Thursday, July 19, 2007

Devil's Backbone 50

It all began at Dry Fork aid station in the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming. First, I had missed the cut-off at mile 34 in the Big Horn 50mile race, fought with the aid station volunteers to allow me to continue, lost that fight, and was sitting around pondering about the DNF while waiting for a ride back to the finish line. Next, on the flight back from Billings to Denver, Leah mentioned that she's gonna do another 50, maybe the Tahoe Rim Trail. That got me thinking, maybe I could do another 50 before Pikes.

To cut it short, Tahoe Rim Trail having filled up, and some umpteen searches later, zero-ed in on the same damn Montana mountain ranges and came up with Devil's Backbone in the Gallatin ranges. First up, I told the rest of the bloo-frat (Santhosh, Gaurav, Ganesh, Anita and Sanjeev), and they said you are crazy, do it! Next up, I sent a long email to Joe (Prusaitis, our 'cool' coach) asking him myriad questions. Joe replied "go run it... I would! /joe". I registered.

I should first explain what made this race different. It was going to be entirely unmarked and unsupported (except for a drop bag at mile 25). The Gallatin ranges were home to grizzlies and mountain lions and elks. The entire race would be run above 9000ft elevation. We were to climb a total of 12500ft, 8000ft on the way over and 4500ft on the return in an out and back rocky course. In the bargain we were to bag 4 big peaks and a bunch of little peaks along the way, the tallest peak at 11000 ft. The elevation profile looked something like this:

Tom (Hayes, the race director) and Liz (his wife) put this race up almost entirely by themselves, and they do a swell job. There were 38 starters, and we met up at Tom's house the evening before for packet pickup, a race briefing, and some dinner. Tom had said this earlier, and he repeated it again that there was a lot of snow on the course, and that we had nothing to worry about with regard to water. Of course, I didn't believe him. Who had ever heard of using snow to fill your camelbak! Then he went on to talk about the 4 confusing points on the trail, where one could get de-railed and lost. Then the next 4 and so on... I returned to my room sufficiently convinced that there will be some way lost on the morrow.

The race promptly started at 5:30am with daybreak. I had my strategy all in place. The first 7.5 miles were a climb to the top of Hyalite peak, and I was gonna power walk that entire hill. Soon effects of altitude started showing. Turns out high altitude makes you light-headed and dizzy. Soon the power walk gave way to walk and I joined ranks with Lisa for most of that climb. Lisa was training for Leadville next month, and she was walking up this peak as well. Halfway up the peak, I realised the potential of all the snow lying around -- sno-cones! It was getting hot by then, and the snow eaten with a bit of electrolytes was tasting heavenly. I dumped half my water and decided to stick to snow. (The previous night I had already dropped the extra 70oz bladder, and had decided to stick to just one 100oz bladder.) Liz had, the previous night, taught me optimal snow filling strategy -- you have to add the snow while the bladder/bottle is still half full with liquid, otherwise the snow wont really melt.

Hyalite peak was gorgeous. None of the greenery and trees and showy flowers. Rocky, bare, cold, and majestic. The starkness of it all was really striking. Paused briefly to pick up a poker chip (this was to claim proof of bagging the peak!) and to soak in the mood of the rocky brilliance, and started down the peak. This was around 11000ft elevation and I was fairly light-headed, dizzy and had a bad headache. We stayed on the ridge for a bit, and then came down the peak to Crater Lake and further down from there to the valley floor, all the while feeling sad about the dropping elevation since we knew we had to climb it all again.

And so it went on, crossing peaks and staying on the ridge for the most part, until we got to the half way turnaround point at the Windy cabin. Tom was hanging around there waiting for us. Just the four of us were left at that point -- Mark (Henderson) was running with Penny (Mooney) and Lisa and myself. All others had either turned back or had dropped from the race. We more or less started together from the halfway point, and I let the others go ahead as I slowly dragged myself up the steep hill. I couldnt eat anything all day (could be the altitude) and so was surviving on two packs of clip2 and electrolytes, some grapes and lots of snow. Tom who was going to sweep the course behind the last runner caught up with me. One look at me, and he said that there is no shame in dropping out, it is a hard race, particularly for folks who come from sea-level. I promptly decided to put some distance between him and me. After a while he caught up with me again, and this time he knew I was gonna go back the whole way. Then we started chatting different other stuff and checked out the scenery as we travelled the ridge. At one point we were in the sun, watching one section of the 360 degree view rain, looking at the mountains of Yellowstone national park in an other, and beautiful meadows going down the slopes in a third section.

And then it started raining. The good part was it cooled the day, from a blistering 90 to something quite chilly, probably something in the 50s. Luckily I was carrying my windcheater on me. Not much one can do when it rains on the ridge. Absolutely no where to hide. In time the rains stopped. Soon we hit some steep downhills, and these I was taking at a fair clip. For once I understood what Joe meant by kicking rocks. I was rolling my ankes all over, but for once I didnt care. Its very different and quite a delight to go down rocks along steep downhills at high altitude. Soon I caught up with Mark, Penny, and Lisa (who had joined forces since mile 25). At an other downhill I left them and made my way back to the Hyalite peak. There was a rather tricky (and dangerous) downhill crossing Hyalite peak, all covered up in snow. I was trying to move fast as I could with the sole intention of negotiating that downhill in daylight. The hill going up through crater lake slowed me down quite a bit. Then there were four dudes on motorcycles, who wanted to know what we were doing, and I just needed an excuse to sit down and talk.

Eventually the Hyalite peak was negotiated and as I proceeded further down, it started to get dark. All this while, in daylight, it was reasonably easy to spot the cairns and not get lost. Once it got dark life became very tricky. Soon I got to a point where the trail ended into a stream. In the distance there were two lights which could only have been a pair of eyes. At this point it was around 9:30pm, thats 16 hours into the race and 44miles covered so far. I knew there were three runners and Tom behind me for sure. I decided to wait for the next runner and team up and negotiate the last 6 miles in the dark. In about 20-30 minutes Lisa came by. She was having a hard time eating anything and looked quite done in. She wasnt sure which way the trail was either, and the eyes unnerved her too. (She had already been unnerved at a snow crossing earlier, and was in tears before she was helped across it.) So we figured we'll wait for the next runner. In 10min, the next runner turned out to be Mark and Penny along with Tom. Penny's knee was troubling her quite a bit and had kept her moving slow.

Tom took a look, and decided that the stream itself was the trail and that the water must have been flooded onto the trail with the rains. So we walked in the stream for some time and sure enough the stream stopped and the trail began. After this point, it ceased to be a race. It was too dark to negotiate an unmarked trail alone, and the five of us decided to walk it back to the finish talking and chatting merrily. It took a long while to cover those 6 miles. We crossed a few bridges, got our feet wet in many streams, and eventually made our way to the finish line.

Liz and Lisa's boyfriend Mike were waiting for us. They had a nice fire going, and we gathered around the fire, toasting our toes, while Liz bustled around getting us water and our finisher's pilsner glass. Its quite cool, it has the red devil logo and says "Unmarked, Unsupported, Unequalled". 25 of the 38 had finished. We had taken 18hours and 52minutes.

Tom and Liz put up a great race, besides being wonderful hosts. It was a real pleasure to meet them and run with them. In all, it was an amazing day. It was over 7 1/2 hours longer than the longest I had ever run. The unmarked and unsupported aspects were very cool. The best part of course was the sno-cones. And it all culminated in true trail running camaraderie, as the last four runners and the race director joined forces and talked and joked and laughed our way back along the last 6 miles.

PS: It was a week to the tragic death of Rick at the Greenbelt. As all other HCTR members, marking a memorial run for Rick on Saturday, I had worn black. After looking at the pictures that Joe had of Rick, I recognized having seen him in the Greenbelt a couple of times. Its such a terrible tragedy. RIP Rick.


Gaia said...

What an experience! loved the way y'all finished :) i cant get over electrolyte sno-cones!

Sharanya said...

Great job, dude!!! Freakin awesome. I admire your guts and determination.

Anand said...

Congrats on making it!
You never said what those eyes turned out to be ....

Vinod said...

Thanks folks.

Yeah, never learnt what those eyes were. The mystery makes a better story anyways. Later Tom said I must have imagined them. Mark said it could be phosphorescence on the rocks (but it wasn't so low). Liz said could be any animal and that she's seen such pairs of eyes frequently in those forests after you come down from Hyalite. So, cant say!

And yes, electrolyte-sno-cones rock!

Padma said...

Very nice report! Very nice job finishing it - hats off to your determination & your go-getter attitude. Glad to have you in the bay area :-)


Gaurav Agarwal said...

"Hyalite peak was gorgeous. None of the greenery and trees and showy flowers. Rocky, bare, cold, and majestic."

Very well written. Poetic!! :D