Do you know the runners who plan out every detail of their races, from how many liters of fluid they will consume per hour to the grams of goop and calories that should be ingested per mile, to exactly what time they plan to arrive at each aid station? I’ve read countless reports from other runners (Many are my friends! Bless their detail-oriented hearts!), often with a tale of how they expected an aid station to appear at x mile but then it didn’t. Or suddenly their stomach didn’t like the plan of a Gu every 25 minutes and new plans had to be made. Rather than deal with that type of upheaval to race plans, I rarely make one! At most I try to guesstimate how many hours I’ll be out on the trails during an event. Then I’ll carry in my pack an over-supply of Gu, Honey Stinger Chews and Clif Shot Bloks, plus an extra 2-3 for good measure, just in case I’m not interested in whatever an aid station might be offering me. And so that I can let my husband know an hour of the day to be waiting around at the finish line for me.
PREP- as much as I do 😉
So the night before my last ultramarathon of 2017, the Sage Burner 50k in Gunnison, CO, I filled my UD pack w/a 2L reservoir of water, a half-dozen honey stinger chew packages, 2 packages of Clif Shot Bloks, and 2 Gus. All that is more than enough fuel to last me for 7+ hours, but I was hoping/expecting the race to take me less than 6 hours. I figured I’d never be more than 90 mins between aid stations, so I’d have no problem refilling my water if needed, or grabbing some emergency banana or Oreo rations. I hadn’t run the prior versions of this race in Hartman Rocks before, but I’d previously experienced the course on my mountain bike (or more accurately, pushing and carrying my mountain bike, uh and maybe sometimes dropping it down some boulders so I could safely climb down without it….). Ever since I found out that Mad Moose Events had taken over the reins of the event to keep it from disappearing, and were changing the race date from the very busy month of May to the more relaxed fall, I was looking forward to conquering the Hartman Rock trails without my bike! It certainly looked to be one of the easier 50ks (read: less total elevation gain!) for me in 2017. But my training schedule since the Crested Butte Ultra 55k 7 weeks prior was filled with lots of cycling, including the super random fun of cyclocross racing, and a few social run-hikes with friends. And while the total climbing for the Sage Burner was going to be under 5,000 feet, I knew that a lot of the climbing was in those small steep pitches that take a lot out of me because I can’t just do my typical ultra-shuffle comfortably on that angle of climb. But honestly my biggest concern in the 24 hours (and even up until ~5mins) before the race start was what to wear! I don’t mind running in freezing temps through the winter, but it’d been many months since I’d run in temps in the 20s. I admittedly remembered how quickly I warm up once I start moving… But standing at the start line, surrounded by 30k and 50k racers in everything from puffy coats to t-shirts and shorts, I refused to take off my fuzzy warm jacket! I accepted I’d either have to tie my jacket around my waist or trust that it would make it from an aid station back to the finish line.
THE MAIN EVENT
It was 25 degrees and cloudless at the 8am 50k start, and the racers started snaking up a gradual singletrack climb. Those first few miles alternated between the sweltering sun and the chilling shadows of the rocks, so I didn’t fully regret my warm jacket just yet. I was happy to have fallen in behind a guy with a steady climbing pace to keep me from taking it too too easy, but he heard my footsteps closing in on each of the short descents so he stepped aside for me to pass. Less than 30 seconds later, I heard a loud thump. I stopped and turned to see the finish of a well-executed Superman-style faceplant! The surrounding runners stood there for a few seconds to make sure he was alright, and he was quickly up and moving again. But I was scared that that could be me next, so I was a little more careful in the shadowy rocky descents for awhile. Another “longer” climb (i.e., I couldn’t see the top, but knew that all the climbs should be less than 10 to 15 minutes max) looked to be ahead, and it seemed like a few people had been catching up to me, so I stepped aside to let them lead me up the hill. They quickly pulled ahead and I started considering how I felt- nothing hurt, I felt rested enough heading in to this race since my total run volume has been relatively low this fall, but I just didn’t feel very “spritely.” I wasn’t holding back at all on the climbs like I might normally do when I’m feeling full of energy at the start of a race. I tried to tell myself that I was still just cold from the frigid temps at the start, and my pack was still pretty filled/heavy, so this might feel easier later in the day when my water was depleted. Or even more likely, my legs would feel pretty much the same/ move at near the same pace at mile 1 as at mile 20, and that would help me to feel good about things later!
Thankfully that climb ended quickly enough and a sweeping descent let me open my legs back up and re-pass those strong climbers for the moment. Since the race numbers were pretty small, less than 100 total starting in the 50k+30k combined, I was happy to have some fellow racers to trade places with on the various terrains of the course that were keeping things interesting- smooth to rocky to boulder-filled singletrack to wide fireroads where you could easily run side by side and chat with fellow racers. Plenty of huge rock formations were around every corner, providing some captivating distractions when I didn’t have to stare at the ground. After ducking behind a tree for a quick midrace break, I encountered another racer who was happy to chat for a few minutes. She said she felt quite alone out there and I concurred- once the 50k and 30k courses split, we saw no other racers out on these twisty trails! We chatted a bit and traded spots at times for the next part of the race, me expressing my jealousy of her home in Crested Butte! (I do love Colorado Springs, but I would love it even more if I could also cross-country ski out my doorstep in the winter!) . Sometimes she’d pull what seemed ‘far’ ahead, and sometimes I thought I had totally dropped her, but then at the next aid station, we’d be together again, drinking all the Heed and grabbing some snacks from the most friendly helpful volunteers, still in their puffy jackets. I loved having someone so friendly to push me as well as to chat with at times. We were given updates at a few aid stations about there only being one girl ahead of us, but I knew that my legs didn’t have it in them to move any faster, and fully admitted that to my new friend Dana. She agreed that this was a great pace, and we were pretty content to be in the second and third spots.
We ran down a wide doubletrack together to start a short lollipop section where we would see the top five racers- those guys were moving impressively fast and were still quite close together! As we turned on to the singletrack portion I had a flashback from the Growler of pushing my bike over the many boulders I lacked the technical skill to ride. I thought, wow this is SOOOO much better to run! Dana wasn’t feeling great at this point, but when we got back to the aid station, she was good to go again. Soon after a very short section on a paved road, I started a climb up a steep dirt road with switchbacks. It was another familiar section buried deep from the Growler, and I found myself feeling much better about things since I wasn’t PUSHING A FREAKING MOUNTAIN BIKE up the hill!
NOT YET THE FINISH
As much as I was enjoying myself out there, the one negative to being on my feet rather than a bike was that every single cattle gate gave me some long fearful moments- I had images in my head of a foot getting stuck and tripping face first on to the metal rods. So reaching one after more than 4 hours on my feet became a stressful situation- I focused really hard on the left hand side of the gate and was preparing to be grabbing on to the side metal triangles for my very gingerly walk across it. I crossed safely and continued running down the dirt road, but started worrying that I’d missed something when I didn’t see any flagging so typical in Mad Moose Events. I thought I saw flagging way up ahead so I ran to that as I kept looking behind me for Dana. Unfortunately, I’d come upon a different portion of the course, and at that point heard Dana’s screams to try to turn me around- I was so intent on the ‘danger’ of every cattle guard that I ran by the right hand turn that was just BEFORE the cattle guard! I felt so silly- the Rickses mark these courses so carefully, so I knew for me to miss it that I must have been totally distracted. As I got back to the turn I missed, I couldn’t believe there was even a sign saying ‘WRONG WAY’ just after the turn- but I missed the bright yellow sign b/c I was on the OTHER side of the cattle guard from the sign. It was a good reminder to stop focusing on such silly things! I was annoyed with myself for the next mile or so and possibly picked up the pace too much- I thought that I might sneak in under 5 ½ hours, but the extra mile or so certainly made that less likely. Thankfully we arrived back at the same aid station again soon after- the volunteers were shocked and laughed with me when I explained how I missed the turn AND the sign, and it helped me move past the mistake and just focus on finishing the last 4 miles, however long it might take!
Those last 4 miles were of course hillier than I remembered in the elevation chart (isn’t it always?!), and my asthma inhaler wasn’t fully magical anymore since there was really just too much sagebrush allergens coating my lungs (of course, I had just found out a few months prior that sagebrush is one of the things in this world that I’m MOST allergic to!) . So I just accepted that this finish would be over 5 ½ hours and would involve a lot more walking up the short hills than I’d expected. Finally I got to the last huge boulder section climb – again remembering nearly hyperventilating pushing my bike up and over it years ago – and was so excited to finally get to peek over the top and see the parking lot finish line. My legs weren’t really fully spent, but my breathing was so labored that I felt a little out of it. I could only manage a moderate run down the hill to the finish line instead of my usual excited ‘sprint with whatever energy I have left’ at the end of a race. Overall I managed to pull off 2nd place woman and under 6 hrs, and rewarded myself with a bunch of crepes in town 😀 . I’ve got a sweet tooth that the Mad Moose enchiladas just doesn’t fulfill 😉 but my friends will vouch for the enchilada awesomeness! Thanks again to Mad Moose for putting on such a well-organized trail race and gathering so many aid station volunteers that I’d love to hang out with, if not for also wanting to finish the race!