In order to adequately describe all that happened in this race, I need to start with a bit of context about what’s been going on this year. It’s a little more whiny than I’d like, but it still feels necessary. All that to say, the year has been tumultuous on a much grander scale than my own petty complaints. I’m fully aware that none of the below touches much of what’s been going on around the world recently, but it is my own personal, relative, experience.
The one word I would use to sum up 2017 is simply, hard.
Life has been spinning in circles over the past eight months with lots of changes, busyness and plans, and I’ve had a hard time coming up for air through it all. Granted, lots of it has been great and exciting, but the compounding effect of it all has kind of punched me in the face. There’s no self-pitying to be done, because truly lots of it has been good, but generally most parts of life have taken a lot of work this year, including running.
This leads me to some real talk, most of which I’ve only recently admitted to myself.
Ever since I finished The North Face 50k last December, running hasn’t been going so great. To make a very long story short, my body hasn’t felt very good or healthy all year, and no matter how much I would tweak training or rest or supplement, it was never clicking. I would string together a few weeks of strong training, only to take several steps back of feeling achey and incapable of progression. I did manage to run a few good races this spring (the high point of my running year), but generally I’ve spent the year pretty frustrated. Combine this feeling with the overall burden of a stressful year, and I can only sum up 2017 as hard.
But you didn’t come here to hear me complain, you came here to read about a race! I preface this recap with all my gloominess to set the stage, though, as to what my mindset looked like going in and why I really needed a change of tide.
Adam, Colin and I registered for The Grand Traverse, a 40 mile mountain race, back in January, inspired by the thought of a new distance goal and beautiful summer trails. I managed to recruit Julia to join, and Ryan Starbuck jumped at the mention of a fun challenge. We had ourselves a small team of people running their first big ultra! No one really followed a strict training plan, but through long days on our feet, mountain climbing, and playing around the Front Range, we all felt confident in our abilities to finish.
Leading up to the race, though, I wasn’t feeling confident…I was feeling dread. Two weeks beforehand, I finished the Pikes Peak Ascent in what was perhaps the worst race of my running career. I was unbelievably negative throughout the race, and my entire body hurt from the very first step. My finish time was pretty far from where I know I’m capable of, but beyond that, I have never been so down on myself while doing what I love. Gulping down tears at 13,500 feet on my way up Pikes, I was hit straight between the eyes with the realization that at some point this year, I had stopped believing in myself. I’d allowed the months of frustration and stress to trample on my confidence, and it all came to a head while climbing up a mountain.
Little did I know, I needed this to happen. As bitter as I was afterward, I was reminded that the mental aspect of running is almost equally as important as the physical – and somehow I’d let mine slip away entirely. It was time to reinstate a new perspective if I wanted a chance at finishing the Grand Traverse.
So, in the week leading up to GT, I visualized everything that would make the day successful. I wanted to feel strong, I wanted to spend the whole race with Julia, and I wanted to feel proud at the end. There wasn’t anything I could really do to affect how I’d do physically at that point, so I poured all of my last-minute energy into changing my attitude.
The race is a point-to-point course from Crested Butte to Aspen, run almost entirely on single-track trails. We stayed in Crested Butte on Friday night beforehand, and with the exception of an unfortunately expensive speeding ticket, everything pre-race went super smooth. I felt well hydrated, well rested and fueled perfectly for me. I wasn’t especially nervous until right before going to bed, so I didn’t end up sleeping well at all, but that’s a bit to be expected.
We all jumped out of bed in the 4-o’clock hour ready to get moving. I showered, dressed and ate some overnight oats and coffee before it was time to pack up for the start line. For fuel, I decided to heavily rely on Tailwind, along with Shot Bloks and the salty food that would be at aid stations.
Julia and I decided months before running that we’d run the race together – which I think kept both of us composed leading up, knowing we’d be distracted by each other’s company. Probably too many times I had made comments about how either we shouldn’t run together or she should plan on going ahead because of my aforementioned lack of confidence in my running, but she was insistent that part of the inspiration to run this race was to do it together. I couldn’t have agreed more, so I leaned on knowing she’d be there to keep me out of my own head.
THINK ABOUT YOUR BUTT
The start of the race was ethereal; it was dark and cool, and there was a very low visible fog ahead of us that we were headed straight into. It was awesome! None of us had headlamps, but there were enough around us to move along with ease, and the sun was rising within 20 minutes or so of the start. Once we left town, we headed gradually up some winding single track at the base of Mt. Crested Butte, and I looked back behind us to see a weaving line of headlamps stretched along the trail moving steadily along. It was serene, and I loved feeling so at peace at the beginning of race.
Julia and I steadily ran along for the first 5 miles or so, allowing an anxious conga line of runners to dart past us (y tho?), and I told her that it was the best I’d felt running in two months. And it truly was. Be it the cooler air, the cushy trail, or the tapering…I felt light and strong. A feeling I’d legitimately been missing the entire summer. I was encouraged, and I made it my priority to hold onto that feeling.
We spent the next few miles on a dirt jeep road cruising downhill, at which point I reminded myself, “Think about your butt.” Part of the physical issues I’ve had this year have been due to lazy glutes, so I have to actively remind myself to engage my butt muscles while running. Sounds silly, but it really helps. Whenever I’d start to feel any familiar nag or ache, I would remember to think about my butt…and my form instantly straightened out.
During this road section, Julia told me with absolute certainty that I was going to have a better day than her, and I knew she was already hurting. She’d been sick with a cold the entire week leading up, and we both hoped it had cleared up…the altitude was proving otherwise. After a very brief discussion with her making sure I wanted to stick together (duh), we pressed on. I talked a lot, not really expecting her to respond, and on we went. We were approaching the part of the course that we knew would be several miles of uphill climbing to 12,000 feet, and we were counting on lots of hiking to re-calibrate our energy.
For better or for worse, this section ended up being a lot more run-friendly than we expected. Julia proclaimed it as “annoyingly runnable,” meaning that while it was certainly all uphill, it was mellow and non-technical enough to really run most of it. We ran/hiked by feel and chatted with everyone we saw along the way. We were skirting along the side of a basin at this point, headed to Star Pass – our first high point. The terrain was a great combination of woods and alpine meadow, and I couldn’t stop declaring how beautiful it was. Not to mention at 8 am in the morning, the temperature was perfect, the birds were chirping and the sun was slowly illuminating the beautiful valley. I knew I was talking a lot, and I navigated the line between distracting Jules and trying not to annoy her.
Around mile 13, Colin caught up to us and we swapped stories a bit about our days so far. He was ready to attack the big climb so he went ahead while we continued a good cadence of running and hiking. While Julia was vocal about potentially holding us back, I knew that keeping our pace sustainable and composed would be the only way for me to continue to feel strong, and looking back I’m grateful for remaining conservative.
I GOT SMARTER, I GOT HARDER IN THE NICK OF TIME
When Colin went by us, he asked which song we all had stuck in our heads, and after some jokes about Look What You Made Me Do – T.Swift was pounding in the front of my brain. Luckily, I got stuck on the most applicable and helpful line in the song, “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time,” and it was like an endorphin shot for me. I’ve always leveraged music and lyrics as running mantras (often times of the musical theater variety), but this particular lyric felt directly correlated to how I was feeling in this race compared to how I’d felt all summer. In the nick of time…I was pulling it together.
Heading up Star Pass, the terrain began to feel very similar to hiking a 14er. We were out of the trees and faced with an exposed alpine slope that crudely reminded you just how far you had to go. I was up ahead of Julia by 100 yards or so during this climb, and I focused on evening out my breathing, hydrating and of course…thinking about my butt. I like to use the hiking ascents to take some huge gulps of water, and since I knew there was an aid station coming up I tried to empty both my bottles.
Approaching the top of the pass, I was feeling pretty damn happy. I felt really strong, we were nearly 18 miles into the race, and it was so beautiful! I was smiling every which way, and I hoped that since the bulk of the climbing was out of the way, Julia would be encouraged at how far she’d made it despite not feeling well.
I began descending slowly down the other side of Star Pass, which I knew was where Julia would catch back up naturally due to her superior descending abilities. This was the most technical part of the course so it wasn’t hard to take it easy, but after so much climbing over the last 10 miles, I was ready to stretch out my stride a bit more.
Julia and I ran mostly side-by-side from Star Pass to Taylor Pass (the second high point), and while she said she would’ve considered dropping out at Star Pass if there was an option to, I noticed there was a bit more pep in her step than beforehand. While we were up super high elevation-wise, we were mostly descending on runnable trail, which I think energized both of us to finish up the last big climb.
Taylor Pass is the final cutoff point and also where they allow drop bags for runners, so it’s a great checkpoint. It’s also over halfway through the race, so it was encouraging to get there and still feel energized. We spent about 3 minutes there, in which I drank Coke, ate chips and watermelon (do not recommend watermelon), and grabbed more Tailwind and some additional fuel from my drop bag. I had packed extra socks, sunscreen and other miscellaneous items in my bag, but I hardly even thought about them in the moment.
We had caught back up to Colin around the top of Taylor Pass, and while all of us were whooping and excited to get to the final peak climb, we were instantly faced with a wall of a hill that everyone needed to switch-back their way up. The course along this section of the race was a wide dirt road, which lent itself well to running side-by-side with people, but it also meant that both 2- and 4-wheelers would zoom by us every so often. I didn’t mind the motorbikes so much at first, but after one too many families on ATVs forced us to the shoulder of the trail while pumping car exhaust into our lungs…I was over it. Not much to do about it on an open course, though.
Julia, Colin, and I found Starbuck at this point too. I was feeling a little hot under the full sun and my legs were definitely fatigued, but overall my energy was sharp. I felt alert and motivated and generally ecstatic with how much better the day was going than I’d anticipated. Not to mention we had sweeping views of the Elks at this point, and I felt really fortunate to live in a place that offered this kind of beauty.
Julia and I found our legs a bit between miles 25-30 (I recognize the hilarity in that statement), and as we approached a big group of people to pass around mile 29, Julia boldly said, “I feel like myself for the first time today.” Woo! There she was. Funny thing about an all-day race: even after hours of low points, miraculously you can drag yourself out of it. We were ready to move and tackle the remaining 10 miles to the finish.
While most of the climbing was behind us, there were a few stinger hills left that stopped our running dead in its tracks to a slow hike. During a particularly hard one when I began to feel overwhelmed at the distance remaining, I remembered the greatest truth about pain in races – it’s inevitable. Accepting this inevitability somehow took the power away from the pain, and I found myself smiling and feeling grateful to be so deep into this race and still making good progress. I’d been feeling so much anxiety leading up to it, I was a little overwhelmed with joy to feel the physical effects of all the efforts we’d already put in. It was then that I realized that smiling was having an actual, physiological effect on my tired legs. When I’d smile, I felt my muscles relax and my back straighten, as if energy was being injected into me. I remembered how my sister, Corey, looked when she finished the Ascent two weeks before; she hadn’t trained for it and sort of jumped in at the last minute, and her smile at the finish line could not have been bigger. She was joyful and proud – and remembering her inspired me to do everything I could to finish this feeling the same way.
On we went. Every surge of energy we’d get from a little downhill was quickly derailed by any uphill. We’d vacillate between feeling pumped at the little victories (mile 32 was the furthest we’d ever run!) to feeling overwhelmed just minutes later (8 miles to go is still a really long way…). I tried talking to everyone around us, since it seemed to help keep me out of my head the more I stayed engaged with others. I also tried to remember to keep drinking water and fueling as much as my stomach would tolerate; it was getting warmer, and it would only continue the lower we descended.
The portion of the race I’d been most anxious about since the very beginning was the final five miles. Not only were they entirely downhill, but we’d lose 3,500 feet over those miles…800 feet of which would be in mile 39. I’m an okay downhill runner, but after 7+ hours on our feet and the steepness of the terrain, I was wary of have any gusto left in me.
We arrived at the final aid station of the race which was right before we headed downhill into the woods. We drank straight out of a 2-liter of Coke, shoved some chips in our mouths, and bolted out of there ahead of a big group of other runners we’d been leap-frogging with. Julia took the lead, which I was really encouraged and comforted by; while I’d been in the lead most of the day, typically when we run trails she’s in front of me – so this felt more natural. Additionally, I was able to follow her ease and footfalls as we flew downward, which helped me loosen my normal rigidness.
Going from 11,000 ft to 8,000 ft meant super steep and unrelenting switchbacks, plus essentially running straight into an oven of heat. We were mainly on an exposed ski slope which seemed to never end – Aspen looked so far below us no matter how far we ran! We’d been moving for so long, the most we could focus on was staying upright and following the hastily marked course – praying we hadn’t taken a wrong turn at some point.
Both of us said more profanities during this descent than I think we ever have on a run together. Even Julia, who normally eats up the downhills, was all aboard the hate train with me on this one. There was one point that we literally had to slide on our butts since it was so steep, which made our already filthy legs completely laughable.
Admist the grind, though, I again could not help but smile – we were doing it! I was actually finishing a 40-mile race with one of my best friends after a year of questioning my capabilities of a runner. Yeehaw! I was actually feeling pretty emotional the closer we got to the finish line, and much like Pikes Peak…I had to choke back some tears a few times. Happy tears this time, though!
Seemingly all at once, the noise from the finish line was all around us, we rounded a final corner and there it was…the end!
We held hands across the finish line, triumphant in what we managed to accomplish together.
8:34 finish, 40.1 miles, 6,922 feet of climbing. Bonus: we were 6th and 7th female (technically tied for 6th), which was a welcome surprise to us both.
Greeted at the finish line by Instagram-Live Celebrity Turboletti, we basked in the accomplishment while waiting for the rest of our crew to finish. I felt a little restless and had a hard time sitting still afterward, which I attribute mainly to the shock to my system of being fueled by endorphins and adrenaline for an entire day.
Adam, Colin, and Ryan all had similar sentiments as we did upon finishing: overwhelmed by the beauty of the course and the magnitude of the challenge. It was fun to compare experiences from the day, and generally I think we were all really proud to have completed something bigger and harder than we’d ever done.
Dan drove us back to Crested Butte (thanks be to him!) and I felt equally exhausted and ecstatic about the day. Following this past year of running, I was in desperate need of a reminder of the joy in this sport – which is exactly what I got from the Grand Traverse.
I spent the week after regaling the epicness of the race to anyone who would listen, eating a lot of baked goods, and not running a single step. It was one of my better post-race recovery weeks, and it left me ready to transition into the final challenge of the year…the New York City Marathon! I’m really looking forward to sharpening my edges, focusing on strength and recovery, and generally enjoying the joy that is fall running. I truly feel like the Grand Traverse reminded me a lot of what I’d somehow forgotten over the past year…and I plan to carry forward the positive momentum as best I can through the rest of the year.