"You're a little toughie, aren't you?" the middle-aged hiker with a gray mustache, overloaded rucksack, jean shorts and hiking stick - but curiously, no shirt - says to me.
"Yup," I reply cheerfully, huffing my way downhill.
"You go all the way to Douglas Springs?" he wants to know.
"Nope. Cowhead Saddle," which is beyond Douglas Springs. I'm being efficient with my words; I'm too tired to stop and talk.
"Wow, you musta started early!" Admiration fills his voice.
"Yup," I say as I keep chugging downhill.
All I can think in response to our exchange is that I'm the wimp of the group! I am out running with my trail running group; these amazing ultrarunners routinely run 50 to 100-milers. A few have completed the Grand Slam. Me and my measly 50ks are nothing to these men and women. But my 16-mile run really amazes someone else. It's all about perspective.
We started before sunup; dawn broke as we make our way up, up, up Douglas Springs Trail. My friend Barb is unable to run as planned, due to a work obligation; Renee opted out of running the route, due to the large snowfall received in the previous few days. I chose to still run up to Cowhead Saddle, knowing it'd be a great adventure, and since I'd be running with the group, I felt safe.
As usual, I watch as the lead dogs head up much faster than me. Seven men are in the front, three women behind, then me. I try to run; my legs are frozen. Someone said at the trailhead it was 31 degrees. I'm in shorts, a skullcap, a visor, a short sleeve tee topped with a long sleeve tee and my wild paisley gaiters top my shoes. The warmth from the coffee I got at my favorite coffeeshop - Ike's - on the way to the trailhead has worn off. My calves are already feeling it - at only three miles in. I took the previous two days as rest days, hoping that would help me. I don't think it helped. I also don't think wearing knee-high boots with three-inch high heels for six hours on Friday night helped either (but it sure was fun struttin' my stuff (and getting a "shazam!" from a random stranger)).
About three miles in, I stop and stare. There's a waterfall cascading, crashing down rocks. It's amazing. It takes me a few minutes to realize it's the top of Bridal Wreath Falls, which normally has just a trickle. The snowmelt is gorgeous.
More up, up, up. I go from Sonoran Desert Scrub up to Junipers. By 4 miles in, patches of snow appear. By five to six miles in, there are spots where the snow lines the trail, but doesn't cover it. Grasses peek through; the trail is pure mud and water. It's so NOT Tucson running; I'm in heaven. In this section, it's mostly up, but in a nice, rolling sort of way.
I make it six miles to Doug Springs, where I am able to make a much-needed pit stop before heading up, up, up some more. I've never been beyond Douglas Springs before. This is all new territory for me. The climb is relentless. At seven miles, the snow is on the trail, along with ice. I slip and slide and work my up further. I'm in a canyon, and it is cold. The stream rushes by me and I am reminded of living and hiking in upstate New York.
The snow is six to eight inches deep. I'm amazed; I thought it wouldn't be this deep yet. I expected this up closer to the saddle.
I hear male voices ahead - it's four of the lead men. The snow reaches a foot deep at the saddle, and they decided to turn around and head back instead of doing the full 28-mile loop (which I already know I'm not going to do). I decide to head up a little further, till my Garmin tells me 8 miles, then I'll turn around, which ends up being five minutes later.
A fifth man passes me; he chose to turn around early as well. A few moments slipping and sliding back down the trail, and I run into one of the co-leaders of the group still heading up. I didn't realize anyone was behind me. He and I chat for a bit, then I head back on down.
It's a gorgeous day, perfect for running. I love the streams - so many streams to hop across. I love the mud. I love that this is atypical for the desert, and that I'm out there, enjoying it.
I pass many people heading up, including the strangely attired hiker who is amazed at my early morning trek. His words, "you're a little toughie," though somewhat offensive to me (what, just cause I'm a woman, I'm considered tough for doing this?! And using the word "toughie" is so condenscending to me), still gave me the impetus I needed to keep going. Damn straight, I'm tough!
Then I hit the stairs. For some reason, when this trail was built, the folks building it thought they'd do us all a favor and create steps. For miles. And miles. Steps upon steps. Stairway to heaven.
More like stairway to hell, as my knees start protesting with about three miles to go. I keep pushing myself, "I can DO this," I tell myself. But the stairs hurt. Each step down is excruciating.
I have to walk. I walk 1.5 miles down. I feel terrible. Am I injuring myself? How in the world will I be able to run twice this distance and elevation at the end of April? This is crazy! I am despondent, but I keep going. I have to get down. I may be injuring myself, but I need to keep going. I'll take an ice bath tonight and hope that helps me heal up so I can keep training and get ready. I really need to buckle down for the next six weeks to make ZG a reality. I walk down, down, down, waddling at an awkward angle in order to keep my legs from bending as much as possible. It feels like my iliotibial band on both legs. Crap.
With about a mile to go, the trail flattens and the steps disapper. Grimacing, I start running. I look at the time and see that I'm close to making 5 hours, my goal time. If I don't run (okay, granny shuffle) this in, I won't make my goal time. I force myself to keep moving. I am an ultrarunner, it's what I do. I hurt so badly. I keep going. Finally, I see the end. I clock in at 4:59, yay!
Shovel some potato chips in my mouth, drink some chocolate milk and finish with a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie while talking with a few folks still hanging around before limping to my car and driving back to Ike's, this time for Genevieve's salad, a spinach-and-romaine salad topped with bacon, feta cheese, walnuts and lemon honey vinegarette dressing (I finally remember to ask them to hold the red onion), washed down with a diet coke and accompanied by a soft baguette, as well as great company in the form of Chris, who has joined me. The barista who helped me this morning sees me back and says with a smile, "need a refill?"
After lunch I limp home and force myself into an ice bath. I can only stand it for five minutes before needing to take a hot shower, followed by three ibuprofen.
Typing at my computer now, I feel much better. I am incredibly sore, and somewhat worried about my condition, but I think I just need to wait and see how my knees feel as the week progresses.
I'm looking forward to seeing my son tonight (he was with his dad this weekend); I adore his snuggles. That will make everything all better :)
And I just finished uploading the info from my garmin: 16.22 miles, 4400 ft of elevation gain. Okay, now I know why my knees are sore. That ties the most amount of elevation I've ever done - and the last time I did it, I injured myself! The goal: make it through the next two weeks by taking care of my knees while at the same time still getting the miles and workouts in that I need. I can do it. There's nothing to it!