Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ode to Joy (Ridge to Bridge Marathon 2007)

Many years ago, when I first started running, there was a full-page Nike ad that I clipped from a late 1970s-era Runners World. It showed a lone runner on a beautiful stretch of road, somewhere in the heavy forest of the Cascades. That photo spoke volumes to me, about the beauty and the solitude of running, of the connection with the great outdoors. That photo was how I saw myself as a runner – or the runner that I wanted to be – and it has long been my model of the perfect run. Sometimes, today, I run on roads like that one, in my adopted state of Colorado, and I’ve grown so accustomed to the scenery that I often don’t even notice it. But it’s different when I travel. The scenery is new again, and sometimes – when it’s a really good run – I take the time to look around. This past weekend, in North Carolina, I took the time to look around. And I know that if Nike had been born in North Carolina rather than in Oregon, the photo in that ad would have been taken on the twisty, windy, heavily forested roads of Highway 181, just south of a wide spot in the road called Jonas Ridge.

Lucky for me, David Lee, a member of the local North Carolina Brown Mountain Running Club, recognized the allure of this road; last year he organized the first Ridge to Bridge Marathon, all along the Highway 181 route from Jonas Ridge to Morganton. Lucky for me, a fellow Taper posted reports of the race on this forum, and I took the time to click on the “Photos” link on the event website. What I saw there was a pictorial description of a perfect run. Lucky for me, the marathon was such a success in its inaugural year that it was back again this year, accepting an even larger field – nearly 150 runners. Lucky for me, I am one of those runners.

When I arrive in Morganton, the host town for the marathon, late Thursday night it’s cold, foggy, and raining. Friday morning brings more of the same. But I’m determined to drive this course, because one of the most notable features of this race route – other than the spectacular scenery – is the huge drop in elevation. I’ve seen the elevation diagram on paper, but I want to see it in person before I set off early Saturday morning. Finding the race route is easy – with the exception of the final 1.5 miles, this race all takes place on Highway 181 – and I make the drive through the drizzly weather out to Jonas Ridge early Friday afternoon.

Even with the dreary weather, I know this is going to be a beautiful run. When I get to Jonas Ridge and turn around to drive the course in proper order, I adjust the radio station in my rental car. I’ve settled on a classical music station, and they’ve been playing pleasant stuff on my outward drive. As I start the drive back to Morganton, tracing the steps I will take in the morning, the station starts to play a new recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This symphony is long, and they are playing only the final movement: Ode to Joy. I’m not sure that a better piece of music exists. I know immediately that this will be a great race. I try to take note of each twist in the road, each big drop, each uphill, but it doesn’t really matter. I just know that this will be a beautiful run. The music swells on the car radio as I drive back into Morganton, and the rain lets up, and the sun emerges. This is really all I need to know to prepare for the morning.

Saturday morning wakeup call is an early 4:15, to allow time for breakfast and the bus ride out to the start. I’m staying at the Holiday Inn – the host hotel for the event – and, like pretty much everything else associated with this race, this morning’s breakfast is top-notch. The hotel has laid out a 4:30 a.m. buffet of bagels, cream cheese, pastries, fruit, juice, cereal, coffee: anything a marathoner might want. Fellow Taper Chuck joins me for the drive over to the finish area, where we’ll catch the bus to the start line. Chuck and his wife Allison invited me to join them for a pasta dinner Friday night, and already it feels like we are old friends.

Did I say everything associated with this race is top-notch? Just checking, because I can’t say it too often. The buses that take us from Morganton out to Jonas Ridge are not yellow school buses, but luxury liners with comfortable seats. The bus driver enjoys entertaining us, and between the banter and the chatter with new running friends, we are at Jonas Ridge in no time at all. At Jonas Ridge, there is a convenience store that has just changed hands, and the grand opening is today. The new proprietor has gamely agreed to host this small band of runners while we wait for the race start time. This is a real treat, as it is quite cold and dark outside, and quite warm and bright inside. And did I mention the flush toilets?

As I wait inside, I start to get into my pre-race zone. But then I notice Katie (“bit” on Taper Madness) prepping for the race. Katie was my inspiration for this race – not only did she run it last year, but she won the darn thing! I met Katie in Boston earlier this year, and when she sees me, she recognizes me, too. Funny how small the world is, and how comforting that can be. A bit later, I find Chuck, wandering around the cool and dark parking lot outside, getting into his own zone. It’s nearly race time.

Just before 7 a.m., David Lee leads us, Pied Piper-style, across the cold parking lot, across the road, and to the barely visible start line that has been spray-painted on the road in front of the Jonas Ridge Post Office. It’s still completely dark out, except for the bright light cast by the nearly full moon. Instead of the national anthem this morning, we get a prayer; somehow, it seems much more fitting. And then, just moments later, the start is sounded, and we are running.

It’s only a few steps until we’ve left what little light there is in Jonas Ridge, and we’re completely reliant on the moonlight – and the white lines demarking the shoulder of the road – to guide us. The race director has outfitted all of us with glow-stick bracelets, and with bright hand-held LEDs to keep us safe in these early miles. We’ve been instructed to run on runner’s left – facing traffic. We’re a very small field – especially when you take into account that a number of runners have availed themselves of an early start – so it’s no time at all before we are spreading out.

This is magical running. We are going (mostly) downhill, with a few small rollers up here at the start of the course just to keep us honest and to help us warm up. The moon is bright in the cloudless sky, and it’s a perfect temperature for running – high 40’s, I’d guess. I’m running with a long-sleeved shirt that I intend to ditch along the way, but for now it feels pretty darn good. The wind – what little there is – is at our backs. Who could ask for more?

These first miles feel effortless. I think “Ode to Joy”, and I know it was the perfect omen for today. I watch carefully for the mile markers, and there they are. I have to flash my LED at them for the first few miles, but once I know what I’m looking for, they are easy to spot. I can’t help but wonder why a tiny marathon can get the mile markers right, but some of the big marathons just don’t get it?

In the pre-race instructions, David Lee told us that the course has been measured using the “shortest distance” method, which means that if you stick on the side of the road (facing traffic, which he has asked us to do), you will be running more than the standard 26.2 miles. While running the tangents would be more efficient, it’s also more dangerous, since this public road is not closed to traffic during the race. I choose to go the extra distance – it’s just simpler, and doesn’t involve the risk of working the tangents. But early on, I get behind a few runners who insist on running the tangents. Only thing is, I don’t think that they really get the concept – that the straightest line through these curves will be the shortest. Instead, several people in front of me dart from side to side of the road. It’s more zigzag than tangent running, and it makes me very nervous on their behalf. At this early hour, there is not a ton of traffic, but there is enough. It’s a very dangerous strategy.

I run behind one couple for mile after mile after mile. He looks quite a bit older, with salt-and-pepper hair; she has some serious blonde hair and very flouncy pink shorts. They run side by side, and they dart back and forth across the road. They must think they are running tangents, but what they are really doing is running a zigzag version of the race course. I think that they are, in all probability, adding distance rather than subtracting it. I’m very nervous for them every time that they cross the road.

The early miles are all still in darkness, but the dark quickly gives way to daybreak. The first aid station – at mile 3 – comes while it’s still dark, but soon after that it’s getting light enough to see without our little LED lights. We’re in the country, and other than a few friends and family who follow runners down the road, there is really no fan support in this race. I’m happy with that – to me, this is running at its purest, its most joyful. Just a beautiful mountain road and my running shoes and a few friends. I don’t need much more to be in rapture.

On this race course, there are aid stations every three miles in the first half, and then every two miles after that. I’ve grown accustomed to aid stations every mile or two for the length of a marathon, so today I carry a bottle of water with me for the first half of the race. It’s cool enough today that I’m not so sure I really need it, but the biggest benefit is that it allows me to take gels when I want, not where the aid stations are located. It stays cool and humid for a long, long time, so dehydration is not a threat. When I come to the aid stations, I take water, even though I don’t really need it, and I end up spilling more of it on me than I consume. At the first aid station, David Lee is there, offering water, Gatorade, and encouragement. It’s clear that this race is a labor of love for him.

It gradually becomes light, in an early-Saturday-morning kind of way. There’s not a lot of traffic on this road, but a surprise is the amount of big rig truck traffic that passes us early on. It’s slightly disturbing, but then it’s gone. There is enough of a shoulder that we can run safely. The highway patrol keeps things under control by driving slowly up and down our stretch of road. Even the cops are friendly here – waving and smiling when they go by.

The road twists and turns, and somewhere around mile 7 or 8, a turn in the road has us running directly into the rising sun. Hello, sunshine! I reach up to my hat, and pull my sunglasses down. It’s still cool, but the sun is full-on. What a spectacular day!

The road is mostly downhill – and serious downhill in places – but it occasionally takes time to level off or head uphill a bit. On one of these short uphills, I pass Miss Pink Shorts and her white-haired mate. Pink Shorts seems very young, and is laboring way too hard going up this minor incline. I have a feeling that she is going to have a tough second half in this race. When we start back downhill, though, both she and White Hair blow by me like I’m standing still. But they dart back and forth across the road again, and I marvel at this strategy. For a while I lose them in the distance ahead.

Around mile 10, I ditch my long-sleeved shirt, and the temperature is perfect for my singlet and gloves. The race director’s wife is patrolling this stretch of road, and she drives by just as I take off the outer shirt. “I’ll take that for you”, she yells at me from an open BMW window. I toss the shirt in her general direction, but miss the window by about an inch. Lucky for me, somebody behind me grabs the shirt off the road and tosses it into the car, yelling ahead that I’ll owe him a fee later.

Just after I’ve abandoned the long-sleeves, our beautiful, full-sun autumn day takes a dive into a cloud bank. We round a corner in the road, and run directly into fog. Off go the sunglasses. It is wonderfully cool.

Through the halfway point, we run down, down, down. More than once, I think “this is pure joy”. There is no work in this running, only perpetual motion, fueled by gravity. Then abruptly, at mile 13, the road flattens out. It feels like it we’ve headed directly uphill. Even though I know this is not the case, and I’ve known that this upturn is coming, it changes everything. The work starts now.

My pace falls off considerably. I’ve passed the halfway point of this race in 1:51:47, the fastest that I’ve ever run a half marathon (later I’ll figure that it was just a second faster than my first half in Tucson last December). That’s an average of 8:32 per mile, and it has felt effortless. But now, mile 14 comes in at 9:29, and that will be my fastest mile until I hit mile 21. It’s a wake-up call.

The road remains beautiful: heavy forest on both sides of the road, changing leaves, low hanging fog. The field of racers has spread out considerably, and there are stretches where I see nobody else at all. I’ve left Pink Shorts behind as soon as the road turns upward just a little bit, and I’ve lost track of White Hair. Now Miss Purple Shorts decides to play hop-scotch. This woman passes me at a good clip, and then within ten minutes, I pass her back, as she stops to walk. This happens over and over again. Finally, around mile 15 or so, she goes by me one last time before I overtake her again. “You’ve been pulling me for many miles”, she says to me. “And you’ve been humiliating me for all those miles, blowing by me like that”, I return. “Well”, says she, “that’s about to end”, and truer words were never spoken. Her day is nearly done, and she does not pass me again.

My water bottle is nearly empty at the half, but I discover that it serves a purpose in addition to just supplying me with water. Now that I’m getting a bit tired, the sloshing in the water bottle tells me that my form is going off, and that I’m doing an imitation of a washing machine. I almost drop the bottle at the aid station at mile 12, but figure that this visual and audio feedback is worth the effort of holding onto the bottle. Finally, around mile 14, I drop it at an aid station. Running free!

Somehow, though, while I am running mostly on my own along this stretch, the next few aid stations come with crowding issues. At both miles 16 and 18, I am just getting set to make a pass when I reach the aid station, and in both cases, another runner stops directly in front of me. Ack! Don’t these people know that the last thing I need right now is to alter my stride. I show some restraint and I don’t swear out loud, but this annoys me all the same. There are too few people out here running to have crowding issues at aid stations!

The one Big Uphill of the day starts at about 16 ½ miles. I have started to hum the “Ode to Joy” theme to myself in these tough miles, and it propels me forward. How can you not be inspired by this music? The Big Uphill climbs about 300 feet over a mile and a half, with a false flat in the middle. I pass several people who choose to walk the hill. I take it slow – the only way that I can – but it’s not nearly as bad as I’ve been anticipating. Still, at 11:02 for the mile, it’s by far my slowest mile of the day.

After the Big Uphill, the course becomes a straight, rolling road again. Why does it feel like we go uphill far more than we go downhill, even though the uphills don’t look that long? Leading up to mile 20, a couple of guys pass me. It’s disheartening, even though I know that my pace has dropped off dramatically. Still, they are moving away fast enough that I know I need to let them go. As I approach the mile 20 aid station, I think, at least I won’t have anyone stopping directly in front of me. But one of the guys, who has passed the aid station long before I arrive, has a change of heart, and turns around. He runs back to the aid station and stops directly in my path. “Can I get a second cup of water?” he asks the volunteers, while forcing me to come to almost a dead standstill while reaching for the same cup of water. Sheesh – what is it with these aid stations?!?

The mile 20 aid station incident and a check of my watch both serve to spur me to pick it up. I’ve been working in these hills, but my splits have been slower and slower. At mile 20, I realize that there’s a good chance that I might not break four hours today if I don’t get my butt in gear. So I kick it up a notch.

I pull out every trick in the book to pick it up now. I hear “Ode to Joy” in my head, and I will the metronome there to increase the tempo. I count steps. I watch my heart rate climb. And I choose people to pick off. I wish I could say that this is all pure joy, but what it is is pure work. On a beautiful race course late in October, I remember how to work in the last miles of a race, something I was starting to lose after several slow-finish outings. Once my split times start to come down, that is pure joy!

The sun is shining now, and the air temperature has inched up. But we have a treat at mile 23 or so, with another nice stretch of downhill. I’m passing people now, finally, and it feels good. Near mile 24, we cross the road for the first and only time today, in order to make a right-hand turn off highway 181. Traffic has gotten fairly heavy (this is a beautiful race course, but maybe not one for people who are not comfortable running into heavy traffic), and the road crossing is scary, but – as it turns out – well protected by the local police force.

We run a few steps on a side road, and then are directed onto the greenway. What a welcome change! This is an asphalt bike path that parallels a river, and it is completely shaded. The huge canopy almost completely obliterates the sun, and the coolness is very welcome. I think “oh what joy!” This portion on the greenway does not last for long, and then we cross the bridge (remember, this is the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, right?) before heading past some soccer fields to the finish. Now there are a few fans, and there are people offering encouragement. Just before I turn the last corner to cross the finish line, I see Chuck and Allison, and they are cheering me on. I glimpse Chuck’s medal as I rush past, and I know that he has had a good day.

My own finish line comes at a time of 3:55:41, which I chalk up as a pretty darn good day. David Lee is there to shake my hand, but then he gives me a hug as I thank him for a well run race. Only a race director could welcome the chance to hug one sweaty body after another. The symphony in my head continues, over and over, while I take in the finish. Katie is the women’s winner again this year (setting a new PR and a new course record as well), and Chuck has turned in a pretty substantial PR. My time is not a PR, but it is good for a win in my age group, and a nice bit of hardware to take home. Happiness comes when you have a good day in a marathon, but true joy comes when everyone you know has an equally good day. At the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, it’s nothing but joy.

A Little Longer Than I Thought (Hartford Marathon 2007)

Sometimes, the clock just moves at a different pace, and not one that meshes with my internal clock. That, in a nutshell, is my story of the Hartford Marathon: how nothing seems to go off on time, and how everything takes just a little longer than I planned. With a flight out of Denver planned for late Thursday afternoon, it takes me just a few extra minutes to get out of the house. Somehow I manage to drive into the Pikes Peak parking lot at DIA with – seemingly - plenty of time to get to my flight on time. But the shuttle driver is not at all in a hurry to get to the terminal. He dawdles and stops to wait for entire families to unload cars and then casually saunter to the bus stop. He waits as one guy runs back to his car for something he’s forgotten, and then takes a leisurely stroll back to the shuttle bus. I start looking nervously at my watch as we sit on the tarmac in the parking lot before he finally starts the journey to the terminal. When he stops at a stoplight where we have the right of way and generously signals for a car to turn in front of us, I almost scream. Somehow, I end up getting checked in on time, and to the gate on time, but it takes a bit longer than I thought.

My flight to Hartford takes me through Charlotte, NC (don’t ask, airlines these days), and the flight out of Charlotte is delayed. Why be surprised? We’re already scheduled to land in Hartford at 11:58 p.m. This delay means that we land about 20 minutes later than planned. I tell myself this is not so bad – what with the two hour time difference between Denver and the east coast, it’s not that late “my time”. But then there are no cabs at the Hartford airport, which means that it takes more than an hour longer than I thought it would to get to the hotel. When I reach the Crowne Plaza, I get a rookie front desk clerk. Even though I’ve prepaid this room for the two nights I’ll be here, it still, amazingly, takes nearly twenty minutes before I have a key to a room. It’s quite a bit later than I thought. My important sleep night has just been hosed.

With the late arrival at the hotel, I decide to sleep in as long as I can, even though I’m planning to work on Friday. (Thank heavens for the flexible work week and virtual offices: have laptop, will travel.) But a fire alarm goes off in the early morning, and it sounds long enough and loud enough that it finally gets my attention and gets me out of bed. It turns out to be a false alarm, but not before I’m fully awake, well before I’ve planned to be up. This – my abbreviated night of sleep – will turn out to be the single thing all weekend that takes less time than I’ve planned.

My bad luck seems to end when Doug Branscombe arrives at the Crowne Plaza at lunch time. Doug has generously offered to be my tour guide today, and what a delight that turns out to be. Doug treats me to a very fitting pasta lunch (yummy acorn squash raviolis), and then takes me on a tour of the race course. Since he’s run the marathon in the past, he knows the turns and the backroads, and clues me to where I can expect to have fans, and where I can expect a sparser field. This is one of my favorite things to do: drive the course the day before, and imagine what it will be like to run these same roads in less than twenty-four hours. If you’re not jazzed about the race before you make the drive, you can’t help but be fired up after you drive the course. Driving the course is the one thing this weekend that ends well before I’m ready for it to be done.

After picking up race packets at the convention center, Doug drops me at the hotel and bids me adieu until the morning. I head back to work for a little while longer, then hoof it back over to the convention center for the standard pasta dinner. When I get back to the hotel, I make my normal race preparations, and in the midst of this, turn on the tube to catch the latest forecast. The weather today – Friday – has been pretty abysmal. It started out rainy and cold, and then ended up just cold and windy. I figure that with my history of hot and windy marathons this year, I will not sweat the weather for this one. The one thing that is not in the forecast is hot weather. I’m content with that, so I channel surf a bit and light on a cable channel airing “Forrest Gump”. In fact, just as I stop to watch for a moment, I hear “Run Forrest Run!” and figure that this is my omen. I stop surfing and settle into bed, watching this well worn flick. But we’re not talking commercial-free TV, and the movie seems to go on without end. Finally, at 11 p.m., I turn off the tube, even though Forrest is still running. Just one more thing taking a bit longer than I would like this weekend.

Race morning arrives, cool and bright. The weather this morning is a good portent for what is in store: it’s 39 degrees outside, and the sun is rising, right on schedule. The TV forecasters are calling for gnarly 20-mph winds, but for now it’s pretty calm. The only storm brewing is the one that I have with the hotel.

On Friday, I asked the front desk of the hotel to arrange for a late checkout. After all, the marathon starts at 8 a.m., checkout time is at noon, and I’m no Greg Fastady. My flight back to Denver is not until 7 p.m., so I will absolutely need a few extra hours. On Friday, the front desk tells me to call back Saturday morning. Dutifully, I make the phone call at 6 a.m., only to be told “we’re not doing any late checkouts today”. Huh? After getting good and lathered up over this while trying to frantically pack up my bag before heading to the race start, I call back down and ask to talk to a manager. After a bit of wrangling, I’m able to get the late checkout. For an additional fifty bucks. What a racket. But what choice do I have? I’ve figured that the east coast urban marathons might be more expensive than my Midwest runs, but this really takes the cake for being more than I had planned.

But I’m here to run a marathon, not to whine and quibble over my travel woes, so I head out the door at about 6:45 to walk over to the race start in Bushnell Park. It’s a pleasant walk, just the right distance, but just a bit too cool for comfort. I have hopes. The sky is clear and the wind is calm and it seems like it might be a perfect day for a race.

I’m supposed to meet Doug in the park, pre-race, so that we can run the first few miles together. Doug is running the half, and he feels good about his prospects, so I’m touched that he’s willing to run a slower pace with me for the first few miles, until the two courses split. I’m looking forward to seeing him again this morning, but I get caught in a 20-minute line for the porta-potties plus a trip to the far end of the park to check my warm clothes at the UPS trucks, and by the time I arrive at our meeting place, he’s given up on me. There are just too many people here today for a chance meeting, and we never do meet up during the run, even though I search the crowds for his face while the pre-race announcements are made. If I weren’t so damn worried about making sure I get back to the hotel and checked out in time to avoid them tossing all my stuff into the street, I might enjoy the pre-race program. Like so many things this weekend, it goes on much longer than I would like it to. In addition to the regular announcements, we get the announcer relaying a marriage proposal from one marathoner to another (the answer is yes), and then a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a 13-year old middle schooler whose voice just blows me away.

We finally get underway about 5 or 10 minutes late. Why am I surprised? This is the story of my weekend. But really, what do I have to complain about? It’s a perfect day for a marathon. We start out running due east, directly into a sun that has just passed the horizon and is full into our faces. It’s crowded for the first mile or so, but the crowd is moving. It’s a short distance to where we turn through a traffic circle, moving the sun to our sides, and we’re shielded by the downtown buildings. I’m recognizing streets, buildings, landmarks from Doug’s tour of the course yesterday. I’m feeling a little stiff, but hope that once I warm up the running will feel better. It’s a good day for a run.

One of my least favorite things about this race is the way that the miles are marked. The markers are yellow strips across the roadway, with the appropriate mileage and the de rigeur “Greater Hartford Marathon” logo. If you know what to look for – as I do, owing to the course tour yesterday – you can spot them. But you have to be looking directly for them, and if – God forbid – you should be looking ahead of you rather than directly down at the ground, you would most likely miss the markings.

But today, I know what to look for, so I spot the first mile marker. I hit my split button and when the time flashes 9:33, I think, “oh well, crowds – sun in your eyes – a slow first mile – no big deal”. In a short amount of time, we are crossing the Connecticut River into East Hartford. The next few miles tick by at a pace that seems closer to my expectation. 8:56, 8:57, 8:48. My legs still feel a bit off, but I’m still hoping that I might have a good day.

The half marathoners leave us between miles 3 and 4, and now the marathon heads out on an extended out-and-back through East Hartford and South Windsor. We will run north to the 11-mile mark, and then retrace our steps for much of this route before heading back over into Hartford proper at around mile 20.

This is the part of the course that most surprised me on the tour Friday, and it’s my favorite part of this race. While I’ve been expecting an East Coast urban marathon, this large portion of the Hartford Marathon is nearly rural. We run through a lovely residential area, with acreages and horse farms and sheep farms and nurseries, large houses (all decorated elaborately for Halloween, with jack-o-lanterns and newly blooming mums) with long driveways and huge oak trees. Doug has counseled me that this is where we will have support, and he was absolutely spot on. There are people out cheering, and there are (surprisingly) many, many musical acts for entertainment, too. And in case you’ve forgotten, there’s a race going on. The first thing to get your attention focused back on the race is the flashing lights of six motorcycle cops leading a couple of pace cars, and then the “wow, I never get to see these fast guys” experience of having half a dozen or so Kenyans go sprinting past you in the opposite direction.

Too bad that my own race is not going quite as fast. After my first four miles, my pace starts to fall off, just a slow, gradual fall. I keep willing my legs to go a bit faster, but I’m monitoring my heart rate, and I seem to be working hard enough, but by mile 10, my pace has fallen to an average of nearly 9:10/mile. 9:10 will (just) get me a 4 hour marathon. I’m always on the hunt for a sub-4 race, and I think I have a good shot at it today. After all, Hartford is reputed to be a fast course – it’s mostly flat – and the weather, even as we approach the halfway point, is holding. Cool and sunny. Just perfect.

I pass the halfway point at 2:00:02, and think that sub-4 is easily within my grasp. All I need to do is hold steady and run a good second half. The wind is starting to swirl now, but in the second half of the race – particularly after mile 17 or so – the course twists and turns so much that it makes the wind a non-issue. It’s a good day for a fast race.

But somebody needs to give this message to my body, since it is clearly not cooperating. After the turnaround at mile 11, I get a strong sense that I’m in the back half of today’s field, and I can never shake that feeling. The larger issue is that I feel fine and my heart rate is right where it should be, but somehow the splits come in slower than my expectations. I will my legs to turnover faster, but there are some days when the legs will only go so fast, and I’m starting to accept that this is one of those days for me.

As part of the total package, my stomach is going south gradually, too, and I’m starting to contemplate stopping in a port-a-potty for the first time ever in a marathon. I keep a constant running calculator going in my head after the halfway point, and as each split comes in slower than expected, the realization that sub-4 is probably not in the cards today grows in strength. I’m having sporadic code-brown type cramping, so I stop taking gels, and start drinking water only sporadically. At mile 20, I’m searching desperately for a port-a-potty, prepared to give up precious minutes. But the waves of cramping abate when I stop eating and drinking, and at some point I know that I’m out of never-never land. The question now is just, when does this thing end?

The fan support in this race is missing at the most critical time – in those miles from 20 through about 24. This is also the only part of the race course that has any real hills. They are not monster hills, but after 20 miles of flat, even the railroad overpasses and freeway ramps are pretty hard to handle. I think, in passing, that this course might be better run in reverse.

When I looked at the race description before registering for this marathon, I was drawn by the names of a couple of streets that are part of the race route. There is Pitkin Street, which is familiar because Aspen, my home-away-from-home, is in Pitkin County. And then there is Charter Oak Avenue. I grew up in an Iowa town of the same name, and just moved my mom from Charter Oak a few weeks ago. When Doug drove me on this race course on Friday, I took somber notice of the street signs and all of the associated business names. It all seemed to hit home.

Today, I cannot find either street to save my soul. I’ve been running for nearly four hours, and I know that I should be on Charter Oak Avenue by now, but I don’t see a single sign indicating where I am. Thank God – and the wonderful volunteers – that I know I’m on course, but my mileage-addled brain has reached that dull-as-a-rusty-nail state. The only thing that I can contemplate at this point in the run is the race finish.

And, of course, the race finish finally looms in front of me. A cool thing about the Hartford Marathon is that you run through a stone arch that leads into Bushnell Park and the finish line. A miserable thing about the Hartford Marathon is that you have to make a sharp left-hand turn into the park, and run uphill to cross under this arch, all in the last quarter mile of the race. But still, those things do not diminish the joy of finishing the marathon in a time of 4:04:41. It’s not a horrible time, but just a bit longer than I’d planned on.

The aid stations in the Hartford Marathon are plentiful and well staffed and well stocked with water and Ultima. In fact, there are almost too many aid stations, if that is even possible. Hartford does organization extremely well. Except at the finish line. The well intentioned organizers have decided to make a “green” statement at the finish line, and they do not have bottles of water or Gatorade for us; instead, they have a ridiculous long pipe outfitted with multiple drinking fountain spigots. The thought is good, but the execution truly sucks. If ever you need your own bottle of water, it’s at the finish line. With no fluids available, I don’t stick around long in the finish area, even though there is a big spread of food. Besides, I have to get back to that &^*)% hotel before they kick me out!

It doesn’t take long to get back to the hotel and shower and check out, and then I go out for a very late breakfast. Hey, nothing is going on time, so why should I not have breakfast just because it’s the middle of the afternoon? The food is okay, but the coffee is not so great, but I remember seeing a Starbucks a few blocks back, so I head over there. I have plenty of time before I need to get to the airport for my flight, and spending some quiet time at Starbucks with my magazine and a good cup of coffee sounds like the perfect way to while away an hour or so on this cool autumn afternoon. When I find the Starbucks, though, it’s closed. I’m an hour too late. Surprise, surprise.

Eventually, I make my way back to the airport (thanks again to Doug!), and the flight from Hartford to Washington Dulles takes off on time. But, of course, the Denver flight from Dulles is delayed by twenty minutes. It seems that this time warp will never end. It’s a long flight, and I try to stay awake to watch the latest Harry Potter movie, but my body craves sleep, and I give in. I’m a bit groggy as we land in Denver, but I’m wide awake again when I hear the captain announce, “Welcome to Denver. We’re happy to announce that even though we were late getting out of Washington, we made up time en route, and we’re ten minutes early at the gate here in Denver.” When I step off the plane, I walk out of the time warp and back into the crisp cool air of Colorado in October. Sometimes, it is so good to be back home.

Land of Enchantment (New Mexico Marathon 2007)

It’s pitch black out when we start running north along Tramway Boulevard on the east side of Albuquerque. The only light in the sky is a very faint hint of sunrise, silhouetting the Sandia Mountains to our east. The only sound is the rhythmic footfall of nearly 300 people out for a run with me early on this Sunday morning. Nobody is talking; it’s as if there is magic in the dark morning air, and nobody wants to disturb it. After all, we’re in the land of enchantment. And at the start of the New Mexico Marathon at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, September 2nd, it all feels very magical to me.

It feels magical partly because the morning has been surreal: a wakeup call at 3 a.m., then a short walk to the Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town, followed by a bus ride to the staging area for the race. At the staging area, we have been treated to musical serenade by a solo guitarist, whose music has been thoughtful and beautiful and respectful of the residential area where we awaited the start of the race. He was seated on a small patch of grass, surrounded by a circle of luminaria. This feels magical partly because I’m running on a route that is familiar to me: when I’ve visited my uncle and cousins in the past, Tramway has been my destination and my running route. It’s rare that I run a marathon where I feel that I know the route already. And it’s magical because I’m running – pure and simple. No politics, no work, no worries about anything other than putting one foot in front of another and listening to my own breath. No worries at all.

The morning is perfect. It’s cool with a slight breeze that swirls around and brings us little bursts of cooler air. Tramway is punctuated at regular intervals by the major east-west cross streets, whose names I recognize from trips to see Uncle Dwight and my cousins: Indian School Road, Menaul Boulevard, Candelaria Road. It’s so dark that the only time you can see anything at all is when you pass under the streetlights at these intersections. I’ve done a lot of my running over the last few months in the dark at night, so I feel right at home in the darkness this morning.

If there is a mile marker at mile one, I miss it, so the first split I take is at mile 2: 17:31. I’m surprised, and pleased, since the elevation map has shown the first 8 miles to all be uphill, which fits my recollection of the terrain along Tramway. If I’m running 8:45s going slightly uphill, there’s a good chance that I can finish this race in 4 hours. Normally, I don’t set out on a marathon with a particular goal in mind, but prefer to just see what the day brings. But after a couple of grueling – and slow – uphill races this summer, a fast (by my standards) race today would do wonders for my ego.

The real work of going uphill on Tramway starts in earnest after the two-mile mark, and the splits I take for the next several miles start to look a lot more like I expected for this part of the day, with an average of well over 10 minutes per mile. But the truth is, I’ve expected this and it doesn’t really concern me at all. I know that the race is a net downhill course, with a drop of nearly 600 feet from the start to the end. Six and a half miles of nicely steep downhill await me after these uphill miles, and I’m looking forward to them.

It feels good, running this morning, and I have that “it’s going to be a really good day” feeling. I caution myself about getting too optimistic too early, but it just feels good. We’re running on the roadway, with nice smooth asphalt, although when I’ve run here before it’s been on the bike path that parallels the road and that goes for miles and miles. The darkness remains for at least the first hour of the race, and then after that, we have high clouds and early morning daylight, while the sun works to crest the Sandia Mountains. The temperature remains perfect.

Just after the eight mile mark, the course turns downward, and I go to town. While running on the uphill part of Tramway, I’ve been passed by scores of people as I managed my pace by my heart rate. Truth be told, I’m getting more in tune with my body and I could probably run within my range without the heart rate monitor (HRM), but it serves to confirm what I feel in my breathing and general effort. On the uphill sections of this race, I’ve kept my pace in check – quite slow – in order to keep my heart rate within my target range. But now that the course has turned downhill, it’s a different story. I pour it on, and gravity does all the work. I’m flying, and passing back all those folks who went around me in the last six miles.

The other thing that happens shortly after the eight mile mark is that the course makes a broad sweeping left-hand turn, so that we end up running directly west. The view is stupendous. Here on the east side of Albuquerque, on the flanks of the Sandia Mountains, we are higher than my hometown of Denver. We pass the high point of the race course here – over 6,100’ of elevation – and our attention is now turned westward. The downtown Albuquerque skyline looks like so many Legos off in the distance, and I’m a bit awed that we will finish this run today even further to the west, in Old Town, where there are not many high structures. There are hot air balloons off in the distance, little dots in the sky. It’s a breathtaking view.

These miles are magical; no wonder they call this the land of enchantment. I keep a close eye on my heart rate while I push the pace. The weather is still perfect – cool, with the soft light of daybreak. I start to pass the people who surged past me when the course turned uphill many miles back. First one, then another, and then another. I pass the couple I talked to in the port-a-potty line; he is wearing a Georgia Marathon t-shirt today, and we had a good yuk about the heat that crippled all of us (and me in particular) back on that grueling day in March. Thank God it’s cool here, we said. And it’s still deliciously cool now. It’s perfect.

These are some of the best miles of my marathoning career. I turn in a couple of sub-8 minute miles, and although I don’t really trust the mile markers, it’s a blast to hit my split button when the clock reads 7:57 and 7:42. I don’t think I’ve ever run a sub-8 mile in a marathon before, and the odd thing is how easy it feels. This part of the race goes by way, way too quickly.

The only real problem with this part of the race is that I just can’t seem to drop a number of other runners with whom I keep trading places. The most annoying is the tall guy wearing purple Race Ready shorts who shuffles every step along the way. I try to run with my internal rhythm – counting out the steps from mile to mile – but this guy’s shwuh shwuh shwuh with each footstep makes it difficult. Another bothersome runner is the younger guy wearing the golden t-shirt. He’s a much faster runner than me, but he takes walk breaks every 4 minutes, so I’m constantly passing him, only to have him go around me a minute or two later. There’s also the shirtless short guy with the gray shorts. The world might be a better place if he kept his shirt on; he’s definitely not a candidate for a cover shot on Runners World. I’m not really sure how it is that we keep trading places, but that’s exactly what happens. Over and over, I go around these guys only to have them all pass me further down the road.

One of the few complaints I have about this race has to do with the mile markings. Early on, I missed a couple of mile markers, and chalked it up to the darkness. In these middling miles, I’m not so sure; I watch for the markers, but they don’t always appear. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a painted notation on the roadway, but the mile markers are not always coincident with these. So it is that we approach the halfway point, but there is no clear marking for the 13.1 mile point on the marathon course. This seems like an especially gross oversight, since there is a companion half marathon that started here – 13.1 miles from the finish. Would it be so difficult to put up a “half-way point” sign? As it is, I see a painted marking on the roadway and mark a split, accepting that it’s most likely not 100% accurate. My watch reads 2:02:45. I figure that if I can run my patented negative split, just averaging 9 minute miles, that I’ll easily finish the day in under 4 hours.

What I haven’t counted on is the heat. It comes on, sudden and brutal, without warning. Just past the halfway point in the race – where the course turns flat and shadeless – the sun makes its debut for the day from behind the mountain range to the east. The clouds have burned off, and there is no shade. Here at altitude – just like at home – the untempered sun is relentless. After averaging 8:30 per mile for the last six miles, I find myself running progressively slower and slower miles while my heart rate – well in control for the first 13 miles of the day – is now dangerously in the red zone, even though I feel like I’m crawling. The painful process of adjusting my goal begins, going through revision after revision. My day – my beautiful, “maybe this is going to be one of those really great days” day – is done. And I have miles and miles left to run.

The saving grace is the fact that the heat seems to treat all of us equally. I continue to run with the same group of people I’ve been with for miles and miles, continuing to trade places over and over again. The race literature advertises aid stations with water and Gatorade approximately every two miles, and the aid stations materialize on schedule. They use little Dixie cups, so early on I’ve started to yell ahead “water please! Two cups!”, and the volunteers are eager to make me happy. I spill as much water as I drink, and it feels good, cooling.

There are several miles through non-descript neighborhoods as we continue westward. At mile 18, we turn onto the Bosque bike path, a beautiful urban asphalt trail that runs parallel to the Rio Grande River. This part of the course reminds me of the bike path where I run at home – a remote and wilderness experience in the heart of a major city – but I can’t much appreciate the beauty. It’s just too hot. I’m suffering. And the finish is still a long ways away. It doesn’t help at all that there is not a single mile marker along this 4-mile stretch of the race course. It feels like it will go on forever.

I’ve been hoping to see Mick at some point today. We’ve come to Albuquerque together, and he – God bless him – got up with me at 3 a.m., keeping me company while I forced down my early breakfast, applying Bodyglide for me to those pesky areas on my back that I can’t seem to get on my own, and helping me to get my bib number pinned on straight. When I left him at the hotel at 4:15, he was studying the course map, trying to figure out how to ride out to meet me on his bike. I’ve been expecting to meet up with him at any point for several miles, perversely enjoying the fact that as I click off each mile, I have something left to look forward to.

Albuquerque strikes me today as a very fit city. Everywhere we go – even back in those early, dark miles out on Tramway – there are people out exercising. What this race lacks in standing-on-the-side-of-the-road-clapping fan support, it more than makes up for in kindred-spirits-going-the-opposite-direction support. Nowhere is that more pronounced than on the Bosque bike trail. I would suffer much more on this hot stretch in the marathon if it weren’t for the multitude of people showing support. Here on the bike path, there are runners and walkers and cyclists, and many of them – heck, most of them – yell out encouragement or offer high fives or thumbs-up when I go by. I keep my eyes peeled for Mick, reminding myself that he pulled out his Triple Bypass jersey from this year before I left the room. It’s bright red, and he wanted to make sure that I could spot him easily. Finally, somewhere between miles 20 and 21 (although I haven’t seen a mile marker since mile 18), there he is.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Just seeing him lifts my spirits. I yell out at him, and he quickly turns and comes back to ride beside me, offering me water from the bottle on his bike. It’s nice and cold – oh so nice after the lukewarm offerings of the latest aid stations – but I’m worried about drinking too much and getting the sloshing-stomach effect, so I just take a couple of sips before handing the bottle back.

Mick asks how I’m doing, and I try to answer, but I find that I can’t talk. My heart rate is in the red zone now, and I just don’t have anything left for non-essential functions. I’m really doing okay, but the realization that I don’t even have the spare cycles to utter more than a couple of words is a bit disturbing. There is a scary feeling of not being able to draw a deep breath. Mick gets this, and he tells me not to talk.

Except, he asks, is there anything you need?

And the request I’ve been praying about for the last hour or more now crosses my lips: “ice!”

Mick says that there’s not much near this bike path, but that he’ll try. And then he’s gone.

The section on the bike path continues until mile 22, and then there are a few twists and turns before we eventually get onto Rio Grande Avenue, heading south again. Our hotel is on Rio Grande. I know that the finish is near the hotel – just past it, and somewhere in Old Town near the grand old Hotel Albuquerque, where we boarded the buses back in the sweet coolness earlier this morning. Just nearing Rio Grande gets me jazzed; I know that once we get on this road, we’re headed back to the barn.

Mick shows up again, and miracle-of-miracles, he has ice. And lots of it! Later he will tell me that he found a Safeway, and filled a large plastic bag with ice from a soda fountain, and grabbed the largest cup he could find. For now, all I care about is that he’s holding out a cup to me, and it’s filled to the brim with sweet, delicious, cold ice.

I chew on the ice. I put ice cubes down my sports bra. I hold ice cubes in my hands. I bathe my arms in ice. And I pour the melting, icy water from the cup wherever it will go – my face, my mouth, my legs. It’s all good. It’s a new lease on life. Nothing has been this grand this late in a race ever in my life.

And it keeps coming. Incredibly, I empty the cup and then ask Mick for more. And then some more. Finally, after, three large cups, I’m finally starting to feel that my core temperature is under control. This coincides with the 26 mile marker, so I toss my empty cup to Mick, who yells encouragement. I look at my watch. Holy crap. If I’ve got a snowball’s chance of meeting my latest goal, I’ve got to kick it in.

That latest goal has been the result of making many adjustments over the last several miles. These are the games we play while running this crazy distance. Four hours is no longer viable? How about 4:05? That would – at the very least – be a Boston qualifier. But it’s quickly no more realistic than four hours was. So what about 4:10? That sounds good. But as the splits come in at nearly 11 minutes per mile, that becomes a fleeting thought. How about 4:15? Well, when you hit mile 26 in 4:17:37, the only thing left is to aim for sub 4:20.

So I kick it in. And, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter that much: 3:59 or 4:05 or 4:20. The reality is this: crossing the finish line – and doing it in style, giving it everything you have – is the only thing that matters. I’m well off my goal today. The finish line announcer blunders while trying to read my bib number. The crowd at the finish line is miniscule. Still, it doesn’t matter. I finish in 4:19:29, and I feel like a champion when a kind volunteer puts a medal around my neck. Is it so important to wish for anything more? This is grand.

But, okay, yeah, I want it all. The fast time, the Boston qualifier, meeting a goal. So I experience a tinge of disappointment after all, even though on another level, I’m happy just to have state #26 behind me. I just wish I could have done it in grander style.

But the land of enchantment does not disappoint, at least not entirely. The medal for this race is the prettiest that I’ve ever received. Mick is by my side, and I use him as a crutch, since I’m pretty light-headed at the finish, and I’m not so steady on my feet. I have the pleasure of knowing that I gave this everything that I had. We hang out in the small post-race area, enjoying a brief rest on the cool grass before walking back to the hotel. The awards ceremony starts, and we stick around for a few more minutes. Even with my slow time, I’ve still taken third in my age group, and I receive the coolest piece of southwestern pottery. Mick offers to put the award in his backpack as we walk back to the hotel, but I decline the offer. There’s something magical about carrying this little piece of pottery. I want to hold on to this feeling as long as I can.

Running on Empty (Pikes Peak Ascent 2007)

Four a.m. comes very early this morning, but I have set two alarm clocks – just in case – and they both go off almost simultaneously, making it impossible to ignore them. The alarms wake me out of a sound sleep, which is not normal for the night before a big race, when I typically toss and turn, sleeping fitfully and having multiple race anxiety dreams. Not so last night: I was dead tired and so my body and mind both surrendered to total sleep. It’s not like I’m a stranger to the alarm clock these days, since I’m working eleven hour days and still trying to have a life: training, playing piano, paying my bills, occasionally seeing a movie, etc. What gives in this equation is sleep. And time with Mick and family and friends. And quality of anything.

But I’ve become accustomed to rolling out of bed without enough sleep, so I am up and out the door in near-record time. Thank heaven that I’ve done this enough times that I’ve learned to prepare and pack everything – and I mean everything, from laying out my clothes down to slicing the bagel and sticking it in the toaster oven – the night before. I’m not feeling bad at all when I pile myself and all my race accoutrements in the car and pull out of the garage.

Driving to Manitou Springs in the total darkness is also something I’ve become accustomed to – today marks my sixth Pikes Peak Ascent (“PPA”) – so I find the empty roads and starless skies familiar and somehow reassuring. I’ve been here, done this before. So I settle into the rhythm of the drive, and turn on the radio, expecting to find NPR to keep me company for the next 75 minutes or so. But it’s too early for NPR, so I flip over to KBCO for some music and find Jackson Browne singing “Running on Empty”:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-o-one
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on
Running on - running on empty
Running on - running blind
Running on - running into the sun
But I’m running behind

I’ve always loved this song, and I welcome the driving beat of the music, so for a moment I think “what a great omen – a running song for the road!” But then I listen to the lyrics a little more closely as I drive along and start to wonder. Can a song about running on empty really be a good omen before a long race?

There are few people on the roads, so the drive is easy, although I find myself almost nodding off in the car. The initial burst of activity before getting into the car has kept me wide awake for the first half of the drive, but now I’m yawning and wishing that I could pull off and take a nap. In fact, I’m yawning and spacing out so much that I miss the turnoff for Manitou Springs and end up driving many miles out of my way before realizing my mistake. Not to worry, I make it to the start on time, but with not a minute to spare. So much for the benefit of getting up early.

My goal for today is the same goal that I’ve had for the last several years: to get to the top in under four hours. The closest that I’ve come to that goal is the 4:07 performance that I turned in two years ago. Last year, after spending 4:10 to reach the top, I vowed that I would train more specifically this year and finally meet that goal. But life got in the way, as it always seems to do. For the last few weeks, I’ve tried to convince myself that the increased number of uphill runs that I’ve done over the last few months would get me to my goal. But then, late yesterday, I used Matt Carpenter’s pacing calculator to figure out where I would need to be at various points on the course to make sub-4 hours today. The results of punching in the numbers didn’t seem too daunting…until I read his warning: “Without training in very high altitude (12,000-14,000’), expect to lose some serious time…” Given that the bulk of my altitude training has been at 6,000-10,000’, I know, going into the race today, that my chances for sub-4 are slim. But a person can still dream, right?

The weather gods are smiling on us today, and it will turn out to be the best weather of any of my PPAs. Cool and partly sunny at the start, with clouds that will eventually burn off or move on over the plains, no wind, no rain, no snow: ideal running weather. You couldn’t order more perfect conditions. With weather like this, the race start goes off exactly on time, after the requisite singing of “America the Beautiful”. This race is not chip timed, but the road is wide at the start and it only takes 15 seconds for me to cross the start line, and then we’re climbing. As the folks on the street shout every year, “you only have one more hill to go!”

When I think about running PPA, I always divide the course into four sections, each about 3 miles long, with a 1.2 mile preamble that goes through the town of Manitou Springs. This preamble is all uphill, too, but having a wide street to start out on, and then turning onto a narrower street that becomes a single lane driveway, helps spread out the field before funneling us all onto the single track Barr Trail that will be our home for the next 12 miles. Having paved roads is a luxury for me, since I’m not a stellar trail runner. Lots of PPA runners grumble about this section of the race, but for me it’s always a welcome way to get started on the uphill journey. Today, I reach the first turn (onto Ruxton Street) ahead of the calculator, but I take that with a grain of salt. Running on this “easy” part of the course has never been my problem. Keeping a pace up high is quite a different story.

The first real trail section of the PPA is steep, with lots of switchbacks. The good news is that the trail is quite nice here – no roots, and just a smattering of rocks. A few years back, I started running this section with my heart rate monitor (HRM) as my guide, since I had lost momentum up high too many years in a row. I want to run a controlled race, so today it’s all by HRM. That means that I end up walking most of the first section. I have not brought the pace calculator splits with me, so after the turn onto Ruxton, I don’t have any reference points until I reach Barr Camp – and that’s not until halfway up the mountain. This is fine with me, because I just concentrate on HR and upward motion, and I feel really good through this section. Because it’s tough to pass on this narrow section of trail, once the initial order is established, that’s pretty much it until we get up higher. I pass a couple of people, and a few people pass me, but there’s not much shuffling going on quite yet.

The second section of the trail is the easiest – and as a consequence, it is my favorite. The trail widens a bit, but more importantly, it flattens out considerably, and it even goes downhill in a few places. Looky me, everyone, I’m actually running again! The running stretches don’t always last for long, but today, it feels really good to pick up the pace whenever possible.

This race has been quite different for me each year that I’ve run it. The first few years were all about discovery; the next couple were about trying to do well, and getting frustrated in the process – with other people, with the weather and conditions, and with my own performance, in about that order; and last year was all about just trying to enjoy the experience and survive. (This race is always about survival.) Once I decided to just have fun in the last couple of years, I had a great time chatting up people along the run. But today is different. There is a small amount of chatter going on around me, but mostly everyone is lost in his or her own race. And so it is for me, too. Although I end up passing and re-passing several people multiple times on my way up the mountain today, it’s a very solitary experience.

At 1:27 on my watch, I’m passed by the first couple of runners from the second wave. PPA has a wave start: people with a self-reported anticipated finishing time of 4:30 or faster are assigned to Wave 1, which starts at 7:00. Slower (or theoretically slower) people are assigned to Wave 2, which starts thirty minutes later. Every year, the fast people from Wave 2 (either sandbaggers, or (typically young) people without race history) end up passing the slower (i.e., me) runners from Wave 1. Typically, this happens in the final three miles of the race. Today, the first guy goes by me at less than 90 minutes into my day. That means he’s covered a distance in 57 minutes that took me 87 minutes. It’s not the greatest confidence booster.

At least partly because I’m not talking with other people, and because I’m working hard at capturing my splits, I start doing some mental math at around the “9 Miles to Go” and “8 Miles to Go” markers. (The mile markers on Pikes Peak are all “so many Miles to go”, not miles covered so far. The first time you run this race, it seems odd. But once you get above tree line, it makes perfect sense.) And I’m not so sure I like the results. Even at these early markings, the numbers are saying that I’ll need to average approximately 18 minutes/mile for the next 8 or 9 miles. While that might seem incredibly slow to the untrained eye, on Pikes Peak, nothing computes the way it might on flatland without the altitude factor. From past experience (not to mention the pace calculator I consulted last night), I know that the final three miles will all be 20+ (more like 25) minutes. I start to grapple with the very real possibility (probability?) that my day is already done, and that sub-4 hours is already out of my grasp. I push the thought away. I push onward, upward.

I reach Barr Camp, which pretty much demarks the end of section two and the beginning or section three, in 2:07. The traditional wisdom – not to mention the pace calculator – says that you need to be at Barr Camp by 2:00 if you want to have a chance at a 4 hour ascent. This is not a good sign. While my heart still clings to the possibility of a sub-4 hour race, my head is already accepting the reality: this is just not the day.

It’s a toss-up as to whether the third or fourth section of the race is harder. Votes in favor of section three will tell you about all the rocks and roots, and the fact that this section gets steep again, even though it’s in deep forest, so it doesn’t look all that daunting. I’ve tried to run this part before, but it’s pretty much not worth the effort, what with all the rocks and roots. Better to play it safe and walk at a crisp pace. So that’s what I do today. It’s surprising that I continue to pass people from Wave 1, but the truly amazing thing is the number of people from Wave 2 who pass me along this stretch. Why are so many fast people running in the second wave?

Sections three and four start to venture into very high altitude, and I start to feel it early on, although I pretend that it’s a non-factor. But I pass the A-Frame (which is the demarcation between sections three and four) at 3:06 instead of the pace calculator time of 2:50, and I finally accept that sub-4 was only a dream today.

Section four of the race is all above tree-line, and in many ways is more runnable than section three – largely because there are no more roots to trip over, and because the trail sometimes flattens out between switchbacks. It gets votes as the most difficult section of the race owing to the altitude, and to the fact that there are many places (particularly in the final mile) where the rocks are so steep that scrambling is really the only reasonable approach. Today, more than ever, the rocks and the steepness of section four do me in. For reasons that I can’t quite yet grapple with, the altitude starts to affect me big time, and I worry about my balance. My head spins. I soldier on the best that I can, but it’s really, really hard.

And so, my goal morphs as the day wears on. First, I change my goal from sub-4 to course PR. When that hope fades, I change the goal from course PR to somewhere in the top three of my PPA times. The next stage in the mutation of my goal is “oh please let me finish faster than my previous slowest time.” Finally, there comes a time when all I want to do is finish the damn thing.

In the end, I struggle at the top of Pikes Peak today as I have never struggled before. My head is spinning, and by the time I’ve climbed to the upper reaches of the trail, I’m using my hands almost as much as my feet whenever possible. I’ve worked hard at passing these people for miles, and now I just don’t care anymore. On one of the final switchbacks of the trail, I wobble precariously on a rock, and a volunteer – one of the many EMTs who line the course – says to me, “you did that just to scare me, right? Right?!?” I don’t really have an answer for him, but the moment passes, and I don’t tumble off the side of the mountain, and pretty soon – not soon enough – I cross the finish line in 4:26 and change. That represents my worst time on this course by more than 12 minutes, but given my state of mind, I don’t really care at all. I’m just happy to be done.

At the finish line, I’m toast, and I know it. I move over to the side to make room for those finishing behind me, but I just need a minute to get my breath. A volunteer hands me my medal, and it slips between my fingers, which are just not working quite right. When I bend over to pick it up, a host of volunteers come to my aid, asking if I’m okay. I wave a guy off, then try to start walking again, and another volunteer comes up to ask again if I’m okay. This one – a woman – grabs my arm and doesn’t let me out of her grasp until we’re past the cog railway tracks. At first I keep trying to tell her I’m okay, but then she asks how old I am, and I have a hard time answering, and it occurs to me that maybe some help is a good thing. (It’s a weird thought: that I’m climbing into the old-enough-to-really-worry-the-volunteers category.) She parks me, telling me “wait right here”, and goes off to get both Gatorade and water, then finally lets me go – but only after she watches me drink them down. By now I’m able to motor on my own, and I grab a few grapes and a few pretzels before reclaiming my checked bag and claiming my finisher’s jacket, and then climbing into the first van I can find that is heading back to Manitou Springs. After taking four and a half hours to reach the summit of this mountain, I’m heading back down in something less than ten minutes, a phenomenon that gives “it’s the journey, not the destination” new meaning.

The bus ride back down to Manitou Springs takes nearly an hour, and I end up having great conversations with other veterans of the race along the way down. It’s surprising how quickly I start to feel like myself again. When I get off the bus, a couple of guys come up to talk to me, and to ask me about my finishing time, since they recognize me from the run, and want to congratulate me on running strong. It’s a weird feeling, to have done so poorly compared to a goal, and yet to feel so bland about it. I think about the saying that is attributed to Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And I know that this race, for me, represents a bit of insanity.

After I get home, I call Benji, to tell him how my day went. The first words out of my mouth are “I ran a personal worst!” Benji is calm, and asks all the right questions, and we work through the day together. Truth be told, there are plenty of times that I think I could get by without his coaching these days, since I know his system and could probably cobble together a plan on my own. Part of my reason for sticking with Benji is that I like having just one thing in my life that I don’t have to think much about on my own; Benji does the thinking, and all I have to do is run.

But the real reason that I stick with him is for how he handles these bad races. He has a great way of analyzing all the things going on in my life on any given day, and of rationalizing how those things affect my running. It’s not excuse-making, just classic cause-and-effect analysis. Not for nothing did he pursue a doctorate degree in biopsychology. Today, we talk for a long time about my crazy work situation and the hours I’m burning and the fact that I’m skimping on sleep. “Sleep deprivation does not mix well with oxygen deprivation,” he says; is this just another way of saying that I’m running on empty? We talk about how much longer the work craziness will continue, and then we start to make plans. One year, he says, when your work situation settles down, we’ll get you properly trained for this race, and we’ll even have you take some time off work so that you can spend a month or so before the race up at altitude. But for now, we’ll work on recovering, and then we can get back to real marathon training by mid-week. By the time we end our call, I’m feeling downright hopeful that maybe someday I’ll finally get this race right. Today, I’m not so hopeful as to think I can make that happen next year, but someday. Someday means that I still have hope.

On the way home from Manitou Springs – after the late breakfast at Uncle Sam’s Pancake House and before I dial in to yet another conference call for work, something that was delayed on account of the race – I stop at a Starbucks for a shot of caffeine to keep me awake during the drive northward. Starbucks’ brilliant marketing sucks me into buying a Grateful Dead CD – a compilation of stuff that I pretty much already own on other albums. But today it’s worth the price, since the music is perfect for my mood as I drive through the afternoon sun. Jackson Browne may have gotten my race right this morning, but the Dead get it right this afternoon, and I sing along to the lyrics of “Touch of Grey”:

Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.

Leadville Trail Marathon 2007

Why I chose to run this marathon will always be a bit of a mystery to me. After all, I didn’t really need another marathon in my spring training cycle; I had already run the Georgia Marathon in March, Boston in April, Fargo in May, and the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon in South Dakota in early June. I didn’t need another Colorado Marathon in my quest for a marathon in each of the fifty states; I already had two marathons in Steamboat Springs and two in Denver. I didn’t need a demanding mountain trail race; I had already run the Pikes Peak Ascent many years consecutively (including a registration for that race for the following month), along with the Imogene Pass Race and the Golden Leaf Half Marathon, both grueling runs at altitude.

In the end, I suppose I chose to run Leadville for the same reason that Sir Edmund Hilary chose to climb his mountain: because it was there.

Because my entry in the race came late, on a whim, I end up approaching it solo. Why ask anyone to join me when the whole thing is lunacy to begin with? Lucky for me, Nattu Natraj is also running this race, and I’ve asked him if we might run the first part of it together. Nattu just started running a few years back, and after we met through a running message board, I ended up cheering him on in his first half marathon up in Fort Collins. He was a complete newby back then. He’s a completely changed runner today, at the beginning of July 2007. By now, he’s completed many marathons, but his claim to fame is his performance in several of the most difficult ultramarathons on the planet, including the Marathon des Sables, a week long multi-stage run through the Moroccan desert, and the Badwater 135 last summer. Right now, he’s getting ready for his second assault on the Badwater 135 later in July. I count myself lucky to have him agree to run a bit of this race with me.

Race morning comes early, but it’s a rare treat to wake up (even though extremely early) in my own bed. It’s late enough when I leave home that I can grab a scone and coffee from the local Starbucks, and the traffic on the way to Leadville is pretty much non-existent. When I arrive at the race start, I park right in front of the race headquarters, and I’m one of the first people inside picking up my packet. The whole vibe of the thing (very low key) matches my expectations of my effort on this perfect Colorado summer day. I almost have enough time to take a short nap in my car.

I hook up with Nattu early on, and I’m amazed at the fan club he has developed over the last couple of years. Everyone seems to know him, and he’s generous with introductions. Is this the same guy who was worried about finishing a little half marathon a few years back? Apparently not.

The race starts uphill on a side street in Leadville, and the very small field spreads out quickly. I’ve attached myself to Nattu’s elbow, and I’m thrilled to hear him say “okay, I’m gonna walk now” after we’ve gone just a short distance. I’m all over the walking thing. Even though it’s not far back to the start line, we’re dealing with a pretty steep slope, and – oh yeah, forgot to mention this bit – the race starts at an elevation over 10,000 feet. I’m all for walking, especially if I can foist the idea off on somebody else.

We walk for a while, then we jog for a while, then we walk again. The first mile is mostly paved roads, but soon enough we find the trails and the forest. The trails quickly become single track, and Nattu lets me go in front of him. Trails have always required a lot of attention on my part, and soon I’ve lost contact with Nattu. I am, very naively, thinking that perhaps I’ve dropped the super-ultra-guy. Nattu has talked about how this race is just a training run for him, so he’s not planning to push it. And, after all, the last time we ran a race “together” (the Imogene Pass Run a few years ago), I finished a bit in front of him.

The trail is a bit gnarly, but I manage to “run” much of it. (In this case, “running” – rather than walking - is more of a mindset than a pace.) The race course is essentially an out-and-back, but with a few twists. The first quarter of the out-bound race is all uphill, and after the first mile, it’s on a single track trail through forest. The first aid station is at the top of this section of trail. The second quarter is a rolling loop around Ball Mountain, almost all on narrow single track; after you circumnavigate the loop, you’re right back at the first aid station. The third quarter sends you downhill on a dirt service road behind the old several old mines. The footing on this section of the race is very good, and the downhill feels great to me. The final quarter of the out-bound section is where things get tough. It’s all severely uphill, on a very rocky and rough track that is all exposed, ending at the top of Mosquito Pass at around 13,200 feet of elevation. Then we turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

I reach the top of the first quarter section feeling okay, and survey the goods on offer at the aid station. Ya gotta admit, the offerings at ultramarathons (although this race is “only” 26.2 miles, it’s sponsored by a group of folks who are used to working ultramarathons) is much better than the offerings at “normal” marathons. There are PB&J sandwiches (cut into bite-size pieces), brownies, homemade chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, pretzels, jelly beans, M&Ms, and a few other foods; along with the normal water and Gatorade and some good ole Coca-Cola and Sprite. I grab some grub, and head out onto the loop.

The loop is tougher than it looks on paper. While you don’t gain or lose any net elevation (after all, you end up right back where you started), you’re constantly going up and down. The loop is mostly exposed, and most of the trail is narrow single track. There are some challenging up-and-down sections on rocks through some trees. One thing about this section is that, when it opens up, you can see the runners around you very clearly. I’m definitely not gaining on anybody. I’m happy to see the first aid station come into view again.

The next quarter section is a delight. Downhill running on a solid, generous surface. Did I say delight? I could do this all day long.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last all day. At the bottom of this section of downhill, there’s another aid station, and it’s kind of like the last fort before heading across the hostile plains. There are people here taking breaks in chairs the volunteers have set up. There’s another fine array of food on offer, and I grab a little bit to eat before crossing the stream that demarks this section of the race.

The last quarter of the outbound section is the place where the wheat separates from the chaff. I am not prepared for this…not at all. The trail – actually, a jeep road – is all loose rock and scree, and the footing is extremely bad. But even moreso, it’s steeply uphill. And, did I mention, we’re approaching truly high elevations here? Partly up this steep grade I start to feel sick, and have to stop to walk. People are passing me, and I’m not surprised at all. The steepness has stopped me in my tracks. People I passed on the downhill section go by me. We’re also just starting to meet people who are on the homeward bound section of their journey. That, in a way, makes me feel better – as if I’m getting closer to the end of my own race. Wait – I’m not even halfway there. I guess I’m jumping the gun.

At some point in this section, Nattu powers by me. He’s looking incredibly strong. I’m feeling incredibly weak. I realize now that I should have known that he’s really got the pacing thing down, and I should have made an effort to stay on his shoulder rather than pushing forward, only to die at this still-rather-early stage of the race. Passing me in the other direction, I see Henry, who works at the Boulder Running Company, and who seems to run many of the same races that I run. I also see Steve Skadron, an Aspen City Council compatriot of Mick’s. I knew that Steve was a runner, but it’s a surprise to see him here today.

Approaching the 13,200’ summit of Mosquito Pass, I find myself light-headed and very much battling the altitude and the uneven footing and the steepness. It’s become very cold up here, with a nasty top-of-the-mountain wind. Still, I power on, and am very happy when I reach the turnaround point. There are a few folks sitting in chairs that the aid station workers up here have set out, and although the thought of sitting is very appealing, I’m more anxious to get down from this altitude and to be done for the day, so I keep moving.

The “back” portion of this out-and-back is more downhill than uphill, but it’s still extremely hard – harder than I have bargained for. The first quarter is now steeply downhill, on very unstable footing. I struggle, and get passed left and right. I’m a pretty good downhill runner on solid footing, but on trails, I suck. I have little choice but to let the other runners go by. Even so, I twist my ankles both multiple times, and end up limping through more of the section than I’d like to admit.

When I hit the solid road of the next section, it’s much better, even if it is pretty much all uphill. A woman Nattu introduced me to earlier today passes me, and it’s clear she’s in much better shape for this than I. I’ve traded places with her a few times, but at this point, she’s dusting me but good.

I love seeing that first aid station again when it comes into view. I grab some vittles and set off on the loop around Ball Mountain, running it in backwards order this time. It’s every bit as hard as I remembered from the first circumnavigation. Even worse, the uneven trail seems much harder this time around. A few more people pass me. I just want this thing to be over.

After grabbing some de-fizzed Coke at the first aid station again, I’m finally on that final quarter back down into Leadville. What surprises me is how long the downhill section through forest goes on. I’m virtually running alone, and, on these tired legs, I’m really afraid of falling. So I run some, and walk some, always taking care with my footing. I’d like to improve as a trail runner, but today I’m guessing that doing that in a 26.2 mile race is not exactly the right strategy. I trade places with another runner a time or two, and it mostly just makes me happy to know I’m not the last person out here.

As we get closer to town, I keep expecting to see Mick. He has told me that he will be here for the finish of the race, and since it’s taking me much longer than my anticipated time, I’m guessing that he will greet me before I get to the finish. Although it seems forever before I find him, it’s still wonderful to see his long lanky profile on his bike at a point where the trail I’m on meets up with the bike path out of town.

Seeing Mick gives me a bit more fuel, and it gives me a huge burst of spirit. Soon, I’m rounding the final turn onto the paved road that will lead me back to the start/finish line. It’s a straight shot from here, and finally the footing is good and solid, and I’m running to beat the clock. It has started to look like I might be on the far side of seven hours on this run today, and that just doesn’t sit well. So I run as hard as I can. There are a few people out at street crossings – there is really no traffic at all – and their cheering buoys me. A block or two from the finish line, I see Nattu out of the corner of my eye, and he yells encouragement to me. He has long since finished his day with a course PR.

One of the most wonderful things about running small races is that, even though the crowds at the finish line are small, you know that the cheers are for you, only you. Today does not disappoint. There are not a lot of people yelling encouragement, but I know that each of them is there for me. I manage to eke out a small margin on the seven hour monster, and finish in 6:55:14. Somebody hangs a medal around my neck, and Mick is there, on his bike. I grab some Gatorade and some food from the finish line assortment of goodies – knowing that I really did earn it all – and then it’s time to head home from this high small town. By the time my car hits the city limits, I’m already trying to figure out how to train for this thing to do better the next time I run it.

Ride the Rockies 2007

This is my sixth Ride the Rockies. You would think that I would learn to train a bit better for it, but some lessons come hard. Ah well, because of the course configuration – a combination of hard-easy-hard-easy days – I am actually able to ride myself into shape in the seven days of the ride. So what exactly makes up those seven days? Come along and ride with me…

Day 0, June 16: Registration in Frisco. Not yet an official Ride the Rockies day, but still, when you arrive at registration to pick up your jersey and bike number and wrist band and luggage tags and route map, you are thrown into the spirit of the thing. First cycling seminar: Alison Dunlap, telling us all about hydration and nutrition and stuff you should already know for the ride. But it’s not really about lessons, it’s about immersion, and for that reason alone, it’s good to start the ride with a stand-up presentation from a recently retired pro cyclist.

Oh yeah, did I mention that I ran the Mount Evans Ascent this morning on my way to Frisco? Details, details.

This marks the first year of Ride the Rockies in which Mick and I actually don’t have to set up a tent for our first night. Instead, we stay with Mick’s friends Linda and Steve, in Dillon, just over Swan Mountain Road from the Summit County High School, which serves as tour HQ for today. Not only do we have an entire suite in the house to ourselves, but Steve and Linda cook up a wonderful dinner for us. Barbecue chicken and corn, salad, fresh bread, and some nice red wine. Yummmmm.

Day 1, June 17: Frisco to Steamboat Springs. 99 miles, 7 hours, 4700’ climbing.

This is the first year that I decide to forego keeping detailed statistics of the ride each day, and instead, I’ll rely on the route handbook for the elevation gain, and just estimate my time in the saddle each day. Wow. How liberating.

Today, Mick and I are up and on the road before our hosts are out of bed. We pass legions of riders coming across Swan Mountain Road as we backtrack to the high school to drop our gear and start our ride. Breakfast is a quick pancake feast at the school, and then a mad scramble to get on the road. The good news is that by arriving late for the weeklong parking, we actually get to park close-in – we’re in the paved lot, by the gear trucks, while everyone who arrived and parked yesterday is out in the dirt. Funny how things you fret over (will there be a parking space for us?) turn out so well.

And then we’re riding. It’s .2 miles - less than a quarter mile - to the stoplight out of the school lot, and then back onto Swan Mountain Road and straight up. I tell Mick to go up ahead, since I’m woefully out of shape for this climb, and we’ll reconnoiter up the road. Point-two miles into the ride, and I’m working hard. Crap. I start to think that maybe running up Mount Evans yesterday morning was a bad idea.

But at mile 2, the climb is over, and Mick is there waiting for me, and we’re freewheeling down the other side of this mini-pass. Better yet, the next 40 or so miles are a delight – slightly downhill with a tailwind and a nice shoulder, and we breeze along. If only I knew then that this was the last we would see of a tailwind for the entire week…. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We hit Kremmling, and stop at what I expect to be a lunch stop. But there are not many food vendors there, and the PB&J line is just too long, so we grab just a snack and then are on our way. But it’s painful from here on out. If you’re paying attention, that means almost 50 miles of pain.

This is a cruel ride, and I’ve only done it once before, on Ride the Rockies a few years back, in the opposite direction, so I’m not really prepped for what comes next. Out of Kremmling, we lose the shoulder. The road is a narrow, heavily traveled 2-lane stretch that rolls. But that’s deceptive, because it’s a net uphill pull, not to mention that we encounter a nasty, hot headwind. So while it looks like we go up and down, we’re actually climbing most of the time, and even when we head downhill, we have the headwind to contend with.

Plus, I’m bonking. Finally, we hit an aid station just before we tackle Rabbit Ears Pass, and it has a good selection of food vendors so I can refuel. I had started to wonder if the food vendors were not along for this year’s RTR. Thank God for the PB&J lady and the smoothie vendor. Restocked, we climb Rabbit Ears – slowly for me, but I get it done – and have a pretty wonderful descent into Steamboat Springs. The winds are still nasty, so what could have been a really fun, let-it-rip ride turns out to be much more controlled, but that’s still okay – it’s still fun.

In Steamboat, there is one last nasty bit for us – the finish of the day is uphill to the high school. That’s okay; we’ve been here before, so we’re prepared.

Another first for us this year is that in Steamboat, we stay with my friends Lynn and Jim. Lynnie and Jim retired a couple of years ago, and moved to Steamboat. They built a new house, but I haven’t been there yet – I’ve only read about it in Christmas newsletters. But they’ve invited us to stay the night, and what an incredible treat it is!

The house is – as I expected – beautiful, with views to die for. Lynn and Jim are cat people, too, and I finally get to meet their umpteen kitties (I could tell you how many, but then Jim would have to kill me). My friends cook us a delightful dinner – barbecued chicken, wild rice, salad, a mixed veggie stir fry, and plenty of red wine – and we eat out on their deck, watching the sky over Steamboat turn a really fantastic pink.

Lynnie and Jim are early risers, so they are up with us in the morning, and Lynnie cooks us up a fantastic breakfast (cheese omelets, whole grain English muffins, juice, coffee) before Jimmie drives us back to the high school. The only bad thing about our stay in Steamboat is that it’s way, way too short.

Day 2: Steamboat Springs to Craig. 44 miles, 2 hrs 45 min riding, 700’ climbing.

Today should be an easy ride – less than half of yesterday’s total miles, with a net elevation drop. But one thing gets in the way: headwind.

Do you see a theme here? Have you read about North Dakota, or about South Dakota? Headwinds have become the story of my life.

So once again, I draft off Mick for the entire day. It should be easy, it should be fun, but it isn’t. It’s a hard ride again, all 44 miles. And I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet – but another theme for the week is developing – it’s hotter than heck. Oh boy.

And one last treat for the day: an uphill finish. In fact, a particularly nasty couple of in-town blocks getting to the school.

It’s also a return to reality for Mick and me. After two fabulous days staying with friends who have given us exceptional accommodation, we’re camping today. Mick finds us a spot in some shade, and then he rides off to get us some more sunscreen – it’s brutal out here! – while I head off for massage.

Later, we head over to the community dinner in the park. The pasta stand has just sold out, so we get to have barbecued chicken for dinner!

Day 3: Craig to Rifle. 89 miles, 6 hours riding, 4400’ climbing

It’s a brutal day. That’s all there is to it.

The first part of the ride is nice, since we’re on the road early, realizing the miles we have to cover today. We ride along the Colorado River – close to its source – and it’s lovely.

But then, as the day wears on, it gets hard. There are two major climbs today, and although neither is all that steep, both go on and on. And guess what? We get a head wind, all the freakin’ day long, and it only gets worse as the day wears on, which gets really fun when the temps turn hotter than Hades. To round out the trifecta of fun stuff on this day’s ride, we’re on a two-lane road most of the day with heavy truck traffic. There is lots of mining and drilling activity in this part of the state, and it seems like all of the trucks who service those activities go by us on the road today.

The best moment of my day comes at the penultimate aid station of today’s route. We’ve taken shelter in one of the few shaded spots at this stop, but Mick and I have had to separate so that both of us can get some shade. Have I mentioned that the sun is brutal? Anyway, in between us are two middle-aged men, riding together, taking part in a private conversation, and I can’t help but evesdropping. The conversation goes something like this:

First guy: Well, it’s hard to say what will happen with Jane and Dick. She seems really unhappy, so maybe this is for the best.

Second guy: Yeah, you never know what goes on in another relationship.

First guy: For me, I can’t imagine life without Mary. It’s going on 27 years, and it just keeps getting better every year.

Second guy: Exactly. It’s only been 17 years for me and Alice, but I feel the same way.

First guy: I look forward to seeing her every day when I come home from work.

Second guy: I can’t imagine growing old with anyone else.

….and so it goes. I wonder if these guys’ wives know how the husbands feel? I feel like I’m listening in on the most intimate, romantic conversation of all time, and I only hope that the men are truly as tender with their wives as they seem to be based on this conversation. I feel almost ready to cry with the emotion of it.

And then the guys leave the shelter of the small building we’re sitting behind, and a woman next to me starts bitching about the heat, and the traffic, and the food, and everything that is wrong with Ride the Rockies in general and today’s ride specifically. Kinda spoils the moment. I think Mick recognizes how wrong this is, and comes over from around the corner, and we get up to ride into the furnace that is Rifle.

For dinner tonight, there comes a time when we’d gladly take another helping of barbecued chicken. Only problem is: the community dinner in the park runs out of food early, and there are hardly any restaurants in Rifle, so we end up taking the shuttle over to Glenwood. We have a delightful non-BBQ chicken dinner at the Hotel Denver. This might have been the conclusion to a beautiful evening, if not for the fact that the shuttle does not come back for us – as promised – and we have a very scary hour or two thinking that we’re stranded in Glenwood. I’ll spare you the details, but in the end, it all turns out fine: we get back to Rifle (albeit very late), throw our sleeping bags out on the lawn in front of the school, and finally get some shut-eye. It’s been a very, very long day.

Day 4, Rifle to Glenwood Springs. 36 miles, about 2 hrs 45 min; 2200’ climbing.

We ride – mostly – the backroads from Rifle to Glenwood. Even though this means we’re on rough asphalt roads for much of the day, with steep little ups and downs, it’s a huge relief after the busy highway riding of the last several days. I tell Mick to ride ahead early in the day, and it’s nice to just go at my own pace for awhile.

Maybe because it’s such a short day, we keep running into people we know on today’s ride. There’s a community of people on this ride that we see every year, and some of them I never see at any other time. There’s Chanda from Boulder, and there’s Jill from Aspen, and Bill from Aspen, and then today we also meet up with Barb and Leishia, Ariel’s friends whom I met last year on Ride the Rockies. To be honest, at the start of the day (or rather, at the end of the day yesterday), I was not having that much fun on this ride. Something about today’s ride – maybe all these friends along the route – changes all of that. It’s good to be on Ride the Rockies again.

It helps to have plenty of time in Glenwood to get grounded again. Because the ride is short, we have time to set up the tent, have some lunch, shower without rushing, get another massage, and have a nice dinner. Maybe the best thing of all today is that – while waiting for our seat at the restaurant for dinner – we head over to a book store where I can get a copy of Janet Evanovich’s latest book. It’s always good to have laugh-out-loud material to read on Ride the Rockies.

After dinner, we go in search of ice cream. We walk a couple of blocks, and I’m almost certain that I’ve seen an ice cream shop here before – it must be nearby. I decide to ask the first “locals” I see for help. We’re stopped at a stoplight, and a couple is crossing the street, walking towards us, and he’s carrying a cup that looks like it once contained a strawberry shake. I size them up, and figure them to be locals. In Glenwood, I expect the locals to be either blue-collar red-necks or else hippies. Rather shallow expectations, I know, but there you have it. This couple falls into the hippy category. She has longish blond hair, and is wearing a sundress, big sunglasses, and the weirdest bedroom-slipper type shoes with big pompoms. It’s the shoes that catch my attention and make me certain that they are locals. He’s just a regular joe – baseball cap, t-shirt, baggy shorts, sunglasses, and salt-and-pepper curls hanging out from under the baseball cap.

They reach our corner, and turn to walk the same direction that we’re headed. I open my mouth to ask about ice cream at exactly the same moment the pompom-shoe woman turns to say something to Mr. Ballcap. And as soon as she speaks, I recognize them: Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. I’m so stunned that my question doesn’t make it out of my throat. Instead, we follow these “locals” up the block, and by the time that I figure out that it’s okay to ask “where did you get the ice cream”, we’re in front of the shop. Goldie and Kurt keep walking up the block, holding hands, and sharing a quick smooch. Just like any other local couple. Nobody at all recognizes them.

Day 5, Glenwood Springs to Aspen. 43 miles, 3 hours riding, 2800’ climbing.

The day gets off to a rough start: Mick goes to claim our bikes from security, and finds that I’ve blown a tire. He changes the tire for me, but by the time I’ve found a replacement tube, we’re late. I’m not a happy camper because the food situation this morning isn’t to my liking: no pancakes or other good, hot carb-loading food. We start riding on empty stomachs. I am not a happy cyclist when I have to ride on an empty stomach. I’m already thinking that the day is going to blow, largely because this is a route that I already know well, so it’s just not that exotic, and now the food situation has me even more surly than normal.

But we make it to Carbondale in pretty good time, and instead of going to the aid station, Mick takes us off-route, to a diner he knows. My mood starts to brighten. I get coffee, and life is looking up. French toast and hash browns – real, cooked-to-order, hot breakfast – and I’m getting pretty darn happy. We get to use actual indoor plumbing, complete with flush toilets, rather than the port-a-johns, and it seems like life is pretty good. Then the waitress takes my water bottle and fills it with the diner’s crushed ice, and I’m in heaven. How could I ever have thought that this day would be anything but good?

Mick gets us back on track, and then I discover another delight: there is a brand new stretch of bike path here, and it’s so new that I didn’t even know it exists. The bike path takes us off the heavily traveled highway 82, and then even further off the sparsely traveled back roads, until we’re on the other side of the Roaring Fork River. Over here, it’s nothing but wildflowers and trees and the river babbling alongside. Even when we eventually meet up with the old part of the bike path, the RTR route takes us on a slightly different trajectory than we take when we ride this stretch on our own. By the time we reach Aspen, I’m very, very happy. It’s not exactly like riding into town for the first time, but it’s definitely riding into town with fresh eyes.

The rest of the day is odd. Mick heads off to do what the mayor of the town does when RTR arrives. Today’s camping is at the Aspen High School, which happens to be just a hop skip and jump away from Mick’s sister’s house. We take advantage of the proximity, and camp out in Molly and Don’s spare room. It’s a rare delight to have a shower all to myself in the early afternoon. We know that, because of the altitude here, it will be a cold night outside, so we take special comfort in our inside lodgings.

Day 6, Aspen to Leadville. 61 miles, 5+ hours riding, 5700’ climbing.

It’s another odd day on this RTR. It seems that this year is full of them.

Mick has a meeting later in the day, so a staff person is picking him up in Leadville early in the afternoon. Because he needs to get there quickly, we take off separately. I have a weird, lonely pancake breakfast at the high school, and then ride out of town on my own.

Today’s ride goes over Independence Pass. While I’ve driven this road a gazillion times, and ridden partway up it multiple times, I’ve never ridden the entire pass. It’s a cool road, but it is narrow and two-lane for most of its length, so it’s fairly scary to ride (to me, at least; there are tons of people who train up this hill on a regular basis). I’ve been looking forward to the ride because there will be traffic control. And while it’s kind of weird to start out without Mick, the reality is on a climb like this, we would soon separate so each of us could ride at his/her own pace.

The climb to the top of Independence Pass begins right outside of town, and goes on for twenty miles. While stretches can seem relentless, the road does offer a number of stretches of flat or even slightly downhill for recovery. There are aid stations along the way; I start to stop at the first one, but it’s so crowded that I just turn back onto the road and keep going. Today I’m in a mood to just get to the top; no dilly-dallying.

The ride is more delightful than I had dreamed. It helps immensely to have the traffic control on the road; as it is, there are so many cyclists on the road that it’s a bit crowded. But what amazes me is how much I love the ride down. On the downhill side of the pass, there are just a few tight switchbacks in the first mile or so heading downhill, and then the road turns into one of those lovely long sweeping descents. As much as I was looking forward to the climb, I was anticipating this descent, and it does not disappoint.

The Independence Pass experience ends with an aid station in the tiny town of Twin Lakes, where I run into Barb and Leishia again. I grab some quick calories, and then I’m back on my bike. We’ve done the rest of this ride many times before – the deceptively tough climb into Leadville – and I just want to get it behind me. Inevitably, I end up getting rained on as I ride into town. This is my third RTR overnight in Leadville, and the third time that it’s rained on me while riding into town.

I’ve covered a lot of ground today, and yet it’s relatively early when I get to Leadville. In fact, I end up running into Mick at the high school in Leadville; he shows me to the spot where he’s set up the tent, and then he’s off to his meeting. At over 10,000’ of elevation, Leadville is our highest overnight of the week, and as always, it’s cold here. I climb into the tent and warm up in my sleeping bag while reading, waiting for a squall to pass. When the sun comes back out, everything in the tent becomes toasty warm.

Barb and Leishia have offered to take me under their wings for dinner later in Leadville, but I’m kind of enjoying my solo day, just going at my own pace. It’s mid-afternoon when I’m showered and cleaned up, and also starving. So I head into town and have a combination lunch/dinner at the town’s brew-pub. I’m devouring my book, and am happy to be alone, reading.

Day 7, Leadville to Frisco. 32 miles, 2 hours riding, 1500’ climbing.

In all of my years on RTR, I have ridden every single route mile, including every “optional” side trip. I’ve taken particular pride in this, especially since I was so under-prepared in my first year that I seriously doubted my ability to get through the week. No skipped side trips. No shortcuts. No cheating.

But today….well, today is different. Mick got back to the tent after dark last night, and this morning we take our sweet time getting up and going. It’s very cold outside – there is, in fact, serious frost on the tent. I’m in no hurry to get out into the freezing temps! When we finally crawl out of our sleeping bags, we hurry up into the school. We wait in a long line for a so-so breakfast, but the advantage is that when we come back outside, the sun is up, warming and drying the frost. Maybe because we’re a little out of practice from all of our days inside this week, but it seems to take us extraordinarily long time to pack up our stuff. By the time our bags are safely on the trucks and we are ready to roll, we are, once again, among the last to leave the campsite.

The route today starts out with a loop around Turquoise Lake. I’ve not ridden around the lake, but Mick knows the road, and we are warned: it’s rough, cracked asphalt, a roller-coaster. I study the map and inwardly groan. Mick takes a different approach. He just says, “we’re not doing that”. And so we don’t. Our first skipped miles.

We take the shorter route on the bike path that snakes around town, and in just minutes, we’ve rejoined the day’s route, only about 20 miles short. My attitude is cavalier. The rest of this day will be a repeat of a ride that I like – we’ve done this stretch of road, over Fremont Pass, on the final day of RTR at least two other times, so it’s very familiar. The climb is a nice one, not too challenging, but tough enough to get your attention, and the descent is the kind I like, a mostly straight road with nice long sightlines. When we get to Copper Mountain, we turn onto the bike path through 10 Mile Canyon, still going downhill, and we coast all the way to the finish line at Frisco. Another Ride the Rockies under the belt.