Monday, September 12, 2011

This Humbling Experience

      On June 1st I signed up for Imogene Pass Run. I did so at 4:30 am due to the fast sellout of this hugely popular race run in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I had been to this race in 2006, but the race got abbreviated to a shorter much less significant route due to in-climate weather the day before at the top of the pass. Being in Ouray, CO on that trip really gave me just a taste of what this event was really about, so I had  promised myself I would come back and complete the full course. In 2010 when my niece was born and given the name Imogene I felt obligated to go back and settle my unfinished business.

      Imogene Pass Run is a race that began in 1974 with six runners. Since it has grown to 1,500 that sells out in less than twelve hours! The race begins in Ouray, CO on main street (US 550) and 4th. From there it heads up the road for a short distance before turning onto Camp Bird road. There it crosses a bridge that spans the Box Canyon, an area made into the best ice climbing venue in the United States. Camp Bird road winds it's way up the mountain to Imogene Pass. After the summit the road changes names to Tomboy Basin road that continues into Telluride, CO to the finish line. 17 miles. The route is very simple, but the journey is anything but!

    Ouray is at 7810' above mean sea level. From there the course climbs a mere 1,945' in the first 5.45 miles to Lower Camp Bird, that's 6.8% gradient, no big deal. Similar to La Luz in Albuquerque's Sandias. Then things start to change after this beautiful run up the Canyon Creek Valley. With United States Mountain (13,036) in full view ahead you began to realize just what is to come. US Mountain is 90' lower than the pass summit you're headed for, although not visible yet, you can only just get a sense of  what is yet to come. With avalanche areas all around, although there's no snow, you begin to feel pretty small. Now things start to get tough! The next 4.60 miles climbs 3365 to the summit, an average gradient of 13.85%. The steepest sections below this point are less than the average of the next section, with steep climb sections reaching as high as 21%. Keep in mind that you are now above 11,000' during all of this. In my limited experience of mountain running I only have La Luz trail and Big Tesuque trail to compare to as far as steep trails at high elevation. This section of Imogene literally dwarfs the NM trails being double the average gradient! I have a huge respect for the NM trails that's I've cut my teeth on. I used both trails for training for the IPR and am thankful for the fact they are right in my own backyard, but I hate to say they seem kind of weak by comparison. I hate to belittle either trail, but it's the only way I can describe the true impressiveness of the Imogene trail. There are no trees above Camp Bird and the wind blows 30mph with an ambient temperate of 28F making it feel like 0F. After the summit at 13,120' you begin a rapid descent over 7.05 miles to Telluride, CO. Equally steep as the Ouray side and very rocky and eroded. 17 miles total which seems small by comparison to weekly miles in training where you routinely have 17+ days for weeks on end, but the distance is not the challenge. For once the distance is almost irrelevant.

      Lauren and I left Albuquerque on Friday the 9th after a short run from the house to shake out the legs before the six hour drive to Ouray. I felt crappy all week for fighting of the signs of an oncoming cold. This morning run was no different as my sinus were all blocked up after several attempts to clear out with my neti pot. Just what you want headed to a race, but I wasn't going to let it get to me. Besides I was headed for a great weekend with my lovely wife, and the little Pattons would be meeting us there. I had my brand new Dukes TC uni packed as well as my Brooks Launch shoes that my buddy Allen Wagner got for me special order. With everything in order, we set off at 8:50 am after saying goodbye to our beloved pets and lovely house.

   We arrived in Ouray at 3pm after a short stop in Durango for lunch. Our hotel is about a block from the start line and it was free, can't get any better than that. After unpacking I began the runner's ritual of setting out my gear for the morning. Arranging everything and putting the gear on display is a big part of pre-race custom as any serious runner can understand. With that out of the way I was able to take a much needed short nap. My cold-like symptoms were beginning to subside, but were still present. The nap helped. Lauren was able to go shopping on main st. for a jacket since she tends to underestimate the temperature just about anywhere on planet earth. At 5pm we walked two blocks to the packet pickup and spaghetti dinner at the community center. $12 for a plate of spaghetti seems hardly fair, but the money goes to the EMT support for the race, so we obliged. Following the dinner came a great presentation by the race director John Jett and race creator Rick Trujillo. Rick's presentation was a slideshow on real slides made back in 1991. Ouray sits in a canyon with steep mountains on both sides offering very little perspective as to where you actually are in relation to Imogene Pass, the course itself and Telluride. Rick's slides were able to clear that up nicely with pictures take from high above on a nearby peak showing the entire racecourse in one view. It also helped to realize just how difficult the actual race was going to be. It looked like nothing I had ever before done! At this point I became very excited and very scared, but I did my best to keep it all in perspective. I thought of how privileged I was to even be there to give it a try. First of all I'm healthy and strong, which is something that can easily be taken for granted. I have two family members that have MS and they couldn't even think of doing such a thing even if they wanted to. Also I can afford to make the trip and have a job that gives my lots of time off to make the trip, as well as offers me the time to train for such a feat. I don't struggle to make ends meet and get to play around doing pretty much whatever I want all of the time. And here I am in this select group of runners that managed to get entered before the race sold out completely. With my wife at my side providing support all of the way. I'm a fortunate guy to say the least.

   With all things in place for tomorrows race I headed off to bed, just in time to catch the arrival of my brother Jason and his family. They all came up to Ouray just simply to support me for the event. With three small children and a busy lifestyle I was very honored to have them there with me that night. My brother has been a huge inspiration to me throughout the years. He took me on my first hikes and bike rides through the Sandias and taught me the very beginnings of being tough in the mountains and how to climb hills. I owe the confidence and just the mentality to even attempt things such as these without fear to him. I know I would never have taken up running even without his guidance through times that were tough. Having him and his family there with me was huge!

   Now it's race day and my cold seems to be gone! I woke up feeling great which can be rare on race mornings. I began my warmup on the streets of Ouray with deer that seem to be basically tame. After a kiss good luck from Lauren, I lined up at the start. I had imagined this moment for so many months now and here it was finally. It was all I could do to keep my head together. The gun went off at 7:30am. 

   So here I am running the race. My family is headed to get bagels and on to Telluride, I'm headed to Telluride too. I have two Gu shots instead of bagels. We start up the road and I'm feeling good. Every steep section seems familiar, like this is no different than running up under the power lines at Copper following Kris and Jesse. Like this is no different than my tempo run in the foothills. I keep surging the hills trying not to lose pace. The hills rolls at this point. I take advantage of the lesser grades too making surges and trying to keep up with the pack. I'm sitting around 20th place where I plan to stay. My goal is 1:15-1:20 to Upper Camp Bird, the first check-in timing mat. I enjoy the scenery as much as I can with slight discomfort of the pace. A couple of river crossings on slick wood planks and a huge drop-off down 300' to the canyon bottom for entertainment. I'm staying with the same runners and we make very little small talk with limited oxygen. I notice that my legs feel good even though I'm pushing the pace. And by a miracle I can breathe! I tell myself with each mile marker cone that I'm that much closer to the pass. Mile 5, first Gu shot and water at Lower Camp Bird (5.45 miles). Now it steepens for 2 miles. People around me start to walk/power hike which is discouraging since I'm guessing they have run this before and I start to question if I should be doing the same, but I don't. Just keep running. We cross slick rock and make switch backs. Soon enough we're at Upper Camp Bird, the place where the real challenge begins.

    In studying the course I decided that I need to get to UCB as fast as possible to lessen the time lost trucking up the pass. I cross at 1:22 and realize that even though I'm slow of my goal, I've done the best I can to get to this point. Can't go any faster, I'll have to take it. Hopefully I can't shoot up the pass well since I feel strong still. Immediately out of UCB the grade steepens to a point of insanity. Most people are hiking and starting to literally complain out loud. I don't let them get to me thinking that I've trained harder than them. Mile 8 cone is at the only shortcut allowed. You have the choice of cutting off a switch back or not. The shortcut is steeper, but well, shorter. The whole thing is steep, what's the difference? Everyone takes it. Now out of the trees with nothing but rocks and a view of the pass looming above, how can it only be 2 miles up there? It feels like running on another planet at this point, or at least like nowhere I've ever been before. I'm so out of my element I think, but I've gotta stay tough and not let it get to me. After my first stretch of hiking then running then hiking I think I must be getting close to mile 9. I know how long a mile is, we have to have gone at least that far right? Nope. No cone in sight. Keep moving. Finally there it is! Way up ahead! Last mile goes the same as 9. Taking forever. I know I'm slipping from my goal, but what can I do? I'm not in a place where harder running will make it up, it's just too steep to go any faster period! No one is passing me, but I've managed to pass just a few. Now the wind is really pushing me back too! I can't believe I'm up here now. This is crazy! Not like NM. This is not planet earth. 

   I arrive at the summit, the highest place I've ever been on foot at 13,120 with a sign confirming it (the sign reads 13,114, but it has been proven in error). I want to stop and take it in, but there's no time. I merely pause at the aid-station for a drink of water with a layer of sand at the bottom from the wind. I turn and look back towards Ouray taking in it for just a second hoping it will last in memory forever. I cross the mat on the start of the descent at 2:06! Way slow! I was hoping for 1:55. I can make it up on the downhill.

    Staring down is just the opposite of the other side as expected. I have to change gears and really start running and racing again. Survival is over, race is back on! I cover the first 2 miles in 12:20. It's insanity running down this steep rock slide of a trail. I'm basically flailing around trying to keep balance. I immediately start feeling blisters on the bottoms of both feet due to the braking action and resulting friction. No problem, I've got to keep flying. I've practiced this many times on Big Tesuque training runs in Santa Fe and never fallen. I know I can keep the pace since I feel pretty well overall. I pass the 12 mile aid station without pausing. I fly right by getting my split. Now I'm moving. A few minutes later I hear a person behind hooping and hollering. Kind of a distraction. He's really yelling  with every couple of strides. I'm bugged, so I decide I have to lose this guy. No way can I get passed by this weirdo. 

   I push on until I think I've got him beat and just then I step and I'm flying literally. My left foot missed my target and I went over the top and down hard on my left side. I caught myself with both hands, but it only minimized the damage. My outer quad hit hard and I rolled out of control. I had to be going sub 6 minute pace so I went down fast. I ended up sitting upright dazed. My leg hurt immediately and I saw the damage. There was a large con caved scoop on my muscle. Not torn flesh, but what looked like the product of being hit with a bat. My knee was scraped and I was shaken. Several runners including the yeller were crowded around me asking if I was okay. They actually stopped their race to see if I was okay. I was grateful for this, but it made me realize how bad my fall must have been for them to have stopped. One man kept asking if I was okay and I did not answer at first. Then he said he wouldn't go on until I said I was okay. I felt bad for making him stop at all, so I said I'm okay, thanks. I really was okay, I just didn't know it yet. My fall took the wind out of me and I had to get back from the adrenaline surge before I could safely go on. I considered going back to the aid station for just a moment, but I realized that I was just scared and had to keep going on. I thought of my wife in Telluride waiting for me. What could I tell her? I quit? No. I got up and tried to run. My leg was a giant knot. It would not function normally. It wouldn't bear my weight. It's a long 4 mile limp to town. I've gotta start running, so I did. Pretty slow, but going. People were passing left and right and the clock kept ticking. Here I'm supposed to be beating these people and I feel like I was hit by a car. That was my thought. Like a marathoner hit by a car. How do you get back to 6 minute pace or better after that? I passed mile 14 and decided I can run 3 miles down hill  hurt on any day, so just do it. I began picking it up and my leg was loosening up but, now my other leg was tightening up from limping. Oh well, it will be over soon. 

   Telluride was ahead and I could make it. I crossed through town to the finish line in 3:04. About fifteen minutes lost, but I'm no superstar that's letting down some child back home watching on TV. I did what I could and I know it. I was humbled by the mountain. I train hard for my sport, but it's just not that important in the grand scheme of things to be upset about. I'm not hurt badly considering. Things could have easily been much worse. It was a huge lesson in what makes me run. It's not the clock or a results page. I'm not a professional and never will be. My family was there to see me finish and they were proud. I've run lots of races that make me proud of myself as to where I stack up against the clock and the others. This was not that kind. I ran over a massive mountain from one town to another, fell on my ass hard and still did it well. I finished 70th overall! Would 20th or 40th really be that much better? Not to me.

  After a short recovery and a medical check I was walking with my family over to the gondola ride up to the ski basin. Back up the mountain within just a few minutes of finishing, felt kinda funny. Plus it was a free ride! (Maybe the only free thing in all of T-ride) Back to reality felt nice. No more race looming over me. No more preparations to worry about. Just my wife and family and beautiful views. 

   We had the rest of the weekend to enjoy Telluride and Ouray. The race was Saturday and we decided to stay through Sunday. We drove back to Ouray after our gondola ride and some lunch. I listened wide-eyed  to Jason tell stories of climbing Mt. Sneffles. Humbled again. Makes my run seem pretty small. Maybe not.

    We went to the hot springs for a much needed soak and then to dinner. Chips and salsa and a beer never tasted so good!


   I'm so thankful for the opportunity to make this experience. To have my family and friends around me the whole time is really special. Watching my niece's and nephew play and be funny is priceless. Having my wife there to share it with is an incredible feeling. She is so selfless as always, especially with my running ventures. She's always there providing whatever I need and asking nothing in return. And what a time to live in where a man's hardest challenge is running for recreation. Not survival, not to provide the next meal, not to win the battle or escape death, just to have been there and done that. And never alone.