Tuesday, July 17, 2012

41 Miles in the Sangres

I am a flat-lander, living in Waco, Texas, elevation 470 feet. But I've been looking to get out to the mountains to put myself to the test and see just what I'm really capable of. So when the opportunity to go on a low-key vacation in the Sangre de Cristo mountains came along, a trip that would afford me plenty of time to play in the mountains like a kid in a sandbox, I jumped on it.

Originally, I planned on getting acclimated to the altitude more properly (flat-lander, remember?) before shooting for my longest run to date, but after my first tune up run, which consisted of a 3 mile run with more than a 1000 ft of vert in the first mile, I knew that I would need to get into the mountains for a day soon or my legs would be shot.

Yep. That's on a closed ski slope just behind the lodge. Remember this one. It will come in handy later. I can't imagine sprinting down this in the dark... Oh, I mean I couldn't, now I know just what that's like.
So, I hit the trails in the morning with my UltraSpire Surge hydration pack (review forthcoming) and lots of perpetuem. Brought a fantastically light Pearl Izumi jacket and headlamp, just in case I was still out in the mountains past sundown. On my feet? The new Salomon S-Lab Sense (review forthcoming). Let's rock.

Miles 0-5: Finding my trail
I'm feeling great at this point, enjoying the beautiful views. It took my some time to find the Rainbow Trail (TR 1336) from the trailhead—really, it wasn't hard to find, but since I was running this completely solo, I wanted to be certain I was where I told my friends back at the lodge I'd be. But by mile 5, I had made it past the several exchanges and settled onto the main trail. All I needed to do was head north for about 15 more miles (and then come back!). One thing that did strike me was that I would be doing some serious climbing all day. For some reason, I thought the Rainbow Trail was more of a rolling trail. Definitely not. With climbs that lasted miles at a time, this was a mountain trail just like any other. Perfect, I thought. Let's see what I'm made of.

About 50% of the trail was really rocky. The Salomon Sense took it all in stride though. Great protection.
Miles 6-10: Finding my rhythm
Still feeling fresh. Hydration and nutrition were spot on and my energy levels were consistent. I was loving the ridiculous views and reveling in the fact that I was running in the mountains, breathing the clean mountain air—even if that mountain air was a bit thinner than I was used to! Oh, and the mountain water made for great impromptu ice baths at the stream crossings (which were about every 4 miles or less).
OOOOOO! Magical ice cold mountain water.
Miles 11-15: Finding my footing
At this point, all the climbing was definitely registering in my legs, but I was really loving the fact that my legs were handling it just fine, which was a great boost mentally. At this point, I also got a phone call from Jason, which was huge and he was really encouraging. He also had the great idea that I should update twitter regularly to let everyone know I how was doing. And just like that #40MilesOfTheSangres was born.

Miles 16-20: Finding my low point
I got a bit behind in my calories when my first two flasks of perpetuem ran out and I didn't feel like stopping to mix more—I wanted to refill my Surge and my flasks in one stop and I wasn't out of water. Seemed smart at the time... Anyway, my energy tanked, which led to a drop in morale. These were tough miles, but I was sort of reveling in it for one reason: unlike previous bonks in earlier runs when I had less experience, this time I knew just what to do.

Miles 21-26.2: Finding a Trail Marathon PR (6:45)
At the turn around, I grabbed some extra calories, eating my almond butter and Nutella sandwich (and craving another and another), slamming a GU Roctane gel (should have brought several more of those), and drank some fresh and freezing mountain water (don't try that one at home kids). A few S-Caps later, I knew that once my stomach started emptying, I would be back in business. And back in business I was. Despite the fact that I was running above 8,500 (and up to 10,000 ft) for the first time, I PRed at a marathon distance on trails. But since I'm an ultrarunner, of course I kept going. Why not PR at a 50K while I'm at it?

Before I move us along, I should point out that the bottom of the sky fell out and it POURED. Hail, thunder & lightening, big winds and everything. As a result of the rain (and the huge drop in temperature), I was FREEZING and my hands started to get numb, making updating twitter a bit of a challenge once the rain quit. As a side note, this is why specificity in training is such an important principle. Rare is the day that I cancel a run for any weather-related reason. I have tons of experience running in the rain, including big thunderstorms. The result? When the rain came, I wasn't rattled in the least. I've there before and enjoyed the opportunity to get wet.

Miles 26.3-31.1: Finding a 50K PR (8:06)
Felt great for these miles, though the climbs were really taking their toll on my legs. Miles 29-31 consisted of a steady climb that had my leaning over with my hands on my knees grunting up the hills. But I crossed over the 50K mark about 35 minutes ahead of my first 50K (which had 5,000 ft of gain). Great boost for me mentally. Until...

Miles 31.2-35: Finding a Jacob's ladder
Miles 32 to 34 consisted of a steady climb from 8,700 feet to 9,535 feet. It felt like the proverbial Jacob's ladder, an endless set of stairs that keeps going and going with no end in sight. My legs were shredded as it was, but this climb (and the downhill that dropped about 500 ft over a mile or so) put the last nail in their coffin. So I shuffled the downs and flats and hiked the climbs. At this point, it became painfully clear that I would not be getting off the mountain before darkness enveloped me. So, I set my pack down and threw on my jacket and headlamp. I'd like to say that I was pumped, but, if I'm honest, I was terrified. One danger in particular loomed heavy in my mind: mountain lions. I told my self over and over again that, in mountain ultras runners run all night and are fine. No mountain lions for them and none for me. That seemed to help. It's funny how you can lie to yourself like that... and believe it. But it kept me from panicking, which could be just as dangerous as a lion attack in those conditions. And that was the point.

Miles 36-41: Finding a Mountain Lion (!!!)
At this point, my Garmin died (great), so I switched over to recording my run with RunMeter on my phone. Great save, Apple! I decided to take a different route back. Instead of heading back to the car at the trailhead, I would drop down the ski slope to the lodge and get the car later. I was moving so slowly that the extra 3 miles I had to go (I picked up some extra miles in there somewhere) would take WAY too long in the dark. I needed to get the heck out of there and fast. So, I made my way down the 1 mile ski slope that drops 1000 feet into the lodge. I was now using my iPhone light along with my headlamp, which was a bit dim (why didn't I change those batteries?!). As I had done during the day, I was calling out in order to let every animal around that I was there. Hindsight is a funny thing... It's good to let bears know you are there since they don't want anything to do with you. But it was dark now and there was another beast roaming the mountains, a hunter looking for prey, looking for me.

I cast my headlamp along the treeline about 75 yards across the slope and was arrested by two very large eyes, about waist high and fixed on me. It could only be one thing. I shouted at it to move along. It wasn't buying what I was selling. It remained fixed on my every move, studying me as I continued to fumble down the slope like a lame animal, a weak link, an easy kill. I knew that I was screwed if it attacked. I looked toward the lodge .25 miles away. Did I really just run 40 miles in the mountains only to be eaten alive by this cat in the black of night?! I was fully aware that I couldn't outrun this cat, but... I had two options, fight or flight. And the former wasn't much of an option. So, despite the fact that I hadn't ran a single step in the past several miles, I took off in a dead sprint. Down a 21% grade slope. In tall, wet grass. At night. I kept looking over my should expecting to see the cat in mid-flight aiming at the back of my neck. But, for whatever reason, it decided to let me live to run another day. I scrambled down an 8-9 foot ditch and back up the other side, popping out at the lodge. I ran straight to my room where I could be sure the cat wouldn't reach me.

Then I almost puked my guts out.


I was finished.

Grateful. Now where's my beer?

Distance: 41 miles.

Vertical: 8691 feet gain & 8928 feet loss

Time: 10 hours 58 minutes.

All between 8,500 and 10,000 feet. 

Not too shabby for this newbie, flat-lander.

Here's the elevation profile for the first 35 miles, before my Garmin died. You get the idea.

PostScript: Rachel and I, along with some old friends and new ones went to the town pub, which reopened the kitchen just for us. I've never had such a delicious plate of loaded nachos. And the beer was pretty great too.

Recovery: Today (the morning after) my legs are in surprisingly great shape. Very little joint pain, though walking is tricky because my quads and hip flexors are so shredded. Enjoying a nice rest day, eating, napping, and walking slowly. Ice baths are also on tap.

Glen Hansard's new song, "This Gift" seems too appropriate not to share. This run and all that happened (and didn't happen!) in it was a such an incredible gift. 


  1. Awesome run and report Michael! I have often wondered how close I have come to being cougar snacks myself! Running fast from a cat can trigger their chase instinct though so next time just keep your ultra shuffle going but keep and eye on him!

  2. Oh my goodness, MIKE!!!! You are AMAZING!!! I can't wait to read your book....because I know you will write one about all of your ultra running experiences, right??!! How scary!! I don't know how you did it....freak of nature is what you are!!! lol ;) Seriously amazing brother from another mother ;)

  3. Awesome! Thanks for taking the time to share!