I’m writing this from Missoula, Montana where I am visiting my Dad for the weekend. When I was planning this trip, I “noticed” there was a 30K trail race in Bozeman on Saturday. It seemed logical that I would combine that with my visit home. Right?
The Old Gabe 30 & 50k race bills itself as one of the toughest in the country. But they all tend to say that, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. According to the website, the 50k has over 10,000 feet of elevation gain, so I assumed the 30K would have a little over half that.
The 30K race is an out and back: up and over a mountain, turn around and go back up and over the mountain. My Garmin claims I climbed a total of 6,152 feet.
I arrive in Bozeman on Friday morning. It has been raining and they are calling for more rain. It doesn’t rain all that much during the day on Friday, so I am not too worried. It starts raining Friday night, but I optimistically decide it will clear for the race.
Race morning dawns with light rain. Still not too concerning. It is relatively warm, in the 40s, but I load my pack up with warm clothing to be safe. I wear my raincoat.
I am looking at this as a long run with a group of like-minded people. Little do I know.
Mile 1: I take off conservatively. I can already tell I’m not feeling like a rock star; I’m not having those “I feel great” thoughts right off the bat. But I feel fine, so I just settle in to a nice steady rhythm.
Mile 2: Tim from Minnesota and I run together for a couple miles. The climb is getting steeper as we go. Tim, from sea level, does not seem to be working as hard as I do. When he finally passes me, I decide he is much younger, to make myself feel better. He has trekking poles. I will wish I had trekking poles shortly.
Mile 3: We hit the first slip and slide section of mud. It’s raining steadily now; I am glad to have my raincoat on. It’s windy and colder up here. The mud in this section is similar to grease. I do not realize how much I will look forward to this mud later.
Mile 4: We reach the top of the climb. It’s socked in and cold. A guy near me says something like “and we haven’t even hit the bad part yet”. I wonder what he is talking about but don’t dwell on it.
Mile 5: Snow. The first part of the descent is through snow. It’s cold, it’s slippery and I’m scared to death of a bad slip. Although I know my knee is solid, my mind can’t quite let go of the fear of trauma.
Mile 6: After a section of trail in which I sink up to my knees in mud and nearly lose my shoes several times, a small group of us misses a turn in the trail because it is covered in snow. I am following blindly trying to keep someone in sight because I am afraid of getting lost. This course is not marked. We end up in more snow. I find myself body sledding down large snow slopes in my SHORTS. But it’s faster and easier than trying to run/walk. And it makes me giggle a bit, which I need right now. By the end of this section I am sopping wet, my hands are frozen, and – I’ll be honest – I am starting to not really enjoy this race.
Luckily, I end up with three people who seem to know where the trail is supposed to be, so we bushwhack down the mountain and eventually end up on the actual trail.
Mile 7: The mud is relentless in sections. I slip and fall several times and end up looking like I have taken a full body mud bath. I am trying really hard to stay positive. It’s not working all that well.
Mile 8: We have descended the steepest portion and now the trail is much better. Run-able even. My spirits lift as I find my groove again.
Mile 9: I’m so close to the turn around. On one running step something pops in my right calf. It’s not a pop like my catastrophic knee pop, but it is ominous and followed by a pain up my entire calf muscle. Full disclosure: this happened about 10 days ago during a run and my calf has been sore ever since, but I’ve been aggressively working it and (prior to yesterday) it was almost pain free. I decide I will try to run through it. It is not debilitating, I just have to make sure I don’t really screw something up.
I reach the turn around and I’m warm and it is not raining and life is good for a moment.
Mile 10: Calf is holding on the return climb. I’m in range of several groups of people and I intend to keep it that way. I do not want to get lost again.
Mile 11: I hook onto the back of three people running together. I have caught them, but they are not going much slower than I am, so I decide to stay there for the time being. The trio consists of a husband, wife and high school boy (friend of their son). They accept me as part of the group and we become a foursome. As we hit the start of the serious mud, we play the alphabet game with country names. It helps.
Mile 12: We manage to stay on the actual trail this time, but we all agree the wrong way might have been better. This is serious mud. Every step carries the potential of a mud bath. It’s impossible to move quickly. We slog up the mountain, slipping and sliding. Our collective spirits are on a downward spiral. It’s raining again now.
Mile 13: The high schooler is bonking a bit, so he and the husband slow down. The woman (Stephanie) and I keep going. It’s raining hard now. We are both freezing. I am wishing I had put my raincoat back on and I am wishing that my hands would function because I have warm clothes in my backpack but my clothes are so wet that I’m not sure the warm clothes would really do any good and GOD I JUST WANT TO BE DONE WITH THIS STUPID RACE.
Mile 14. We hit the final uphill. It’s pouring. We thought we were cold before. I can’t feel my hands as we claw our way back up the snow fields. I’m still with Stephanie and we agree that we probably will not sign up for this race again. ARE WE THERE YET?
Mile 15: The first mile of downhill is painfully slow. My legs are so frozen I can’t really count on them to run quickly. On the positive side, I cannot feel my calf. The terrain is technical. It continues to rain hard and my clothing is plastered to me. I am near tears. I am so cold. I JUST WANT TO BE DONE.
Mile 16: The trail starts to improve. My mental state improves as well. I sure have to pee, but my hands are still not working so I am doubtful I can get my shorts on/and or off to pee. I decide to hold it.
Mile 17: I’m warming up. Boy do I have to pee, but I’m so close I just don’t want to stop. I’ll keep holding it. There are a lot of creek crossings so at least my shoes are getting cleaner. In sections the trail is a stream of running water. It’s still raining. I could probably just pee in my shorts and never notice, but I don’t. I still have some standards.
Mile 18: Ok, I should be almost done. WHERE THE HELL IS THE FINISH LINE? Did I mention I have to pee? Oh, the sun is coming out. Isn’t that nice? WHERE WERE YOU 4 MILES AGO, SUN?
Mile 18.5. Seriously, where the hell is the finish?
Mile 18.7: Finally, the end. 5 ½ hours and I’m exhausted. I run immediately to the porta-potty, where my bladder breathes a huge sigh of relieve.
I give Stephanie and co a high five and head toward my car. The mud on my legs and shorts has hardened. I try to scrape chunks off, but it is hopeless. I head straight to a gas station where I buy two packs of wet ones and attempt to de-mud myself. It’s semi-successful, but at least I’m not leaving mud smudges on everything.
I grab coffee, food and Advil in Bozeman and hit the road to Missoula. My legs are already swelling; my body is not happy about what I just put it through. That said, my mind is already conveniently rewriting the misery, forgetting just how painful the experience was: That wasn’t too bad (LIE!). I’m glad I did that race (LIE!). I wasn’t THAT cold (LIE!).
You wonder why people like me sign up for more races after experiences like this? Simple: The mind has an uncanny ability to rewrite our memory, to downplay the misery and exaggerate the good parts.
Admittedly I still feel a bit scarred from this one.