Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pocatello 50 miler turned 50K--2010 blizzard edition

As I came into the mile 26 aid station a very nice man said to me, "The race has been cancelled." My response was, "Thank god." I then asked him to confirm a couple of times just to be sure, as I could hardly believe the joyful news.  I was trying hard not to succumb to the cold and didn't want to drop at mile 32, but the thought of heading up Scout Mountain, which was a good 1500 feet or so higher than anything we'd encountered so far, was less than appealing.  And with cold, wet feet, and a feeling that I could again start shivering uncontrollably at a moment's notice, I was happy, maybe for the first time on Saturday, at the thought of not needing to head up Scout Mountain.  Not only not needing to, but not being allowed to.  I think I might have teared up again at this point, but this time not out of sheer misery.  Thank you RDs for this sane decision in what felt like insane conditions.  I had decided on more than one occasion during the first leg, that these Idaho folks were crazy and that I was definitely not hard core enough for this little adventure.

Before heading out of the mile 16 aid station, I wondered how many times does one allow oneself to nearly freeze to death in one week?  I'd been on a long bike ride the Sunday before on Skyline drive in Forest Park, which had turned ugly once it started to rain hard at the turnaround.  By the time I'd gotten home, my lower back was spasming, and I was shaking uncontrollably.  I couldn't shift very well, and was having trouble using my brakes, in addition to clipping out of my pedals.  I had really embraced the rain in Portland all winter, but that ride and then the ensuing crappy week of rain and cool temps had me really over cold wet weather and dreaming of summer.

This was my first real trip to Idaho.  I'd driven through on my drive west, but had only spent the few hours it takes to drive through on I-84.    I picked Sean up in Bend on Thursday night and we headed eastward (I'm still working out the fact that Idaho is to the east...having lived in the midwest or east coast my entire life, I still think that everything "west" is west), and he quickly experienced my driving-induced narcolepsy, as he was awoken from a nap to the sound of me slapping my face to stay awake (just one of the many reasons I like to carpool).  After witnessing our first of many accidents (motor home meets herd of cows--not pretty for either party) we camped for the night somewhere along a river in Oregon.  Friday was pretty uneventful: drive, car accident, road construction, check the weather forecast, car accident, keep driving, check the weather forecast, etc.  The weather forecast looked promising for Pocatello and the forecast was no longer calling for rain.  Woohoo!!  We had opted to camp at the start/finish, and we arrived almost in time for the race briefing, where we were warned about the several miles of snow that we'd be trekking through on Scout.   A cool and breezy evening, but after a good meal, I had a warm and cozy night's sleep and the 6 a.m. start rolled around quickly.

The start was misleadingly warm.  I wore a sleeveless shirt, arm warmers, wind breaker, and mittens on top, and a skirt.  But the temps started to drop not long after we started, and by the time we were on our way up the first climb, the rain had started.  It wasn't pleasant, but wasn't miserable.  I was sucking air and really feeling the altitude, so was thinking more about the lack of oxygen, than the rain.  The rain made the descent down into the mile 8 aid station insanely slippery.  The trail resembled a louge track in this section and I as I slid down the hill, bouncing off the banked walls, it kind of felt like one, too.  There was one point when I crashed off to the left, managed a couple of steps, and then face-planted off to the right.  I think I had only crashed twice by the time I got to the mile 8 aid station, but there were more crashes to come.  The mud in this section was really special; both slippery and clumping, so while sliding downhill, I managed to pick up about 6 inches of it on the bottom of each shoe (Montrail Masochists, don't know if any shoes worked well in this mud, but these didn't).

The bush whack section was next. And I have to mention that I'm surprised this was even allowed by the Forest Service (although I have no idea what type of land this particular section is classified as....).  While it would be fun and interesting on a nice day, it does entail about 150 people traipsing off-trail up a steep climb.  It's a tad bit disruptive to the habitat here, I would think.  But that's a tangent....  So, about a third of the way up this section of bushwhacking up to a ridge, the sideways "snail" started (a mix of snow and hail--the sideways part, because it was coming at us sideways because of the gale force winds).  I do remember being happy that the mud had finally fallen off of my shoes, so there was a positive in this section.  Roch passed by me on the climb, mentioning that we only had 20 minutes to the top (it looked like 2, so I was a bit disheartened to hear this), and I remember losing sight of him, and thinking that that was a bad idea.  It didn't take long before I was miserable and cold. I couldn't feel my legs, my fingers were numb, and I was starting to swear frequently (and cry less frequently).  The markings were pink and blue ribbons tied low onto little shrubs.  The course was absurdly well-marked, for the most part, but as the snail picked up and as it became harder to keep looking ahead with the pings of snail in the eyes, it was really hard to figure out where the flagging was taking me.  I knew that I was completely under-dressed for these conditions, and needed to spend as little time as possible up on top.

I got off course at some point, and luckily as I made my way back to the last bit of flagging I had passed, a guy in the distance (probably only 20 m, but there was zero visibility, and who I later found out was Kelly, who had spent lots of time up here and knew where he was going) pointed off to the left, so I headed leftwards.  Unfortunately, many other runners didn't have a "Kelly" who knew the area like the back of his hand, so many groups of runners (there were reports of groups of 7 and 12, along with a few solo runners) ended up wandering (some for several hours) trying to find their way.   After veering to the left, we eventually hit a jeep road type of trail that ran along the ridge.  I don't remember how long we were on the ridge beyond this, but there was eventually a turn off to the right, which I found (some missed this turn, too, and Kelly had blown by me on the ridge), and the downward trek to the City Creek aid station had begun.  Running was a challenge, as the mud was again slick, and I couldn't feel my feet or legs, but there was hope in that downhill meant an aid station, eventually.  At some point I emptied my water bottle, because I was too cold to drink, and the bottle was too heavy to carry under my arm without dropping it.  I had taken it out of the handheld strap, because I needed to bunch my hands up into balls in my mittens to keep them warm and I couldn't do this and hold onto the bottle with a hand.  I tried to stick the water bottle down my skirt but my hands weren't functioning well enough to do this, and tried to stick it down my bra, but again, this was a challenge, so eventually just left it along side the trail when I dropped it.  I crashed again at some point, flat on my butt, with both mittens buried in sloppy mud.

It eventually stopped snowing, and the trail turned dry.   It even warmed to the point, that the day felt completely un-extreme, and I had a feeling the people at the City Creek aid station wouldn't understand if I tried to explain I had nearly frozen up on top.  Alas, by the time I got to the aid station, I could hardly think of a reason not to go on (except the fear of how much Scout Mountain would suck in a blizzard), assuming I could put on a couple more layers.  All I had in this drop bag was a Payday, my nathan hydration pack, and a short-sleeved shirt, as I had saved all of my "warm" gear for the Mink Creek aid station at mile 32 for the climb over Scout (my "warm" gear consisted of dry shoes and socks, pants, a thin capilene long sleeve shirt, and a hat, which all seemed completely inadequate at this point).  I put on my short sleeve shirt and Linda loaned me a jacket (which made the rest of the journey thoroughly more enjoyable--thanks Linda!) and I grabbed my pack.  I had been surprised to see Sean and Joelle standing at the aid station when I got in.   I was somewhat relieved to find that I wasn't the only one that thought the conditions up there had sucked, and had considered dropping.  The three of us left the aid station together shortly after I got in, although they quickly lost me.  I hadn't taken time to eat anything at the aid station so was bonking a bit, and my lower back was screaming from being clenched from the cold.  The hydration pack wasn't helping matters with the lower back pain, but my water bottle now lived somewhere on that last descent.

I grudgingly made my way up the climb, and hit the next aid station, which was just 2 people, and asked if I was in for another cold and miserable climb and ridgeline.  They confirmed that this was a likely scenario.  Without further whiney details, this climb also became cold, windy and snowy.  There was much more snow at this point (parts had probably accumulated 4 inches or so), which made the traction pretty good, as the mud was covered by snow.  The course was kind of frappuccino-like in both color and consistency, and was pretty runnable once up and over the last steep section of climb.

Eventually, the mile 26 aid station came into view, and the glorious news was received that the race had been called.  We now just had to make our way down to the Mink Creek aid station at mile 32.  They tried to encourage me to warm up in front of a heater, but I just wanted to get down and get warm where I could stay warm.  I picked up a guy that had been warming at the aid station, and ran with him for a few miles on what was a very runnable section.  The snow really improved the grip.  He eventually dropped me, and I passed by a relay runner that had passed me on the climb.  He looked to be having a pleasant hike to the "finish."  The course turned to complete slop for the last half of this section, and my feet were cold, wet, and ready to be done.  The entire run had really bothered the issues I've been having with the tendons on the inside of my right ankle, as there was no stability with the mud, snow, slush, etc. and my ankle tends to do OK on even terrain, but complain a bit otherwise.

The tent and "finish" eventually arrived, and I devoured some hot chocolate while Sean had no trouble convincing me not to camp out on Saturday and to head into Pocatello to find a hotel and a hot shower.  We quickly departed and shuffled down the road to the start/finish area, which as it turned out was only about a quarter of a mile from the Mink Creek aid station.  I don't think the hotel reception desk was too thrilled to see us come in, covered from head to toe in mud, but being that my teeth were chattering uncontrollably, and my hand was shaking so much that I could hardly sign my name, they just handed over the keys quickly.  A hot shower followed by 15 minutes in the hot tub, and I was back to normal, more or less.

Lessons learned:
1.  I don't like to be cold.  Not really a lesson learned, but a reminder.  As I lay in bikram yoga class this afternoon basking in the heat and humidity, it made me question my move away from the 100 degree humid heat that I loved about DC summers so.  I love that feeling when you get into a car in the summer and you just kind of cook before you roll down the windows.  I can't say that the opposite is true.  I rarely enjoy feeling cold.  Maybe I'll look into some hot ultras next year.

2.  For any mountain ultra, I need to prepare for the worst and stick some emergency items in drop bags, just in case.  If I hadn't been able to borrow a jacket, I'd have been even more miserable on that second climb, but if I had thought to throw a set of warm clothes in that City Creek drop bag I could have been even less miserable than I was.  Dry gloves would have rocked, as I used my arm warmers pulled down over my hands for the second leg after my mittens were trashed during a fall in the first leg.  And the "warm" clothes I'd thrown in for Scout were pretty laughable.  I shouldn't have used last year's race to predict what I would need this year (photos of runners frolicking down snow fields in tank tops).

3.  No matter how cold I get, try to remember to force myself to eat and drink.  I was starving by the time I reached Mink Creek.  In over 6+ hours I consumed 2 gels and a Payday, and probably a half liter of water.  Gels were just a pain in the ass to get open, but the extra effort might have kept me warmer in the end.

4.  Impromptu blizzards just kind of suck.  We are lucky that everyone was found relatively unharmed, as it could have gotten really ugly out there.  The RDs made the right call to call the race when they did.  With the amount of snow on the second climb, there could've easily been a foot of new snow on Scout, and the markers, in general were low to the ground.  With blowing snow, and potentially hidden markers, Scout was a disaster waiting to happen.  Add that to runners who were already wet and tired, and who had probably not been taking care of themselves as they normally would have with regards to nutrition and hydration, and it would have gotten ugly.

In the end, I was pretty happy that I never had to make the call to drop or not.  A DNF would have been disappointing, but to continue on would have been stupid.