Thursday, September 22, 2011

Clarity on the Divide

For weeks leading into my westward journey, I paid little attention to the work for which I was traveling to perform. My thoughts were focused instead on the ascent from the valley floor up to the top of the ridgeline where the Continental Divide lies. This doesn’t mean that I was neglecting my work responsibilities; I had prepared diligently for the work meetings and would be ready to execute my presentation to the best of my ability. In the same breathe, I was so excited to return to Montana to climb up to the divide, as on my two previous trips to the state, both in June of 2010 at Glacier National Park and to Butte in April of this year, the snow made the trails impassable and I was unable to reach it.

While standing atop the divide in GNP would have nice, the real draw was in Butte, where at 8,500’, towering more than two-thirds of a mile above the city, was the Our Lady of the Rockies statue.  The statue was built by volunteers beginning on December 29, 1979 and culminated six years later.  The statue, which stands for all mothers is built in the likeness of Mary, Mother of Jesus.  At 90’ tall, it is the second largest statue in the United States and she can be seen easily during the day, but her real majesty can be seen at night when the statue is illuminated and her ghostly white appearance makes it seem as if she is floating in the sky.

The gravel road that leads to the statue starts along the interstate with a sternly locked gate at 6,380’. From there, the well-groomed road ascends quickly in the first 3 miles climbing to 7,800’. With no warm up for my legs, I was quickly fatigued from running the first mile and alternated running and walking briskly for the next two after that. From there the grade is not as steep, but still winds upward to a peak of 8,163’ at the five-mile mark. I ran continuously through this section as the road featured fewer switchbacks but instead more long stretches of steady climb. I stopped once for a brief check of the map to confirm that on the second fork that I was to stay to the left. After crossing over the divide and onto the west side with the absence of sun, the temperature dropped quickly. The road came through an unlocked gate, which is also where I hit the highest point on the run. I was a little concerned that I had taken the wrong fork as the gravel road dropped a few hundred feet but with the marvels of technology, I was able to consult my GPS to confirm I was still heading south, and my iPhone with aerial photography on Google maps confirmed the Lady was just around the bed; even from Satellite imagery, she could be seen from above.

After one more gate, I came around a bend and what stood in the distance before me was one of the most amazing sights I have ever taken in.  I ran down the last section of the road and toward the statue like a small child sprinting toward the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. I was surprised that there was no fence and I was able to run right up to the statue, pressing stop on my Garmin at the same time. As I walked around to the eastern face, I was in utter disbelief at the shear size of the statue. Being just after 6pm, there was not a person in sight and I had the place to myself.

After catching my breath, I dropped my gear on the ground at her feet. I had packed far too much for this short run, but I did not want to be unprepared should the weather turn quickly and be caught in the elements. I then sat down on a large rock and was deep in thought and prayer for some time. Being there, I was in total and utter awe; not of the statue, the run, the mountains, or anything man made – but of the greatness of our God. The journey began as a physical test, but had turned into a spiritual experience in which I found great clarity of mind. I was able to focus on the things that are important to me, including my faith and loved ones as well as to make sense of some things that have troubled me lately.  It was very peaceful and just what I needed when I needed it.  Being blessed with the ability and passion to climb brought me up there, but using the opportunity to make the most of it was His reward to me.

Having gotten a late start, I stayed for as long as I could before it was time to leave. I took a few pictures, which included the view down into the city and of the surrounding natural features. These images will help remind me one day of this trip and I am happy to share those, but the memories of the experience beyond what I have mentioned are mine alone, which is why the story ends here.

I wasn’t out to seek any speed records on this run, for it was about much more than that, yet I was pleased with my time of 59:04. This was 10:12 pace for the 5.78-mile climb, which from just after the start, was at a higher altitude than I had ever run before. The return trip to the rental car took just 48 minutes and I was rewarded with the most amazing sunset on the way down.

There are not many reasons to visit Butte Montana; this once booming town full of wealth and people, is now but a small quant former mining town in a shadow of its former self. But if you are ever passing through, I would recommend that you find your way to that locked gate and the gravel road. With my travels, I have seen quite a few natural and man-made wonders, but I’d be hard pressed to think of another right now that compares to what I felt when I was on top of the divide and maybe none other that were able to take my breathe away.

I wish that I could describe it better, but I think that it is just something that you have to experience for yourself.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bankhead Challenge

I thought that it was possible, but not for me.  Maybe that is why after failing four times, I tried it a fifth time; and failed again.

The concept came to me one day while running on the roads in Monte Sano State Park and seemed quite simple.  Was it possible to run gate to gate in under 15 minutes?  1.23 miles out and 1.23 miles back.  2.46 miles in under 15 minutes works out to be 6:05 pace which at face value sounds possible. Then add in the fact that the "top" gate sits at 1,570' and the "bottom" gate sits at 1,335' and they are connected by a closed section of Bankhead Parkway that used to be an entrance into the state park.  So now the 2.46 miles contains 235' of drop (3.6%) and 235' of climb for 470' of elevation change.

Was this possible?  The math says yes.  Run down at 5:05 pace and back up at 7:05 pace, or the many combinations of speed that produce a sub 15 minute time.  Was this possible for me?  I really doubted it, and after failing five times, I didn't think it would ever happen.  I wasn't just failing, but I was failing miserably... I varied the technique of trying to run 4:50 race down, which resulted in having to rest at the bottom before jogging slowly back up.  I tried running down slower, but I was unable to come up at any faster than 6:40 pace.

With cooler temperatures tonight, and a gang of pals along who were running the 10 mile Panorama Loop, I decided that it was time for try for a sixth time.  While the weather was cooperating, my legs were trashed.  I was coming off of a double race on Saturday (10km/5km back to back), 8x600m downhill repeats at 4:50 pace on Tuesday and then a 17:05 fun run 5km on Wednesday night.  Not even compression socks could help ease the fatigue.  Yet I was bound and determined to try it again...

We warmed up fairly quickly, clocking miles of 7:03, 6:28, 6:09, 6:14 and 3:10 for 4.5 miles (6:27 pace), which wasn't exactly what you want before a speed attempt, but when we hit the top gate, I hit lap on my watch, leapt the "rock" in stride and was on my way.

I decided to run easier down and try to run harder coming back up.  It was one of the many variations that I had not tinkered with on my previous failures.  I was still cruising, focusing on a fast turnover and maintaining my form, but I was not all out.  I have never been a good downhill runner, which was one of the many reasons why I was so intrigued by this challenge as it would test the ability to run fast downhill and immediately turn around and hammer it coming back up.  I touched the bottom gate and hit lap on my watch in 6:30, which averaged out to be 5:17 pace.  I was breathing hard, but I was not gassed like I had been on previous attempts.

I had 8 minutes and 30 seconds to get back to the top, which was 6:55 pace.  After the first 400 meters after the turn, self doubt started to creep in as I was struggling to find a regular breathing pattern and was working very hard.  I put my head down and kept my arms swinging forward, helping to propel my knees up.  I take pride in my ability to climb as it required a lot of work, which I enjoy.  While it was not an eternity of time to fall into deep thought, I had visions of my many previous failures but by half way, I was starting to believe.  The more I believed, the faster I ran.  The faster I ran, the more I believed.  As I hit the 200 meter mark (to go) I found another gear and picked up the pace.  I finally touched the top gate and hit stop on my watch.  Looking down it read 7:58 (for the 1.23 mile lap) which worked out to 6:29 pace.

It took a second for the math to sink in, but then I realized that 6:30 + 7:58 was 14:28.  After failing five times, I refused to give up, kept training, and on my sixth attempt I crushed it.

Does this mean anything to anyone else?  Not whatsoever.  It was an arbitrary distance and an arbitrary time.  Does it mean something to me?  Yes, indeed.  Not just because I didn't think that it was possible, and not just because I had failed so many times before time, but because I believed that it COULD happen.  Christ has given me the ability to run, like he has to so many others, but he has also given me the patience and dedication (in so many walks of life) to work hard and trust in Him that it WOULD happen.  Goals are great ways to check your fitness and see the fruits of your labor.

Thanks to Brett Wilks who encouraged who probably believed that I could do it before I did and when it was over, was just as happy as I was.