“Embrace the suck” became the slogan for two Cody participants in a recent race through a snowy landscape outside Pinedale.
Janie Curtis used the phrase to describe how she dealt with a headwind on the return portion of her 13-mile run. The suck also summarized how Amy Couture dealt with fatigue and the elements during her 100-mile race.
Still, upon reflection, they both enjoyed the experience, as did a third competitor, Jeff Rode of Powell who ran 28 miles.
“It wasn’t that bad. I found it rather enjoyable. I’d gladly do it again,” he said, while acknowledging that a longer race would present a different scenario. “At least I wasn’t Amy, out two days and two nights. I could do one night, but a second one would do me in.”
The three runners from Park County participated in “The Drift,” March 13-15, which traversed National Forest Service land in the Wind River Mountains. Entrants could compete on foot, bike or skis yet faced a forewarning the organizers had posted on their website.
“Be Aware: This is a winter race in formidable country,” organizers posted. “The temperatures can be sub-zero, the wind can be relentless, and the snow ranges from fast and firm to soft and soul-sucking.”
Sponsored by the Wind River Mountain Festival, the event is named for the 58-mile Green River Drift, the oldest, continually used cattle drive in the United States, used since the 1890s, and the first ranch-related Traditional Cultural Property listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Curtis, 34, finished second in her division, female foot, in 2:27 hours, and finished eighth overall. Rode, 65, clocked 7:04 hours for sixth male runner. Couture, 43, placed third in her division in 50:41 hours.
“It was a really fun race,” Curtis said, “the type two fun,” which implies the suck element.
“It was a nice day, cold, of course.”
With the wind at her back after her start Saturday morning, she stayed warm on that stretch. Then came the turning point.
“That’s when things got pretty miserable,” recalled Curtis as she ran into blow and snow. “It’s aptly named,” referring to the mountain range.
In trail-running shoes, she found the footing wasn’t bad at first, but it became slippery as snow accumulated on the snowmobile-tracked route.
“I did slide a bit,” Curtis said.
The Drift was her first race on snow, “so I was a little nervous going in,” she noted, which made her choose the shortest distance.
“It went surprisingly well.”
What kept her going, she added, was knowing that Rode and Couture had entered longer races. It was Couture who had suggested The Drift, which meant Curtis missed the Bozeman run that usually kicks off her spring/summer training.
Curtis, a veteran of various distances, began running out of high school when she found it hard to find organized sports. Now she not only competes, but also arranges events like the Buffalo Bill Cody races.
“I really enjoy organizing,” she said. “It’s fun being behind the scenes.”
To her, Wyoming offers great land, trails and opportunities to compete.
“I encourage people to seek out these opportunities and embrace the suck,” Curtis said.
Like Curtis, Rode had never competed in a distance run on snow, though he’s been competing on and off for 40 years, 15 years in longer races. He found the snowy surface slower but gentler than pavement, kinder on a knee that’s been rebuilt three times.
“My surgeons tell me I’m on borrowed time, you’ll blow out that knee out eventually, so I take it a little easier than I used to,” Rode said.
The Saturday start began along a river, in the trees, with the wind at his back, so that was “okay,” he recalled. Then he encountered “some whiteout conditions in the open.”
Occasionally an organizer would drive by on a snowmobile, checking on the racers. “Even in the wind, you could tell where the snowmobile had been,” Rode said. Between those tracks and the orange pole-markers, he had no trouble following the route.
Unlike all the other marathoners, Rode had opted to pull a sled containing his gear rather than wear a backpack. Not only did it slide easily, he said it created less sweat and was easier on his knees. The only issue was hydration time, when he’d have to stop, undo the belt and dive into the sled to get water.
“My hands got a little cold, but they were never uncomfortable,” said Rode.
“I wished I’d had goggles,” he said, to protect his eyes in the whiteouts.
Of particular pleasure to him was the camaraderie in the lodge before and after the race.
“The people were great,” he said.
Rode was also able to watch Couture’s progress on a computer screen that displayed the competitors’ tracking devices. When the runners approached the finish line, “we’d go out and cheer them in.”
The event marked Rode’s first time in the Pinedale area, where views of the Winds greeted him Friday. When the sky lowered Saturday, obliterating the granite peaks, he asked the organizers why they hadn’t chosen a summer month. He said they replied, “Because it would be too easy then.”
‘Basic survival mode’
“I should have been,” Couture replied when asked if she were ever scared or worried about the temperature during her 100-miler, citing the wolves and solitude. “But I never got cold because I was busy trying to follow the trail.”
She did battle fatigue, having started the race Friday morning with little sleep the night prior. Extreme fatigue dulls the senses, she explained, and at times she found herself falling asleep on her feet.
That’s when she relied on “basic survival mode,” her term.
To recover, Couture dove into her sleeping bag nestled in a bivy sack for some refreshing rest, once Friday night and again Saturday night.
That sleeping gear comprised some of the nearly 50-pounds of equipment she pulled in a sled to comply with the race organizers’ requirement that 100-milers tote extra gear and emergency supplies. Couture had also checked the forecast and learned about the prediction for a big snowstorm on Saturday.
“I was overly cautious,” she said of the pile on her sled.
The first 50 miles, mostly uphill, traveled over tracks that ranged from firm to soft. The ascent led to Union Pass, some 9,200 feet in elevation, where a snowstorm approached on Saturday evening.
“I felt like I was way up in the clouds,” Couture recalled. “I was never cold because I kept moving, dragging the sled and wading up to my knees in heavy snow.”
In the dark, in a howling wind, blowing snow, falling asleep on her feet, she did her second dive into the bivy sack. She awoke to the sound of a snowmobile, hallucinating but determined to continue. Though she was the last person on the course, the officials let her continue if she promised to hurry.
“Through the rest of that night, I ran the flats and downhills but hiked the uphills with my excruciatingly heavy sled,” Couture later wrote.
As the sun rose Sunday morning, she reached the Green River Lakes basin.
“In my sleep-deprived state, the reflective trail markers looked like silver glitter in a fairy tale,” she wrote.
Though finishing last, she had no regrets.
“I love getting to know a new mountain range,” Couture said. “It’s almost as if I have a relationship with the Wind Rivers. It was really, really neat, definitely backcountry.”
Safety gear becomes a problem on trail
An unexpected development complicated Amy Couture’s 100- mile run, beginning with a sore right hand. She’d lost her right glove Friday evening before taking a break in her sleeping bag and awoke with that hand feeling scalding hot. She also had hot spots on her nose and lips. Back on the course, she found and used a right-handed glove, which she later mailed back to the Canadian runner who’d lost it. Later, on the drive home with her mother at the wheel, Couture’s pain had migrated to her left hand and was so bad – in her words, “It felt like jalapeno juice all over my skin” – that she put both hands out a car window. At home she discovered the culprit, the bear spray in her duffel, which had leaked into the bag of the batteries that she’d used during the run. Baking soda and dish soap relieved the pain on her skin. The solution for the duffel’s contents may be elusive.