For the better part of the last two weeks, my home has been the road. Since the chairlifts stopped spinning in Aspen on April 15th, my life has returned to single minded dedication to running, without any significant interruptions from “real life.” The seasonal nature of my job has afforded me both the time and resources necessary to temporarily relocate to the comfortable accommodations of my Jeep for an extended tour of the American West. Since I really had no concrete plans ahead of time, the trip has really taken on a life of its own. It has become an evolving project, which I’m calling Vision Quest 2012, because of the solo, quasi-spiritual nature of the experience. My race at the Leona Divide 50 on Saturday was certainly a highlight of the Vision Quest and has helped to rationalize my rediscovery of the run-gypsy lifestyle.
Prior to the race, I had my typical doubts regarding my personal preparedness but, come race morning, I felt surprisingly relaxed and genuinely happy to be there. Lots of high fives and hugs were exchanged before we were dispatched onto the trails of Southern California to do battle in the hills for several hours. Luckily, ultra battles always start with an air friendliness. We all took our time catching up on each other’s lives as the sun rose overhead on a cloudless SoCal morning. Eventually, a group separated from the rest of the pack that included Chikara Omine, Dominic Grossman, James Bonnett, Jason Wolfe, Yassine Diboun, Timothy Olson, Jorge Maravilla, Jason Schlarb, and myself. We essentially remained together through the aid station at mile 16.5, where we were to confront the most difficult climb of the day
Jorge, Jason Wolfe, and myself managed to sneak through the aid station before the rest of the group, and began the climb together. Wolfe had been climbing really strong up to this point and put on a clinic for Jorge and I going up this particular hill. We would catch up a bit at aid stations and downhills, but it was clear that Wolfe was climbing like a monster and felt comfortable in the lead. It seemed to me that he might run away with it at that point.
At around mile 27, the trail connects to a two-mile bomber dirt road descent. At the bottom there is an aid station that also serves as the turnaround for 50-mile runners, who then run an abbreviated version of the course already covered en route to the finish line back in Lake Hughes. I left the aid station (mile 29.5) about ten seconds behind Wolfe, with Jorge maybe one minute back of me and one minute ahead of Timothy. Wolfe’s ten second lead quickly became a minute as he again dusted me going back uphill to the PCT reconnection. My spirits were supremely high though as I exchanged smiles and encouragement with my downhill bound competition. I was definitely in the stoke zone, which is always a good sign with more than half the race in the rearview.
I was happy to get back on the PCT at mile 32 for what I knew would be some really fun miles. This section of trail consists mostly of super thin, snaking singletrack with a very gradual downhill trajectory – sort of the perfect terrain for finding a rhythm and really running hard. Maybe a half mile after reconnecting to the PCT I came around a corner to find Wolfe jumping up and down on one foot like he had hurt himself. I was really surprised to see him and inquired as to whether he was okay. He said that he had tripped and that his whole leg seized up in a violent cramp but otherwise was okay. He began to walk/jog it off as I went around him. As I passed he said, “I’ll be seeing you soon.” At that moment, I knew I had to go and go hard.
For the next ten miles I was in full on gas mode, plowing downhill recklessly and being as fast and efficient as possible on the short bits of climbing. I came back through the aid station at mile 42.5 in 5:05 still felt pretty strong. My dear Aunt Kim had travelled from Santa Barbara to be at the race and was there to provide sustenance for the final hour of hard racing. Kim got her first taste of the ultra scene at Leadville last year, and has since developed her bottle/gel hand off technique enough to be a very capable one woman crew. She did a great job and had as much fun as me on Saturday, which made me really happy.
After the quick resupply, the trail led to the final climb of the day. While only having about 1,000 feet of relief over about four miles, this section was a real grunt. I was incredibly focused at this point even though my physical condition was deteriorating fairly quickly. I essentially knew that, if I made it to the top of the climb with a little cushion, the race for first would be all but over. Soon thereafter, I was bombing back down the dirt road to Lake Hughes looking over my shoulder every thirty seconds, consciously working to maintain a race mentality all the way to the finish.
I crossed the line with my arms raised in 6:00:38 which was good for a 21 minute improvement over the previous course record. The stoke meter had officially been shattered. Little did I know, there was serious drama unfolding just behind me for second through fourth positions. From what I gathered, Timothy and Jorge went through the last aid station nearly together before dropping 5:20 miles down the dirt road to chase down Wolfe and secure podium positions. I’m so happy I wasn’t part of that nonsense. I was incredibly inspired by the performances of these two men who had both thrown down stellar performances at the Lake Sonoma 50 just two week earlier. Had they been fresh, I have little doubt they would’ve smoked me.
Wolfe was just a minute behind Jorge with friend and fellow Coloradoan, Jason Schlarb, not far back to round out the top five. I spent probably five hours socializing after the race which might be also be a new PR. Kiera [Henninger] puts on one heck of a race/party out in there in SoCal. I’m really happy to have been a part of it.
So yeah, I have a spot at Western States. Holy smokes, that’s hard to believe. For the next eight weeks my life will be fully dedicated to preparation. Four weeks after Western is Angeles Crest, which will make for a fun little double. For now though, I’m focused on the next stop of Vision Quest 2012 – two days of raging and tanning in Las Vegas. Fire it up!