Thursday, October 10, 2013

From Tierra del Fuego to Tierra del Lagos

'My feet are my only carriage, so I've got to push on through...'- Bob Marley

Just a few days after arriving back from Patagonia I couldn't believe it was already time to run the Twin Cities Marathon.  Originally I hadn't planned on doing this but after getting swept up in the excitement of my brother and a couple of good buddies running I decided I was in, who cares if it was 7 days after running the Patagonia 63K and traveling all the way back from Chile, I would gut it out and be able to run with some of my really close friends. 

That was the plan anyway.
The weather forecast all week was showing doom and gloom for Sunday, cold, windy, rainy, figured if we were gonna do it might as well make it hard.
But when I walked out of my apartment Sunday morning to meet my brother, the weather was cool but not cold, the sky was clear and it looked like we were in for, if not a beautiful day, at least a beautiful start.  And that's exactly what we got. 

As usual the starting corals were a zoo, Alex and I found a spot in coral one, last year he had ripped off a 3:22 marathon, myself a 3:32 so we were allowed in the first wave.  This year neither of us really knew what to expect.  I told him before, as this was my chief concern, that I wasn't going to get caught up in the way he runs.  He's fast, pushes hard and survives on his guts and heart to put together amazing races.
I am the tortoise to his hare.  Slowly but surely making my way along, keeping an even pace, trying to run negative splits, and avoid the blowup as much as possible.  On the car ride down I told him we can start together but if I feel like you're pushing me I am gonna have to drop off, as much as I would have loved to run the whole way together I knew it wasn't realistic. 

As the gun went off and we started through the streets of downtown Minneapolis, I realized that I was about at top speed after the first mile which we completed in around 9 minutes.  I could tell Alex wanted to go; he was like a young colt straining at the reigns.  Just past the one mile mark I pulled off to use the Biff, Alex kept going as I told him I'd catch up.
But there was a long wait and by the time I finally got moving, I decided to give him a mile of hard running to see if I could catch him, if not we were on our own. 

I bulldogged up the hill by the Walker, down towards Lake of the Isles trying to spot his black visor-clad head, but he was nowhere to be seen.  On a turn by the lake I thought I spotted him and picked up the pace again but I was mistaken and dialed it back after that not wanting to blow up.
By mile six my legs were gassed, I began to wonder if this was a terrible idea.  I have had some epic marathon blowups, and even suffered a pretty brutal one earlier this year in the Afton 50k and didn't want to relive any of those episodes.  

Moving around Lake Harriett things seemed to pick up, legs and body found a rhythm, mind went blank, I kept my head up, a smile on my face absorbing the cheering through this packed section.
Had to laugh at one point thinking to a week prior when I was in the middle of the Torres Del Paine, top of a hill surrounded by snowcapped peaks and scrub desert, and not hearing a sound.  Surrounded by total silence, no wind, no birds, bugs, nothing.  Now here I was in the middle of the 'Most Beautiful Urban Marathon' surrounded by screaming fans and elbow to elbow with other runners. 

On Minnehaha Parkway I was taken aback for a moment when a huge crowd of runners surged past me.  Don't know that I have ever been passed by that many people that early in a race, but I looked at my watch and realized it didn't matter; I was still on my pace of getting in under 4 hours. 

I plowed along to River Blvd, my feet pretty sore at this point but everything working well outside of that. 
As I picked 'em up and put 'em down I realized I was doing some solid 'Old Man Running' never going too fast, never going too slow, keeping an even steady pace, running smart.  Maybe all those races of being passed by those type of runners and studying them from a distance was finally paying off. 

By the time I got to the 20 mile mark I was hungry.  The one big difference in Ultras and Marathons is you don't get to eat real food during a marathon, it's gels, water, PowerAde and that's it.  I wanted a cookie, or at least a Clif bar. 

As I neared the 21 mile mark I spotted my parents and my Gramps.  My favorite part of the race, getting to see my little cheering section and always getting to hear a funny line from my Gramps (and always after I leave them thinking about the story Gramps tells of running a marathon in fatigues and boots when he was in the Army)
Sure enough as I pull up and gave Gramps a hug and slapped hands with Big Tom, Gramps says 'Can I run the rest of the way with you?' I started laughing and said of course, and my mom reached in her bag and handed me a cookie.  Never been so happy in my life. 

The cookie hit the spot and carried me up to Summit Ave.  Once there the cheering of the crowds, which seemed to be three deep on either side of the road, carried me up the Summit hill.
But here I started to get worried.  I hadn't slowed down at all through this race and with 3 miles to go wondered if I had enough to finish it.  I just put my head down, cleared my mind, blinders on, not hearing or seeing the crowd, just putting one foot in front of the other.  

This was work I thought, still fun of course, but this was one of those moments where you reach back to early morning training runs when you didn't want to get out of bed.  When you pushed yourself through something and proved something new to yourself.  I called upon all of those experiences, knowing the whole time I could do it, it was just not gonna be easy. 

As I rounded Summit and the Cathedral came into view and the Capitol building and finish line I began to get chills.  Not the chills of almost finishing the race, but chills that this was the culmination of a hell of a couple of weeks.
The trip to Chile, the race in Torres, the 27 hours of travel back, jumping right into work & now almost finishing this thing.  It was chills of setting a goal that while I knew it was attainable, was previously out of my reach.  Of doing something that people said, while not impossible, was crazy.  The chills were for the support that I had through it all, from Patagonia to the Twin Cities, from random people screaming for me to finish even though they had no idea quite what I was trying to finish. 

I flew through the finish at the speed of smell, accomplishing my goal of under four hours with a 3:52, medal around my neck found Alex who beat me again (never have I ran faster than him) and our parents, and it was off to stuff our faces with breakfast food, a TCM tradition.
And in what is becoming another TCM tradition it was off to work after that for game one of the WNBA Finals, a Lynx win was a great way to cap an incredible two week span.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


My watch glowed 1:45 in the darkened dome as I lay huddled under heavy, woolen blankets that felt like I was sleeping under an x-ray blanket.  I knew it wasn't 1:45, it was 3:45 (I never change my watch when I travel) and that my alarm was going to go off in 15 minutes.
As I turned on my headlamp I was surprised to see a stream of steam flow from my mouth with every breath, my goodness it was cold.
Finally forced myself up and started getting ready for the Patagonia 63k.
I had arrived in Chile nearly a week prior.  Spending one day in Santiago, exploring the big park in the middle of the city and the 40-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, then flew to Punta Arenas, located on the Magellan Straight, where I spent 5 days at the end of the world.
In Punta Arenas I toured the Tierra Del Fuego (land of fire) saw the King Penguins, went four-wheeling in the snow-covered backcountry, learned the history of the land and the region but yesterday finally made my way to Torres Del Paine where the race was to be held.
Pulling into Torres, I was dumbstruck by the beauty in every direction.  The sun was setting as we made our way to Eco-Camp at the base of the Torres Towers.  The Dome I was staying in had skylights opening up to those towers and to more stars (and the Milky Way) than I ever thought were possible.
Now though, all that beauty was shrouded in darkness as I followed the beam of my headlamp to the dining dome for breakfast.  A bowl of yogurt and granola with a small cup of coffee would have to suffice, there was not much else offered.  There were only four of us running the 63K, Claire a woman from Orlando who had multiple 100 mile races under her belt, Norbert a guy from Australia who had recently finished the Caballo Blanco 50 miler, and another guy from Brazil who spoke no English.
After breakfast we piled into a van for the hour and a half ride to the start, it was a dark, twisty, bumpy and silent drive except for the radio which occasionally pumped out American pop music which seemed fitting at times.  The Beatles 'Long & Winding Road' and Dire Straits 'Brothers in Arms' were two that stood out to me as I sat in the back eyes closed trying to catch any extra sleep I could.
We were dropped at the start about an hour and a half early because they had to close the roads to traffic which is great but that meant an hour and half standing around (mostly outside) in temps that were near or below freezing.  The upside was watching the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen come up over the mountains.
Finally it was time to go; the race directors lead us on a 2k walk through the woods to the start at Lago Grey.  Lago Grey is a glacial lake at the base of a massive mountain, there were giant icebergs floating in the blue green water, which was like glass as we had been blessed by a day with little to no wind.
By now my hands and feet were completely numb, I was talking to a guy named Marcus from North Brazil, he was so cold that his face was bundled up like a bank robber. 

What the start enjoyed in beauty, it lacked in pomp & circumstance (which is one of the reasons I love ultra & trail running) just a yellow line in the sand with two banners and a bunch of people hopping up and down to stay warm.  The race director counted us down in Spanish (a trip because I normally count to ten in Spanish going up, down was difficult) and boom we were off.
Trudging through the sand/gravel we had just walked, we made our way eventually to solid ground (for a moment) then onto a long swinging bridge.  This was a challenge just to walk over but to run, with frozen feet, I felt like a drunk!  Swaying from side to side, trying not to run into the sides I finally made it across and let out a sign of relief.
From there the first 20K was relatively flat, and the views were breathtaking.  We headed out away from Lago Grey only to wrap around and see the mountain range that helped contribute to that glacial runoff, the snow covered peaks seemed to just go on and on and on, no end in sight. 
I would run for a while, stop and take pictures, then run only to be overwhelmed by beauty and be forced to stop again.  Pretty sure the people I kept leap-frogging were getting annoyed but there was just no way I could not stop.
After a little more than two hours we wound our way to the start of the marathon (which went off 2 hours after we started to just missed them) and again the beauty stopped me in my tracks.  A massive mountain, framed by a pale blue sky, was reflecting off the green blue glacier lake, mirror images.  I stopped to take a picture then flipped it upside down and couldn't tell which the original was.  

By now the cold of the morning was gone, I could feel my feet and hands again and inspired by the natural beauty around me felt ready to take on the hilly section of the course that lead from the 42K mark down pretty much to the final 10K.
A little ways beyond the start of the Marathon I noticed a figure walking up a hill in front of me and recognized the backpack of Connie, an American I had met earlier in Punta Arenas during our tour of Tierra del Fuego, she was from California and had planned on walking the entire 42K.
I caught up to her and we walked the hill talking about the race and what we had seen at our different hotels.  It was great to see a familiar face and to catch up for a bit, we snapped a picture and then I took off, opening up on a downhill and flowing right up into an uphill, just rolling along with mountains and the lake to my left, the scrub-brush & dry hills off to my right.
Running into Connie got me thinking about how lucky I had been.  Not just to have the support of my family and friends who helped make this dream come true, but also the people I had met since getting to Chile.  After a few days of stumbling through encounters in Spanish, trying to communicate with my hands and limited vocabulary I had met Connie & her sister in-law Claire (who spoke fluent Spanish) and was able to chat with them & understand what was being said thanks to the translation.  Then on my way to the park I was fortunate enough to meet Chris, Nick & Blaire.  Three American's who were living in Uruguay and traveled down for the race.  Over the course of our five-hour bus ride & subsequent lunch & dinner conversations I got to know them and they helped to translate the race briefings and other things to me.
Blaire was running the Marathon (her first) so I kept an eye out for her but doubted I would see her, and kept rooting that she & Nick and Chris (who were running their first half-marathons) would have a great experience and want to stick with distance running.  For me, my first marathon was a disaster, but I kept coming back & am so glad that I did for thanks to this sport I have been able to do and see things I never thought I would and meet such great people along the way.
An aid station cropped up around 32k, these aid stations were so different from any that I had come across in any marathon, ultra-marathon or triathlon I have done.  They consisted of a jug of water and that was it, occasionally you would come across one that held a box of half apples and bananas but for the most part my nutrition was in my hydration pack, three Clif bars, some goos and shot blocks, I was also carrying a hand held bottle that I would drop a Nunn tablet into but that was it.  No cookies, PB&J sandwiches or cups of trail mix along the way. 

Along the way I offered 'Hola's' to runners always getting one back in return, sometimes we would stumble through a broken Spanish or English conversation but for the most part the stretch from 42k to 28 was pretty quiet, just taking in the scenes and keeping my feet moving, making sure that if I was going to walk up a hill that soon as it leveled I was running again and relishing the downhill's where I let loose and just bombed, around 28k I met back up with Marcus, the guy I met at the start.  He spoke good English so we kept a running commentary for around 10k, he told me how a good pair of shoes in Brazil could cost him $500, or how his hand-held bottle (same as mine) cost him $50 even though we both bought ours at REI but his shipping and taxes sent it through the roof.
He told me how had been really into Team Adventure Racing until overheating one day during a race & being forced to withdraw cost his team a victory.  After that he picked up smoking again and got out of shape until he decided that he was going to recommit himself, found this ultra (it was his first) quit smoking and got after it training.
Marcus was a beast, he didn't walk the hills unless his heart-rate got above a certain level, and he attacked them with a warrior's mentality.  He had a race plan and executed it to perfection (I bailed after a while, I needed to run my race & running up those hills expended more energy than I wanted) finishing in just under 7 hours like he hoped.
Once I let Marcus go on a hill and settled in again, the heat began to reflect off the dirt road making it quite warm.  I had finally left one mountain range behind me knowing that soon I would crest a hill and see the Towers signifying the finish.
At the crest of every hill I searched the hills in front of me for the Towers and finally with about 11k left I realized they were off to my left, I pulled into the 10k aid station, filled up and knew that my next 3-4k were all downhill.
Opening up I let go, let the road carry me to the bottom, flowing over the loose gravel and pot holes all the way to the bottom, passing a number of startled people who were crushing their quads trying to slowly make their way down the hill. 

My momentum carried me all the way to the bridge when I finally ran out of steam, walked across the bridge then ran to the next hill and recovered walking to the top.  I was feeling good just about 5k left when I hit a hill that just wouldn't end, it seemed like it shouldn't be as big a deal as it felt but I finally had to pull up and hoof it, after 58k it was harder than it would have been normally.
Eventually I wound my way around to the hotel where the finish line was and after navigating the twists and turns that made up the finishing chute I crossed the line in 7:05:20, a medal was draped around my neck and for the first time since I got out of the van that took me to the starting line at 6:30 that morning I sat down on a bale of hay.
Rising I walked out of the finishing chute and found Chris, Nick and Blaire sprawled on the grass & joined them as we recounted tales from the trail, warm sun shining down, surrounded by mountains and great people there's not another place I would have rather been. 

The next day everyone felt good enough that we went hiking/biking to Laguna Azul, a beautiful lake that offered another spectacular view of the towers and saw a water fall that the blue-green glacial water flowed over making the rocks look like marble countertops. 

No one seemed to want the trip to end, dinner that final night lasted until near midnight, we were like kids at a summer camp sharing stories, rapping Snoop & Biggie, wanting to hang on to those final minutes before having to head back to real life.