Yesterday, June 2nd, was the 4th running of the Pocatello 50 miler (actually 53.2 miles). I had nothing better to do with a free Saturday and luckily was able to get in to the sold out event. As I restrained from any significant running during my mini taper through the latter half of the week, I thought a lot about ultras, goals, and my motivation for such ordeals.
Back in 2002, I first heard about the Wasatch 100. Friends of a friend had just completed it and quotes like, "when you see the sun rise for the second time, you know you're getting close" made me think that only the deranged would enter such a race. However, at the time, I spent significant portions of every day running circles around a rubber track. A long run was 10 miles and anything slower than 7 minute pace was unathletic.
|Photo prior to the start. My tent is the little yellow BD one left of center. Photo credit: Stolen from the official race website|
Fast forward 10 years. I now spend the majority of my free time in the mountains and have slowly been testing the balance of speed and endurance as applied to ski mountaineering and mountain running. Now, it all makes sense. Ultras (be it formal races or large personal efforts) seem to be a fantastic way to learn to move efficiently through the mountains, cover vast terrain, and see more in a day than most Americans see of the wilderness in a lifetime. I've started participating as preparation for selfish personal projects but the races and surrounding environment are addictive.
Prior to Pocatello, my longest run ever was the 48 mile, Trans Zion adventure run, which, with Jason and Warren, we covered at a very leisurely pace. A couple others have pushed passed the 40 mile mark but never in a race setting. Unfortunately, I tend to ski well into June and don't put in any real mileage until the ski gear is tossed, for the summer, in a state of disarray in the corner of my garage. Fortunately, as anyone south of BC knows, this winter sucked, which gave me a head start with my running. Nevertheless, I was fairly apprehensive while loading up the new Tacoma for the drive to Pocatello with Chris Cawley. Chris is a bit ahead of me on the evolutionary curve of ultra running having turned in a solid sub 24 hr 100 miler last year. I asked about the course, aid stations, strategy, and on and on. But, no matter how he answered, I couldn't shake the nagging thought that my longest run of the year to date was only 16 miles.
The race websites declares the course to be just over 52 miles and with 12,800 feet of vertical gain, has been deemed by some to be one of the harder 50 milers in the country. That said, nearly the whole course is beautiful single track through some pretty stunning terrain. Who knew that Pocatello was so beautiful?
On to the race...
After a pre race dinner that included both McDonald's and Ramen, I awoke feeling surprisingly fresh, particularly given recent work demands. I donned my Dynafit kit (listed below), and then walked around trying to stay warm. As we were called to the start line, a rainbow hung in the distance, illuminated by the rising sun. Looking around, there were more than a few fast guys lacing up their Hokas or pulling on their Nathans. Someone yelled, "go!" and we took off at a leisurely pace down the first half mile section of pavement before hitting the single track for a 1000 foot climb.
I knew I should start slowly, this being my first 50, but 7:30 pace on a slight down was too easy and I tucked into 6th place as we hit the dirt. The climb also felt easy so the order was preserved until we found ourselves rolling mostly flat or downhill toward the first aid station at mile 8. I knew I should start slowly but I was having a fun conversation with Christian Johnson, of the MRC. He seemed to start to tell me that I was foolish for not playing it more conservatively but laughed and said, "I'm not going to tell you what to do."
In and out of the first aid station, I was running with a single bottle and felt amazing. The course began to trend upward, then suddenly morphed into a Grandeur Peak style climb as we followed the flags off trail. I knew I should start slowly and tucked behind Matt Hart of the Montrail team, who I felt would run a smart race. Meltzer and Jay Aldous started to pull away and then Christian launched upward in pursuit. Unable to help myself, I tagged along as the pace still felt absurdly easy. Justin Yates of Montana was off the front but exercising some self control, the whole field let him go.
I knew I should start slowly, but somehow found myself running in second and all alone at the top of this first serious climb. Knowing I had a long 6 mile(?) descent to the next aid station, I kept running, trying to relax and not push the down hill pace. As the trail/ATV road emptied into sage brush plains from the forest, I caught sight of Justin and could tell I was steadily gaining on him. Once together, I enjoyed some conversation for maybe a mile before we reached the City Creek aid station just as the 50K race was starting.
I laughed at the absurdity of being ahead of so many seasoned and accomplished runners and knew the "pin it to win it" mentality was only going to work for one of us. Luke Nelson grabbed my Dynafit X4 pack that I had left as a drop bag and offered a couple sentences that would become my mantra for the next 16 miles. Following the "Keep it contained" and "Stay within yourself" recommendation, I was content to watch first Jay, then Karl, then Justin, then Christian, then Joelle, then Erik, then Cody, then Greg run through me.
Over those 16 miles, the first of which were awful hot climbing, I tried to resurrect my broken condition and catch back up on fluid and eating. I felt stupid barely jogging and going back and forth with those at the back of the 50K field. I wasn't racing anymore and wondered how I'd be able to manage another 20+ miles as I approached the Mink Creek aid station.
Arriving at Mink Creek, Jared Campbell and Ben Lewis offered some encouraging words and Ben and others filled my bottles as I loaded my pack with ice and grabbed a fistful of Otter Pops. I downed a cup of Mountain Dew and was off, walking a low grade 5 mile section. This was the initial portion of a 10 mile climb with over 4000 vertical to the summit of Scout Mountain. I got passed again.
I didn't care though. I knew I'd finish and after four Otter Pops (three blue and a purple) I was eating ice and managing the heat (mid 80s and full sun). Chad Bracklesburg had cautioned me about this section of the course. He told me I could run it but doing so would be a detriment to my overall time as I could walk the section just a few minutes slower and save a ton of energy. As it happened, I trusted in Chad and actually felt stronger as I arrived at the penultimate aid station.
Luke was there again, having driven over to cheer his wife who was running the 20 mile race. He again offered great support and walked a bit up the trail before bidding me adieu with the order to finish strong. The walking slowly morphed into jogging and by the summit of Scout, I was alive. With 10ish miles to go, I unexpectedly found myself feeling invincible. Nothing hurt. I could run the beautiful smooth switchbacks and enjoy the muffled sounds of movement along the pine needle floor. I suppressed grandiose thoughts that I could run forever and that a 100 would be easy and settled on refocusing on getting to the Big Fir aid station and then the last 5 miles.
I passed someone coming into Big Fir who was looking a little haggard as he immediately sat down in a chair. Chad Bracklesburg was there to greet me and as my bottles were filled, he sprayed me with cool water from a pesticide sprayer and put a wet towel on my head. He detailed the remainder of the course in his animated way and told me to get moving. Down the pavement for 1.5 miles, up a grassy climb for one mile, and then a gentle downhill to the finish over the last 2.5 miles. No problem.
Then, right around mile 50, where I started to question my former thoughts of invincibility and desire to run farther, I felt a twinge of a cramp in my right quad. I stopped to stretch but my hamstrings seized up. I began to hobble and verbally tell myself to relax. Rolling over the top of the last climb, I found the down hill mechanics to be less provoking and managed to loosen up just enough to call my motions "running".
By the finish, I was happy and satisfied. I'd run like a yo-yo but managed to "contain myself" enough on the last two thirds of the course to finish respectably in my first 50. And, unlike any prior efforts at "longer" distances, I felt like I could "take another step" if needed. Which mentally leaves open the possibility of a 100 later in the fall.
Perhaps I have become somewhat deranged as I initially mused about ultra runners years ago. But I don't think so. Although there isn't a lot of adventure to these races by definition of physical risk or objective hazard, the variables are sufficient that the outcome is always in question. And as I have written before, that is the definition of an adventure to me.
I want to feel invincible again.
Many thanks to the RDs for allowing me to race at late notice. And huge thanks to all those who volunteered a precious Saturday (and into Sunday) to serve others and lift them up and send them onward.
Shoes: Dynafit Feline Superlight - These guys got the job done. I had zero blisters or hot spots and my feet felt better than expected at the end of 50 miles. I had nimbility(made up word I coined) all day.
Clothes: Dynafit React Dry Short Tights and Effex Shirt - I had no chaffing or hot spots and as the only guy in half tights, I crown myself the fashion king of the race.
Gear: Dynafit X4 Dy.N.A Backpack - This pack is super light, carries bottles perfectly, and with its unique bungee system, rides more smoothly than any other running pack I've used.