The Old Pueblo 50 mi - The Great Surprise of My First Ultramarathon

So here I was, in the cool pre-dawn darkness of the Sonoran Desert, quickly shuffling through a small crowd to the starting line of the Old Pueblo 50.  My first ultramarathon.  My first race longer than 13.1 miles.  It would have been absurd to even think I would have been standing here even a year or two earlier...my path was simply not headed in this direction.  If you ask me why I did it - I'm not sure I could give you a good answer.  It's somewhere between the desire to do something seemingly impossible, to pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do.  A part of me wanted to attempt the greatest challenge I could muster; go beyond exhaustion, into the pain cave, and show myself that I had the metal to move through it to the other side. I wanted to know what that kind of 'victory' felt like - to endure greatly, and see through to the goal.

But after all of the training, the hours spent in preparation, the greatest surprise was that I did not accomplish what I had set out to experience.  I did not conquer the pain cave.  I came away with something more...

The idea came to me to run this race in the early Fall of 2014 as I was recovering from yet another minor injury that plagued me after I started running about 3.5 years ago.  I had plans to run a marathon at least twice in the past couple years…but injuries of one kind or another took me down and the races never materialized.  After a particularly tough bout of knee pain in February of 2014, I was told by my doctor that I had osteoarthritis, and that I should give up running.  After a summer mediocre training, I started playing with the idea of doing a 50 miler while I was still 50 years old...it sounded fun, and a bit crazy. Right down my line.  Then I came down with pneumonia in late October, that took me out of running for almost another month. But my birthday wasn’t until late March, and I still had time to train if all went well.  So I determined to ramp up the training fast after my pneumonia, and find a 50 miler as close to my birthday as I could.  The Old Pueblo 50 miler on March 7th fit the bill…and I set my mind to make it happen. 

I put together a 14 week training plan starting the last week in November, combining the features of several ultra-training plans I found on-line.  The ramp up to high mileage was much faster than I'd ever done, and surely enough to invite more injuries.  I combined my running with cross-training to ease the strain on my knees.  It was a mild winter in Flagstaff, so I was able to run the local trails quite a bit (or down in the Sedona red rock country).  Surprisingly, the training went well and mostly without injury, and I was able to complete 90 percent of my projected mileage (517 miles on the trails and treadmill) and cross training (stationary bike).  I learned a lot listening to the stories of other ultramarathoners on various podcasts, and reading a lot online. I also got through over six seasons of 'How I Met Your Mother' while on the treadmill.

 

My completed training plan on the 'fridge.

The 'kit' that served me well on the race.

 

My goal for the race was to finish in around 13 hours. It seemed very doable for my first ultra, even with the grueling elevation gain of the course (7,500 ft ascent and 7,500 descent, average grade 6%).   I had planned to take a 5/1 strategy (run 5 minutes / walk 1 minute) through the race…but the elevation profile made this plan pretty much untenable. I also hoped to take a photo at least every mile - if not to help document the event, to also help keep my pace very deliberate through what would be the longest run in my life.  I imagined a series of 50 selfies showing the slow beating of a runner to the verge of submission...

Dawn and I were up at out of the hotel by 415 AM, and arrived at Kentucky Camp (starting line) around 5:30.  Got my bib (#69), dropped off my three drop bags, gave Dawn a hug, and got in line -  for the restrooms. 

The Race - Start to AS3  [section completed in around 40 min]

The race started off beautifully.  I had the great fortune to visit the restroom just prior to the start…OK…almost TOO close to the start.  I hustled out of the lone porta-potty, and barely had time to buckle my hydration vest before the gun sounded.  I was comfortably in the back of the pack and strutted up the first hill out of Kentucky Camp to the glow of the full moon and a hundred headlamps.  This was FUN!  I was pumped. This initial three mile section is mostly uphill…climbing toward the top of the ridge.  It was a beautiful and relatively warm morning (near 40 degrees or so).  Got into a good rhythm, had my iPod started, clicking off the mileage, and primed with the best playlist I'd ever constructed, and multiple podcasts to keep me inspired.  I chatted with several folks on the way up, and my first ultra was on!

With the dawn approaching, the landscape started to unfold.  The rolling foothills of the Santa Ritas were wonderful to behold, and I reached the aid station at mile 3 (AS3) before I realized it.

From the starting line to Aid Station 3mi.

AS3 to AS7  [section completed in 59 minutes]

The short section between AS3 and AS7 was along a beautiful section of the AZ trail; a wonderful little single-track section which has to be about my favorite of this course.  Most runners will hit this section as the sun is rising – as the golden light hits the beautiful rolling grassland / shrub / tree landscape, the beauty just pulls you along.  It’s not overly technical, definitely runnable, and in this direction at least…mostly downhill.  With the sunrise light and the amazing landscape, I was feeling great.  I got a bit silly, and started talking to fellow runners about feeling like we were riding on unicorn rainbows (don't ask) – my spirits were high, but I was doing it!  I had tagged along with some wonderful company, and continued on my way walking the brief uphills to conserve energy, and jogging the other sections.

The breathtaking scenery of the AZ singletrack section spills out to aid station 7/29 on a well-maintained dirt road.  The folks there at AS7/29 were great – hooting and hollering, cowbells banging, making a lot of noise, and they knew what to do with a modern hydration pack!  (Even squeezed out all of the air so there wouldn’t be any gurgling in the bladder – yeah!).  Dawn was waiting for me there with a big smile and encouragement.  I was supposed to re-stock with plenty of tailwind/Fluid/snacks and put on additional sunscreen, but in the excitement of the race only grabbed one granola bar, forgot the additional sunscreen, and quickly got on my way. I did manage to dump my headlamp and long sleeve shirt. I was a bit amped up, and wanted to get on the trail with the group I had been with.   **arrived AS7 at 1hr 39min**

From Aid Station 3mi to Aid Station 7mi.  The Arizona Trail at sunrise...could it get any better??

AS7-AS13 [section completed in 1hr 11min]

For some reason I have relatively little to remember about this section.  I was running with Nathan and three women (sorry – can’t remember names!), doing mostly a 5/1 or so, and just chatting up a storm.  This is a very nice rolling section that you can really get going at a good pace.  Mostly downhill.  Lots of woods kept it shaded, occasionally running in a shallow valley.  I continued to feel very good, no hint of any knee, foot, or stomach issues.  High clouds continued to thicken a bit, keeping the direct sun at bay.  A quick look at the time verified I was on time for my goal.   ** arrived at AS13 at 2hr 50min**

From Aid Station 7mi to Aid Station 13mi...on wonderful rolling roads in and out of the trees.

AS13-AS19  [section completed in 1hr 35min]

This is an interesting section!  A long uphill to Gunsight pass demanded a lot of powerwalking for me, and it was here that I pulled ahead and left the group I had been running with, and was now on my own.  I was really surprised just how spread out the field was at this point.  Couldn’t see anyone for some time… I was on my own now, and as it turned out, for much of the next 10 miles or so.  Gunsight Pass was beautiful!  Very expansive views looking all the way back to Tucson on this clear morning.  After all of the uphill on a smooth road I was hoping to catch some nice downhill from Gunsight…but the first mile or so was very steep, technical, dangerously rocky downhill which really demanded some caution, so I took it easy walking down and picking my way down the steepest parts until it leveled off a bit.  After a ½ mile or so could get back into a rhythm, and get rolling!

Passed a couple other folks when it leveled off, including a triathlete that appeared to be taking a friend on her first 50 miler.  As things flattened out a bit we were on some flat straight roads, and could see a few other runners way ahead, pushing toward AS19.  I was feeling a bit tired at this point…but the day had remained mercifully cool with the cloud cover…with temperatures just creeping to around 60 at this point.  I was very deliberate to be drinking enough…and was trying to be sure to also drink enough Tailwind to get the electrolytes I needed.

Filled up all on water (hydration pack / carry) at AS19, enjoyed a couple bites of sandwich / pretzels / etc, and got on my way for the next stretch to the base of the big up hill at AS25.      ** arrived AS19 at 4hr 25min**

From Aid Station 13mi to Aid Station 19mi...up and over Gunsight Pass.

AS19-AS25  [section completed in 1hr 15min]

This lovely section on the floor of the valley was largely runnable on well-maintained dirt roads.  It was heating up…but the cloudcover kept it comfortable. Here I caught up with a few other folks, a couple of younger runners, and had the chance to pet a horse that was on one of the roads apparently loving the attention from the occasional runners.  I was tired, but feeling good and thankful that it was cloudy and relatively cool.  A refreshing breeze was starting to pick up! 

Rolled into AS25 hoping that Dawn made it down here to meet me!  She was there along with another great aid station crew.  I still had quite a bit of water  from the last aid station, and knowing it was only about 4 miles to AS29, I held off on refilling this time around.  In retrospect, I probably should have filled up again here.     ** arrived AS25 at 5hr 40min**

From Aid Station 19mi to Aid Station 25.  Getting a bit tough out there...

AS25-29  [section completed in 1hr 1min]

This short but grueling section takes you up a very well maintained dirt road, gaining about 1000 feet.  It’s a long slog, and I hiked almost this entire hill…jogging occasionally when I could muster it.  There was a woman about 100yards ahead of me who was really hitting this section hard, and it was nice having her up there pulling me along.  My goal was to try to keep up with her even though I was quite tired. It was at this time that the hills were starting to take a toll on my legs, I could feel them wear a bit, and it was tiring.  But I made it to AS29 (it seemed to take a very long time), where the heavens opened up and they had...

…BACON!!  I guess I’ll consider myself lucky – my stomach doesn’t mind most any food during a run.  And man, they had bacon, and there was little else that sounded so heaven-sent!      ** arrived AS29 in 6hr 41min**

From Aid Station 25mi to Aid Station 29mi.  Just about all uphill....

AS29-33 [section completed in 1hr 13min]

I should say at this point that during my training Raspberry-lemonaide Fluid quickly became one of my all-time favorite trail run drinks. As it turned out…that is exactly what they were serving as the electrolyte drink at the aid stations!  Woohoo!  I topped off both waters (Fluid in backpack, and a Fluid with extra Tailwind in the carrier), stuffed in a few granola bars, and was on my way.  So good to see Dawn again there at 29!!  My shoes actually felt great – I was really planning on changing into my ultralights by this time, but in truth, the trail was very, very rocky, and my feet felt fine, other than a tightness around the top of my left foot that I tried to relieve, but wasn’t ever able to totally remove it.

So it was at this point that you retrace four of the most memorable miles on the course – the Arizona trail high on the ridge.  It was so beautiful at sunrise, now in the afternoon warmth (and uphill) it was more difficult.  Most of this section was rolling uphill, so I ran a lot of it, but walked as needed.  I found myself trying to keep ahead of a woman who caught me on the uphill to AS29 – perhaps it was a bit of pride, but I had passed about 15 folks since AS13, and I didn’t want to give up any positions if I didn’t have to. We ended up passing a few folks in this section, but generally the two of us stayed together.  It was a lovely section…one of my favorites.  I was feeling tired, but not hurting.

Rolled into AS33 and saw a few runners sitting, a few others resting, and for the first time came across some folks that really looked like they had hit their wall.  Knowing this was a long section, I filled to the hilt with liquids, ate some nice salted potatoes, and got on my way again.      ** Arrived at AS33 at 7hr 53min**

Back on the Arizona Trail from Aid Station 25mi to Aid Station 33mi.

AS33-40 [section completed in 1hr 46min]

I was pretty tired leaving AS33, but I could still run well.  This is a lovely section, mostly on dirt roads and the occasional single-track section.  My thoughts were starting to wonder a bit…and at times it became kind of a grunt.  This was the portion of the race that I was more attentive with how ‘long’ the segment was, and wondering why the 7 miles felt like so much more!  Passed a couple other folks on this section, one who really seemed beat, and asked if there was anything I could get for her…but she confirmed she was fine.  I remember feeling OK on this segment, able to keep up my slow run for a lot of it, but certainly hiking the ups.  I was at the point here where I was looking forward to some uphill sections, to use as an excuse to pull up off my jog to a walk.  Running was starting to hurt.

You get into some very remote country here, and ran into a couple of prospectors (prospecting families) along the creek on this section!  Campers huddled next to the river, with people knee deep in the water moving a lot of gravel.   It was nice still having some cloud cover, and for the first time, actually felt a bit of a chill.  Continued to play tag a bit with the woman who caught me at AS29 – it was nice having someone nearby, for company, and inspiration to push me along.  She passed me around MM37 when I dropped my camera taking the mile photo!  It was broke for good now, and down for the count!  Oh well, there were other options...and Dawn would have a spare camera at the Mile 40 Aid Station if needed.

It hit me for the first time late in this section that I was actually going to finish this run, and likely hit my goal of 13 if I kept up a good pace!  Woohoo! 

Knowing my son Brian was going to join Dawn at the next aid station really pumped me up, and I started to run very well at the end of this section.  I started feeling that I had more energy. The trail crossed a stream, and climbed out of a ravine to the aid station 40.  I ran up the hill to the aid station, feeling strong, with Brian and Dawn cheering me on.  It really was the first hill that I really attacked all day…and it felt...GREAT.  I came running into the aid station with one thing on my mind…more bacon. I needed more bacon. But alas, this was apparently the first and only vegan aid station on the course.  I wanted MEAT!  Oh well, I took a pass on the hummus, grabbed some other goodies, hugged Dawn and Brian, chatted for a bit, and started on a 3-mile run up canyon on a dirt road. I felt very good at this point, and confidently jogged up the road.    **Arrived at AS40 in 9hr 39min**

Aid Station 33mi to Aid Station 40mi.  The race was really starting to feel long now...but still felt good.

AS40-46  [completed section in 1hr 45min]

This section consisted of a 3 mile run up a canyon road, then up and over a hill to an adjoining canyon, and back down a parallel valley to AS46 (supposedly only a hydration station), which was within 1/3 mile across the valley of AS40.  It was a long slog up the road for those three miles…I ran a lot of it, and hiked when needed…but generally felt good, but a few more parts of my worn body were starting to bark.  Started to really feel some uncomfortable bum-chaffing, pain on the top of my left foot, and what seemed to be a blister on a toe, but heck, I could grunt through that.  I was nowhere near the pain cave, so I kept moving forward.  I was now confident that I was going to finish this race in my goal time - maybe even closer to 12 hours!  The valley felt long…and I was convinced that they mis-labelled the AS mileages…but after about 3.5 miles made it to the top of the ridge between the two canyons.  Absolutely lovely up here…just gorgeous in the light of the late afternoon.  It was getting cool, with a breeze blowing harder.  I passed a completely bonked runner on top, then another dragging their feet with apparently very little energy left.

Here’s where the race really began to get wondrous.  The trail/road was beautiful and runnable, and I was feeling great as I crested the ridge and started striding down the canyon.  And for the first time, I was really lengthening my stride, picking up to a speed that I hadn’t had all day.  During the part of the race that I anticipated the pain cave, I was experiencing some sort of a 'runners high'.  Those 3 miles or so down the canyon to AS46 felt SOOO good, I really can’t explain how wonderful I was feeling.  This was my biggest surprise of the race. I pushed faster down the gentle valley…and my body responded.  During this period I was honestly feeling a solid runner’s high…for the first time in the race.  Simply amazing. 

The road down the canyon turned into beautiful soft singletrack, and soon spilled out to the hydration station that was AS46.  Brian was there!  And so was BACON!  Oh god in heaven…what better present could be delivered on golden wings than bacon at this point!!  Against the judgement of those at the station I inhaled 5 beautiful, crispy, greasy, saltilicious pieces of bacon.  Then I noticed the time…it was already about 5:25pm (11:25 hours into the race), and quickly realized that I would finish comfortably around 12:30…so the pressure was off to break 12 hours..which was nice.  I could keep a comfortable pace, and really enjoy the last 5 miles of the race.

It was also at this time that the aid station worker made a startling discovery (to him – he really was tickled by this)…I was wearing Bib #69, and I was the 69th runner through at that time!   What was really shocking to me was that I was actually 69th…I had NO idea I was anywhere but near the back of the pack – so this took me by surprise.  Wow.                ** arrived at AS46 in 11hr 24min**

Aid Station 40mi to Aid Station 46mi.  Someone didn't quite measure this one right...I could swear this felt MUCH longer than 6 miles...

AS46-Finish 51 [finished section in 1hr 8 min]

The last 5 miles of the race were peaceful and quiet in the deepening afternoon of this long day…what a blessed way to end the race.  My mind was very quiet and enjoying the run. Rolling single-track with one section of smooth dirt road…mostly level with only one ascent of a couple hundred feet.  All runnable, beautiful at sunset…getting dark…with a cooling breeze increasing, and no pressure to really beat myself up to break some time goal.  Running the position of your racing Bib had to be worth something, so I was looking  behind me a couple times to see if anyone would catch me and bump me down to 70, but after my fast pace from MM42 to 46, I doubted if anyone was too close.  These last miles passed very well.  The sunset displayed a few distant showers, with the last rays of the sun catching one and creating a rainbow in the last light…a perfect end!  As the last miles concluded and I was closing in on the finish line, I felt tired (of course), but good - and never even close to the anticipated pain cave.  I ran most of this section, wanting to ‘honor’ the experience and the race by taking it in hard.  Seeing the ‘1 mile to go’ sign was encouraging…and after taking a quick selfie by the sign…I strode on.  “No pain cave, no stopping” I told myself as I jogged on through a wonderful stretch of singletrack through a grassy meadow…then uphill for the last mile or so.  The final 100 yards were ran as if I was just tapping a rich store of energy – my legs loved the full strides, even uphill…reaching for the finish line.  Dawn and Brian cheered me on…and I ran full through the finish, and joked while turning my finger in a circle above my head, saying ‘one more time!’.  Inside...I felt like I could do it. **finished in 12hr 32min!**

The last 5 miles.  Feelin' good, and running hard.

Afterthoughts, Observations, and...

  • The course was very well marked - no problems at all.  Kudos to the organizers and volunteers setting up the course!
  • It was a rocky course in many places...especially after Gunsight pass.  Had to watch your step.
  • Used my Altras for the entire race...I thought for sure I'd be changing into my ultralights at some point!
  • Absolutely shocked that I didn't listen to anything on my iPod at all.  I had prepared numerous playlists and podcasts, and trained almost exclusively with music...but it just didn't feel 'right' to listen to anything during the race.  Never missed it at all.
  • It made such a difference having Dawn and Brian there...gave me such a lift when I needed it most!
  • Weather was PERFECT.  Relatively warm, clouds, nice breeze.  Couldn't have asked for more.
  • Did anyone else notice all of the little black caterpillars all over the roads?
  • I ran better (and harder) when I was running with others.
  • Did pretty well taking a photo every mile - till I dropped my camera around Mile 35!   And not sure how I spaced out photos on MM41,42.
  • I really slept well the 3 nights leading to the race...so thankful for that, I know it made a difference.
  • My stomach felt great all through the race.  Bacon, ham/cheese sandwiches, Tailwind, granola bars - all tasted great and gave me no problems.
  • To the great surprise of the workers at aid station 46, I was in 69th place wearing bib #69!   Not sure how I ended the race in 68th.
  • OK...I did over-prepare the drop bags.  But better over-prepare, then end up without what I need!
  • Swiped a rare burger off the grill after the race...oh yeah.
  • My memories of Mile 43-46 'high' I felt are going to carry me a LONG way...that truly was magical.