A long way on foot - Sheep Mountain Endurance Run

Fifty miles is a long way - regardless of how you travel. As I was training and preparing for Sheep Mountain Endurance Run, I knew that it would be a long day - I knew that there would be ups and downs, that the plan would have to be fluid and goals adjusted mid-race. That is the nature of endurance sports and the people who achieve are the ones who can go with the flow and find the ability to turn things around if they do go south. Obviously, for my first 50, I was hoping for nothing but smooth sailing - with no dark spots, no demons and smiling the whole way. A girl can always hope, right?

Runners assembled for the start
Photo - Human Potential Running
The sun was just starting to brighten the clouds as we walked to the starting line with nearly 100 other runners. The race director went through a few things, noting that there had already been some DNS's due to the elevation and to be smart. Smart... Most people would say smart would mean not doing something like a 50 mile (54 mile...) race on foot! And then we were off. A few runners bolted, but most of us seemed pretty happy to take it chill. The course had moved from the Fairplay Town Beach to the Park County Fairgrounds, so we had an additional mile of running through town. There were a few spectators for that first mile, and then we crossed the creek and set off into the west. It's too far to focus on the entire race, so my plan was to break it up in segments - run aid station to aid station and not worry about what was coming up three aid stations away. I figured the times between aid stations would be between an hour to two hours, so that was definitely manageable chunks. I was more worried about going too hard in the beginning with that strategy then anything else.

Start to Horseshoe. The theme here was settle - relax and make sure I didn't start too fast. Having run the South Park Trail Marathon at the beginning of June, I knew it would be easy to pick a pace quicker then I should for the distance remaining. It also meant letting everyone around me go if needed. Quiet the voices telling me to run faster, keep up the guys ahead of me. That was hard. But I managed, even walking up some of the steeper hills that the girls around me all ran. There would be plenty of time for racing later - the wide open miles through the "suburbs" of Fairplay weren't it. As before, Sheep Mountain revealed itself as we entered the National Forest, looming above the terrain. The sight of the mountain, of the ridgeline we were going to climb and the traverse just below the summit was both exhilarating and nerve wracking.  One of the guys I was running with asked his buddy if  he knew where the course went "I knew we have some climbing coming up, but what are we going up?" His friend just pointed towards Sheep Mountain. Up that. Way up that... Throw a few more logs on the fires of nervousness!
At Horseshoe, the drop bags were waiting for us. I asked one of the volunteers to add some water to my pack while I dug through my bag for my handheld, some food for the road and my Skratch. Getting my handheld at Horseshoe was part of my plan - I knew I wouldn't drink that much in the first 8 miles and didn't see the point of carrying the extra weight if I wasn't going to drink it. After thanking the volunteers, I headed off for the next segment of the race.

Horseshoe to Brown's Pass - the ascent of Sheep Mountain and the traverse across the ridge. But before we even hit Sheep Mountain, the course picked it's way through the sharp rocks of the Limber Grove. This was one part that I had gotten a chance to run before hand, so I knew what was coming. I ran a little more through Limber Grove this time, but wasn't willing to risk turning an ankle on the rocks. Hoping I wasn't making a mistake, I really tried to keep my pace easy and steady, even on the fun singletrack down into the campground. Mentally, I was a little worried - I'd stepped aside to let several runners around because I didn't want to push so hard so soon. I knew it was too early to race and there was a long, hard way to go. But that didn't mean I wasn't stressing about my position.
View of the Mosquito range from Sheep Mountain
After Limber Grove, we started the climb up Sheep Mountain. I started power hiking pretty quickly on the climb, each step taking me closer to treeline. Above, I could see tiny dots of color - other runners higher on the mountain. I caught one of the women who'd passed me and we chatted briefly. I'm not a very social runner, preferring my solitude on the trails. So on I went, one foot in front of the other, climbing higher and higher. The views were huge, with Pikes Peak looming to the east and the Mosquito range all around. I was happy I'd had a chance to explore the climb prior to race day - I was familiar with how long it was going to take and the landmarks indicating that we were nearly to the top. Through a small grove of trees, then across to an old, abandoned mine. Then the trail turned south and I could see the two women ahead of me. It wasn't far in terms of distance, but it was a couple of minutes. I filed the splits away, and returned my focus to the trail and the tricky footing over the granite. I could tell I was catching them slowly, but I also knew that the descent off Sheep Mountain was technical running. I had to pay attention to what I was doing, not the people ahead of me. Paying attention to the trail was hard with the views though - just incredible.
At Browns Pass, the volunteers were ready for us. I came in just behind the second place women, who asked what the gap to first was. About three minutes was the response. Second place was in and out in a hurry. Meanwhile, I made sure I was doing everything I needed to based on my mental check list for that point in the race. Eat a little food, refill pack, add some Skratch mix to the bladder.... The extra minute I spent there ensured that I would be prepared for the next long stretch of running.

Brown's Pass to Waltrus - singletrack! Glorious singletrack through open meadows and Aspen groves. At least, that was what was coming. First, a plunge from the aid station steeper then I'd anticipated. I actually backed off and slowly picked my way down the jeep road, again trying to be conservative in the early stages of the race. After the steep descent, the road opened up and I could see the runners ahead of me in the meadows. It was easy running at that point and super easy to get going at a quick clip. I settled into a comfortable pace, enoying the few miles of steady running instead of hiking. After the river crossing, the road started getting a little rockier, a little steeper with the rolling. We were getting close to the singletrack. I could tell. I'd caught a few of the guys who'd passed me on Limber Grove, but didn't know where the other women were. First place was out of sight and second place had bolted from the aid station.
I was really looking forward to the singletrack sections. I'd run all of the Sheep Creek Trail that we were running and most of Twelve Mile Creek. Fun running through flower filled meadows and aspen groves, across creeks and up and down rolling hills. My favorite kind of trail running. When we passed the two coolers of water - the unmanned, water only station at Twelve Mile, I opted not to fill my handheld. I had enough to get to Waltrus and didn't feel like stopping. Why take it if I didn't need it? And that meant we were onto the singletrack. The trail was faint, narrow but well marked with the red and white ribbons. Up steep little hills, then through open meadows. I kept looking around for wildlife, since Sherpa John had indicated that we were most likely to see animals in that distant, quiet section. No wildlife, but several groups of mountain bikers! They were all really cool, pulling over and letting us around. I was starting to miss my wheels at that point... My legs felt good - a few unusually sore areas for only have run about 18 miles. I chalked it up to the uneven terrain and crazy steep descents.
Just a trail - winding through aspens...
In one of the meadows, I saw the brightly colored outfit of the second place woman. Not too far ahead of me and slowing on the climbs. Still moving well through the flatter sections of trail, but I was catching her. I thought about trying to pick up the pace a little and making a move but opted not to. Once I did catch her, we ran together for a bit and then I went around. Into second. Would I be able to reel in first? I put the thought out of my mind and returned my focus to the trail. I'd missed the section where I'd turned around, but on Sheep Creek trail, I was remembered everything. The long gradual climbs out of the creek drainages, the narrow bridges, the exposed southern slopes and the wooded northern slopes.
At the top of the final climb, the canopy of the aid station came into view. I had a drop bag there with some extra food and socks, but it was only five miles to where Nick was waiting. I opted to just grab some snacks and get a little fresh water for the road. To my surprise, Joanna told me I was in the lead. But I'd never passed the other woman.. Had she gotten lost, stepped off the trail far enough I didn't see her? Who knew. But I was suddenly the hunted...
Waltrus to Round Hill - crew and spectators! And moose! After leaving Waltrus with cold water, ice and two frozen sugar treats, I prepared myself for the five mile road slog to Round Hill. It would be easy running, but exposed and hot. And windy - the wind had kicked up and was gusting little dust devils around the roads. I didn't know where anyone was, but knew that with my bright red long sleeved shirt and hunter's orange hat - I was a target... And very easy to see. Oh well.
The initial drop to the county road was another steep sucker. I picked my way around the ruts, being careful with my footing. At the parking lot where Nick and I had started out during our scouting run, I heard a noise in the woods. Looking up, I saw a large moose standing just off in the trees. And she wasn't alone - at first it was just one calf, but as I took a few more steps, I saw the second calf. All three of them just stood there, staring at me. Momma didn't necessarily look happy, so I kept moving. Then not even half a mile later, another moose! This one an even crankier looking bull moose - I really didn't stick around too long to admire him... It wasn't the first time I wished I'd had my camera with me!
The road was long as I'd anticipated. And my legs were aching. Aching much more then I wanted for being only 27 miles into the race. Add in the wind, traffic and dust and I was more then ready to crest that final hill and see the gathered crew and spectators. I ran past the aid station, checking in and out, and headed straight to the van where Nick was waiting. I did confuse the volunteers a little since he was parked just past the turn off the road...
Nick had everything ready - chair for me to sit down in, my new shoes and a fresh pair of Swiftwick Pursuits ready, de-fizzed coke, food and the new bladder for my pack. I took off the old shoes and socks, cleaned my feet a little and then put on the new pairs while Nick swapped bladders out. Then he washed my face, soaked my hat, refilled my handheld and stashed more food in the pockets. I drank as much of the soda as I could (he made me finish it...) and finished the food I'd opened and had been nibbling on. The whole process was quick and smooth - our years of mountain bike race pit stops helped more then I'd anticipated. Then it was time to head back into the woods - back up to Brown's Pass..

Round Hill to Brown's Pass - where the heck did this steep hill come from? I knew there would be climbing but seriously? It wasn't the climb up Round Hill that got me - that wasn't bad and there were plenty of wildflower to distract me from the elevation. The demons were lurking right in the back of my mind - I could see the second and third place women ascending the jeep road below me. Were they more experienced and had they paced better? When would they make the catch? I looked behind me more then I should have - magnifying the effect of the demons.
On the climb out of Round Hill - the photo does not do the flowers justice
Photo - Sherpa John
The sun was high and the temperature climbing - the head intensified by the smoke in the air. The wind had kicked up and was blowing smoke up the valley from the Hayden Pass Fire east of Salida. I could feel the smoke burning in my mouth as I climbed. I ran where I could, but felt like I was walking almost everything. But every time I looked over my shoulder, I could see how steep the climb really was. Wow. Ugh. And the jeep road we were running on was rocky and loose, making it even harder. My legs and feet were happier with the new shoes and clean socks, but the spunk was gone. I was still power hiking well, but not running much. And it felt like every turn tipped up even higher, with even more climbing. I could see Brown's Pass in the distance, nestled below the barren summit of Sheep Mountain. It really wasn't that far, I kept telling myself. In a few places, the trail seemed to vanish - and all I was doing was following the line of ribbons. It made it hard to try running as I wasn't sure where I was going and there was no clear trail to follow. But the route finding kept my mind off the women behind me. I was still looking behind me, but not as frequently as I had to keep my eyes peeled for ribbons.
The faint trail opened up to a more well used jeep road and I was able to run a little better. Again, the fatigue and soreness in my legs was concerning. I hadn't ever had issues like this before in any of my long runs. There were sections of road that I was sure I should be running, but every time I tried, my legs just ached. With more then 20 miles to go, I knew it would be a long day if I pushed too hard. The goal was to finish - no destroy myself! The brief lull in climbing ended quickly as we started the final ascent to Brown's Pass. It had been a quiet stop before - just a few people and everyone being serious. Not this time - I popped out of the thick trees to music, banners and cowbells... I hadn't planned on much more then refilling my handheld and getting some real food and it was a good thing. Brown's Pass was the hardest aid station to get to and they were the one we saw twice. And they were already running low on some things.
Brown's Pass to Pasture - the plummet from the mountain and to supplies. With a full handheld and after inhaling some watermelon, I steeled myself for the descent to Pasture. This part I'd run - I knew it would be steep, rocky baby heads and just plain challenging for the first few miles. It was a short section, but hard and painful. My legs were getting to the point where I had no desire to try to run down the steeper sections of trail.
There was a crowd of people at the Pasture Crew Point. I knew where I was headed - right to the brown van. Nick again had the chair set up with everything he though I would need ready for me and more. This time both the coke and a ginger ale - which he insisted I drink. Food, the yogurt I wanted and a refilled bladder with some ice. I did have one request he hadn't anticipated - soaking my long sleeved shirt in some ice water. That was one benefit of the long sleeves - getting the shirt wet helped keep me cooler then just soaking my skin. We got everything done and then I was off again. Fourteen miles left to go. An easy run... Should only take about three hours.... I was cutting the time on my goal of 11 hours close. I'd have to keep moving and stay focused for the last miles in order to make it. I had time still - but with the race being 54 miles, not 50 - I was already tight at the start. Part of trail running though. Everyone in the race was faced with the same challenges.

Pasture to Horseshoe - "You've been warned..." Next time I see that on a race communiqué,  I'll pay a little more attention! I knew we were climbing back up - or at least halfway up Sheep Mountain. I knew we were crossing Limber Grove again. But I didn't know how we were getting there. In my exploration run, I'd gotten a little turned around and turned before Pasture, missing some of the singletrack. I trotted down the road, working on a comfortable ultra shuffle on the double track. Just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And keep eating and drinking... John had directly said that this was a long, slow seven miles, planting the seeds of worry in my mind.
Onto singletrack and one of the guys I'd been going back and forth with finally caught me for good. He was running more of the downhills then I was at that point and it was all the difference. I'd dropped down into 6th place overall. I kept up my trot, walking and power hiking when I needed to, but not able to increased the pace much for the descents. With the slowness of my pace, the demons had come roaring back. And now we were in the trees and I couldn't seen behind me at all. I didn't know if I had two minutes, five minutes or 20 minutes. I'm sure I wasted a lot of energy and time looking over my shoulder, wondering where everyone was. Something to remember for next time - if there is a next time! The first section of singletrack was fun. Really pretty and really nice running. It was a hiker/horse/bike trail, but didn't seem like it got a lot of use. But it was well made and easy to follow as it meandered up and down and around trees and meadows. Another section of double track followed, trending downhill. I knew that anytime we had a downhill, that meant another climb was coming. I just didn't know where the turn would be to start the climb back up Sheep Mountain.
But when it came, it was clear that it was time to climb again. This was a motor bike trail and as such followed different rules. With an engine, going straight up the mountain is a little easier! We climbed up a gully, the trail zigzagging from side to side of the narrow gully. Steep. Very steep. I kept looking behind me, thinking how much more fun it would be to descend on wheels instead of climbing. The walls of the gully kept it shaded and it was cool and green. I wasn't doing much running at all and even my power hiking had slowed drastically. I kept telling myself that everyone else was just as tired and hurting just as much, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I would hit the downhill soon and be able to run again. Or so I thought. I should have known better given the steepness of the ascent that the downhill wouldn't be what I was able to run at that time. A very narrow, off camber ribbon of trail before rejoining the first 10 miles of the course. I wasn't running much - picking my way carefully through the rocks. But I wasn't the only one suffering on the descent - I was able to catch one of the other guys ahead of me as we started the traverse of Limber Grove. We talked briefly - it sounded like he was hurting pretty bad and hearing the aid station across the creek wasn't helping moral.
But when we finally reached the aid station - finally food other the sweet! Tator tots, pickles...mmm. I had three little cups of pickles while the volunteers refilled my bladder with some water and added some Skratch mix. I also refilled my handheld, knowing that it would be a long 7 miles to the finish.
And then I was off - in 5th place again, but with the assurances that the two guys head of me were looking pretty rough.
Horseshoe to Finish - the longest miles of open road. Having run the South Park Trail Marathon, I knew what was coming. The double track climb up out of the aid station. The rocky forest service road leaving the trees behind. I remembered all the turns and the gradual climbs and  hoped to use that to my advantage in the last few miles. I used the climb to eat - knowing that the seven miles I had left would take me about 80 minutes. It wasn't time to stop eating yet. My legs were hurting on the descent out of the trees and I had to stop and walk a few times. My goal was to just settle into my shuffle and keep it moving until the finish. I had my doubts though - my legs were hurting. Beyond the fatigue of 47 miles hurting. The watch and the realization that I wouldn't make my goal of sub 11:00 was starting to play with the demons - that and the fact that we were again on open road and easy to see.
On the last stretch of Forest Service road, with just about 6 miles to go. Sheep Mountain in the background
Off the rocky road and onto the washboarded county roads. Easier running, but still hard. The ribbons leading the way were still there, but 11 hours of traffic had dusted out some of the paint on the road. I knew where I was going though. With a quick stop at unmanned water stop at Blue Stem, I refilled my handheld and kept moving. My watch hit 50 miles in 11:09 - so I had been close to my goal if the race had been just fifty! But I had another four miles to go. On the top of one of the small hills, I glanced over my shoulder to see two runners behind me. I couldn't tell if one of them was a woman or not, or even where they had come from. And despite my best efforts at "picking up the pace" There was no oomph left in my legs. Even my shuffle was getting painful.
Just a few more hills and a few more miles left to go. I ran a little, shuffled a little, walked some more and repeated the process. All the while, looking over my shoulder, seeing the runners behind me moving smoothly and making up ground. Each corner gave me a chance to hide my walking. Yes, the demons were screaming that I was going to get caught, that I would loose the win in the final miles of a 54 mile race. I was so happy I'd done the SPTM as I rounded each corner - knowing what was coming was one less stressor in the end of a long race. Pavement - getting closer. All that was left was the drop into the beach and then the climb out and over to the Fairgrounds. I was still running - shuffling - walking, but trying to keep the running and shuffling more then the walking. The runners behind me were close as I climbed up from the beach. Close enough that I was fairly sure it was two guys, but not confident. Luckily, I didn't have to wait for traffic on HYW 9 - was able to run right through. The long straight road leading up to the Fairgrounds and the finish - a gradual climb that I would have to run in order to hold off the runners behind me.
It was close.
Into the finish line - the two guys almost caught me!
I finished in 11:55, taking third overall. With the course being extended this year to start and finish at the Fairgounds, it was actually a new course record - despite being 25 minutes slower then the women's winner last year. And the guys behind me? They had actually taken a wrong turn just after the unmanned water stop which was why they appeared so suddenly behind me after getting back on course.

With a smile!
The minute I stopped running, stopped moving - everything hurt. Nick had the chairs out and that was it for the day. We hung out at the finish, cheering for all the other running completing the race. Nick took over grilling food for the volunteers and runners. There was a band playing at the fair, the Ferris wheel spinning and it was a nice, relaxing night. With Nick up and about, we had many runners using the other chair - happy for a place to sit after a long day on their feet. Everyone who finished was saying that it was the hardest race they'd done - and they were hours slower then any other fifty. We stayed until the bitter end - the 10:00 cut off - and got to watch the final runners finishing just before 10:00.

A slightly out of focus Ferris Wheel to finish it out with...


Popular posts from this blog

Fifty Plus DC

KC Masterpiece

Only human