Each year, a group of runners from the Houston Area Trail Runners club venture on an epic running adventure. In 2015 we trounced around Utah for a week and finished the trip at Park City to run The North Face Endurance Challenge on September 26. Our group was s
plit between the 50K and 50 Mile. I ran the 50 mile race because, if you’re gonna take on a challenge, beat the biggest challenge you can, especially when your buddies are watching.
We arrived the afternoon before the race. After checking into our hotel, the Park City Peaks Hotel, we decided to find a local pizza place to carb up and get those last precious calories stored. At Este Pizza Co., I enjoyed a calzone with mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and spinach. I wonder how well Popeye would run an Ultra? Service and food was great. It was not crowded and we were able to talk about the upcoming race and about how we first got into trail running and being a HATR.
In a room full of five dudes, I did not sleep well the night before the race. Well, regardless of the room, I never slee p well before a r
ace. My mind is overrun with checking and double checking my gear, nutrition plan and course route. Eventually I fell asleep until the alarm called us awake.
The room was somber with each runner mentally preparing and gearing up. I chose no drop bags for the race but packed extra socks, Trail Toes, and gels in my Ultimate Direction race vest with two 20oz bottles. I had considered using the 2L bladder, but refilling it at aid stations is usually cumbersome. The bottles are easy to fill, but I was concerned they would last me between aid stations.
We drove to the start line. It was 4:30 am and the moon shined brightly just above the mountains. I was ready. I was ready all week. Rob and Jeremy, seasoned trail veterans were ready and Edward, the rookie of the group, looked nervous. It would be his first 50 mile race. At the starting line I had the opportunity to shake the hand of North Face athlete, Dean Karnazes. His book, Ultra Marathon Man, was my inspiration for getting into trail running. It was great to see him and hear his words of encouragement.
There were two waves of the 50 Mile start. We all toed the line of the second, knowing we were from low and flat elevation. The air was cool and crisp and Dean advised to beware of the moose sighted near the first aid station. “Yeah right,” I thought. We were off into the darkness. After a short downhill along the ski run, we made our way to the single track. Immediately I recognized a problem. The Aspen trees were dropping their golden leaves. Along the single track the leaves covered and camouflaged random roots and rocks sticking out. A half mile into the race, bam! I hit the deck without stutter. Since I was in the middle of the conga line, I jumped up immediately, joked it off and charged down the trail. I had lost two gels, but two remained in my other pocket. The only hurt I had was my pride.
I like the start of races where the conga line gets stacked with a slower runner leading the group. I find it good to catch my breath, run relaxed and then look for an opportunity to pass. Passing is fun, but eventually you become the guy in the lead and then the pressure is on to not give it up. As I played the passing game we came into the first aid station. No moose, but later reports and pictures did indicate Dean was not just exciting the crowd. The aid station was well stocked and filling bottles was a breeze. There were reports from last year that the aid station supplies were low, but this was not the case this year. Each aid station had what I wanted for the most part. The sole selection of mocha flavored Cliff gels did start getting tiresome, however.
Closing in on two hours into the race, the sun began to peek up. I usually do not run with a phone, but on this day I wanted to capture that sunrise. I pulled my phone from my pack and captured several shots. As I looked over the pics, I heard a voice call out, “Hey! This way! You missed the turn!” Sure enough, I missed the switch back. If not for the kind stranger, I would have been off course and lost very soon. I put the phone away and continued up the incline.
The first 15 miles or so was all up hill. I reached the summit, pulled out my phone one last time and took a picture
of my watch showing over 10,000 feet of elevation, 10,000 feet above my home in Houston! It was beautiful. The autumn colors were out as orange, yellow and gold amongst the spruce greens and dark granite. I had been thinking about this sight for months and now it was time to take it in and then dig in for the rest of the day.
I had focused so much on the first 15 miles of the course profile I did not realize I would soon climb to 10,000 feet again. The top was very rough with loose, jagged rocks. I took my time not wanted to bust open my knee, but wait a minute… I had bust open my knee! As a result of my early fall and then hidden by darkness, my knee had been bleeding slowly down my leg into my calf compression sleeves. I thought. “Cool. I look tough now.”
I came into aid station, 5-Way. The only location we would hit twice along the route. The volunteers had themed it as a German Octoberfest with music, shouting and lederhosen. After a lot of encouragement I was off again, but now the course seemed to really thin out. During the rest of the race I would only see the same handful of runners I would pass, then be passed by. That is until I started to encounter the mountain bikes.
I guess the sun was sufficiently up by then and the mountain bike riders had finally rolled out of bed. They just kept coming along the single track. Some were very courteous and recognized there was a trail run going on. They would pull to the side and offer encouraging words. Others were not so courteous. On several occasions I would have to leap off the trail to avoid a collision. I wasn’t sure who had right of way, but all I know is that in Texas, people are courteous regardless of who has the right-of-way. A couple of those bikers should have gotten an “accidental” shoulder check as they flew by at 40 mph.
At about 28 miles, I could feel my body getting tired. I was emptying my hydration bottles quickly and wished I had gone with the larger capacity bladder. At two moments around this time I had a strange feeling of nausea. I thought, very clearly, to myself, “I’m gonna throw up.” It was strange and seemed to come out of nowhere. Luckily I didn’t. I also had a brief moment of light headedness. After the race I figured it was due to the elevation and it finally catching up with me. Others in our group did not fare as well.
With over 30 miles complete, the sun was really getting hot and we were running through a meadow type area albeit high on a mountain! The dried, tall grasses and clear sky were yet another beautiful fall scene I enjoyed. Running along the slope I could see a blue reservoir far, far below. I had been skiing in Park City and Deer Valley before, but never noticed the lake. (I guess it was white just like everything else!)
The last aid station was about 5 miles from the finish and miles 35-45 were extremely tough. I was tired. My mental state was good, but my body was just tired. My breathing was big and deep, and I could feel the exhaustion of my lung muscles (if there was such a thing.) At one point, I could hear the cheers and PA announcer at the finish, but it was just a cruel joke when the trail turned away from the sound. Not just away, but the trail turned uphill! I was walking the ups and even walking (quickly) the horizontal areas. The downs I still trotted as best I could.
Upon arrival at the Octoberfest aide station, I received much needed encouragement. I filled bottles, ate pickles and ate more potato chips. The potato chips were the surprise of the event. I had not ever eaten chips during races, but for some reason the salt and oils were giving me a boost. A guy helping me was wearing a Western States 100 t-shirt and I told him that I plan to run that someday. It was great seeing that shirt as it gave me muster for the final push. I trotted out of the aid station with a flexed muscle man pose, gave out a yell and started down the final decent. 5 miles to go.
I had competed in two 50 mile raced previously; one on a flat course and the other in the Hill Country of central Texas. Obviously the flat course was faster, but I had been keeping an eye on my time with a comparison to my performance at Cactus Rose. I was on pace to tie or possibly beat that time. If I kept my current pace, I would likely tie the time, but if I pushed it, I could beat it. With the additional elevation gain at this race, that would mean something to me. I picked up the pace.
After avoiding yet more mountain bikers flying down the trail from behind me, could see and hear the finish line again. As I approached I saw Jeremy and he called out, “Hey, we’ve been waiting for you all day!” Oh no, he DNF’d the race, but he was there. I looked to the finish line and saw Mark (50K finisher) and Rob (50mile medical DNF) waiting with open arms. Rob, as he promised, or rather taunted for months, was indeed waiting for me at the finish with my medal.
I finished 25 minutes ahead of my Cactus Rose 50 time. The sun was going down and the day had seemed to fly by. Rob handed me an autographed photo of Dean Karnazes and I wanted to cry. I had missed his signature booth by 10 minutes, but Rob kindly thought of me and had him address the autograph. He wrote: “To Mark, Great job on the 50 mile race! -Dean Karnazes.”
I found a warm chair next to the fire pit and awaited Edward’s finish and discovered I finished second in my age group. That was
new for me as I’m definitely a mid-pack finisher. Maybe, just maybe, I’m improving. Interestingly, at the fire pit, I shared a conversation with the stranger who called me away from that missed turn many hours previously.
We all waited for Edward and knew he had passed the final aid station. We went wild when he arrived to finish within 20 minutes of the race cutoff. He was exhausted, sore and smiling. He had officially joined us as Ultramarathon men!
The week in Utah was over. Running in the mountains was a great experience, but hanging with fellow runners was a blast. Our HATR 2015 run-cation adventure had been an epic success.