I awoke this morning to tight calves and a series of frantic klimbing memories flashing through my mind.
That is one intense race...I survived another Kusam Klimb! I had run Kusam 3 consecutive times with the last adventure in 2008. 6 years ago and what feels like a lifetime. I wrote about my first Kusam experience back in 2006 here, my 2007 return here and my last race here. In 2011 they had to cancel the race due to too much snow (cornice of death that wouldn't fall in time)...then I was out for 2 years while I patiently waited to see how my fractured ankle story would unfold. Prior to my hiatus, I had been on a slow roll for my 3 previous Kusam races shaving exactly 5 minutes off of my race time each year beginning with 3:25 and finishing with a PB of 3:15. The kicker for me was the summit, however. For three years I had arrived at that glorious summit atop of Mount H'Kusam in exactly 2 hours zero minutes. Almost to the minute. If you run with me, you have heard all about my 2 hour Kusam curse. It was incomprehensible to me that I would reach the top in exactly the same time year after year even after attempting to train smarter, race harder and literally place a bounty on that summits head.
My mission for 2014...as you can only imagine...was to reach the summit in 1:59 or less or destroy myself trying. I could care less what my finish time would be. I could care less who passed me or who I passed. I could care less if it was pretty. It was just me and that damn mountain (and my watch, of course;). I just HAD to break the curse!
I was curious to find out what would happen after 6 years... a broken ankle, a 125km perspective switch, 6 years of aging and racing and a 50k under my sneakers already this year. What sort of flavour would that cocktail produce?? Scroll to the bottom of my race report for the 'last page' answer. Read on to feel my pain;)
I drove up once again in the early hours of dawn to the little town of Sayward for the annual Kusam Klimb, who's tag line taunts racers with the cheeky question: 'Are you tough enough?'. It is a race where finishers definitely earn bragging rights. 1500m of elevation gain and loss over 23kms. The entire 1500m of elevation gain is compressed into a tight 6kms of jagged mountain climbing requiring ropes, hands and sheer perseverance. The wicked climb forces racers to their knees within mere minutes of the start line as the route pitches upwards instantly upon arriving at the singletrack. Wowza.
The Kusam Klimb has been around for 10 years now and the race has continued to grow year after year. Over 500 racers merged in the start area, creating a wild motley crew of endurance hikers, mountain runners, obstacle racing die hards and greyhound roadies. From gators and hiking boots to short shorts and singlets, everyone and their grandma seemed to converge for the challenge. Kudos to one of the smallest towns on the Island for creating it's own little race culture that beckons such a range of 'klimbers' to return year after year.
At 7am there was a drizzle in the air and an energy in the starting chute that only racers can truly understand...3...2...1...GO and everyone seemed to silently shout "Let's Do This!". The first 2kms is on a flat stretch of road and loads of peeps go out with guns a blazing. Some do this by accident, caught up in the excitement of the start. Others race the flats with purpose- to make the most of the only truly runnable section in the first 7kms and to seed themselves in time for the tight single track.
My race plan this year was a patchwork of pacing and racing segments. Although I preach the strategy of 'racing in 1/3ds' (too easy, just right, and hard) to many of my athletes, the Kusam Klimb comes from a different book and does not necessarily heed the gospel. It's diabolical elevation profile requires a totally different plan of attack for me. Instead, the plan was to follow my golden rule:
Train your weaknesses and race your strengths.
I would run hard when I could on the downhills and flats and pace myself on the climbs. That meant a fast start- so I ran my little legs out for the first 2kms, knowing that I would come to a grinding halt once I reached the first climb. I felt great on the flats and enjoyed the weightlessness of my new Salomon Ultra Sense sneaks. I had to keep the 2 hour curse in my head to remind myself why I was running so quickly in the first minutes of a 3+hour race!
When the 'klimb' began, my weaknesses appeared instantly and an army of solid climbers gradually moved past me one by one. As in previous years, men, women, children, seniors passed me...and as usual, I had to let them go. My calves started to cry out after the first check point, when the trail pitched upwards, 15 minutes and 3kms in. Same place as always. Same screaming, searing pain. Pain is a very interesting thing...my pain is not your pain. My pain on a climb is completely different than my pain on a fun descent. Pain can be a sign of very good things. Pain can be a sign of very bad things. The mind can over ride pain or accentuate it. After years of training and racing I have learned many tricks to turn it off. I will have to do an entire post on the amazing thing we know as pain...
I didn't do a very good job of managing my pain sensations. My tricks weren't working. My calves seized up into blocks of immovable tissue that successfully resisted my mental powers;). On the steep, un-runnable, but beautiful for fast trekking inclines, I couldn't find my rhythm. I couldn't get my calves to work. They were so seized up that they wouldn't allow my heels to go flat to the ground to complete a 'rest step' stride (a technique that saves the calves and engages the larger glutes and quads). They were so seized up that they wouldn't allow me to push off to complete a 'trek-run' step (a technique in between trekking and running that uses a bit of both strides). The only thing that created momentary relief was locking my ankles into plantar flexion (picture stiletto heels) and prancing on tip toes-transferring the load to my feet (NOT recommended and NOT sustainable lol;). I kept switching between all of the strides, techniques and steps I could think of, but never managed to get into any sort of groove. The result was a bit of a frantic klimb to the top, using my hands at every chance possible to relieve my lower legs from the assault.
The technical climb was hard for me this year. Hands and ropes and pushing and pulling and looking for purchase wherever I could find it. I remember enjoying the scrambling sections in previous years. I remember feeling fast and fluid like a monkey. Well...this year I felt like a monkey alright. But not the kind I was hoping for. I was suspended in time. I didn't feel like I was moving yet there was nothing left to push with. I just kept on pushing upwards as best as I could.
I battled between pushing my limits and pacing my weaknesses all the while repeating my goal over and over in my head: 'You have to get to the top in under 1:59!'. Of course every year the conditions are slightly different and this year there was nearly no snow on the top of the mountain. When I arrived at the lake just below the summit and the base of the final climb I looked at my watch...I had 15 minutes to get to the top! With little snow to slow the pace I marched onwards...the pain disappeared...it was pushed away by an overwhelming sensation of JOY that filled me up! 1:52 to the top! "I DID IT!" I wanted to yell - but didn't cuz that would have been kind of weird;0. My race was over! For nearly two hours I hadn't actually though beyond reaching the summit. I could have cared less what happened after that...I had won my race!
But in reality, I was on the top of a 1500m summit and had about 16kms left to run downhill back to my car. So off I went literally jumping over the other side (picture a razor edge ridge line) because the initial descent was just as wicked as the climb.
I had never seen this side of the mountain without a thick snowpack. Normally, the initial 1km descent is covered in a white blanket of smoothness. Although fraught with tree wells and slippery as hell (think hard packed spring snow), the snow allowed for a quick 'boot ski' down the other side. Now I got to see what was under that snow and it wasn't pretty! Sharp rocks, mud, slide alder, berry bushes, fallen logs uneven drops were exposed and littered the ground for a km. I was following another racer and we quickly got off course, losing the trail and forced to grab onto wild heather and slide alder for support. After a minute or two we were all back on the flagging and the ropes brought the fun factor up a big notch for me! I got to leap and jump and whiz down the mountain side while 'rapelling' with hands on the rope in case of emergency;). Funny how my hands instinctively met in my old rappel position, side by side on my left hip, after so many years of imprinting the technique as a Rapattack Forest Firefighter. It felt awesome:).
Once the technical bit was over, I knew I had about 10kms of downhill double track running ahead of me. My gift had arrived! It was time to push my strength...and I do love to run down hills fast! After a few minutes of full abdominal cramping (which must have been from the 1.5hours of bent over, hands on knees trekking) and tip toeing the descent while my body attempted to stretch itself out, I was feeling better by the minute.
The nature of the elevation profile makes Kusam a brutal race for everyone. Fast or slow, young or old, climber or descender. You suffer on the climb or the descent. Usually on both. Asking your body to switch from hours of bent over, calf crushing climbing to long stretched out downhill pounding strides is a recipe for another breed of pain. Cramping, nausea, dead legs, the wall, the bonk...they are all waiting and many wounded soldiers succumb to these evil doers.
Pacing and fueling, or what I call 'personal management' are the secrets to avoiding these nasty's. I am happy to say that I managed both as well as I could have on the day. I raced smart and I felt stronger and stronger the longer the run went on. I knew I should have felt some 'pain' from the impact and effort of maintaining a hard pace over 10 downhill kms but I felt nothing. I was filled once again with joy - knowing I had come so far over the past few years and my ankle had healed, allowing me to return to Kusam. Any pain I may have felt was a gift would have made me smile rather than grimace:).
Down down down...through the rivers, in and out of the cross-ditches and into the single track. I managed to pass a dozen or so of the strong climbers that left me in the dust on the ascent. We traded off our strengths and cheered each other on towards the finish. I felt stronger than ever on the final stretch- climbing the 'rude' hill just before the final check point with energy and strength. I was fighting off twinges of cramping in my feet and I embraced the change in stride that the short steep uphill provided.
Past the sweet volunteers with a Hawaiian themed aid station. Then down the final 2km stretch, heading for home. It felt awesome. Not like previous years when I was forcing every step to the finish. Once the long descent turned to the final km of flat road running I was expecting to feel the weight of gravity and that slow mo 'chariots of fire' tragedy to the finish. But it never appeared.
I found new strength in my legs that had never been with me during the final mile of the Kusam Klimb. I wanted to run further. "If I feel so good now, could I have run faster earlier?" I wondered, as I ran hard towards the finish. No, I did all I could. 6 years later it seems that I have developed a new strength...endurance. I'll take it.
6 years older and 5 minutes faster, I reached the finish line in under 3 hours 10 minutes...gotta love that! And a full 15 minutes faster than I was in my first Klimb 8 years ago:)
Thank you Kusam Klimb! Thank you for the suffering, the personal challenge, the pain, the pleasure, the joy, the gratitude and the gift of running.