I was really excited to participate in the race to 1) support there being an ultra in Flagstaff and 2) to ease into trying a competitive ultra event by competing on a course that I know really well, in my own town. To be honest I am a bit intimidated by the whole competing thing when I run ultra distances. I guess I care how I size up against others in a race setting a little more than I want to believe. Up until now, I have been too concerned with that and it has stopped me from "put myself out there." Seems silly to me when I look at it from the outside but it is my reality. I also have "a thing" about spending money on race fees when I can go out and run long distances on my own. But, I feel that I have been missing out on the fun social aspect of running with my fellow running community in an organized event by not running them. It's good for me to be more connected I think.
In the end, the main reason I decided to sign up because I needed to get over this silly competitive thing and just go out there and have fun with it and see where I stack up and it's in my own town for heaven sake. I mean, who really cares anyway about how I do, right? Probably know one but me. So, it was time to get out there and see what would happen.
What's the course like? It's pretty scenic and challenging. Lots of great single track trails on the Dry Lake Hills, Mount Elden and low on the San Francisco Peaks with only a bit of dirt road and a very technical and punishing 8,000+ ft. of elevation gain and probably about the same elevation loss.
So, to get to the business of the race day report, it was a luxury to wake up in my own bed and wander over to the start of the race at Buffalo Park 20 minutes before the 6 am start. I felt rested, ready and pretty excited to see what would happen.
|(Waiting in the car for the start of the race...not quite awake yet.)|
|(Ready to start.)|
So, that's what I did.
I spent the first 1/2 mile jogging and catching up with Micheal Skeer (runner from Sedona) who was also running the Flagstaff 50. When we hit the single track, out the back of Buffalo Park, I picked up the pace a bit and got in the back of the line of the front runners (a group of about 10 or 12 runners). For the first couple miles of Lower Oldham this front group of runners pulled away from the rest of the runners and then also started to segment into smaller groups. By the time I made it to Upper Oldham I was in a "loose" group of 3 or 4 people. I didn't really know how many were ahead of me. Maybe about 7 or 8 people.
The climb up Upper Oldham further separated the field and by the time I ran and fast walked my way up to the Sunset Aid Station I was by myself. I made it to the Sunset Aid Station in about an hour (5 miles) and ran into rapid fire insults from Adam Gifford of the Sedona Running Company (I was warned that this was going to happen by Adam himself before the race...). Adam was one of Sunset Aid Station volunteers. I couldn't help but laugh and gave him a big hug and thank you and was off (I didn't stop for aid here) toward the Heart Trail, feeling good and warmed up.
The run down Heart Trail on the east side of Mt. Elden was pure bliss. The morning sun rays were warming the skin, the light was dreamy, the aspens were showing off their gold leaves and the views to the eastern deserts were fantastic. A perfect morning.
|(Descending the Heart Trail. Photo: Bret Sarnquist)|
For the next many miles down Heart Trail and then up Little Elden Trail and FS Road 556 I didn't see another runner in front or behind me. I was just rolling along at the fastest pace I could manage while still holding back a bit for the end.
The next time I saw runners, I was entered the Schultz Aid Station at mile 12.8. I gave a glance behind me as I entered the aid station and there they were in the distance behind me on FS Road 556. This gave me that jolt of a reminder that I wasn't running alone out there. I was in a race with other people. My motivation to keep pushing was reinforced and I was determined to not slack and let these people pass me just because I may be coming off pace or something from running by myself.
|(Leaving Shultz Aid Station. Photo: Ian Torrence)|
Once I hit the Freidlein Prairie Road, I knew it was pretty much gradual down hill for the next chunk of miles so I tried to open it up just a bit, loosen up the legs and get a decent pace going. I didn't really crank it even though it was tempting as I knew I could make up time on sections like this but I also knew that if I went too fast my legs will blow up for the late descents and climbs. So, I just kept a good, loose pace and enjoyed the down hill running.
Although, my pace had been good up to this point and my goal was to reach the mid point of the race in about 4 1/2 hours, I was maybe just a smidgen behind pace along Freidlein Prairie Road. Even though I was a bit off pace, I still held back.
Susan had planned on meeting me at the Kachina Aid Station to cheer me on and, sure enough, she was there. She was awesome, cheering for me and and giving me a hug and kiss. It was great motivation to see her out there! Thanks honey!!
|(Running into my wife's arms for a big kiss!)|
|(Everett helping me out at the Kachina Aid Station. Thanks Everett!)|
As I ran the trail from the Kachina Aid Station to the turn around check point, I started to expect to see the leading runners coming back. To be honest, I was completely surprised to find that I got pretty close to the check point before I started seeing people. The leader was way out in front of everyone and running super smooth and then I saw only 4 more people coming back before I got to the turn around check point. Say what? I was in 6th place? Wow, how did that happen. I figured I was in 9th or 10th and was thinking that was pretty cool. This was a very pleasant surprise. I wasn't even all that far behind 5th place. Although, after I turned around at the check point and headed back, I learned that I wasn't that far a head of 7th and 8th place (they were running together and chatting, looking good). I definitely got some motivation from this. I kept my pace "not too strong" but I didn't slack either.
Just before I reached the Kachina Aid Station again I got some advice from Bret that I will remember for a long time. He told me that "they weren't that far ahead of me" and to keep pushing and I would start "reeling them in." I half way believed him at the time, thinking that he was just being nice to keep my spirits high (honestly, that's all it might have been...) but some where inside I believed that maybe I could just do that. Maybe I could start reeling some of them in.
|(Nearing Kachina Aid Station. Photo: Bret Sarnquist)|
I was still feeling good, although starting to feel like my legs had lost their pep, and prepared myself for the return back on the deceptively steep Freidlein Prairie Road. I don't get particularly psyched for running on this dirt road and maybe that had something to do with it but I definitely had a small low point along this section.
Just a hint of light cramping, worries that I was falling off pace a bit (I was moving somewhat slow along the road section and I passed the 25 mile mark, a little before, in about 4 hours 50 minutes (I was hoping for 4 1/2 hours at 25 miles)... and I got passed by the two people behind me about half way out the road.
I had heard them coming up from behind but I just couldn't get myself moving faster. I was worried that if I really pushed it to keep ahead of them I would pay dearly later and they would pass me anyway. So, I decided to just let it happen, keep my pace, take care of my cramping issue and see how it all plays out.
To my surprise, I must not have been that far behind them because I caught one of them right at the end of the Freidlein Priarie Road. The two of us pretty much ran and walked together up the steep section of trail before heading down the Weatherford Trail. He was a little a head of me as we started down the Weatherford but to my surprise he just jogged down the trail. He didn't seem interested in pushing the pace down to the Shultz Aid Station. I was somewhat perplexed by this as it seemed that he was pretty fresh but in the end I just figured that he wasn't a fast down hill runner or he was saving up for the end and being extra conservative.
I passed him and moved at a decent clip down the Weatherford, all by myself, to the Schultz Aid Station. I felt great on this section, my legs loosened up again, the slight cramping was gone, I was motivated to be on trails again and off the dirt road and it was damn beautiful out, running through picturesque alpine meadows and breathtaking aspen groves. I was psyched again.
I was now in 7th place as I entered the Schultz Aid Station (mile 31.4). I was in and out of the station really fast (that was by far the fastest aid station on the course...I felt like it was like a Nascar pit stop!) and off running down the road to the Little Gnarly Trail. I caught a glimpse of 6th place at this point and then she was gone. I still had hopes of catching her and I was feeling good so I really focused on pressing the pace through the next section along Little Gnarly, Brookbank and Sunset Trails to the Sunset Aid Station.
I never saw 6th place along this section. Near the end of Sunset, though, I caught and passed the two people that had been in front of her earlier. Both were walking slowly and looked beat when I went by and I remembered what Bret had told me about "reeling them in." I was becoming a believer and I was now in 4th place. Passing them gave me great motivation to really dig in and finish strong. I didn't want anyone to get a second wind and catch back up to me without a fight and maybe, just maybe, I could catch 3rd place. I didn't really believe it was realistic to go under 10 1/2 hours at this point let alone 10 hours so my goal had adjusted to playing catch and trying to stay under 11 hours. This was getting fun.
I also passed Dana Ernst who was nearing the finish of the Flagstaff 50K. He had just finished the climb up the Heart Trail. Nice work on your first 50K Dana!
Well, the fun lasted through the Sunset Aid Station, then a mile or so beyond, and then the real work of the race hit me in the face as I started my descent of the Elden Lookout Trail.
It was around mile 38 and a horrible time to be descending a couple thousand feet of super rocky, technical trail. Even though I felt good mentally, my legs struggled big time with this descent. The fastest I was able to move for most of it was a slow jog and fast walk. The technical big rocky steps that I usually bound through on regular runs were extremely formidable now. I was most the way down the trail before I could get in any kind of running groove and I felt like I had lost a lot of time. In fact, I was really surprised that no one had passed me.
By the time I reached the Christmas Tree Trail (that connects to the Heart Trail), I was very, very happy to be off of the Elden Lookout Trail and I was able to get a better pace going again. There were a few sections of small steep spots that I walked but, otherwise, I felt like I was able to run at a reasonable pace along this section. I still expected to have someone pass me but somehow it didn't happen and before long I was staring at the last, big, hard climb of the race. The Heart Trail.
I had been all by myself, except seeing the occasional hiker, ever since leaving the Sunset Aid Station and felt that I may not be able to catch anyone at this point but I was sure going to try to keep anyone from catching me. I was going to give the couple thousand feet ascent of the Heart Trail everything I had. It was only 5 miles of down hill on pretty good trail to the finish, after reaching the top of the Heart Trail, so I just needed to get there.
Off I went, running where I could and power hiking the rest during the lower and less steep sections of the Heart Trail. Things got slower pretty quickly though, as I got to the middle and upper parts of the Heart Trail I just ran out of gas for running and had to resort to just walking as fast as I could. I ran the few token flat spots but I would be surprised if I made up any time by doing so.
Even with my slow pace, I felt assured that there wasn't anyone close behind me. The area that the Heart Trail travels through was once the location of a huge fire on Mt. Elden thus making it very easy to see down the switchbacks behind me as I ascended.
I felt like I may have fallen off of pace a little through the top of the Heart Trail because I could see that next place runner wasn't in eye sight. I guess not too big of deal but I definitely could have made up a few minutes by moving faster here.
After I reached the top of the Heart Trail, it was big time AWESOME to get to the Sunset Aid Station for the last time and I knew that it was all down hill to Buffalo Park and the finish. I still had good energy and was psyched to get down the hill. Everyone at the Sunset Aid Station were awesome and Lindsay (also of Sedona Running Company and Adam's wife) was very kind in congratulating me on being in 4th place overall and 3rd in Men's (if I finish in my current position) and with this being my first 50 mile race. I was still kind of shocked that I was in 4th place overall and thanked her for her kind words. I felt a bit like maybe I wasn't supposed to be getting such a high place in the race but at the same time really excited at the opportunity.
As I left the aid station and started running down hill, I decided to really savor the last 5 miles. This was my first 50 mile race and it was turning out better than I could have ever hoped for.
To be honest, the last 5 miles were pretty uneventful. I felt good running at a decent pace, only needing to walk the odd short steep uphill section (yeah, there were a few short uphill sections in there still) and was all alone. It felt like the end of a long run out by myself. The race itself felt like a dream and my reality seemed to be that I was just out for a long run by myself on my local trails.
Only when I ran the last short climb up to Buffalo Park did it all come back. I had 1/2 a mile of flat gravel path to the finish line. I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion (one of my favorite moments of any ultra run). Bliss what here. I floated the last section, kissed my wife and crossed the finish line in 11 hours 6 minutes.No sooner had I finished, I was given a Men's 3rd Place Trophy (I finished 3rd Men's and 4th overall) and it was over. No more running, no more effort...just done.
|(The final stretch.)|
|(Steps away from the finish line...)|
When it was all said and done I was extremely happy with my performance. I placed high, ran my own race, managed my water and food really well and moved through aid stations quickly. I still think that I can run that course in under 10 hours and maybe someday I will have the opportunity to prove that to myself. We will see.
As far as the overall difficulty goes, I did hear a lot of chatter after the race that this was as hard or harder than Zane Grey but I wouldn't know about that. I've never run it, although I'm thinking that someday I should run it by, either, signing up for the race or running it on my own.
That does make me feel a little better about my time, though, as I feel that my time was slow for what I expect after doing things like R2R2R and Trans Zion to compare. I guess that Flagstaff has some rugged running after all. Nice course Aravaipa Running...make us work for it!
Big Thanks to Aravaipa Running for putting on the event! You guys are rad!! Also, thanks to all the folks that manned the aid stations and marked the course and thanks to my wife for coming out and supporting me and for even letting me do this stuff at all. Thanks all.