Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tushars 93K

Starting at the Eagle Point Ski Resort, at 10,000’, I had expected to wake up to some pretty chilly temps, but was pleasantly surprised.  It had not dropped nearly as low as I had expected, though it did give me a bit of concern for heat of the afternoon.

The 5:00 AM start meant almost an hour of darkness, as well as the prospect of a rewarding sunrise.  We started off down a short section of dirt road and soon turned off onto gently climbing single track.  The string of headlamps ahead and behind were cool, but I knew a picture just wouldn’t come out.

After topping out at the first saddle, switchbacks wound our way down for a bit through the trees.  As we crossed a meadow, I smelled smoke, and sure enough, we were greeted with some cheers and encouraging words from a couple of campers - I wonder how surprised they were to be woken up at this hour by a long stream of runners.

Another little climb and the sky started to brighten, illuminating the awesome mountain views around us.  This north side of the mountains was even more rugged and Colorado-like than the south side that I had seen the previous day.  The sunrise was so pretty, I had to stop and shoot a few pictures, and take a stupid fall onto my elbow while not paying attention to the trail.

Pretty soon, we could see Alunite Ridge aid down and across a valley.  Turd’l was there taking down numbers and told me I was already more than 15 minutes behind “the boy with the neck tattoo”.  After refilling my supplies and grabbing an entire stack of pancakes, I headed on up the road, towards another pass.

I was running in and amongst people this whole time so it was nice and sociable.  Making a quick descent down into another beautiful, lush valley, I managed to pass a handful of runners, but we were just jostling positions back and forth depending on the terrain.  Most everyone had settled into a good position/pace by this time.

As we started to climb, there was a section where the trail was overgrown and we all stopped to look for the next marker.  With only about a minute lost, the climbing continued, and I found myself alongside Jamil Coury, from Aravaipa.  Him and I would run together pretty much all the way up to Copper Belt Peak.

As the big climb up to Mt. Delano (+12,000’) started, I was able to pass a few more runners.  Though the climbing was slow and tough, my time at altitude definitely gave me an advantage over many others.  Matt had told us that the area was home to a herd of mountain goats, and sure enough, we could see white dots moving many miles away on a distant ridge.

As we got higher up on the ridge, the open, lush, green tundra was so reminiscent of the Sound of Music (which I had just watched with my daughters the previous weekend) that I couldn’t help spinning around and singing in a horribly off-key voice.  Julie Andrews would be turning over in her grave if she were dead.  Who knows, my singing might have finally done her in.

The drone had been up and filming, but had been brought back down due to gusty winds.  Too bad.  With some professional sound dubbing, and a digitally imposed dress to cover up my hairy chest and back, and some flowing locks on my head, I could have been a dead ringer for Maria.

The actual peak seemed to sneak up on us as it had appeared to be much further off from below.  After a couple of quick pics, Jamil and I headed off down the other side.  The trail was quite defined in some areas, and in others, we were following flags over open fields.  It seemed like we were moving reasonably well, but the runners that we had spotted up ahead of us on the ascent were nowhere to be seen down below.  Soon enough, we came across the half marathoners as they were making their way up to the peak, which was their turn-a-round point.  That would be one heck of a half marathon!

After a long, fast descent, we hit a dirt road and started a moderate climb towards the Mud Lake aid station, which was managed by Britta.  She hadn’t taken note of Travis coming through, so she couldn’t give me any kind of an update ast to our relative positions.

Shortly after leaving Mud Lake, we started a long single-track descent through more forested, Colorado-like terrain, bottoming out near a deep blue alpine lake.  From there, we were back onto a 4-wheeler road that climbed towards Bullion Pasture aid.  Jamil would periodically pull ahead as he pushed more on the climb, but I would re-catch him on any runnable sections.

Mud Lake had been pretty quiet, but Bullion was a hub of activity, as it was situated at a trailhead and there were crews, spectators, and other users around.  Turd’l was there and without my even asking, he told me that Travis was no more than 10 minutes ahead.  Haha!  I knew he was starting to fade and I would be able to reel him in soon enough.

I didn’t realize just how soon.  Less than a mile out from Bullion, Jamil and I were pushing the pace on the downhill road when I heard “son of a…!” from the bushes.  Sure enough, Mr. Speedy was taking a potty break off the side of the road - must be all the gross Hammer gels he keeps shoving down his tattooed throat.  Within seconds, he came whizzing by us.  Jamil and I looked at each other and shook our heads - young punk just doesn’t know when he’s been whooped.

We flew along these 3 miles of downhill road with sub 8 minute miles - partly because the terrain was so well suited for speed, but also because we wanted to to get the hell off the damn road.  Matt had warned us that this area was one of the most popular with 4-wheelers, but man did he undersell that.  It was a nonstop stream of those obnoxious things, kicking up a continuous cloud of fine dust as they flew by.  It’s no fun chewing on gritty dust as you’re struggling to filter through some oxygen to fuel the legs.  Luckily, we made it down to the Copper Belt aid station pretty quickly and left the motorized frenzy behind.

I should have taken a minute to down my full can of club soda, as I would be dreaming about it later, but I wanted to hang with the group.  Jamil, Travis, another runner and I, all headed out of the aid together and started the long climb up to Copper Belt.  Much of the climb consisted of switchbacks along the face of the mountain that was treeless, but lush with undergrowth.  Not far up these switchbacks, we started coming across the leaders as they flew back down.

As we got higher up, I started to slowly pull away from our small group.  Soon, the trail came out onto the side of a rather steep slope composed of small pieces of light colored slate.  The “trail” consisted of a barely perceptible notch in the otherwise continuous slope.  This would have been a horrible place to pass oncoming traffic.

As I got higher, I was able to catch and pass a couple of runners.  Among the returning runners was the lead woman - one that I hadn’t recognized previously.  I was a little surprised not to see Jenessa in the lead.  I soon realized she was just a short distance ahead of me.

The trail leveled off a bit, actually dipped for a short distance, and then the flags took us on a sharp right turn (almost doubling back) and up along the ridge line to the peak.  I punched by bib, snapped a few quick pics, enjoyed another awesome view of all the peaks, and turned around for the descent.  I soon passed Janessa, who had come in 1st place at Antelope Canyon.  This boosted my confidence a bit, but I later found out that she was having some digestive issues that day and would later drop out.

Back onto the trail, I came across the ink-necked punk and was tempted to “accidentally” elbow him off the side of the mountain, but the terrain wasn’t steep enough to make it worthwhile.  The return trip off of Copper Belt was doubly nice - running downhill is always a treat after a hard climb, and it was energizing to see all the runners coming up and exchanging encouragement.

By the time I got back down to the aid station, I had emptied my bottle and totally relished the cool, refreshing can of club soda I had waiting for me.  Unfortunately, the next 3 miles would be back on the busy, dusty road.  This time, moving slowly uphill.  I was quite pleased to encounter only a few vehicles, but man it was way slower going back up.  I was starting to feel the effects of all the climbing.

Finally back up to Bullion, Turd’l was pleased to hear that I had literally caught Travis with his pants down.  The next 7 miles would be almost all downhill, and on nice single-track.  I was quite happy, but even with gravity in my corner, I still wasn’t moving quite as fast as I would have liked.  The terrain, vegetation, and temperature changed noticeably as I dropped about 3,000’.  At the bottom of the valley, there were many families camping around the creek and eyeing me with curiosity.  At one point, I passed a small group of people looking wearily into the base of a bush.  Apparently, they had just spooked a rattlesnake!  That’s the last thing I needed to worry about.

After a short climb up a road, I came upon the Miner’s Park aid station.  There was another runner there who was just heading out, so I didn’t want to stay too long.  I took time to down 2 full cans of club soda, refilled my supplies, grabbed a second bottle, and headed off.  Unfortunately, when the volunteers filled up my bottles, they put about 18 oz. into each 20 oz. bottle.  The extra 4 oz. would have been so incredibly welcomed a few miles later.

The climb consisted mainly of an old abandoned road that climbed relentlessly up the slope with an unfathomable number of switchbacks.  There were periodic boulders and trees that had fallen across the road and it was covered by waist-deep grass that was luckily dry due to the lack of rain over the previous days.  In the lower sections, I had that rattlesnake in the front of my mind as my feet moved through the thick, green vegetation.

I was hoping that I had reserved enough in the tanks for a strong surge to power up this final major climb and callously step over the writhing bodies of lesser runners as they lay helpless along the trail.  Unfortunately, I was moving OK, but I was not immune to the effects of the previous 40+ miles and 12,000’ of elevation gain.  And the runners ahead of me were nearly as green and reckless as I had hoped.

I did wind up catching one runner - the guy who had left the aid station just ahead of me.  And I certainly did not zip on past him.  It was more like a couple of tortoises, slowly making forward progress, with one being ever so slightly less slow than the other.

Despite the cloud cover and having just filled my stomach up with the two cans of club soda, the heat (somewhere in the 70’s), exertion of the previous miles, and the climb, left me parched.  Before I knew it, I had already gone through half of a bottle and I had gone less than a mile.  I quickly realized the potential gravity of the situation and cut back to small, rationed sips.  All day, we had run along or across babbling brooks of clear cold, delicious water, and here where I would have sold my soul to the devil (again), there was nothing!

The minutes felt like hours.  Every mile took an eternity.  Finally, I broke through the suffocating vegetation and out above treeline.  The cool air felt and tasted so refreshing.  But the the celebration did not last long.  The course broke off of the old road and climbed very steeply up the tundra.  Following a ridge, there was still no flowing water and no people around.  The flags led ever up and up.  Some sections were quite steep and the wind was blowing, but on I climbed.

Not too far back, I could see the guy that I had passed.  Up ahead, there was nobody.  On and on, until I finally topped out!  I celebrated by draining the last few drops out of my bottle.  I could see the Alunite Ridge aid station below.  Sure it was a ways down, but it was downhill and I was sure I would be there within 10 thirsty minutes.

The flags went steeply down to a little saddle, then turned off and to the left.  WTF!  The aid station is down and to the right.  But sure enough, I could see multiple flags lined up towards the left, so that’s the way I went.  The course went back onto a rough, rocky road, so I figured that this was probably a more measured descent and would soon turn the corner and head straight for the life nourishing liquids contained within that chaky brown tent.  But noooo!  The road led further and further away from my goal.  Down and down it went, but in the wrong direction.

It finally bottomed out, and then started to climb… What kind of cruel joke was this?  There was running water now!  I was so tempted, but I was so close.  Would it be worth the risk now?  Surely the tent was hidden from view just a few steps away.

Up?  Why up?  Why didn’t we just come straight DOWN upon the aid station?

Up a little more, then down, then up again, and there it was…  I wept.  Or at least I would have, if my tear ducts weren’t as dry as my raspy throat.

I stumbled in through the tent flap and drove straight for club soda in my drop bag.

After draining the first can, I looked around and noticed 2 other runners getting ready to depart.  This added to my urgency, but I drank another can and decided that I needed a shirt as the lowering temperatures were now starting to have an effect on my weary, dehydrated body.

7.5 miles to go!  I headed out just behind the other runners and soon passed them, though only because they stopped to rearrange gear.  I certainly wasn’t moving very fast.  I was still running reasonably on the downhills, but just had nothing to power me uphill.

I kept looking back, as one of the guys stayed pretty close on my tail, but he eventually dropped back.  My memory of this section was pretty hazy, but I soldiered on, watching the mileage on my Garmin rise agonizingly slow.  Eventually, I recognized the area where we had come upon the campers that morning.  I knew there was only one final climb through the forested switchbacks.  I pushed on and finally topped out at the saddle.  Almost all downhill from here!  I surged forward with a blistering 11 minute mile.  I hit the junction where the half marathoners turned off.  Down through the meadows.  Down through the ski area.  Down to the ski lift.  And then up.  A final ¼ mile uphill push to the finish.  I trudged up and the finish line came into view.  Spectators started cheering and I broke into an actual run for the final hundred feet, even though it was still uphill.

I did it!  A bit under 15 hours, and still in daylight.  This was one tough 55 miler with almost 17,000’ of elevation gain, and 4,000’ of that was from mile 40 to 44!  The scenery was absolutely spectacular and not what most people would expect in Utah.  I think this race deserves a bit of a warning - it is tough! Middle of the pack runners will need to keep an eye on the cut-offs.  Back of the pack runners may want to think about a shorter distance.

There are only two things that I would change about this race.  If at all possible, avoiding the 3 miles of 4-wheelers between Bullion and Copper Belt would really be nice.  Secondly, there needs to be at least a water station somewhere on the climb from Miner’s Park.  I could have easily used 60 oz. on that section and if it had been sunny and hot, 80+ oz. would have been needed.

I am sad that this was the last of Ultra Adventures Grand Circle series.  Each race has been so incredible and I have been honored and humbled to be a part of it.  Matt and his crew just keep outdoing themselves with each race.  Stay posted for a wrap up review of the whole series.

Garmin File