Aug 29, 2009

“You’re tougher than you think you are…”

“…and you can do more than you think you can.”- Ken Chlouber, Leadville 100 Race Director

The following is an account of ultra marathoner and all around hard core athlete Christy Sauer’s (soon to be Mahon) journey through the Leadville 100 Ultra Marathon. The account is reprinted with gracious permission from avid mountaineer and skier Ted Mahon’s incredible blog, Stuck in the Rockies. Bravabella wanted to give a shout out to Christy - friend and inspirational athlete and congratulate her on 7th place overall for women! She gives us an insightful account into the world of ultra marathons.

A once-a-year scene, at 4am the headlamps from 509 starters head down 6th street. 46% didn't make it back within the 30 hour cutoff.
A once-a-year scene, at 4am the headlamps from 509 starters head down 6th street. 46% didnt make it back within the 30 hour cut off.

[Christy here] That was just one of the many over-used motivational quotes that Chlouber repeated during the somewhat evangelistic pre-race meeting the morning before the 2009 Leadville 100 trail run. In the time leading up to the race I had some skepticism, I wasn’t so sure what Leadville 100 had in store for me, but in the end I was in awe of the incredible beauty and excitement it had to offer.

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Ted’s flashlight and a runners headlamp illuminate the action along the shore of Turquoise Lake. Click all photos to enlarge.

As it turns out, from the very beginning the Leadville 100 is fast moving and full of action. When the gun went off at 4am, more than 500 runners and I took off on an unusually warm Saturday morning. I was rested, well fueled, and ready to run with an open mind. Before I knew it we were running along the banks of Turquoise Lake and just as the sun came up, I arrived at May Queen, the first of many crew-attended aid stations. Seeing friends so early in the day was uplifting and got me smiling throughout the race.

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Near the May Queen Aid station at dawn some headlamps reveal runners on the trail around the lake. This morning would develop into the hottest day of the summer.

The morning went by fairly quick, I made it up and over Sugarloaf Pass and into the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 23.5 before it got too warm. I started to feel the heat through the next seven mile section, first on flat pavement out of the Hatchery and then on dirt road, leading us up to this year’s revised Halfmoon aid station (Box Creek Canyon), somewhere around mile 30. Soon after I was on the shady trails along the foot of Mt. Elbert and barreling down the Colorado Trail into Twin Lakes.

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Kathy and Jen help out at Twin Lakes(mile 40) while mom and dad look on for their first time to see what it’s all about.

After Twin Lakes at mile 40, the pace slows as the race climbs up and over Hope Pass. I know this part from pacing Ted in 2002 and from skiing Mount Hope (13,950 ft.) a few springs ago. The pass crests 12,600 feet and lies between Twin Lakes and Winfield (the 50 mile turn around point), and though it’s only 10 miles in length, it feels like so much more. Despite being the most dreaded leg of the race for many, it was one of my favorites. The “Hopeless” aid station near the top of the pass not only has salty, water-downed mash potatoes, but also llamas!

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Say “Carbs”- never before have mashed potatoes been so appealing. When my taste for sweets ran out it was the salty stuff I found myself craving.The aid station is packed in each year with the help of 40 llamas.

After descending the other side of Hope Pass and breathing in all the dust from the crew cars driving the dirt road to Winfield, I started to wonder why this was fun. But then it hit me, I made it to the 50 mile turnaround point in a 10:42, which was almost an hour faster than planned. Now all I had to do was head back to Leadville as fast as I could. And the best part? Because Ted wasn’t quite recovered from his epic Hardrock 100 run, he came along with me, pacing the 10 miles back up and over Hope Pass to Twin Lakes.

The good news- I was past Hope Pass for the second and final time of the day. The bad news- Leadville was visible in the distance and it was a LONG way away.
The good news- I was past Hope Pass for the second and final time of the day. The bad news- Leadville was visible in the distance and it was a LONG way away.

At Twin Lakes, I picked up Kathy Fry who, always upbeat and chatty, did a great job encouraging me to keep the ‘Ted Shuffle’ going. I can tell he did a good job of prepping the girls to keep me running and we did, until stomach issues came up again around mile 70. I was having trouble eating and threw up everything I ate, including a salt pill, but we had to laugh about how much better this was than Wasatch last year. Trying to push through the stomach issues while covering the flat pavement before Fish Hatchery was definitely the lowest point in the race. Everyone has one, this was mine. Thanks Kathy for successfully helping me through! I took some extra time at the aid station and wondered what my parents were thinking of all this, as they had come up from Denver to see first hand what the hell actually goes on at these races.

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Time exposure captures the activity around me at Fish Hatchery as I change my socks and Kathy hands off the pacing to Jen. Seven hours to go was still a tough idea to handle.

There was one good thing about making it to Fish Hatchery (76 mile)– my secret weapon was waiting for me there. Flown in from Missoula just for the race, my sister Jen was at my side for the rest of the night. As a writer, Jen always has stories to tell and with these we pushed up and over Sugarloaf Pass without too much struggle.  If I do this race again, I could definitely take some time off the road and trail leading down to May Queen (mile 86.5).

At May Queen I left my backpack, took a water bottle of potato soup, and set off into the night hoping to hold on to my 7th overall women’s place while trying to beat Ted’s fastest 100 mile time, 26:21 from last year at Wasatch (secretly I had hoped to come in under 26 hours). These individual goals helped keep the sleepiness away. There was no time for being tired, we had a job to do. Jen kept the pace moving right along and we had a great split for the last leg, coming into the finish before the day’s light, and before Ted and Kathy were even at the finish!

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And at the end, no matter what, you always seem to have the strength to run.

I’m not sure if you can refer to a 100 mile race as sweet, but that’s what this was to me, something really sweet. I think it was a combination of things that attributed to a great, long day out on the trails. It could have been the sunny, 85 degree weather during the day, which I love, and the first hot summer night I can remember this year. It may have been the arnica gel I carried in my pocket, applying every time my hamstrings gave me grief. It was definitely the support from my pacers and the relentless encouragement from Jen and Kathy to keep shuffling through the wee hours of the night. And I’ll have to treasure the fact that I got to see Ted at every aid station because this probably won’t happen again. He’ll be back out there trying to beat the new 100 mile household record, 25:41!

Brava Christy!


Aug 19, 2009

78th Traverse of Lake Annecy, France

78th swim across Lake Annecy in progress

Lake Annecy or du Lac’d Annecy is one of the most beautiful places in the world. A crystal clear turquoise lake lined by greens of lower mountain vegetation, the grays of the rock above, and finally the vivid blue of the sky overhead create the prefect setting for an open water swim. A main tourist attraction on the French holidays, the town is referred to as the Venice of France. The lake was formed some 18,000 years ago by glaciers and is fed by five rivers from the mountains above and a powerful underwater source, the Boubioz, which enters at 82m depth.

The Old Village, Annecy

The river Thiou empties into the Lac near the old village of Annecy generating picturesque canals to wander along and dine. Recently promoted in this year’s Tour du France, the riders cycled around the beautiful lake for their individual time trial. Trails for runners and bikers extend along at least half the thirteen kilometer long lake and small villages and beaches dot its borders.

Waiting for the start…

I headed down to Annecy from Chamonix on August 15th one of the warmest days of the year with co-pilot Mara Larson. She was going to be my crew and support for the 78th annual 2.4k (1.5mile) swim across the lake - the Traversee du Lac d’Annecy organized by Les Dauphins d’ Annecy. The first official traverse was held in 1913, this club has serious roots. A few days before the world swimming organization, FINA, held their world championships in the 10K swim in the famous lake.

Getting my cap and body-marked

The trip took us about  an hour and we arrived just after the finish of the first event of the day, the 1000 meter swim. Unfortunately after all our excellent navigation we had in fact discovered the finish, not the start. With thirty minutes to spare we rushed to the opposite side of the lake in growing Saturday tourist traffic. Mara was going to slow down so I could hop out and start late if indeed we missed the official depart.

Coming into the finish

Luck and French tradition on our side, we arrived to see everyone still getting ready. The start had been delayed by half hour. Illegally parked like everyone else, we ran down to check in. I had preregistered thankfully as people drove from miles around and were told the race was full upon their arrival - total bummer. Some I think just swam along anyway. I was officially racing for the Chamonix Swim Club so to be counted I would have to race without a wetsuit or be put in a triathlete category. I wanted to represent so I prepared sans wetsuit. The volunteers marked my arm and the back of my hand with lucky number 138 and gave me a cap with the number 15 - the logic confused me but I think all the fancy caps with corresponding numbers had already been handed out.

Mara took a few action photos of the six hundred racers milling about anxiously trying to warm up in a small space while being hoarded by numerous rescue boats. She then wished me luck and hopped back in the car to head to the finish. With the traffic she would just make it to see me arrive.

The wait to get out…

This was my first official open water event. I have done many for previous triathlons but never strictly a swimming event. I had done this distance a few years before for a half ironman so I was confident I could finish but had not swum this actual distance in open water in a few years. I made polite small talk with a few of the racers, some of whom lived in Annecy who loved the event for it was the only time one could actually swim across the lake without fear of getting run over by paddle and motor boats alike.

11:15 and I hopped in the water placing myself off to the side but near the front. I figured a good five minutes of hard swimming and I would be in the clear. We lined up and the announcer called two minutes to the start…. one minute….then fifteen seconds. There was a roar through the crowd and racers impatient with the delay just started to swim. A mass false start is hard to control so off we all went!

Just crossed taking my goggles off, cap number 15

I pushed the first few minutes and then slid back into a rhythm only to notice the hoards of people at my feet - five minutes was not going to do it. I pushed again for the next five and returned to a more relaxed pace focusing on efficiency. The water was clear and I was able to sight easily on shore (aim for the castle I was told) and on the swimmers around me. I ended up swimming with a gentleman in a wetsuit. We traded leads and sighted off one another. I was able to put my head down more that usual and swim hard but could feel my lack of training and sighting experience in the last meters of the race.

Towards the end I encountered a small current most likely from the waves bouncing back off the retaining walls on shore. Closer still and the water became very shallow. The last one hundred meters was very murky water and I kept swimming all the way through to the finish finger tips almost touching the ground. Swimming is much faster than walking and with a slap to the finish barrier I crossed in thirty-five minutes satisfied with my effort, happy for the amazing training atmosphere and totally hooked on the open water swim!

Getting busier as more finish

We had to remain in line in order that we finished and were marked one by one as each of us climbed the steps and got out of the water. It was muddy and I was happy to get out and shower (freezing water) and eat some sweet and grab something to drink. Mara was waiting at the finish (so nice to not race alone) and handed me my things. I changed quickly and we watched the remaining swimmers arrive. More and more were finishing en masse and it created quite a pile up at the end. I was glad to have gotten out when I did.

I switched gear and hopped on my bike for an hour or so along a beautiful path that boardered the lake. It is the perfect place for a triathlon, and one is held here each year near the 4th of July, I am sold and will return to do that as well as the 79th Traversee du Lac d’ Annecy. The sport of open water swimming is gaining in popularity and I have an itch to explore the open water around the world. Feeling the pull?  Swim Treks is a amazing company that combines sun, swimming and travel in cool locations, or click here for other ideas.


Aug 04, 2009

Lagginhorn, Saas Grund

Photo courtesy of peakware.com
Photo courtesy of peakware.com

I headed over to the Saas Valley in Switzerland in order to take a break from the chaos that is Chamonix in August. The drive over took longer than usual due to the millions of tour buses on the roads. I don’t know how these guys do it, drive these huge monsters up winding mountain roads and through tunnels where often times they have to honk in case they happen another bus going the opposite way. While awesome because they bring the tourists and revenue to the mountain villages, I was behind a new driver who would not go over 40kph and hour which meant the twenty kilometers up to Saas Grund took a long time.

Rocky terrain at the base of the climb

Danny (my boyfriend and UIAGM guide) had some lovely clients in from the states who invited me to climb with their son Andrew up the Lagginhorn, a cool looking 4010m peak that towered over town. Having not climbed it yet I jumped at the chance. The route while not super technical required a bit of all techniques and is great for practice and gaining experience for more difficult climbs. Its also good for the fitness and my triathlon training (I hoped). Andrew was going for his second summit of the week after conquering the Hohlaubgrat of the Allalin a day before. We left from the top of the Hohsaas gondola around 8 am on a cloudless blue morning that continued a two week stretch of amazing weather.

Rock ridge up to the summit

The route started with a heartbreaking loss in elevation down a snow field followed by a small climb up a rock ridge equipped with wires for extra stability. The rock was smooth and a little slab-like causing us to take care and practice in the big rock climbing boots. Small purposeful steps allowed us to move quickly and not lose our balance. Soon the rock turned to scree and finally spit out onto the glacier. We put crampons on and roped up heading to the main ridge that would comprise most of the climb.

Route marked in red

Crampons off, the terrain was a bit Matterhorn-like (not as steep) stepping up from rock to boulder, requiring checking some first for stability. We passed a few roped teams finally reaching the last snowfield to the summit. Crampons and ice axes out, we ascended the last few hundred meters. The snow had melted leaving some icy spots requiring good crampon technique. We passed a three person team sans guide whose leader was belaying two other climbers on two ice screws placed into the snow with about thirty meters of rope out - we got by them as quickly as we could. Ice screws are useless in the snow and can actually pull out causing rock and snowfall on teams below. The mountains are open for everyone, but experience is needed to keep all safe.

Summit smiles

At the top we stood on the summit under a cloudless sky with a 360 degree view of the alps. We took turns maneuvering at the summit so everyone could get a photo with the cross. Moving out of the way we ate a quick lunch and carefully began the descent, axes out for stability and crampons always placed down the fall line (never sideways) so all teeth can bit into the ice. We overtook a large group while they took a short rest and got organized. About 100 meters down we heard the yells of “Rock, rock!” the team we passed had dislodged a large amount of the loose rock above endangering everyone below. One climber was hit on the elbow but thankfully we were far enough to the right to avoid injury - another lesson, step carefully and cautiously, sometimes just yelling, “rock!” isn’t going to help the climbers below when the damage is done. Care must be taken when placing your feet.

South ridge of the Lagginhorn

Crampons off for the last descent down the ridge we crossed the snowfield back to the Hohsass Hut for a Rivella and Coke and reflect on the morning, thankful for another successful day at 4000 meters.