Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chasing the Cut-Off at the Peaks National Snowshoe Championship

...at the Peaks National Snowshoe Championship

"Would you like your medal now?", the young guy asked as he held out the finisher medal ready to place it over my head. "No, thanks" I replied for the 3rd time that day, "I'm going for another lap". "Oh?", the timer to the right of me exclaimed, "You'll have to be back before 6pm, can you do that?" she anxiously asked. "We're closin' up at six, absolutely no one can be on course after 6pm", Andy the RD interjected. "Can you BOOK IT?" he pointedly asked me, "You'll have to book it!". "Well, my watch died, what time is it?" I asked of them, "3:15", the timer replied. "So I have 2hours and 45min? No problem", I promised and ran off to replenish my bottles trying not to even think about if I had to pee or change clothes or do anything else because really I wasn't sure if I had the time to do anything else plus make in back in time for the cut-off.

"YOU'LL HAVE TO BOOK IT...BOOK IT...BOOK IT", was all that I could hear echoing in my head as I quickly ran the 50 ft or so from the start/finish to the base of the mountain where I began the arduous 1200 ft. climb to the summit. 2hours and 45min. seemed more then doable at that moment but I didn't know if my body would still be so agreeable to that after another climb up or if my mind would be sharp enough for that during another run down. So in a desperate move to convince myself that it was possible I began a mantra which I continued for the entire loop, "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it".

The unrunnable(for me anyways) incline went on for a good 1km at a 21percent grade it took me approx. 20 minutes. Then there were some switch backs with some short but runnable sections which I had always forced myself to run on my previous ascents. It was so easy to get stuck in the rhythm of hiking on the up parts that when you finally could run, if only for a short section, your legs just didn't seem to want to start up again. I wondered if it was even worth revving up the engine to only have to gear down again after a measly 40 or 30 or 20 ft. when the switchback would turn and begin to climb steeply again. But I chose to run each and every time if only for the sake of sticking to a plan that seemed to be working and would hopefully get me back to the finish before the cut-off of 6:00 pm.

I continued up the remaining 2 plus kms to the top(3km total) and was all alone as I entered an eerie section aptly named "The Labyrinth". Inside the trees grew so closely to one another that they blocked out most of the sunlight and the trail winded seemingly aimless back and forth, up and up. Once deep inside, the temperature dropped markedly from the lack of light and I got colder and colder and soon all I wanted to do was to get out as fast as possible where there might be some warmth to be gleaned from the cloud covered sun that awaited me on the other side. Once I was back into daylight I warmed up quickly and with a few more steep and now familiar climbs I was at the summit and a small stone house called "Shrek's Cabin". There was no one there to greet me this time and I began to feel abandoned when suddenly from behind me a fellow called to me as he practically fell out of the old wooden outhouse with a half moon hole on it asking if I was the last person on the course. "I think I am", I shouted back as he reached for his phone to call down to verify that fact and I imagined that after a long day on the summit he was probably ready to get back to a warmer and more comfortable setting. I found out later that I was indeed the last runner that they had let back on the course and that the RD had let me go as a sweep of sorts. I'd be able to verify to him that no other runners were out there and when I passed the volunteers on the summit it would be their cue to come down. I suppose he figured that once I was in that everyone would be in and that would mark the end of what had been a very long day and successful day.

I had made up my mind while climbing to the summit that I would have to throw caution to the wind and make up as much time as I could on the down side. I had to make sure to be back with time to spare as the last thing I wanted to happen was to finish a 4th lap and have it not count. On my first lap I ran down the 4kms to the bottom at what I would describe as "break neck speed", meaning that if I was to fall I might indeed break my neck or collar bone or an arm or my head, face etc., etc. After finishing that lap however I began to re-think all of the risky jumps and slides and stumbles I had survived and I become more cautious with each successive lap. I'd catch my snowshoe on a root or almost fall on my face or I'd fall on my back and think, "Wow that could have been a lot worse, maybe I should slow down". I also saw a lot of people take hard falls and tumbles and paying for it with broken snowshoes and painful impacts and after experiencing that over and over I began to put the brakes on during the more difficult descents more often as time wore on. However on this last lap it was as though my brake pads were completely worn and my accelerator was stuck to floor and I hit every short steep dip and every long slippery slope the course had to throw at me with complete abandon.

As I was about halfway down I noticed another runner below and a few switch backs ahead of me and I was quickly gaining on him. I hadn't seen anyone for a long time so it was nice to catch up to him and he fell in behind me. We made it to the base of the mountain where on previous years there was a bridge that would lead runners to the finish line. However this year there was no bridge so instead the course designer perhaps decided it would be fun(I use the word "fun" loosely) to send the runners back up the mountain for another 1.5km and an added 700 ft of gain before we would then come back down another 1.5km and to the finish area. It was at this part in every loop where I could "smell the barn" but it seemed to take just so darn long to get to it. Tim and I were not really sure how long it would take us to get to the finish and he calculated that we would be close time wise to beat the cut-off so I began the run back up the mountain...that's right, I said "run up" the mountain.

For the first time all day I decided to not only run the "runnable" stretches but to run the "unrunnables" also. I didn't need to save my gas anymore and was happy to run to the end on fumes if I had to. Needless to say I don't think that Tim was too thrilled with this new plan and suggested that "we should be fine" time wise but I could not take the chance and I kept pushing us up and up and just when I thought the ups were over we'd round a bend and there would be another up. "Oh when will it end?" I thought to myself...out loud. We began to pass people as we charged through "The Stairs" and the "Escalator" trails and it was not until we finally hit the downs that we knew we would be back in time. Only another 1.5km down, one more dicey sugary long slope, a few more switch backs and we could see the parking lot, then the outline of a wooden barn and then the cheers of some volunteers and Andy and the lovely Lady Timer who exclaimed, "You did it!...And faster then you said you would!" Finally, after 9 and a half hours I allowed the young guy with the out reached arms holding the finisher medal to place it around my neck. I had in deed "BOOKED IT", I had chased and beaten the cut-off, running the second fastest loop of my day with 30 plus minutes to spare.

Firstly, a HUGE thanks to my coach Derrick who's training plan got me to the starting line healthy and ready to run further, for longer and higher then I have ever done before or even dreamed possible. As I wrote to him after the race, "Without your training plan I would not have attempted it(the race) in the first place, I would not have had that thread of hope to hold onto in the middle of it and I would not have had that great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at the end of it."

Also EPIC thanks to the Peak Races organization, RD Andy Weinberg, course designer Matt Baatz and all of the great volunteers who spent the entire day waiting, cheering and making sure that everything and everyone was running as smoothly as possible. This was truly an "EPIC DAY" in every way!!!

Last but not least, thank-you to everyone who shared the mountain with me as we made our way through various portions of the course. Your amazing performances inspired me when your pace overtook mine , your encouraging words gave me hope when you stepped aside for me and when I fell your helping hands lifted me up in so many ways. (a very nice gentleman literally pulled me to my feet when I fell during my first descent. You were so kind. Thank-you so much).

A few facts-
The Race- Peaks National Snowshoe Championship - Marathon / Half Marathon and 10km
Where- Pittsfield Vermont
When- March 1st 2014
Loop Distances- 3 km up, 4 km down, 1.5 km up, 1.5km down (total approx. 10.2km)
Gain- 1900ft per loop(7600ft total according to Peaks)
Grade up- 21% for first 1km, then averaged 5% for next 2 km to the top with switch backs and climbs. Avg. grade up was 10%
Grade down- -6 % for 2 km down, -14 % the next 1km down, then -5% for .5km, then up 7.5% for 1.5 km then down again 4% avg. for 2 km
Total time- 9:35
Lap times on course- 2:01, 2:25, 2:33, 2:15(approx. 9:15)
Time between loops- 3mins, 13minutes, 5minutes(approx. 20 minutes)
Place- 5th Women
Temperature- -15C(morning) to -5C(mid day)
Nutrition/Hydration- 20 oz.(560 calories) of Vitargo, 20 oz. protein drink(100 calories) 1 block(300 calories) per loop(approx. 800-900 per 2 hour loop)
Snowshoes- Dion 121's
Lodgings- The Swiss Family Inn, Pittsfield, VT

A porta-potty closer to the start finish for those of us who don't like to make yellow snow art along the trail. A woman's tent to change wet clothes in between laps.

Pictures can be found here


Sara Montgomery said...

Damn! That's amazing, EJ!! Congratulations on conquering this beast, and so well. To finish the last loop that fast is crazy impressive. The distance might not technically be ultra(beyond) marathon, but that is ABSOLUTELY an ULTRA ULTRA ULTRA marathon!! Thrilled for you!! How's the recovery going?

Eliza Ralph-Murphy said...

Thanks Sara,
The first lap humbled me pretty quickly and it was like my mind just went into survival mode. The night after the race my legs were so achy that just thinking about the race made them hurt more and quite frankly I didn't think I would ever want to see that course again. The next day I did find myself enjoying thinking about all that had transpired but still had no real enthusiasm about doing it again. Now 4 days later and my legs are still sore but I am starting to evaluate how I ran it and thinking about how I could do it better next time:-)

Derrick said...

Huge congrats again on an amazing race! So happy for you. That's such a tough course, that sounded even tougher this year.

You should be very proud of what you accomplished out there. Keep reliving it!