It looks unreal: the expansive blue sky, punctuated by a sea of rocky peaks. The grandeur of the mountains in Colorado leaves you in awe: they are stunning.
There is no other running I love more than running in a place that takes my breath away, literally and figuratively. This is my church. This is where I feel closest and most connected to God. Where I feel most alive and most myself. For whatever reason Mountains feed my soul. And running up and down them feels like the greatest gift I could possibly receive.
This weekend I flew out to Colorado to run the Under Armor Mountain Series at Copper Mountain. Thanks to Under Armor, I’ve been able to participate in their amazing event. What special about these races isn’t just the stunning mountain back drops, it is the positive energy, amazing diversity and the camaraderie along the course.
Will I even run?
Going into the race I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to run the 25K. The right calf and hamstring niggle that I experienced after Mt. Washington came back in a workout last week after Loon. It felt really sore after my run on Thursday and on occasion while walking around the airport on Friday. I made the call to after the shake-out run on Friday evening to go with the 25K: I wanted to see more mountains and views than the 10K course provided and I really wanted to climb. I figured that at 10,000 ft elevation that I wouldn’t be going fast enough to aggravate it and if it bothered me on the downhill I’d just pull back a bit.
I go into every race wanting to do well, but sometimes high expectations can steal the joy from racing and make it pressure-filled and unenjoyable. Lately I’ve been trying to save the high expectations for workouts and on race day set aside expectations and focus on giving my best in each moment.
I’m in good shape and feeling strong, so I believed I had a chance at doing well but had no idea how my body would respond at altitude. Going up and down stairs at 10,000 ft feels like a chore and leaves you breathless, so I knew running up a mountain would be even more challenging.
I’d have zero expectations about place or time and my focus would be on my attitude: I wanted to feel grateful the entire time.
My mantras for the race were:
Excellence in attitude
What a gift.
Climb: Start to 10K
Because I wanted to be cautious with my calf/hamstring and just see how my body felt I decided to start a further back than I normally would, but not so far back that I’d get caught in the bottle neck of the trail turning immediately to single track.
We got off the start line at a good pace and once we started climbing I could feel the altitude. I was grateful that things bottle-necked because as we slowed to a walk I had the chance to recover and I knew that this forced slow start would help me overall.
We gradually climbed up the mountain on switch back trails (there were 47 switch back turns on the course overall), the grades were easy and the running was smooth yet the effort felt high. My goal was to simply climb at a steady pace and then rip it on the downhill. I felt as if I was running well within myself and thanks to the altitude was forced to walk on grades that were really runable. In some ways it was frustrating, but the truth is that it was hard for everyone there as many other people were walking as well.
When we reached the first out and back the cheers and high-fives started, people telling each other they looked strong and encouraging each other along. That’s one plus to out-and-back sections along the course is that they can be really uplifting as you cheer for other people and they cheer for you. There were three of these sections on the 25K course and they made the experience so fun!
The climb to the top of the mountain was an out-and-back section of the course and I started to count the women.
“Sarah, you’re the fifth or sixth woman!”
My mind jumped miles ahead thinking that if I could really rip on the downhills, I could put myself in the top five. But as I neared the turn around point myself I realized the large group of women who were right on my heels. Only seven miles into the course, I wasn’t really ready to push all that hard just yet. I just wasn’t sure how I’d feel as the race progressed, because after defending from the climb to the summit we’d still have three shorter climbs to tackle between mile 10 and 12. I knew those late-race inclines would be a challenge and I wanted to save something for that.
I checked the lofty thought of finishing top five and realized that if I started pushing for that now I could end up in a world of hurt.
Leave your ego out of this. I told myself. It’s not invited to the party today. Today is all about gratitude and having and excellence of attitude. Just as I made this commitment to myself I heard my name and cheering up ahead it was my friend Crystal and new friend Briana. We high-fives and crystal called out, “Having fun?” “Totally!” I called back and continued down the mountain, taking a minute to lift my gaze and marvel at the mountains.
I began the descent feeling good, I let it roll and found myself in a comfortable pace moving easily down the mountain on the access road. I wasn’t pushing, but I wasn’t holding back either. Two miles down from the summit I started to feel my left foot cramping and curling inside my shoe. The discomfort was real and I slowed my downhill progress trying to let the foot relax and splay out. I had to pee too. So right after the mile nine mark I pulled off the trail and the two girls who had been behind me blew past.
When I stopped everything cramped up even worse both the right and left feet and my calves. I trie stretching my calf against a tree trunk to no avail. Everything was seizing up all up and down my left calf and the arch of my foot. I’ve never experienced anything like that before and chalked it up to altitude and whatever leftover effects of being dehydrated at Loon. At that point I realized that the only option was to keep running and let it work itself out. I took a big drink from my Gatorade and kept moving.
“Flow like water.” I told myself, trying to bring my focus from the pain of the cramping to the way I wanted to move over the course. For two more miles we defended and I was mostly alone, some steps were painful and my foot would cramp and curl inside my shoe and other steps felt fine. The cramps seemed to come in waves. The inclines brought relief and the the declines simply created more cramping, now on the right side too.
Somewhere around mile 11 I started to struggle physically, as we turned for one final out and back that took us up hill. I climbed to the top alternating power hiking and running and then gingerly ran my way down feeling that one wrong step would send my foot into another spasm. I started to take more frequent sips of my gatorade even though I wasn’t thirsty, I knew I needed the electrolytes.
My watched creeped past the 2:15 mark on that final out and back, which is when I had planned to take my final gel (I took my first at 47 minutes and my second at 1:31). I just didn’t feel like I wanted another gel and thought I could push through just and be OK with the Gatorade Endurance I had in my bottle. Looking back, I should have forced down that last GU because I think it would have given me that last little bit of energy I needed to finish strong.
I climbed up and out of that out and back and was back on to single track in the woods. The out and backs can be deceiving because you see so many people and you think you’re all so close together, but then you get into the woods and you’re alone again.
With a little over two miles to go I started to focus all my energy on pushing as much as I could. Thankfully the harder I pushed the pace, the less cramping I experienced (maybe I should have been pushing the pace all along?). With 1K to go we came out of the woods and out on to the service road and I finally opened up my stride and started the final push towards the finish.
I crossed the line feeling pretty spent and my legs began cramping in new places. I downed as much electrolyte drink as my stomach could handle and made my way to the Under Armour recovery area.
I was kind of curious about where I had placed, but more than anything I felt grateful. Later in my room after a shower, burger and beer I reflected on the day and the race and felt tears welling up in my eyes. I felt so incredibly grateful:
grateful to be healthy enough to run and push my body to it’s limits because there was a time in my life when my behavior was self-destructive.
Grateful to be invited to participate in the Under Armour series.
Grateful for the connections and the amazing people I’ve met in the running community and on the Under Armour team.
Grateful for the stunning beauty of our planet.
Grateful for a supportive husband who held down the fort at home so that I can go and do things like this that fill my soul.
Its funny how when you set an intention of gratitude you become increasingly aware of more and more things in your life that are a gift: things that you haven’t necessarily earned and don’t necessarily deserve but they are yours anyway. That’s what this weekend was in every way: a gift.
Has running or racing ever seemed like a spiritual experience to you?
Have you ever run a mountain trail race?
Killington is the next race in the series and it is going to be another high-energy day with epic mountain views and amazing camaraderie! I’ll be there and I’d love if you joined me!
Use code RISERUN20 to get 20% off your registration.
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Email: RunFarGirl [at] gmail [dot] com