Mediocrely Sexy Lungs (or, "Beaverhead 55k Race Report")

My main goal in running the Beaverhead 55k was to, in the words of INXS, "live, baby, live." INXS always has good advice, except for the whole listen like thieves thing, which ended up getting sixth-grade me chased down and menaced by a group of seventh grade guys after I'd eavesdropped like a thief on their bonfire at the neighbor girl's house, to the extent that I didn't listen to INXS for awhile thereafter, for self-preservation purposes. I did end up living through the Beaverhead race, despite all the possible ways there are to die during an ultramarathon, like horseflies.

These runners are not me, but you can imagine they are me, and that I have super fearsome lungs. (Photo by Dave Lingle)

This particular race took place at high elevations along the Continental Divide, straddling the Idaho/Montana border. Shannon gave me a ride to the starting line so I didn't have to take the 4:30 am shuttle, which meant I could lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for an extra hour, which was super awesome and motivating. At the starting area, we ran into one of Shannon's friends from high school, who was helping organize the race. He gave me some pro secret cheats, like "There is a Pokeman somewhere on this course."  

There was a solid vibe at the starting line. Everybody looked formidable, like they all had huge lungs. Sometimes I imagine people's lungs. It's just a neurosis I have. Stop judging me. Also, huge lungs are a boon for Beaverhead runners, because the race starts at about 7,300 feet of elevation and only goes up from there. My lungs are kind of tiny. It's why girls didn't like me in college. I can still feel the sting of rejection: "Hi. Do you have big lungs?" "Um, no, not really." "Oh. Well, see you later then, if I'm unlucky."

I did most of my training for the race in El Salvador, so I didn't have access to elevation training. But I am pretty well conditioned to deal with oppressive heat and suffocating humidity, neither of which is characteristic of the Continental Divide, unfortunately. Knowing this, I opted to start the race slowly, which was probably wise, because over the first two or three miles we gained over 1,000 vertical feet. About six minutes into the race I was wheezing, and I thought, "Nice. Man, why do my lungs suck so bad (pun intended)."

Here is a photo I took about 90 seconds after the race started. Not pictured is me trying desperately to breathe, feeling like I had already run 20 miles, despite having walked approximately 300 feet.

The first aid station was at a little over four miles. There was a lot of energy there. Good juju. On my way in all the volunteers were cheering super loud for me, so I busted out the super original one-liner, "Man, I must be in first place!" And they kind of politely laughed, and then they guy 30 seconds behind me made the same joke, and I was like, "Dang. Small lungs and unoriginal jokes." Lots of people passed me at the aid station. I'm kind of an aid station lingerer. I like juju baths. And other kinds of baths, too. I bathe frequently.

Things leveled out nicely after that first aid station and I finally got into a bit of a groove, enjoying the winding trail through the trees, the cool, early morning air. I caught up to and then pulled away from a pod of runners, and one guy pulled away with me. Funny thing -- I've no idea what the guy looked like, his name, nothing. He stayed behind me for five or six miles and we talked a lot, but I never turned around to see him. You can call me lazy if you want to, but I ran 34 miles on a Saturday earlier this month while you were watching Finding Dory, so.

Around 11 miles, we hit the second aid station. It had less energy than the first aid station, but it had bacon. Bacon > energy. Einstein really missed the boat with all that time he wasted on E=mc2. If he was actually a smart guy he would've worked out an equation for bacon. Thanks to Einstein we know how to produce energy, but whoop-de-doo. Where's your equation for producing bacon out of mass and the speed of light? Riddle me that, Einstein. Anyhow, even though I am a partisan of bacon, I didn't eat any. It had heartburn written all over it, in dry erase marker, which is bad for your liver. So is seppuku. 

For the next several hours I ran alone. Kind of slowly. I gave myself pep talks, like, "Nice, Abu Halen, you really slayed that last mile," and "Abu Halen you have really strong and sexy lungs" (I didn't really believe myself when I said that second one). I'd been at around 8,500 feet elevation for several hours, and was now climbing to nearly 9.500 feet. I do a lot of math in my head when I'm distance running, figuring out pace and stuff, and it was at this point in the race that I noticed I could no longer perform simple multiplication and division, which was sad because I was then forced to think about John Denver's really circular glasses.

About sixteen or seventeen miles into the race, I hit a really low point. After a couple of short but steep uphill rock scrambles, I was wheezing on the spine of the Bitterroot Mountains at 9.500 feet, thinking how I really need less Dr. Pepper in my life, or else I need way more Dr. Pepper in my life, or something, because things weren't working. So I stumbled into an aid station at mile 19 and decided I need to park it for awhile and eat M&Ms. Tell me a problem M&Ms can't solve. Besides subpar gas mileage. Apart from that, there's no other problem M&M's can't solve.

And sure enough, after taking a chillax and several doses of M&Ms, I felt like maybe the world wasn't falling apart, and I had a pleasant but slow four or five miles to the next station at Janke Lake, where I again leveraged M&Ms to improve my mood, like Prozac, but cheaper.

This runner also isn't me, but you can imagine that if it was me it would be a boy. (Photo by Dave Lingle)

A mile or so out of Janke Lake, I hit a three or four mile portion of the course known as the scree field, which sits between 9,500 and 10,000 feet, consists of loose shards of talus rock that shift with each step beneath your weight, and lies along the pinnacle of the Bitterroots. Only feet to your right, the slope falls away vertically a solid couple thousand feet into Montana, and to your left, it slopes at a slightly more gentle grade downward into Idaho. You climb peak after peak for those endless three or four miles, thinking every summit is the last, but it's not, and you find yourself hating everything, even Thomas Jefferson, because it's his fault America ever found this place. 

Every Beaverhead runner knows the scree field cometh and you have to deal with it, and maybe you'll cry, or, if you've hauled a sword for 23 miles, maybe you'll ceremonially disembowel yourself just to end it all. I actually handled it better than I thought I would due to the fact that I'm a pessimist and I had pictured and unimaginably horrible scree field that would last for decades and you'd have to leap over famished vipers and ford the river Styx, and maybe perform a flawless karaoke of a song by the band Styx, probably "Babe," which would be really embarrassing. So I found the actual scree field relatively manageable as I kept pace with my partner in crime, a lady from I do not know where whose name I do not know but who had on a blue jacket, or maybe it was yellow. All I know is we entered the scree field at the same time and we stuck together the whole way, not really saying much, both just silently glad to have another human nearby, as, apart from one another, we were alone in the wind on the bare backbone of the mountains, trying to suck down what little oxygen we could find at 10,000 feet. 

This is me looking backward at part of the course I just ran, wondering why I didn't select an alternate route with 5,000 or so less feet of elevation.

Before I expected it to, the scree field ended, the trail dropped precipitously to the west, and I was kind of overcome with a bizarre sense of giddiness. I think it had to do with realizing that I was most likely going to finish and that the last 7 or 8 miles were downhill, and also it maybe partly had to do with the fact that my brain had been receiving insufficient blood for hours (or years, as my wife may argue). 

Down the veritable goat trail I gaily bounded, losing 2,000 vertical feet in 1. 5 miles, until I arrived at the final aid station, where I dropped my phone and shattered the screen. I shrugged and stupidly grinned and said something completely divorced from reality, like "Nyeh, it's not that expensive to fix these things, no big deal," and continued downhill riding a big dumb wave of euphoria through a couple of cool creek crossings and a few mud bogs. The trees got leafier, the birds beefier (I might've been hungry at this point), and my knees had been pounded so much by the course's ups and downs that they'd gone numb, which was super awesome -- one of my mottos is "when your body is telling you something, ignore it until it shuts up," which also works for children.

Shannon was at the finish when I got there after a little more than 9.5 hours of running/lurching. It was kind of cool to have her there, but the best thing I could pull out of her was a high five; she rebuffed my attempt at both a hug and a kiss, citing my poor hygiene. This was okay with me, because I wanted a Coke and a burger far more than a smooch -- no offense Shannon, but could you make your smooches more burger-like in the future. I finished 49th out of 113 runners, solidly mediocre. I can't decide whether I want my running nickname to be Solidly Mediocre or Sexy Lungs. Maybe Mediocrely Sexy Lungs would be proper.