Monday, January 29, 2007

I'm still fairly new to ultras, and I've realized that the six races to date have been on the easy end of things: only a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain (or less) and no worse than moderately technical trails. So I eagerly signed up for the Capitol Peak 34 mile Fatass wanting to cut my teeth on harder stuff. The result shows me how much I need to develop, and how difficult it will be to get ready for some of my harder races this year. I'm already thinking of my race as something epic, and I'm having to restrain myself mentally; the only thing epic about it was my lack of preparation.

I set out from home a little early, as I was unsure if there might be ice on the road during the three hour drive to the race. Fortunately the roads were clear until I got to the point where I had to leave the main roads to climb up into Capitol Forest. The race organizers were good enough to have people at that intersection, warning about the treacherous roads ahead and offering to give people rides. I chose to stick with the "hippo-crate" and it's trusty Nokian studded snow tires. There were several inches of snow on the roads from there on, but I didn't seem to have much trouble. I arrived at Falls Creek campground in the dark, and managed to find the blue-awninged registration area and a nice campfire, then had to dig deep to pay my whopping three dollar entry fee. I started to see a lot of familiar faces: Van (of course), Tony C, Karen, Christel, Tony P, Eric and Michelle. I recognized Tom Riley and introduced myself, although we'd never met before. With all the strong runners around, I wondered why the list of finishers from last year's race was so short, I would learn the answer to this question as the day wore on. I knew that some of the runners were only there to run one 17 mile loop, but surely all those strong ultra studs were there for two.

The race started at about 8:10 on a day that dawned with unexpected sunshine. The trail climbed gradually for about a mile, then settled in to a steady steep climb up to Capitol Peak. I noticed immediately that the trail surface changed every few hundred yards: it would be solid dirt singletrack, then change to a couple of inches of slushy snow, then to slick mud, then back to storm-downed pine twigs. The surface I liked the least was where the trail was eroded down several inches below the surface leaving us to run in a narrow ditch - somehow it was never possible to run off to the side, there were always thick bushes or sticks to deter us.

The trail climbed steadily up towards the peak, and the sizable field settled into a long sporadic pace line. I noticed better runners behind me, and used the need to take off my jacket as an excuse to drop back behind them. Even so, I felt as if I was on the same effort pace as a 50 miler, though going up the grade the actual speed was slower.

After numerous road crossings we finally got to the first real checkpoint, a SAR point and water station at the 5.6 miles. From here the course took its only significant section on a road, a steep pull up to the communication towers on the top of the peak and then back down the same road. The road surface here was covered with thick churned up snow and icy sections, so it felt a little like a trail. Most of us wished we'd left our warmer gear on at this point, as the summit sat in a cloud and was breezy and exposed.

After going up and down the summit, the race left the roads for good and went into a section that had the deepest snow: maybe 4-8 inches. Fortunately by this time I was well back in the pack and had numerous runners ahead to break the trail for me. This was a mixed blessing as they had also churned everything up; sometimes snow, sometimes slushy mud, sometimes thick regular mud. The most surprising were the "polar bear traps:" what looked like a little mud puddle to run through, and turned out to be knee deep open water with enough muddy slush floating on top to disguise it. On one occasion I looked back at one of these, with all the floating slush-bergs bobbing around, and I swear I saw a seal bob up to take a look around!

Through this section I started to run well, pulling away from the group I'd been running with. I'd felt tentative for the first few miles, wondering about the ankle I turned so badly on my New Years Eve run. Now I'd loosened up, and ran easily downhill. I really felt like I could go on forever, that I wouldn't get tired running this way. I started to pass a number of other runners, who were looking tired and demoralized. Eventually I even caught Tony C. who was in a bit of a mental low spot because of the trail conditions. I wasn't surprised that Tony came with, instead of letting me pass him; you don't get to be as good a runner as Tony without some competitive spirit. Tony had been thinking of bagging it after one loop, but after we chattered away for a few miles he decided to go out for another. He even treated me to pizza from his car at the start/finish area, for which I was supremely grateful.

At this point I started to understand how the finish field could be so small. On checking in after the first loop I was amazed at how many people had decided not to go further. Still, someone said there were 18 ahead of us, and undoubtedly more behind. I think my first loop time was 3:22.

Tony led out for the second loop, and I struggled to keep up to his pace. After about a mile I realized what kind of trouble I was in when one leg just buckled under me on a downhill stretch, plunging me headfirst into mud. I didn't feel like I'd run out of energy, but my legs just lacked the strength to keep me upright. I realized immediately that my inexperience in "hill ultras" was showing and slowed off the pace, climbing the grade back up to the peak at a slow hesitant walk. During this time I started to see runners coming the other way. I eventually realized that a number of the people ahead of me were dropping. This seemed odd since they all looked fresher and happier than me, but the thought of dropping never really entered my mind. Still, when I got to the SAR point, I asked if I were last. "Nope! you've got four behind you plus the trail sweep." I realized that one of these had to be Karen, who would never drop, so my dream of bagging the coveted DFL spot was also crushed.

The exposed road up and down the peak was eerier the second time, mostly because the wind had come up and big chunks of ice were blowing down from high on the communication towers. I ran as fast as possible around the buildings at the top in fear of getting brained by one of these missiles, then dropped back to a staggering walk. As I assessed my progress downhill on the road section, I realized how long a day I was in for: barely able to run at all, and the speed of my walking slowing as well. As I entered the snowiest section of the course my pace varied between trudging, shambling, staggering, and shuffling, although occasionally I would make up for it with a bout of straggling. I had no confidence in my ability to keep my feet under me and so was having to fight the course more than the first loop. To make matters worse the trail had deteriorated considerably because of warming and all the traffic on it. I was reminded of something at this point as I staggered through the snowy forest. It took me a while to realize who I resembled until it suddenly came to me: "This is like Napolean's retreat from Moscow, only I'm less quick and agile than those poor sods were!"

When I got to the final SAR checkpoint I was told that there was now only one behind me, though I'd not been passed. "Karen?" I asked, to be met by a nod. The rest of the course dragged on, much harder than it was the first time. I got to the little bowl near the end that I'd been dreading. Dirt bikes had cut the trail into a steep V-shaped groove with no apparent flat area on the bottom to step. I tried to run it cautiously, and fell; then I tried to walk it, and also found myself unable. I had to stop for awhile and just look at it, wondering how I could make it through. Somehow I managed to make it through and to the end of the trail, just as darkness fell, my time was 7:52. Someone was gracious enough to take my picture at the campfire.

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