This is a horribly written race report, created through sleep deprivation flying to China on the day after the race. I would spend more time editing it, but the massive Grand Canyon trip report is looming.
As Jade drive on highway 107 toward Cherry Hill Campground where the race’s start/finish will be tomorrow, I stare at terrain on both side of the road. On one side a cliff rises away toward the sky, on the other side it drops off into oblivion. Hmm….are the trails going to be on this kind of terrain? What heck am I getting myself into?
A nice thing about a small race like this is that we setup camp about 100 yards from the race director Terri’s camp site, which happens to be the start/finish as well. We have a nice chat with Terri, and she’s truly inspiring. I wish everyone who says they’re too old to do (insert whatever) should talk to this lady. She moves with the agility of a 40’s old fit person, yet she’s closer to 70 than 60. Wow, maybe there is something to ultras. If over 250 ultras can do this to her, well, there maybe something to it after all.
We meet a few other runners. Sean is the winner from last year, for his very first ultra, at just over 5 hours. I can’t fathom running a flat road 50K in 5 hours. John flew all the way from Minnesota for this race and is a seasoned ultra runner. Thomas and his wife Holly came all the way from Texas. Ultra runners seem to be very friendly.
We get up in the darkness on Sunday and prepare for the race. Jade cooks me a yummy oatmeal breakfast with raisons, nuts and bananas, and a cup of steamy coffee. I put the final bit of supplies in my Nathan backpack and heads to the start line. Terri’s prerace briefing about the race course is a whirlwind of trail names and blaze colors and where not to go. There are some bewildered looks on some runner’s faces. Getting lost on this race is not just a possibility, it almost a certainty. About 50 or 60 runners toes the line, well, the start line is anywhere in front of site 11, ready to go.
7:07am: Jade snaps some pictures of me, all sort of nervous, at the start. Terri gives us a countdown and off we go.
The course takes us from the campground onto a connector trail. After about 0.2 miles we come to a junction, and a volunteer is yelling at us to make sure on the way back we take the turn rather than head back to the campground. From the junction we hop on Winding Stairs Trail for 3.5 miles to a turn around when the trail hit a gravel road. The 3.5 miles is completely downhill and I think we lose around 1200ft of elevation by the time we hit the turn around. At the start of Winding Stairs Trail, the front 20 to 25 runners disappear and I find myself leading a mini pack of 7 to 8 runners. I figured coming back up this section will be all up hills, so I better get in some running here while the terrain is still friendly. Thomas, whom I met last night, is right on my heels through the first 3.5 miles and he got to stare at my very colorful dirty girl gaiters the whole time. There are a few side trails leading to waterfalls but I resist the temptation to check out the view. The pack behind me was all very chatty and soon I realized I was leading a group of very experienced ultra runners who were discussing plans for Hardrock, a notoriously difficult 100 mile race in Colorado that’s more mountaineering than running. What heck am I doing running in front of these guys? This little 50K must be like a short easy training run for them.
Long before the turn around at mile 3.5, I see Sean leading the front pack sprinting up the hill. Holy cow! He wasn’t even breathing hard.
7:43am: Finally at the gravel turn around, I let the pack that I was leading take off while I take a sip of drink and start thinking about the 3.5 miles of continuous climb in front of me. What’s the best strategy for this? Never in any of my training runs had I deal with a hill longer than ½ mile.
8:15am: I’m sucking in powerful breathes into my lung, arms pumping and focusing on good posturing, heart rate rocketing, and I haven’t run a single step in the past 30 minutes. Mostly on my own during this stretch, two runners named Doug and Charles pass me running what they could while my legs refuses to run. I also see a lot of back of the pack runners coming down the hill, mostly walking. Hmmm…walking on downhill? Interesting approach to an ultra. Later on I’ll learn just how interesting the final group was. I also haven’t seen any of the rust colored blazes that Terri said mark this trail.
8:38am: I make the critical turn at the train junction and avoid visiting the campground and temptation to call it a day. Climbing a decent size hill then flying down the other side, I pop out onto Hwy 107 and Aid Station 1 at mile 7. At least I RAN into the aid station therefore appeared to be a runner. No one knew I just walked 3.5 miles. Jade and Enzo are there waiting for me. I haven’t drank much out my 2L hydration pack, but I ask a volunteer top it off with Heed, and fill an empty zip lock bag with PBJ wedges, crackers and pretzels. The next 10 miles to Aid Station 2 is going to tell me if I’ve a shot of actually finish this race. I waved goodbye to Jade and Enzo and cross the highway into the unknown.
9:00am: The first trail after AS1 is Big Bend Trail. I almost dive head first into a creek on a slippery wooden bridge. Ok, no more running across bridges. All by myself here, I come to a four way trail junction, and see a group of 3 runners including Charles running toward me from the left. They had taken the trail on the left for maybe ½ mile and realized it was the wrong way. Hopping on what we hope is the correct trail, I follow the three of them closely, and soon run into Doug. He wasn’t sure if he was on the right trail, so he was slowing and stopping to look for trail markers. We give him our assurance that we are on the right trail, we hoped. A mile later, at a three way junction, we stop again, wondering which way was the correct trail. Terri had said red colored blazes marked this trail, but we had only seen one blaze so far and it was a bit back. We decide to take the high ground and soon find the trail disappears into the thick vegetation. Backtracking, and taking the trail that dove off the ridge toward a creek, the vegetation was super thick and half the time I can’t see the damn trail and had to slow to a crawl to make sure I don’t trip on something underneath the bushes and fall.
9:25am: Hallelujah! We found the junction of Big Bend Trail and Foothills Trail. From here white blazes mark the Foothills Trail for the next 7.3 miles to AS2. We take the trail and descend into the Chattooga Gorge and immediately come up on a class IV rapid. Impressive, and the water was high enough to run. What temptation! This section has some build in steps that are very slippery and suck. The trail doesn’t exactly stay next to the river but meander up and down with some really tricky footing and small tributary crossings that wet the shoes. By now our small pack was down to Doug, Charles and I. The other two had taken off ahead earlier. We found a nice beach to cool off and I dunk my head in the river and felt the cool relief, a benefit of running next to a National Wild & Scenic River.
10am: Holy mother of god! Foothills Trail takes a detour away from the river. And what a detour it is. On a whim, it climbs to the top of the Chattooga Gorge, then back down to the river level again. No running here, none whatsoever. We must have climbed 500 to 600ft in less than a mile, then drop straight back down to the river level. My quads are shot, and I know that the hardest climbs are still yet to come.
10:30am: The trail climbs away from the river. Doug and I stay together but Charles surges past us a few times only to catch us again after getting lost. Then a blur flashes past me. Sean flies down the trail toward us, all smiles, not breathing hard, going easy. Holy cow! I think we’re close to the half way distance wise, so that means he’s only got 7 miles to go! Sean will eventually shatter the course record and finishes in 4:32, a bit faster than my road marathon PR.
10:40am: We come to another big trail junction. Don’t get lost here since the wrong turn will take your deep into the Banjo Forest. We head straight up for 2.4 miles toward AS2 and Hwy 107. Many side trails everywhere, and I’m super glad Doug has been here before and sort remembers some of the turns.
11:23am: We hear cars and we see the road! Slowly walking up and finally emerge onto the hwy, the three of us decide to once again appear to be runner so we trot into the AS2. We have done more walking than running in the past 10 miles. But who would know what? Well everyone. Jade asked me how was it, and I told her it was the toughest 10 miles hike I had ever done. We’re at mile 17, and the race course continues on Foothills Trails for another 2 miles to a turnaround at a bridge then come back to AS2. My 2L bladder is almost empty and I told Jade to fill it to half way since this segment is only 4 miles. How bad can it be? My big mouth tells Jade I’ll be back soon.
12:00pm: So far not bad, we had run continuously downhill, and downhill, and downhill to what seems like the bottom pit of the earth at the turn around bridge. In every direction the terrain goes straight up. It had taken us 30 minutes of running downhill non-stop to get here. No freaking way that was only 2 miles. More like 3. I soak myself in the tiny creek, dreading the climb back to AS2.
12:40pm: Doug makes the comment that we haven’t run a step since leaving the turn around and once again the quads feel like they’re about to fall off the legs, and heart rate is shooting through the roof. Brutal doesn’t begin to describe this section. The trail mostly crosses treacherous slopes here. One false step, and we would slide at least 300ft, because that’s as far down the slope as I can see.
12:55pm: We finally hit a flat stretch and start running, just in time to see Jade and Enzo on the trail and Jade taking pictures of us. She comments that we looked good running and I tell her that was the first minute of running since noon. Enzo was extremely cute chasing us on the trail and we all get into AS2 again.
Terri has just arrived at AS2 so we grill her on why in the world made her put that section on the course. Her answer was nowhere near satisfactory. One runner that had just came into AS2 for the first time hearing our description of the section we just finished, and decides right away he’s going to skip it. Doug and I head out AS2 first while Charles sorts out some of his gear. We are confident he’ll catch us since he’s been doing that all day. This is the big decision. To head out on the trail from AS2 means to finish, since there really isn’t any option to not finish once we’re on the last stretch. We’ve 10 miles of rough trails ahead of us and majority of it is unrunnable.
1:27pm: we cross path with the last group of runners, two college age girls and one older woman in her late forties. I did some mental calculations and realized they’re on pace for a 14 hour race and finish at past 9pm, in the dark. I hope they make it. I don’t desire to spend any time in the darkness in Banjo Forest. Later we found out these three runners have never done anything longer than 8 miles before. Hmm…they sure have bigger brass balls than I do.
2pm: Doug and I are quite alone out here, haven’t seen any other runners in awhile, and no sign of Charles either. Earlier I had dunked my head in a creek to cool off, only to bash my head on a rock underwater that I didn’t see. Perhaps I should wear helmet for trail races. Doug is a godsend, he pushed and cajoled me along the trail and gave me all sorts of good advices. Together we also managed the amazing feat of not taking a single wrong turn since mile 8. I hope our luck continues. The few flat sections next to the river offer good running. Although anyone watching us would not call what we do running.
2:15pm: The dreaded detour to the top of the Gorge begin. We finally come up on a runner named Mike. He didn’t look good, when we passed him he simply waved us on, didn’t have energy to say anything. I hope he’s ok but I’m starting to get in trouble myself. Up until now, I recover quickly after each climb. However that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. I quickly chomp down some more food and suck in Heed, hoping to boost my energy level back up. The climb to the top of the gorge is twice as bad as earlier, I’m so tired. I think we’re around mile 25 or 26, but my mind is fairly dull so who knows where we’re mileage wise.
3pm: We finally reached the junction of Big Bend Trail and Foothills Trail. A little bit of celebration is in order. We’re now 2.7 miles from Hwy 107, and from there only 0.7 mile to the finish! Dead legs, dead body, and almost empty hydration bladder. I’m running on fume here.
3:30: We celebrated a bit too early. This is the longest 2.7 miles in the world, I’m damn sure of it. Terri must have mistakenly used a metric stick to measure the distance here.
3:45: We cross Hwy 107!!! AS1 is no longer here, a rather sad sight. Both of us were hoping the cheering from the AS crowd will get us over the last hump. No luck here. One last climb looming in front of us, but thankfully it’s short.
3:54: We decide that if there are cameras at finish, we would run to the finish. Sure enough Jade is cheering and has the big SLR pointed at us. Doug reminds me to be upright and in fine running posture for the camera as we run (well, really shuffle) across the finish!
Ultra is so very different than other kind of races. Time is meaningless when you’re out in a remote wilderness. You have to survive, help each other, and finish. Only after a burger and chips and some cold drinks did I even wonder what was my finish time. 8:47! Holy moly, I was on my feet for that long! I’m proud of myself!
Overall my plan for hydration and nutrition worked out ok. I had trouble gauging how much is left in the backpack, so I was been conservative during the two 10 mile stretches. I should have drank a lot more in the 7 mile section and the 4 mile section. But no sign of cramps and dehydration, and overall energy level seemed ok, no major crashes.