Fall came at precisely when it was supposed to this year: around 2:44 pm on Sunday, September 22nd. It started with sharp, cold wind that soon turned into sign-rattling gusts. Billows of cumulonimbus clouds echoed thunder, and lightning streaked along the waves of rain forming in the distance. Pellets of hail unleashed and water poured from the sky. The roads shrunk as red dirt pooled from the mountains and rushed to whatever low ground gravity pulled it towards. The storm lasted for a solid couple of hours, and when it passed, Fall was here. Cooler temperatures and that distinctive rustle of leaves in the trees settled over Southwest Colorado. And so I made it official: I bought a pumpkin.
Another front moved in on Friday, the 27th. This was supposed to be our cherished Rest Day before the 50-mile ultra we’d endure on Saturday. But between packing, prepping, driving an hour east to Pagosa Springs, going out for the Runner’s Special at Nello’s (a pint of beer and a side of pretty good Fettucini topped with marinara), and winding down over four episodes of Saturday Night Live hosted by Justin Timberlake, we were wiped. It rained most of the day, which meant the trails had no time to dry. But thanks to 27-degree temperatures, whatever mud had been stirred up on the primitive course had frozen solid.
And so Saturday morning, the 28th, we roused from unrestful sleep, forced down a Nutella and jelly sandwich, and drove out to Turkey Springs Road. A dozen runners huddled around a small fire that stood out in the dark field that marked the start/finish. About 70 other bodies stamped their feet to keep away the chill or made last minute layer-peels of hats or pants that would be worthless in a couple of hours time. A gazillion stars began fading as way in the east the black sky dimmed to grey. We lined up at the starting gate, received a couple of words from the race organizers about the sponsor, GECKO (Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors), and then, at 6:30 am, someone said Go.
The trail was marked by pink ribbons fluttering from trees or shrubs every quarter mile. There were few dull moments on the course when we weren’t scanning the woods for the next marker. And that’s how the next 12 hours of my life would go: plunging through mud puddles, thinking about the next aid station (there were seven), and looking for stupid pink ribbons. It was profound.
Cutoff times were tight, thanks to an old gent who slept under a bed of pine needles last year because he couldn’t find the course after dark. We ran way faster than our intended pace and still only barely managed to make the first cutoff point at noon at mile 24.5. We arrived at Aid Station 4 in five hours and 15 minutes, just 15 minutes shy of when they would have turned us away from attempting the 50-miler. Those who didn’t make the cutoff were forced to join the 50-k runners and head directly to the finish line six miles away.
I kind of wanted them to tell me I couldn’t do the rest of the race. Instead, one of the nice geriatrics manning the aid station explained in a very serious tone that this was the toughest part of the course. Good luck.
The next section was a 26-mile out-and-back, which dropped 1,500 feet through aspen glades, open meadows, and pine-studded cliff sides to the Piedra River. Blue skies, snowcapped peaks, yellow leaves, and a warm sun made for an outstanding landscape. The mud had melted by now and our feet had been soaked through since the sun rose. It was still so cold that the foam in my Salomon XR Missions froze and it felt like I was running on concrete blocks.
My confidence shrunk every step down those slippery mountainsides. I’d have to climb back up in a few hours. Doubt crept in, and by the time we’d reach mile 30, I began to hyperventilate. Just briefly. Then, a sharp pain pierced my left knee – one I’d never felt before. I grimaced and cursed, wanting to cry or flag down the hunting truck splashing through the small lakes that had formed on the logging road behind us. Take me home, I begged with my eyes. It passed. I hate that truck, I thought.
But I couldn’t stop. We had the second cutoff to make at mile 37.5. The turnaround point marking the middle of the marathon out-and-back was unmanned, so we were required to tear a page from a book placed out there. We’d been making guesses all week as to what the book would be. Born to Run? The Art of Suffering? Moby Dick? Nope. It was none other than the dime-store, Harlequin-romance classic Footsteps of Thunder. Next to the book there was a crazy-looking lady dressed like the devil in a blue dress with a boombox blasting Running with the Devil. She took a picture of us before we left. I don’t even know if she was with the race organizers. Weird.
I had a conversation with myself over the next mile. Physically, I was convinced I couldn’t finish what I’d started. Impossible, agreed my Achilles, hip flexors, and screaming knees. You’re broken, said my bruised feet. But my mind… my mind said there’s no way you’re quitting this. Besides, you’re never running 50-miles again so you might as well leave it out here.
Fine. I popped some electrolyte pills and a much-needed Ibuprofen, put on some sunscreen, and headed out from the second to last aid station. Nick said we’d finish this together, baby. Yeah, I thought. Together.
As we bounded through another muddy, puddle-filled meadow, we spotted one of the guys we’d been running with off and on all day. He looked exhausted. I felt bad for him. I knew that’s not what Nick was thinking. This dude was in Nick’s age group, and he’d been sprinting past Nick all day long, only to start walking, and then sprint off again just as Nick was catching up.
So we passed the poor bloke, said some encouraging words (well, I was sincere), and Nick’s pace picked up significantly. I caught back up to him down by the river around mile 40, where he was feverishly popping energy chews. Through his iconic race mustache, dark sunglasses, and spittle of honey stingers, he said “I’m not lettin that guy pass me again.” Pause. “Okay, baby … it’s your race,” I said. Psycho, I thought. He snapped out of it for a minute and said “Just wanted to let you know where I was at mentally.”
That was the last time I saw Nick before the finish line two hours later. I ran the rest alone with my headphones. The sun set as I passed through the final aid station, where I popped a couple more electrolyte pills. “Your husband said he loves you,” said the same old aid attendant who warned me I might lose my life a few hours before. Take me home, I begged with my eyes. He smiled. Kind of cute, I thought. But instead of running away with the aged geezer, I ran towards my beloved husband and the finish line that was a mere 5.4 miles away.
Turns out of the 39 runners who were signed up for the 50-miler, only seven of us finished. Nick placed 2nd in his age group (of course we both beat the young guy Nick wanted to annihilate), and I placed 1st in mine. And 2nd. And last. There was only one other woman who finished – a 52-year-old machine who’s run like 400 100-mile races. She beat me by almost an hour and gave me a hug at the finish line.
50.8 miles. 9,000 feet of elevation gain/loss. 12-hours and 12-minutes (Nick finished in 12-hours and 2-minutes). 3 fun-sized Snickers. 24 electrolyte pills. One broken heart (the old geezer at Aid Station 7, of course). All for what? A little pitchfork-shaped medal made out of clay by some kids and some tea tree shampoo I scored for winning my age group.
So worth it.
Now, I’m enjoying a week of blissful autumn weather. Only I can’t bike, run, or even hike under these clear, blue skies. My body’s in rebellion. So I’ll enjoy looking at my pumpkin instead. No more running. Except we won an entry into the Durango Double next weekend. 25-kilometers? That’s nothing.