So, last weekend I ran in the Iron Legs 50 trail race. This race has a 50-mile distance, which is actually 54 miles, and a 60 km distance. Both have significant elevation gain…14 000 feet for the 50 mile, and I am guessing probably around 9 or 10 000 for the 60 km. Last year I ran the 60 km, so I thought I would give the 50-miler a go this year. Sadly though, things don’t always turn out as you had planned.
The morning started out great. The weather was perfect, I chatted with some friends before the start, and I was excited for the day ahead of me. At 6:00 am, off we went. The course is divided up into 5 legs for the 60 km, and 7 legs for the 50 mile. Leg 1 is probably the easiest, not too technical and with the least amount of elevation gain. I cruised through it and felt really good. I have been doing a ton of training with my 25 lb pack, getting ready for Grand to Grand next month, so running on the trails without that weight on my back felt great. I breezed through checkpoint 1, and off I went onto leg 2.
Leg 2 gets a lot more technical and difficult, with a big climb up to the top of Powderface Ridge. Up, up I went, still feeling really good. When I got to the top I stopped and took some photos because the view from up there is stunning. This is where I ran into some problems. I was going along, enjoying the view, and apparently not paying enough attention to where I was going. Now, somewhat in my defense, the only other time I have ever been up on that ridge was during last year’s Iron Legs, and it was snowing, so I was not at all familiar with the trail and it looked entirely different this year. So, I was making my way along the ridge, following the pink flagging tape that was being used as trail markers. The ground was quite rocky so the trail was not all that distinct, but I could see two other runners up ahead of me on the ridge, so I thought nothing of it when I hadn’t seen a flag for a few minutes. I kept forging ahead, when I saw the two runners turning around and looking for markers. I immediately turned around to see if I could spot any markers behind me, and though I couldn’t, there were 3 more runners coming up behind me, so I believed I was still on course. We all caught up together and began discussing whether or not we were on course, and looking around for flags. One of the runners set out to scope around for a flag, and we never saw him again. The ground was quite rocky and rough, and though I didn’t remember it being like that from last year, I still wasn’t too concerned. As the ground became rougher and we were scrambling over big boulders, I was sure it was wrong, and just as I was about to turn back, one of the guys in our little group spotted a piece of pink flagging tape hanging from a branch further up the ridge, so we decided we were still sort of on course, and off we went towards it.
When we reached the flag, the trail was very indistinct, but since there was a flag, we all thought it must be right. The ground got rougher and the rocks bigger, and I knew it just couldn’t be right. I kept saying “this can’t be right, I’d remember this from last year”, but every once in awhile, we’d spot another piece of flagging tape and tell ourselves we were still on the right track. We went on like this for quite some time, but after an hour or so, it because all too evident that there was no trail and we were way, way off course. So, at that time we needed to make a decision. Someone in the group had a map, and we could see that the actual trail followed the ridgeline all the way down to the road. I pulled out my phone to see if there was cell service, and lo and behold, there was. I had my sister and my mother crewing for me, so I called each of them only to have them both go directly to voice mail. I had service, but they did not. Collectively we decided that it would be just as far to go back as to keep going down the ridge, so forward down the ridge it was, first scrambling dangerously over large rocks, then through thick underbrush and fallen trees. At one point we could hear voices coming from down below, and though we called to them, we heard nothing back. As it turns out, the voices were coming from the second checkpoint. When I am out doing a race, I have a call that I use to notify my crew that I am close, so when we heard the voices, I gave “the call”…a loud “ooo-hoo”, because I know this call can be heard from a distance, but again, we heard nothing back. As it turns out, my crew did hear me and called back, but I did not hear it.
We carried on down the ridgeline through the fallen trees and bushes, finally, after 2 hours, popping out on the road not 200 meters from checkpoint 2. I saw my mother walking up the road to me, then my sister coming down the trail where I should have been. Understandably so, they were very relieved to see me. They had been expecting me more than 90 minutes past, and thought that I must be injured because I was so late getting to the checkpoint. I was very frustrated an angry, mostly at myself, and I knew that the chance of making the time cut off for the chance to run the long course was well out of my reach by this point. I decided that I would still carry on and do the shorter 60 km course. One of our group of 5 opted not to continue at this point, but the rest of us got a snack and filled our bottles, and set off for the next leg, the dreaded Ford Creek trail. The trail soon began to climb, and I was still angry so I rage-climbed and before too long had left the others behind. After awhile I stopped being angry and just began enjoying my day again. Ford Creek trail is steep and technical, and the day was growing quite warm. At one point I came across another runner who had run out of water and was drinking from the creek. I offered him some of my water, but he declined. I was secretly glad he declined because I was running a bit low myself. He told me that he also had missed the trail up on Powderface Ridge, only unlike me, he was smart enough to turn back when he realized something wasn’t right. I passed another runner along the way, and we chatted for a minute, but I soon left her behind as well. When I was about 30 minutes out of the checkpoint, I ran out of water. I didn’t actually know how far out I still was, but I kept telling myself it couldn’t be too much further. When I thought I was never going to get there, I decided to give the call, just too see if I could tell how far away I was. Well, lo and behold, my call was answered from right around the corner and I had reached the next checkpoint.
I fueled up and filled my bottles and set off again, ready to climb back up Powderface and come back down the other side. My crew had told me they were calling it a day, which was fine. They had had a long day out there waiting around for me, so I didn’t mind that they wanted to go. Up, up I climbed, then down the steep technical return to the parking lot where the next checkpoint was set up. Something happened along the way though. As often happens to me in a long race, I hit a low patch. I wasn’t even too far out from the checkpoint, but the negative part of my brain started taking over. I was tired, I wasn’t having fun, I was frustrated and mad at myself for making a mistake and now not being able to run the long course, I wanted to be done, I never wanted to do anything like this again, all of the negative self talk was happening and I decided I was going to drop out at the next checkpoint. Just as I had made this decision, I came around a corner, and there was my crew standing on the trail waiting for me, cheering me on. I started holding back the tears and told them I was thinking about dropping, but now that they were there I wasn’t sure any more. They encouraged me, and the wonderful volunteers at the checkpoint got me some food and some water. I was still waffling a little bit when one of the volunteers said “Well, you’ve gone this far, you might as well finish it off”. That was what finally did it for me, so off I went for the last leg. I am quite sure that had my crew not been there, my day would have been over, and I am also quite sure that had that happened, I would have regretted it.
I felt a renewed sense of energy setting off on the last leg. I had one giant climb left, and then after that it was clear sailing. I had been dreading that climb, and it was part of the reason I had been thinking about dropping. Once I got to it though, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been anticipating. I got to the top and then ran pretty much the rest of the way in. I suddenly felt great again, and had no problem finishing off the leg. My mother was waiting for me at the finish line, always my biggest cheerleader, and I was done.
I always think I learn something from each race I run. This time there were a couple of things. The first lesson I already knew, but it was good to be reminded of, and as I often find, running is a good metaphor for life in general. This lesson is that whenever you hit a really low spot, if you can make it through to the other side , things always look better. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to see the other side, but it is always there, you just have to fight through. The second lesson I learned was to trust my instincts. Up there on that ridge, I knew it wasn’t right, but since we kept seeing the pink flagging tape (and I still don’t know what that tape was supposed to be marking), I kept going. My instincts were right and I should have turned back. But I didn’t. And that’s ok, because I learned a good lesson. Oh, and that guy that disappeared on us at the top of the ridge when we were looking for the trail, well we found out later that he found the trail but rather than spend 2 minutes coming back to tell us, he just kept going. So, thank you unknown runner for that bit of sportsmanship.
As my friend Majo said to me later, any day in the mountains is a good day. And, it was a good day, just not the day I had planned. And I’ll be back to tackle the 50 miles another time. Just keep moving forward.