I’m not sure how those lows in ultramarathons just die away and succumb to the highs, but the stubbornness to see a 100 mile race through always seems to have these transitions. Such was the case for my recent finish/win of the Grand Mesa 100 in Grand Mesa National Forest.
The Grand Mesa Ultras consist of 33km, 55km, 50mi, and 100 mi races. It’s a family-like, lower key atmosphere, with a midsize number of runners in each race. It’s what I envision many ultramarathons were like back in the pre-internet era when you’d only know about these races through word of mouth.
I had my reservations coming into this race. First, I had just completed the mudfest of Bighorn 100 six weeks earlier, which took a lot out of me just to finish. Second, the night before consisted of non-stop pouring until early morning, which only induced more flashbacks of the Bighorn rain/mud/hypothermic trifecta of slogging. I laid in my sleeping bag contemplating if I really wanted to do another 100 mile slopfest. The answer I came up with over and over again was, “I’m not so sure.” In general, I still can’t shake the prerace nerves, self-doubt, and ruminating before these 100 milers, and the midnight pounding of cold rain on the tent wasn’t helping. But, overcoming those feelings is what draws me to these events.
Luckily, the rain had cleared for the 6am start, and we were off in cool temperatures, joined by a mixture of the 55km and 50mi racers as well (33km started an hour later). By mile 10 it was safe to say I just was not feeling it. But, hey...…only 90 more to go. I was immediately worried that I had some latent fatigue from my recent 100miler, and had trouble imagining I’d be able to put up with this for another couple dozen hours if the rain came back and conditions worsened. I rolled through the 15mile aid station and was happily surprised to see my friends/crew/pacers Katie Brooks and Peggy Emch, who go in a little bit earlier than expected. They had the right mixture of encouragement and “ah, be quiet, it’s fine” to help me keep grinding.
The next 30 miles of rolling hills were pretty much all runnable, which only added to some frustration, since I knew with the right energy I could be flying through these sections no problem. Instead, each mile felt a bit more of a struggle. Luckily, there were some amazing views of the surrounding valleys along the way, which served as logical reasons to take a needed break every couple miles. At one point, I tripped over a rock, landing ass first in some high grass, with the back of my head landing nicely on a large rock. Nothing too bad, but enough for me to just lay there for a few minutes, looking up into the sky…again, wondering… what….the …..hell….am I doing here?
Ok, the whining part is over, because from about mile 40 on, the ultra-gods shined their grace, and I actually started to feel full of energy and optimism. Why it took this long to happen?….who knows, but damn, I love the feeling of getting through a rough patch, and having the confidence back. I picked up Peggy at miles 46, and we took on the 9 mile, 4000ft descent off the mesa. Besides some slowing technical terrain where Peggy told me to pick it up (such a good pacer) and a couple patches of rain (the only rain of our day – woohoo!), the descent helped get the legs back. Reaching the bottom of the valley, we were greeted with an aid station and a 6 mile, 4000ft climb right back up to the top of the mesa. I had my worries about this section, but 2-3 hours of powering hiking was actually a pleasant change of pace.
After a handful of running miles with Peggy on some flat trail and road, Katie switched in to pace at mile 71. Katie gave me the mixed news that I was in first all day long, but with second only 10-15 minutes behind the entire time. Katie helped lighten the mood as night fell, and we repeatedly entered cattle pastures where we carefully followed flagging while simultaneously not trying to be freaked out by all these cattle staring back at us in the dark.
Things were flowing, we were efficient at aid stations, and Katie kept reminding me how awesome this all was. And she was right, it was awesome. And then we got lost. Cool. We ran over some flagging on a descent, made another wrong turn on a trail, and by the time we got things figured out 15-20 min later, we could see the 2nd place runner (well, now 1st) in front of us at around mile 85. I tried to shrug it off, but I couldn’t. I wanted to finish strong and go for my first ultra-win. As we rolled into the second to last aid station at mile 87, the new front runner with pacer urgently rolled out.
They were just a bit ahead of us, and within a mile we caught up. The rest of the course was retracing the first section back to the start/finish, so I knew there was a good mile or two climb coming up. I figured this was my chance to make one final push. I had 32 ounces of water, asked Katie if she had any extra food I could take, and told her I was going to make a go for it. We hit the hill and I took off as fast as I could, breathing hard, wondering if I could keep this up with 11 miles to go and 90 miles already on my legs.. My plan was to just say screw it, and run through the last aid station to the finish, but luckily Katie decided to hitch a ride from a passing car and get to the next aid station before I did. There, she handed me her headlamp and watch (both of mine were dying), and told me I had 7.5 miles to go…to just hold on. I did all I could to just run out the last stretch of rolling hills to the finish. I couldn’t see a headlamp when I turned around, but knew I had plenty to give.
I finally came off the trail, and with a small crowd and Peggy and Katie waiting, crossed the finish line in first, with a big grin. It wasn’t so much winning that brought the fulfillment, but knowing that I didn’t let those doubting thoughts get the best of me. I’m not sure how these things work, what is physical, what is mental, but damn, I can’t wait to do it again…..
Thanks to all the support of Peggy and Katie who kept my spirits high, and thanks to race directors, Kristi and Scott, and the volunteers for all they did to put on this race. Everyone was welcoming and encouraging, and I recommend venturing out to the Grand Mesa next year for one of their races. A beautiful area of Colorado with good people all around – who could ask for more?!