Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Fire: North Fork 50K and other Western Adventures

Disclaimer:  I am not a pyromaniac and you are in no danger of spontaneous combustion if you hang out with me.

Boulder was the first stop on my western trip this summer.  I was attending a week-long history seminar at the University of Colorado and planned to use the time to try to do some running at elevation before the North Fork 50K the following Saturday in Pine, Colorado.   The first day, I ran from campus up to the Flatirons and ran a little bit on the trails there.  Okay, so I ran a block and walked a block.  It was 103 degrees and even though the elevation was only 5400 feet, I was still sucking some air.  The next day I planned to head to the top of the Flatirons to get even higher, but at lunchtime, there was a dry lightning storm.  When we came out of class a couple hours later, this is what we saw:

I went ahead and ran toward the Flatirons, but the fire was growing so the area was sealed off and would remain that way for the rest of the week.  The first night, as the fire grew, the campus was smoky, but the firefighters were able to start containing it within a couple of days, unlike the larger fires burning simultaneously in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

 North Fork 50K
Ironically, the North Fork 50K is a fund-raiser for a fire department that battled a large wildfire a few years ago and much of the race traverses the area that was burned.  The race date just happened to fall the day after my class ended which enabled me to finally run a race out west.  (For those of you who do not know me, I have asthma and had ACL reconstruction surgery last fall, important details for the rest of the story.)  This would be my first race at altitude and my first race on a somewhat difficult course since the ACL surgery.  I've had a lot of trouble doing some casual running when I've been out west, so this would be an interesting test. My six days in Boulder would not be enough to acclimate me, but I hoped (incorrectly) that my handful of runs at 5-6,000 feet at home would help.

When Tony and I arrived race morning, everything was well organized, parking was no problem and the volunteers were friendly and helpful.   The plan was for Tony to fish (the North Fork of the Platte runs through the park) while I ran.  Tony would end up catching 35 fish while waiting for me to finish.

The race starts next to the river, following it for a short distance before starting the first long climb.  I was in no real hurry; I was here to just run. At least that was my attitude for the first part of the race.  My months of hiking helped as I was able to keep up with many runners on the climb, and quickly the first climb was over. You'll notice in the pictures just how nice the trails are, compared to trails in the Appalachians.

Even though I had kept up with many runners at the start of the climb, by the time things started to level off, I felt like I was being passed by everyone.  I am so slow!  At one point, I heard some creaking behind me and thought, "Great.  I'm about to be passed by someone in a wheelchair."  It turned out to be a mountain biker, but that is how I felt the whole day.

This first section went through the open burn section and then dipped down into some woods for the descent into the first aid station.  Everyone was helpful and encouraging and there was a wide variety of goodies to choose from.

The next section ran through some woods and then came out into another burned area.  The wide open view was beautiful and the pictures really don't do it justice.  Unfortunately, the sun was really beating down on us by this point and would continue until the next big climb. I enjoyed this section.  There was a lot of downhill to accompany the views. 

The second aid station was stocked as well as the first and in addition to food and water, I was treated to a nice sponge-down.  The course then followed a dirt road briefly before heading uphill again.  The trail was shaded and ran through some conifers and aspen, making it a nice break from the hot sun.  I was able to keep moving steadily on this climb, but stopped at one point and took my brace off.  I think the brace is what is making the knee hurt at this point because I have to cinch it down so tight on long runs. (I also decided that after this race, I was done wearing the brace.) When I finally hit the top, some mountain bikers assured me it was all downhill at this point and it was.  It was a nice rolling run, but I was starting to have problems not only with the knee, but with energy.  Even though I could get a deep breath, I was losing steam.
Photo by Brian Gaines

After the third aid station, you were back out in the burn area again.  This area was really pretty with some cool rock formations and great views.

It was very hot but tolerable and after the short climb, it was all downhill.  Here, the wheels fell off as I had to start taking walk breaks even on downhills and the knee was hurting.  I was still having fun and enjoying the course, but it was frustrating. (Okay, I'll admit this.  I thought that once the surgeon let me start running again in March, that I would be back to my old self within a couple months.  The knee would no longer hurt and I would have my strength, speed and endurance back.  Apparently this is not the case and the asthma just compounded my frustration.)

Anyway, the course went back through aid station two (making it handy for drop bags) and then the last climb began.  It was not steep, but I was walking everything that was not downhill and walking it slowly.  The course dipped back into some sparse woods and the skies started to darken.  It began to thunder and I really wanted to be past the top and on the downhill before the storm hit.  Unfortunately, I was at the top on some rocks when it started raining, but it was brief and lightning was not an issue.  The rain did two things for me.  It cooled things down some and I was able to run again for a time.  At home, when ozone is a problem, sometimes the rain will clean things out. 

After stopping at an unmanned water station, I was able to run for quite a while on a rolling dirt road.  By the end of the road, though, I was back to death-marching it.  The trail twisted through a lightly wooded area and down to the last aid station. It was getting hot again and I passed a couple people here who were having a tough time with cramping.  (It was hard for me to know how much electrolytes to take in, since there is no humidity and although I knew I was sweating, I had no idea how much.) The last aid station was catering to both 50K runners on their way to the finish and 50 milers who had headed out again, so it was a pretty busy place.  Despite that, volunteers put ice and water in my pack and gave me a cup of pickle juice without looking at me strangely

The last section was very pretty and mainly downhill.  I was taking a lot of walk breaks and favoring my knee, so I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures! 

As I headed toward the finish, I found Tony fishing and he ran with me to the finish.  I was determined that I was not going to walk this last 1/4 mile, but when I hit the finish line, I was hyperventilating, a scary first for me. 

At the finish, there was a free BBQ for runners and their families, a cool finishers award and an ice-cold river to soak your feet in.  

This was a great race.  The course was beautiful and well-marked and under normal circumstances, pretty runnable. As for me, I've run a couple 50K long runs since surgery and 53 miles at Black Mountain, but this 50K felt like the last twenty miles of a hundred.  My time was 7:55, my slowest ever.  I guess I can cross Hardrock and Leadville off my to do lists!


So, Tony and I headed to Woods Landing, southwest of Laramie to a cabin on a river that we had rented.  This is what we saw as we got closer. Not a good sign.

As we got within a half mile of the cabin:

This was the start of the Squirrel Creek fire, which at this point was about 500 acres, but grew to over 10,000 acres. We were evacuated from our cabin after a couple hours and spent the rest of the vacation in Laramie, where nothing was on fire.  I tried all week to run at 7,000-11,000 feet in elevation, very unsuccessfully. I was ready to hang up the running shoes, but am back to running very normally, albeit slowly, here at home.