First off, Mark and I were not alone. 20 to 25 runners from Flagstaff entered this amazing race, including the ultimate winners of the race, our coach Mike Smith and his partner Jason Wolf. We traveled up to Buena Vista, the start of the race, with a full carload of fellow Flagstaffians. It was a great start to a week of hanging out with friends and making new ones.
Mark and I were both feeling great the night before the start. A little nervy, but that's to be expected. We went out for a little shake-out run and all was good. It was exciting to get to the start the next morning, not entirely what to expect for the week. There were a lot of smiles at the start and a lot of excitement for what we were all about to embark on. Mark and I started off great and were on pace for our goal for this first 20 mile segment of the race. And then it hit. About halfway through the first stage, Mark started feeling it. I'll let him describe his experience, but it seemed kind of like a GI and upper GI problem. It forced him to have to start taking walk breaks. He kept at it though, pushing through the pain and nausea. I was still hopeful that he'd work through it, but as we neared the finish and Mark was getting worse, not better, I started to realize how significant his problem was. Crossing the finish was anti-climactic and not what I dreamt it would be. Mark was in bad condition. I was immediately concerned for him as I hung out in the medical tent. Later that afternoon, I also started to selfishly worry about my race. That conflict between genuine concern for Mark and selfish concern for my own race stayed with me throughout the remainder of the week.
It was difficult for me to settle in at camp that first night, not really certain how things were going to turn out. I was feeling good and anxious to get running and test out my training. Mark was determined to continue, but he wasn't looking good. The 2nd stage of the race was a short one, but a difficult one. We walked just about the whole thing, a little over 13 miles. It was tortuous for me by the end and I'm sure for Mark too. He wasn't feeling good. Much of the stage was on beautiful trail, but I found my mind often wondering what would happen tomorrow. I think Mark was wondering the same thing as we began the discussion - do I go on without him. I knew I wouldn't leave Mark if we started together. So we discussed how stage 3 would go. I wasn't prepared to walk that one, 24+ miles and I'm sure it was hard for Mark to be keeping me back.
Camp life began to pick up for me. I started getting into the routine of eating, massage, hanging out with friends. The community dinner was often a lot of fun, and it culminated in an awards ceremony and a slideshow for the day. Many of our fellow Flagstaffians had podium finishes and it was great to support them and enjoy their success.
Mark and I had a plan for stage 3 so I started worrying less about my race, though continued concern for him. Mark still wasn't doing well. He seemed to be generally fine at rest, but the effort of racing taxed his system. He was struggling to figure out what was going on and I can't imagine his frustration. We decided that we would start the stage together, along with another Flagstaff team who had a similar situation. The four of us ran together as we left Leadville for about 3 miles. As the course headed uphill, Mark and one of the other runners started feeling it. That left me running with Bob, the other teammate who was feeling good. Bob and I thought about waiting at the top of the climb for our partners, but ultimately decided that we all pre-planned to switch partners if needed, and that's what we did. Bob and I then took off down a descent and I felt like we were flying. Bob's a stronger runner than me, and he lead us on a fast paced run through the trees. I whooped and hollered and must have been smiling ear to ear. I was running! Stage 3 was awesome. It was a beautiful run, but a long one, over 24 miles. I felt great though. The last couple of miles was a grind to the finish, but we came in at just over 4 hours, good enough for fourth place. It was a good day for me as I finally got to test out my training. Unfortunately, as I would learn later, Mark continued to have trouble. He walked much of the course with the switched partner and it sounded like he was not sure whether he could continue the race.
That afternoon at camp, I ate a lot, took a dip in the lake, hung out with friends, and generally enjoyed the atmosphere. The nightly dinners, awards, and slideshow was a blast. Mark decided to give the camp doctor one more shot, and he insisted on getting fluids by IV. He was in the medical camper for a while, but when he came out, he seemed like a new man. Mark was going to give it one more shot, and if it didn't work out so be it. The next morning, we started the stage together along with our fellow struggling teammates. It became quickly apparent that Mark was feeling differently today. He felt like his usual self. It was an amazing feeling as we climbed the first half of the stage to an amazing view of the Presidential Mountains. We were practically in tears as we celebrated finally running together as a team. Mark was elated. This was the first time he felt like himself since the first part of Stage 1. We cruised through a mile of water near the end of the stage and onto the finish. It was our first finish together where we truly felt the satisfaction of our effort. What a great day.
Stage 5 started off a little rough for me, and for basically the first time, Mark was carrying me through those first 8 miles of climbing. By the time we got to some single track I was starting to improve. We started running great as a team, just as we have all through training. We had another great day and were happy to finally reach the finish in Vail. And then there was Stage 6, the final day. By this time, we didn't think too much about feeling bad. We just ran. It was liberating. Stage 6 was by far the most challenging stage. It was a mix of technical terrain, steep climbs, and distance. It was perhaps the most challenging day I've ever raced. But off we went. We had just a good, steady pace early in the stage. About 10 miles in we started passing quite a few teams. Soon enough we found ourselves passing the third place team. Are we really in third place right now? It was so incredibly exciting, but it also made me worry about losing it. I pushed the pace a bit and Mark was awesome at staying with me. The stage was becoming a complete grind as we approached the 20 mile mark. Up in the distance, though, we spotted the 2nd place team, and they were hurting. Mark and I passed them, but we weren't feeling so great either. This challenging stage was starting to take its toll. But we persevered. After the most horrific climb I've experienced, we finally crested into Beaver Creek ski area. As we started the descent, a couple of miles to the finish, we knew we were in 2nd place. So down we ran.
We could see the finish line and as we neared, we started to hear the announcer. He barked out our names and then I heard him say we were in second. While I knew it already, when I heard it over the PA system it made it seem so real. Mark and I both got so extremely excited. It truly was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced. As we ran for the finish we were jumping and pumping our fists with so much joy. It was such a great finish to such an emotional week. To finish 2nd after this tough week was an amazing accomplishment. Randi was waiting at the finish and it was so great to share this experience with her. Mike Smith was there too and he was so extremely excited for us. What a great day.
We Did It!
Later that night, at the daily dinner, awards ceremony, and slideshow, Mark and I finally had our due. How sweet it is!