Twin Mountain Trudge
Medicine Bow Mountains, WY
I woke up early to drive up to the Medicine Bow Mountains of Southern Wyoming. The Twin Mountain Trudge was celebrating it's 9th year. An event that, regardless of the trail conditions (see: amount of snow) forbids the use of snowshoes or any other flotation device. Though, they allow hiking/ski poles, yaktrax, micro-spikes etc. We haven't received much snow in the area this winter, which initially generated thoughts of "an easy race." Race Director Alec churned out a FaceBook update the night before, informing us of high winds and minimal snow on the course. Depths ranged from bare spots to knee deep pow. I knew that the whole course wasn't bare, and a certain degree of challenge would be present. But I wouldn't fully understand until I showed up.
After arrived in a random Forest Service Picnic Area parking lot, I checked in with Alec and allowed him to check my gear for the items we were required to carry for the entire run. A wind jacket, pants, gloves, warm hats, fire starter, a whistle, headlamps for the 22 milers, 40 calories of food, 40oz of water.. I'm probably forgetting something. I had flashbacks to my first ultra, where I showed up with a monster pack and more than I needed. I knew I was doing the same today. A big pack and too much gear. Instead of a wind jacket I packed a puffy coat. After all, it's 15 degrees at the start with 30-50mph winds. I packed winter pants I typically wear mountaineering. 70oz of water. 600 Calories of food. My pack looks huge, but... it carries light.
With a wicked wind still whipping across the starting area, we all huddled for the pre-race meeting. I was waiting until the last possible seconds to take off my fleece pants, puffy coat and be ready to roll out. As soon as the meeting ended, I huddled at my car and stripped down. My toes are all ready cold and hurting from the nip. I just needed to finally get moving. And then, Alec put a flask to his lips and with a swig of whiskey, we were off.
Blow It Up!
Heading out of the Blair Picnic Area we passed through a cattle gate, and then immediately started rolling uphill for the first mile or two. We enjoyed a few bare spots but ultimately, 2-4" of slick "old" powder was left on the trail from the last storm that blew through here. Anyone who was under the impression that this years run would be "easy" given the conditions, quickly would find out they were sorely mistaken. Running in 2-4" of "glass snow" really doesn't afford the best purchase with your feet. As your feet and ankles slip and slide about, all that really happens is a bit of forward progression and a lot of wasted energy.
I found myself in the lead pack of runners heading up this main hill and it didn't take me long to be searching for air. With temps in the teens and a 30-45mph wind gusting across the hillside, the available air was being ripped from my nostrils before having the chance to suck it in. I could feel an epic blow up coming on. I want to push it.. but I needed to hold back. Just then, I witnessed runners stopping to delayer having taken off with too many clothes after a misjudgment of their warmth needs. A few others stopping to put their hands on their knees and gasp for air as they did blow up. If I was going to perform as I had hoped during this first real test of the season, I knew I needed to conserve. So I anchored off a bit and tried to settle in to a manageable heart rate.
After doing my research about the course, past performances, and considering my training; I knew a 5 hour or less finish was a tall order, but reasonable based on my perceived abilities. I knew anything under 5 hours ranks runners on this course amongst the fastest all-time times. I wanted it. But to get it, I knew I needed to be smart. So, I made my plan. I would use the first loop to get to know the course, settle in, and try to put a little bit of time in the bank. Loop 2, would be all guts and about consistency to the finish.
I started walking the uphills as I normally would, understanding that doing so would save me energy. That if I ever felt like I could trot or break into a run, I would without delay. But the further in we got, the deeper the snow got. We maneuvered through drifts, wound our way through aspen glades, through sections that were bushwhacks and I was certain no trail actually existed. Whatever.. I just kept moving forward, paying no attention to who was behind me. Greatly appreciative of what bare spots existed, the course was mostly 4" of ankle deep "glass" and many sections of short-lived knee deep pow.
I took out my GoPro and started filming. Lately I've been struggling with the thought of filming my runs. I've been wondering how much time is wasted with the camera while I'm trying to actually perform. I need to work this out now so I'll know come the Vermont 100. As I film myself for the first time, I can hear Todd Duncan behind me spreading encouragement. He offers to take the camera and get some shots of me running away. As he films me I really start tearing up the trail, that is, until I manage to find my way into the next "powder patch."
Todd and I would hang together for the next few miles. We trudged through a section of knee deep snow. Whomever had marked the course the day before, made sure they took the largest most lunging steps possible. We tried to follow each lunging step, we proved to be a hip and quad exercise to say the least. I knew that on the second loop, this would be broken out by 30 other runners. I took great satisfaction in thinking about that.
At one point, Todd and I went off course for about 10 years. It was easy to figure out, seeing as the footprints in the snow disappeared. We stopped immediately, and found the proper course, got back on track and kept moving. The trudging sections are so exhausting, that it's easy to lose your mind a bit. Ultimately, every time I got a break from the snow, I wanted to walk.. and Todd called me on it. "Let's go, run run RUN! If you want sub 5 hours, you need to do loop one in under 2:30!" He was 100% right as he took off down the trail ahead of me. I tried to keep up with him, but I couldn't. Ultimately, in my mind, I needed to run my own race keeping in mind the advice I had just received from a Trudge veteran.
In reaching the first aid station, I watched as Todd and taken off into the abyss with his brother. I was happy for him, thinking about how cool that must be to able to compete in an event like this with your brother. I stopped for a quick cookie at the aid station before taking off. From here, we ran across an open field, and approached what is known as "Fenceline." The toughest climb on the course. It's not very long but pretty steep. I also found the snow to be the deepest on this section of the course.
After finishing the big climb, we run lateral along the terrain for a time, before we come to a sign with a devil on it. We're being introduced to the Devil's Loop. We take a hard left and start running downhill through what I'm certain is a popular rock climbing area during warmer months. I look at my watch and am just now realizing that the distance of the event might be shorter than advertised. Either that, or the halfway aid-station is actually sooner than half way. Assuming the loop is actually 11 miles in length, I'm noticing that my watch is reading 5-6 miles in.
This only add's concern because while on this "loop" we're supposed to be looking for a hole punch. It's hanging from a tree, covered in ribbons. We're supposed to use it to clip into our bib numbers and prove we were on the loop. but given the mileage on my watch, I'm worrying... rather, obsessing.. that I've missed it entirely. The Devil's loop offers quite it's share of technical running. And then, we come to a rocky outcropping where we are directed along's it's edge and then up through a drainage/crack in the feature. I scramble my way up through the crumbled felspar/granite and then out onto the single track again. Just around the corner, I see the hole punch hanging from a tree. I run up to it, punch a hole in my bib, and carry on.
After the hole bunch we work out way through two more climbs. During this time, I can hear a runner ahead of me and one behind me. I was passed at the beginning of Devil's Loop and didn't want to be passed again. So I did my best to hang on and not be passed by the runner behind me. My interest in catching who was ahead of me waned at this point in time. I was just holding on to my average pace of about 13:15 into the completion of the first loop. As I approached the start/finish area I saw Nico, a fast runner from Boulder training for the Boston Marathon, heading out for his second loop. I was wondering where I fit in the mix.
I ran strong into the start/finish area and checked in. Todd told me I was doing well, and I asked where I was for 2nd loopers. He told me that I was in 5th, heading out on loop 2. This was encouraging. I knew Nico was about 8-10 minutes ahead of me. Wasn't sure I could catch him but wanted to try. I grabbed a few banana pieces and scarfed them down. Turned around and headed back out. At this point in the race: Of the 10 who indicated they would be doing the loop twice, only 5 of us had gone out (7 was the total of who did). Of the 35 runners who started either distance, I was the 8th person to come in from loop 1. I was feeling great, and was incredibly pleased with my placing thus far.
So I saw Nico, and knew he was about 8 minutes ahead of me. Nico is a very gifted runner. He trains hard and is fast. I have no business running near him and so.. I know my months of training have started to pay off. I got into pac man mode but wasn't overly concerned with it. My main focus was not letting anyone catch me, and maintaining a steady clip through the entire second loop. I was alone. I could see no one ahead of me and no one behind me. I put my head down and got to work. After the first climbs ended, I was at 15:30 min/mi pace and knew I wanted to keep this pace through the entire loop (or faster).
While the trail is now largely broken out, it's not any easier. I'm getting tired from being off-balance and having my legs flailing about through the slick icy snow. I think having the course broken out by 35 runners has actually made it worse and the second loop, is requiring a little more effort. I'm determined however, and start singing that Thrift Shop song in my head to keep me moving.
After the first loop, I recognized that the loop is not 11 miles long but a short 9.3 miles instead. So at the halfway aid station, I knew I had 4.5-5 miles left. The tradition, I guess, at this race is to take a shot of whiskey at the aid station. I ask how far ahead of me the next guy is and they tell me "Eight-Minutes." I respond with, "Crap, I guess I'm not going to catch him. Give me a shot then." The volunteer fills a tiny shot glass halfway with whiskey for me, I throw it back, shutter my head then take off down the trail. By the time I reached the Fenceline climb, I've realized that the whiskey has helped me legs go numb. I'm not feeling any pain, discomfort, or exhaustion any more.. Now, I suddenly feel like running everything.
I push where I can and continue to walk when I think it smart. The walking mostly included deep drift sections or areas where I'm not really getting a good purchase in the snow to be running. I'm trying not to waste my energy. I do realize however that at one point, my pace has sunk back below 15 minute miles. I knew my 2nd loop would only be a few minutes longer than loop 1. Really all I could ask for in a race like this. Then, after Devil's Loop, I hear something ahead and realize, I've caught someone. I got into Pac Man Mode.
Reeling it in
I quickly realize that it's not Nico that I've caught but another runner. The same young man whom was hunched over with his hands on his knees 1 mile into the race, having blown up. He looks exhausted now. He is walking the uphills in a very sluggish manny. He's a bit sideways in his stance, dragging his feet through the snow, just... tired. When he crests the top of the hill and breaks into a run and, I know if I want to pass him with a mile or 2 left, I need to follow closely. As I start running, I recognize that I've got more energy than him, so I just hang back and wait for him to be ready to step aside. He does, I move on past, and now.. I'm in 4th. My next thought it, "now where is Nico?"
The final hills are out in the open. As I reach them, I glance across the landscape and see no-one. I know now that Nico has finished, I've got about 6-8 minutes to go, and I want to keep the kid I just passed at bay in case he has a sudden burst of adrenaline. I continue going strong, and on the final hill I look back and see no one. I'm euphoric to say the least. It's been a mighty long time since I've performed so well in a race. Just being in 8th after 11 miles was testament to my training regime. I push hard for the finish but not after taking my camera out to get some shots of me smiling on the way in.
I was in 8th place overall after 11 miles, 5th heading out for loop #2 and finished in 4th. My time of 4 Hours and 23 Minutes is now the 9th fastest in the 9 year history of the race. Despite the course having the least, or 2nd least amount, of snow on it in the events history; it was no easy day. I'm truly thankful to have had the opportunity to see how my new diet and the training is coming along against a collection of other runners. My next test is a big one at the Rockin' K 50 Miler in April.
~ The Road To Vermont Continues ~