What do you get when you do two races in 10 days with a total elevation of over 24,000 feet...while battling a sinus infection? A very very tired and humbled Roberto! If you read my previous entry, then you know what (un)great fortunes I've been having. Coming off a humbling race at 14K+ feet, I had a short turn around before heading up to Steamboat Springs.
I soloed the 3 hour drive from Boulder to Steamboat Springs around midday on Friday. It was a rare chance (this year) to head to a race without my lovely and supportive wife. It also meant that I could blast the radio and sing at the top of my lungs as if "The Voice" was holding auditions in the back of my car. Several eardrum shattering songs later, and I was in Steamboat Springs. I headed straight to the race's HQ in order pick up my race packet. There I met race director Luke Crespin, his wife and the race's volunteers. I was pleasantly surprised to be recognized and receive so many well wishes ahead of the arduous race.
I didn't know much about the race, only that it would take place at Routt National Forest, the 1st 5-6 miles would be ALL uphill and that the majority of the race would take place above 10,000 feet. So yeah, I knew I was in for a helluva battle, I just didn't know how rough I would have it. What lay ahead would become the toughest racing experience I've ever had.
In Steamboat, I stayed with my newly married friend: Amy and her husband. Not only are they locals, but they had done the race at least once before and did a great job of informing me about the race. Sometimes you want to know a lot and other times it's best to know very little. I'm not quite sure (even in hindsight) which option I should've taken. Either way, Amy and Gregg were awesome host and gave me a great idea of what to expect.
The "Continental Divide Trail Race", would serve as the longest race of my life. It had been billed as a 15 miler -as was the case in previous years- but this year it would be 16-16.50 miles long. "Great", I thought, just what a difficult race needs, an extra 1-1.50 miles! The addition, I learned, was pure logistics and made sense when explained. It would allow for an easier aid station along the course. The race would have two aid stations, with the first being at the top of Long Lake (about 5 or so miles into the race) with the second being about 3(?) miles from the finish. I can't really remember as despite the length of time I spent on the course, some parts were a complete blur.
I consulted with Amy and she suggested I carry some sort of fueling belt, where I could store electrolyte and energy drinks/snacks. I had never done this before, not even on some of my longer training runs, so I knew I was in for a first (boy was I right in more ways than one!).
As is the norm, I woke up, grabbed a shower, suited up and ate 1 - 2 PowerBar Harvest Energy Bars. I felt both great and anxious. I was excited to see what this course and elevation would do to me, I was also eager to see if I was finally at 100% health after a tumultuous couple of weeks.
I sneaked out of Gregg & Amy's home at 6:30AM and made the 5 minute drive to the shuttles that would take us from the bottom of a ski mountain, to the race's start line. The shuttles left at 7AM and took all of 10 minutes to deliver us to a more remote area that would serve as our start line.
The race would start at 8AM and I used the near 45-50 minutes to stay warm and relax. I was feeling good but not great and I knew I would want to conserve energy for the challenge ahead. A few of the other competitors recognized me from race results and another race I had done in Steamboat last year. They were friendly and inquisitive as to my form and expectations. I did my best to answer questions, but the reality was that I was truly entering uncharted territory for me.
-Race Time; The Continental Divide awaits!-
8AM came and saw a phalanx of trail/ultra/mountain runners and myself dash into the narrow trail ahead. The race would take us 5+ miles uphill to Long Lake. Despite the race's distance/terrain, the runners went out like world class sprinters and I found myself in about 7th place.
The first 150 - 250 meters were all downhill and somewhat wide (see pic above) before cruelly turning into an uphill single-track trail. It was before this point that I made a push to get near the front. I managed to get myself into 3rd position behind the two nordic skiers that would finish 1st and 2nd.
I felt the pace -albeit early into the race- wasn't sustainable, but couldn't really slow down either as behind me were 150 or so other experienced and aggressive trail runners. I maintained my positioning for about half a mile before disaster struck! Unlike other races in my career, this disaster/wall/melt-down happened in a flash! Within seconds I went from feeling alright to feeling like I'd gotten smashed by a donkey in my lower right back. Tightness consumed me and my breathing became labored. I tried not to panic and maintain some sort of control over my body's vitals. I took stock of my lower back, my quad muscles, my calves and breathing. All seemed to be deteriorating at an alarming rate.
Shocked at my body's betrayal, I tried to stay positive. Unlike last week's race, where I ONLY had 1 mile to endure, here I had 16+ and this all going sideways all within the first mile. One by one runners begun to pass me and I couldn't even fake a fight. My lower back got tighter and tighter and I felt weaker than an anemic newborn. I made the horrifying mistake of looking down at my watch. I somehow hoped that maybe 1 or 2 miles had gone by, at least something that would give me a bit of hope. Unfortunately I was 1 KILOMETER into the race, I repeat.... 1 KILOMETER, that's 2.5 laps around a track, that's barely over half a mile in. Basically I had Evel Knieveled into a formidable wall and it didn't look like I'd ever recover, nope, not with 15+ miles left.
This was by far the earliest I had ever known that I was done. I thought about dropping out, but then realized two things. (1) I'd have to run against a sea of runners going the other direction & (2) There wouldn't be anyone at the start line, as the race was point to point, so I'd be stranded in the middle of no where. With those two sobering facts hitting me in the face, I decided to carry on. I decided that I would battle my way to the 1st aid station and call it a day there.
Up and up we went, by the time I hit the first mile (took 10 minutes 30 seconds) I was both physically and mentally done. I had gone from 3rd to ummm I don't know, maybe 20th? Now, I'm not trying to sound sexist with my next sentence, so please don't take it that way. I had never ever remotely come close to being, "Chicked" (example #1) and I suddenly found myself with 3-4 women in front of me, and they weren't barely in front, rather they were passing me by as if I were a street sign. One by one they and others went by me. I quickly learned that when you're in that type of agony/hell/discomfort, you stop caring about who or what passes you. I also secretly hoped for a rogue Mountain Lion or Bear to jump out of the woods and put an end to my misery. No such luck...
For the next 2-3 miles, I had many different thoughts went through my mind, that I sometimes lost focus and found myself tripping over my feet and the steep boulders on the course. Eventually around mile 3 or 4, my body started to collaborate some. Suddenly I found new life and started "sprinting" (if you can call it that at 10K feet) for all I was worth. In a span of minutes, I had gone from feeling injured and hunted to a primal savage chasing down prey.
The chase was on and made it a point to see how many people I could catch by the first aid station. Little by little I started to feel less alone and started seeing dots up ahead. Each time I came around a decent clearing or open plain, I would see one or two runners ahead. This gave me both a psychological and physiological boost. As I've mentioned in other entries, I read my opponent's body language (we all do while racing) and make assumptions based on what we see. Knowing I was finally moving fast, I knew that any runner I saw in front of me was moving slower and it was only a matter of time before catching them.
Further and further I moved up the beautiful but hellish terrain. I had by now passed several runners, but still had zero idea as to what place I was in. I knew I had a few targets to catch before the aid station. They consisted of a man who had passed me earlier, and was sporting a knee brace (yes, a man with one good leg had blown my doors off earlier) and of course driven by pride and ego (not afraid to admit it) the 3 women that had left me in their wake a few miles before.
Each false flat we hit was a welcome sign for me. I could use my superior speed and make up grown. Unfortunately I wasn't out of the woods yet (figuratively and literally) and each time we hit another uphill, I died yet again. This back and forth would carry the rest of the race. Each time I had to gamble on how much to push in order to catch an opponent before succumbing to the next hill ahead. Not knowing the course at all, this was a dangerous game of Russian Roulette.
Eventually I reached the first aid station. At this point I had three weapons left. (1) Momentum - I had to believe that I was moving faster than just about anyone else on the course and if I could just endure a bit longer I'd crawl my way back to the leaders (2) Pride - At the risk of coming across like an elitist, I felt I was being bested by runners whom shouldn't be ahead of me (again, I apologize for my bluntness) & finally (3) RAGE - I was royally pissed off at the misfortune that had befallen me the past few weeks. Between ill-health and little niggles, I'd had enough of it and just wanted to release my rage/frustration.
So with that said, I soldiered on. I decided I wouldn't be dropping out and I would see this through. Pride be damn, yeah it was thoroughly bruised and I still had no idea what place I was in, but I knew that more than anything I couldn't live with regret. The regret I would have if I didn't see this through and find out just what the other side of this journey would look like. I pushed and pushed and skipped the aid station, at this point I had two women in front of me and the knee braced guy as well. Fortunately the aid station provided a sort of out and back loop, where you could see the people in front of you. I calculated that I was 1 minute behind the 1st women and in about 12th or 14th place.
-GAME ON !-
The remainder of the race was tough but not as tough as the first 5 - 6 miles. By this I mean that there were no longer any mile long climbs. Any climb now would be a few minutes at worse. The only issue being that this was all taking place at well over 10K feet elevation, so even a false flat or slight incline at that elevation will punch you in the throat. I opened up my mini fanny-pack looking fuel belt and took a big gulp of the PowerBar Energy Blend I was carrying and figured/hoped it would be enough to get me to the finish line.
The more I pushed the better (mentally, definitely not physically) I felt. Eventually I overcame the three targets I had and pushed on. I was now in full flight and only lamented at the fact that I didn't feel this powerful early on. I had gone from contemplating dropping out, to dreaming of winning the race again. I still had very little idea of what place I was in, but pushed on harder and harder hoping to catch everyone and anyone ahead of me.
Eventually I passed the second aid station as two other runners were reaching it. While they stopped to take some water and refuel, I pushed on. I knew I couldn't afford to halt my momentum and surprisingly enough, I didn't feel thirsty at all. I know knew/guessed/hoped that there were 2-3 miles left. We had emerged from the forest that encompassed the vast majority of the race and were on a very wide dirt road. Without warning we hit some VERY steep switchbacks. I remembered what Amy and Gregg had told me about this section. They'd said it would remain this way all the way to the finish before a slight (400 meter long?) climb to the finish.
I pushed and pushed down these switchbacks, which were very similar to the ones I had encountered last month at XTERRA Beaver Creek and that gave me confidence. It also gave me a ton of pain. I completely bombed down the dirt roads and could feel my quads and lower back taking the brunt of it. I continued to pass runners left and right. Each time I passed one, I managed to push even more. My goal was to demoralize them and not give them any chance at coming back to me. I also wondered to myself, "Just how far behind was I? How could there still be people in front of me!?" Regardless I pushed on and on. I would later joke with Luke at the finish line that they should've measured our heights before and after the race. I jammed myself up so much while racing the downhill section, that I felt that I had given away 1/2 a foot of height.
Finally I reached the end of the downhill section after clocking several sub 4 minute mile (pace) for many sections. There was a volunteer at the bottom of the final climb to the finish and I asked her what place I was in. I had hoped she'd say 3rd, but when she said "FITH...I think fith place", I nearly crumbled. I was thoroughly disappointed by the news, but before I could feel too sorry for myself I quickly picked myself back up. I realized that I had rebounded from my worst start ever, I had not given up when that's all I wanted to do and I had pushed beyond a pain threshold than I thought possible.
I crossed the line in 5th place and happily limped over to congratulate the four men in front of me. We were all sore and thoroughly satisfied to have finished the race. For me, it was the longest race of my life and I don't just mean literally. I had learned a lot and experienced more pain than ever before. My hips were immediately sore and I couldn't sit right away, as my left leg was cramping. My lower back was a total mess and I felt as if I were going to pass out as I had been dizzy for the past few miles.
-Post Race & the future... -
Despite all that, I limped around, cheered on the other finishers, thanked Luke and his wife for the wonderful race and stuck around for the awards ceremony. I wanted to be there and show respect to the podium finishers as others have done for me all season long. I also wanted to get a mental image of it as I would be using it as motivation for my return to the race. I hope to race it again next year or in the near future as it was a challenging course but one I think I could fair a lot better at.
With the post race festivities done and dusted, I rode down back to the base of the mountain to get my car and head home. The 6 days since the race have found me in a world of soreness/pain. My quads were sore for a couple of days, my calves are STILL sore and have made regular training very difficult. My lower back has surprisingly come around quickly. I saw Toby Marchand for some cupping and acupuncture and that worked a charm.
I've spent a lot of time running soft surfaces and swimming. I will now be busy with traveling for weddings and family engagements which will surely hamper training a bit. I don't plan on racing for at least a month, when I will (hopefully) lace up for the XTERRA National Championship I need to first get my health 100% (I believe I'm almost there) and my fitness up. I'm definitely done with racing while not feeling tip top, and thus will make a decision on Nationals at the very last minute.
As always, thanks for reading and following my journey! I appreciate the support from all my friends, fans, sponsors and most importantly, FAMILY. Also, I hope I didn't offend anyone with this entry. I always respect all competition, be it young, old, woman or man. I just wanted to write as candidly as I could and express my thoughts during the heat of battle. Muchas gracias!