Saturday, July 19, 2014

Laurel Highlands and Colorado

I should start by saying that though this report is late as frick, I could never forget any detail about June 14th, 2014 at the Laurel Highlands Ultra (70 miler).  Those steps are ingrained forever.  An epic and stoic experience to say the least.

Because the last month has been pretty boisterous with moving to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, acquiring a job on the second day after arriving, and having been tramping around Colorado the 2 weeks prior while being slightly homeless, I've decided to combine the Laurel Report with my transition to Colorado, one beautiful experience so far.

So, here's my take on the Laurel Highlands Ultra of 2014.

When I called my friend Eric (Morelli) wishing that he'd come crew and pace me for the last 24 miles at Laurel Highlands AGAIN this year, I was doubtful that he'd be available, as he's got a life of his own, and you certainly can't expect someone to jump at your convenience.  However, once again he agreed, and seemed ecstatic.  Both he and I were calm about our hopes for the race, but either way we were both excited.

The night before a race I never really sleep well.  Or the night after for that matter (Sugar, caffeine, neurotransmitters...did I mention sugar)?  Anyways, I got up at 2:30am after pretty much rolling around uncomfortably for only a few hours.  After all, Eric didn't arrive until late, as he had a show to play in Oil City, or Titusville.  Therefore, we had to chat a bit before bed, naturally.  He asked me if I had a plan, and I chuckled, because I never have a plan going into a race.  Run fast, far, have know, the basics.  The only thing I really knew was that I wanted to run the last 20 or so strong, and win of course.

We both got up knowing that we weren't going to sleep for shit, then brewed some coffee.  I only ended up getting in two clif bars, and a banana I believe.  Soon after, I compulsively checked my stuff, and we hit the road to the startline in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, only a 1-1:30 hour drive from where I used to live in Pittsburgh.  Upon arrival, I got my gear, gels, and headlamp together, and started to get excited.

Never, EVER forget to apply body glide.

Eric wished me luck, I lined up at the start and soon enough we were off!

I only went out in like 5th place or something, as I knew I had some time to warm up, and we had a long way to go.  In fact, after a juxtaposition of last years and this years splits, I ran the first 19.3 miles 3 minutes slower than last year.  I ran and chatted with a cool dude named Doug who knows much about the race's history, and the gnarly old men that direct the race.  After all, Laurel is one of the oldest ultra races in existence, and the race director Rick Freeman, along with co-director/volunteer Tim Hewitt are those hard ass kind of dudes that traverse the Iditarod trail for 350, or 1100 miles in the middle of winter.  In fact, Tim Hewitt holds the 1100 mile course record.  To sum it up, this race and course is frequently associated with badassery.

Anyways, upon reaching an aid station somewhere around 15 or 20 miles in, I departed before Doug, and never saw him again until the finish.  From that point on it was time to do work, to get down to business.

I started to push a bit around the marathon distance (26), as I knew I had some catching up to do.  Soon enough, sometime a little before crossing over the turnpike around 35 or so, I caught up with a really nice guy named Colin (3rd at the time), who traveled from Maine.  My goal was to push really hard from the turnpike to the route 30 aid station (mile 46), which is where I'd be picking up Eric, and see my family, and friends Marlon, Olivia, and Steve very briefly.  I passed Colin sometime soon after, and made my way though an area called Beam Rocks, which is really beautiful.  The next miles were pretty productive as I caught 2nd place right before the aid station.  I cruised into the aid station, and my family told me that 1st was only 2 minutes ahead, and he didn't look so good.  "2 minutes" I kept saying to myself.  Less than a mile out of the aid station I caught Amos Desjardins, who promptly stated to Eric and I that "this was just a training run". Well, that right there was a good enough reason to not let him win.  I think we were slightly annoyed.

This is where the fun began.  Eric immediately asked me what I was going to do.  "I'm going to pass him", I said with fire in my eyes.  I knew as soon as I saw Amos that I couldn't let him win.  After all, he looked like hell, and I felt pretty good considering the circumstances.

I let him lead for a little while, not only to analyze how he was feeling, but also because I started having stomach issues.  Though I never ended up spilling my guts, I was damned near close to it, which forced me to back off just a little.  The only thing on my mind was the next aid station at 57, and ginger ale.  Sure enough, in what seemed like days we reached the station with my friends Steve, Marlon, Olivia, my Mom, and Lindsay waiting with the best ginger beer I've ever had.  Real ginger, real sugar, glass bottle.  Bam, stomach cured.

Amos rolled in first, with me right behind.  From the moment I caught up with him, he kept trying to put a gap between him and I.  Surging is almost always a sign of weakness, just like looking back.  Racing is very primitive by nature, which is a large part of what attracts us freaks to run really far, in competition no less.  At some point,  Eric and I exchanged our similar observations about Amos' strategy and condition.  The time had come.

Like I said, we rolled into the 57 mile station, Steve got me ginger beer, and they stocked me up with gels, and refilled my bottles.  I made eye contact with Amos, and I literally made a run for it.  Eric had to restock also, so he caught up with me.  That was the last I'd see of Amos until the finish.

What happened in the last 13 miles are some of my proudest and most surreal moments I've experienced in the relatively short time I've been racing.  There is a lot of technical, nasty downhill in the last miles, especially in the last 4 or 5.  I love the downhill.  It's basically the will to commit, and hopefully not eat shit, or run into a tree.  Eric and I were just cruising.  We finally hit the only 1 mile section of fire road, which ends at the last aid station before hitting the singletrack to the finish (mile 61-62).  After running out of the woods onto the gravel and dirt road, I took a few seconds to catch my breath, and Eric patted me on the back and told me I was crazy.  I conceded with a grunt.  I told him, "let me eat a gel, take a salt pill, drink some water, then let's do this".  The road is a very gradual uphill before the last station.  Eric absolutely hates this section, because it's the only road, and it's always really sunny and hot.  This time he hated it even more because I was pushing really hard, and he had to keep looking back for Amos.  He eventually confirmed "I'm liking what I'm not seeing"!  I mumbled back "me too", pathetically.

You can probably guess what I did at that last aid station.  That's right...more ginger ale!  This time not as natural and delicious as the ginger beer Steve brought me, but still refreshing at the very least.  I could seriously write a blog on the depth of my affinity for ginger drinks.  Shit, throw coffee and beer in there, I've got myself a thesis!

Back to the race.  I really love running with Eric because we don't get to do it very often, and our philosophies of running are very similar.  We almost always get ourselves into bushwhacking territory, find ourselves forced to drink from streams, and/or return battered and bloody.  We have a way of bringing out the animals in each other.  This occasion was no different.  I remember thinking to myself as we were flying down the last 4 miles, descending 1200ft. that this is freedom, this is flow, this is what I'm constantly striving for.  It always makes you proud, and work harder when your friend keeps telling you how well you're doing, and how ridiculously amazing the whole thing is.

Up until this point, I told Eric that I didn't want to know what was going on with his garmin watch, as I was afraid of what he'd tell me.  After leaving the last aid station he had to tell me, and I had to know how fast we'd run that road section.  A 7:50 mile it was.  I was stoked, and so was Eric.  For me, that is a fast mile after 61 miles of running, especially on a slight ascent.  I was pretty sure by mile 65 that Amos would have to pull something crazy to catch me at this point.  As it turns out I ran the last 13 miles 8 minutes faster than last year.  I was also able, and fortunate enough to put 18 minutes on Amos in the last 13 miles, and finish in a time of 11:50:23, 15 minutes better than last year.

It's been said before, and it'll be said again.  It is always good to get to that finish line.  It was really fun cruising in so quickly, with my friends and family cheering me on.  The emotion and energy that's put into racing 70 miles, let alone 100 or more is what keeps me coming back.  I think Anton Krupicka, or one of those bad ass mountain guys said it best, that "it's not very often that we are forced to strip down to the bare necessities of sugar (calories), salt, and water to keep going, and to survive".  Beyond that, there is always another unexplained element beyond nutrition or physical fitness that gets us to the end. It is a magical experience, even with such taxing repercussions.

Sasha, myself, and Eric
3rd place Kevin Rumon (CA), and 2nd place Amos Desjardins (VA)
I'd like to thank the aid station volunteers for laughing at my bad jokes and being awesome, race director Rick Freeman, my parents, my Uncle Dennis and Marcia, Lindsay and Wes, Kevin and Sasha, my friends Marlon, Olivia, Steve, and lastly Eric for helping me push hard to the end, and for keeping me company those last 24.  Amazing family.  Amazing friends.  I'm extremely grateful for such a great crew, and such an amazing event.

Next on the list is the Eastern States 100 on August 16th, followed by Run Rabbit Run 100, right here in Steamboat a month later.

I departed for Colorado on June 17th with plans to move into a place in Steamboat on July 1st with a friend/fellow runner Avery Collins.  What an amazing journey it's been.  Though it's great to have a place to call home, tramping, camping, and bumming around was tons of fun, and a learning experience to say the least.  After getting acquainted these last few weeks, I'm confident in saying that Colorado feels like home.  Never before could I run out the front door into the mountains, ride my bike to work, and only drive a couple of times a week.  Sleeping at nearly 7000ft. isn't so bad either!  Ubiquitous vistas leave me speechless every time.  It's fascinating how landscape draws from emotion, and the other way around.  After all, for me, racing and sport will always be second to the art, discipline, and beauty of getting out consistently.  In my experience, genuine fun and satisfaction is almost always a byproduct of difficulty, sacrifice, dedication, passion and foresight.  Almost every night, or morning that I'm not running or working, I'll go out on the balcony, have a coffee or beer, and stare Mt. Emerald, or watch the sunset. The sky is enormous.  Instead of continually ranting, I'll just post a few pictures.  I wish I had taken more.  Too many stories to fit into this script.  I hope everyone's well and striving for what's good!

Fish Creek Falls (Steamboat)

On the way up Mt. Werner

Silverton, CO for the Hardrock 100

Camping in Silverton

Chris at Snowmass

Zak at snowmass

My Boulder rental

Snowmass Mountain with my friends Chris and Zak