I am sitting in my living room, sipping on a Left Hand Good Juju Ale, savoring the last tastes of summer as a cool wind blows through my windows. I’m in the recovery phase on day 9 or 10 of a battle with poison oak in my eye, contracted somewhere between Steamboat Springs and Leadville, and I have decided to summarize the last few weeks of August and, what was evidently the end of my summer running this year.
The month of July and the first week of August were filled with weekends in the high country, on long runs and hikes with good people. It was definitely the best summer I’ve had since childhood. Moving into race week for the Steamboat Stinger trail marathon, I felt strong and fit. Perhaps I had gone a little overboard at times, such as the 27ish mile Pawnee-Buchanan loop a couple of weeks earlier, but overall I felt good in spirit and body, except for my lower right leg. I had rolled my ankle several times in the past month, and the trauma had now irritated my Achilles tendon. To make matters worse, Ginna, at Boulder Acusport (from whom I regularly seek acupuncture treatment) was out of town for the week. I tried to taper more than normal and be easy on my ankle; as the week progressed and I massaged my calf and foot, it felt like it was mostly healed.
Climbing out of my tent in Steamboat, the morning of the race, I felt confident and my ankle felt great. Emily and I drove to the parking lot of Howelson Hill near the start/finish, where I ate some yogurt and granola and a banana, while waiting for the start – which was less than an hour away. Soon there were many racers and everyone gathered to toe the line. I placed myself near the front, as I planned to keep a fast pace for at least the first (and smaller) climb and descent.
As we set off, I felt light and swift. This feeling would not last. By mile 2, I was struck with a wave of nausea. I started to regret my breakfast plans. I had used Greek yogurt and granola in training with great success, however, today I made 2 vital mistakes: 1. I ate less than an hour before a race. 2. I ate more than double what I would normally eat, thinking I could use the extra calories. Within minutes after I felt the nausea, I had to stop along side of the trail. I dry heaved for a few minutes, as a line of racers passed behind me. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t actually vomit. I drank some water and breathed deeply for a moment. Soon I felt like the nausea was waning, but only enough to keep moving, not yet enough to run again. I hiked uphill until I felt good enough to run slowly and eventually I made it to the top of the first climb.
At this point I knew I had to make up time to achieve my goal of finishing in 3:30 or better. I bombed the downhill, going at a sub 6 min pace in spots, passing many runners that had passed me on the climb. I felt great. My legs felt fresh, my stomach had returned to normal and my spirits were lifted. By the time I got to the aid at the bottom of the descent I felt reinvigorated. I ran out of the aid station and up the second climb. It wasn’t until halfway up that I started to feel sluggish, around mile 17 or 18, but I was still on pace for goal #2 of finishing under 4 hours and was certain I could gain more ground on the final descent, as I had on the previous one.
After refueling, hydrating, taking salt and refilling supplies at the aid at the top, I set out for the last section of downhill to the finish, about 7-8 miles. I started the descent the same as the first one, only this time, after about .25 mile, my right lower leg seized up – to the point that I had to sit down on the side of the trail. Every step felt like daggers in my calf and Achilles. Apparently the injury had not healed and I had made it angry. Too far into the race to drop, I went on, hobbling until the pain and stiffness gave way. I took off again, 100 feet later, my calf seized again, painfully. I hobbled forward again and once my calf allowed it, I jogged. I couldn’t go faster than an 8-9 minute pace and I was hoping for a 6-7 minute pace the whole way down.
With now even my sub-4 hour goal looking like a bust, I carried on, slowly and steadily. I reached the finish at 4:45, over an hour later than I had wanted to. Perhaps it was poor planning, or over training, but either way this race was not what I had planned. I hoped I hadn’t done too much damage, as I had already agreed to pace Timothy Olson at Leadville 100 the following weekend. After the race Emily and I went to Strawberry Hot Springs to soak.
I took the next week easy, my only run was at the Salomon Run Club group run on Tuesday, to test my ankle a few days later. Unhappy with the way it felt, I decided to try something extreme – fasting. I went on a 2 day water fast, in which I did nothing physical. On Friday I went back to normal eating habits and fueled up. My ankle didn’t hurt at all and it seemed that the resting and fasting expedited its healing. I felt better than I had before Steamboat Stinger and decided that if I made it 26 miles of pushing it on an ankle that was iffy, I should be able to pace 20ish miles at the end of 100 miler just fine. I was right. I felt no pain running that weekend.
Getting into Leadville the day of the race, I located Krista and settled at the Twin Lakes aid station. The atmosphere was cheerful and the weather was beautiful. We awaited Tim’s arrival at what would be mile 60.5 and after Hope Pass. I heard he was looking great when he first came through and was excited to share some miles later in the day. When he came into Twin Lakes, it was apparent things weren’t going great. Stomach issues and knee pain were plaguing Tim as we guided him to a spot under the trees, where we had set up. I knew the feeling all too well at this point. After a morale boost from Krista and some friends, Tim and his pacer, Matt, set out again. It was then time for me to go post up at the Outward Bound aid station, to await his arrival, and from where my pacing duties would begin.
While waiting I enjoyed cheering on runners, like Clare Gallagher, on her way to a legendary female victory. I started pacing Tim about an hour before sunset. We ran to the power lines and grinded up the climb. The sun was down by the time we reached the top. We kept on through the dark, running and hiking. The course seemed to go on forever in the night, but eventually we were back in Leadville, crossing the finish in 20th place at ~1:45 am, and I had witnessed a great instance of digging deep and gutting it out. It was good to share in the suffer with such a strong and humble athlete.
Upon arriving home Sunday from Leadville, I felt a strange pressure in my eye. I thought I had just gotten some dust in it and was getting a stye. Little did I realize that, by Wednesday morning, my eye would be swollen shut and half of my face swollen with poison oak. I am not sure when exactly I was exposed to it, but it seems that the left-side top of my head was the spot of contact and, from what I can gather, the oils ran down with my sweat onto the left half of my face and into my eye. I spent almost a week unable to do much of anything other than rest and recover. For anyone who was ever wondering what its like to have poison oak inside of your eye, I can only say it is painful and miserable at best.
I am now on the recovery phase, feeling good and almost normal, except that my eye is still halfway swollen shut and my vision is foggy. Apparently poison oak can take up to a month to fully clear. I am almost two weeks in and hoping it doesn’t take another two to heal enough to see again. My only solace is in the fact that all this time off is giving my legs and ankle ample time to heal and repair from the damages of this summer. So, as we approach the unofficial end of summer this Labor Day, I am looking ahead to the fall season of scrambling, cycling, cooler runs and maybe even another race, if I feel up to it. Cheers to new seasons!