Fear & Suffering in Big Sky, Montana

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Race Director Mike Foote getting his selfie on before the VK

We were skirting the West edge of Yellowstone National Park, the pedal of the Jeep Wrangler smashed all the way into the floorboards when Lone Peak first came into view. I don’t exactly know how to describe the sensation, but something unique happens the first time you witness a big mountain in person. It’s some scattered combination of awe, fear, excitement, anxiety and desire. It’s a deep, spiritual sort of feeling, one that reminds you that you’re alive.

Bugs exploded against the windshield as we swerved into the left lane to pass yet another Subaru, driving well below the posted limit, obviously without anywhere to be, admiring the put-all-your-wallpapers-to-shame magnificence draped all around us.  If only we were so lucky.

It was Friday at 1:50pm Mountain Standard Time and the gun for The Rut Vertical Kilometer was going off at 3pm.  I left Santa Monica at 4pm (PST) on Thursday afternoon and had been in the car ever since, literally without a single minute of sleep. It had been about 18 hours of driving and a couple scattered hours sitting in diners and watching my wife charm her way out of a ticket (she was going 80mph in a 60mph construction zone- if that was me driving, they would have found some way to arrest me, but naturally, she got off with a warning).

By the time we finally pulled into the Big Sky Resort, I got changed and jogged the 200 meters to the starting area, it was 2:40pm.  I was a little shocked that I actually made it.  18 hours and seven states (CA, AZ, NV, UT, ID, WY and MT) later, my Altra Superiors were laced up and I was ready to go.

All the speeding and driving through the night aside, the whole thing just seemed surreal, the surroundings were taking my breath away everywhere I looked.  I may have been delirious… but it was probably just the altitude. Standing at 7,800’ staring up at Lone Peak another 3,400’ above me, it was hard not think about the fact that I hadn’t slept since I’d left the beach.

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Lone Peak

As per the notification I received from the staggeringly useful Run the Rut app, winter was coming sooner than expected in Big Sky country and a lightning forecast from 3-6pm forced Race Director Mike Foote to make the tough call to stop the VK short of the summit.  From Mike’s email:

Don’t worry too much, the plan B course will still be hard!  It starts in the same area and climbs just over 2,000 ft in 2.4 miles on a mixture of ski runs, single track trails and scree fields to the base of the Lone Peak Tram.

Honestly, I was relieved.  I felt surprisingly good for spending so much time in the car but I knew that I soon as I started demanding high-end performance from my body, it was going to be a different story.  I was entirely out of touch with my whole gastro-intestinal array; I didn’t know if I was hungry or I needed to take a shit. I probably needed a nap. I figured I would still be able to tag the summit during the 50k on Sunday and I definitely needed a warm up at (slightly) lower altitudes.

The gun went off and I started out fast, probably somewhere in the top 15.  I had warmed up with a few hill repeats and felt decent but I could tell instantly that this pace was far beyond my current capacity. I started gasping pretty quick and then my biceps starting cramping, something that has never happened to me before, under any circumstances, even after climbing for two hours and then doing pullups. So that was a little weird.  Then my abs joined in.  Then I was being passed by someone every couple of steps.

The trip up to the bowl directly under Lone Peak, at the top of a large scree field took me 42 minutes.  My Suunto had me at 2.35 miles.  Hardest two miles of my life, without a doubt.  I’ve been above 14k’ before but I’ve never sucked oxygen like this.  My throat and lungs burned with every inhalation of the crisp, mountain air.  I crested the top of the gigantic choss pile, walked through the Run The Rut archway and proceed to projectile vomit all of the water, coffee and bile my stomach had to offer.

Then I continued to gasp for air until I had jogged about halfway back down to where we started from. Then I ate a burger, drank a beer and fell asleep for thirteen straight hours.

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Feeling wrecked after the VK

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There’s something about this race that is just different than other races.  For one, it’s the only race in North America that belongs to the International Skyrunning Series, which is a series of eight races around the world (well, mostly Europe with a single race in China and the US, respectively) that draw the best mountain running talent around the world.  Kilian Jornet has run this race. The Men’s podium for the VK went Spanish, Bulgarian, Catalan.

Secondly, the race directors/creators are world class mountain runners themselves, so it’s fun to be interacting with them and running a race conceived by them that was so fucking epic the International Skyrunning Federation had to include it.

It also ended up being a fun, inclusive environment captured by the Big Sky Resort and centered around the race.  With three days of racing, the majority of the people at the resort are runners or there to support the runners in some capacity.  It seemed like most people were hanging around the events they weren’t running in, watching the show put on by a bevy of world class mountain runners.  Oh, and you could just walk around the whole resort with a beer in your hand like it was Mardi Gras or some shit.  Somehow slightly reminiscent of my college days.

Saturday for me was mostly spent sleeping and eating.  I watched the first 15 runners finish the 28k (unfortunately the early leader, Dakota Jones, rolled an ankle around mile 14 and dropped- it would have been nice to watch him win) and, in some misguided and wholly worthless attempt to acclimatize to the elevation, I rode around on the chairlifts up as high as possible.  The views were nuts.

By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I was feeling pretty good.  Presumably ready to run hard.  A full-on winter advisory warning had been issued for Sunday and they expected upwards of eight inches of snow to fall on the big peak by Monday morning.  My second chance to bag Lone Peak for the weekend was ripped away in the chilly  pre-dawn dusk. Fucking lucky 28k runners…

Mike Foote assured us once again the course would still be hard- albeit with slightly less distance and elevation gain.  As disappointing as the announcement was, it carried the slightest twinges of relief.  I had pretty much fully convinced myself that my VK woes were due to lack of sleep more than pure elevation. I thought all the sleep I had gotten the past couple of nights was going to manifest well, but I was still a bit worried.

Sure, I had been up to 14,000’ before and I had spent plenty of time running above 10k’ but the reality was, I had never raced up this high before.  I had never demanded the kind of top-end performance that racing requires above about 7,500’.  The Skyline Mountain Marathon in the Wasatch Mountains flirts with 8,000’ a couple times but it’s nothing sustained.  After just flying up from sea level, I was running in 5th in that race through 22 miles (in 2013) when severe ab cramps on the final descent forced me to walk far enough that I slipped to 18th.  Then I threw up for the rest of the night.

I tried to shut off my brain as the Elk Bugle sounded and I, along with the rest of the first wave, charged off into the damp darkness. I went out hard but quickly realized that I was pushing an unsustainable effort. The weird bicep cramps came back. I felt like I was hammering up the initial fire road climb but a glance down at my Suunto revealed that I was chugging along at a mere 11:30/min pace.

Then things started to get really steep.  I settled in to what I thought was an easily sustainable power hike, something I could have maintained for hours on the steepest pitches in the Santa Monica Mountains.  A mile and a half into the race, as I reached the top of a particularly gnarly pitch, I did something I’ve never done before, ever.  I stepped off the side of the trail and proceeded to pretend like I was taking a piss.  Probably thirty runners passed me as I gasped for air through a wide mouth and teetered from side-to-side, happy to be standing up at all.  I clicked the light on my headlamp off in embarrassment.

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I got going a little bit on some downhills and I began thinking that my body was settling into a groove.  I was running well on some of the climbs, about every other one, and I started to pass some people. I had been nurturing some very early thoughts of dropping out of this race, but now I was thinking that a finish was within reach.  

With so many racers on the course, there was never a moment where there wasn’t two or three people visible and it seemed like every time I slowed down a bit I got passed and every time I sped up a bit I was passing a couple of people. Frankly, it was annoying. I did get lucky enough to glance an elk, full on devouring his breakfast as I jogged by. He paused his massive jaw for a split second and peered in my direction before resuming normal activity.

We started picking our way up a scree field a couple of miles below the Swift Current aid station (about 14 miles into the race) and the temperature had dropped a bit, the weather now exhibiting some combination of rain and snow, and I was finally forced to pull my jacket out of my AK vest and cover my t-shirt.

This is about the time shit started deteriorating fast. I honestly don’t remember exactly what happened.  I was hopping across a scree field one minute and the next I was trying to remain upright as vomit splashed against my shins as it ricocheted off the flat talus below.

By the time I was done yacking, I was shivering uncontrollably.  The average temps in the various mountain ranges I frequent in Southern California have been in the 80s and 90s recently.  I haven’t worn a shirt on run in as long as I can remember.  I came into this race (unintentionally) heat trained.  Sweating early and often. I don’t think the sub-freezing temps would have been a problem by itself, without the elevation slowing me down so much, but the combination of the two left me in pretty rough place.

As I hiked into the Swift Current aid station, Luke Nelson was standing at the edge of the drop bag pile with my bag (he had placed 8th in both the VK and the 28k the previous two days).  I quickly changed my shirt and my jacket and added a second long sleeve layer.  The shaking continued. I walked over to the table, looking to get something warm and found myself a delicious smelling cup of broth that lasted about 45 seconds in my stomach.

I found a volunteer to inquire about what exactly I had left on the course and for what I hoped would be some solid motivation (it’s been my experience that aid station volunteers will usually do whatever necessary to get you back on the course if they feel like you still can). The guy I talked to did everything short of carrying me to the chairlift himself.

“Look man, you can be back down below 8,000’ in a hot shower in less than 20 minutes.  The chairlift is right there.” I was shaking, I couldn’t keep anything down, my head ached and it was dumping these massive, fluffy snowflakes.  I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t wrap my head around the decision.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.

I told the station captain that I was dropping, he brought me inside for a minute to try and warm up before riding the chairlift down and within a few minutes, I was back down in warmer temperatures and lower elevations, feeling infinitely better.  It was only 9:15am. I had barely gotten started.  I had only been running for three hours. Did I really just drop?

After a shower, a nap and a bag of chips I felt pretty good. I barely felt like I had gone running that morning. I felt stupid for dropping.  I couldn’t remember why I dropped.  The condition was so fleeting…

When I had dropped in the past, I had been in bad shape for days after the race.  Laying on the grass as my quads and hamstrings took turns seizing for hours as I desperately drank bottles of coconut water.  A couple hours after this drop and I was feeling fine.

After wrestling with these feelings for far too long, I’ve decided that I need to trust myself. Whatever I was feeling up there that caused me to drop, I suppose I made the right choice. But I still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had just left that aid station.

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Another reason The Rut is such a cool and unique race: they offered free tattoos of their logo (which is dope) and gave anyone who got one free entry into next year’s race.  There has never been better motivation for me than a DNF.  It always spurred my training and my drive. My best performances as an ultrarunner have come on the heels of  DNF.  

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My fresh Rut logo tattoo

So, naturally, I figured that if I DNFed, then got a tattoo of the race logo and entry into next year’s race, I would be motivated as hell.  Not only would I have the memory haunting me as I tried to fall asleep every night, I would also have a very obvious reminder permanently inked on my body. A good performance at next year’s race would turn that mark of shame into a trophy.

Despite my relatively poor performance in the VK and my DNF in the 50k, I still had an incredible time.  Montana open my senses to a whole new type of experience while firmly cementing my beliefs that I want to spend as much time in big mountains as possible.  My Run the Rut tattoo and I will be back next year, for no less than two weeks this time, and for better or worse, ready to run steep, get high.

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The view from my tattoo chair.  The Montana Mikes.

 

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