Monday, March 4, 2013

Old Pueblo 50 - Race Report

Before I get started, there are a few things I want to say to make sure the point isn't lost in my verbose description of the race. The first is that I am pleased with my performance. Had I stayed on course and had this been a 47 mile race (like my first "50 mile race"), I would have PR'd by about an hour and fifteen minutes. And the conditions were pretty tough. The field was about half an hour slower than previous years. I feel very confident in the changes I made in training as well as my nutrition strategy. In fact, I think I am getting closer to realizing my potential as an ultra runner and understanding this crazy sport. (That probably means my next race will be a huge let down!)

The other point of emphasis is that this is a quality race. There were some marking issues this year, but overall it is a great course with a great community of runners and I would do it again. The small, tight-knit feeling is very reminiscent of the ultra running old school culture. And, the course was much prettier than I imagined a desert course could be. Another thing I liked about the course was that it was challenging (almost 7K of vertical and very rocky) without being excessive. I love mountain races, but I am disadvantaged because it is really hard to get up to the high country and train above 10K on a frequent basis.

Kentucky Camp Start

Start - Kentucky Camp

Steve and I woke at about 3 am and left his house by 4 am to be at the start line in time for drop bags. It turns out we had plenty of time. We managed to use up the extra time drinking coffee and waiting in line for a restroom. We briefly talked strategy for the day, hoping to keep a good run walk pattern early to keep ourselves in check. The first half of the course is substantially easier and I was trying to decide how best to attack it. I had decided on a 45/55 split, so something close to a 4:15 halfway mark was the target. Like many ultras, runners huddled near the start line chit-chatting until the race director said "go". It almost felt like this race was local Fat Ass event -- everyone knew everyone else. Pretty cool.

Granite Mtn (3 miles)  - 0:31

Right from the start, Steve and I were in the lead group of 20 runners. Steve was being social and discovered a few runners that never run an ultra or were hoping for an 11-12 hour finish -- yet they were still hanging near the front. At about the 10 minute mark I decide to keep running (instead of the walk pattern we had discussed) because we were moving at such a slow pace. I figured we'd wait for the course to spread out a bit. Three miles came and went pretty quick.

California Gulch (7 miles) - 1:14

After leaving Granite Mountain, you turn right and jump onto the Arizona Trail. The initial part is a decent little climb totaling a few hundred feet. Then you are pounding down a fairly steep and technical descent into California Gulch. This was when disaster struck for Steve.  He he rolled his ankle and I think it kind of set the tone for the day for him. I didn't think much of it since that happens all the time trail running. He managed to "walk it off" and keep moving pretty well. Some wear along the way he popped a few Ibuprofen and said it was feeling ok. It was only after the race that I saw how gruesome that injury actually was.

This was a really pretty section of trail and it was one of the few true descents that I handled well all day. I wish I had taken a mental note of the climb I was going to face on the return trip. Or maybe it is better I didn't remember? (Note to the reader: the course is sort of two loops with Arizona Trail connecting them, so you go on the trail twice, roughly miles 3 - 7 and 29 - 33). Before long we dropped down into the second aid station where we had placed a drop bag. They volunteers were very helpful all day and filled our water bottles. We dropped our headlamps and cold weather gear and got moving quickly.

Wasp Canyon (13 miles) - 2:09

Leaving California Gulch we started flying. This we a really gradual descent and we were dropping 8:30 miles without even elevated breath. There was one or two short, steep climbs that we power hiked, but overall it was all downhill. It took a lot of restraint to dial it back and stop for short walking (and eating) segments every 10 or so minutes. It was about this point that Steve commented how quickly time was clicking by. I told him it was amazing how fast things move when you are mentally engaged. And the truth is that the first quarter of an ultra always goes by fast because you know there is lots more to go. If you are lucky, the closing miles go by as quickly! More commonly they are a bit of a mental struggle, at least for me.

Helvetia (19 miles) - 3:14

I remember discussing the opening portion of the race with Jon and he pointed out a pretty significant climb from mile 11 to 15 (Gunsight Pass). Not long after leaving Wasp Canyon we started climbing and Steve was struggling to keep up. He had commented earlier that he was having trouble keeping up with me on the climbs. I took this as a compliment. Of course, we had both agreed we should do our own thing on race day. I started power hiking hard and, before I knew it, Steve was gone. I wouldn't see him again for about 10 hours.

After about a half mile a runner passed me and I said "nice shoes". He looked down and noticed that we were both wearing Saucony Peregrine. We traded notes about the shoes for a few minutes. We also discussed ultra plans for the future. It sounds like he is doing the LT100 MTB. I could tell he wanted to go hard, asking "so you walk hills too?". While "walking", I managed a 12 min mile up a long 1000+ foot climb. Then he acknowledged that he planned to run the whole way. I think I finished an hour (or more) ahead of him. Unless you are a 2:30 marathoner or you really like pain, it is usually a good idea to walk long or steep hills in an ultra. With practice you figure out the best ones to attempt to run.

Once you summit Gunsight Pass, the descent is very steep and rocky, exposing what continues to be my biggest weakness an ultra runner -- downhills! My legs take too much of a beating as I tip-toe and break the whole way. After a while the descent turned more gradual and less rocky and I started moving much better, running several miles near 8 min pace. I arrived at the aid station and refueled on Roctane and took off.

Box Canyon (25 miles) - 4:07

Coming into Box Canyon. Photo by Ross Zimmerman

Coming into Box Canyon. Photo by Ross Zimmerman

Not long after taking off my shoe came untied. It was a blessing because I had been ignoring some rocks in my shoes for several miles. I stopped for a full minute and emptied both shoes and tied them tightly. The remaining miles into Box Canyon have one longish, gradual climb and then a bunch of easy descent. It was at this point that I started getting ahead of myself and dreaming of a sub-9 finish. I was going to roll into the half way mark well ahead of 4:15, passing people and feeling strong. I kept reminding myself to just stay in the moment and execute mile by mile. That was enough of a reminder to take several walk breaks along this gentle grade. There was a little breeze along this section and I was concerned that, while it felt good, it was likely going to contribute to dehydration later. All of my sweat was drying instead of cooling me.

California Gulch (29 miles) - 4:54

Leaving Box Canyon I felt invincible. The climb along Box Canyon road was steep at first, but I power hiked hard and passed half a dozen runners. After a mile and a half, I started running way more than I was hiking. I was averaging a 10:30 pace along the longest (though not steep) climb of the day. It is very likely that I left a little too much on this section. I was once again getting ahead of myself and trying hard to keep my emotions in check and dial things back.

Before long I reappeared at the California Gulch aid station. I had forgotten about this aid station because it was not in my plans. I made several poor decisions here. The first was not properly utilizing this drop bag (the same as our mile 7 drop bag). Steve placed a handheld to carry the second half along with his pack. I should have followed his lead on that. I brought an extra one all the way to Arizona, why not have it in a drop bag?!  My vest has two 22 oz handhelds, but I can easily consume 30-40 oz of fluid per hour in hot conditions. Carrying a third handheld very likely could have saved me some discomfort and 10 - 15 minutes.

Granite Mtn (33 miles) - 5:49

The other mistake was passing on fluids. I had one hand held almost totally full and I knew the next aid station was "only" 4 miles away, a fact I confirmed by asking and aid station volunteer. It turns out that I was about to embark on a hot, steep, and technical climb along the Arizona Trail. I was out of fluids by mile 30 or 31 and struggled through this entire climb. It was close to 80 degrees on sections of the course and I was starting to wonder about the course markings. (75 or 80 degrees is not insane heat, but I am nowhere near acclimated right now. A typical training run for me in Winter is between 20 and 40 degrees). There was no runner within half a mile of me either direction and flags were every quarter mile at best (other than junction points). I tried to stay positive and just grind to the summit of the climb. It is funny how different the same section of trail looks from the other direction. I soon popped over the summit and descended down to the aid station.

Cave Canyon (40 miles) - 7:13

I mixed an energy drink with water and some more Roctane before leaving the aid station. To this point, I was doing a good job of staying on top of eating and my electrolyte pills. But the effects of the heat were beginning to settle in and I was never really able to get back in control. Leaving the aid station, I was full of fluid and food, but still moving slow as my body attempted to process it all. After a few minutes I got a good run/walk pattern going and start picking up the pace.

Before long, the sugary drinks started tasting horrible. I wanted plain water and they were not satisfying my thirst. Nonetheless, I continued to nurse them until I was out at mile 37. Thankfully, they had a freak snow storm the week before and there were piles of snow all over the course. I stopped at nearly everyone to grab a handful of snow and put some on my head and some down my back. My hydration vest trapped it so that it melted slowly against my back. Mentally I was struggling because there some runnable grade on this section that I could only power walk. I needed water badly.
Actual photo of me at mile 37

With only a quarter of a mile to the aid station, I came across a campground and begged for water. The campers explained that there was aid a short distance away, and I could hear the aid station volunteer calling for me. I managed to bum the water anyway, explaining that I had been dry for about 3 miles. And I had consumed all 22 oz of a handheld before I covered the quarter mile to the aid station. At the aid station I drank 5 or 6 more dixie cups of water and refilled both handhelds. At this point I was going water and gels the rest of the way -- the sugary drinks were making things worse.
Aid station volunteer captured this as I found the aid station

Gardner Canyon (46 miles) - 9:05

A little more than a mile after I left the aid station, I got to a junction in the road and they had hung a flag at the junction, on the left. I turned left and started going up hill in a washout gully. It seemed odd, but there were a few sections like this earlier, so I kept going. After about a third of a mile, I came across a Jeep that was stopped and it's owner hiking around. I asked the gentleman if he knew of the race and if I was off course. He said yes and that I should go back downhill. I started back downhill to the road and I came across another runner heading up the same way. I informed him that we were off course, but he disagreed.  He said that he had run this race before (twice) and that this was the right direction, "things looked familiar". We turned uphill and passed the gentleman in the Jeep, again. Soon we were out of trail and the other runner acknowledge we may be off course. Then he suggested we could just bush whack over the hill to our left in an attempt find the trail. We just stared at one another for a minute trying to decide what to do. Finally, we went back downhill and returned to the course. Sure enough, there was another flag a few hundred yards up the hill. Thirty minutes and 1.5 miles later, I was back on course. (In my opinion, the flag that I saw at the junction should have been hung on the right side of the road. Hanging it on the left was a clear indication to me to turn left.) Oh well, these things happen in trail running.

My encounter with the other lost runner wasn't all bad. He filled one of my empty handhelds from his hydration pack and convinced me to take Ibuprofen for my increasingly sore and stiff legs. I've done this before in ultras, but it is not a technique I like to rely on. After a few minutes of walking, he took off running as I struggled to mentally re-engage with what was happening. I knew any hopes of a 9:15 or even 9:30 finish were gone. There was a point where I considered just walking it in, knowing that I would easily go sub-11 and punch my WS100 lottery entry for next year. Finally, I got my act together and worked toward a run/walk pattern once again. My legs began to loosen and I was running.

After a bit, I ran into a race volunteer remarking sections of the course. I saw him a few miles down the road doing the same thing. Apparently, there were several complaints about the course markings and he was fixing some of the more confusing areas. He pointed me in the right direction and I hiked up a steep section of hill, lasting a mile and a few hundred feet. After that was a lot of gentle downhill into the final aid station. I was running consistently several miles and starting to get back in control of my race. This was some of the prettiest and most runnable single track of the day and I took advantage. I once again ran out of water about a mile short of the aid station.

Finish - Kentucky Camp - 9:55

I passed a runner coming into Gardner Canyon that I had passed before. Without hesitation, he asked if I had gone off course. He knew I was moving too good (and he was struggling, relatively) for any other explanation than me passing him twice. Or maybe he just noticed that he had never passed me? We talked briefly and I refilled with water at the aid station. I drank some flat soda and headed out. At this point I had my sights set on a new 50 mile race PR and a sub-10 hour finish. I didn't know exactly how far I had gone off course, but I suspected it was less than 2 miles, meaning I should be at the finish line before 53 miles on the Garmin. The first mile or so after the aid station was a rocky descent. I was moving alright, but tiring quickly. Then came one last multiple hundred foot climb and I was proud of my effort to climb it. Next came a long, gradual descent that lasted several miles. I saw another runner about a quarter mile ahead (in Hokas) that I had been following all day. I decided I would do my best to catch her.

As I drew closer to 52 miles, I could see the parking lot and the finish line, but I was descending into a canyon and heading away from the finish line. I began to become uncertain how far I would have left to run once I hit bottom of the trail. Instead of getting negative, I resolved to run every step until I hit 10:05 (my PR). If that came and went, I would walk it in. Fortunately I rounded the corner into Kentucky Camp with several minutes to spare and jogged in, 11 seconds behind the woman in Hokas. (Hokas and Montrail Masochist seemed to be the shoes of preference at this race.) Considering my struggles in the second half, I was surprised to learn that I finished in 20th place. The entire field was slow today due to the excessive heat, I think record heat for this race. I still preferred that over the blizzard they had the weekend before.

After finishing, I enjoyed some food and beer as I waited for Steve to finish. It was a true pleasure to watch Steve finish his first ultra. That was one of the reasons I came to this race and he did not disappoint. He gutted out 46 miles on what looks like a severely sprained right ankle. And he lived through some tough miles as he fought off bonk and dehydration. What a treat to see his enthusiam as he finished.

Yes, I was wearing a hat. It gets cold at night in the desert and I was dehydrated.

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