I’m always amazed at the number of people who sign up for this race considering the weather is normally less than ideal. There were a little over 500 starters this year for both races and chances are the slots available for the 2020 race are already filled by the time you read this. Don’t lose complete hope though if you’re not one of the lucky 600 as Carl the RD is very loose with the bib transfers and there are likely plenty of people who won’t be able to run it a year from now.
My wife and I rolled into the lot 75 minutes before the 9am start. This gave us plenty of time to pick up our bibs and swag which included a pint glass, buff, and can cozy. We then hung out in the heated activity hall until it was time to start the race.
The start was a little less organized than prior years. Carl typically leads the parade of fools (phools?) out the back doors and around this little track to the starting line. This year it was every man for himself as people streamed out all of the doors simultaneously and then squeezed through these outdoor benches to the starting corral. I ended up about where I wanted since I was among the first out, but others may not have been so lucky.
Standing there waiting for the start, I realized I was pretty comfortable. The weather forecast was for mid-30s (i.e. perfect January running temps), however there was a chance of rain/sleet/snow in the afternoon. I opted to wear my rain jacket as an extra layer as insurance against nasty weather later in the day. It took all of 2 miles to become too hot so off it came and around my waist it went for the next 29 miles.
With 500+ starters, the beginning can be a little chaotic. Thankfully the course starts on roads/double track trails for the first mile plus. This lets the field thin out a bit before entering the single track trails. Don’t get me wrong. You’re still running in modest sized packs for the first 4-5 miles, however you’ve all settled into about the same pace by this point so it’s no big deal to play follow the leader.
Due to trail conditions (2018 race) and sunken bridge issues (2019 race), the course has been different in each of the last three years. This year’s race was closer to the 2016/2017 vintages in mileage (30.34 miles per my Garmin vs. 31.2 miles) and quite a bit less than last year’s 32.7 miles. What it lacked in distance though it definitely made up in climbing with slightly over 4k feet of vertical gain compared to 3400 feet last year and 3600 feet in years prior. The single track trails were much slower than prior years due to snow coverage in the morning and mud coverage throughout the afternoon. It made things a bit more challenging, but no less fun.
Speaking of challenging. I thought it was going to be “one of those days” when my calves got exceptionally tight about 3 miles in. I don’t typically have this issue when I’m running (more of a hamstring guy), however they were borderline locking up on me everytime the trail started going up. I tried to take it a bit easier, however it didn’t seem to help much. It wasn’t until I grabbed a gel at the first aid station that my muscles worked themselves out. Whew. Crisis averted.
My nutrition during the race was pretty simple: gels, swedish fish, Mountain Dew, and an Ensure Plus shake. I chugged the latter at mile 10 and it took me a couple miles to process all those calories. I know not to do that, but I was rolling into the last aid station and didn’t want to carry the empty container any further. At some point, I’m going to learn not to do that. Eventually. A gel every three miles from 14 onwards worked like a charm and kept my energy levels very even.
I started checking my total elapsed time towards the end of the first loop. I told my wife to expect me at plus or minus 6 hours, however it looked like I was running a bit behind this schedule. I was feeling good though and really enjoying the run so wasn’t too worried about being “late”. At this point in my ultra career, I would rather have an enjoyable 6+ hour run than kill myself to shave 30 minutes off my time. I rolled across the timing mat with 3 hours 11 minutes showing on the clock.
There’s a small aid station set up outside the activity hall for the 50k runners. After a brief stop to top up my Mountain Dew, I was off for the second loop. There were only 2 other runners within sight as I headed out. One a couple hundred yards ahead of me and another about the same distance behind me. Typically about 80% of the runners stop at 25K so the second loop is rather lonely.
I was running very strong for me and started (slowly) picking off other runners as I made my way around the loop. I was passing a runner about every mile and ended up passing 11 in total. As I hit the final road section, I saw 2 more runners ahead of me, however they were running strong like ox and I was never able to close the gap. I finished the second loop in 3 hours 14 minutes or only 3 minutes slower than my first lap. It was probably the most evenly paced ultra I’ve ever done. I felt awesome the entire time and never really had any low moments.
I hung out in the activity hall for a while after finishing up. There’s always a great spread of food available and plenty of beer. They even had margaritas available this year, much to my wife’s surprise (and pleasure!). This race has developed a cult like following over the years. I’m not sure whether it’s due to the time of year (not a lot of mid-January races), well marked course, Carl’s humorous emails, swag (including large medals for all finishers), topnotch volunteers, or all of the above.
Or maybe it’s just the signs.
The Signs of Phunt