Lloyd: “Some place warm, a place where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Aspen.”
Harry:” I don’t know Lloyd, the French are assholes.”
-Dumb & Dumber
Imagine hoofing it up the staircase to the top floor of the Empire State Building – the breathtaking view atop hijacked by your effort, for there is no more breath left for the taking. You’ve just climbed 1,020 feet up into the sky. Now hustle back down and do it again. Not once more, not twice… but twelve times. Now add in a marathon, six more miles, rain, mud, and the thin air at 10,000 feet above sea level. Welcome to the Audi Power of Four 50K in Aspen, Colorado.
This year is an attempt to familiarize myself with the sport of ultra-running – in it’s entirety. The races I’ve chosen to take part in range in various distances, competitiveness, and difficulty. Under the encouragement of a good buddy, Catlow Shipek, I elected to tag along on a trip to Aspen for my first Sky Running race. For those unfamiliar, this is how Wikipedia describes Skyrunning:
“Skyrunning is an extreme sport of mountain running above 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) where the incline exceeds 30% and the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade. The governing body is the International Skyrunning Federation.”
Basically Skyrunning races have a lot of climbing up (and down) mountains and are considerably difficult. This race was particularly inviting for a couple of reasons. One, it had a bunch of well-known elite runners participating. Two, it is Colorado in the summer (sigh-of-relief sound), and I’m in Arizona in the summer (egg-in-a-fry-pan sound). An opportunity for a weekend in the high country with the company of a friend was welcomed without demur.
The notable events in the couple of days before the race involved exploring Aspen and getting introduced to some of the other elite runners attending. As for the former, Aspen is beautiful. Yes, I get the “It’s just a hub for rich white people.” sentiment murmured about it. Be what it may, it is one of the most handsome towns I’ve ever visited. I understand why writers and celebrities frequent Aspen. In fact, there was a Kevin Costner sighting the day we arrived forcing Catlow and I to keep a low profile – we knew he’d be dying to get a selfie with us.
What came as a surprise to me was learning about the lifestyles of some other elite MUT (Mountain-Ultra-Trail) runners. I’m all too familiar with the lives of those considered “ski-bums”, “climbing-bums” and “surf-bums.” Heck, I’ve even dabbled in such. I was in the dark about “running-bums” though.
They exist. They thrive. And, they are damn good runners. Some of these elite guys are living out of the back of their trucks. They drive to places with exceptional running. They park their mobile abodes and run the trails, bag the peaks, and immerse themselves in the lifestyle. They are full-time runners, but by no means are they endowed with the pleasantries a solid income provides. This is no matter to them. They get by on meager cash race-winnings, small stipends from sponsorships (Salomon, North Face, Altra, etc.) and other creative ventures to get them to that next race. One guy, Rickey Gates, has a running adventure tour (runhutrun.com). Others, like Josh Arthur, (runjosharthur.com) offer coaching services. They are devoted, determined, and doing what they love. I’m about to run with these guys.
Was I jealous? Seven years ago I would have said yes. Actually, I wouldn’t have said anything at all; I’d have joined them. While I maintain respect and admiration for the mountain-running vagabond life, my days of transience have past. Now, I’m planting roots – a different sort of strange and rewarding adventure.
I knew the course was going to be tough. I found out no sooner than the first three miles which B-lines it straight up what is probably a double black-diamond ski slope. The race climbs and descends four mountains. At the bottom of the first, I was in first place. I don’t feel like I went out too strong, it just happened that way. Reason being – I can crush descents. I was clocking consecutive 5:15 and 5:20 miles down that mountain. I thought, maybe I’m going too fast, but trying to hold back felt like more work and harder on my quads than letting go, so I let go. (My quads would pay the price a couple of days later.)
Climbing up the second peak I’m passed by Paul Hamilton, a phenomenal mountain runner. He will go on to win the race. Over the course of the next two mountains I play leapfrog with a couple of guys, and get passed by Josh Arther, Rickey Gates, Dakota Jones, and Cody Lind. I don’t mind. I am running with these guys – some best talent in the country. It’s a pleasure simply to share the trail, and learn from the best.
The battle I was fighting was with the course. I’ve never run at this altitude, and can’t say I’ve even been at 10,000 feet before. It was not easy. I did, however, find that my training had paid off. Between ramping up the vert, and all the intense heat training, I was in solid shape for a race in cool weather. There was a light drizzle most of the day. While it was a great source for keeping body temp down, it made for some sloppy, mucky trails. No bother to me though. I couldn’t even remember the last time I ran in mud and through puddles. Fun.
Into the sky and into the clouds we ran. It felt like I was in some Lord of the Rings scene. I don’t think all those Colorado guys can appreciate this as much as someone coming from summer in Tucson can. This is a treat that only myself (and Catlow) got to indulge in, and man, was it delicious.
I arrived at the finish in 5 hours and 42 minutes. This put me in 6th place. I felt good about my race. I feel even better about the potential for improvement. It used to appear, to me, that these guys were out of reach and impossible to catch up to. They were mysterious creatures – centaurs of the mountains. And, well, they are. But they weren’t born that way and they each took one clear, defined and well-lit path to get there.
Catlow finished in 8th place and I remember saying to him over a beer that night, “Ya know man, we are the only two in the top eight who have full-time jobs.”
This is not our excuse. We both know that we need balance in our lives and that involves our careers. There are many excellent runners who have taken on careers and running. For instance Rob Krar trained, and won, the Western States 100 while working the graveyard shift as a pharmacist. I realize that if I am ever to compete with these guys, that same well-lit path is right there and can be taken in stride with the rest of my life. I’ve just got to hop on it.
Oh and that path?
Train smart, and train like a motherfucker.