By Steve Avery - On Saturday, 13 August 2005 I completed the most mentally and physically challenging event of my life – my first "Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run" in Bozeman (Usa/Montana). My words here will not begin to describe what I encountered, what I endured, and how I triumphed.
My day began at 4 a.m. My ride was to arrive at 4:45 for our drive to the race start. My Camelback was filled with 2.5 liters of a diluted Gatorade solution, and included several PowerBars, a change of socks, some giant band-aids, and some waterproof medical tape. I carefully put duct tape on three of my toes that are prone to blistering (yes, it does stick to anything!!). I downed three large glasses of water, a bagel with peanut butter and a yogurt, and grabbed a bagel, two bananas, and a Coke to go.
The morning was cold but dry in the valley, quite a change from the evening before where it was pouring and the skies were always very threatening, but it was dark so the mountains were not yet visible... what awaited me was still to be seen. One hour later, at our starting mark, the weather was cold (about 35° F) but dry, but the first peak, Sacajawea, was hidden in the clouds.
I was cold and shivering, but my adrenaline was pumping. I was in the fifth wave (out of five) of more than 200 runners (due to my estimated finish time of eight hours). As I listened to the countdown of each of the four waves before me, I felt a total rush... and all runners and volunteers cheered the runners as they took off into the forest up to the ascent. Finally, it was my turn: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... a screech from a bullhorn and I was off!!! I ran for about half mile until severe switchbacks and a clog of runners caused the line of racers to briskly walk. Up, up, up... finally, we were in the clear for an ascent to the next set of switchbacks.
My lungs, honestly, were burning. I had a difficult time catching my breath. I concentrated on my breathing cadence. I think between the elevation, the excitement and the running, my body was questioning what I was doing... little did it know what awaited.
As I alternated between jogging and walking briskly, doing what the foot traffic allowed me to do, the clouds surrounded me. Visibility was about 25 feet around me, after that, cloud white. As I ascended Sacajawea Peak, I noticed my leg hairs, each one of them, were forming ice crystals on them. Now, I have hairy legs, and I looked as though I had either a science experiment growing on my legs or some kind of sweater (you know that fuzzy kind) on my legs. I thought, "This is unreal!". As I approached the summit, I stepped on a flat piece of rock and quickly realized that it was ice covered slick. I slipped hard but caught my fall with my hands, which I was wearing mountain bike gloves on my hands for this very protection (not knowing I would need it for the cold!!!). The runner behind me yelled "You OK?!?" "I'm good, thanks!" Onward and upward...
First checkpoint. My number is called out and relayed to a icy person with a clipboard: "Number 10 arrived". I started to descend on what I knew was a one-foot-wide, talus-covered, frightening trail, but with the cloud cover, it was a walk in the park. I reached Ross Pass after a good meandering run through the pines and a decent trail descending from Sacajawea, probably about a 2,000-foot descent. It was during this segment that I defrosted and thawed out. I often wasn't sure if sweat was dripping from my brow or if it was ice melting from my hair. Still don't know.
The second checkpoint was approaching. The volunteers again made each runner feel welcome and as if they were winning the race! I believe there was a fire going at this checkpoint, because I remember briefly wanted to stop and warm by it. But there was no time for that. Had I known what awaited me in a matter of minutes, I may have taken that campfire warming.
I came to the base of a rising slope that looked to be at a 45 degree angle. One thousand feet up in less than half mile, I estimate. My calves were now very awake and screaming at me. I had to stop about every five minutes for about fifteen seconds, both for catching my breath and for letting the lactic acid to seep from my quads and calves. I finally reached the summit and wondered what awaited me next. Now, since Sacajawea Peak, I had been in covered and protected meadows and forest trails. Now, I was about to experience the true meaning of brutality. The wind out of the east, my left, had to be at least 25 mph, maybe more. Not only did I feel this wind, but I heard it. I heard it screaming at me, telling me to leave, but I would not listen.
Occasionally, the trail would run behind a rock or tree shield, providing protection from the fierce easterly gale, but I knew that protection was about to end not from sight, but from sound. I could hear the wind start to howl at me, like a pack of hungry wolves surrounding its prey. Not even a few seconds after hearing the wind berating me, I would then feel it, smacking me upside the face and body with a vengeance. Onward and upward.
With my hair frozen and my left eye continuing to freeze over with ice, I finally reached the top of Bridger. Its chair lift poles and the ski patrol house covered with a coating of ice, the volunteers (the true heroes of this race!) welcomed me with high spirits and pats on the back. "Number 10 is in!". One volunteer asked "You okay number 10??" I replied "I'm very good", and I didn't even lie. I'm sure my ice-covered body was saying otherwise, but I was good, and the smile she gave me back reassured me that I was still good. I noticed two individuals near the ski house huddled in what looked like sleeping bags, and they didn't look good at all. I even heard one volunteer say to another, "This runner doesn't know his name or where he is". I did a double-take as I grabbed some Fig Newtons cookies. "But I'm good" I thought. Onward and upward.
The next section, from Bridger to Baldy, which included Saddle Peak seemed to ascend forever, and the majority of this section was very exposed to that brutal east wind. It was at this point of the run where I befriended a fellow runner, and we helped each other pick our way through the rocky trail, as we were the only two runners together for about five miles or so. After the race, she saw me and thanked me for helping her navigate through the crags, and I thanked her for helping me set my pace and keep me going at a good trot. There was one point where we were running, me about five yards behind her, and the trail was on a path of no more than ten yards wide, and quite a sheer drop on both sides. The socked-in clouds added to the perception that I was indeed running on a rail into nowhere. As I looked forward, all I saw was an inclining rocky slope ascending into the clouds, and I knew for sure I was running into the Heavens, and at any moment, I was expecting to run into – literally! – the Pearly Gates of Heaven, just knowing I would have to ask St. Peter if I could continue to Baldy.
All surreal moments must come to an end though, and we finally peaked with no angelic encounters. Finally, finally!!! Baldy was in sight. Up, up, up... Again, the heroic volunteers greeted me with congrats and claps, including a make-shift runway lined with small American flags whipping in the wind. One volunteer quipped "Welcome to Baldy!!!" and I replied "It's great to be here!". I had a few snacks, some pretzels and Fig Newtons cookies, and one volunteer pleaded for me to take some Gummy Bears candies because he didn't want to carry them back down. I obliged and filled my waistpack with them. I didn't hear my number called out as I got there, so I doublechecked with my Gummy Bear volunteer friend, "You got me, right?". He did, as if I should have doubted. My running partner, a marathon runner, finally found her non-rocky surface she had been begging for, and was gone before I was ready to go. "Happy trails!". I started down Baldy, running downhill in very loose gravel-type rock, and feeling good to actually do some running and to be going downhill, little did I know that the "downhill" was about to be exponentially increased beyond my body's recognition.
I started off Baldy at five hours exactly, and I had heard that from Baldy to the "M" was about 5 miles. I had immediate thoughts of making it down to the "M" in less than six hours, and since my goal was seven hours, I thought I was golden! But I knew alot awaited me in my trek and having never descended from Baldy to the "M", I stayed realistic. After about two miles, my quads started to tell me that they'd had enough of this excursion. I kept on though... no choice but to. The next two miles, my quads were screaming... or was that me?? I was still at a pace quicker than a walk but not a run. I needed to stop every few minutes for ten seconds to let the pain subside. A few runners passed me, they looked so strong still, and I marveled at that. At this point, I knew I would finish – I could hear the crowd at the bottom of the hill cheering finishing runners, and that just drove me on, even stronger (probably more mentally than physically), but I jogged on. I even managed a laugh, thinking if someone was watching me from afar, they would surely think I had Mad Cow Disease as I stumbled and teetered toward the end. A couple of times, be it from exhaustion or just sheer jubilation, I even caught myself becoming emotional, wanting to break out in tears knowing that I was about to conquer what I had been training for and what had haunted me for months, what I had thought undoable just twelve months ago. I was about to tame my untamable.
Decisions, decisions... at the "M", which way to go??? At this point, my short-term goal of beating six hours had melted away like the ice on my leg hairs. I was at six hours, five minutes about, and I decided to spare my quads the pounding of the "short way" and went the long way. As it turns out though, I took a route that was apparently shorter than the "long way", since I intercepted the runners that had passed me not long before, who had taken the real "long way". I was determined not to let them pass. For the first time in six hours, my competitive juices took over me and I hobbled into a lethargic, crippled jaunt. I'm very sure these runners could have passed me had they chosen to do so, but they cared not. They let me hobble on.
Finally, the crowd was in sight. I hobbled past Saturday hikers, hoping they would move for me because my energy and coordination were low and iffy at this point. It was my turn to feel the rush of victory, my personal victory. It was my turn to hear the crowd roar for me. Runner number 10, finishing some 6 hours and 15 minutes later, but my fellow finishers, the volunteers, and all others, didn't let me know that. They made me feel like I was finishing first, and I will never forget that. As I crossed the finish line, stopping the timer on my wristwatch, I wasn't sure what to do first – collapse, laugh, smile, cry, hug a stranger... I was immediately greeted with a high-five from a fellow runner who had given me a ride to the starting line some eight hours before, who had finished about one and a half minute before me. And not five minutes later, I was thanked by my aforementioned "Saddle to Baldy" running mate, for helping her navigate through the rocks and crags. Smiles, handshakes, and high-fives... Twenty and a half miles and thousands of feet elevation changes... it all culminated to this.
I look back at my first "Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run" with such a sense of accomplishment, such a sense of pride, such a sense of conquering. Conquering the mountains, the elements, my fears, my limitations. A very good friend asked me, after I told them about my experience, if, at any time, I didn't think I could finish, and before they finished the question, I started shaking my head, and probably interrupted by saying emphatically "No, no way". I was later told that now that I've completed the "Bridger Ridge Run", I wouldn't have to do it again. I gave them a wry smile and replied, "Well, now I have a time to beat...".
See you next year.