Noon. Steamboat Springs. 78 Hares line up for the start of the Run Rabbit Run 100 (RRR) mile trail race. We’re the second division, the Tortoises started four hours earlier at 8am. The Hares have no pacers, are allowed no poles, and have a maximum cutoff of 30 hours (vs. 36). Generally, they are elite runners. The rest, like myself, are those who want to test themselves against the front-of-the-pack. I’m here to try and get competitive. In 2013, as a first time hundred miler, I was very philosophical about the whole experience. I batted around words like, transformation, transcendence, etc. This year prior to RRR, and certainly in its wake, my mind has turned to thoughts of how to improve my abilities, to become a better bunny hunter. And in the immortal words of Elmer Fud, “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” Who or what is the wabbit? I’ll dig into the whole hunter/killer/competitor thing after a race recap.
When our countdown finally starts it occurs to me that I’ve been counting down for about a year. The last two weeks before a race can be hell, little running and lots of nervous energy. I resolve to run more ultras next year. It may save some physical battery to race a single event but the preparation would be more rounded with one or two more in the bag. Regardless, the race is here. No more worries about the aggravated MCL, no time to bother with the cold that has been barely held at bay over the past couple days. With a giant cheer we set off at a vigorous clip up, past the gondola station, onto a dirt trail and then straight up the ski slope into the mountains.
Half way up the slope on a 35-degree angle the pack is clocking 12-minute mile pace. The front runners veer sharp to the left and off the slope onto a single track. The train keeps going until a lady three places in front of me hollers, “Hey! You guys are going the wrong way!” Suddenly the group of a half dozen or so of us that had been running in the top twenty were the top five, headed for the top of the gondola. Any coincidence that the first person to notice the group had gone off course was the top female runner?
The triumphal moment is short lived. We come over the top of the hill and Nick Clark, Rob Krar and the other top elites rush by fresh as ever. I take a second to reflect that we have just completed a furious run up a steep ski run and have now officially covered the entire first four miles of the race. Only ninety-six more to go (actually 100, our race organizers are loose with the usage of 100 mile run and figure a few extra won’t matter). Lil’ Henry and Allie wave excitedly just up the trail. A quick high five, a kiss, and the chase continues.
The next sections are fast. A climb up to Mt. Werner and then a section of slightly technical single track through beautiful ponderosa forests down to Long Lake. I find a group that seems to be holding a steady, sustainable pace. Coming down a quick decent in a tight pack I manage to snag a toe for the first time. Manage a twist slide spin kind of move and salvage it. “Damn! Awesome save,” the runner behind me shouts. Everything feels good. Long Lake is in and out and then we backtrack down the trail to the infamous Fish Creek Falls. The falls are rugged but not as treacherous or technical as advertised in the race manual. Not as technical as many of the runs in the Indian Peaks. Most tedious is the wet rock and we all find ourselves sliding as we try to hold pace.
Bottom of the falls. A series of hotspots on my feet start to make themselves known. But there’s the lil’ man and Allie again, their presence pulls me up the climb to the aid station. Time to fix the feet, it’s either now or suffer worse later. Judd is my crew and he’s on it. He should have been running the race with me but a nasty case of planter fasciitis showed up in early September and that was that. Once the feet are fixed a moderate to fast cruise takes us down to Olympian Hall. 4pm on the dot, about an hour to hour-and-a-half ahead of schedule. This is where the wheels start coming off for some but thankfully my pacing has not backfired, even though I’ve ignored any plan I had. We’re just past mile twenty and I feel strong. Say goodnight to Lil’ Henry and Allie. They’ll be back tomorrow morning to watch the finish.
The trip to Cow Creek is hilly ramble through more ponderosa and aspen forests; long but largely uneventful. At Cow Creek Judd grabs me a headlamp and checks the blister situation. It’ll be night when we rendezvous again at Olympian Hall on the way back to Fish Creek Falls. Coming back through the aspen groves at dusk is haunting and breathtaking. Night starts to come on and the mature aspen stands begin to glow, illuminating the trail for the last minutes of the day. I hate to turn on the light but finally I do as the descent to Olympian begins. All our quads are beginning to feel it, we’re near mile 40 now and it’s been nothing but up and down. Rhythm is difficult on this course. Once you start to get accustomed to running downhill the trail abruptly jerks up in front of you. Crank off the three mile downhill into Olympian, still feeling fresh. Load up the night gear and say a tentative see-yah-later to Judd. It will be much later. About six hours and twenty-three miles later to be precise at Dry Lake.
Oddly, the climb up Fish Creek Falls is where I feel the best throughout the race. The tortoise division started four hours earlier then us hares and we’ve been passing them all evening. Now it’s like toppling a line of dominoes. Despite these runners not being the competition it gives an inevitable boost to the ego. That whole feeling like a hunter picking off prey, gut-level, primal, a total aphrodisiac. Past mile 50 this game is mental and thankfully my head is sharp. Up a rocky section I see the brightest damn headlamp I’ve ever seen before I realize it’s the harvest moon cresting the hills above.
Nearing the top of the falls it starts to get cold and the small puddles of mud from this afternoon are now mud bogs that are invisible by headlamp. Feet go SLUPP into the frigid mud one after another, a few almost up to the knee. Fortunately I’m in a damn good mood and the cold doesn’t really start to hit until mile 51 on the way back through Long Lake. The heat of the aid station is too inviting so I get out as fast as I can get some Ramen in and take swig of Coke. Leaving the aid station its the middle of the night and the pools of water along the trail are starting to freeze, feet are numb. But, the trail to Summit Lake is exquisite. The moon is so bright you could douse your the headlamp and be just fine. For the first time it occurs to me that I don’t miss having pacers. Solitude is good and there is a certain thrill to know that in spite of an immense amount of support I am moving myself forward without any company or regular encouragement on the trail.
The ten miles or so of downhill from Summit to Dry Lake is fast. I run with Zac, a seasoned ultrarunner who overdid it this season and is having a rough time. I’m not having a rough time yet but we’re holding the same pace. Zac was on his third 100 in twelve weeks on top of three 50 milers and a handful of 50km races. He started out with eyes on the top five but now is trying to hold it together. Bantering back and forth and talking shop is enjoyable and we stick together till about a mile out from Dry Lake.
Turns out Dry Lake is not the bottom; we’ve got another three or so down to Spring Creek. Judd meets me and things are still going well, well ahead of 24 hour pace but there’s a lot of trail to go. And the way down to Spring Creek begins to hurt. When I cruise into mile 69 at the Spring Creek Ponds aid station raucous cheers go up and beers are hoisted. The mood is jovial but I can feel things starting to slip and it takes too long to leave the party atmosphere of the aid station knowing that there is thirteen miles to climb up to Summit Lake.
At the Dry Lake return things do not look great. Just off 24 hour pace and as soon as I sit down for Judd to help patch the feet the shaking starts. He piles on a sleeping bag and a winter jacket. Standing to leave the shift sets in. All my joints hurt and it’s hard to even get into a quick hike. Manage to whip my body forward and force a slow jog. This helps and within half a mile I start to run sections.
Daylight does not bring relief. I’ve hit the wall about ten miles later than at Leadville but still hit it. Passing the Summit Lake aid station inbound the real blow comes. On the way out the race organizers routed us along smooth fire roads while our legs were fresh. Now on the return journey we’ve been sent down rugged single-track that has mud bogs interspersed throughout thanks to last week’s rains. All in good fun! Try to make it as fun as possible as the miles click slowly by and then it’s back to Mt. Werner. The never-ending ascent that passed so swiftly some twenty hours ago. The trail conditions are not easy on beaten-up legs and about two miles from the final aid station at mile 96 I pass a guy who asks me to send back help. He has damaged his leg beyond recovery and is hobbling along the trail, trying to make it back. There’s no one else nearby so the only good course is to push on and tell the volunteers at the aid station.
The volunteers are on it and call for a medic immediately. It’s time for the final push. A quick, if you had not just run 98 miles, descent. Six miles straight down from Mt. Werner into the ski village of Steamboat. I run, walk, run, walk. Then up ahead I see a woman with a kid and realize, “That’s my kid! That’s my wife!” A rush of energy surges up and I run down to them. Give Lil’ Henry a high five and a hug and then give Allie a kiss. “Your in twentieth position you know,” she says with a grin. In fact I had no idea where I was, but top twenty was not in my head. Then the next thought comes into my head, “Who’s behind me.” Then, “Shit, who’s in front of me?” I take off and run as fast as my legs will go. The competitive drive is strong. You can run a hell-of-a-lot more than you feel like you can. I did run a hell-of-a-lot more this year and next year will be better. Allie and Lil’ Henry take the gondola down and are waiting at the finish. The moment I’ve been waiting for the whole race arrives when Lil’ Hen and I run to the finish. There’s a small crowd of people watching and they cheer us on. Lil’ Henry breaks into a giant grin and runs faster and faster. It’s the greatest running experience I’ve ever had. Throughout the last section of the race I told myself, “Henry is waiting at the finish line and you are not going to let him down.” The mantra worked.
Now, about becoming a killer, hunter, Elmer Fudd wanna-be, and a better runner…
Competition is inherently violent. Not a single one of us out there does not want to be the first one to cross the finish line. We will, to varying degrees, do everything in our power to overcome and even dominate our competition. Not to say that this gleeful massacre is not performed in the spirit of sportsmanship, mutual respect, and even love. Sport gives us the outlet to channel the competitive impulse into a communal activity, the aim of which is complete mastery of oneself and the achievement of one’s own physical and mental perfection. The impetus to “slay” the competition is one of the primary catalysts in creating more disciplined and masterful human beings.
And there’s another kind of killing I’m thinking about. A more internal assassination. Krishna calls out to Arjuna, “Great Warrior, kill the enemy menacing you in the form of desire!” The greatest negative desire in endurance sport is the desire to succumb. It shows itself when we are weakest, when all the training breaks down there’s a tiny seed in the center of the mind that sprouts and wills us to surrender under the weight of struggle. To give up. I have not mastered this desire yet, it overcame me at mile 80 and in a way I broke. My mind turned against my will and the desire to stop fighting won for a time. The only way to improvement is to become a killer, to annihilate the seed of weakness that can grow up and swallow the whole mind and make the difference between top 20 and top 10. That will be my struggle for the next year, to see how much more improvement is possible. I don’t know where the peak of my ability is and that’s probably what drives most of us, to see how much better we can become. We are constantly pursued by the question, “Is this the threshold of my ability or the limit?”
A week-and-a-half after the race and back to the Mesa Trail here in Boulder. All the stops come out and I hammer down the trail as fast as possible. Three quarters of the way in the exertion gets to be a bit strong and I hike an uphill. Thankfully that driving bull of a voice shouts in my head, “You run, you don’t walk. You don’t walk here and you don’t walk at mile 90. You fucking run!” By the time I reach the south end of the trail the legs are charging like pistons and have solidified my mantra for next year.