Photo taken from winddrinkers.org/ridge-run
Catrina Clarke and I, both military wives, become running partners during our time in Dayton, Ohio. We bonded quickly over the miles. When you are training for marathons, you have lots of miles to really get to know someone! She become one of my best friends in a very short time. When the Air Forces separated our families, we made a pact to travel and run one race together every year-our one chance to see each other and use the miles to reconnect. Last year she traveled to me in Virginia so it was my turn to head to her in Montana. Somehow we found this race called "The Bridger Ridge Run". It is a 20 mile trail race that only 250 people run every year. Awesome! I had just started trail running this year so I was super excited about tackling what the website said "was once the toughest trail race in America". This is exactly what the website says...
"In 2012, Runner’s World Magazine named the Ridge Run one of its top 31 trail races in the country, giving it the title of “Most Raw Exposure.” In 2013, Outside Online named the Ridge Run one of its Top 10 Bucket List trail runs in the WORLD. The Ridge Run is 19.65 miles of brutal climbing and descending, complete with unstable footing, unpredictable weather, and, of course, miles of exposure along the ridge line of the Bridger Mountain range."
We had to write an essay to get in (and we did!). So we signed up! We watched videos of past races online, we read about it, but I still didn't know what I had gotten myself into until I stepped onto that mountain. My mom keeps asking how I didn't realize it...I mean just read the exerpt above! I don't know how I didn't realize it but I sure ate some pieces of humble pie at 9,000 feet elevation.
The course profile. The race starts at 7,000 feet elevation and ascends to 9,000 feet over the first 2 miles. Now that I have visited Colorado briefly and tried to run at 5,000 feet in the first week I know that running at elevation makes you feel like you are dying...literally running with a plastic bag over your head. I remained ignorant of the elevation until about a week before the race and started sweating over my VA sea level blood tackling this. I have only lived in Colorado for 2 days (not enough to acclimate!). But I was all in. And still even looking at this, I thought we would go 2 miles up, have a nice run along the ridge and then run back down. The evidence is right in front of me but I still didn't see it! Up, down, up, down, up down...yes I was blind. But at this point Catrina and I were in our hotel room, chatting away, already sleep deprived, excited about what we were going to see, and setting time goals (I laugh out loud about this now!!).
After only a few hours of sleep thanks to angry man in room next to us yelling at his girlfriend on the phone all night, we hitchhiked with a girl we met the night before at an info meeting from the finish line to the start line which took an hour to drive to down this crazy bumpy dirt road (which was only 6 miles long)...yes everyone was hitchhiking! The start line was buzzing with excitement as the 5 different waves prepared to take off in 5 minute intervals. The first wave were the true competitors. We were in wave 3 with a 6 hour time goal...again laughing out loud at that.
These are the switchbacks that you hit 1 mile into the run. There was a guy playing bagpipes with his dog howling away as we slowly made our way up. Again, I thought "we just have to hike up these and the hard part is over". I even thought that was the top...right there. Then we hit the top point that you see in this photo and kept going straight up for another half a mile or so. It took us almost 1 hour to get to the top of Sacajawea, the highest point of the ridge and the entire run. The elevation kept us at a slow and steady hike but we kept moving.
The view at the top of Sacajawea was breathtaking. I snapped some photos and selfies while catching my breath. I felt invigorated at this point (because the hard part was over, right?!) And who wouldn't be swept away by these views. We were literally on top of the world. By the way, we did run/hike that entire ridge line you see in this picture! After dropping down Sacajawea (sliding down along limestone shales) we did get to leave the ridge for about 2 miles and run through some beautiful forests. It felt amazing to actually run and stretch our legs at this point. We even laughed some and were sharing some stories with each other...you know reconnecting. We hit the 7 mile check point in a little over 2 hours feeling good. While guzzling some water, we overheard a girl going past saying "now the freaking hard part starts!". Catrina and I raised our eyebrows at each other...didn't we do that part already? Here is were the serious reality check came...we had about 3/4 of a mile of straight incline...using our hands to pull us up a lot of the time, sucking wind as the elevation climb depleted our oxygen. Along the top of the ridge, there were points were I was clinging to a rock as tall as me while skirting along the edge of another rock with my feet. (Sorry mom, I didn't plan on telling you about that part!). The views were amazing but if I lifted my eyes from my feet while in motion it caused some wobbling, and this isn't the place you wanted to lose your balance! Sometimes it even made you a little seasick as you were jogging but seeing the sky in your periphery. Catrina and I however did take every moment to stop (so we could breath) and capture pictures and take in the scenery.
The road behind
The road ahead
Another hill climb
There were plenty of moments when I thought we would never finish (especially when we hit mile 10-halfway-in 4 hours and seeing that 6 hour time goal vanish), but there were plenty of moments that we smiled and laughed (like when Catrina ran into a tree while looking at her feet).
A rare moment of running (yes I will say we mostly hiked and power walked) and navigating the limestone shales).
The volunteers at the checkpoints were angels. They smiled, encourage, and allowed me to fill my pockets with gummy bears (my new go to on long trail runs!!). They took my pack off for me, filled it up, and helped me get it back on. They cheered. I wanted to hug them every single time. The camaraderie I built with other runners over the miles was also special. I chatted with Greg from Florida, who is fighting cancer and running this for the 4th time, and Juaquin from CA who kept us laughing, and the girl with the dangly pink earrings who can power walk like a champ, the girl from Michigan was dying along next to us, the guy from Nebraska, the guy from Minnesota, the girl who was doing this for the 8th time and wasn't feeling so hot (but still beat us), and the 80 year old man jogging by us smiling as he was running it for his 20th time. Of course I am wondering why these people keep signing up for this torture! At 14 miles (and 6 hours), my watch battery died and I grew somewhat panicky not truly knowing how many miles I had left. But we kept putting one foot in front of the other. As we topped the last peak (Baldy mountain), the volunteers cheered and said "it is all downhill from here!". I filled my pockets with gummy bears, took a deep breath, and began the 4 mile descent. It was like we were skiing. It was so steep that I would side slide down leaning on my left leg, then switch to side sliding down leaning on my right leg, and switch. We bounced off a few trees and with 1 mile left my legs began to shake uncontrollably. At the end, you reach a point where you have a choice whether to take the steep .55 trail to the left, or the 1.5 gradual trail to the right. You look straight down below you and see the finish line, you hear the cowbells, and you want to be off that mountain. We chose the steep trail and began side sliding to the finish line.
We crossed the finish line at 7 hours and 45 minutes, 2 hours after our time goal, only 20 runners behind us, and over 4 hours behind the winners! Yes someone actually ran that thing in 3 hours and 28 minutes. But I have never been more proud to finish anything. It was truly the hardest thing I have ever done in my whole life. As I crossed the finish line, I looked to my left at the guy ringing the cowbell and reached for him as my legs gave out and I collapsed. He graciously carried me to this bench as I cried (yes I CRIED). I was so happy to be finished and just could not believe what I had just done. I sat on this bench for quite awhile answering the texts from my mother who I think believed I may have died and my darling husband caring for our 4 kids back at a hotel room in Colorado. And watched others rejoicing as they finished climbing their mountains.
So was it fun? People keep asking me that. Fun just isn't the word to describe it. Not many words can. It was the adventure of a lifetime. I don't regret one single step and will always cherish these moments I got to share with my dear friend. I am strong. I can do anything. I see that now more clearly than ever. Will I do it again? Catrina and I laughed about those crazies as we hobbled around the next day. 5 days later, I still can't walk right and scream anytime one of my kids bumps into my legs. I am not sure how long it will take to recover from this and I am anxious to sign up for my next race. But as I write this recap and talk it over with Joel (who wants to do it now), I think yes, I could see myself doing it again. I just might be one of those crazies.