I love Black Squirrel, but Blue Sky is also a love — this was my first official marathon (in 2017), and this year would be my third consecutive Blue Sky. At 26.7 miles and about 3500’ vertical gain, Blue Sky is a challenge for any runner, whether that challenge comes in the first 5 miles, when you climb Towers Trail and the highest hill (by far) of the entire course, then launch into a quick descent; or that challenge comes between about miles 15-20, where you climb technical hogback cliffs then have to dance through slanted rocks designed to grab the ankles; or that challenge comes in the race’s final 5 miles, when you run rolling hillside trail and almost hear the finish line but the trail keeps going and going and going and you are so ready to be done.
Coming up to Blue Sky 2019 on October 19th, I felt strong and prepared. I had been focusing since the recovery period from NS100 on shorter distances and speedwork (guess you can tell what kind of runner I am if I call Saturday ‘long runs’ of 16-20 miles ‘shorter distances,’ haha) in preparation for the relatively shorter and flatter final races of the Slam.
Every year, I vow to run/pedal to the Blue Sky course for practice running — and because the course, particularly the southern 17 miles, is open and beautiful and everything from ankle-grabbing tricky sections to flowing almost-flat dirt singletrack — but, again, this year, I did not. However, from my Quad Rock training runs (and race), as well as summer around-the-reservoir runs, I ran Towers Trail more times this year than ever before, and I was also more confident tossing myself up (and down) hills this year than ever before, so I figured that would help.
My personal record for Blue Sky was just under 5:00, and I felt confident I could again tuck in under 5:00, with a strong goal of getting under 4:50 and an ultimate goal of getting under 4:45.
Beyond the (almost meaningless, really, in trail races for a mid-ish-pack runner like me) clock goals, my overall strategy would be: start strong but keep it under control and aerobic, while trying to push the flat and downhill miles, until the Hunter Turnaround at mile 17.9, then run for the barn with enough left and enough control that I can turn up the pace at the mile 20.3 aid and again at the last aid at mile 22.7, with another speed-up for the race’s final quarter-/half-mile. In 2018, I was surprised at how flattened I got for the final noticeable hills between mile 20-23, and I wanted to be more prepared, and have more courage and sustain, this time around.
The weather forecast looked great — not breezy (it can get windy in late October), sunny, and right around 50-60 degrees for the majority of my running time. We arrived early, I had time to have about 50 calories about 15 minutes before, then do some warmup trot and strides around the parking area, where I exchanged encouragements with another Gnar Slam contender, de-layered down to shorts and my long-sleeves over short-sleeves, lined up, and we were off!
I started out strong but controlled, the day is young and I am tapered the sun is just coming up and a beautiful race is all ahead of me, and I running alongside a sub-18hour NS100 finisher, when, not a half-mile into the race, I noticed drops coming off me. Sweat? I put my glove to my face, and it came away covered in blood. I could see these drops were round and red now. I could taste it running down the back of my throat. More drops in the air and I can’t ignore this. Great.
I’ve often gotten nosebleeds at the start of the dry season. It happened every year in Illinois, where I lived for three years, as well as our first two years in Colorado. After avoiding a single nosebleed last year, I thought I had acclimated. This year, however, I had about 4 within about 2 weeks of Blue Sky, with the first of those being my longest nosebleed I can ever remember — I had to hold my nose for over 45 minutes. The others, at 10-25 minutes, were shorter, but all tended to be longer than past years’ 10-15 minute episodes.
And still, even though I am now years away from the event, every nosebleed makes me think of my partner’s sudden and unexplained severe nosebleed in 2012 that soaked a towel, soaked the sink, required 911 and the emergency room in a screaming ambulance, where they pushed the Rhino Rocket up his nose (a medieval contraption of hoses and sinus-inflating balloons) only to, when it was removed a couple days later, begin bleeding again and require emergency surgery.
I slow to a walk, pinch my nose. Walk for another half-mile, take my glove away, immediately bleeding again. And this is the flat easy part of the course! So I trot, holding my nose, then move into the biggest climb of the course, Towers Trail, gaining about 1500’ in 3 miles. Every time I take my hand away, I start bleeding again. Everyone is passing me. Everyone I know who is running this race has gone by. Now I’m with people who have obvious quirks to their gait, who are waiting their bibs on their backs, and I feel like sooner or later, I’m going to be the last person on course. Three miles in, still going uphill, still bleeding. I’m getting so discouraged.
Will I have to DNF (‘did not finish’) the Slam here, in the last race of the season? Or would I rather hike and bleed the whole thing, and hope I can hike 26.7 miles in under 9 hours (and not keel over)? I’m worried about getting to the top of this climb and moving into the fast downhill singletrack, because I’m trying to keep my head level and my hiking gait smooth, which is semi-possible going uphill, but you can’t do that going downhill quick over roots and rocks. Before the top of the ascent, we divert onto Carey Springs Trail, moving from uphill service road to downhill-then-up-then-down-then-up singletrack, and as soon as I look down just a bit to watch the rock-covered trail, my glove starts to squish with the blood, even though I am still squeezing my nose, and I feel like I cannot breathe, and runners flush with the joy of downhill stack up behind me, and I keep having to step off-trail, step aside, gurgling a bit with blood in the throat.
Carey Springs at last turns to uphill and the pack slows, and I keep hiking forward, remembering all those ultramarathon manuals about Relentless Forward Progress, knowing nothing would be solved if I just sat down, but meanwhile feeling like I might well start to cry because I’m about the last runner I can hear on this trail, we’re just over 4 miles into a 26.7-mile day, and I don’t know if I — physically or mentally — could take 23 more miles of walking and bleeding, but I’m trying to smile and tell each pausing runner, “Thanks, I’m fine, I’ve got it, run on, keep it up!”
But thankfully, 4.5 miles in, I take my hand away, and no blood. No blood! I hike, break into a smooth trot, no blood. And we turn from Carey Springs back onto Towers and the real downhill starts, and I try to run as gentle and smooth as I can, like my face is made of stacks of dimes balanced three feet high. We move now onto Herrington and then onto Stout and the downhill just keeps flowing on and I need to look down sometimes and watch the trail because of rocks and roots and rocks, an my nose spots blood now and then, sometimes enough that I can taste the blood beading on my upper lip, but no more pouring, and I can breathe—gently, carefully.
I come through the 9-mile mark (the aid station located at what is also the start/finish line), and somehow, even with all that walking and woe-ing, I am just behind my time for 9-miles last year. My partner is there, asking, “Did you fall?” because he can see my face streaked with blood, and I say “nosebleed” and he knows what that means, what that triggers for me (and for him too), but I say “it’s stopped, been stopped more or less for about 4 miles,” take off my long-sleeves, a kiss and even though I’m worried about my nose starting up again, no blood now so here we go!
And from then on, no bleeding, just spotting — but I’ll be so sore in my middle the next day from using my core more than ever to run like I’m running on slippery glass so smooth. I remember my planned race strategy and I try to hold back until the Hunter Turnaround at mile 17.9, but I also run like I might not be able to run again in the next unpredictable minute, because I have never had a nosebleed on a run, and all these rocks and boundings could, for all I know, trigger another 45+ minute extravaganza of walking… I mean, hiking… so now let’s run!
I just keep passing people, somehow, for the first time ever in any race, never getting passed myself, not once in all 17 miles. I run by some slower-paced friends from training runs and races earlier in the year, some of whom stopped on Towers to ask if I was alright and now celebrate with me that the bleeding has stopped. I run alongside and past friends from Quad Rock and Never Summer, and we exchange good wishes and I am feeling that yes, the sun has come out.
The ankle-grabbing stretches are not as fierce and jagged as I recall from prior years (another advantage of Never Summering), and while I do downshift to hiking pace for a few of the steeper hogback and Indian Summer uphills, even those hills from mile 20-23 cannot make me fret, and I even come by my sub-18hour NS friend with 5 miles to go. I’m tracking my pace on my little aid-and-timing card, and IF I can hold this pace and IF my nose remains quiet and IF nothing else unexpected happens, I keep clicking through these final aid stations — mile 17.9, mile 20.3, now the last at mile 22.7 — on track for nipping in under 4:45.
And somehow I find another pace for the last rolling 4 miles and I am zooming just about on empty but zooming not bleeding and smiling and at last leaping under the finish line a bit bloody-faced but happy to have finished this race — and the whole Slam too! — with a new personal best of 4:31! My biggest PR improvement yet in any race, at over 25 minutes!
1) Just Keep Moving.
2) Things are (probably) not as bad as they seem in the moment.
Although it can be hard to believe that with blood running down your face and throat. But I was afraid I would be The Last Finisher and, at least, I would be outrageously behind last year’s pace by the 9-mile mark, and I was wrong (by far) on both accounts.
3) One secret to a strong PR is to run every mile like it might have to be your last.
Which could make you explode. Or implode. Or break your standing record by 25 minutes.
4) Trail running community is amazing.
So many runners stopped their journey to ask if I was alright, if they could help, if I needed company, and more, while I was trudging uphill during the nosebleed. I am so grateful for that.
I never expected Blue Sky would be when I came the closest to DNFing the Slam. I even thought Squirrel would be more likely — though shorter, it’s much more technical, and one miss-step could get one. But now, I can say the Slam really did take tears, and sweat (lots of that), and blood to complete.
And registration for 2020 opens 12/5, and I’ve got to say I might opt to Slam again next year…