State 25: Montana (2012 Madison Half Marathon)

I woke up at 1:15 in the morning in Rich and Shari’s guest bedroom, my clothes from the weekend strewn throughout the room, mixed with random electronics and a few granola bars.  Rich and Shari were a nice couple that I had met on and they were nice enough to host me for my very first half marathon double.  The first race of the weekend was the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon, which I had run the day before.  As I tiptoed my way out of their house and into my Nissan Sentra rental, I couldn’t ignore my quads, which were definitely aching from the steep downhill of the race’s first five miles.  There was nothing I could do about that now, so I set phasers to Google Maps and started the 150-minute drive north to Ennis, Montana for the fifth annual Madison Half Marathon.

Clover Meadows

As you can imagine, the entire drive was pitch black, especially after leaving the main road and entering Montana.  I’ve always had this idea of the Big Sky State in my head as a huge mountainous expanse teeming with wildlife and civilization all but abandoned.  Right as I entered the state, I saw two large, sculpted figures on the shoulder of the road, and as they turned and my headlights caught their eyes, I realized they were elk.  I slammed the breaks in both surprise and awe, slowing down just enough to see them leap into the darkness.  An hour later, I entered the ghost town of Ennis, a town that seemed to encompass just five square blocks.  So far, stereotypes confirmed.

The Madison Marathon, called such because it takes place in Madison County, bills itself as the “highest road marathon in the country [possibly the world].”  There are definitely higher road half marathons (such as Mt. Evans), but for the full distance, all higher races are trail runs.  Given the elevation profile, it’s not the kind of race I normally run.  But for some reason, I was overcome by some intense, gung-ho spirit of adventure in the spring and I convinced myself that running this would be a good idea.  It was as if my runner’s id had taken over my planning, with my ego and superego choosing which credit card to use for registration.  Tacking on an additional half marathon the day before was just a garnish for this unusually ambitious palette.  When I planned out the preliminary logistics, I assumed that the race would start and end in Ennis, and that I’d be able to drive to the start and hop in my car shortly after finishing.

Wrong on all three counts.

Gear Check (awesome)

I learned shortly before leaving Chicago that this race requires a lot of logistical handling.  First, runners should arrive in Ennis by 5 AM to board the shuttles.  The field of roughly 200 runners is then transported over ninety very shaky minutes to Clover Meadows campground, where both races finish.  It’s a circular clearing of land with many tents hugging the tree line (one of which was the official gear check) and Montana’s smooth peaks in the distance.  However, this isn’t the race start.  After letting runners go to the bathroom, organizers whisk the eager athletes back onto the shuttles for another 40-minute drive even farther into the bowels of the middle of nowhere.  Since I had gotten no real sleep (and as of this writing, have yet to experience a good night’s rest since four nights ago), I slept through both rides.  I’m sure I missed out on some pristine views, but trust me, I would get plenty of that soon.

Game face, with a huge helping of trepidation

After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a large field, surrounded on all sides by rising mounds of grass with yellow and red flowers popping from the underbrush.  It was a beautiful place to start a race.  Too bad it got soiled by a perverse firing squad of male runners with an urgent need to urinate.  As if avoiding an invisible fence, upwards of thirty guys lined up in a perfectly straight line and peed on the grass.  Before anyone reflexively shouts out “Ew, boys,” I will let you know that the ladies were doing the exact same thing on the other half of the field, but with more foliage to protect them from wandering eyes.  I guess this is normal in small, mountain races.

For me though, it was all a bit unusual.  Not only was this completely different from any other race I’ve run (except, perhaps, the XTERRA Trail Run), but everyone around me seemed to carry themselves with a certain insouciance that I did not share.  I was very nervous and felt a little out of place.  My legs were tired, I had just as much experience with altitude races as I did with semiconductors and there was no apparent way to bail on the race should my body break down.  Had I, like George Oscar Bluth, made a huge mistake?  Maybe.  But I was doing my best to ignore all of that.  I made small talk with the people around me and thought I recognized a few faces from the previous day’s race.  There was a tall African American runner with a bright orange Syracuse shirt that I swore I had seen on Saturday but with a different Syracuse shirt.  I didn’t want to be accused of racial insensitivity by assuming it was him, so I didn’t ask.  Fortunately, he brought up the race with a nearby runner, and I jumped into the conversation, feeling quite validated.

Korsmoe gets us started. The hill behind him was a fiend.

On the back of a pickup truck, race organizer Sam Korsmoe belted out last-minute details in a carefree, almost sardonic tone.  It was a fitting start to this unusual race.  A few minutes later, the race had officially started and a few hundred athletes of dubious sanity were on the first climb of the day.

The first, and most demoralizing climb of the day.

Son of a bitch, I thought as I slowed to what nobody can reasonably call a running pace.  My feet were scrambling over each other like a clumsy duck, and within 0.1 miles, I was reduced to a walk.  I wasn’t comforted by the fact that everyone around me was also walking on the steep, dirt path.  I could only focus on feeling “broken” so pathetically early in a race.  I looked at my Garmin and saw that my pace was in the 14-minute range.  Fantastic, I thought.  Of all the paces I thought I’d register today, 14 was not one I wanted so soon.  This is going to suck.  Really, really badly.

Projected finishing time: 3 hours and change plus some time in the emergency room.

If you click to enlarge, you’ll notice just how long this downhill was.  Black Butte Mountain in the background.

Many frustrated strides later, I began to suspect that the day wouldn’t be all pain and torment.  In fact, I learned that the first mile is notoriously difficult while the second is much friendlier.  Since it’s all downhill, I was cruising down it and despite my aching quads, managed to log a 7:36 split.  So maybe I was too quick to judge this race.  Plus, I had started to note how much everyone else was walking, despite looking like total badasses.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

The endless ascent … that eventually ended.

But as you might have already guessed, these optimistic thoughts were short-lived.  The next three miles were easily the most difficult of the entire day.  With very little downhill reprieve, we climbed and climbed, winding our way from one outcropping to the next.  From the base of the climb, you could see the laughably long and serpentine path to the top.  I had compiled a batch of murmurs from eavesdropping and I concluded that the top of the climb at mile 5 was the highest point in the race, so that the remaining eight miles would be “downhill.”  It was an optimistic thought, for sure, but it didn’t make my legs any lighter.  I would look ahead to see several people walking, so I would run to pass them, only to have them rubber-band past me when my legs would start to fail me.  At several points during that climb, I couldn’t help but think, if I’m this tired and winded now at just three miles, how am I going to feel at mile 11?

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

But all things, even painful, exhausting ones, come to an end.  I soon found myself standing next to Monument Ridge, where I happily took out my camera to immortalize the moment.  The longest continuous climb of the day was over.  After punishing my legs for so long on the uphill, the next stretch was refreshingly easy.  Even slight uphills weren’t a big deal and I found myself rising over them confidently.  Since my prime directive was no longer avoiding death, I decided to take in the breathtaking scenery.  Atop Monument Ridge, no cardinal direction was bereft of inspiration.  I wanted to take pictures of every single angle.  In retrospect, I wish I could have immersed myself more deeply in my surroundings.  But since we were running on dirt and loose gravel, I kept my sight mostly focused on the ground three feet ahead of me so as to avoid slipping on a rock or rolling an ankle.

Monument Ridge, with Black Butte Mountain in the background

By mile 6, I was in a groove and loving it.  I would stomp out the flat sections to the tune of 8:40 per mile, scorch the downhills under 7:30 and run/walk my way up the climbs at considerably slower speeds.  All of these strategies together averaged at about 9:40 overall.  I definitely felt like I could keep this up for the rest of the race.  Check this out, I thought.  I’m actually doing this and with a good amount of grace and strength.  I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my self-confidence, but this scenario did not play in my head that morning.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

There was a standalone cooler just past mile 6 with a cup tied to it.  The race organizers had urged runners to bring their own water because the course would have very limited support.  They also pointed out that these lone coolers could only have water because Gatorade would attract bears.  Bears.  I’d be lying if I said that this passing comment didn’t unnerve me a bit.  But once on the course and hammering out the miles, Pooh, Smokey and the Berenstains weren’t on my mind at all.  I also assumed, probably foolishly, that since you could see so much of the landscape ahead of you, a sneak attack just seemed unlikely.

“Aw, man,” I said as I turned the corner to behold this forthcoming climb (the diagonal one slicing across the hill)

Every turn revealed miles of new terrain, the curtain drawn to show the distant course draped over the green Gravelly Mountains like a dusty rope.  Miles 7 through 10 were, believe it or not, a blur.  They weren’t easy and had their fair share of climbs.  But I had gotten into a pace that I could hold for what felt like forever.  I was also approaching a mindset where all of my actions felt automatic.  There was something different about this race and it wasn’t just that large mountains had replaced buildings.  There was less emphasis on the act of racing and more on the simple and joyful exercise of running.  You could probably say the same thing about the dreadful XTERRA run from last July, but I was so miserably hot in that event that I would have spit at anyone who tried to moralize the experience or draw out something positive from it.  But here, I was very much in tune with my body and the world around me.  I was almost waiting for my brain to finally leak out that mysterious fluid that turns regular runners into the truly barbaric and humbling breed known as “ultra runners.”  I kept running, but that euphoric moment didn’t happen.

But I got one step closer to it.

My confidence was stoked by every person I passed, many of them looking like they could smoke me on any course.  But here I was, a city boy with negligible experience at altitude, keeping up and actually enjoying it.  I kept on looking at my pace and wondering, am I really going to finish this race faster than the XTERRA Trail Run?  I ran the numbers a few times and confirmed that yes, I was on pace to finish considerably faster.  I’m not sure why I used the South Carolina race as a benchmark, but it probably had to do with degree of difficulty and that I signed up for it knowing it would be a kick in the jaw.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

The last five miles of the race I spent passing and being passed by the same four runners.  I didn’t chat with any of them because I try to keep my running conversation to simple phrases like “I could get used to this!” or “Beautiful day!” and the oft used “Your girlfriend called and said you need to run faster.”  Speaking of, it really was a beautiful day.  At the start line, I overheard one runner complain that it was going to be hot.  I’ll concede that those running the full marathon were probably treated to warmer temperatures.  But I could write loving sonnets about the humidity or the complete lack thereof.  I could feel the sun beating down on me, but between breezes and sweating properly, I felt invincible.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

By mile 11, the course had much more tree cover.  By now I was shooting nervous glances into the woods, remembering the “BE BEAR AWARE” signs plunked throughout the course (though I wonder if there was ever a meeting where someone suggested changing them to “BE BEAR-Y AWARE”).  Fortunately, my race experience was not tainted (or improved?) by any ursine encounters.  Instead, I kept my head down and continued on my way towards the finish.  There would be one more pesky uphill to conquer before reaching Clover Meadows, but I had become an expert at tackling them by then.  By no means was I springing up the slope, but the attack had become a calculated series of moves.  I’d divide the climb into segments: short, walking sections followed by long, running stretches and then a brief moment of anticipation where you hope there’s a downhill on the other side.

Not long after this last climb, I saw a gathering of people in a circular field, which I later recognized as Clover Meadows.  I should have kept running uninterrupted to the finish, but it was a slight uphill to the banner, so I decided to walk for about six seconds before mobilizing all my efforts upward.

Actual finishing time: 2 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds.

Though I had spent months hyping up this race in my head, the finish was very quiet and serene.  Korsmoe was standing next to the banner, writing down bib numbers and corresponding finishing times.  A few runners who had already finished the half were applauding for incoming runners and on occasion, a dog would bark.  It was a race being run by and for people who like the physical act of covering distance and not so much for those who want a big, elaborate circus with streamers and celebrity appearances.  Don’t get me wrong, I love big races.  But I could just as easily get used to this style of racing.  I just wish I didn’t have to sit in what feels like a big, orange maraca for over two hours just to reach the starting line.

As a residual benefit of this race, my confidence looking ahead to the Leadville Trail 100 as a pacer for my friend Jay has burgeoned.  This race definitely served as proving grounds for whether I could handle running at altitude and I think I passed the test comfortably.  If I could finish a half marathon at 9,000 feet on tired legs, then I could probably run a segment of Leadville on fresh legs … right?

Halfway done!

Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012

Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level.  As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills.  The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges.  Honestly, I’m alright with that.  I appreciate a nice flat, fast course.  Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels.  Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.

Last year, I switched things up several times.  I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica.  It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet.  It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it.  A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000.  It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster.  But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.

This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights.  Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge.  Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).

1.)    Four Thousand Feet

The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica.  Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home.  We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday.  My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback.  Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8.  Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around.  No one believes me, but well, there it is.

The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana.  This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine.  Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital.  It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.

2.)    Six Thousand Feet

Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon.  This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end.  I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race.  It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.

But that much is obvious.  Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners.  So why the extra precaution?  Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern?  Well, there’s a bigger reason.  A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips.  I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base.  I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.

There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other.  After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.

3.)    Nine Thousand Feet

“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!”  The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere.  Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high.  But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races.  It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet.  But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it.  I’ll just call it a warm-up run.

And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.

The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges.  In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking.  It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot.  If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me.  There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.

But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana.  In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course.  What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.

I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity.  I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy.  Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis .  Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run.  When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane.  When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.

I guess that makes me crazy too.

4.)    Nine Thousand (+) Feet

The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race.  Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there.  As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice.  The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling.  So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”

And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.

I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville.  I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course.  I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then.  With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.