You can breathe when you’re dead
Crazy as it sounds, this is an actual thought that went through my oxygen-starved brain during the recent Mt. Evans Ascent near Idaho Springs, Colorado. I was dying for air at 12,800 feet - and I had to make a critical decision.
You see, running, like life in general, doesn’t always go the way we plan. And this race most definitely was no exception. But when faced with unexpected obstacles, we have a few choices: A) lay down and cry, B) scream and yell, C) drown our sorrows in ice cream, or D) roll with it.
With no ice cream readily available mid-race, I decided to roll with it. So, oxygen-starved or no, I decided to go for it - I was sprinting to the finish.
Now, let’s back up a minute. In theory, the Mt. Evans Ascent takes runners along a 14.5 mile course from a starting elevation of 10,200 feet, up to the mountain’s +14,000 foot summit. But I got my first hint of the impending trouble about a week before the race. In my inbox was an email - due to the heavy snows this spring in the high country, the road to the top of Mt. Evans was impassible - but CDOT was working frantically to clear the race route, and hoped to do so by race day.
“Since the race’s inception in 1971, the run has never been canceled or shortened due to weather,” the email reassured me.
The day before the race, I received another email - proclaiming that the road to the mountain’s summit had indeed been cleared. Hurrah!
That evening, while carbing up on the traditional pre-race pizza in Idaho Springs, I gazed out the window at the looming mountain - the top of the peak obscured by heavy, ominous clouds.
“Looks like snow up there,” muttered my husband between mouthfuls of calzone.
The next morning, Jeff and I made our way to the starting line at Echo Lake, our teeth chattering as we hopped from one foot to the other, dancing to keep ourselves warm pre-race. A few minutes after we picked up our bibs, the race organizer made an announcement via loudspeaker: the top portion of the race route had frozen into a solid sheet of ice overnight. Thus, the course would be shortened to 9.25 miles, ending at Summit Lake, far short of the mountain’s peak.
If you have followed my story over the past few years, you know I have bad histories with mountain races. I have failed to complete the Pikes Peak Ascent twice - once due to illness, and once due to an impending hail storm. And now this - yet another attempt to run to the top of a mountain thwarted before I could take even one step.
Like a two-year-old, my gut instinct was to pick up my toys and stomp off. If I couldn’t run to the top of the mountain, I’d just take my running shoes and go home - what was the point?
But then I took a breath. And decided. I came here to run. So I would run - as far up the mountain as the race cops would let me.
The first three miles of the run were tough - but no tougher than expected. The road along which I ran twisted and curved unrelentingly upward. My quads and calves burned while my lungs gasped for oxygen in the rarefied air. From time to time I downshifted from a steady jog to a brisk walk, using the precious seconds to allow my lungs to catch up with the rest of my body.
When we made it past treeline, my fellow runners and I were greeted by a nasty surprise - howling headwinds in excess of 40, sometimes 50 mph, blasted into us. The wind felt like a solid wall in front of me that I had to strain to push against. Running was impossible. I struggled to even breathe as I put my head down against the gusts and walked.
At times, the side of the mountain itself shielded me from the fury of the wind for a quarter or a half mile, and I would use the reprieve to sprint, trying desperately to make up for the time lost. You see, I had a secret goal. I wanted to earn a trophy rock.
A trophy rock is a unique tradition at the Mt. Evans Ascent, awarded to folks who reach the mountain’s summit within three hours. Since our race course was shortened to 9.25 miles instead of 14.5, the race organizers had set a new time goal - finish in 1 hour, 50 minutes in order to earn the coveted chunk of trophy granite.
And I wanted that rock
As I battled the winds, which were growing colder by the minute, as well as the difficult climb at elevation, I periodically checked my watch. While my chances of finishing the race fast enough to earn a trophy rock were slim - it wasn’t impossible. I just had to take full advantage of every lull in the wind and RUN.
I crested a hill at Mile 9 - and could see the finish line in the distance in front of me. I smiled - this final section of the race was - miraculously - flat. I looked at my watch - I was 1 hour, 47 minutes into the race. I could do this! I had three minutes to sprint to the finish line, and I would earn my prize!
I took two steps - just to realize that this portion of the race course was again exposed to the howling gusts. The wind knocked into my chest, punching me backward for a moment. I gasped, unable to take a breath. Tears, some from the biting wind, some from stinging disappointment, squeezed from the corners of my eyes and down my blasted cheeks.
I’d never make it to the finish line in time. I couldn’t run in this. How could I run, if I couldn’t even breathe?
But then, I decided. I didn’t need to breathe.
“I can breathe later - like when I’m dead,” I muttered to myself. And I started to sprint.
My legs started pumping - and my feet flew across the race course effortlessly, almost like they were separate from the rest of my body. My lungs stung, then ached, then burned and screamed for me to stop, but I refused to listen. I knew the precious seconds were ticking away - and I kept my gaze glued onto the finish line in the distance as my body cut through the wind and hurtled towards my goal.
With each forward step, I was that much closer to realizing my dream - but I also felt that much closer to dying. My stomach rose in my throat, threatening to choke me. My head swam, my vision blurred, my chest burned as if encased in lava. I needed to stop - to throw myself on the ground in a heap and swallow air in huge gasps. But I didn’t. I wanted my darn trophy rock! The pain of not earning it loomed greater than the pain of this moment. So I just rolled with it - and kept pumping my feet up and down, flying towards the finish.
When my shoes touched the electronic timing mat, I slammed my hand onto the ‘stop’ button of my running watch and crashed to a sudden halt. Bent over double, sucking air into my lungs with all the energy I had left, I looked at my watch, desperate to see if I had made the cutoff time.
1 hour, 49 minutes, 57 seconds
I was too tired to cry, or whoop, or laugh - but inside, I did all three.
At the base of the mountain, I picked up my trophy rock from the awards tent - and an additional prize for also placing in my age group.
No, the Mt. Evans Ascent hadn’t gone according to plan. In some ways, it was a colossal failure. Just like in life - sometimes we don’t get to the top. Sometimes the unexpected knocks us backward. Sometimes we can’t even breathe.
But if we can just roll with it, we might find that we can do something we thought was impossible.
And we might get a cool rock for our efforts.