Updated: Aug 26, 2021
"I'm just going to sit down for a second," I mumbled hoarsely to my pacers. I slid onto a smooth aspen next to the trail - a rare find above the alpine line. We were summiting the final section of Ouray 100: a five mile, five thousand foot climb up to 12,368' and my eyes were buzzing in and out of focus. I had been running for 46 hours continuously (outside of two minutes lying on my back in the sun on Hayden Pass and eight minutes in a car in the rain). I rested my cheek in my hand and closed my eyes. The next second my head slipped and my neck snapped up. I had fallen sleep. It was time to go.
To put it in perspective: this ultramarathon is equivalent to running over 4,000 flights stairs, as long as those stairs are made of sharp rocks and mudslides and nestled somewhere in Leadville (averaging 10,200'). Oh, and let's double check that math: 42k of total climbing in 100ish miles = 420 feet of gain per mile, right? Nope. These climbs are out-and-backs up peaks and passes, so half of your mileage is actually descending. That means 42k of climbing happens in about 50 miles. That's over 800' of climbing per mile. Imagine going for a run where every single mile also climbs at least 80 flights of stairs. For 100 of them. In a row (actually, my watch read 110 by the finish).
Oh, and for you Hardrock diehards out there: Hardrock 100, "one of the hardest ultras in the world" according to Outside Magazine, gains only 33,050'. Leadville 100 climbs 15,600'. There's reasons why only 34 people (out of 110) finished this year, and most of us took around 50 hours. Walmsley was there to pace. The course record is well over 30 hours. This race is out to destroy you as much -- or more -- as you are out to destroy it.
Without lamenting the times of Covid, can we 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 registered for Ouray because of the San Juans are hard and beautiful, and the race has an old school, low key feel. I like that and I respect that. Many times over the pandemic I didn't really feel like an ultrarunner anymore. Maybe those years were ending. I feared and dreaded race day in equal proportion to my eagerness and desire. A finish was not even close to guaranteed. I'm neither that brave nor that dumb. This time, I wasn't even that confident.
Friday morning, the pack took off up a sunny gravel road and within a mile I had new friends. Everyone (well, everyone not front-running) was chatting. Immediately I remembered the family of the ultramarathon. My family. From the start, it didn't feel like me vs. you or me vs. Ouray. It was us against the mountain. It was us against the weather, us against our feelings, us against our fatigue. I led two women for over 98 miles continuously, I mean I beat them up every ascent and out of every single aid station, and 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. One was redeeming a previous DNF. The other had battled on alone when her spouse was pulled with HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) on the first day. My pacer and I smiled and whooped after them as they disappeared down the switchbacks to get their buckles.
A mile later, a 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.
Lori Enlow and I became real friends (not just media friends) this summer and got together to train for this race. She had an unexpected DNF the first day when lightning over Richmond pass forced her and several runners to retreat lower and eventually time out. James told me she was not only still here, but she was hiking up to see me right now.
"This is the moment I found Julie Tertin in the last few miles of her #ourayexperience. I was overcome with emotion. Elated to see her finishing one of the toughest courses in the world. I knew she had conquered so much to make it there. I thought I would feel at least a twinge jealous. I didn't. I felt a pure joy I have rarely experienced. I was so happy I was happy. I was beyond happy. I was overjoyed. I was so fucking proud of her. I felt like I had made it too. In a way, through her I had. I got to experience for a brief moment the thrill of overcoming everything and making it to that point." @lorilynenlow
Pure joy. That was the exact feeling I sent with my new friends as they danced down the talus toward the finish. I wept when I saw Lori - I mean I lost it completely; happy tears dripped down my chin. Lori cried. My pacers cried. Hell, I am tearing up right this moment.
We all won.
Each of us won the race we were running.
Ouray isn't just a finish line. Not for me, not this time. Not every victory is universal.
I had forgotten. Dustin, Rebecca, Melissa, Anna, Eric, Fanny, Paul, Y, Austin, Todd, Beat, Mike, Wendy, Matt, Howie, Dennis, Tim, Shawn.. these are just some of the names. I didn't even list everyone, I just don't want you to get bored. I had forgotten my beloved tribe. I forgot how much sense I make (to myself) when we all come out of the woodwork around the country - the globe - and share trail. Even if your race is yours alone, which it always will be, you are bonded by suffering and unified in mission. At least at the old school, low keys ones.
Dustin and I both set out to complete 100 miles, but we decided before we registered to each run our own race (and thank God, too, because I can't finish in 35 hours and win 5th place). The course is many out-and-backs, so every few hours we got to cheer each other on and check in. It was always a grinning moment to see a bucket hat and bright yellow socks in front of me.
Friday morning was beautiful. The first day is mainly jeep roads; the second mostly singletrack. I started ticking off climbs and collecting the hole punches in my bib from the summits. The race is immediately hard. I expected that. After a lengthy uphill road, the real climbs begin.
The rain came early and stayed late. Daily afternoon (and evening, and morning) storms are common in CO late July, but the rain came hard and turned cold as I was descending the highest point on the course - Fort Peabody. Soon hail started pelting my raincoat, then bigger hail stung my hands and legs. Grapple covered the passes and the wind bit down. Water soaked up my shorts and sleeves. I felt saturated.
My crew could not start until halfway, which would be nearly all the way through the first night, but they could meet me in Ironton. I really have to brag at this moment: Melissa sleeps in her car most Friday nights to summit 14ers the next day like it's nothing. Rebecca runs 20, 30 miles up and down and across the mountains just for fun. Literally, not even to train for races. Both are ferociously talented climbers, positively strong women, and unstoppable friends. I was very motivated to get to Weehawken so I could start my race with them. I also have a confession: neither are ultrarunners, and I threw them to crew AND pace one of the hardest 100 milers out there without very specific instructions. I trusted them to kill it, and they did. In retrospect though, I missed some little things and some obvious information to share. But that's ok, it kept things interesting (and it's not like missing a few gels or eating a gross quesadilla is going to end your race. If that's the case, you probably need to toughen up and run with less handholding.).
Many people stayed out of the poor weather at the Ironton aid station, and the tents began to swell. I recognized this mistake. Even though I had not changed into dry clothes and I was cold and it was still raining, it was time to go. I headed out alone to an eight mile loop up and around a pass on the Red Mountain (you run this loop twice, once in each direction). I was two hours ahead of cutoffs, but that was uncomfortably close for me. I did not want to watch cutoffs for 50 hours. That sounded stressful. So, I stuffed some hot chicken nuggets in my mouth and went into the rain alone. I put on my gloves, but it was very cold at the top and an interesting thing happened: I froze part of my thumb. Seriously, it's now three days later and the feeling is still gone and vaguely tingly around the tip. Note to self: waterproof, waterproof, waterproof. The next time I landed back in Ironton, I put on all new warm dry clothes for the night.
I ran with several different people that night and a few small groups. It was great to have company in the dark. The mountains had flooded and there were many muddy holes, slides, and fast-flowing river crossings. The road coming down Richmond is all big, bouldery scree, and a loud river ran below you for miles. I flirted with nausea coming back up Richmond pass (it's 3,000' straight up), but I hadn't eaten much in the rain and it climbs to 12,700.' It's not totally crazy that my stomach hurt. I listened to music for a little bit and went alone. I move extremely well like that. On the way down, I found two guys and we ran into the aid station together. My stomach was sick, but Chris Price and his wife (Chris is the course record holder) were there cooking and caring for everyone. I had a rice crispy thing and some ramen and left to pick up Rebecca.
The morning came and I was hungry. Another lesson: do not underestimate your appetite at altitude. Especially after being cold, wet, and sick and not eating, I accidentally got behind on calories. Lesson three: even when you have crew caring for you, check out the aid station for yourself. I will be more intentional about eating next time.
Rebecca and I talked and climbed, and sometimes I couldn't talk so she told me stories. I got a cute little "altitude cough," as I call it. I don't know the mechanics of it, but I've had it many times when running up high and I've seen many other people get it too: it's a very princessy little tickle in your throat you have to cough out. It sounds like a small child. It's endearing in a way, and also annoying. I'm still a little hoarse.
The course is every bit as beautiful as I imagined. These pictures are almost embarrassing to post, because as beautiful as they may be they are nothing against the immensity and the breadth of that landscape. My legs began to feel tender on the downhills, just a little bit.
Melissa and I did a double next: all the way up Hayden pass to Crystal Lake and back. I hit the lowest part of my race. It's hard to say exactly what happened because I did not feel it coming on, but I was overwhelmed with emotion. Just like a little kid who gets too tired, I was spilling tears and struggling with the continued climb. There was a lot of additional vert and traversing that I did not expect, and surprise after surprise came when all I wanted was food and sleep. For the first time, I laid down in the middle of the grass. I felt my feet pounding in my shoes. I closed my eyes against the sun. I tried to just.. to just be. To be still. To rest. I listened to her little altitude cough next to me. I was moving poorly and people started passing me for the first time. I felt discouraged and slow.
Side note: if you don't follow Wicked Trail Running in IG, you're missing out.
At the aid station, a kindly woman gave me a peach and I cried. I don't know why, but I was (I am?) extraordinarily sensitive to kindness in my vulnerability. That's what an ultra is: vulnerability. Your vulnerability manifested, exposed, tangible, and placed in your hands to deal with. What you do with that vulnerability becomes the character of your race. Does it translate to strength and willingness? Does it crush you, are you ashamed? Do you get scared and refuse to face it? Do you make it someone else's problem so you don't fail? My vulnerability became my emotions. I don't usually spill over like that. I spilled over a lot, and I kept allowing it. It felt good. I was not throwing a tantrum, but I was not keeping everything so neatly locked up inside. My tears of fatigue very quickly turned to tears of happiness. There was no talk of quitting. The low point was wanting to break. The decision I made was not to break.
Melissa and I trudged back up and over, and we ran it in to mile 75. Her patience cannot be overstated. We were back at Fellin Park, which is where the race starts. Usually mile 75 is a deep dark pit of despair, but it's actually really energizing at Ouray. You are so close to your finish, you can see it. You have three climbs left (at the beginning you had 14 climbs) and then that gazebo is YOURS.
Rebecca and I went out for a double next: a 10+ mile section up a bitch ass climb called Twin Peaks on a trail that's probably already killed people. I passed a guy dry heaving on the way up and then promptly dry heaved myself. I also started to get increasingly sensitive to the altitude at this point in the race. Every time I got above 11,000' from this point on, my stomach would flip and need to be coaxed to keep it together. We passed the mustache boys (three guys who we kept finding together who all had pretty outstanding 'staches), found Mike from the night before and made fast friends with his hooker pacer Wendy. She was great. I cried when I hugged her goodbye after Silvershield.
We found out Dustin had just finished, which was initially very exciting and then swiftly defeating. I wanted to be done, too, but instead I had 15 hard miles left (two sections). I know that isn't a lot, but it felt like a lot. We got back to Fellin to congratulate him, and we didn't die on the way. He had showered and was wearing clean clothes and shoes. I smelled like dirt and diabetes. At first, I did not want to leave the glowing little park to climb to the Chief Ouray Mine in the dark. However, I knew that my feelings were very manipulated in that moment. I knew I wanted my own buckle. There was no talk of quitting this thing. This was my race.
On the way down from the mine (and yes, I skipped telling you about the climb up because it was four miles of hellacious nausea and rocks), someone called out to Melissa and I from below. "Can you come here please?" he sounded urgent, "Can you come now??" I heard what sounded like two birds. Birds in the middle of the night in the bushes? I suddenly realized what was wrong. We hurried down. He started yelling nonsense into the woods.
We shined our lights where he was pointing, and as my eyes adjusted she came into focus. Two glowing eyes, a hunched body shifting between sharp shoulders, a long flicking tail. Our new friend threw some rocks and she moved gracefully, exactly like a house cat. Cougar crossings are very rare; I had to look again (and again) to be sure. Surely it was a huge bobcat or a delirious 50 miler. It was not. She was a mountain lion and she was staring straight at us. Both parties seemed extremely uncomfortable. We took off in opposite directions.
One section left: Bridge of Heaven
Before we left Fellin for the final time, I ate a lot. There were perogies, which made me happy and homesick for Minnesota (oh, and shout out to the Minnesotans out there! So many of my people I did not expect to see!). I cried one more time and said goodbye. If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to feel a hundred totally conflicting emotions at the same time - equally strongly - head to mile 90 and tell me about it. Dustin had joined my crew and set up a little station next to the gazebo for me. He had laid his sleeping bag near the finish line to wait for me.
Let's gloss over the ascent a tad: it is innumerable talus switchbacks and I (again) ran out of food and was starving. I was slower than I wanted to be, but I was resolute. At that point, I had worked so hard and still had hours before the cutoff that I was proud of my effort. I still climbed well. The descent, however, was painful.
There is not a better way this race could end. It would be impossible. And, if you ever run this race and you manage to time it so you summit as the sun rises below you, your life might change forever. Mine has. You can't absorb that much beauty and just keep on keepin' on. It shapes you. It deepens your perspective of the world. You appreciate life a little more vibrantly, with a deeper breath of gratitude. You feel small and precious.
Ouray 100 is special. The friendships that deepened there are invaluable to me. Melissa and Rebecca helped me and loved me in ways I can only hope to repay. The tears that fell on those mountains might have been tears that I needed to shed. The laughs and songs and talks that we put into those trails are part of them now. It's a fucking monster of a race, but I can't imagine not going back.