21 September 2011

Steamboat Survivor

Photo: Jesse Malman

Photo: Dylan Bowman

"The mountains win again." John Popper of Blues Traveler sang about the truth that most of us forgot at this years Run Rabbit Run Steamboat 50. The size of any ego can be crushed in the blink of an eye in the mountain environment...tread lightly, and remember your coat! Crazy, epic weather that hits the fan tends to be the nightmare of most race directors I've spoken with. Then add to the equation that this weather is nuking above 10,000 feet and doesn't care if you're prepared or not. It cannot be harnessed, tamed, or caged; it voraciously yells, "Winter is coming!"

I had the audacity to run this race in shorts, shirt, arm warmers, and gloves...and I thought I had overdressed for the day. The night before I debated on going with a singlet and shorts. Thanks to the sage advice from my mother and friends I chose to bundle up. This decision probably saved my race. The minimal ounces that covered my arms and hands were worth their weight in gold! The forecast called for temps in the 40's-60's with a 50% chance of scattered showers throughout the day. I need to mention this forecast was for Steamboat proper- not the mountains high above Steamboat!

Last Saturday was the toughest conditions I've raced in. In 2009 I shivered my way through the memorable Lake City 50 blizzard. The difference was the rain and huge wind gusts at Steamboat. Snow is much more tolerable than rain that soaks you to the bone. I like to go light and fast- especially in races- and I definitely walked the hypothermic line- allowing my big toe to spill across that muddy line ever so slightly at times. This was one to remember. A job well done to RD Fred Abramowitz and his INCREDIBLE volunteers who thoroughly treated many a hypothermic runner last Saturday. Adversity tests character. Huge congratulations to each finisher that got it done! Good call to each runner who knew when to say when...there's always another race. Thanks to all the volunteers, spectators, and runners who selflessly gave articles of clothing to others to make sure everyone remained safe. This was a testament to the quality of people who participate in this sport.

To the race... I knew coming into this one that I needed REST. I knew I didn't have the A Game or the B Game. I knew it was gonna hurt- it did. I knew I was gonna ache- I did. I knew it was going to be a grind- it was...more than I expected. I just wanted to race with what I had and let the cards fall where they may. So why race? I asked myself this question many times before toeing the line. The answer was not an epiphany or a revelation. It was simple. I wanted to have a fun weekend in the mountains of Steamboat with Megan, my mom, friends, and I really like the singletrack section of this race. And running is all about streaks so I had to make it 5 for 5 at Run Rabbit Run.

The race opens with a 3500 foot climb over 6 miles. It was a muddy start with the worst of it closest to the Start/Finish line. I ran steady on this and watched Horsecow, Bonnet, Zeke, El Jefe, and Fanselow glide above me. Towards the top my friend and training partner and master of all things baked joined me for some brief conversation and then cruised by. Once I hit the summit I got really excited for the upcoming 15 miles of posh singletrack. When you know your day is going to be a grind you gotta run to your strengths. With this said I let gravity take hold of me as I simply leaned forward and let the legs spin down the trail. Running downhill, especially on singletrack is just SO fun to me. A few minutes later I found myself in 1st. I had to see what the legs had in them. It was one of those days as I felt like I was at mile 70 in a 100 miler when it was mile 9. Uh-oh!

Zeke and I ran together for a few miles before the AS at 13. At one point I slipped and fell because of the banana peel mud- Zeke was right there to help me get back on my feet. Right before the aid I could hear El Jefe closing the gap on Zeke and I. At the 13 AS I was a bit surprised when they asked to see my identification. After a moment of hesitation the light bulb came on and I proceeded to pull out my wallet with the requisite License to Grind. After inspection they let me continue...minutes after Zeke and El Jefe were waived through. At first I thought it was my beard that got me held up at the checkpoint for random inspection...how did El Jefe sneak through? He's got a beard...must of been the curly hair.

That's the thing when you're grinding. You know you're moving less than ideal but it's discouraging as the runners in front of you get further and further ahead until out of sight. At about 15 Fanselow and I ran a few miles together which made it clip along. Through Dumont at 22 I moved into 3rd with a no hassle transition at the checkpoint. However, Fanselow was stopped for wearing some unidentifiable upper body accoutrements. Once he explained it was for a Braveheart reenactment they let him go- with chants of "Wallace, Wallace!" echoing through the trees.

Photo: Dylan Bowman

Soon thereafter Bill passed me again and we made our way up to the base of the Rabbit Ears. At the turn Zeke and El Jefe were a few minutes up and they slid down the mud glissade highway on the return trip to Dumont. I scratched the ears and then began the 1st aching descent of the day. By this point the legs were deep fried lead- the heavy of heavies. On the way down I could hear Bonnet catching up and Bill getting smaller and smaller out in front of me. At the aid I thought about grabbing my Geist vest on a number of occasions but decided to go without it because it was only sprinkling and I didn't want to get too hot.

This is where the fun begins. About 5 minutes later it started raining. Hard. I wonder how long this will last- it's probably just passing by- I can handle an hour or two in the rain- the sun will be out before I know it. (Insert awesome foresight comment here.) A few minutes later I saw Geoff running towards me with a few other runners who were headed to Dumont. He had camped out the night before and was getting in a pre UROC training run. It was unexpected and fun to see him so we started down the trail catching up a bit talking about the mountains, running, racing and other fun pursuits. During this time Bonnet and I began leapfrogging each other. I was defenseless at this point- One Gear McGee making his way down the trail. My legs were pretty gone. I showed Geoff this as I caught a toe and Supermanned into some mud. Aerobically it was a walk in the park. The pace was so casual I could easily converse with James and Geoff. The legs were cooked. Around 35 James stopped to pee and the hypothermia hit him in less than a minute. It was really cold.

Everything on me was soaked. Then the winds picked up. The trail began to resemble a stream. Everytime my foot splashed in the water I felt a wave of cold ascend up my leg to the top of my head. Stopping meant immediate hypothermia. My forehead was so cold it was perma brain freeze. My intellectual capacity went down a few notches and the reptilian brain took over. Just keep moving...just keep moving. At the 37 AS I filled my bottle, grabbed a few chews and was shivering pretty good in only 10 seconds of not running. Geoff and I got out of there! At this point we decided that staying together would be the smart thing to do in the interest of safety. It was great to have the company- sometimes it's easier to suffer with others.

Every now and then I would let out a few guttural man noises hoping these yells and angry bursts would warm me. They did not. The interesting thing is they gave me a sense of control over the situation. If I could yell out I knew I was fighting and alive- not giving in to the wet cold fog that was trying to envelope me. I began looking forward to the climbs. During these moments I could generate a smidgen of heat with the increased effort. On numerous occasions we felt like it was letting up and that the sun was just around the corner. "Come on sun!" was my battle cry. Our hopes would be up for a minute and then it would start nuking harder. More rain. Bigger wind gusts. And wait- there's now sleet and snow! Terrific. My favorite part was running through the open meadows with a 30MPH headwind hitting me full on while the rain poured. Mile 41 seemed to be the weather climax of wind, snow, and rain that effortlessly swirled through us.

Once we hit the top I knew I was home free. Six miles and a 3500 foot descent on a cruiser dirt road was all that separated me from hot pizza and a hot shower. Game on! Over the past few years this descent has taken me between :38-:42 minutes depending on how hard I'm pushing. This year was just shy of 1 hour! Needless to say I hurt. I ached. My left hamstring was really pissed at me. It was pathetic. And I was warming up! Over the course of the descent it warmed up 10-15 degrees as we neared 7000 feet. I was beginning to feel "normal" again. Despite moving like OMB I was thrilled that the end was near. It was awesome sharing some unique trail time with Geoff.

The finish line crowd started yelling at us to run faster. They saw one guy gimping his way in while the other was non-chalantly jogging just behind him. This was for the last spot at States! Were they gonna tie? Before the chute Geoff peeled off as I finished in what I thought was 4th place. "Who dropped?" I then learned that the hypothermia hit Bill around mile 37. The weather got the best of us today. The mountains win again.

After putting down a few piping pieces of pizza I made my way to the hotel to take the longest hottest shower ever. Amen.


  1. LOL! Too funny, Ryan. It was actually just a singlet pulled over one arm as I was overheating at the time (believe it or not).

  2. Yeah, it was such an awesome look I had to bring in some creativity for the report :) Go get 'em at the marathon trail champs!

  3. here i am in norcal sweating (it was 99deg today) as i read about you guys borderline hypothermic. dude, way to survive and finish; unreal.

  4. You really described it well. It was so tough, dangerous, yet fun as he'll, I had to keep questioning my judgment. I really can't fault those who stopped. You either had enough clothing and ability to generate heat or you didn't. If you didn't, it was wise to stop. But man so many of us were on the line with a real threat of needing to quit.
    Glad it worked out for you and congrats on 3rd when you weren't even in decent condition from the start.

  5. Burch,
    Hope you recovered well. Are you coming down to Moab this weekend? I sure could use a little beta on trail conditions, footwear, etc.
    Jeremy from Idaho

  6. Congratulations on the 3rd place, Ryan! Great recap. Very inspirational. Clearly shows the beauty of the sport as I perceive it - that it engages the mind at least as much as it engages the body. And that it engages the mind long before you show up at the start line.

    Greetings from the Polish plains! :-)