, the heat, and the flies gang up to slow our march, and that's what it is now... a march. Joyce trails behind as we close on David, and then Troy & Kelli pass by. The higher we get, the slower we go, and the more beautiful the scenery. This has to be one of my favorite places on this planet. I can feel the energy... from the rock walls (sheer & tall), the crooked sliver of trail (bending upwards), the river of water (gushing out of the mountain side), the wind gusts (pushing me around), and the history (hundreds of years of explorers using this same path).

They're on us quickly, the little bastards... hundreds of deer flies and mosquitos. Maybe it's our sweat soaked clothes, the salt from our pores, the stink from all of it... or its just the right altitude for the blood sucking bastards... and we are barely moving (which implies we are nearly dead)... but they are here to stay. I can't shoo them away or wave them off. I have to smash them dead to get them off. They all bite and they all hurt. With so little energy to waste, arm waving and cussing is the final insult.

Past Roaring Springs, our trail swings left and right endlessly up, along many ledges and unparalleled beauty. Occasionally, we spot some of our friends in places where I'd never guess a trail existed. A bridge crosses a deep slot in the middle of nowhere... a landmark to remember... close to Supai Tunnel. This is where we start to see quite a few people coming down. I would rather be invisible at times like this... where they look so fresh and happy floating downhill, while I look and feel so rough dragging my body up. What a surprise to see an old friend (Bridget) we haven't seen in 8 years. She's almost as surprised as we are, except she's been running with friends of ours since this morning, so she's had some warning we were here. She's leading a pack of women when we see her. Hugs and memories take a long time... so we make it short and agree to reconnect when we're done. She needs to chase her friends and we're far from done.

Supai Tunnel comes at the top of a flight of rocky stairs... and I'm surprised how much it lifts me up, knowing how much closer we are to being at the top. We're still two miles from the North Rim, but it's a long two miles... and no easier. I heard that the pump here was off before I started, but I check it anyway. If it were on, I'd be able to unload a lot of this water weight on my back. I thought it was off, out of concern for snow and frozen pipes, but now I think maybe its just off til they open the north rim next week.

We dial in a slow steady cadence that inches us upwards, while our friends are coming down fast. More typically, I can gear up my mojo from the energy of knowing how close I am... but it aint happening today. Steven, Pete, Robert, and Megan yell us onward, then Jonathan, Troy, Kelli, and Joe. There is no easy section until we're on top, but it does eventually come to us. I remember the North Rim as being beautiful and serene... but it is none of that today. We can't see anything but the swarm of biting flies. We want so badly to take a break, to revel in our accomplishment, maybe lay down and close our eyes for a few shakes... but there is no time for any of that. We get our picture taken and get the hell out. David comes with us.

About a mile down, we sit in a shady area with some wind that helps to keep the bugs down while we eat. It's not the break we wanted, but enough maybe to sustain us til we get back to Cottonwood. The others are coming up in droves: Wade, JoAnna, Les, Pam, Guy, Charlene, John, Naresh, Bob, Roger, Tom, Brian, Darren, Fred, Jennifer, and Marlee. We move slowly at first... walking...which turns to waddling... and running. I can't seem to get it going. Mine is an awkward stumbling gait with a hitch in it. I might have the look of somebody running in cowboy boots with a pistol strapped to one leg. Sad looking for sure... so I leave my camera in the saddle bag.

The sun and the flies are not nearly so bad heading down. We're moving faster... so maybe they don't mistake us for being dead now. The wind has also picked way up... gusting very hard... tugging our hats off... and shoving us around. A few thousand feet down, we collect a few more friends, and a few group photos with Wade, JoAnna, Pam, Guy, and Charlene. Joyce, David, and I surge ahead and get to the Pump House first, where we stop to top one bottle and dunk our heads under the pump. That out and back was a beast! Always was... always will be. Feels great to finally be done with it. But we're still... very far from being done.

The trip to Cottonwood seems so long in comparison to the way out. Its possible maybe... we're going a bit slower now. Cottonwood seems to be our gathering spot for this day. As happened earlier today, once again, quite a few people roll in right on our heels. While we top off and get a bite to eat, at least 10 other people roll in behind us. A small party happens spontaneously, with bodies laying in every spot of shade. Putting away the water bladders to reduce weight, we're back down to using two water bottles again. Joyce & I head out with David in tow, but Joyce puts on the jets, and I try to stay with her, but we lose David soon after the humpback hill at Ribbon Falls.

The seven miles back to Phantom Ranch are relatively easy from recall, but nothing seems very easy any longer... and again it feels like it goes on forever. The sun is still cooking, so the cactus flourish, while we languish. It is interesting to note all the bright purple roses open to the sun that weren't open earlier today. By the time we're back in 'the Box', Joyce's stomach has gone sour. The tall canyon walls and the angle of the sun's rays on the sweeping turns have us alternating between sunlight and shade. At each turn, we look ahead at the high walls in hope of seeing anything that indicates an end to 'the Box', but each turn simply leads to another.

I had been told that you could buy a cold drink at the Phantom Ranch store, and this thought starts a craving that grows... but we arrive at 4:20 PM to find the store closed at 4 PM. I top off our water bottles at the pump in front of the store, while Joyce goes looking for some ice. It surprises me when she comes back with a small bag of ice in hand. She's not doing well, so the ice chips are critical to cool her down. She starts sucking on some ice while I load up our water bottles with ice and water. There is little else we can do... but keep going.

Fred and his crew come in as we head out for the final 10 miles... across the river and up the 5000 ft climb to the South Rim. I promise Joyce that we're done running... that we can walk it in from here. We stop at the last pump this side of the river and then cross the bridge. It's mostly sand, so we go slow and easy. By the time we reach the bathroom at Garden Creek, Les has again caught back up... and this time he keeps on going. We begin the climb, but Joyce is having a rough time, so we stop for another break, and I remove my shoes to soak my feet in the cold stream. Guy, Pam, and Charlene roll by us, and then Fred and his crew hook up with us. Moving again, we wind up through the Devil's Corkscrew. It's a beast of a climb, but we seem to do well with it. Joyce gets some of her mojo back and is moving much better. Not that she feels any better, but she is moving well again. So, we spend an hour or more with Fred & Char as we slowly make our way up the canyon.

David, Wade, and JoAnna connect with us before we reach Indian Gardens, but then we scatter at the benches near the pump. I load our water bottles and then lay down for a moment while Joyce does the same on a different bench. Only three minutes, then we're up and going out just as we lose the light. Its pretty dark at 8 PM, but we go 15 minutes without lights. Its comfortable until we start tripping on rocks, then we both switch on our lights... only to realize the trail dust is everywhere. We couldn't see it in the dark, but our headlamps highlight the dusty mist that completely surrounds us. It was the same way coming down, but I forgot about it until just now. Fred & crew are back with us again, but only in passing. They are moving quicker than us and keep on going. We can see their lights as they climb the switchbacks, and every now and then, I can still pick out Fred's headlamp more than 6 ft off the trail.

Alone in the dark, we climb the same trail we descended earlier today. Neither of us has the energy to speak, so we don't. Joyce is in front and keeps up a good constant stride, while I hang 3 yards back, content to match her pace. Every 3 feet - another drainage bar, so there's no possibility of a constant even stride. Each bar is high enough we have to climb over it, and some are easier to go around. An endless game of looking for the best place to put the lead foot so that we can get the trailing foot over. Done correctly, we manage a hundred yards without mishap... but of course there are mishaps. Joyce slips once, both feet fly out in front of her, and she drops onto her butt. A moment to repair, then up and many more to go. I lose my balance and my leg swings wide, aiming me towards the cliff... so I stop and back up, and try it again. Now and again, I catch my toe and trip, which typically leads to a second trip, and readjust to try again. It takes 40 minutes to reach the 3 mile rest house, which means we are walking 40 minutes per mile and a half. Three more miles to go and that means, another hour and a half... if we stick to this pace.

Of course, we don't stick to this pace... we stop a few times. We get fresh water at the 3 mile rest house and start again. A hiker closes in on us and as we stop to let him go by, he stops too, and asks if we mind that he hang with us. He's been out here all day alone and wants some company. He doesn't want to talk... he just wants to be with us. When we get up to go again, he does too, tucking in behind us and matching our pace. I can hear the clickity-clack of trekking poles scuttling right behind me. It's a bit unnerving at first and then I finally quit thinking about it and start thinking about the time instead. 40 minutes after the 3 mile rest, we reach the 1.5 mile rest house... and now we are within reason of reaching the top.

We don't find any magic in the nearness of knowing... we simply keep going the same. Joyce up front, with me in the middle, and clickity-clack behind me. We can see the lights of the buildings on the rim now. The first tunnel brings a subdued excitement just for the landmark being reached and knowing we are closing in. It's a long way from tunnel one to tunnel two, and that is all I can think of now. We stop again... we're at 7000 ft and 47 miles into a 48 mile run, and all that we want is to be done. We get up and continue as before, constant, stumbling at times, but slowly going up. We pass two guys sitting on trail side, one is blind, and the other has a phone... telling somebody they're heading back up soon. As we pass, they get up and pass us. A few minutes later, we catch and pass them again. We have to be close. How far could these guys have gone down? I begin to wonder what the Grand Canyon must have felt like to the blind guy. Could he feel the majesty of such a place... the immense-ness of it. In the darkness... there was little difference between what he and I saw and felt.

Our 40 minute pace holds true, as we reach the 2nd tunnel on que, and now we know for sure... we are done. We stop to take our own picture... and a few minutes later, we top out and are done. The hiker bids us goodbye and we walk to our room. We're cold... for the first time since we started. Five minutes later, we're in our room, wake Erica & Sean, shower, then make my way through no less than four ice cold root beers strait out of the frig. Steve, Megan, Rob, Jeff, Doise, and a few others are there to swap a few tales, but everyone is punchy as hell, so we each drift back to our own rooms and our own beds... for a very good night's sleep. Tomorrow... we head to Sedona in search of a brew pub to celebrate what we have done... all of us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Guadalupe Mountains 2011

Guadalupe Mountains
Pine Springs to Dog Canyon and back
Permian Reef Up and back
April 7-10, 2011
Joe Prusaitis

My SmugMug Pics

It has always been a mystical place for me... a place of quiet, where my spirit and soul repair and replenish. My totems are strong here, as are many others. One of the few things on my must see list for this weekend is a Horny Toad. Everything else is already on the plan... Hunter Peak, Bush Mtn, Dog Canyon, and Permian Reef.

It has always been April or May for our little running camp up in the Guadalupe Mountains. Not that this is the best time to go, but more because it is the right time frame for a summer mountain trail race that we are training for. It has been a training run for so many different people for so many different races these past six years.

Our caravan leaves Austin very early on Thursday for the 500 mile trip. Van Horn is the last stop for lunch and final necessities, but mostly gas, ice, & beer. The final 50 miles due north heads directly to our destination. We arrive around 2pm, check in at the ranger station, then set up our tents at the group sites. Because of the very high winds, its complicated putting up the tents. Two carport sized tents, with fenceposts pounded into the ground, and duct taped around tent leg & fencepost, then 2 inch wide tie down straps from cross bars to a few very large rocks. The last thing we do is carefully put on the tarp covers and side panels, making certain that we use every grommet hole or else the wind will grab a corner and begin to rip the entire tarp away. The wind is as strong as I have ever felt it here, ripping through camp and removing anything that is not tied down. Some of the personal tents are pushed down flat and pop back up between gusts. Two 3-burner propane stoves are set up with propane tanks and 3 tables for preparing the meals. Two large coffin coolers filled with food and all the other stuff that a chef needs to make a couple of very good meals and last but not least... the chef. Crash has been our man for many years now, creating some legendary meals the last few years.

Soon after the tent goes up, the gang also heads up... to Guadalupe Peak. It's an 8 mile round trip, and depending on their speed, may be back before dinner is served or not. Friday morning is always the 'long' day, so everybody settles down early to prepare their packs for tomorrow and to get some sleep before the early start. Most everybody is in a tent, but lately, there have been a few RVs coming along as well, but everybody is off to each of their own bedrooms soon after quiet time, which happens to be soon after dark.

Joyce & I never go into the mountains without a rain jacket, or almost never. With the drought hard into Texas, and no rain expected anywhere for the foreseeable future, we pack for the first time in many years without our rain jackets. It is our intention to pack as light as possible, but making sure we take what we need. It's a balancing act, guessing what we will or wont need. Water is the key component with each of us loading 100oz bladders into our packs as well as a hand-held bottle with another 20oz. Food for a 30 mile run in the mountains is tricky. It's not so much about the distance as it is about the time. It will take longer than usual due the rugged mountain terrain and the altitude... between 5000 and 8600 ft. It's not nasty high, but enough to kick you just a bit when added to everything else. It is part of the reason we are here. This site best simulates the races we are training for: Jemez, Bighorn, Leadville, Tahoe, & Hardrock.

I carry a variety of trail food for quick energy as well as sandwiches and avocado. A wear a headlamp, but don't really need it to start. Its more for... in case I get stuck out here after dark the next night. My camera is the only luxury item I load. Everybody has a copy of the waterproof maps I created with our route on it, and everyone is also buddied up with somebody they are required to stay with while they are in the mountains.

Start time is 6:30am Central Time, even though this little quadrant has somehow become part of the Mountain Time zone. We purposely ignore the time change. I give a couple of notepads and pens to the leading duo who are faster than the rest of us so they can drop them at key points for everybody to check into. The idea is that you never pass one of these books without writing in it your name, time, direction, and condition. It's our little way to keep track of each other without seeing anyone. Brandon & Duane head out exactly at 6:30, but the rest of the group waits another 15 minutes for Gordon and Shannon. It's a dark start as we head up Tejas Trails to Pine Top, but we're far from the top when the sun rises. The first book is there on top, so I sign Joyce and I in. Brandon is there already having done Hunter's Peak. Joyce takes a short break while I head over to Hunter's Peak alone. It's a 2 mile out and back and I cross paths with Duane as I start up while he heads back. I dropped everything back at Pine Top, so its free and easy lightweight running for this short out n back. I hit the top, turn and head right back. I figure Joyce should be getting cold by now, and I don't want her waiting too long for me. I see all the others as I head back down.

As I suspect, Joyce is ready to go, so I load up and head out with her. Our route from here is over Bush Mountain and back along Blue Ridge to Tejas Trail again. B & D are gone, so we follow their track, while I pull out a Powerbar from my pack and start working on it. Ya know... I feel good today. I did the climb to Pine Top rather well, starting dead last in our group, making sure everyone was on the trail, and then dialed it in and motored on up... stopping only once for a photo. I know its early, but I have a hunch that this is going to be a very good day for me.

The Bush Mountain trail is a rugged and rocky high altitude beast. Most of it rolls along around 8000 ft, with quick tilts up above 8500 and drops to 7000, over and over again. The trail is not well used, sparse in spots, and littered with jagged rocks and all variety of cactus. You have to pay as much attention to the prickly pear and ocotillo as you do the sharp rocks and ledges. I knew not to wear my wide brimmed hat as I usually do, with the high wind gusts, I'd have lost it already to the malevolent wind daemons. I wore a visor specifically so that if the wind did take it, it had little surface with which to sail it very far. The craggy open ridge left us exposed for the wind to shove about, but mostly it just kept us cool... and this works wonderfully for me. Joyce doesn't care much for it... but it keeps me cool and that is what keeps me on my game for so long. I keep surging ahead and climbing better than I have in a very long time. I stop about every half hour to eat another gel, starting with the chocolate before switching to the mountain huckleberry. We don't see a soul, but we can hear the voices of both John Sharp and Gordon Montgomery every now and then. But that doesn't mean they're even close as those two can both throw a voice without any wind.

We stop on top of Bush Mountain next to the radio repeater tower for a short break, and then drop off the other side where the trail all but disappears for a bit. This area is so dynamic a panorama view of the salt flats 6000 ft below and the rock hoodoos on the edge of the cliff. The gusting wind flying strait up from below is almost visible in its sound and intensity. I toss a pebble over the edge just to see which way it will go... up or down. We track further away from the edge soon after, take the Blue Ridge trail without stopping, and were making good time, when I suddenly hook my toe under a rock. The momentum of it would have been hard to describe were Joyce not watching from behind to describe it in detail. My toe tries to lift up, but it's a large rock and wedged into the ground pretty good, so I only partially lift it, and then my other leg came up and goes around my body, slinging me sideways. My arm swings over as well and around me as I crash into the rocky ground all cattywampus... more sideways and backwards. My hand slams into the rock pretty hard, while my knee gets a slight zing, but the oddest thing is the puncture wound in the back of my neck from the Sotol cactus. Ever notice now long it takes for the blood to come up when you scrape yourself up pretty good like this. I was up and running within seconds, so the blood didn't start until I was back on the run. It runs down my knee, pooling on my compression legging and off my hand to drip from my fingertips. It isn't bad, but it looks a lot worse than it is. I get my mojo back quickly, dancing through the minefield of rocks they call Blue Ridge. It isn't much of a trail really and might be hard to follow in the dark. Rocks everywhere and nothing has been moved to one side or the other in an attempt to create a trail or even some semblance of one. The trail is so minimal that I trust my instincts more than anything else. It just seems to be the correct way.

I know we're approaching the end of Blue Ridge when the trail grows perceptively steeper, going to switchbacks, and again dodging ocotillo as well as sharp edged rocks while we drop quickly. Odd how something like that fall will cause me to be more fearless and less careful... as if to prove that I'm not going to let it bother me. Something got locked in 'just so' with my psyche when I was a young boy. I can't explain it or understand why... but it is certainly 'just so'. I sit down at the Tejas Trail split to write our time in the 2nd book that the boys have left here. It feels good knowing that they're still on the right track and also that nobody had caught us up yet. Joyce asks how we're doing and I tell her 'we're doing great!'

I'm into the raspberry gels as we head north on Tejas Trail. More rock and lots of it. This trail is a beast for ankle twisting, artery slicing, sharp edged rocks and nearly impossible to avoid. The run is a lopsided affair of run, hop, skip, and run again in an unnatural sequence with no rhythm. It isn't smooth, flat, or straight and you still need to be wary of the cactus that claims some of the space on the trail as well. Ocotillo is the sneakiest cut-throat with its long strands that lean in and tag you now and then. With all the other obstacles, this section is not super hilly, so it doesn't take long to reach the McKittrick Trail intersection. Three hikers are lounging in the shade as we come in, trying to decide what they will do next. They're friendly enough and seem quite amused by what we are doing. We have no plan for McKittrick this weekend, but this is certainly a major landmark and intersection. This is where we drop into Dog Canyon and also the same point we come back up to. 4 miles down and 4 miles back up, and about the same amount of elevation change we managed from camp to Pine Top. We sign into the book and take a short break.

The drop into Dog isn't immediate, taking us on a roll for a bit before the bottom finally falls out. We barely get going when I spot a Horny Toad in the middle of the trail. What a treat! We stop to take a few pictures before continuing our rapid descent. We're on a controlled fall when we finally see Brandon. He's running up as quickly as we're running down. It's surprising to watch somebody actually run UP that trail. Simply amazing! We stop to visit for a few seconds and then continue in opposite directions. Soon after, we see Duane walking rapidly uphill in a very controlled measure. He's doing well, so we barely slow down to visit with him before continuing. It doesn't take long to clear the open areas and enter the trees, and the last bit of easy rolling slopes into the meadow for our destination: the water pump. This water is the reason we came all the way down here. Without it, everything changes. The plan was built around where we could get water, as much as for the distance and terrain. We pull up for a long break, clean off, refill our bladders and bottles, and of course... to eat. Avocado, apple, and a sandwich empty the rest of our packs, so there's little left for the return trip. But that was the idea: to fuel as much as possible early on and regularly. Not much was left between us but for a few gels and a powerbar.

Our Dog Canyon break cost us 20 minutes, but that was the plan and we're just fine with it. We are both a little surprised that nobody had caught us yet. It's mostly up for the next 4 miles, with few flat or downhill sections. We're well into the trees and just before the steep climb when we cross paths with David Land & David Jacobson. We stop for a short visit and then get going til we reach the beginning of the steep climb. We are not far into it, when we see Gordon sitting on a rock with his head in his hands. He says that Sharp turned back at Blue Ridge and he's in a low spot, but will be fine. This climb is a bitch, no doubt, but I refuse to stop. I get ahead of Joyce and turn to discover I can't see her. I sit down to wait, but she doesn't show up in the expected minute or less, so I get up and start back down. She's just out of view, standing up and holding her arm, crying. She had fallen and popped her elbow: the one with pins in it from the surgery she had a few months ago. We have to keep going regardless, so we get going, albeit... much slower. We're not far from the top, so this beast is almost beaten. Then we see Bob Klapthor and Shannon Mitchell, both looking great and heading down. I ask Shannon to pick up all the books on her way back home.

It feels good to be back at the McKittrick intersection... marking the end of the long and tough Dog Canyon section. Seems odd to be so exhilarated, when we're still so far from done. We check the book to see where everybody is and where they're going, and to add our two bits. It's interesting to look at the names, times, and notes to see who is doing what. I could only guess and assume up to a point. I only know what I see and what is in these books. Vicki, Trish, Ann, and Crash were starting after our main group this morning, and I can see in the book that they were here a few hours ago... and have long since headed home. Only 5 of our group are behind us, with the rest of the them well on their way home. I take my last gel during the short break.

The easy section from here to Blue Ridge doesn't seem as easy in this direction. The rock playground is much tougher to negotiate than it was earlier. I didn't realize it was downhill coming over here until now that I am going uphill heading back. Beginning to feel the mountain miles, a dull throb has been building in my bones, and the climb out of Dog has nailed it home. I wonder why I didn't notice, when it seems so dominant now. Most of the climb out of Dog was certainly a walk, but that seemed to be the intelligent thing to do. But now that we are on top and the trail is somewhat runnable, I don't feel so smart any more. We alternate walking and running, with no rhyme or reason to why or when we do one or the other. I want to run so I make myself run, but can't sustain it for very long. I try to compromise with myself by walking quickly. Lying to yourself never works for me. We pass by the Mescalero Camp site which brings to my mind the thought of the Apaches living here only a hundred and fifty years ago and I try to divert my rough feelings by talking about something other than the right here and now. That doesn't work either and the conversation dies.

We check the book at Blue Ridge and take a short break before starting the last little nasty section on this route home. There are three short steep climbs on the way back, and they start right after Juniper Trail. This part of the trail is deep forest, comfortable & serene, with pine needles and no wind... and it takes me a few moments to realize... there is no wind. And I also realize that without the wind... I'm getting harassed by a horsefly and then a few other flying insects. Damn... I start walking faster while I swat them away. Its darker in here with less sunlight leaking through the many tall trees. Its easy going for awhile and very quiet too.

At Juniper Trail, we take a short break, because I know what the next section is like and I need a short break before I fling myself at it. But...when we get up to go... I make it a goal to not stop til I top out of each of the three climbs. I push the pace, holding steady, even when it gets steep, trying not to lose my momentum as we start the switchbacks. I slow, but I don't stop, keeping the cadence the same, even if my stride is very short, I keep spinning, and going, til I make the next turn, and the next, and the next... til I top out of the first and biggest of the last three little demons. I sit on the same rock in front of a dead tree that I sit on every year... and wait for Joyce. She is not far back and takes a sit break on the same rock, and then we go after the next one. The 2nd one is much more rocky and rugged, with no switchbacks, but more ruts and rocks. Again, I refuse to stop til I top out and then I slow to wait for Joyce, but she is right with me again. One more, but this one is not right away. I can see Hunter's Peak through the trees and it seems so close, but I do remember the last little demon that I must climb before I can easily walk to Pine Top, so I keep going and hold my breath until the last one is done. And then we are on it and it too comes and goes quickly. I think it is easier because I knew it was there and I know that it is the last one, but they are all 3 done now and it is simply a short easy stroll to Pine Top.

We sit for our final break at Pine Top, back in the wind and the sun. We check the book and sign our name for the last time. I can see that almost everybody has gone down a long time ago, so there should be nobody on the trail below us to motivate me to chase. It is good though... as I'd like to go down a bit easier than usual and stay with Joyce as we have done all day. I check my bladder to dump the excess, but its almost empty so there is no need. This is one of those moments when we are not done, but know we will be... so we soak up the accomplishment and the day we just spent in the mountains... together. And I don't feel so bad anymore either. All the good that washes over us is a psychological painkiller. Simply put: success is a painkiller.

We top out and start down, slowly at first, but gaining momentum as we go. Joyce is right behind me the entire time as we take one sweeping turn after another on the 3.6 miles of downhill switchbacks. It's not til the trail runs between the two house-sized round rocks when Joyce announces she is done running. I know its still another mile or more but I don't think she knows, so I keep walking fast. I have a strong desire to be done, completely done, before I stop, and after about 10 minutes, Joyce realizes she's still a ways out, so she starts moving again. Dinner that evening is so very good, the camaraderie is perfect, and the sleep is even better.

Next morning, Saturday... we sleep in, because we plan to run Permian Reef out of McKittrick Canyon and they don't open the gates til 9am Central Time. Some want to stay and do Guadalupe Peak, but most of us drive over to McKittrick Canyon. We start in a pack, all heading up, and Brandon once again takes the lead. Most of us are reduced to a walk before very long, but Brandon is gone already, and Duane seems to be mixing a walk and run. I walk with Joyce for a bit and then we catch David and I go past, but she does not. Then I catch Gordon and another and so on til I am only behind Duane and Brandon. I can't work up a run, but I have a great power walk going. I keep going, making the rounds of each loop and switchback til I top out, just as Brandon returns from his one mile out & back to the overlook. The others come up in ones and twos, and Duane also returns from the overlook. We all sit and admire the view for a few minutes and then start back down. I go first, then Brandon... and I wonder if I can stay in front of him.

I start easy, get comfortable, and allow my momentum to carry me. The turns are easy, but its the rugged terrain that intrigues me into a faster effort. I can feel Brandon right behind me, but for now there is no place to pass. Cliffs and cactus merge with rocks and 180 degree turns to create an exhilarating run. I quit thinking about Brandon, instead focusing on where I'm going, playing chess with the rocks, thinking out the next three strides, while constantly scanning everything ahead. I trust that I can read the rocks at speed while I continue to build momentum. I make it through the nastiest section and then take a look back just before I crest a hump to start down the long face on the main canyon side: where's Brandon? I don't see him, but he has to be close, so I keep on keeping on. The trail is not near as rugged on the final descent, so I pick up the pace and stay focused, coming around the long sweeping turns and into the slot between the rocks. I have to hop up the steps and then twist through the ocotillo. The long straight line of rocks create an interesting sidewalk that clinks as each foot comes down on another rock. I have been down this path many times with many dear friends. It is familiar and friendly: a place of power for me. From the first time I crossed it, it has remained in my mind's eye, such that it makes me smile now as I cross it yet again.

When I reach the end of the long sidewalk, where the trail turns right and heads down, I glance once again over my right shoulder. There is no one, but I keep running, til I cross the creek and up the other side, left at the gazebo, and finally stop at the ranger station... in the shade. A couple from New Zealand that I remember from our camping area are there on the bench. We start up a conversation about their travels and then Brandon comes in... just a few minutes back. The others come in one at a time. It appears that they all got caught up in the mad chase off the mountain... or maybe not.

We are all still buzzing from the downhill run and it's a long time til dinner, so David stirs everybody up for a drive into New Mexico for lunch. The idea catches on and so we all end up at a pizza joint in Carlsbad. Of course, we are back at camp in time for dinner too. A few of the boys decide to run the Bear Canyon out & back, while John goes off towards Williams Ranch, and others are again talking about Guadalupe Peak or Devil's Hall. All in all, I think that everybody gets all that they want... and more.

Late in the day, the wind drives the desert into the sky and the air fills with dirt and debris. The wind has been very high all weekend, but now it is even worse, nearing 60 mph gusts or more. As soon as dinner is over, we remove the tarp roof to keep from having the wind rip them off. Its dark anyway, so there is no longer a need for sun cover. The wind continues to hammer away and we are just drinking beer at this point so we decide to take the sidewall windbreaks down as well, and when they are down, everybody decides to keep on working til the entire tent is down and packed up, as well as the stoves. When they are done, there is little to do in the morning but to load it up.

Morning comes quickly, and they are all ready to head home, so we finish loading up and head out. We have all done what we came to do, and now the wind and the sky filled with dirt chases us to the quiet and solitude of our cars. With the windows up and the air conditioning on, it is time for a break from the Guads. Its time to go home. The Guadalupe Mountain weekend every year is always classic, and I suspect that it will continue to be. The trails were exactly what we needed, the camaraderie was excellent, and the food was phenomenal. I am sure we will do it again next year.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Free State 100km

Free State 100km
23 April 2011
Clinton Lake SP
Lawrence, Kansas

You have to understand the contradictions in me to get the gist of what I say. There is a very strong and deep love in me for running in the mountains, yet I live in Texas and I hate running in the heat. I don't care for boring courses that are flat with little variation in scenery and multiple loop routes give me the heebie-jeebies, but I am going blind, so a repeat loop is easier for my aging eyes to deal with. Much like one of those old parenting axioms about life that goes like this... 'Do as I say and not as I do'... and twist into 'What I say is not always what I do'. Thus I go to run a multi-loop course in Kansas.

Ben and Sophia have been running my Rocky Raccoon race for years, and they have been telling me to come run one of theirs as well, so I figure it is time. But I dont want to drive 800 miles for just any ol race... I want one that makes sense for my training. So, while setting up my own training plan for Hardrock, I roll it out and came up with Jemez 50mi and Bighorn 50mi, but also have room for something else too. I can't decide between R2R2R or Freestate, and like most ultra-runners, decide to do both. Freestate is more miles than I need at that time, but I figure it's ok because it's not as mountainous or as rugged as all the others... or so it seems.

I've run a few ultras in Kansas, so I've learned not to be surprised by the unexpected difficulties of running in a place that is supposed to be flat. Of course, I know better than to think that way. I've heard the entire course is single-track under the trees, alongside a lake, with potential for shoe sucking mud and slippery slopes, so I plan for a long tough day in rough weather. I suppose I even hope for and expect bad weather.... as a few of my buddies and I like to say... 'the worse the race - the better the story'.... and I like a good story.

I dropped off my wife, Joyce in Wichita for her nephew's wedding, and continue north to Lawrence on my own. I stop at the Econo Lodge where I reserved a room and I'm told that my reservation is for a smoking room with 2 beds & 4 people. No, not me, sorry... you made a mistake, here's my confirmation, I am sure. But we have no other rooms, so I leave without a room. I drive to Clinton Lake and check on camping, find the race start, but find nobody with the race, so I head back into town for packet pickup at Garry Gribbles Running Sports on Massachusetts Ave. It's easy to find and I check in with ease, and even bump into Sophia and have a short chat. I find a nice place for lunch around the corner and then get an unexpected call from Econo Lodge. We work out the problem and I have my single bed, non-smoking room back. So... I'm not camping after all. I drive back over and check in around 2pm. I had no idea I was so sleepy, but no sooner do I check in than I'm asleep on top of the covers. I wake around 9pm, hungry and too lazy to head out and find something to eat... so I simply called the pizza delivery that's listed on my hotel key card. It doesn't take long to destroy the small pepperoni pizza, shower, and go back to sleep. It should have all been so perfectly simply had I not woke up again at 2am for a bathroom break. Something as simply as sitting on a toilet in a dark room should be brainless... unless the door isn't closed all the way and you ram your forehead into the doorknob. Not only does my head hurt like hell, but that effectively kills my perfect sleep.

I try, but to no avail, so I get up and make better use of my time by packing my drop bags and arranging my gear for the race. Then, I pack all my things, load my truck, and drive to the race... earlier than I normally would. I roll in right in front of Sophia, so she gives me the 'rock-star' parking spot right next to the finish line tent and U-Haul truck. I'm already set, so I check to see if they need any last minute grunt help, but Ben has everything going already, so I sit back down and wait. I sure as hell won't be sleeping.

Must be 100 or more of us at the start, with half in the 40mi and half in the 100km. The 100km is subdivided into three 20mi loops, all on the north shore of Clinton Lake, with aid stations roughly 3 miles apart. I know that some of these are water only and unsupported, but more importantly, I can run very light, and only carry a single water bottle. My drop bags are just the opposite with a wealth of opportunities in clothes, food, and supplements, and located at opposite ends of the course for a look every ten miles.

Our herd charges down the road, from field to trees, and make a 90 degree right turn onto a narrow rolling single-track. Under a canopy of tall tress, the herd sorts itself out, dodging one another as well as a generous scattering of rocks. The early morning light casts odd shadows as it filters through the canopy. The energy of the herd is high, biting at the bit to go, and unleashed, surges faster than is reasonable early on. A wiser man, a person with some experience might know this and back off once this is realized and dial in an effort that lends to running 62 miles... but I left that guy at home this weekend. I hang with the young bucks and enjoy the camaraderie... if only for awhile.

Much of the course follows the contour of Clinton Lake, twisted up with the trees between the shoreline and the flat open meadows on top. Its not super hilly nor very flat either, but more of a meandering in all three dimensions. The rocks are not obsessive, but were you to not pay attention constantly, then you'd most likely hit the ground. Our congo line of runners stays pretty brisk and tight as we waltz around the perimeter of campground 3. After crossing a paved road, we climb a little up to Cactus Ridge. It takes awhile before I finally spot a few minuscule prickly pear cactus alongside the trail. The Cactus Ridge trail is more in the open but isn't out there for long before it turns back to cross the same paved road and then back to the same beach ramp where we started.

We are just 50 yards from the start aid station but we dont go up to it, instead crossing over and continuing in the same direction we were already going. The trail is relatively flat and straight now and again, but never for long, and suddenly changing direction, going up or dropping down, and then its into the rocks and flotsam right on the shoreline for awhile. A bit more care is taken to avoid twisting an ankle while we do some rock hopping. A short switchback marks the end of the shoreline trail, heading up to a staffed aid station. A few oranges and some banana fill my immediate needs, and then back into the trees.

Its all the same and its all different. I can't really tell where I am or where I'm going, but its all under the trees. I could be going any direction on the compus and I wouldn't be surprised. I can hear voices on the other trails, but have no reference of where they are in reference to me. We cross another road just as somebody else is running very quickly across the same road in the opposite direction. After a bit more meandering, we pop out onto a road, which this time, we climb up on its shoulder and continue to ascend while on a paved road. Once on top, we turn into a field and then wrap round to where we can see the 10 mile aid station managed by KUS. We skim by, back into the trees, for a 10 minute loop, and then back out to the same KUS aid station from the other side. This time, we can stop and I most certainly do.

I get my drop bag, while they fill my water bottle. I extract the avocado, and eat most of it in just 3 bites, then pack up and head back out, with a PB&J wedge in hand. 10 miles down with a whole hell of a lot more to go. My body is starting to adjust to the demands I am making, but not in a favorable way. A few aches, a few areas of tightness, and my psyche takes a hit, knowing that I feel like hauling ass the whole race, and realizing I dont have the bones to do it. I quit pushing so hard, telling myself its ok, lets relax and save some of that feeling for later.

Alone now, and a bit more conservative, I run a self-check and reflect on whats going on, feeling out the Achilles, IT band, heels, toes, and stomach. My stomach is fine, but my energy is low, and the Vasque Mindbender's just dont work all that well for my heels. My toes love them, and the rest of my foot is enjoying the comfort, but my heels say No! I'm gonna have to try some thicker inserts maybe. I cross back over the road where I saw the fast guy earlier when I can hear people all around me now. The marathon & half marathon guys are all around, passing me and also on the lower trail between me and the lake. It was so quiet just a moment ago. They all seem to be yelling at each other, or maybe its just very loud talking. They're coming through me in packs of twos and fours, most treating me as if I'm part of the terrain. It seems odd after running with the 100km and 40 mile runners. This group's primary goal seems to be just to get around me.

I stop at the aid station to get more orange and banana as a surge of runners roll in behind me. I wait for them to come and go before I mount up and start back out again. This section is just below the bluff, such that I can see the tops of campers and hear people up there every now and then. The weather has been fantastic, hanging in the mid 50s, with constant cloud cover, and just a pinch of rain. I've been going all day with a short sleeve shirt and very comfortable with it. I've been wearing some moeben sleeves, but the seems on one of them worn a blister in my underarm, so I roll them down and take them off. I think I like this section the best, but its hard to say exactly why. Maybe its a bit more rugged, a few more rocks, more twists and turns, or maybe its just me. I finish the 20 mile loop feeling a bit more used up than I need to be with 40 more miles to do. I walk up the slight uphill to cross the timing mat, with a time around 4 hours for loop one.

My truck sits right at the aid station, so I pop the tail gate and sit on it. I change shoes, going for the Montrail Hardrocks, while I eat more avocado, have some soup, while I consider a few more clothing changes. My stomach rumbles when I get up, so I wonder down the road to find a port-o-jon. This takes a lot longer than it should, but some things you just can't rush. When I leave, I feel as if I'm starting all over again, except... now I'm walking. I hook up immediately with two others who are also struggling to walk: blue-shirt and white-shirt. I am not a race walker, but it must look something like this, as we attempt to propel our bodies forward in a stiff legged upper body swing motion. Knowing how slow we are moving, each of us attempts to push ahead of the other and get some momentum going, but instead just leapfrog each other a few times before white-shirt works himself up to a run and leaves us behind. I had hoped it would be me, but it just isn't so. Blue-shirt and I manage a rolling walk/run and seem to be making good time but it's not pretty and its nowhere near what I'd call running. Blue-shirt pulls ahead at one point while I stop to suck down a gel and then I try like hell to hang on, while he tries like hell to push ahead. Its a silly game we play, but it's enough motivation for both of us to do more than back off and just walk. Funny thing is, after a few miles, we catch white-shirt and the three of us continue on as before, but a bit faster than the stiff logged stroll we were doing early in this loop.

By the time, we reach the aid station, we are running half decent again... not great, but better than it had been. By now, I've realized both the other guys are in the 40 mile and only going to the end of this loop, while I have another 20 miles beyond them. For some odd reason this seems to give me more power, so I pick it up a bit more and push ahead. White-shirt comes with me. and together we push the pace clean up to the KUS turnaround station. I eat a fair bit of food and load a few gels for the return trip, and then follow the white-shirt out of the station.

I'd like to think my pace is faster and stronger than anything I've done so far today, but reality is that in reference to what I had been doing, it just appears to be that way. Anyway, I'l really flying now, trying like hell to just hang on to white-shirt as we run everything including the uphills. This goes on for a few miles before I have an instant where I catch my breath and explain to him that I'm getting off the bus. Its too fast for too long and I still have a very long way to go... so I stop to eat a gel and also to separate myself from this way-too-fast pace. I start again, only a bit slower, dialing in a comfortable speed that feels good, and simply keep it rolling for a few miles until I catch white-shirt again... walking! As I pull up, he explains that he's hit bottom again. I knew that I couldn't sustain that pace for much longer, and I suspected that he couldn't either, but I also knew enough to keep that to myself. I went by him and kept on going and feeling pretty good about my wisdom in this case... especially after all the other poor decisions. Maybe this old dog can learn after all these years. I think I'm just trying to fool myself now. I suppose thats true in many cases, all in the effort to do whatever it takes to get me there as quickly as possible.

I finish loop two in five hours, which seems pretty good considering how slowly I turned the first part of that loop. Again, I walk up the hill, cross the mat, and sit down to eat. I had brought a lot of cold weather clothing, expecting a storm, rain, or some sort of mess to get me soaking cold and wet, but it has been a beautiful day so far. A constant mid-50 degree day, with no rain, a bit of cold breeze, and under cloud cover, allowing the sun to peek through only on a few rare occasions. Coming from Texas... this has been wonderfully prefect. No mud on my shoes, no gloves, hat, or anything else that required extra gear or weight. There is no reason to change anything except for my soaking wet shirt and bandana. The entire run has been with a single water bottle, topped off at regular interval aid stations.

I begin the final loop much the same as the last one, finding it very difficult to get going again. I cross paths with another guy who is also starting his third loop. I power-walk for a bit but cant seem to get my running legs. For the entire five mile loop out to Cactus Ridge and back, nothing changes, except for the overall dull throb of pain that seems to be everywhere at once. I sit down for a short break just below the main aid station to eat another gel and to take three tylenol caps. I'm hoping that the pain relievers will take the edge off so that I can get back to running again. My walking friend catches me while I sit, but I move past him again soon after.

At first, there is no change, but shortly, I seem to get my running legs back under me again. Only a little at first, but slowly they come around. I had started this loop with a headlamp wrapped around my wrist, not being all that sure that I could get to my drop bag before I lost the sunlight. And the way it started, I had even more doubts... but now I know for certain that I'm going to get to my bag well before time. Not that it matters anymore, as I have the light and I'm covered whatever happens now. I pass the midway aid station just fine and seem to pick up speed on my way to the final KUS turnaround. When I roll in, a guy asks me if I'd like a turkey burger and I respond with a smile. He runs back to the station with my order while I make the ten-minute loop out and back around to the station. They have my sandwich when I arrive and also an ice cold Freestate beer. Oh what a glorious meal it is! My walking friend comes in and grabs his burger as he heads back out, so I finish off mine and rush after him. He's a bit disappointed when I tell him about the beer, but one thing is certain, we're both heading home now, with about 9 miles left to go.

I know that I'm going to lose the light before I get back, and I know that I can go faster in the light, so this is when I really like to push it a bit, using the fading light as a motivator. And maybe it's the turkey burger and beer, but I really get it going again... running most of it, but walking the stiffer climbs, so as to not crash before I make it back home.

This is the time I enjoy the most, late in the run, the light going down, all alone, heading home, feeling all the pains and joys of this run... this day, and knowing it's all going to be over soon. Sure, it will be good to be done, but it will also be sad. This is what I came up here to do... run, play, enjoy, watch, see, visit, bond, hurt, smile, and live. Everything has it's cost and I don't mind paying for what this cost. The miles and hours of slinging my body down a trail certainly has it's cost, and I knew what it would cost before I started, at least to some degree. And I knew also what I'd find... more of my self. It is so much easier to see within after some degree of deprivation, some degree of exhaustion & pain. It's all good. I got what I came for, and it was not the buckle. The buckle is very nice, but I came for a feeling that I can only find out there.

I finish well, although my time may not reflect it. Ben and Sophia hand me my buckle and a hug. They are both genuine and wonderful people, good in so many ways. They took care of me and everyone else who was here. They put on a well thought out and professional race, loaded with their own special manner of care and understanding. Their volunteers reflect the same manner as they do, doing their best to care for each of us, and staying til the last runner is done. I would not change a thing, but from what I understand, the weather will do that for them.