Running Out of Bounds
A first ultra-marathon: 54 miles, 14,675 feet, one ugly bruise
I fell in love with trail running last year. After running a couple endurance trail races – Imogene Pass and the Mt. Werner Classic – I decided I wanted to run ultras. The problem was I didn’t know if I had the toughness. I’m a miler by birth and most ultra-runners have calves bigger than my quads.
In the past I haven’t handled adverse conditions well and heat has made me fold like a wet Kleenex. As a test of my readiness, I ran a 50k last fall. It wasn’t a great test. It took me less than 5 hours and was more like a marathon than a true ultra.
I decided this spring I would engage in a true test of my abilities by running a 50-mile race. I chose the Pocatello 50 – one of the most difficult 50-mile races in the country. Why choose such a difficult race for my debut? I wanted a result without an asterisk next to it. If I could finish that race, there would be no doubt in my mind I could run ultras.
My friend Greg and I arrived at the campground at around noon the day before the race. We were soon joined by a few other Grand Valley runners, Kevin and Shannon Koch, and John and Julia Constan and their son A.J. Kevin would be running the 50k race, Shannon and Greg would be running the 20-mile race, and John and I would be running the 50-mile race. It was nice to have such a strong contingent of experienced racers around me. The advice they gave me was critical to my success, and not wanting to quit in front of them made it more likely that I would put forth my best effort.
The race began at 6 a.m. Saturday under a double rainbow. The first several miles were uneventful. I was running conservatively on the flats and mostly walking the climbs. My goal was simply to finish – not place high. At the 8-mile mark I was cruising along, enjoying the stunning beauty of the trails and thinking about what a great day I was having, when suddenly – BAM! I fell hard. The force of the fall was absorbed by my shoulder and hip. The ugliest bruise I’ve ever seen developed on my hip and I would be unable to raise my right arm above my shoulder for the next week.
At mile 10, the race went off-trail and we were required to bushwhack 1.3 miles up a mountain known as the “stairmaster.” It was steeper than the steepest climbs I encountered in the Imogene Pass race last year. I made my way up the mountain, laughing at the absurdity of running a 40-minute mile in a race, but finally made it over the top, wobbly-legged and exhausted. No problem, only 40-plus miles to go!
At mile 16, the sun came out from behind the clouds and I found myself running through a sauna as I descended into the City Creek aid station to get my bottles filled. They took one look at my muddy shirt and scraped up face, shook their heads and pointed the way to the second big loop of the race.
I continued on along the City Creek trail as the day got hotter. The first few miles of this trail ran through a lush, humid tube of dense vegetation. Upon exiting this tube we were greeted with another “stairmaster” climb. This one contained a short section so steep that I had to lie on my belly and pull myself along using roots and bushes (note to race directors: a rope would be nice here). I finally made it to the summit of the climb and realized I had a big problem – I was running out of water and still had about five miles to the next aid station.
When planning for the race, I decided to leave my 72-ounce hydration pack behind and carry two 20-ounce bottles in a waist pack. The 40 ounces of water simply wasn’t enough to make it between aid stations on this hot and humid day. I struggled my way into the Midnight aid station at mile 26, and sat in a chair to re-hydrate for 10 minutes. I should have taken more time. I was once again dehydrated and almost out of water only a few miles beyond Midnight, and I still had 5 miles to go to the next aid station.
The dehydration was causing my legs to cramp up and I was unable to run at a decent pace in this section, which is normally the fastest of the race. My only consolation was the trails here were stunningly beautiful. Multi-colored butterflies bubbled up from the ground as I ran along (I know they were not hallucinations because others commented on them after the race.) It was along this trail, at about mile 29 I began to feel I was not going to succeed. I simply didn’t have the legs to complete the third and final loop – a 20-plus-mile section with more than 6,000 feet of climbing, which summits Scout Mountain halfway through.
I was determined to finish this race at any cost so I decided not to drop out right away when I got to the Mink Creek aid station at mile 33. I would sit in a chair, rehydrate, and hope for a miracle. Mink looked like an Emergency Room triage when I got there. Runners were vomiting, crying, and experiencing all sorts of carnage from the heat and climbs. Most of them would drop out. By contrast, I was in pretty good shape.
The volunteer staff at the Mink Creek aid station was the best of the best. They had a doctor, a massage therapist, and a group of experienced racers who were determined to do anything possible to help runners finish the race. I sat in a chair for 20 minutes, chugging ice water and listening to their pep talks, then stood to see if I had my miracle. I did – my legs felt much better and I thanked the volunteers and headed up the hot trail towards Scout Mountain.
This third loop was difficult, but mostly uneventful. It was extremely hot until I reached the Scout aid station at mile 38. I re-hydrated there for another 20 minutes, but by then the cool of the evening had arrived to put an end to my dehydration issues for the duration of the race. After a long climb to the summit, followed by a tricky technical descent, I reached the Big Fir aid station only 5 miles from the finish. After a quick fill of a bottle and a couple quesadilla slices, I put on my headlamp and proceeded toward the finish through some of the densest trails on the course. Running alone on these trails, with a headlamp, under a full moon, was surreal. I didn’t know it at the time, but another runner had stared down a mountain lion here only a couple hours earlier.
After 16 hours, 38 minutes, and 22 seconds of running, I crossed the finish to a cheering crowd of friends, runners and Pocatello residents (this race is very well supported).
In terms of “place” it was my worst race performance ever, but I consider it my best. I am so happy to have accomplished this finish. I learned a lot, including the most important lesson of all, which is I can run ultras.
Final statistics. My GPS device logged 54 miles with 14,675 feet of ascent and 14,704 feet of descent. Greg finished seventh overall in the 20-mile race, winning his age group. Shannon was second in her age group in the 20-mile race. Kevin led the 50k for about half the race, but had his day cut short by an ankle injury on Scout Mountain. John finished the 50-mile race in 13–1/2 hours – more than 3 hours before I did. Although he found it hard, it was simply a warm-up for the Hard Rock 100, which he will run in July.
- July 7 – Vail Hill Climb 7.5 Mile. Vail, CO. www.vailrec.com
- July 13 – Hardrock 100. Silverton, CO. 259–3693
- July 14 – Hogback Hustle 5k. New Castle, CO. www.newcastlecolorado.org/recreation
- July 14 – Run for the Cure 5k. Aspen, CO. www.komenaspen.org
- July 15 – Crag Crest Trail 10.5 Mile. Island Lake trailhead on Grand Mesa (CO). 241–6478
- July 21 – Colorado Springs Classic 10k. Colorado Springs, CO. www.csgrandprix.com
- July 21 – Kendall Mountain Run 14 Mile. Silverton, CO. 387–5522
- July 24 – Deseret News Marathon & 10k. Salt Lake City, UT. www.deseretnews.com/media/run/
- July 28 – Monument Downhill 5k. Grand Junction, CO. www.monumentdownhill.com
- July 28 – Grand Mesa Runs, 37, 50, 100 Mile. Grand Mesa (CO). www.grandmesa100.com