Desperately gasping for breath, a rasping, wheezing chain-smoking cough, aching, possibly blistered feet, and a knot in my stomach indicating that the concept of violent, projectile vomit was surprisingly high…
…at mile 2.
Make no mistake, there is a slight pride in knowing that I make several dumb choices during, before, and after trail races so that you, dear reader, don’t have to repeat the same narrative. It’s simple math; I get a story, you get a laugh, and your soul gets to remain in your body for a little bit longer. It’s a win, win…win?
However, I have also come to learn that there are moments, races, that you can prepare for in your life, and go into them with the knowledge and desire to excel…and at the same time…still have everything fall apart right before your eyes.
This is my introduction to the 2019 North Fork 50k.
It is rare for me to run the same race twice throughout the trail community. There is just so much going on all at once that I want all the dirt, all the rocks, and all the blood that’s available. Doesn’t everyone? After North Fork last year though, I wanted to run this race again. The desire stemmed from a few reasons:
- I love having an excuse to be in Colorado. Confession: I am that non-native Colorado person that the native Colorado people complain about with their passive-aggressive bumperstickers…on their Subaru’s.
- Fact: Work with over 100 students for 9 months of the school year. You’ll be looking for a break also. It just happened to be that my escape was the day after school let out for the year.
- Golden Mountain Runners: They’re really fast, in really good shape, and are very good about not letting the flatlander like myself drop from a race.
- Frankly it’s just an amazing race to be a part of. Somehow throughout the entire course you are around people the entire time. Meaning, unlike many of my experiences, there was always that one 50 mile runner passing me that said, “Oh! Death march! We’ve all been there. Almost to the next aid station (…six miles away…).”
- Finally, it’s hard. It’s a hard race for someone like me, and while I tend not to be competitive at heart, I’m also not one to shy away from challenging the remnants of my very existence.
North Fork had been on my list for several months, almost a full years worth of training. It was, in the words of my coach, “a goal race”. The random 6 hour hill run in September was not a goal race, the floppy, raw bacon episode of the Back 40 was not a goal race, this race was. I put serious training into it. For all the humor that encompasses my existence, like a good teacher I also will not shy away from data, I had over 700 miles logged in the books, 48000 feet worth of gain in the year prior, and more Honey Stinger gels consumed than anyone within their right mind should be privy to witnessing.
In the motto of Team Sparkle Productions, “Nothing lucky about it. We train for this.”
It all started back in January. This ‘snowball’ effect leading up to this race. It began with -20 temperatures and taking pity on our students. It began with insane snowfall (by Flyover standards) in November. It revolved around a nasty, nasty winter. Not that it messed with my training; I ran regardless. I have a new love for Yak-Trax, and often felt like the anti-thesis to Elsa when it came to ice.
What it did mess with was the amount of snow days that my school district had to make up at the end of the year. Translation: our last day of school was May 31, 2019.
North Fork 50k was June 1, 2019.
My school district is in Missouri.
North Fork is in Colorado.
My school district is probably -3000 feet* below sea level.
North Fork starts off at 6100 feet above sea level.
Are you connecting the dots yet?
In the end, school was let out at 10:30 AM May 31, at 5:50 PM I was on a flight bound for Denver International Airport, at 7:00 PM, two stale bags of pretzels, and a really bad remake of The Sword In The Stone, my wife snagged me out of a really crazy airport (WITH TRAINS!).
At 8:00 PM MST, a small manic episode, and an AMAZING chicken sandwich later I was in an AirBnB getting gear ready for the next day.
I distinctly remember my wife looking at my gear that night, splayed across the table like like kids bag after Halloween (that the parents took to split up after the children went to bed…don’t act like you don’t know that happens), and looked at me, sighing, “You’re not going to have enough to eat.”
…you already know where this is heading…
Prior to the beginning of the race on a chilly, brisk Colorado morning; I ran into enough people that I didn’t have a chance to be nervous. I found Stu & Deb from Kansas City, Mary from Kansas City, and Heather from the joy of High Lonesome (she finished it last year…like a boss). Because I had spent so long training in isolation, I had forgotten how niche the trail running community really is. Truly, everyone knows everyone, and it also helps when you inherently stick out a foot above everyone else.
Deb, Stu, Mary, and Heather all creeped toward the front of the 200+ runners. Naturally, I creeped further back towards the very end of the group. Let’s be realistic. When the race started, something very dumb triggered inside my head. The only word that came to my mind was, “GO!”
And my day was trashed…
My first mile was under 12 minutes. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that if I’m moving at that speed, that early, someone is going to need to brace for the 40 minute miles later in the day. I’m not even saying I felt great while moving that quickly. Perhaps peer pressure? Perhaps trying to warm up? Whatever the case was it, the speed was short lived because about the time I crossed that magical little bridge
into my eternal slumber the realization really hit me.
That was mile one. The next 15000000000 miles would. be. straight. up.
Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but after that bridge the first major climb did begin, and it did not stop for quite some time. This is truly where the errors of my ways started to show themselves. Mainly in the form of the dreaded conga-line. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to apologize to each of you and give you this heartfelt confession…
I WAS THE CONGA-LINE.
See, the problem with my poor choice to start out so quick was a double-edged sword. First, it was fast and the likelihood of death was moved quicker towards midnight on my own doomsday clock. Second, all of those people I passed earlier? They were smart by taking their sweet time, and now they were ready to move, and I was left with two choices.
A. Step to the side, fall off the cliff, and allow them to pass.
B. Try to match their pace, and hang on for a breath-draining, show-ending ride of rollers and climbs.
…and because of pride I inherently chose the latter…and that made all the difference**
After climbing, breathing, trying to cry, and contemplate all of my poor life choices I began to see the clearing, the flattening of the land, the hope. I also began to realize that I was hobbling like a death march way too early into the race. While traversing at my own pace, a very nice lady came up to me and asked if my name was Fruit Loop (I cannot make this up), and if I had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Inherently I said, through a gasp, that may name was Shawn, I have never been referred to as Fruit Loop, and that I most definitely did not thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I see, you’re distinguishable though with your nice, cinnamon hair. Have a great run!”
Reason #9717 for trail running: While school, as a student, was a time for peers to completely harass me about the color of my hair (of which I grew to hate), trail running has brought out the joy of having ‘cinnamon locks’. Thank you nice lady from mile 6 of North Fork 50k.
We parted ways at a restroom near a trail head. She stopped for her peers, and I continued on my trot, across the road, and onto the next segment of trail…completely off course.
It was only the nice AT lady yelled, “Shawn! John! Shawn!”, and sent three mountain bikers after me that I realized that I had not turned where I was supposed to, and can finally said that at a race…I got lost.
After scrambling under the guise of shame, I made it back to the main course, only to be met with a strong, short downhill and a random guy*** in blue telling me which way to go to my first aid station.
Upon decent into the Golden Mountain Runners aid station, for the first time that I could recall, I truly thought about quitting the race right there. My feet and ankles were destroyed, my stomach was already started to become upset, I couldn’t breathe (more than usual), I got off course…and it was just a pile of garbage that I couldn’t shake.
Unfortunately for me, I also knew that I was stepping into the one aid station that was definitely not going to let me drop. No bones were sticking out, both eyes were still intact, and I was moving. It was there that I found a multitude of people that have had the humbling sensation of pushing me up mountains; Kelsey, Caleb, David, and the rest of the Golden Mountain Runners were running the first aid station. I had no chance of dropping at this point. I came down the decent looking like death warmed over, they forced me to eat, my wife switched out bottles, and after a brief interview with a local newspaper (?) I made my way backup onto the trail.
Life just sloshed by for the next set of mileage. I was just moving, barely, but I was moving. My feet hurt so much; even a word-junky like myself struggles in being able to adequately define what it felt like to run. The best example I could muster up is when The Terminator freezes the T-1000, and then he tries to walk and his feet break off…yeah…something like that.
However, I did not have to go up Tramway. Here’s the lowdown on this course; this year it was changed slightly and ran almost entirely backwards. That meant last year where that 5% of sucking happened with going up Tramway was replaced with 95% of the course sucking…but Tramway’s decent was absolutely lovely!
After journeying halfway through eternity I made it into Meadows. There I was greeted with organized chaos, bacon, and the glaring sun. Meadows is a fun bunny ear, weird multi-point location for the 50 mile runners. The rest of us just have to check in and get moving again. It was there that I switched out another bottle of Tailwind (bless my friend Sharon, and her realization of what an ultra looks like by trying to put Tailwind powder into a Salomon soft bottle. Sharon, the struggle is indeed, very real.), met Kate, who owns Go Far Run in Boulder, and was pacing her husband Zach on the 50 mile. She forced me to eat. This was an ongoing theme; GMR people throughout the course making sure I was eating (don’t worry, it wasn’t the last time). Naturally, I left the aid station the same time Kate did with Zach…the difference was the fact that he was in first place of the 50 mile and completely torching the field…while I was on mile 14 of the 50K. I sheepishly said “hi” and “bye” as they came speeding past me.
I thought, after ingesting some bacon, that I had, had enough of this course. However, like all good races, the course had not had enough of me. One of the unique adjustments this year was that both 50K and 50M runners had the privilege of embarking up Mount Baldy. I’m here to tell you, as a testament to my humility, that had there been an aid station remotely close to anywhere along that section of path…I would not have finished this race. Mount Baldy now stands as the most miserable piece of earth I have ever found myself on…and I’ve been to Skidmore, Missouri. My feet were already aching, the course was just another large climb, with transitions between loose gravel, solid boulders, and just sadness…pure sadness. My stomach felt horrible, breathing was nearly its final breath (…ha…), and the course never ended.
Hours…hours later I came into Homestead Aid Station. There, I had a small 4 mile loop, and then 5 miles to the finish line. I came into the station dizzy, disoriented, and overall miserable. I sat down for a second, downed a ton of fluids, and tried to eat. I tried to keep moving, just to get the misery over with. I left with half a soft bottle filled with Tailwind. Two miles into that loop, mainly exposed, I realized the tragic error that I had made. While not thinking I had managed to leave the aid station with…an empty soft bottle, and an empty 2L bladder, and all I had was half a bottle of some watered down Tailwind.
Truly, I had every excuse to drop from this horrific atrocity. The second half of that small loop was an uphill climb, my miles were down to 30 to 35 minutes, and the prayer of the sweet release of death was going through my mind. I hit Homestead once more; where I found Ashley. Yes, another GMR runner nearly threw fruit ice…icee…popsicle…whatever those things are called at me. At this point my body wasn’t regulating heat at all, there was dehydrations, and a severe lacking of calories because I was refusing to eat (I’m not saying this was a good idea). The term mess was appropriate at this point. Under my weight, a lone chair sacrificed itself for the cause (sorry guys!), I was filled up with water…and I took off for the final 5 miles.
I’ve been in thunderstorms, insane heat, completely isolated, winter weather, sub-zero temperatures, and just about every other crazy predicament that one could conjure up while on the trails. Two miles until the end though; I experienced two things that were completely new to me:
- All the water I had been sucking down? Yep, proud to say that in my 31 years of life on this blessed rock, I finally puked while partaking in a cardiovascular activity. Dear middle school football coach; am I an athlete worthy of your guidance yet?
- “I hate running. I do not want to do this ever again. Not just racing on some trail, I do not want to lace up for anything ever. I’m sick of feeling like this.”
It’s hard typing those last words, for all the humor in my endeavors, that thought stung more than any humor could lift me through. The amount of guilt on my heart, for thinking that, was the rawest feeling of the entire day. Running is my life, it’s what I do, and this thought was almost what I’d imagine a cheating spouse to be like, the pain of turning my back on what I love.
The race needed to be over, and over quickly.
Through the setting sun, the cooling breeze, giant mosquitos, and a long freaking gravel road I started to see the beginning of the end…of the race. Coming through, I could see Lauren, yelling at me about finishing the race or something…she came and trotted (aka: walked) next to me to the finish line. Upon completion I found Janice, one of the most amazing RD’s ever, an award plate, a chair, Kate pulling my shoes off…with somehow no blisters at all, Heather (who crushed her 50k) with a cold beer, and enough time to relax while watching another one of our runners, Brit, finish her 50 mile race****.
There wasn’t some traumatic crying moment, nor was there a collapse into someones arms, or any other photogenic opportunities. It was just a finished race. I definitely found myself in the darkest places I’ve ever been, and finished because the people around me knew I could keep going.
It really does take a town to raise a runner.
- *Apprx. 863 feet above sea level
- **There is this ongoing morbid obsession with Frost, and attempting to find death in the woods
- ***Random Guy=Golden Mountain Runner by default 😉
- ****Oh Zach? Yeah, he won the 50 mile and afterwards was found at the basketball court shooting some hoops when I finished.
If you’ve read this far already; you may as well stick around and enjoy a random story included within the journeys of North Fork 50K. At the Back 40 Trail Race it was the floppy bacon the day after the race. At North Fork it was the experience leading to getting to Denver.
Let’s start at Kansas City International Airport. Now, I have a unique gift of finding ways to be patted down at every single airport I walk into. It happens without fault. In fact; once at George Bush Intercontinental in Houston I even got to spend time with the Department of Homeland Security.
My wife was already in Denver, so my stuff with already with her. All I needed to do was board a one-way flight to Denver with my body, phone, and the clothes on my back. I had cargo shorts on, my BOCO hat, a tank top from Ruhn Co., and just plain Hoka shoes, plus one Hawk 100 drawstring bag. Minimal stuff for the ease of getting through security. To no surprise I was pulled from the scanner and received a pat down, but still made it through in quick time.
Sitting by myself, near a window, thirty minutes before my flight, I was lost in my music and Soccer Spirits: Season 7 on my Pixel. No one was seated near me, and I was in my own world.
That’s when it happened…
A muscular figure knelt down next to me, I pulled my head phones off (out of respect), and the next thing I knew…
Sir. Can I have a few moments of your time? I have a few questions for you.
He opened his wallet, and I was entertainingly bracing myself to hear about Jesus and the path to salvation from this man.
Instead I saw his badge.
HIS. DEA. BADGE.
DRUG. ENFORCEMENT. ADMINISTRATION.
My heart sank.
Now, it suddenly became like my venture with Homeland Security. “Where are you going? Why do you not have any bags with you? Can I check your bag (thank goodness I didn’t have my Tailwind baggies with me)? How long will you be gone? Have you see anything suspicious?”
The only thing suspicious was Macho Man Randy DEA squatting next to me, and his three musketeers of muscle standing behind him ‘trying to blend in’. He thanked me for my time, and went about his way of awkwardly trying to blend in with the public.
It wasn’t even ten minutes later…
Here comes the Kansas City Police K-9 division. Guess where fido was heading? You bet! The officer made a b-line straight to my chair, and was intent on investigating the bag that was with me.
All done with no problems what so ever.
This all unfolded around 4:45 PM CST; five hours prior I was saying goodbye to another batch of students on route to high school, five hours later I was trying to sleep prior to another ultramarathon.
Truly, never a
dull relaxing moment.
…no…they did not find anything…thanks for asking