Friday, August 14, 2009

What'd you do this weekend?

(So, I'm kinda dumb and can't figure out how to force Blogger to split this up into a front-page piece and an after-the-jump piece. If someone else r smrtr, please feel free to do so and delete this. Otherwise, Jesus, this is long. Sorry.)

"What did you do this weekend?" The simple answer is "something stupid." The more complicated one? I ran the Wild West Relay, a 200-mile, 12-person race from Fort Collins, Colorado to Steamboat Springs, Colorado across the Continental Divide at Rabbit Ears Pass.

My friend Danielle organizes these teams fairly frequently (and better her than me), and had several runners for this year get injured, so when she came to me to ask for my help, I said, "Sure, why not?" This led directly to me arriving a few weeks later in Fort Collins to meet everyone else on the team for the first time at a tasty dinner at a local Italian restaurant.

The next morning, bright and early, we drove two vans to the start point, the Budweiser Tour Center in Fort Collins, to check in, put the race signs on our vehicles, and prove we belonged in our division as Flatlanders (folks who live where there's, y'know, oxygen, below 2500 ft). We divided up into our vans there, too: Van 1, with the runners for the first leg, Marie, Kelsey, Ally, Lindsay, and Ryan -- all from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul -- and John, from Iowa, and Van 2, with Shaun from LA, Lauren from Chicago, Danielle, Brady, and Dede, from Iowa, and li'l ol' me.

Marie had the first leg, so at 6 a.m. sharp, she and a handful of other teams' runners went flying out of the parking lot. I should pause here and mention the crazy team names and van decorations. We were Back Off Man, I'm a Scientist. We spent a lot of waiting and running time with teams like It's Only a Flesh Wound, a masters team who did up their vans in Monty Python quotes and fake body parts, We Race the Reaper, a group of ER nurses, Worn Soles, made up mostly of the Annapolis Trail Runners, and the Pipelayers, an all-male team of construction contractors.

After we saw off Marie, my van had nothing to do until the first van finished their set of legs (to reduce congestion on the legs and at the exchange points, the inactive vans couldn't shadow the active ones), so we ate breakfast, picked up a few supplies, then headed to the sixth exchange to wait.

That was the longest five-ish hours ever. We were pumped up, excited, ready to run, and had not a damn thing to do, so we passed the time trying unsuccessfully to relax enough to nap, chatting among ourselves and with teams around us, and checking our watches. When our sixth runner, Kelsey, finally made it in, she had had a terrible time with cramping and oxygen debt, so a couple of us when and ran with her to urge her in the last few hundred yards, whereupon Shaun took the bracelet that acted as our "baton" and took off like a scalded dog. We finished our hollerin', made sure everything had gone OK for Van 1, jumped in our own ride, and off we went! The race was now on in earnest for us.

We kept the windows down and whooped and shouted and banged on the side of the van at every runner we went by, a habit we kept the whole race (save when it would disturb people at night), and one which made us more than a few friends. Van 2 did the same thing. If the Wild West Relay had been high school, Back Off Man, I'm a Scientist would've gotten the school spirit award, hands down.

Danielle took the next leg and ran like a trooper on the first leg of the race classified as "hard." She passed off to me at the base of a hill the constituted the first big altitude rise of the race: 6300 to 6900 feet in 3.6 miles. It felt like running straight up a wall, though the grade wasn't actually that bad. For someone who hasn't run up a hill bigger than 40 feet tall in the better part of a decade, it was challenging. It seemed to go forever, and I got chicked very early, which was sort of discouraging. It wasn't discouraging for very long, though: I got another runner partway up, then passed the woman who'd chicked me before we reached the top of the hill. The top itself was sort of brutal: the road went through a cut that acted like a wind tunnel, creating a tangible wall of air that didn't let up for several hundred meters. The last mile was a gentle downslope, on which I picked off another runner, and fairly flew into the exchange point to hand the bracelet to Brady for his leg. It took just over 34 minutes, which surprised the Hell out of me, since I'm not in what I'd think of as very good condition. I was so pumped about that first leg that I spent the next several minutes just hollerin' and carrying on.

Brady's leg was even tougher, over 800 feet up in 5 miles. He did it like a bullet, finishing strong and handing over to Dede, who had another hard leg. She was hit really hard by the altitude, and felt crappy after she passed the bracelet to Lauren. Lauren breezed through the race's shortest leg and we turned over to the other van in a church parking lot around 2 pm. My voice was already starting to go from shouting and cheering more or less continuously at every runner in sight, louder than anybody else (thanks for the hollerin' genes, Ma).

After that, we went to the Pot Belly Restaurant, a quaint little sit-down joint in the middle of nowhere (not one of the East Coast chain of sammich shops) and snarfed down our chow like starving folks. Well, everyone but Dede, who ordered a salad, took a bite, and realized she couldn't eat. Her altitude sickness was worsened by the 60-mile dirt-road detour we had to take to keep the dust on the runners' route to a minimum. The poor thing sicked up a bunch of water -- that was the only thing in her stomach -- and felt terrible. The view on that route was amazing, however, and many of us got some terriffic pictures.

We reached the Woods Land Cafe and Bar, in Jelm, Wyoming, several hours before the earliest possible time Van 1 could be finished, found a spot to park, and tried to get some rest. It was going to be a long night, any way you cut it. We ate, drank, stretched out next to the creek on sleeping bags or curled up in the van, and waited. While we waited, night fell and the temperature plummeted, from a high of almost 90 when I ran into the 40s. There was no cell reception along most of that portion of the route, so there was no way to find out how far along Van 1 was; ten or fifteen minutes before we thought they possibly could have been there, we went to the exchange point proper to watch for them.

We could see almost a mile up the road, because it wound down the side of the mountain to get to us. All the runners were wearing headlamps or carrying flashlights, and the vans would drive past them. Every van that came into view was "Is that them? Are they here?" We waited, bouncing around to stay warm, and cheering for the other teams' runners as they came in and handed off to their next runner. We waited, wondering if something had gone wrong but knowing that they were out on the longest set of legs in the race. We waited, jogging back and forth from the exchange to the van to get drinks and snacks. Well into the wee hours, several hours after our earliest prediction, the other van pulled in, telling us that Kelsey had been having trouble again but was on her way down to us now. She rolled in to us hollerin' for her, tossed the bracelet to Shaun, and he was off, on a ridiculously hard leg, 9 miles continuously uphill, gaining almost 1700 feet.

He did it comparatively quickly and handed off to Danielle, who covered most of the remaining distance back to the Colorado border downhill. We were waiting for her in a rest stop by the side of the road in Medicine Bow National Forest, trying to stay warm and awake, as it was now past 3 a.m. She came trucking into the exchange neck and neck with two other runners, so I went flying out of the exchange with my counterparts from We Race the Reaper and the Pipelayers. The Pipelayer took off a bit and the Reaper almost immediately dropped the red blinky light we had to wear on our backs, breaking it, so I ran with her for a while until we got to where her van was waiting for her so she could get a new one from them.

The air wasn't cold once I was moving, and the night was positively beautiful. I reeled in a couple more runners, and the middle of the leg, a couple of miles, had no runners near me and no traffic on the road at all, so I switched off my flashlight and just reveled in the pure joy of the run alone in the quiet. Shortly after that, I was overhauled by a whole series of runners from faster teams which had started later as we crossed the border back into Colorado, but that couldn't dampen my spirits, and I kept up best I could until the end of the leg, my longest at 7.1 miles.

As I approached the end, I realized I had gone faster than what I'd told Brady I thought was my best possible time. I wasn't sure he'd be right by the exchange point, and the system of spotters the race used to let teams know their runner was approaching was unreliable at best. So, a few hundred meters out, moving fast and steady, I started hollerin' like a crazy man (and demolishing what was left of my voice) so they'd know who was coming, even though it only took me an hour and a minute. Sure enough, Brady was there just like he was supposed to be, took the bracelet, and away he went.

We had been kind of worried earlier about Dede and whether or not she'd be able to take her leg, but she insisted she was ready for it, so we hopscotched past Brady to wait for him at the next exchange -- which featured a very welcome fire pit right near the exchange point itself -- and she geared up to run again. She did her more-or-less flat segment like a trooper, finishing strong and passing on to Lauren, who brought us to our last exchange for that set, the Walden, Colorado high school, where she turned over to Marie again. We high-fived the other van, they took off, and we took advantage of the comparative luxuries of Walden High: a gym locker room with showers and a heated cafeteria in which we unrolled sleeping bags and passed out. Well, they did; I felt sleep was more important than a shower, so I just stayed curled up in the truck and slept through until it was time to move out for the next van exchange.

That was only a few hours, but I felt amazingly energized by that little bit of sleep, so when we got up at a quarter after 5 and went to a gas station to fuel up and get something to eat, I was really chipper. When I asked the nice old lady behind the counter "How are y'all today?" she was really excited about someone from the South, who'd lived in Carolina, passing through her station. Caffeine, donut holes, and bananas in hand, off we went again.

Van 2 had a short set of legs, so we got to the van exchange and got ready for some of the hardest parts of the race, over Rabbit Ears Pass and the Continental Divide itself. The exchange was near a field of sage that was set up as a camping spot -- a freakin' cold and poky camping spot, according to the other teams who slept there -- along the side of Highway 14. After we spent some time dodging the folks who didn't think that slowing down around all the runners and such was necessary and cheering for other teams' runners as they came and went, Steve, one of the runners from the Worn Soles, and I bet a round of beers on who was going to win between our teams. It added a little spice to the race. Van 1 rolled up and let us know that their runners had mostly done pretty well, but that Kelsey was struggling again. I went partway down the hill that led up to the exchange point and ran up with her again. She turned over to Shaun, then stumbled off the road, crying, and told us it was the hardest thing she'd ever done. She held up, though, and made it to the end. We made sure she was OK, congratulated Van 1 on finishing their part of the race, and jumped in our own vehicle, since Shaun wanted us to meet him 2 miles up the road to give him some water (there were no water stations or anything along the course; we provided everything for ourselves) before he got to the bad part of the hill heading up to Rabbit Ears Pass itself.

We stopped next to a beautiful mountain lake to wait for him -- in the process watching a guy from That's What She Said togged out in a lime-green mesh shirt, a fake handlebar mustache, a sky-blue wig, and absolutely scandalous tights fly up the hill -- and gave him some water. He told us it'd take him longer than he thought, as he was dead legs running. So we went up to the pass, took pictures of ourselves under the sign for the Continental Divide itself, used the porta-johns, and got Danielle ready to roll. Shaun came trucking up that murderous hill, 900 feet up in 3.7 miles, turned over, and we started leapingfrogging Danielle. We stopped twice for her in her 4 mile, to make sure she had enough water, so I started warming up and stretching while we were waiting on the side of the road. I was afraid of what the next leg, 6 miles down the side of the mountain, would do to me if I weren't warmed up properly. Brady did the same, since his upcoming leg was even worse than mine.

Danielle ran straight through, hit the exchange, handed off to me, and away I went, down the mountain. There were actually several nasty uphill spots in the early part of the leg, but by that time, there was nothing left to lose. So, no surrender, charge the hills, which put us over the west peak of Rabbit Ears Pass. There wasn't any question of going slower on the downhill, either: that would've resulted in me somersaulting to the exchange with Brady. My legs really started to feel it about this point; the roads were steeply crowned, which resulted in a lot of stress on the outer side of my left knee. By the time I'd started down from Rabbit Ears, though, it felt like both knees had been worked over with a ball-peen hammer and the rest of my legs hurt, too. No surrender, no slowing down: I trucked as fast as my body would let me down the hill, and came around the bend to see the exchange.

Midway between me and the exchange was a fella I thought was the spotter letting the teams know who was coming in, but he was acting weird and not responding to me when I held up my number so he could see it. So, I resorted to my favorite tactic for letting my team know I was coming: I started hollerin' when I was only 30 or so feet from him. Turned out he was a nature photographer or something, totally unrelated to the race, and I scared the bejeezus out of him. It had the intended effect, though, and Brady was there to take the bracelet. I had such a hard time slowing down that I actually ran about fifty or sixty meters with him before I could come to a stop, which is saying something, because he was flying. The leg only took me 49 minutes, and I was done. I stretched for about a minute, then we grabbed van and hauled ass to get past Brady and put Dede at the exchange.

Brady's leg was one of the more dangerous of the race, because there wasn't a shoulder on the left, so runners were forced to run with the flow of traffic. He had a nearly 7% grade, too. We got to the bottom, and waited, looking for his signature bright-red ballcap. I saw him and said, "Hey, I think that's him." A total stranger piped up next to me and said, "Yep, that's Brady." His aunt and uncle, who lived not too far away, had driven out to see him race. Pretty awesome. He'd been forced to walk for a couple minutes by the sheer punishment of the hill, but he still came barrelling down the hill and passed off to Dede, who was fully recovered from the day before and ready to go.

Dede had a nice, relatively straight stretch with a gentle downhill that took her into the town of Steamboat Springs, winding up along a bike trail. She came in and turned over, and Lauren took off on the last leg, headed for Steamboat Springs Middle School on the bike trail that followed the Yampa River (and boy, was she pissed about the folks taking their ease and tubing down the river). We waited for her at the finish anxiously, ready to call ourselves finishers, while chatting with folks from other teams and chugging chocolate milk, which sounds nasty but was actually kinda nice. She broke out of the woods and onto the track where we immediately joined her, all in our matching team shirts, for the last hundred meters or so, hollerin' and carryin' on the whole way as the announcer read off all our names. We crossed the finish line, together, after 33 hours and change of continuous running, an overall pace of 10:17.

What did I do this weekend? That's what I did this weekend. What'd you do?


frog said...

>What did I do this weekend? That's what I did this weekend. What'd you do?
Oh wow, I went from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs too, imagine that! Except I used a car :-)


Dave from the Big O said...

Great recap of the race, Frog! Im still recovering, but it was worth it. :)

Wendy said...

A fine race report! (You're in good company. Many of us spend our time doing what others might consider to be "something stupid".)