Had I actually stuck to that plan, I probably would have been fine, but in the back of my mind I was still thinking that I could squeak my way under the notorious 6-hour barrier. As it turns out, had a certain toe-rock encounter not occurred, I may well have been able to do just that.
Race morning: I woke at 3:30AM, having gotten a good 51/2 hours of sleep the night before. Knowing that I couldn’t truly compete in this race, I had very few nerves the night before, and so got a much more restful sleep than I often do the night before a race. After a quick breakfast of toast and chocolate peanut butter, as well as a cup of coffee, I left the house at 4AM to meet my carpool at 4:20.
The car consisted of 4 other more experienced ultra runners and me. Despite my relative lack of experience, it was determined that I would likely have the fastest finishing time (by a good bit) and so I got the dubious honor of carrying the car key. This seemingly trivial issue would show up later, so a small amount of annoyance.
We arrived at the race start right on schedule: 5:15 AM for the 6AM start, leaving plenty of time to check in and wander before lining up at the start. I ran into a rather impressive number of friends at the start, and chatted away the minutes before the (delayed) race start. The whole time I repeated to myself that I would not, this time, go out too quickly.
This race fell into two distinct pieces for me, so disparate that they seemed different races.
The first race began at the start line.
There was no gun for this race, just a high-school student singing the national anthem, followed by a classic “Ready, set, go!”
For seemingly the first time in my racing career, I managed to not take it out too quickly. I ran by myself for a few hundred yards before actually stopping and waiting for my friend Matt to catch up. We would run the first 16 miles of the race together, making it feel more like one of our semi-regular weekend long runs than a goal race. Other friends would drop in and out of the group over the course of the race, but Matt and I kept together for a long time.
Again, with the idea of taking it easy for a while, we went out slow. For the first mile or so we were often passed by people charging out of the gate, but almost without fail, we caught them in the next 15 miles.
So began a long period of steadily passing runner after runner as we chattered on. The stretch to the first aid station passes up a creek bed, crossing the creek itself seven times as the trail winds its way up 1000 feet.
We passed the first aid station, at 5 miles, in 52 minutes, right on or a bit ahead of 6-hour pace. I knew it was seven more miles or so to the second aid station, and thought that if we hit it around two hours we’d be doing well. Shortly after the first aid station, Matt took a pit stop, and I slowed to wait for him while I took the opportunity to adjust my pack, move some gels and chews to the front straps of my SJ Ultra Vest, and take off the gloves I had been wearing. I felt that whatever little time I might lose this way was well worth the mental boost of running with a friend.
Still with Matt, we ran and talked steadily through the next climb and the descent into the next aid station, Matt gaining a small amount of ground on a long rutted descent that I easily made up for during the aid station. On our way out, knowing we were in for a long day, we briefly discussed the meaning of life (which I summarized as “find a mate, reproduce, die”) before devolving into crude jokes.
After aid two came both my favorite and least favorite part of the course. The 5 miles separating aids two and three are punctuated by a massive, steep climb that we hiked (passing yet more runners), which culminated in a rocky scrambling section, where we had to keep a little more watch for the trail markers.
As in any loop course, the ascent was quickly followed by a long, rocky, technical descent, and this is where I got into trouble. For the most part, I was hitting the footing well, but for whatever reason, I had trouble with my right toe tagging rock after rock on the descent. I had debated wearing these particular shoes (my Altra Lone Peaks) for this very reason. They are long and beefy, with wide toes. This makes them very comfortable over long distances, but I also find them very clumsy over technical terrain.
Eventually, around mile 16, this fact caught up to me: I tagged my right toe hard on a rock, and hit the dirt. By this point, Matt and I had formed a group with another Matt, and I told them both to go on rather than wait up for me. I picked myself up, dusted off, and gave myself a moment to shake off the fall, which had shattered my mental state.
My second race began here, and was a learning experience.
A few hundred yards after I fell, I stopped again to tie my shoe, and realized that my mental focus was gone. The next 12 or so miles were as difficult as any miles I’ve ever run from a mental perspective. We had figured that, in order to realistically make it under 6 hours, we should hit the third aid station at around 3 hours. My fall and subsequent mental lapse denied me that goal.
As it turned out, I made the turn off for aid station three in just a tiny bit over 3 hours, still on a good track to make my goal, but here I made a tactical error. The third aid station was not actually on the course: it was almost 200 yards downhill from the actual course. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have realized that I had a good amount of water (two bottles that were each just over half full) and more than enough calories to more than make it to the next aid station, just under seven miles away.
Despite this, not trusting myself, I turned down the hill, off the course, and headed down to the aid station.
I had a second chance to change my mind: I ran into Matt on the path to aid station three, and I think that, had I turned around and run with him instead, I could have made a good crack at 6 hours. But again I decided to keep going down to the aid station.
I think it was primarily these two mistakes that cost me my time goal.
However, this brief segue down to the aid station did give me the opportunity to run once again with my friend Justin, who is a far more experienced Ultra runner than I am. He opted to skip the aid station and just keep running, and I ran into him on my way back up the hill.
I quickly left Justin behind though, and entered the most difficult part of the race for me mentally. Over the next 8-10 miles I was passed by a large number of people. Some I traded places back and forth with a few times. I almost universally spent less time at aid stations than the others, choosing to rely mostly on the fuel and salt tabs I had brought for myself rather than that available at the stations. The only aid I took other than water was one slice of watermelon, one quarter of a PB&J sandwich, and one Hammer Gel. The fuel I had (Vfuel and Honey Stinger Chews) sat well in my stomach and seemed to be doing the job, so I didn’t feel the need for anything else.
There was a very long, steady climb out of the mile 17 aid station. I power hiked much of it, though it was not that steep, but I kept up a running cadence whenever the slope got shallower. By this point, those runners who had started out yet more conservatively than I had, and probably had more experience at this race distance than me, started passing me. I was still in a mental funk, and rather than latch onto one and ride in their wake for a while I let them go.
Ultra-runners are almost universally encouraging to others in the race. Those who passed me encouraged me to keep going, while dealing a minor mental blow with their passing.
At the top of the climb, we hit a fire road that snaked across the top of the hill, and inevitably dropped precipitously into yet another valley. I passed mile marker 20 and almost precisely 4 hours, and thought that, with a good ascent of Windy Peak I might still be able to reach my 6-hour goal.
It was at 4 hours, finally, that I instituted my run-walk plan. I would run for approximately 9 minutes, unless the slope was too steep, and then take a 1-minute walking break, unless I was cruising a downhill. This made an immediate difference, allowing me to recover somewhat on the go, and I noticed that my running sections were getting considerably faster.
I cruised through aid #4, passing several people who had passed me over the previous 5 miles and continued down the trail with my run/walk tactic working wonders. I was beginning to feel again that I might just be able to make my goal.
Then Windy Peak kicked my ass.
I hit the turnoff for the Windy Peak climb, and found myself unexpectedly descending a rather precipitous slope. This jogged my legs a bit, but also meant that, after the climb up the peak, we’d have to come back and climb that again.
Then the climb started and every other thought went out the window.
The Windy Peak climb was not what I had expected. From the course description and the elevation profile, I thought it would be steeper: more hands-on-knees climbing and scrambling and less gentle-but-steady slope. I think I could have handled the former just fine, and it might have given me a mental boost with the more engaging terrain, but the latter ground me up and spit me out.
But I made it. Somewhat despairing by the top, I took a second to take in the view around me. I let the race marshal mark my bib, and took off, deciding that nobody would pass me from there to the finish
Nobody did. I headed down the slope at a good, but not crazy, pace. Most of the Windy Peak section was a loop, but there was a short out-and-back to the peak itself. When I hit the end of the route back, I knew from the volunteer there that it was 3.5 miles to the finish. My watch said 5:40.
On my best day, I might be able to pull that off. If I were rested. And if the course were relatively flat. I knew that this day, that was not in the cards.
Realizing this, a weight slipped off my shoulders, and I decided to cruise in. I still didn’t want anybody to catch me during the rest of my race, but I no longer felt any pressure to finish in any certain time. It made me wonder if, had I not had that goal to begin with, I might have been better equipped to achieve it.
I hit the last aid station and the volunteers there told me it was only 1.5 miles to go. This sounded wrong, as we were at mile 28.5, and it was a 50k. My guess is that the name “Dirty 30” confused them into thinking it was actually a 30-mile race, rather than its true 31-mile distance. So I ignored them and just pressed on.
The short, sharp incline back to the turnoff for Windy Peak was not as difficult as I had imagined. Partly that was because, having missed my time goal, I was no longer interested in pushing as hard.
The last mile and a half was a simple cruise into the finish. My legs, somewhat surprisingly, were feeling better than they had in 15 miles, and I knew that I would finish the race. I also started thinking that I might recover faster after the race because of my slower pace.
I cruised into the finish as the clock hit 6:16. Not a bad time for this course. My girlfriend was waiting for me at the finish line, a nice surprise, as she was unsure the night before whether or not to come. I was not about to ask her to come up for the start and wait around 6 hours with nothing to do while I ran.
Even out of it as I undeniably was after the race, I managed to learn that a friend of mine from work had finished almost an hour ahead of me, and was the first female. She ran the second fastest time ever on the course for women, and it is safe to say she had a great Ultra debut!
Matt had come in at about 5:52, to make his goal of breaking 6 hours. Justin came in 6 minutes behind me for a solid time.
The next two hours was a bit of a comedy of errors. Sometimes I want to hang around after a race to watch and cheer the other runners on. This particular day I had little desire to do so, and so embarked on a quest to find the other members of my carpool. With this goal in mind, I wandered from parking lot, to finish line, to food area several times in search of members of my carpool, without success.
Finally, around 2:00, I gave up, and tucked the key under the windshield wiper of the van I’d come to the race in, trusting that the others would end up there eventually. Naturally, as soon as I had done this and hobbled back down to the finish line, the driver ran through the finish chute. I explained to him where the key was, reversed the car back down the single lane road from the finish area, and drove back to Westminster and a much-needed shower.
Suffice to say my first Ultra was a learning experience. I did many things right. I did many things wrong. But I am proud to say that I never once thought about quitting the race.
Things done right:
I carried two water bottles: This let me easily refill one or the other at each aid station, and still have some backup water without overburdening myself.
I followed a steady fuel plan: every 35 minutes on the dot, I fueled up. I alternated between chews and gels, which seemed to agree with me. I supplemented this with a tiny bit of food from two aid stations (watermelon and PB&J). When my stomach grumbled during the second half of the race, I chowed down on some dried mango, which always seems to sit well. Every hour, I took a salt tab. This sat in my stomach better than any electrolyte drink has ever done.
I (eventually) stuck to my run/walk plan. This seemed to give my legs a chance to recover on the run.
I never gave up. As I said before, the thought of dropping out of the race never even crossed my mind. It simply wasn’t an option.
Things done wrong:
Training. Simply put, I did not run long enough in my training. With at least one 25 mile run, I probably would have been better prepared.
I did not implement my run/walk plan soon enough. I should have done this as soon as I fell. I think it would have given me the chance to recover mentally from my fall more quickly, leading to a faster second half of the race.
I hit every aid station. This is particular to this race. With the placement of aid station 3, I should have assessed the situation, realized I had enough water and fuel to make it to the next station without stopping, and headed on up the trail.
Hopefully, this report didn’t sound too negative. (See my Pikes Peak report). I am by nature hard on myself, and am very good at pointing out my own flaws. But I really valued this race as a learning experience. I am not sure when I will run another Ultra, but I will know more going into it and be better prepared.
As Kilian Jornet has said (paraphrasing here): “I don’t want to run a perfect race. If you run a perfect race, you don’t learn anything.”