There’s a great saying that goes, “If you don’t travel, you stagnate.” I think the idea also applies to engaging ourselves with people beyond our usual crowd. We can so easily get stuck in our own little circles, which also breeds stagnation and ignorance.
And so two weekends ago I went with my ultraunner friends Krissy Moehl and Ellen Parker to Buena Vista, Colorado, where they were competing in a six-day mountain-running stage race called the TransRockies Run. It’s a team race, and Krissy ran in the Open Mixed division with Bryan Dayton, and Ellen in the Open Women’s division with Melody Fairchild. I’d asked them how they thought they’d do. Might they win? Did they have expectations? Did it matter if they placed? Coming from a climbing background, I readied for the spraydown, but both women pretty much just said that they wanted to do their best. Boooooring.
The famous Leadville 100 (Krissy took second in the women’s division in 2005 – yeah, running 100 miles…what is wrong with these people?) was the same weekend, starting the day before TransRockies, so we figured we’d watch some of it. Sure, watching people run rivals only climbing on the excitement scale, but it’s real and anyone who can run 100 miles, or even give it an honest go, is a superstar in my book. Makes me wonder, what makes someone a badass? Anybody can coast by on natural talent – it’s easy to do well when things go your way. But what about when they don’t? Can anyone feel good for 100 miles of running? No freakin’ way.
The ultra crowd fascinates me; I’m a big fan. Their attention to training, nutrition and hydration gets me thinking.
[Starting gun at the TransRockies Run. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
They also seem the coolest of all athletes – little spray, zero attitude, and amazing camaraderie and support of one another. Maybe something about running a six-day mountain course or going 100 miles at a clip humbles a person, strips away all posturing and pretense.
More than anything, I admire their mental toughness. On a serious alpine climb, a tall boulder problem, or a run-out rock climb, you don’t have much of a choice. You often have to do it correctly, or you wreck yourself. In a way, that makes things easier. Seems that on some of my best climbs, I’ve climbed myself into positions where retreating would be at least as difficult and dangerous as continuing. But in a 100-mile run? Hell, you can just quit. Seriously, why not? Because your own desire and drive, the promises you made to yourself, forces you to keep going when, most surely, every physical part of your being wants to stop. It’s an incredible showing of the human spirit, from the frontrunners to the very last finisher, who, in some ways, have it even tougher.
Ultra runners don’t set a blistering pace by shorter-distance standards, but it’s apples and oranges, like comparing how quickly you sent the blue tape route at the gym to taking six days on the Rupal Face.
Side note and little-known fact: I was the first woman finisher at the 1993 Seattle Marathon. I suppose this begs an explanation. No, no sex-change operation. But, embarrassingly enough, back then I had a ponytail. Couple that with a girl’s name (A Boy Named Sue…), and the announcer apparently hadn’t crosschecked the gender column and bellowed over the loudspeaker: “Let’s have a big hand for the first woman finisher!” Seconds later, I overheard another guy mumble, “Damn, that chick’s ugly.”
Anyway, the girls and I camped in the mountains near Leadville the night before that race (two nights before their TransRockies race), so that we could rise at some ungodly hour to cheer runners along an early section of the course. We made dinner and I congratulated myself on my badassness by association, realizing that we’re all serious about what we do. Until, anyway, I admired the spread of ingredients and suddenly felt like Kenny F*#kin’ Powers. See if you can match which items in the photo I brought, and which Krissy & Ellen brought:
A) whole wheat tortillas
C) fresh cucumbers and tomatoes
D) convenience store cup full of margarita
G) organic cheese
H) Bruce Lee’s book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do
Yes, I’m always learning, which, unfortunately, means I’m usually just mooching knowledge. I did, however, share some crucial training tips. When we rose pre-dawn to cheer runners entering Leadville’s mile 13 checkpoint, the girls had chilly hands. “Here, ladies, let me show you something,” I said with my trademark John Wayne swagger. Climbers rely on an arsenal of finely tuned techniques to stave-off the screaming barfies (that horrific thawing that follows frozen fingers). And so it was that the girls learned the alpine-proven finger-warming methods of The Penguin and the Speed Skater.
I’m pretty sure that warm fingers enable success, and, the next morning at the start of TransRockies, the girls seemed ready to try their best. The gun went off in Buena Vista and I watched in awe as a couple hundred runners disappeared in the distance, starting a long ways from where they’d finish, at Beaver Creek. At just about that same time, somewhere a few miles outside of Leadville a guy I don’t know named Ross Bielak was finishing a battle with himself and the clock, as, after he’d covered more than 95 miles, the 30-hour time limit ticked down. He’d surely done his best, and I shudder to imagine how it must feel to come so far only to deal with a clock counting you out. But he wouldn’t quit, and the crowd at the finish line made sure – the last finishers usually get cheered-in the most at ultras – as he crossed with 47 seconds to spare, becoming Leadville 100’s final official finisher. And six punishing days of mountain running later, Krissy and Ellen – their smiling demeanor belying their hardcore nature – along with their respective running partners, would also cross the finish line, each in first place to win their divisions.
I made my way home thinking not about first or last, but about mental toughness, and it hit me that the only things stagnating around those tiny towns and trails of Central Colorado might have been some sweaty running socks.
[Above, right - Krissy Moehl (left) and Ellen Parker, unaware they were part of the photo-match game. Photo: Kelly Cordes. Above, left - Kelly demonstrates proper Penguin technique (including the crucial facial expression) to Krissy Moehl. Photo: Ellen Parker. Right - Young grasshopper Ellen Parker absorbs the finer points of the Speedskater technique. Photo: Krissy Moehl.]