“It is a wonderful feeling to be so humbled.”
I have been hesitating writing this race report since I have such strong and conflicting emotions about what I did. From a purely superficial perspective, I did not finish what I set out to do. The longer version, however, was that this was a very emotional journey where I learned a lot more about myself and the sport of ultra running.
If you want the short version of this report, here it is: I ran up and down a bunch of really big ass mountains, dodged cows being herded by Colorado cowboys and was pulled from the course after missing the cutoff at mile 42 by about 5 minutes. The longer version, if you care, follows.
I went into the event thinking about many role models and important people in my life who helped get me to the point where I could even consider running a 50 mile race. My road coach, Karen Smith, who just finished a grueling Ironman, my trail coaches, Ken and Jason, who ran my sorry butt up and down most of the big hills in Austin (and reminded me that a 50K is not an ultra even though most would argue that point!), my wife and kids who dealt with my entire worthlessness after Saturday long runs and my tougher-than-nails ex-Secret Service stepfather who is currently fighting cancer (and could still kick most peoples’ asses). Without question, I went into the event knowing that I had a lot of inspiration to finish this event.
This race was held on National Forest land outside of Pagosa Springs, CO. Our family lived in the area when I was a kid and I have some wonderful childhood memories of being in the mountains so I thought this would be a great excuse to get back. Sure enough, Southwest Colorado lived up to my memories of being one of the most majestic and beautiful places on the planet. I arrived a day early so was able to do a little sightseeing, pick up my race packet and got to bed early that night so was plenty rested before the event.
Before hitting the sack, I called Farren and said goodnight to her and the kids and let her known that I should be done in 10 – 12 hours. I also knew that service would be spotty so that if she didn’t hear from me it was not because I had fallen off the side of a cliff (though that was a distinct possibility on this course!).
Race morning, I got up went to the bathroom (oh wait – too much detail I suppose), drove to the start and got a surprise call from my mom wishing me luck. We talked a few minutes about cutoffs and that I wasn’t worried about them at all. In fact, I made a comment that if I didn’t make the last cutoff, I sure the hell didn’t want to be out there.
We got the prerace briefing from the RD and he introduced Ed who designed and marked the course. He also mentioned Ed would be on the course with the last runners making sure they got back in. I briefly glanced at Ed – obviously a longtime runner in his mid-60s – but didn’t give much thought to him.
We were sent off with an appropriate, but unceremonious countdown. Knowing that I had a very long day ahead of me I throttled back quite a bit on my pace and just tried to enjoy the scenery. Even at this point I could feel the altitude (about 7,500 feet) but I had prepared myself so wasn’t too worried. We had about a mile of easy jeep trails and then hit our first big climb of about 1,500 feet over about 2 miles. It was as steep as the biggest / steepest hills we have in Austin so I took it easy and got passed by a lot of people. Shortly after the climbing started, I took my first fall. Shit. This is not a good way to start the day. At least I got it over with early!
I finally reached the top of the mountain – Chris Mountain I later found out – and started a nice and fast downhill to the bottom of a valley. From here I was running and chatting with a couple of other runners – witnessed a couple of good falls – and continued the drive on. At the bottom of the valley we started our biggest climb of the day, gaining about 2800 feet.
The first part of the climb was not too bad and I actually passed a few people. It wasn’t until we hit the next aid station did I get a good feel for what the rest of the day had in store for me. From here we climbed about 2,000 – which seemed almost straight up. I am sure that even at sea level and with fresh legs, this section would have hurt like a mother. After what seemed like hours we finally crested the mountain where we ran along the ridgeline for a few miles and were rewarded with an unbelievable view.
Unfortunately, once we hit the top I also felt my first calf cramp. Crap. I had this problem during my last marathon but it never managed to hit me full on. I took a bunch of electrolytes and hoped that would help. After a while it subsided a bit but as soon as I tried to run, the cramping would come back.
The next aid station was coming up and it was also the point where the 50 milers split from the 50K runners. After a couple of miles of fighting cramping and generally feeling sorry for myself, I decided I would drop down to the 50K. I was pissed but just wanted to be done.
It was also about this time we started a steep rocky downhill. I started feeling a little better and heard a strange yelling and hollering – it almost sounded like people were yelling for the runners to get “up that hill”. Strange I thought. I’ve done a lot of races and have heard people yelling encouragement but this was totally different. A couple of minutes later, I see a herd of cows running up the hill at me and a cowboy yelling at me to get out of the way. I smartly got to the side of the trail and started bushwhacking down the mountain and heard the cowboys muse to one another that there were a lot of runners out there. Funny, I was thinking the same thing about cowboys and cows.
Strangely, this cow-straction completely changed how I felt. I went from deciding to drop down to the 50K to deciding what to do once I hit the next aid station.
I rolled into the aid station and talk to the wonderful volunteers. They gave me a cold towel which felt amazing in the record setting heat. They then asked the question – was I a 50 miler? Yes. Was I continuing on? I don’t know. They let me know that a couple of people had already dropped down and there were only about 6 people ahead of me (of the 15 that started the 50 miler).
I sat down and rested for a few minutes, ate some chow and contemplated what I would do. It was at this point that all the people who I mentioned at the start of this email came to mind. With my extended support team in mind, the prospect of seeing more of this beautiful country and my own hardheadedness, I finally decided that I would go ahead and attempt the 50 miler. It also helped hearing my coach remind me that “a 50K is not an ultra”.
The 50 mile course included a 9.5 mile out-and-back portion, which the RD described at the start of the race as the toughest, but also the prettiest part of the race. As I head out I start a relatively short downhill section (about three Hill of Lifes for my Austin friends). I was thinking this would be tough but not too bad. We run through some pastures where I have to chase cows out of the way and hope I am on the right track (we were warned that the cows had been eating the course markers).
After a few miles the trail drops about a thousand feet in less than a mile. In fact it was so steep my progress going down was slower than on the flats. I finally hit the bottom and am awarded with the most amazing view I have ever seen. I am standing in an open pasture full of wildflowers and on almost every side of me I am surrounded by mountains. It was truly one of those feelings that I will never forget.
I continue through the pasture for a few miles, cross over the beautiful Piedra river and then start another big ass climb. This time it’s only about 1,000 feet over two miles but still steep as hell. It’s also at this time that my calf cramping issues really started becoming more of a problem.
I manage to make it to the top and run through another long valley to the next aid station. The cramping in my calves at this point has stopped me completely a few times now. In fact, one camp was so bad it left a huge bruise on my calf.
I finally get to the aid station and talk to the volunteer, Jeff. I found out later, he is from the small eastern New Mexico town I was born in and where several of my relatives are from. You can always tell people from this area from how friendly and genuine they are. He was very encouraging and mentioned that of the six people in front of me, 5 are from the area and one woman is leading the ultra runner magazine trail series. This makes me feel a little better since the folks that are kicking my butt are doing so for good reason.
I also learn from Jeff that Ed (the guy I mentioned at the beginning who designed the course and would be sweeping it for the last runners), is none other than Frozen Ed. Frozen Ed was the first winner of the insanely difficult Barcley Marathon. In fact, it’s so difficult that only a dozen or so people have finished it since its inception. Great – I am running on a course designed by a nut case!
I do a short 3 mile out and back, then head back the way I came. I am feeling very good at this point which is exactly what trail coaches said would happen. I come to the last big climb (1K feet in about a mile) and start up.
It’s at this point that I start to worry about missing the cutoff (I had been about an hour under up to this point). Around this same time, I see Frozen Ed barreling down the hill and ask him if he’s looking for the last runner, knowing good and well that’s me.
We talk about the cutoff and I ask him how long I have. We have about 1:15 to go about 4 miles. It’s amazing how your perception of time and distance can change on the trails. Knowing the big ass climb that I am about to undertake, it’s pretty obvious that my race is over.
The next few miles are a slow trudge and crash course on the sport from an ultra running guru. I also learn that Ed DNFed his first 50 miler getting a little more perspective on what this sport is really about. We reach the volunteers at the 50K / 50 mile split they let me know that I am done and that of the 15 that started, only six 50 milers left their aid station. The rest had either quit or dropped down to the 50K. They offered me a beer and then tragically informed me they were just kidding. No beer there. About 15 minutes later, Jeff (aid station guy) pulls up and offers a beer AND delivers. He gives Ed and I a ride back to the start, we take down the course markers and call it a day.
The final result was I ran longer and farther than I ever have, made a decision to continue on when every bit of my physical being was screaming not to and experienced some of the most amazing scenery on earth. It is one of the runs that I am most proud of, even though it’s the only time I have not finish a race.
I happened to pick up a book for the flight home and this was in the author’s introduction. It talks about the sea, but succinctly describes my experience in the mountains.
“I wish I could describe the feeling of being at sea, the anguish, frustration, and fear, the beauty that accompanies threatening spectacles, the spiritual communion with creatures in whose domain I sail. There is a magnificent intensity in life that comes when we are not in control but are only reacting, living, surviving. I am not a religious man per se. My own cosmology is convoluted and not in line with any particular church or philosophy. But for me, to go to sea is to glimpse the face of God. At sea i am reminded of my insignificance– of all men’s insignificance. It is a wonderful feeling to be so humbled.”
— Steve Callahan
— Steve Callahan