“I’m just going to sit down for a second,” I mumbled to my pacer. I was summiting the final section of the Ouray 100: a 5,000-foot climb up to 12,368 feet that is fittingly named Bridge of Heaven. I had been running for 45 hours continuously, minus 15 minutes sitting in a car to get out of the rain and two sunny minutes laying on my back on a mountain pass the day before.
My eyes were buzzing in and out of focus. I propped up my cheek in my hand and closed my eyes. The next second, my head slipped and my neck snapped back up. I had fallen asleep and it was time to go.
To put it into perspective, this ultramarathon is equivalent to running over 4,000 flights of stairs. Well, as long as those stairs are built out of sharp rocks and mudslides and nestled above 10,000 feet. Oh, and let’s double check the math: 42k of climbing in 102 miles = 411 feet of gain per mile, right? Nope. These climbs are mainly out-and-back climbs up peaks and passes, so half of your mileage is actually descending.
That means 42k of climbing actually happens in about 51 miles. That’s over 800 feet of climbing per mile. Imagine going for a run where every single mile also climbs at least 80 flights of stairs. And, runner beware, your watch will read somewhere around 110 by the time you are finished, which might not be accurate, but certainly feels accurate.
Hardrock, one of the hardest ultras in the world, cumulatively gains 33,050 feet, and Leadville gains 15,744 feet. There are reasons why only 34 people out of 110 finished this year, and why most of us took over 40 hours. The course record is over 30 hours. This race is out to destroy you as much – if not more – as you are out to destroy it.
Without lamenting the times of COVID, I think we can all agree that it was an isolated, muted year. I ran but I wasn’t on fire. I exercised but I didn’t feel fit. I talked to people, but I didn’t feel connected. I barely ran a race and I began to feel like an ultrarunning fraud.
My ‘running’ during the pandemic was spent going up in the mountains of northern New Mexico for hours and hours. I registered for Ouray because the San Juans are steep and lovely. This race has an old school, low-key feel. I like that and I respect it; no one is going to be able to get you to this finish line by holding your hand. And, there will be almost no one at your finish line to greet you.
All summer, I feared and lusted for race day. A buckle was not remotely guaranteed (I’m neither that brave nor that dumb). Herding myself into the middle of the start line, I wasn’t even terribly confident. This is what ultrarunners do, we walk up to the door of impossibility and we turn the handle firmly.
At the start, a pack took off up Camp Bird road and within a mile, I was among new friends. Everyone (well, everyone not running at the front) was chatting. Laughing. I looked around and remembered. I remembered the family of the ultramarathon. These are my people.
From that first mile, at least for me, Ouray didn’t feel like “me versus you.” It was us against the mountain. Us against the weather. Us against our feelings and us against our fatigue. For example, I led two women for at least 98 miles continuously; I mean I beat them up every ascent and out of every single aid station. Both passed me on the final descent to the finish.
The only emotion in my heart at that moment? Pride. My heart was full for them. We stopped and hugged. Anne battled on alone after her spouse, who she was racing with, was pulled with HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) on the first day. She had given me two gels the day before when I was starving at altitude.
Franny was moments away from redeeming a previous DNF. Because of all of the out-and-backs, we had seen and cheered each other on for two days. Plus, I rightly recommended some peanut butter cookies at the last aid station, which she messaged me after the race and thanked me about. I know I wasn’t, but I felt like their biggest fan.
Maybe it was because I knew, I felt, their struggle. My pacer and I grinned and whooped after them as they disappeared down the switchbacks to get their buckles.
A mile later, a lean man I didn’t recognize came up the trail and asked, “Is one of you Julie?”
“I am,” I said nervously.
“Hi, Julie, I’m James and I have a surprise for you,” he said with a smile.
My friend Lori was also running this race. We had spent a weekend training together on the course over the summer. I learned that she had unexpectedly timed out when the first storm rolled in early and angrily. Lightning over Richmond Pass caught a group of runners on the wrong side and forced them to retreat lower. Neither would budge as the hourglass ran out.
He told me she was not only still here, but she was hiking up to see me. Right now.
That was the exact feeling I sent with Anna and Franny as they danced down the talus. My brimming heart spilled over when I saw Lori beaming and bouncing toward me. Happy tears spilled over and dripped down my chin. Lori cried. My friends cried. Hell, I am tearing up writing this now.
Each one of us won the race we were running.
Ouray isn’t just the buckle. Not for me, not this time. Not every victory is on the podium.
I had forgotten. I had forgotten my beloved tribe. Dustin, Rebecca, Melissa, Eric, Paul, Austin, Todd, Beat, Mike, Wendy, Matt, Howie and Dennis. These are just some of the names. I didn’t even list half of everyone, I just don’t want you to get bored.
I forgot how much sense I make (to myself) when we all come out of the woodwork and share trail. Even if your race is yours alone, which it always will be, you are bonded by suffering and unified in mission with the footsteps you are following. There is room in ultrarunning for us.
At least at the old school, low-key ones.