I was so cold. I’ve never been so cold. It was a cold so thorough that it seemed I could feel my thoughts slowing down. And my slowed thoughts were dark, insipid thoughts… speaking words like “stop” and “quit” “why go on?” to me. I felt myself slipping into that darkness.
It must have been was sometime around midnight or 1:00 am. I was 52 miles into the race and the previous 10+ miles, all climbing up, up and up to the Long Lake Aid Station, had been a slog.
Coming out of Olympian Hall with Anne, I’d gotten behind on calories, which made me feel bad, which made me not want to put any calories in, which made me feel worse. And my time with Luke above Fish Creek Falls Trailhead became a kind of a reprise of my climb up the backside of Hope Pass with him the year before at Leadville. My breathing was escalated to the point that I couldn’t really eat and walk at the same time. So I’d stop and try to choke down something… a chew or two? Part of a goo? Anything. It was tough going and I was just so tired with a kind of sleepwalking, barely noticeable forward momentum. I don’t know if it’s bad luck or bad timing, but I swear to decency that I really need to have Luke pace me for a section of an ultra where I actually feel good… he’s had some rough duty with me…
But, one of the most meaning moments of the race had happened just a short while previous. I have a vivid memory of standing with my hands on my knees, alongside the edge of the trail somewhere around upper Fish Creek Falls, all silent and despairing. And my friend Luke very simply and quietly just came next to me and gave me a reassuring side-hug squeeze. No words, just a simple act of being present with me. That moment together stands out so beautifully and so brilliantly to me and I’m so grateful. That kind of support will carry you far.
And so, we’d made it to Long Lake, and one of the worst sections of the race was behind me. But, the temperature was dropping and I needed some food and as it turns out I wasn’t even half way finished. As you may recall, I began this series of posts with the beginnings of a description of my time at this aid station. It was cold and I was slipping.
As it turns out, there’s actually video footage of this aid station at this exact time… Joel Wolpert aka The Wolpertinger, made a film about Jenn Shelton that came out this winter (It’s called “Outside Voices” and you can find it here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/outsidevoices). I remember seeing Joel and Jenn when I passed through Long Lake earlier that morning, but at the time I didn’t know he was making a movie, let alone it being about her. Anyway, Joel captures this clip of a runner just shivering so hard with this crazy look on his face… I felt like this and more…
The fire wasn’t helping. I could feel the pull of the darkness, of stopping, of quitting and calling it a day.
And then a flicker began to flash in my mind… or maybe deeper down in my heart, in my guts. It was a much different voice that said, “I have to get out of here. Right now. I have to go. I HAVE TO LEAVE RIGHT NOW! I HAVE TO GO!”
I got up out of the chair, still shivering violently and I made my way over to Luke and said in what seemed to me to be a crazed voice, “I have to go. I have to get out of here. I have to leave right now.”
He was kind of weirded out. “Umm, okay… go ahead and I’ll catch up.” We futzed around with some gear stuff for a moment. I can’t remember if I put my pack on, or if we agreed for him to bring it with him as he caught up to me… but, this moment where we were futzing around was also caught on video. Jenn was trying to talk some runner into taking a shot, or a nip of mescal. And I looked over and said something to her that made her cackle with laughter… I have no recollection of this happening, let alone of what I said, but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of “That sounds like a terrible idea.” Whether it was my statement, or something the other runner murmured to her, she was amused.
It’s kind of strange to see that video, because I think I seem relatively normal, but internally I was freaking. I just had to get out of there.
I knew, somewhere inside of me, that several things were true there at Long Lake at 1:00 in the morning… One, I wasn’t going to get any warmer sitting around there, my only hope of getting warm was to get moving. Two, Long Lake sits at, or just over, 10,000 feet and at that elevation, you’re just not going to feel great after 50+ miles of exertion. And three, the “real” me didn’t want to quit… not really. All of these realizations made me feel fierce and angry and motivated. I had to go.
I started hiking out of the aid station as fast as I could, all stiff and shivering and wobbly. I yelled back at Luke to grab my extra fleece out of the drop bag to bring with him. I knew it was going to get colder still and I wanted another layer just in case.
I kept hiking, as fast as I could. The shivering started to subside and that flickering in my guts had fanned into flame. I screamed an expletive to the sky to break free of that darkness that had conspired against me. I was moving again. There was a slight bit of downhill and for the first time in hours I broke into a jog. I was running away from the darkness. I was running to finish.
Luke caught me after some time and had to ask what had happened, why I had bolted out of there. It was hard to explain at the moment. I just said that I was afraid of quitting. He said that he wouldn’t have let me, and I knew that intellectually… but I had glimpsed some kind of darkness there and I just had to get out.
My brief jogging had slowed back down to a fast walk, but I had warmed back up enough to keep moving. I had continued to try and get calories down and was felling a bit better. At some point, we caught up to the loogie hocking, way overly-talkative guy referenced in the previous post, and he’d latched onto a couple of people… but we weren’t having any of that so we passed them.
That stretch of trail/ jeep road is a high expanse of open land, sitting at over 10,000 feet on a perfectly clear night and the cold was settling in deep. I heard some people say that it got down to single digits, but I’d reckon more in the low 20’s. And at times there was a breeze blowing across the trail. But with layers and movement we were fine.
Soon enough we rolled into Summit Lake Aid Station at mile 58 or so. It must have been 2:30 or later by now. I could tell that the entire outsole of my left heel had turned into one vast blister and it burned and hurt. It needed some attention, so Luke helped gather my drop bag and I grabbed some warm food.
Now, my selection here completely grossed Luke out… they had mashed potatoes that looked good, but too thick. And they had beef broth, all steam and hot. So, I took some mashed potatoes and ladled some broth on them to thin them down and I absolutely exulted with joy. Never had salty carbs tasted so good.
Also, this aid station had more coverage around the sides and with the heater roaring, it was quite warm. Warm enough to be able to attend to my foot without shivering violently. My heel was a mess of sweat, blister and gravely dirty dusty nastiness. I cleaned it a bit, lanced the blister as best I could, slapped a band aid and a bunch of duct tape on there and we headed out. The fist quarter of a mile were agonizing as every step sent fire through my heel. Eventually, though, my body accepted that we weren’t stopping and it became tolerable.
From Summit Lake Aid, there’s a 13+ mile descent down to the edge of Steamboat Springs again, to the Spring Creek Aid Station. But, just a little over half way down, there’s the Dry Lake Aid Station and there we would see the crew once again. So, we had 7 miles to go to get to crew and for Luke to drop off and for me to pick up Sara.
In my prerace planning and training on this part of the course, I had figured I’d be able to jog a good part of this section, but mostly we shuffled and walked and occasionally jogged a little.
What was awesome, though, was that we began to run into faster runners who had made it all the way down and were now on their way back up again. It’s always encouraging to share well wishes with others in the race and it was encouraging, even if it wasn’t speeding me up.
We did run into one runner coming back up the trail who was alone, with no pacer, which meant he was one of the elite “Hares” of the race. Luke and I had stopped for something, I think to mess with headlamps, because mine had died (Which is somewhat rage inducing and a long story of its own…). I knew we were close to seeing crew again, so I asked if that solo runner needed anything. He was barely dressed, having clearly misjudged how cold it would get, or how quickly he would be moving at this point, or both. I gave him one of my pullovers because we were getting warmer as we went down and I knew he would get colder as he continued up the trail back to Summit Lake. I found out later that he unfortunately dropped… but we tried to help.
Just a little bit more and we dipped down and back up a quarter mile or so and there was Dry Lake Aid Station. Melanie and Sara were there waiting with hugs and love and well wishes and hot chicken noodle soup and my “famous” coffee/ hot chocolate concoction. I was so happy and a bit over-emotional to see them. As we tended to needs and packs and food and clothing, I could barely make out Luke’s briefing Sara on my condition… “He’s not moving very well… we were walking stuff we should have been jogging…”
It was 4:00 am and I was nearly 2 hours behind my predicted schedule. It was slow going. But, it seemed that my stomach had turned a bit. Calories and carbs were going in just a little easier. The long downhill was helping, even if we hadn’t been moving too quickly.
After a long and grateful embrace with Luke, who had paced me like a champion once again, Sara and I headed out to finish the descent to Spring Creek Aid, and then to turn around and begin the crux of the race… the 13+ mile ascent, back up to Dry Lake where I would pick up Joey as my pacer and then on up to Summit Lake… and maybe to the finish.