Saturday, August 23, 2014

Devil Mountain 50: Aug.23rd, 2014 "When the going gets tough!"

Me, Ed, Charlie, and Joe Ready to Rock
The Devil Mountain 50 Miler takes place in Pagosa Springs, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains.  I found about this race through Jessica's cousin Joe and his wife Debra who live in Pagosa Springs.  Joe told me he was going to run a local 50 miler called Devil Mountain and said it would be awesome if we could make it out there for the race.  I love visiting Colorado so I instantly started searching for plane tickets after Joe told me about the event.  I found a great deal on round trip tickets and signed up for the 50 miler.  In addition to the 50 mile race they also offer a 50K along with races of other distances including a half marathon which Jessica signed up for.  The 50 mile course traverses over dirt service roads, dirt fire roads, open meadows, beautiful single track trails, and mountain ridges.  It is some of the toughest but most beautiful terrain I have ever seen with steep rocky climbs and sweeping views of the area.  The course was designed by an ultra running legend, Frozen Ed Furtaw, who has many years of experience running the Barkley Marathons which is one of, if not the, toughest foot race in America.  He even wrote a book "Tales From Out There" detailing the evolution of the Barkley over the years.  Devil Mountain brought me to a conclusion that Frozen Ed likes to make things challenging because he knows the mental reward for finishing is so much greater.

Me, Joe, and Debra before the start
This challenge was sort of an awakening for me in many ways which I will describe throughout this race report.  I had to start training for Devil Mountain in mid May after the dust settled from the excitement of my first 100 mile finish back in April.  I was riding on cloud nine from my accomplishment but had a tough and longer then expected recovery and my motivation to start training again was very low for most of the summer.  In the back of my mind I knew I should of been training really hard by doing a ton of hill work and strength training as well as getting in a lot of miles on the trail; however, I did very few back to back weekend long runs and pretty much just went through the motions.  About six weeks before the race I finally started to get some quality trail runs in and also some high mileage runs throughout the week.  This helped to boost my confidence for Devil Mountain but I had no idea of the adventure I was about to face.  In June Joe had mentioned to me that he started running with this guy named Ed Furtaw.  I read "Tales From Out There" awhile back and when I made the connection I was really excited to meet Ed.  It was going to be an honor to meet someone that brings new meaning to the word determination.  With his superior ultra running resume I knew I could talk to him for hours and barely scratch the surface with all the info I wanted to pick his brain about.  I also found out Ed was running the Devil Mountain 50 miler in preparation for a fall race on the Barkley course.  Also, we found out that Charlie, a friend of Jessica's cousin Therese in Indiana, was in Colorado and he was running the race as well. 

Frozen Ed Furtaw giving me words of wisdom
Jess and I arrived late on Thursday night before the race.  We stayed up late talking to Joe and Debra and it was really nice catching up with them.  Early Friday morning I woke up with a pretty severe ear ache.  I went back to sleep and it was mild when I woke up again.  I thought it might be from the pressure from flying as I had developed ear aches in the past from flying.  I was hoping it would go away before the race on the next day.  We toured Pagosa Springs and went to get supplies for Debra's aid station that she was in charge of for miles 32 and 37 of the 50 mile race.  While picking up supplies at the one of the race director's house we met Ed and his wife Gail.  They seemed like great people and I was looking forward to hanging out with them.  Then we went to pick up our race packets in the San Juan National Forest where the race starts and finishes.  After getting the race packets we went back to Joe and Debra's place for Debra's famous pre-race spaghetti.  We also met some of their friends from Pagosa Springs; Stephen and his wife Randi.  Stephen was looking forward to running Devil Mountain as his first 50 mile race but became sick a few weeks before the race and was still not well enough to do the run.  They were really fun and we had a good time eating dinner and getting to know them.

Joe and Doug bombing the downhill
We were up early the next morning and Debra gave Joe and I a ride to the starting line since Jess's race didn't start until later.  It was chilly out and many of the runners were hanging out around the big fire they had going.  Joe and I were able to meet Charlie and also hang out for a little bit with Ed before the race started.  There was only about 45 - 50 people that started the 50 miler which gave this race a nice family like atmosphere.  The race started at 8,000 feet above sea level and we ran down a relatively flat gravel road for a mile or so before we turned into the woods.  Joe was pointing out the mountains we would be climbing during the race and we were discussing which climbs in the nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain would be the toughest.  We had a nice gradual 800 foot climb up Chris Mountain from miles 2 to 5.  One thing I noticed is that my heart was beating pretty fast on this ascent.  I knew it was due to the altitude and I had not acclimatized at all for this race.  I didn't have issues at Run Rabbit Run in 2012 which was a similar elevation profile so I just assumed that I would not have problems at this race in the altitude.  After reaching the top of the first climb the next 5 miles were all downhill, 1,700 feet of descent on a nice wide service road with awesome views.  The first aid station was at the beginning of this downhill section and we were in and out quickly.  We thanked the volunteers and then bombed down this section at a fast clip and our pace was a lot faster then I thought it would be at this point in the race.  It turned out to be a good thing we had a swift pace here because what I was about to face was going to kill that awesome start.   

The air is thin but Joe is dominating the climb
On the downhill Joe and I met a guy named Doug from Denver.  He was in the Navy and was running his first 50 miler.  It was nice to chat with him on the 5 mile sprint down to Devil Creek.  Once we got to the bottom Joe told us we were beginning the biggest climb of the race but when we got to the top then we would see spectacular views from the ridge of Horse Mountain at 10,000 feet above sea level.  We stuck together for the first mile of the 7 mile 3,000 climb.  Joe had a great amount of energy at this point and he was telling everyone we passed that his wife Debra was working the aid station before Sally Overlook and that she will play whatever music they want!  My heart was racing like crazy and my ear was starting to bother me and Doug's heart was beating so hard he could feel it in his ears.  Joe was really dominating this climb and I was glad that he pushed on ahead as I didn't want to hold him back since he was feeling so good.  Doug also pushed on ahead of me as I decided to take it slow because I didn't want to burn myself out with so much race left.  All 7 miles and 3,000 feet of that climb up Horse Mountain were on steep single track trail.  There was one aid station on this climb and I refilled my water, thanked the volunteers, and kept climbing.  It seemed as though this climb went on forever.  My heart was racing faster and faster the higher in elevation I got.  I was relieved when I reached the summit and I was able to see the amazing views from the ridge that Joe was telling us about.  That moment in time was so mentally rewarding as the views were the ultimate payoff from that tough ascent to the top of the mountain.

View from the 10,000 foot ridge
While traversing across the ridge I came across another runner who seemed like he was in rough shape.  I offered him an electrolyte pill and he gladly accepted.  Then I flew down the steep and rocky 2 mile and 900 foot ascent to the third aid station at mile 19 where Ed's wife Gail was working.  It was nice to see her and I ate my share of their delicious peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches.  I was not doing too good at this point because my stomach had some familiar pains that I had during the IT 100 and my ears were still bothering me.  I was also feeling pretty tired since I was a bit jet lagged and was running on about 5 hours of sleep.  I decided to try drinking a little coca cola which is new for me. I don't drink pop in normal everyday life and I had never tried any during a race until now.  It turned out to be a life savor as it gave me a caffeine boost and seemed to ease the pain in my stomach.  After thanking the volunteers I marched up Middle Mountain on a fire road for about 3 miles and 500 feet of rocky ascent and then back down a steep 600 foot descent in the span of about a mile to the next aid station at mile 24.  It was at this point I realized the course was very tough and I was wondering if my sea level training in the Midwest was going to be sufficient enough to get me through this race.  

Pic from Pagosa Trails FB page
Coming into mile 24.  Pic from Pagosa Trails FB page
When I came into the aid station at mile 24 I was greeted by a gentleman who told me the next 21 miles are going to be the toughest miles of the course and he wants to make sure I feel good enough physically to continue.  He said the course has a steep 1,200 foot drop down Corral Mountain to the Piedra River and then we had to climb up to the next aid station and then come all the way back.  He said I could decide at this juncture to drop down to the 50K and head 6 miles back to the finish line.  What?!  The next half of the course is going to be harder then the first half?!  I was feeling decent at this point but mentally I started to get worried about what he said.  It didn't take me long to decide to stick with the 50 miler because I came all this way to do the 50 mile race and I wanted to experience the whole course.  I figured I would rather go on and drop out of the 50 miler then decide to do the 50K and be mentally disappointed in myself for not seeing if I had what it took to finish the race I signed up for.  I saw Randi there taking pictures and she said that Joe came through that aid station a half hour before me and he was doing good.  I was happy to hear that Joe was having a great race.  I knew it was 8 hard miles to the next aid station so I made sure I filled my water bladder in my camelbak and after eating some food and thanking the volunteers I set off on the next section.  When I left that aid station I saw Doug coming back the other way and he said he decided to drop to the 50K because he couldn't handle 21 extra miles of rocks, roots, and hills.  He went right past me and I didn't even have a chance to try and talk him into continuing on.

Bridge over Piedra River
I started not feeling well over the next few miles because everything I had working against me all came boiling to a head including some severe upper back and neck pain that had been slowly cropping up throughout the race and a pounding headache.  The course drops down a few hundred feet over a mile or so and then went through some rolling meadows.  Then the 1,200 foot drop to the river started and it was almost straight down as it only covered about a mile.  It was really rocky, steep, and technical which was bringing my mental and physical state to record lows for the day.  I was thinking to myself "if I feel this bad right now going down this mountain then how the hell am I going to make it back up this thing several miles later???"  This was dangerous ground for me mentally because the negative thoughts were going in the direction of wanting to drop out when I got to Debra's aid station at mile 32.  I convinced myself that it was not my day and I did good considering the circumstances but it would be wise to drop out rather then attempt to climb back up this section of the course.  I even told myself that I was not going to feel bad for dropping out and I was ok with it.  When I got to the bottom of the mountain and popped out of the woods I seen one of the most majestic views of my lifetime.  I was in a valley by the Piedra River and crossed this really cool bridge with views of mountains all around me.  Words can not describe how awesome this area really is and at that moment all of my bad feelings just vanished into thin air.  After I crossed the bridge I followed the trail along the other side of the river.

Piedra River
At this point the first place runner passed me going back the other way.  I was surprised this did not happen sooner and my good feelings turned to dread as I figured I had a tough climb up to the next aid station.  I also seen a runner who was wearing Luna Sandals and coming from a minimalist footwear background I could appreciate that and was extremely impressed this guy was dominating in them.  I also saw Charlie along this stretch on his way back and he was very focused and doing great.  Then the course turned off the trail along the river and went straight up a steep hill to anther trail.  When I got to the top of that hill I looked back down toward the river and saw Ed with another runner and they were closing in on me.  Then I followed a narrow rocky trail along a steep drop off and I thought to myself that one slip here could be deadly so I took my time.  I kept pushing on through some more climbing and rolling terrain and one last big climb up to Debra's aid station.  It was nice to see her when I got there.  She told me that Jess did really good in her half marathon and it was awesome to hear that.  I told Debra I was not feeling good and today was not my day.  There was a younger guy named Mark sitting in a chair with a little teddy bear strapped to his camelbak and he told me that we are all hurting.  I thought to myself that I should at least go 2.5 miles out to Sally Overlook and see the views and then go 2.5 miles back to Debra's aid station where I would call it quits at mile 37.  Ed came in and he was excited to see me still in the race.  He was in great spirits and it boosted me up a bit.  When I left the aid station I saw Joe on his way back from Sally Overlook.  He was excited to see me still in the race and I told him he was doing great.  We both agreed that the beer and pizza at the finish line sounded pretty damn good at that moment in time.  I didn't have the heart to tell him I was plotting to drop out of the race because I was just feeling so terrible and didn't think I could survive the climb back up Corral Mountain on the other side of the river.

Sally Overlook.  Pointing down to Piedra River
I walked most of the flat 2.5 miles to Sally Overlook and saw Ed coming back from the overlook as I was getting there.  When I got out on the cliff edge of the overlook I seen the absolute best view I have ever witnessed in my lifetime.  It was a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and the valley which the Piedra River ran through  We had to take a page from a book that was placed at the overlook to prove we went all the way out there.  That was a nice little touch from the Barkley which I am glad was incorporated into the race.  I took the page out of the book then snapped one picture from the overlook and my phone died so I stood there for a minute to enjoy the view.  Mark, the younger guy with the teddy bear strapped to his camelbak, was also out there and we were discussing how we could see the river so far down there and that was where we came from.  We left the overlook together and I told him that I was going to drop out and he told me not to.  I told him that if I stay in the race I would be walking all the way back to the finish line.  He told me he would walk the rest of the race too.  I decided to at least wait and decided when we got back to mile 37.  We came into the aid station and I told Debra I was thinking about dropping but was unsure.  She told me I was an hour ahead of the cutoff and I came all this way and I should finish this thing up.  That got me pumped up and I was able to eat a decent amount of food and drink some more coke which really helped me feel better while giving me a caffeine boost.
Mark and I left Debra's aid station and began the descent down to the Piedra River.  I magically found some energy and we both began running through this section.  In fact, we were running pretty aggressively and I let Mark push on ahead.  It was nice to meet Mark and learn how he moved to Colorado from the Midwest so he could train for his dream race the Hardrock 100.  I later figured out the teddy bear he had symbolized his next race, the Big Bear 100 which was a Hardrock qualifier.  I caught up to Mark again after crossing the Piedra River and we began the one mile 1,200 foot technical climb up Corral Mountain that I was horribly dreading.  Mark was really climbing well and he once again pushed on ahead of me.  My heart was still pounding hard from the ascent in the higher altitude although I was feeling a lot better then I thought I would.  I developed a nice routine in which I watched the elevation on my Garmin 310 XT watch and I would climb 100 feet in elevation at a time and then stop to let my heart rate settle down.  I kept repeating this procedure and before I knew it I was at the top of that intense climb where some of the local horse riders were on their horses sweeping the course and offering runners water.  The camaraderie among humans can be astonishing at times and I especially notice it during ultra marathons which is one of the reasons I am so hooked on the culture of these races.                 

Rolling Meadows
Over the next few miles I did a slow shuffle across the rolling meadows and forest trails.  I was surprised that my headache and back / neck pain had pretty much disappeared!  I passed two girls and mentioned the climb back up Corral Mountain was not as bad as I thought it would be and they told me in a joking manner to speak for myself.  I eventually reached the last aid station at mile 45 (same one as mile 24) and when I came in Ed was sitting there in a chair and he proclaimed "Jamie! you caught me! *brief hesitation* but not for long!" as he got up to leave the aid station.  I grabbed my fleece and my headlamp out of my drop bag along with filling up my water to get me through the last 6 miles of the race.  I was in good spirits here because Joe told me the last section of the course is mostly downhill; although, after leaving this aid station and dropping down to 7,300 feet above sea level over the next two miles down a semi-technical trail I knew we had some climbing to do since the race started at 8,000 feet and that was where it finished.  Then I came to the gravel service road which meant I was a few miles to the finish and it was about dark so I switched on my head lamp.  The road was a gradual climb for a mile or two and at this time I was thrilled I would be able to finish the race but was just ready to be done.  A few cars drove by telling me good job and I am almost done but the road just seemed to go on forever.  I finally heard a bunch of party noises in the distance and also started to hear a cow bell ringing and a guy yelling stuff over a loud speaker.  I knew this was it and I ran the rest of the way to the finish line but I slowed up crossing into the yard where the finish line was because I did not want to trip and fall in front of the big crowd cheering me to the end.

Joe, Debra, Jess, and myself on day after race
After I crossed the finish line I was greeted by my awesome wife, all of my friends, and some really drunk girl who was overly happy for my accomplishment.  Jess helped me escape the drunk girl's persistence for continual high fives and we went over to the pizza stash and grabbed a few slices.  It felt great to eat some hearty warm food and sit down.  I was so spent that I could not even drink a beer.  I was mentally very happy that I pushed on and finished this thing.  I would of been very disappointed in myself if I dropped out even though half way through the race I figured it would not bother me if I quit.  This was one of the toughest races I have done due to the physical makeup of the course and also my mental break down.  It was one of the most rewarding finishes of my ultra running career because I overcame some huge obstacles to succeed in my goal.  It is not easy for us Midwest flatlanders to run the mountain courses out west but it is zen being on the amazing trails.  The day following the race Joe, Debra, Jessica, and myself had lunch by the Piedra river and we took Jess to see the view from Sally Overlook. Then we met up with Ed, Gail, Charlie, and his wife Sara at the Pagosa Brewery for dinner and had an after party at Ed and Gail's house.  Then Jess and I went to Albuquerque for a few days of much needed rest, recovery, and relaxation at Jessica's Aunt Terri and Uncle Brian's house.  With their help I held up my end of getting called out for the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.  Along with Brian dumping an ice cold bucket of water on me I donated money to ALS and also the PKD Foundation.  It was definitely a great trip and I did want it to end but reality was calling us back.

Dinner at Pagosa Brewery with some great people