A long mountain trail race is an invitation to make mistakes. The longer the race, the more persuasive the invitation.
There are all kinds of mistakes you can make. Separate them into two categories: mistakes you make during the race, and mistakes you’ve probably already made before the race even starts.
I am proud of my performance at the 2017 Quad Rock 50, because I think all my mistakes were made pre-race. Which is another way of saying, I don’t think I made any mistakes during the race. That’s quite an achievement over 50 miles! Simultaneously, though, I am faintly embarrassed by how long it took me to cover the whole course during a mistake-free day. My dramatic slowing over the second half of the course points up issues in training that I’ll need to identify and address.
For those not familiar with it, the Quad Rock 50M course is a 25 mile loop that you run twice, once in each direction. It’s made up of six big climbs and descents, three on each loop. The trail is runnable single-track interrupted occasionally by technical sections and the occasional dirt road. There aren’t many flat bits at all. The weather in 2017 was sunny and hot, with the only respite from sunny and hot being the first hours just after the 5:30 a.m. start.
Tale of the tape on Strava
To have a good race, as I said, you can’t make any big mistakes. Fortunately, I have a pretty substantial list of ways that I didn’t screw up.
I had the right equipment. I had no excess clothing on a day that turned out to be hot and sunny throughout. Shorts and a sleeveless RMR singlet. I had two handheld bottles, one for water and one for Coke. I had two small bags of dried fruit in my shorts pockets, and no gels, which I’ve learned by experience make me nauseated after about the second gel on every long run. I had an iPod shuffle with decent running music on it, and earphones that don’t fall out when running. I had applied tons of sunscreen. I had a trucker hat. I had sunglasses. I had two buffs, one on each wrist. I had thick wool Icebreaker socks extending to just above my ankles, which really prevent blisters and are tall enough to not capture too many small stones. I had Salomon S-lab Sense 5 Ultra shoes, that fit my feet. In short, I had everything I needed and nothing I didn’t. No mistakes.
The moon setting just after 5 am as I get my iPod ready for the race. With Pele.
I didn’t go out too hard. This is the most common mistake that I make. I think it’s because I enjoy going whole-hog over shorter distances and find the relaxed pace of a longer ultra really boring in the beginning when I’m feeling good. But I didn’t make that mistake this day. Everything felt very easy. I wasn’t afraid to hike parts of the first big ascent whenever I felt like I was working hard. If people wanted to pass or run away from me, I made no attempt to prevent it. I was in a good groove.
I did well with hydration and nutrition. This is another area where I often fail, telling myself too often that “I’ll drink later, eat later, just a few more minutes,” until I’m dehydrated and bonking, deep in a hole that I can’t climb out of. Not today though! In many races I’ll find myself arriving at an aid station with full water bottles, but at Quad Rock I made sure to drink everything in both bottles on the trail, so that at each aid station I could get full refills. This also helped me get out of the aid stations more quickly because I didn’t have to hang around to bail myself out of major dehydration. I just refilled bottles, quickly sipped something cold, swallowed a few potato chips or a piece of quesadilla, grabbed a piece of fresh fruit, and got out. On the second loop when I was suffering badly, I would sit down for a bit, but it was almost never for very long.
Needless to say, I was feeling good for a good bit of the first loop. Things only started to fall apart about 20 miles in on the third big descent into the turnaround aid station at 25 miles.
That’s when my right leg started to seize up. There weren’t any muscle cramps, but every time I’d push the speed even a little, or when the trail got the slightest bit technical and required any big step-downs or leaps over rocks, the lateral side of my right thigh would hurt like hell until I backed way off on the speed. And by that I mean, backed off to hiking pace. It was very frustrating, since I love running downhill and the trail on this big descent was snaky, beautiful, and looked like it would be super-fun to go fast on.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I cheered on several RMRs whom I saw on their climb up out of the turnaround to start their second loop. They were all looking great! I ultimately snuck into the aid station in about 5:45 — not bad considering I’d been moving so slowly for the past hour or so. This was really the only extended aid-station rest I allowed myself. Time to eat and drink something, change socks, put on more sunscreen (good idea!), and meet Howie, a new RMR dog that was helping out by looking cute and sniffing around like a good dog should.
Feeling decent on the first descent
I left for the second loop hoping the right leg would loosen up on the climbs. Though it did — eventually — it never really felt good again all day. Sadly, also, I ran out of energy for the climbs and the last half of the race became a suffer-fest.
You know how ocean waves roll onto a beach and then slide back out again? That was how the suffering felt. A wave of misery would roll in. I would console myself by thinking about how great it would be to drop at the next aid station. Then the acute exhaustion would abate a little bit and I’d start to think “I’ll just hike the rest of the way to the finish, who cares about cut offs?” This cruel cycle, aided and abetted by heartless aid-station volunteers including many of my friends (who could have had some sympathy for me but of course did not) kept me just ahead of the time cutoffs at each aid station, sending me out to hobble along to the next one. Rinse and repeat.
Halfway through the second loop is when I turned on the iPod. The music helped distract me a little bit. (“Those damned blue-collar tweakers, they’re the backbone of this town!”) I consoled myself by focusing on the fact that although I felt miserable, I continued to look fabulous. Time passed. The sun dropped below the hills in the west. The racers who’d finished hours before packed up their things and went home.
But the volunteers at Towers were still there, dammit. They filled my water bottles one last time. One last sip of coke. “Get out of here!” Bastards. Off I limped, down the final descent. At last I was homeward bound. I knew, finally, that I wouldn’t have to bum a ride back to my car at the finish line. I was reasonably content.
Then about two miles from the finish, as I’m semi-contentedly power hiking along, I see in the distance several people wearing green shirts, accompanied by a medium-sized dog without a tail. Oh, shit! It’s Kea dog and a bunch of RMRs waiting to congratulate me for not being dead or (worse) being DNFed. I hear cheers in the distance. I start to weep, just a little. Trying not to look lazy, I start jogging. Crying, but just a little. High-fives, pet Kea, and head for the finish. So much for semi-contented power hiking. I felt I owed it to all these people who were still hanging out at the finish line to get my ass finished as soon as possible. So, although it hurt, I found the energy to jog it in over the last, flat, mile. Done! My first 50M in the books. I think I missed the final official cut off time, but I completed the entire distance under my own power. So though I might not be official, I’m still a finisher in all ways that matter to me.
So why did that last loop go sideways? Well, more training for efforts longer than 5 hours could always help, cardiovascularly-speaking. And musculoskeletally-speaking, also. That’s about it, though. I just wasn’t fit enough for anything much faster on this course, on this day. But I’m happy with that! I can’t attribute the wheels falling off to any specific mistakes I made during the race. And for a race lasting, for me, more than 14 hours, that’s a pretty great thing to be able to say.
THANK YOU to Heidi who gave up her whole day to help me out at the race and to wrangle our dog Pele while I was out on the course. She also drove the car on the way home, which was so luxurious! Thank you to Gnar Runners for organizing such a beautiful race and for staying so late. Next year I’ll volunteer, or run the 25M like a sensible person. Thank you also to the best running club ever, the Rocky Mountain Runners. I never would have done as many dumb and stupid things without the inspiration and peer pressure you provide (to excess) on a weekly basis, from those of you who run at the front of the pack to those of you who run at the back. I’ve learned so many things about running and racing from you people, and had so much goofy fun with you. I’m very thankful and lucky to have met you all. Even when you kick me out of perfectly comfortable aid stations and make me cry with all your cheering and high-fives. Congratulations to all RMRs and especially to all of you who won an absurd amount of awards during the Quad Rock 50M and 25M this year. Cheers!
Look at all that pottery! RMRs with the spoils of victory, and beer