Lured In

“I’m signed up to run the Ouray 100 in July. Why don’t you join me?  It’d be great training for Nolan’s 14, and allow us to log some proper mileage together.”

My friend Mercedes is sitting across a small wobbly table from me at Boulder’s Red Rock Coffeehouse. She is looking for a partner to attempt Nolan’s 14, the famed Sawatch peak bagger’s ultra linkup, which only three women have completed since the challenge was conceived by Jim Nolan and Fred Vance in the 1990s.  I know that Nolan’s is an extremely ambitious goal, and I am hesitant to commit - but I am also intrigued.  I have always dismissed the linkup as too hard, too high, too fast.  But with a motivated partner, over a year of prep time, and a hard mountain 100 miler as a checkout run… this might just be the perfect setup. I love big hairy goals; other than the sheer amount of training and suffering involved I struggle to come up with a reason that would allow me to say ‘no’ to Mercedes’ pitch. 

Typical terrain on Nolan's 14

As we finish our coffee on this beautiful late March morning, I promise Mercedes I’ll think about it - both about Nolan’s 14 and about the Ouray 100, though in my heart I already know that I won’t do one without the other.

Hiking the Hayduke Trail in May

After a conversation with my husband Paul I sign up for the 2018 Ouray 100 with three and a half months to go until race day. Just knowing that I have a 100 miler on the schedule induces familiar ultra jitters, though I soon find a convenient excuse to put the race out of my mind: a month-long thruhike of the 812 mile Hayduke Trail is taking all of my attention while also giving me a head start on fortifying my endurance base with long, slow mileage.   

Run, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

Come June I am back home in Boulder, strong and lean after a month among the Colorado Plateau’s magic desert landscapes. Time to kick the actual running training into gear: I’ve been known to complete 100 milers severely undertrained in the past (say, Western States on less than 18 weekly miles of training) but Ouray is not the kind of race that can be finished on sheer willpower. I know the course is high and steep - I seem to remember Mercedes talking about 40,000ft of vertical change in the hundred miler - and I am ready to put in the work.  

Living and breathing running for a while

As I sit down to draft an eight week training plan for myself I check the race website to learn more about the course; and there I see it, 41,862ft of vert… oh, wait. Yes, 41,862ft - but 41,862ft of *ascent* for 83,724ft of vert total, at an average elevation of over 10,200ft above sea level. My stomach does a somersault. I have DNF’d a 100 miler with 72,000ft of vertical change in the past because my IT bands couldn’t keep up. How am I going to complete this beast of a mountain run?

Time to train. I leverage my endurance hiking base and quickly go from zero running mileage to forty miles per week, then fifty, sixty, seventy. I have never trained this much in my life: I like big missions much better than endless training runs, but Ouray scares me. I know that training is my ticket to the finish so I run, I eat, I sleep; then I do it all over again.  

By the time race day rolls around, Mercedes has sustained an injury that prevents her from competing. I on the other hand feel better trained than ever, though I’m worried about my subpar taper: just seven days before Ouray I completed the Pfiffner Traverse, a monstrous 76-mile and 55-hour high route mission through the Front Range Rockies. I hadn’t been planning on running the Pfiffner so close to race day, but the route was a passion project of mine that I just could not stay away from when a weather window opened at the last minute. 

After a single 55hr push on the Pfiffner Traverse

No Rest For The Wicked

I show up in Ouray still tired from the week before, compounded by four days of work-hard-play-hard at Outdoor Retailer. I haven’t run a single step in six days, and I’m doing everything you’re not supposed to do in a long distance race: I am testing brand-new Leki running poles, Balega socks which I have never worn before, and a pair of unfamiliar insoles to help address my occasional Morton’s neuroma. My goal for the race is simple: get to the finish line.

A snapshot of the Ouray 100 course map

At first glance, the Ouray 100 course design seems contrived: it consists of a main spine along Campbird Road, augmented by more than half a dozen out-and-backs - each one a nasty climb - as well as a loop that has to be done both clockwise and counterclockwise; there isn’t a single stretch that a runner doesn’t have to pass at least twice. But my initial skepticism quickly turns into delight: the course turns out to be more runnable than I expected, and all the out-and-backs make the race a wonderfully social event.

Given Ouray’s relentless ascent profile - the hardest climbs are at the very end - I am worried that I might find myself chasing cutoffs, so I decide to lean in during the early runnable segments: I want to put time in the bank.

The Ouray 100 elevation profile: the final climb is the biggest of them all. 

I am decently acclimatized from half a dozen 14er climbs in the last few weeks; my legs are strong from hundreds of training miles. I am enjoying myself.  There are a handful of women in my proximity, all looking strong and fast; as we approach the turnaround point of the first out-and-back I realize that I am part of the lead pack. Four of us - Autumn, Sara, Esa and myself - are keeping a stout pace and trading off pole position for the first thirty or so miles. I am thrilled to be hanging with these strong runners for a while even though I know that I have no business moving this fast: my training was laid out to allow me to finish Ouray 100, not to jockey for a podium spot - not to mention the fact that I am not yet recovered from my recent Pfiffner effort.

Catching up to the lovely and strong Autumn Isleib early on in the race; we're #1 and #2 for the women at this point in time. Photo: Howie Stern.

Darkness catches me right around mile thirty while I am leading the women’s field, way ahead of my goal pace. I know that there aren't any out-and-backs for the next six or so hours which means it’ll be impossible for me to gauge how well I am doing compared to the other frontrunners.  There’s only one thing for me to do: run my own race.  I allow myself to get lost in the narrow beam of my headlamp and settle into my ‘forever’ pace. 

Twenty miles later it is still dark, and I am still in the lead… though not by much.  I’ve made it to the next out-and-back and sure enough: there is Esa with her pacer, just a few minutes after the turnaround. I am incredibly impressed by Esa’s strength and composure - this is her first-ever 100 miler.  Not only is she poised to finish what must be one of the hardest mountain hundreds in the country, but she is a serious contender for first place.  

The next aid station comes with a much-needed jolt of energy: it is three o’clock in the morning, yet my husband and Mercedes are waiting for me. Mercedes is set to pace me through the next tough climb, and her company is a gift; the remaining hours of darkness pass quickly.  

Mercedes sticks with me for 23 miles despite her injured ankle; Paul - who possesses neither love, nor shoes, for trail running - jumps in for the next four mile section, then decides to tag on a second segment (and one of the biggest climbs of the race) for a total of more than ten miles and 10,000ft of vertical change. We get caught in a torrential downpour high above Ouray, crossing what is typically a small trickle but now a fast-flowing stream in a steep gully high up on an exposed cliff-band. More than ever I am glad for Paul’s company: where I hesitate, exhausted and in a mental fog from thirty hours without sleep, he forges ahead and swiftly crosses the obstacle to show me that it’s OK. We get to the turnaround point and rush back down the mountain. I have somehow managed to cling on to first place; my lead on Esa has widened again. 

Power-hiking is the new running

By the time Paul and I get to the base of the mountain it is dark again. I have been on the move for more than ninety miles and thirty-six hours, yet the biggest challenge is still ahead: the final climb to Bridge of Heaven. Mercedes is by my side again, Paul now waiting at the finish. My pace has slowed to a crawl; I no longer care about the race outcome - the only thing that’s on my mind now is how to keep breathing and stay awake. I have run my race; I have nothing left to give. 

Homeward Bound

I crest Bridge of Heaven at 2:30am under calm starry skies, having been on the move for over forty-two hours; forty minutes pass before I cross paths with Esa, still on her way up the mountain and looking as tired as I feel.  The rest of the descent is a blur of soreness and exhaustion: Mercedes and I both are feeling it.  

At 4:46am, just a little over two hours short of two full days after I started running in the very same spot right next to the Ouray Hot Spring, I stumble across the finish line of the Ouray 100 with Paul and Mercedes right by my side.  

A cup of ramen later Paul helps me limp over to our van; I crawl in, smelly and wet and chafed as I am. Laying in bed I look at my phone for the first time in two days; an enormous amount of willpower keeps my eyes open for long enough to type five characters in a message to my best friend: I WON! I will my thumb to move up to the send button but exhaustion finally triumphs: phone in hand, message drafted yet unsent, I pass out into the bottomless depths of hallucinatory sleep. 

My 100 Miler gear

A note about the race itself: if you're at all intrigued - go do it.  The Ouray 100 is unlike any other race I have run, and both absolutely brutal and brilliant at the same time.  Also... this is the only ultra event I know of where the women's prize purse is BIGGER than the men's; go Charles Johnston!

These two! Sleep-deprived and awesome, Paul and Mercedes in the van after a first short nap.