Saturday was the HURL 50K in Helena, MT. Let me start by saying, this was by far THE most challenging race I've run (including the 50 miler a few weeks ago). The race was less a 50K run and more a "try and run up and down our giant steep mountains...he he" -- at least that was my take on it.
The Race Start... Who Stole the O2?
When I first got to the race site I thought "why can't I breathe? Where did all the oxygen go? I had not known how high the elevation was going to be at this race and I didn't exactly prepare for it. oh well... off to the start! We started on a mile rolling dirt road/path. As soon as we were on the first uphill grade I felt like somebody hit me in the lungs, but thought if I just tell my lungs to shut up and push through it, they'll adjust and we'll be ok. After about a mile of the rolling dirt path I thought "ok this isn't bad... we've got this in the bag." That's when we banked left into the trail... oh FML.
Mountain O' Death #1
We immediately went into a little more technical trail and switch-backed our way UP to the base of a mountain. Around mile 4 I saw it... the steepest, longest mountain I've ever run in my life. I tried to run at first then reminded myself that 1) I wasn't going ANY faster than if I was walking, yet I was expending way more energy and 2) Ultra runners don't run these steep hills so I would soon be the only one winded and we were only at mile 5. This "Mountain O' Death" continued to get steeper, even with switchback letting us wind up the mountain side instead of ascending directly up. This "hill" (as they call them out there) continued for 3.5 miles going as hard as I possibly could... at 25 Min/Mile pace. Oooh this is going to be a long day...
We did come back down the other side and had some nice steep, but good footing down for about 3.5 miles. Not too bad. This is when we went back up the stupid mountain... seriously?? As we ascended again, I was used to it, but we hit a patch that (for the first time in my running history) made me actually STOP, sit down (on a rock) breathe deep and take a GU. Around mile 13 I thought "There is no possible way I can finish this... but there is also no possible way for anybody to get to me to get me off this course" Onward ho...
Steph Gets Snarky... Apologies to the Aid Station Volunteers
The descent from this side of the mountain was not as wonderful as the first time. This time it was very steeply graded and covered in all sort of rocks. You couldn't run fast, instead doing the worst thing for your quads and pulling back as you reach forward with your legs. Somehow I managed NOT to fall to my death and made it to an aid station... mile 19! With 12 more to go I wasn't exactly in a great mood and had a little chat with the aid station people. It went a little something like this...
Aid Station Man (ASM): How ya feeling? (*smug smile on face*)
Me: HORRIBLE (*Look of pure horror, exhaustion, and anger on face*)
ASM: Well what hurts?
Me: EVERYTHING! You made me run a MOUNTAIN... that back there is a MOUNT-TAIN
ASM: (*laughs*) Well you're almost done
Me: (*Look of This is SO not funny... and now I hate you as much as the mountain*) And what? It's all downhill from here? (fairly sarcastic... yet somehow at the same time still hopeful)
ASM: NO! You still have this hill here behind me to climb
Me: (*Peeking around ASM and seeing only a mountain*) I don't see any hills
ASM: RIGHT THERE! (*Points to said Mountain*)
Me: THAT, again, is a MOUNT-TAIN, not a hill!
ASM: (*Laughs*) Well out here we call that a hill
Me: Well the rest of the world would call that a large mountain. And you people are nuts.
ASM: OH you'll be alright
Leaving ASM and moving on, I started running with another gentleman who I find out has done this course quite a few times. After about a mile and a half I say "Are we almost to the top" at which point he laughs and says "NO! We're almost to the base!" I explain that I had NO conceivable idea how hilly Montana, let alone this race was. To which he replied "Montana IS Spanish for mountain" in a "you're a dumbass" kind of way. A few miles later I look down across the valley we just ran through and realize that the "Hill O' Death" from the beginning of the race, was now LOWER than we were... and I still had a few more miles of climbing. Again, I find myself at point unable to keep moving and have to stop to catch my breath and squat down to relieve my legs-- at which point they start to numb. That can't be good.
The Longest 12 miles of my Life and Steph's Melt Down...
*Picture: The mountain described in the last paragraph. The start of the race is a little lower than where this picture was taken. See those tiny towers on the top? The following melt down occured as I approached those...*
The last 12 miles took about 2.5 hours. It continued with mountain climbing to the peaks, only to discover steep, rocky downhills that were incredibly difficult to descend. Toward the top of this last Mountain I look at an orange marker indicating I need to continue up and the following comes flying out of my mouth (yes, at the trail marker)...
"Oh really?? Well let's see... I can't go back DOWN the steep mountain with all the jagged rocks for 2+ miles only to go back to ASM who won't be any help. I can't go to the left and go directly DOWN the mountain side. I can't go to the right that would be an even steeper path up. So up? Is that where you want me to go?? AS IF I HAD A CHOICE???" ... I then realized I was talking to an orange piece of tape, and continued on my way before "Spanish for Mountain" man caught back up with me.
We ran into a few streams that we had to run through to continue the path and in the only mildly flat area, it was covered in weeds, leaving you blind to your footing. On all the hills I had done SO well not to fall. So when do I finally bite it? On the flat... in the weeds... as a 50 miler is coming toward me. I land right on my wrist and wrench it inward (it still doesn't feel right) and jump back up in time for the 50-miler to ask me if I'm ok-- so she DID catch that spill, damn!
I get to mile 28 and find an aid station full of men who ask me what I want. I point at one holding a coors light and say "THAT... can i have one of those?" They think I'm nuts, but give it to me anyways. This is by far the BEST beer I've ever tasted in my life! They are very helpful (or so my buzz says) and push me forward to finish the last 3!
Finally, god has mercy on me and we're back on the initial dirt path/road thing. At this point I cannot believe I thought this was (to any degree) a rolling hill. I finish in 6:40 time. Not great at all... but I'm happy I survived. Post-race celebration can be found in the ice cold creek. "Spanish for Mountain" Man brings me to said creek, where my legs go completely numb from the cold and I fall in love with the 60+ year old man for bringing me there! (The buzz from mile 28, clearly hasn't worn off yet)
What I Learned
Usually, after a new distance or type of race, I do a little "lessons learned" for those interested in doing something similar. This is more of a "Lessons Learned about Montana Races"...
1) Montana is Spanish for Mountain -- thanks dude!
2) This is the 5th toughest trail ultra in the US (I find out around mile 20 from "Spanish for Mountain" Man)
3) There is no "hill work" that is adequate for this... unless you have a spare mountain nearby that you can run miles at a time.
4) Montana's trails contain more type and size variety of animal dung I've ever seen in my life...
5) These people love their mountain climbing... me? Not so much...