Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Power of Four 50k - Race Report

I was not going to do a race report because I did not really think I'd be racing this. It was supposed to be a training run. However, the more I got to thinking about it, it is a new-ish race and there isn't a ton of information available and perhaps someone could benefit from the things I learned.

A few random notes that I'd like to mention up front:

  • There is a cash prize for this event. The top 3 men and women each get some cash. Of course, this makes for a somewhat lopsided field as you get the elites that want a chance for cash with the remainder of the field being generally more of the mid-pack variety. 
  • The race is pretty darn new, 2014 being the 2nd year. I felt like the majority of things went pretty well for them and it is a solid event. But, there are a few things I will knit-pick about in this report.
  • I have to be honest and say that I wasn't quite "into" this event. It was supposed to be a training run, but of course I showed up wanting to give more effort than that. I was sort of caught in between those mindsets as I raced. Onto the report...
I never intended to run this race or any other races between North Fork 50 (my "A" race for the year) and Bear 100 in September. However, a link popped up on Facebook advertising this event and I decided a weekend in Aspen and "nearly 10k" of climbing would be a good way to prepare for Bear 100. As it turned out, July was an insanely busy month and I have been commuting to the mountains nearly every weekend and am just sort of burnt out, feeling like a weekend on the couch was a better plan! Then, we learned Friday night that I screwed up and booked the hotel room for Sunday night, not Saturday. Ugh, off to a poor start. So we had to scramble to find a room for Saturday night early Saturday morning and then head off for the 4+ hour drive to Aspen.

When we arrived in Aspen, I noticed right away that it was hot! Yeah it was only about 80 degrees, but above 8,000 feet that feels pretty warm. Plus, it is has been a cool summer and had been a cool, rainy week. We picked up my race stuff at Aspen Mountain and watched about 5 minutes of the bike race before heading to our hotel in Snowmass. One thing we did right in this adventure was get a hotel in Snowmass (the end of the race) instead of Aspen (the start of the race). We had to drive 20 or so minutes race morning, but it was nice to be two minutes from our hotel when the race ended. We spent the remainder of the day hanging out in Snowmass Village and swimming in our hotel pool. I was really dreading the race all afternoon, just not able to get my head in the game sort of thing. It is a real bummer to be such a beautiful place with your family and dreading a race the next morning. Fortunately, we had a ton of fun, even playing a few games of foosball in the village.

Race morning the alarm went off at 4:45 and I got myself together and headed to the start line...

A profile of the course elevation

Start to top of Aspen Mountain (5.2 miles)

I have been a part of a few small races, but this one was pretty darn low key! All the runners showed up at the Aspen Mountain Gondola and the race organizers provided a few words before firing off a gun and sending us straight up the heart of Aspen Mountain. The first 5 miles are a 3500 foot climb, averaging close to 13% grade. I am not a good enough runner to run much of that grade in such a long race (6+ hours). The pace was somewhat frantic to start as people jockeyed for position and those going for cash pushed themselves out front. As a result, I definitely hit the first mile too hard. Things finally calmed down a bit the second mile and I got into a 90% hike and 10% run mode and just grinded my way to the top, reaching the summit in roughly 1:21. I was actually pretty happy with that split considering it normally takes me 1:40+ to summit similar climbs (like Hope Pass from the north). At the top was a pretty simple aid station where I got some water and moved right along.

Nutrition note: My general nutrition plan this summer has been a bit of "real food", usually Hammer or Lara bars, every 30 minutes with a goal of eating an entire bar per hour. Then I supplement with some Skratch Labs (about 40 kcals per hour) until it gets hot. Once it is hot, or late in the race, I switch to pure water and gels. I executed this plan pretty much to perfection and ate 4 bars, 3 gels, and 3 packets of Skratch for a total of 1400 Kcals on the day. The one problem is that is only about 5 hours worth of food. More on that part later....

Aspen Mountain to Midnight Mine/Castle Creek Road (10.3 miles)

After summiting you go straight down, giving back nearly all that vertical in the space of five miles. It is an average of about 500 feet per mile down. The good news (for me) is that it is all jeep/service road and quite runnable. I averaged 7:30 miles all the way down without much trouble. Of course, my quads took a pounding, but I didn't feel challenged aerobically and I continued to eat and finally got somewhat into the race.

Midnight Mine/Castle Creek Road to Tiehack Parking Lot (mile 15.5?)

This is where I started to get a bit frustrated with the race: nothing big, just a few small details that make a big deal to me. First of all, at this point I knew the vertical was going to be off. It was supposed to be 3900 feet and I was not quite at 3500 feet at this point. Not a huge deal, but since I signed up to get vertical, I wanted every foot. Next, I asked the aid station volunteers where the next aid station was to be sure I carried enough fuel. There was a little confusion and they gave me some bad information. Once again, this didn't cause me any issues or alter my race, but it was just kind of annoying.

I left the intersection of Midnight Mine and Castle Creek and start heading straight up hill. This climb was tough, like backside of Hope Pass tough. One mile is over one thousand feet of vertical gain (more than 20% grade) and I was grinding to just keep moving forward. And I was sweating like crazy! The trail was a mix of actual trail and some overgrown trail made from bushwhacking. All of it was in the morning sun, making it quite humid as the day warmed up. I measured my progress by vertical gain, just wanting that number to climb higher and higher, both for the training effect and the knowledge that there would be less work to do later. I was a bit surprised when I hit the 12 mile mark and popped out on another service road. This was the end of the climb! Only 1.7 miles? Hmm. To my left was a giant jug of water just sitting by the side of the road -- a make shift aid station. The race directions say the next aid station is at mile 15.5 and I had only consumed about half of one water bottle since the last aid station, so I passed on the fluids and started downhill.

Once again the downhill is mostly jeep/service road and I was pounding my quads at sub-8:00 pace. I was well behind vertical and starting to realize that I am either going to come up short of the 9+ I was hoping for or that I have some brutal miles left somewhere. While I continued to pound down at a reasonable pace, I began to notice that every uphill is annoying and I was just generally lethargic. My nutrition was going fine, but I would likely be out of fuel by hour five. As I approached 16 miles, I was in a neighborhood and running along, sort of just searching the for the next aid station. Finally, I crossed a large bridge over Maroon Creek and hit the Tiehack Parking lot at mile 17, not 15.5. Fortunately I never ran out of water or fuel. In fact, other than water, I used only my own supplies that I carried with me all day. But, missing an aid station distance by 1.5 miles always messes with my mind. How long is the course? A true 50k? Am I going to have enough fuel and water to the next aid station?

My shoes (Altra Olympus) were brand new and a half size larger than previously purchased so my feet were sliding all around on the steep descents. At the parking lot, I took off my shoes to empty out rocks and cinched them down tight to avoid further slipping, worried I might get some of my dreaded friction blisters. As I was filling up on water and chatting with other runners and aid station volunteers, I heard another racer organizer giving instructions to the "Rec" (14 mile/22k) racers. I managed to time it perfectly so they are going off at the same time I start climbing again. Blah.

Tiehack Parking Lot to Elk Camp Restaurant (mile 23)

Leaving Tiehack there is a bit of exposed service-road climb as the trail starts heading up Buttermilk Mountain. I remembered specifically the instructions at the beginning of the race and the organizer saying that "100% of the second half of the course is single track". (This turned out to be not entirely accurate, but was still something to look forward to.) Before long we were on the Government Trail toward Snowmass. And this trail was as advertised! Lots of beautiful wild flowers, Aspen trees, and sections of technical trail. It was very much what you'd expect running in the mountains of Colorado. I sensed -- and vaguely remembered from the course website -- that this section was a smaller climb and was going to be more of the grind walk/run mix variety. The trouble was that I just didn't have a ton of desire to run the portions I could. And, unlike the previous sections, the downhill was technical single track, so I wasn't flying like earlier in the day. A few miles in I came across another unmanned aid station (a water jug) and, smartly, topped off my water bottles.

About that same time, two women from the "Rec" race passed me and they worked together with another woman I had seen earlier, who was doing the 50k course. Again, without much fight, I watched as they continued to work together and remain a hundred yards or so ahead of me. Finally, the two women doing the shorter races pulled away and the 50k runner sort of drifted back to me. (She wound up 3rd woman overall and earned some cash!) I pulled up behind and she asked if I wanted to pass, but I didn't sense that I was much stronger than her at the moment and declined. I just wanted to grind to mile 23 so I could see my family, head downhill and end this thing. I continued to stare/obsess over my Garmin watching the miles slowly tick away and hoping the vertical would start to accumulate faster.

After it became clear neither of us was in the mood to pull away, the woman (Kylie) and I started chatting. She is doing the Pikes Peak Double (Ascent and Marathon) in a few weeks and lives in Snowmass, so she figured this was a good warm-up event. As we got near the 23 mile mark on my Garmin, she asked what our distance was and I mentioned that the aid station should be coming soon. She agreed. Instead, we started subtly climbing and the miles kept ticking away. Soon we were on some service road and just kind of zig-zagging our way toward Elk Camp. We could see Elk Camp and just kept turning in all kinds of different directions on fully exposed trail, with people all around us hiking and biking. I mentioned to Kylie that this must be the highest point for the remainder of the race and she said she thought we went all the way to the top of the mountain (probably another 1K). This news disappointed me because I was spent and just want to be done. But, it also encouraged me because it is obviously the only way we are getting to 9k of vertical on the day. And, it confused me because the course directions that I read online very clearly described us running across, not up the mountain. In addition to Kylie, a gentleman at the bike shop in town had mentioned he also thought the race went all the way to the top. I didn't know what to believe. How long is this race? Will I go uphill or down? When will I actually see aid?

Finally, approaching mile 25 and I saw my family. They had taken the Gondola from Snowmass Village and were hanging out at "mid mountain" doing various activities as they waited to see me. The good news was that they were having fun. The bad news was that I was not. I was hungry, hot, and generally grumpy. I felt bad about not being more enthusiastic to see them. This had to be among the lower moments they have seen me have in an ultra. My wife had me reapply sunscreen and gave me a quick update on what they were doing while waiting for me. I headed over to the aid station and was once again disappointed. My main gripe is that they clearly advertised in the race directions that each aid station would have Redbull. And boy was I hoping to have a giant chug of Redbull at this aid station. In fact, it kept me going the last couple of miles. I just needed the calories and the jolt to snap me out of my funk. Worse, I had my own energy drink that I didn't request they bring because I figured there would be some available.

Elk Camp Restaurant to Finish (mile 31)

As I said good bye to my family, Kylie had already left and put a few hundred yard gap on me, but I didn't care at all. I was ready to just grind out the final few miles and be done. Fortunately, the race directions on the website were correct and the course starts cutting across, not up, the mountain. Similar to miles 18-22, this is mostly runnable with a mix of uphill and downhill. But, I just didn't have the energy. I was out of food and nothing at the aid station appealed to me. (They offered Cliff products which have never sat well with me.) I just trotted along and worked through my mini-bonk and kept waiting for the final descent to come. At one point, I saw a few runners behind me and I gave a little effort, ensuring I didn't get passed the final miles. And, I slogged out a few short, steep uphills. Finally, mercifully, the final descent becomes official at mile 29. I began running at a comfortably hard pace. No one was close enough for me to want to catch and no one was close enough to worry about being caught. I passed one gentleman with less than a mile to go hunched over on the side of the trail and obviously wrecked. He said he was alright and would make it to the finish, so I continued down the hill to the finish. I finished in 6:32, 20th male, 23rd overall.

One of the really cool things about the race is that it includes a voucher for a free meal (and a beer!) from the Base Camp Bar and Grill right in Snowmass. We had eaten there the night before and I was a big fan of the food. I enjoyed my beer and burger before heading back to our hotel. While I was eating, my wife checked into our second hotel, the one I accidentally booked for Sunday night. Since we paid for it, we decided to check in, use the pool, shower, nap, and wait out traffic before heading home. Honestly, it turned out pretty incredible! I managed a little PT in the hot tub before taking a 45 minute nap. We didn't leave until 6 pm and had no traffic on the way home. Plus, my kids got to spend another few hours swimming. And all kids love swimming when you are in a hotel, right?

I know I was pretty critical of the race. Some of the things I said are just born out of frustration from having a ho-hum day and not really being "into" the race. It is not entirely unusual for ultra distance events to be marginally off in mileages. That is part of the reason I wrote this report -- so others can learn from my experience and be prepared. I did get the impression that perhaps this started as a biking event and has been adapted to be a running event. Perhaps that is why there is some small confusion about the course and aid station locations? The shirts they gave away are very nice, one of the nicest of all the races I have done. And the free meal to Base Camp Bar and Grill was a great treat, not your typical end-of-race-Costco-patty-BBQ. The bartender was nice enough to sub out my Bud Light (included with the meal) for an Aspen IPA and he is now my favorite person in Snowmass.

If I had one real complaint, it is the aid stations. I know the race is only a 50k, but for us mid-pack folks on such a tough course, that is at least 6+ hours. I'd like to see some more real food at the aid stations -- fruit, PB&J maybe, something. Even if it was only offered at the mile 25 aid station, that would be an improvement. And don't ever tell me there is Redbull if you don't have it because I am a junkie for it during ultras!

In terms of training effect, I think I got what I wanted out of this. Obviously, I won't cover 9K of vert in the first 6 hours at Bear. The pace will be much more relaxed. One thing I have been noticing all summer is that I am a good climber below 11k in elevation. My splits at this race suggested as much. The good news is that Bear 100 peaks (8800 feet or so) close to my starting altitude for this weekend (8000 feet), so I expect that will help me keep it easy as well. Onto recovery so I can log a few more good weeks of training!


  1. Yay! you wrote one :)... I know I can always count on your reports for the details, so yes its selfish but I'm glad you wrote one. It sounds like they have some stuff to work through being new - but not anything that can't be remedied. I'm sorry it didn't go really well for you but it still sounds like it was a great training run even with the issues. It might help figure things out for Bear - either way I'm glad you wrote it!

    1. Sandra - yeah the race was pretty good on the whole. I just had an off day. I did decide the detail of a race report my benefit someone else. And I did investigate and find out the bike race came first. So the confusion is largely based on the fact that they courses are pretty close, but not identical.