Monday, July 27, 2015

Capitol Reef 100

After a night of intermittently heavy rains, the race started under mostly cloudy skies.  I had some trepidations, as my first rain jacket was safely packed away in the drop bag at mile 19.

The small group of 29 started up the driveway, across the road, and onto a dirt road towards the foot of the mesa.  Right off the bat, Travis jumped to the front.  I assume he was trying to bank some distance in his futile attempt to beat me - so immature.

All the recent moisture made for some thick, gooey, clay mud in spots - great for kids to play in, not so great for starting a 100 mile race in.  The scenery was magnificent right from the beginning. The low clouds/fog slowly broke up, providing spectacular views of the sandstone cliffs, illuminated by the rising sun.  Hopefully you can imagine the beauty from my descriptive words since the #$%^&*ing camera @#$%^&ing died as soon as I turned it on.  I actually wound up tossing it into the bin of snacks at the self-serve aid at mile 2 and retrieving it on the way down the next morning.

We were starting to spread out a bit, but most runners (except for that punk, Travis) took a measured approach to the long climb.  The higher we ascended, the more the views opened up to the green valley below, framed by red sandstone walls.  The whole section up to Government Creek was a pretty mellow climb on a gravel/sandy jeep road and I made a mental note of how awesome it was going to be running back down at the end.

Government Creek Aid was a quick stop to refill water and grab a snack, and also the start of the mosquito zone.  Not a single one before the aid station, and then swarms thereafter.  Unfortunately, the terrain got a bit steeper also, meaning slower progress, which translated to better feeding for the flying parasites.  Shortly after the aid station, I found myself running alone, pretty much all the way to Donkey Reservoir.  This was a relatively low point for me.  The mosquitos were having a field day with my shirtless upper body, the terrain was rolling, with some steep little dips and climbs, the trail was overgrown with baby aspens so that you couldn’t even see your feet as they got mired in more gooey mud.  And on top of all of that, my Fenix 2 decided that there were no satellites to be found, at 9,000’, near the top of a mesa (I’ll write a separate review of this piece of Garmin crap later).

This section transitioned from rough ATV trail to single track and we ran through a good sized burn area where the ground cover (small aspens, and other shrubbery) were just so incredibly thick.  With the recent moisture clinging to the leaves and softening/slicking the trail, it really felt like a rain forest.  Despite all of the climbing up to this point, there were intermittent views of the real top of the mesa - a reminder of us just how much higher we were going.  As with the whole course, the terrain was incredibly diverse.  There were sections of trail that reminded me of the northeast, with slick granite boulders interspersed among the pine forest.  There were also some open meadows, with hidden boggy areas to moisten the feet in preparation for the tenderizing pounding that was to turn them into hamburger meat.  Some parts of the trail were literally covered with strawberry plants.  I didn’t see any actual berries, but the density of the red stems gave the trail a pinkish hue.

Donkey Reservoir was the first drop bag aid station, so I reloaded on snacks and drink mix, downed my usual can of club soda, stuffed a bag of Doritos into my shorts and headed on down a 4-wheel drive road.  The nice downhill was so pleasant to roll down, that I soon found myself at an unmarked intersection.  After looking around for a bit, I kicked myself for the stupidity and headed back up the hill for more than a quarter mile where I had missed a reasonably marked turn - 15 minutes down the drain.

Shortly after getting back on course, I heard voices up ahead.  Runners that I had passed a while back were now up in front.  I caught up to them shortly and three of us (me, Anthony Fetter, and Jeremy McDonough) settled into a nice pace and friendly conversation, which soon turned into vile cursing as we realized that we hadn’t seen a marker in a while.  Of course, it was on a nice downhill section, so we turned around and headed back up the trail to the pretty well marked turn that we had missed.  Anthony actually ran up ahead of me and Jeremy and wound up going the wrong way for a bit - poor guy, he did that so many times throughout the race, yet still came in 5th.

A few of us wound up heading out of Chokecherry Aid together, including a guy running in minimalist sandals.  After a bit, the real climbing started up to the top of the mesa.  I was amazed at how Colorado-like it was in this section.  We went up a steep, narrow valley, with sheer granite walls and a stream cascading down the middle.  It really felt like I was nearing treeline in the Rockies, including countless white Columbine scattered everywhere amongst the granite boulders.  By the time I topped out, I caught back up to Anthony and we wound up running together for quite a bit.  He took off out of Chokecherry before me, but with some gentle downhills through the meadows, I was able catch back up.

The two of us went into Pleasant Lake Aid together and I was a bit surprised to see Travis’s dad’s motorcycle there.  Sure enough, Travis had just left a minute before we got in and I could still see him in the distance.  He was in 4th, and I could tell he was tiring from the fast start.  Smelling blood, I was in and out of the aid station pretty quickly, figuring it wouldn’t be long before I caught up.

Travis must have gotten a shot of adrenaline from my pursuit, cause he wasn’t as easy to catch as I had thought.  I tried not to get into a real chase, as we were only 35 miles in, after all, I’m supposed to be the mature one.  I probably did push just a tad too hard, but I was having fun.  The terrain was spectacular.  We were running right along the edge of the mesa with panoramic views towards Capitol Reef, the race’s namesake.  Most of this section was in the pine trees, or right along the edge, but there were also a few alpine meadows.  As the course skirted around the edge of one of these, I noticed the back half of a fawn just a few feet away.  There was no blood and gore, not entrails.  It was just bitten cleanly in half, as one would bite a hotdog.  That is the creepiest thing I have ever seen on a race.  Luckily, it was early afternoon with the sun shining brightly, but I couldn’t help think that on the return, I would be passing through this area right around dusk.  I sure hoped the creature wouldn’t come back for the second mouthful when I was around.  By that time, I would be even more odiferous, encrusted in sweaty salt and sugary driblings, and I would be fatigued, stumbling along at an easily catchable pace.  Yikes!

All good things must come to an end.  What goes up, must come down.  It was now time to drop off the south end of the mesa towards the turn-around.  I vaguely remember Matt mentioning something about a steep, rocky section, but man did he undersell this.  Imagine a mile-long “road” at about a 50% grade, covered in jagged rocks ranging from fist to head size.  It was full-on quad-burning braking all the way down, trying to pick the cleanest line and stay upright.  Falling would have been most unpleasant.

Somehow, I managed to get down without a fall and the only damage was to my already raw feet.  A little way on a pleasant double track, and I could see the Long Lake Aid Station ahead.  And lo and behold, Travis was just heading out.  I yelled out to him, and though he was still off in the distance, I could tell by his slumping shoulders that he was less than pleased to look back and see me.

I made a quick stop through the aid station.  The ladies running it were awesome, as were all of the volunteers.  Travis had warned them of the “naked guy” chasing after him.  As I retrieved my drop bag, I noticed that everything inside was soaked.  No big deal, except for the shirt that I might need on the return trip.  Apparently, one of my cans of club soda leaked out.  Luckily, they’re just carbonated water, with no sugar, so there was no mess, just wet.  I pulled the shirt out and one of the gals graciously took it and hung it on a chair in the sun to dry.

I headed out as fast as I could and was a little surprised by the bit of climbing, as I had assumed it would be all downhill.  At the top of a good long climb, I saw Travis up ahead and in my best Stanley Kowalski bellow, I called out “STELLA!!!”  I’m not sure why, but I was tired of just calling out Travis’s name.  For the next few miles, as the terrain rolled through groves of giant aspens and open meadows, I would periodically catch glimpses of Travis and call out to him - “STELLA!!”

By mile 46, I finally caught up to the young punk.  I would have liked to hang with him for a while, to chat and gloat, but I had recently realized that my first flashlight was back at the previous aid station (mile 58.5) and at the current pace, I might not necessarily make it before dark.  I was feeling good and the terrain was rolling downhill, so I pushed on.  After a couple of miles, I finally came up on the leaders as they were heading back.  My GPS was still dead, but in asking them the distance to the turn-around, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their lead was less than 2 miles.  This gave me a nice boost and I coasted into the Chriss Lake Aid Station just shy of 12 hours into the race.  Not too bad given the difficulty of the course and my extra ½ hour of wondering.

To add to my happy mood, I was surprisingly greeted by my favorite cheerleaders - Amy, Kirstyn, & Brenda.  I really wasn’t expecting to see them as it was a good bit of a drive and my arrival time was anything but certain.

Luckily I had packed 2 cans of club soda in this drop bag, because another one of them leaked out.  I went through pretty quickly and even Travis’s step-mom helped me out, though she made me promise not to let Travis know.  So I grabbed a couple of snacks, took a quick picture with the girls, bade them farewell, and told them to expect me around 6:00 AM.

I also learned that the sun was setting a bit later than I had feared, and with the rolling terrain back to Long Lake, I would have plenty of time.  With that concern out of my mind, I still pushed on knowing that I should make the most of the daylight and buoyed by the knowledge that the leaders were so close ahead.  If I could just hold on, I’d at least be 3rd place male - one more tomahawk to add to the collection.

I love out-and-back courses: you know what’s in store for you on the second half, there’s a real sense of accomplishment and relief after the turn-around, and you get to see all of the other runners (slower and faster).  It was really nice to see all the oncoming runners, especially on a remote course with such a small field.  Everyone encouraged each other on and I tried to let them all know what the distance and upcoming terrain was like.

I made it back to Long Lake in plenty of time.  I ate some snacks, restocked my supplies, donned my now dry shirt, and packed my flashlight.  After a short distance, I was back to the “river of rock”, this time staring up with a craned neck.  I tried to hold to a sustainable effort, but even that was tough.  I crested the top of the mesa just as the sun was shining its final rays on the valley floor to the east - what an awesome picture that would have made.

I allowed my legs to recover a bit, but soon broke into a run again.  I really wanted to take full advantage of the diminishing daylight.  On this kind of terrain, running at night is always slower.  I was quite surprised to see a couple of runners still heading out.  I doubted they would make the cut-offs, but they seemed to be in good spirits.  I finally succumbed to the darkness and turned the flashlight on.  I was a bit nervous as I still had some distance to go and only the one light.  If it flaked out on me for any reason, I would be stuck, probably doing jumping jacks to stave off hypothermia until another runner came along.

As I had guessed, between the familiarity of the course and the reflectivity of the markers, the route was much easier to find on the return trip.  I don’t know if it was simply out of the beam of my flashlight, or if it had been retrieved by the murderous beast, but I didn’t notice the fawn remnant.  I did, however, make plenty of noise, just in case.  In addition to some gibberish talk and a variety of song snippets, the recurring theme seemed to be “mamma said there’d be days like these…”  Seemed appropriate for the low points as well as the high ones throughout the night. And I’m pretty sure I was singing in tune the whole time.

Pleasant Lake seemed to take forever - one of the detriments to not having a working GPS (damn you, Garmin!).  Every little rise was topped with disappointment as the trail continued on and on into the darkness.  Finally, I saw the dim, khaki glow of the aid station tent in the distance.  As I approached, I was surprised to see two lights coming out of the tent and continuing on the trail.  When I inquired within, I was shocked and delighted to learn that it was the Virginia Beach couple and the leader was only about 15 minutes ahead of them.  Wow!  I must have been really hauling butt since the turn-around.  Travis’s dad was in the tent and helped me out as I gave him news of his son.  I moved in and out pretty quick, excited to catch the couple and possibly run with some company.  It took me all the way to Chokecherry to actually catch them, but I was still making progress.

The three of us left the aid station pretty much together and ran close for a while.  We did a little bit of chatting but soon I started to pull away.  Unfortunately, after we passed through the open meadows and got back into more forested areas, I had a bit of trouble finding the markers and they caught up to me.  We basically ran together until the top of the big descent as it was much easier to route find with three sets of eyes.

At the start of the descent, the trail became pretty distinct and I was able to jog down the slope at a better pace, increasing the distance to my pursuers. I made my way into Fish Creek Aid and was disappointed to learn that the leader had substantially increased his lead.  Between that bit of news and the effort of the past miles, I continued to slow down.  I was constantly looking back in fear of being caught, but I pretty much lost hope of a win.  You would think that the prospect of a second place finish would have been pretty energizing, but I was beat.  The course and my effort were really taking their toll.  It was also around this time that I caught sight of the rising moon.  Normally this would be pretty uplifting, but it only made me more aware of how late it was and that I would not come close to finishing by sunrise.

The remaining 19 miles dragged on interminably.  I was out there alone and the aid stations took twice as long to appear as I wanted/expected.  The climb up the road to Donkey felt like it was miles long and the sky was just starting to lighten.  Not long after I left the aid station, I was able to put the flashlight away.  The increased visibility was welcomed, but knowing how far I still had to go after sunrise was not.  The section between Donkey and Government was my lowest point on the way out and those memories were still relatively fresh.  Though the past 24 hours had dried the mud and the foliage, the mosquitos were almost as bad.  This time, I had a shirt on and was doused in repellant so I didn’t get bitten much, but they were just the annoying tip of the iceberg that I didn’t need.  Though mostly downhill, the rolling terrain went on and on, lengthened further by my slowing pace.

After cresting the final hill and descending for what seemed like hours, I was convinced they had packed up the Government Creek Aid Station and moved it.  By the time I finally reached it, I was downright cranky.  I topped off my water and grumbled a heartless thank you to the volunteer as I continued on down.  I wasn’t feeling strong enough to fully take advantage of the ideal finishing downhill that I had looked forward to since the previous day, but it did improve my mood a bit.  I also started seeing runners coming uphill for the shorter distance races and put on a more cheerful facade.  They were all so incredibly supportive and encouraging, I didn’t want to come off as an ungrateful, self-centered jerk.  Sure, I was tired and disappointed in my time, but I had run almost 100 really tough miles and was in second place.  Most of these runners saw me as an inspiration and I had an obligation to live up to.

As the elevation decreased, the sun and temperature rose.  With my long-sleeve shirt and pack on, I was getting toasty and the miles dragged ever on.  It felt like I was approaching the event horizon of a black hole, where time parabolically slows down to almost infinity.  After what felt like 50 miles since Government Creek, I finally came upon the self-serve aid station with 2.25 miles still left to go.  I dug through the bin and retrieved my stupid, dead camera.  I also found some tasty tea biscuits that just melted in my mouth.  50 feet down the trail, I paused and almost turned back for another handful, but decided against it.  I wanted to be done.

I had tripped and stumbled numerous times during the race, but never hit deck. At least, not until now.  At mile 98, on a smooth double-track, I landed face down in the sand.  This did not improve my mood!  I dusted myself off, spit out the grit, and after a few choice words for myself and the trail, carried on.  A few lifetimes later, I finally heard the road, then saw it, then crossed it.  How the hell did the damn driveway into the lodge get so long!?  I swear it was only 100 feet on the way out, now it felt like a couple of miles!

I could finally see the lodge, and the cars, and the finish!  As I slowly jogged on, I saw Brenda and the girls stooped over some rocks.  Just as I was passing them by, they finally looked up and saw me.  Kirstyn and Amy jumped up and ran across the line with me.  It was over! 26:49:29.  Holly crap.  How did it take so long?

Second place overall, and the toughest 100 I’ve run yet.  I was a bit disappointed in having slowed down so much over the last 30 miles, but that’s just my obsessive, perfectionist nature.

The course markings could have been more frequent.  Though the only two times that I got lost were strictly because of my inattention, the stop and go required to find the next flagging on some of the mesa top sections was extremely fatiguing.  This is a relatively small “issue” which I’m sure Matt will fix for next year.  For a first-time event, things went very smoothly, especially since they had apparently lost a number of experienced aid station volunteers at the last minute due to a funeral.  Matt and Turd’l had warned us at the start about the “inexperienced” volunteers but I can’t think of the slightest complaint with the aid stations.  Everyone was so incredibly helpful and supportive.  It was awesome.

As I said, this was the toughest 100 I’ve run yet.  It was also my favorite.  Monument Valley was probably a little more more picturesque, but this course was so incredibly diverse.  Going from colorful sandstone, to lush jungle-like trails, to giant aspens, alpine meadows and columbine in the thin air at 11,000’+.  I know the 50 miler covered the same route, but seeing it twice on the 100 is totally different.  I hope Matt can put on the 100 again next year.  This race, more than any other in Ultra Adventures’ Grand Circle series is destined to become a classic.