From my youngest - "Just breathe"
My oldest daughter - "Don't fall"
My son - "Love it"
I wrote them all on my right forearm in black ink - so that whenever I looked at my watch I would be reminded.
The gun went off and I settled into a comfortable pace along Manitou Ave and made the turn onto Ruxton Ave. As the climbing began I felt good, dialing the effort back a bit as we went past the Cog Railway and then Hydro St.
As we hit the steep paved section just beyond Hydro Street most of the people around me immediately went to walk / power hike mode - as is my custom, I kept running - albeit very slowly. Power hikers easily passed me. But I have learnt that the sooner I start walking the more frequently I will walk later on up the trail.
As we turned onto the trail I was feeling good, the temperatures were nice but I could feel them warming and wondered how warm it would be when I came back down. This prompted me to remember to drink plenty of fluids throughout the race.
As we continued up through the W's there was not a lot of changing positions, most runners kept in single file. Occasionally the train would pass a runner, or a runner would go past the train. I had made a mental note of my desired splits - I thought I was capable of a sub 3:20 summit time. When I crested the top of the W's I was almost a minute ahead of my initial split goal - and feeling very encouraged, more importantly though I was feeling like I had not expended a lot out of the tank.
I quickly repeated to myself what was written on my arm - the note that stuck out then was "Love it" - so far I was loving how things were going. I was also reminded to keep breathing. When I looked at "Don't Fall" what came to mind was to focus and stay focused. A long, long way to go.
As I approached the Aid Station at No-Name Creek I ate my first snack - a home made Helen Bar which has become my go to food while running and crossed the split timing mat at 57 minutes, under a 3:15 summit pace and still feeling good. Loving it, breathing and focused.
As the trail now entered the Aspen groves I knew there was a few long switchbacks that help gain elevation quickly over the next half mile or so - but then after that the flat section of the trail comes. That was good motivation as I continued forward. Still running, mostly with a now familiar group of other runners whom I had been with for the last couple of miles. We would leapfrog past each other occasionally - but for the most part everyone had their eyes forward, heads down and were pressing on well it seemed.
The next place of note for me on the trail was Bob's road aid station where I had another Helen Bar and stopped to refill my water bottle with water and a packet of Skratch Hydration. Unfortunately I had trouble getting the packet open and had to stop for about 30 seconds - nevertheless I got it done and filled and kept on going.
Next landmark for me came shortly after, the 7.8 miles sign. In preparation for the race I had determined that once I reached that landmark I could estimate it would take me 2 hours if all was going well to reach the Summit. Unfortunately I forgot to look at my watch as I passed the sign - remembering when I had already gone by it.
On towards Barr Camp next and this next section was a tough one to keep focus on as there is a lot of flat, even downhill running parts of the trail. It's tempting to open up the gas a bit, it's also easy to lose focus and allow the opportunity to regroup breathing and heart rate go by. I went through this section average at best, all too soon it ended and the grade increased.
I got my focus back and kept working, still running and making good time, eventually getting to the Barr Camp Aid Station in 1:40 1/2 - still tracking a sub 3:20 summit time. I ate again and kept going, still being able to run. I was feeling okay as I entered this next 2 1/2 mile stretch below tree line that is always a tough one. It's now above 10,000' feet and has been a really tough stretch of the course always in the past.
I was determined to keep running it as much as I could. It gets a little rocky in places, step ups become more frequent and running rhythm is choppy at best. By now I was starting to pass a few more people - it always gives me motivation to pass someone.
About a mile past Barr Camp is the Turn off for Devils Playground - a trail I have never been on, although would like to one day. Today was not a good day to go exploring though. I kept repeating my mantra's "Keep Breathing", "Don't fall" (Stay focused) and "Love it". Love it was losing it's appeal a bit by now but I managed to run more than hike as much as I could.
And then it happened. Last year at A-Frame I stepped up on a rock and a shot of fire came across my right calf. This year it came 4 miles from the Summit. I have no idea what it is, cramps, fatigue or something to do with the compression socks that I was wearing. At first it wasn't untolerable - but certainly was recogniseable. I had been fueling well - much better than last year. I just don't know what causes it - it has only ever happen in this race to me - each of the past 2 years
It remains a mystery why it happens - I hope to figure it out one day. The result of it happening was that I had to decrease my effort and push forward. Every time I tried to dig a little deeper and push forward with more effort the fire in both calves would flare up. Fortunately I was near the A-Frame aid station so I drank most of my remaining fluids, hoping that would help.
As I got to the aid station I gagged down a gel, chased by a few grapes and refilled my skratch bottle. I was to A-Frame checkpoint just under 2:27 - ahead of last years time and still ahead of a sub 3:30 summit. Adding to the calves firing now my lower back was hurting, stiff and uncomfortable. I had reached survival mode.
Above tree line I managed to jog for a while but quickly resorted to hiking as the calves kept firing with any attempt at increased exertion. I ran when I could, hiked more than I should and kept pressing forward.
Just below Cirque is the last Aid station before the summit. I tried to eat my last Helen Bar and got half of it down, stopped to refill my bottle with water and Skratch and then kept moving. A dozen or so steps after the aid station I threw up - having never done that before while running it was a new experience, not a happy one. I didn't feel any better after it but was commited to keep moving forward.
I had little to offer for the next mile to gain the Summit - I managed at times to run for a few steps, but was walking mostly. I held out some hope that once I got to the turn-around I could make up some time - but the closer I got to the top the more my legs were burning and now my stomach was feeling incredibly tight.
The stop and start effort through the 16 golden stairs - due primarily to the 2 way traffic - was frustrating because I just wanted to get to the top and begin the descent. Finally I made it to the top in 3:31 1/2 - 2 minutes faster than last year which seemed promising at the time, but I knew that I was in for a tough struggle in getting down.
Survival mode was in full effect, I was able to pass people but I didn't have any push in me. Each time I tried my calves kept on firing out and with a tense stomach area that may or may not have been contributed to with the gall stones - I just couldn't "go".
I reached A-Frame, quickly looking at my watch and by now I was slightly behind my time from last year.
I was frustrated but couldn't do anything about it. I drank 2 cups of water - best water on the mountain as they filter it out of the stream beside A-Frame - and grabbed some grapes.
With me feeling like crap now I needed to at least stay upright, so I took it carefully through the rocky sections, still occasionally passing people but nowhere near as many as the previous year.
Slowly the miles ticked off, I went through Barr Camp, drinking more water and was able to get down some more grapes. Below Barr Camp my calves were worthless and the few noticeable step down rocks caused fire ups that made my knees wobble and I thought I was going to buckle and crumble a few times. Fortunately, I didn't and managed to keep going.
I tried to stay positive, trying to convince myself that I was still "loving it" - I really wasn't. I hurt. I kept breathing but the stomach was tight, couldn't get any good deep breaths and I was so ready to be done. I was checking my time as each mile slowly went by - I already knew that I would be slower than last year, and was in danger of falling behind a 5:30 finish time.
That became my motivation, that and the finish line where I could just lie down. 2 guys passed me near No-Name Creek - I tried to keep up but my body revolted at the idea of trying any harder.
Every now and then I would pass someone, giving me a brief push of adrenaline - but that was short lived as I still had several miles to go. I entered the W's, the temps were warmer now and I had been hearing rumbles of thunder on and off for the last 1/2 hour - so it felt a little humid too.
As I turned off the W's the last aid staion was there and I passed a girl - the eventual 9th place female finisher - a guy volunteer yelled out "don't let a girl beat you!" He was outnumbered by other volunteers there and was roundly boo'd.
It was the home stretch and I came to the pavement, just over a mile to go. All I had left was fueled by a desire to just finish. I found another gear and pushed forward - getting closer and closer to the finish. As I did the crowds increased and so did the encouragement. A huge boost and much appreciated.
Finally I turned onto Manitou Ave and crossed the finish line 5:24:48 - good for 77th place overall - almost 6 minutes slower than last year.
After a few minutes in the tent, admittedly a little frustrated with the time I had posted, I managed to get up and wander across to check the results. To my surprise and joy - I had finished 5th in my age group! That made a tough day feel so much better. I loved it.