Well, 52.24 if we're to split hairs.
That's how far I ran Saturday. In one shot. Up and over a ski hill. Several times. On purpose. It's still kind of sinking in. I did it. All of it. I finished.
When I started my quest for ultra running, these were all just numbers on a training plan. A simple mileage progression. I don't think it occurred to me that I might actually be running the numbers on the page. Signing up for a race is so simple, it's almost like it never happened.
But there I was in a hotel room at 3:00AM getting ready to toe the line for the second milestone race of my season. (The first was my 50K.) I trained. I tapered. I was as ready as I was going to be. And I even slept a bit the night before.
If I haven't said it before, the thing I like best about the ultra running community is a sense of family at every event. This was clear as the runners started to assemble at the starting line. There was relaxed chit chat, fresh coffee, and a rather relaxed and welcoming feel that is missing from the majority of road and shorter trail races I have attended. Don't get me wrong! I enjoy the excited buzz of group of 5k runners about to throw it down fast and furious, or the excitement in the starting chutes for a marathon. But this is just different.
I think this is due to the distance and terrain. Attacking a ski hill like a 5k is a recipe for disaster and those three dreaded letters - DNF.
The pre-race briefing was held in the dark. It ended with a simple, "I think everyone is here. Let's go ahead and line up over at the start." Unlike road races, there was no mad rush to be the first person to the line. In fact, there was a bit of a rush to be the last person to the line - to the back of the pack. No one wanted to go out too fast. No one was here to showboat. The first 10k wasn't the race. There was plenty of time to get it all worked out.
Like anyone racing this year, I had been watching the weather closely. It's been a wild spring. And a few days before the race, spring ended. Summer was here. I can run through the worst weather with the best of them. Lacing up and getting out in below zero snow storms is no big deal for me. Rain? Not an issue. But heat... Well that is enough to make me want to die. And that's what the forecast had in store. Lots of hot. If we were lucky, one of the small "localized" afternoon storms would roll through.
The course was a giant lollipop. We all started with the loop - a fairly mellow, but quite pretty greenbelt trail (actual single track dirt) through a small mountain community. We wore headlamps for the first half or so. The sun was rising, and we might be able to do without the artificial light, but the local rodent population had done a number on the first section of trail, and destroying an ankle in the dark in the first 5k just doesn't sound like fun to anyone.
I skipped the first un-manned aid station. If I really needed that stop at four miles in, I was probably in over my head. We finished up the loop and landed back at the start/finish and the first manned aid station. I was still loaded with supplies from the start. My goal was to top off the bottles and go. After a brief moment of confusion looking for my bag to grab a replacement for the snack I ate and my sunscreen this would prove to be the fastest aid station of the day.
And we were off onto the "stick" of the lollipop - a half mile of pavement that lead to the single track that would take us well onto the ski hill. It didn't take long for me to catch up to the runners in front of me. Chisholm, and Chris. Chris and I talked a bit on the loop. He was out doing his first 50k. His only goal was survival, and he was smiling and just chugging along at a comfortable pace. Chisholm and I slowly worked past Chris. It's the friendly banter on the trail that you really don't get much in the road races. But when you are power hiking a big climb, a few friendly words to someone else suffering the same hill can do a lot to help you disassociate with your current misery. Chisholm and I swapped spots a few times.
I was in front when the single track emerged onto the cleared ski slope. My head was mostly down and I was ready to just keep going. But the deer in front of me had something else in mind. Since I need a break anyway, I stopped and watched. Chisholm wasn't but a few seconds behind and I wanted him to see these guys with their fuzzy antlers. And it's a good thing I waited. As my new friend emerged from the trees, he told me I was headed the wrong way. I was following the path of least resistance. The course, however, did not.
The course was going up what I will call "The Death Hill." My elevation chart shows this climb as nearly vertical. And it felt like it. To add excitement, if you weren't careful where you put your feet, you would slide back down the hill. I wanted a helmet. Crampons and an axe were also on my mind.
Chisholm talked me through the climb. I know I attacked it too fast. But it gave me a chance to get to the point where the angle eased off and make a little joke. "Good news! There's more hill up here!" I'm still not sure how long that climb was. It couldn't have been more than a half mile. But it felt forever. And then it was over and the angle became reasonable and we were able to more easily climb to the high point of the course - another un-manned aid station situated mostly in the woods, in the shade. We topped off a bottle and continued onward. After a short down, then up, the dirt road section plummeted down. I was working hard to stay with Chisholm. He was a course veteran and knew what was coming. Pacing off him seemed like a great idea. But reigning in the hill wasn't what I had trained to do, and it was starting to make my legs feel tight. I said goodby to my new friend, and used gravity to cover some ground.
Part of the appeal of trail running is the scenery. And this course did not disappoint. The valleys in New Mexico are simply stunning. And if you find yourself on a good vantage point it is easy to get lost staring at the countryside below you. And the back half of this hill was filled with those vantage points. (The front of the hill was too, I was just too busy trying not to fall on The Death Hill to really appreciate them.)
As the course continued on a jeep trail where the main road ended I started to see other runners headed back in. There were lots of smiles and lots of encouragement. The runners headed back in were climbing and had a long way to go until the top. I was finishing up a six mile descent and feeling pretty good when I rolled into the manned aid station at this end of the course. I was about 19 miles into it here and feeling great. I refilled my bottles and my bladder, and grabbed a snack off the tables. The volunteers offered sunscreen, and I thought that was a great idea. This stop didn't feel too long. I didn't feel I lingered. I took a deep breath and turned to climb back up to the summit.
This was the most enjoyable climb of the whole day. There were people everywhere. The first three miles or so had the remaining 100 mile, 50 mile, and 50k runners heading into the aid station. The last three miles had the 25k runners heading out to the turn around. My plan was to stop at the unmanned water jugs, top off again, and sit briefly to have a snack before heading down the hill. My training had shown me that if I don't eat before a big descent, odds were good I was going to wind up face down in the dirt. As I opened my snack a couple of runners came into the water stop. One of them was Tara. She was nursing a knee injury and just trying to make the best of the day. I shared my snacks with her, and we went opposite directions.
I made an effort to move quickly on the steep, loose section of The Death Hill. That was dumb. I can ski some steep stuff. I was not wearing skiis. It didn't take long for me to scare myself to a crawl. You've seen that video of Killian bombing down the mountain? I was kind of the opposite of that. But I made it down in one piece, and was still going faster than the trip up. It was as I was dropping into the treed section that I realized I hadn't seen anyone else in a while. I let my mind wander long enough too figure out Tara was the last person I had seen. My toe snagging on a rock or root jarred me out of thinking. I didn't go down, but it was pretty close. I was able to recenter myself and continue.
The trip and recenter cycle continued longer than I should admit. Finally, I quit trying to run and settled into a fast hike down the hill. I figured getting down without falling was better than risking injury. Not being able to run this section started to hit me a bit mentally. I was on my fuel and hydration plan as much as the terrain would allow. There was no real reason for me to be falling all over the place. Yet here I was. Trying to work it out, my foot caught again - while I was walking this time. The treed section was only about 3 miles long as I reached the bottom the trail got a bit hard to follow and I had to stop a few times to make sure I was in the right spot. I nearly missed the one important turn to get me back towards the base area. But I knew I wasn't supposed to go into the bike area, so it was pretty easy to know there was a problem. Thankfully I only needed to back track about six feet and then work my way up a short, steep wall to get up to the condo neighborhood section. One short climb, and I had a good half mile of paved downhill into the base.
I rolled into the base at the half way point. My watch said 26 miles and change. Looked like this would be the 52 mile 50 miler. I suspected there would be some bonus miles. I just didn't know how many. And now I had an idea. As I rolled into the base, there was a bit of a crowd. They cheered from the shade of their RV's and tents. The race director called out my name as I hit the tables. I remember smiling and waving. The next section was the opening 10k again. I didn't need much from the aid station to make it through. The very nice ladies filled my bottles with tailwind. I ate a salted potato and grabbed two little turkey/cheese tortilla roll ups to snack on as I headed out.
I walked out of the aid station taking a mental inventory. I was at the half way mark. Lungs felt good. Legs felt pretty good. It was starting to get hot. In fact, the first mile here was on blacktop. And it felt REALLY hot. I started to much on my tortilla wrap. If I wasn't sweating and breathing hard these two wraps would have been all of four bites. But I had this challenge of breathing and chewing going on, so I had to take smaller bites. As I was chewing, breathing, power hiking, sweating, and trying to figure out how I was doing I seemed to have overloaded my capacity. A chunk of tortilla got stuck in my throat. No biggie. A drink would wash it out. Nope... No biggie. A good cough will get it out. Nope... Wait... What's that? What is my stomach doing? No! Not that! I need those calories and fluids! And my stomach put them on the pavement. Oh well. At least the tortilla was out of my throat and I was feeling pretty good.
A few minutes later I went back to trying to eat. And the same thing happened. And I was out of easily reachable food. No biggie. Five miles left and I had plenty of tailwind in the bottles. I can get more food back at the base.
Did I mention it was really starting to warm up? The first two miles here were all in direct sunlight. There was no relief. Running was hard. I was melting. I slowed to a grinding pace. The turn into the trees couldn't come soon enough. Only when the turn came, it wasn't really any cooler. I trudged on. Melting. Sinking physically and mentally.
The unmanned water jug was an incredible relief. Just a little bit of cool water did good things for me mentally. But it didn't help the body much. The next section was a bit downhill, and I was able to put together a good run. And then I was back onto the pavement for the last mile or so to the base. It went about as you might expect. Slow and hot.
At this point the aid station had changed. It was staffed by people who had finished the 50k and were hanging out. I felt like a race car in for a pit stop. Bottles were taken out of my vest for me and filled. My bladder was taken out of my vest and filled. The spare bottle I pulled out of my drop bag was taken from my hand and filled before I could even finish the sentence. They did leave me to change my own socks, but the new socks were taken out of my bag for me. I stood up and walked to the sunscreen guy and he bombed me with the spray sunscreen in a way that I had never experienced.
I don't remember how far I was from the base, I think I may have been nearly past the condos and into the woods when I realized the food I had taken out of my drop bag hadn't made it into my vest. In the confusion of all the help, it had gotten missed. Given the stomach situation, I didn't think I could have eaten it anyway, but I really wanted to have it. I took a mental inventory. I was pretty sure I had a fruit cup buried in my pack. And maybe something else. And I had plenty of tailwind to make it to the unmanned station.
I was around the 35 mile mark. Well past my previous longest run ever. And I was trying to get into the deep part of the woods where things were shaded, there was a creek, and everything was a marvelous escape from the heat. I was moving well, but not exactly running. Part of this was due to the hill. Part was me not wanting to push to hard. And a big part was just me enjoying being in the shaded woods and being out of the heat. But that section was only about three miles, and all too quickly I came out into the clearing of the ski trail and turned to face The Death Hill for a second climb. This time in the full sun.
Just as I was about to really get into the climb, the ski lift hauling mountain bikers (and a few race supporters!) to the top stopped. Just like in winter time, there was a collective groan. I looked up at the people above me and said loudly, "Don't look at me; I didn't break it!" And they all laughed. This was an important measure of my mental state. If I can make jokes (even bad ones!), I'm doing good enough.
So, I climbed. Slowly. Carefully. With sweat dripping everywhere. Another good sign. I was still sweating. As I went up, I tried to form a plan for the rest of the run. I was going to walk across the summit to the water jugs where I would sit and dig through my pack to see what food I had.
At the jugs, just as I was topping off a bottle there was Tara. Tara was doing the 25k. She should have been finished a long, long time ago. We talked a bit. Turns out she missed the turn around and may have even made it all the way to the bottom where the aid station was. She was suddenly nursing a knee injury, trying to make the best of the day, and was now on the course a whole lot longer than expected. We chatted a bit as I found my fruit cup. I think Tara left first. I remember sitting by myself and getting ready for six miles of mostly down. As I left the aid station, it was silent. The noise from the ski lift was quiet. Tara had gone. And for some reason, I started crying a little.
It didn't last long, but it was pretty intense. I wasn't sure I wanted to be there any more. And I wasn't sure if the race director was going to let me finish. It was getting late. Real late. But I was on the downhill dirt road and I was making pretty good time. My only goal was to get to the next aid station. From there, I would either be stopped, or I would turn around and go finish my first 50 mile run. And that settled the emotions enough. I was going to the aid station. From there, it would work out one way or another.
As I neared the aid station, there was the unmistakable sound of gunfire. I could see a truck and some people. A closer look showed a good target across a pasture. The best news is they clearly were not shooting at the aid station. There were a few runners here. One guy doing the 100 mile and another doing the 50. I had seen them both earlier today. The 50 mile guy was Joe (I think) from D.C. and he remembered me and gave me a hello. He and the 100 mile runner - Chris, were making good time up the hill. The friendly hello was wonderful. And I made another terrible joke. I'm not dead yet. I just smell like it. It got a chuckle. So those two were doing fine as well.
It felt like forever, but there was another 100 mile runner. I don't remember his name, but I watched him speak with a race official in a truck, and I crossed the road to give him a high five as we passed. Another huge boost.
Again, it felt like forever passed, and I saw another runner. He was doubled over. I was not the only one experiencing stomach bloating and cramps. I don't remember his name (Joel, maybe?), but he was another 50 mile runner from ABQ. He was well enough to still joke and laugh a bit. Behind him was a woman running with poles on her pack. And she was flying compared to the rest of us. There was a brief nod hello, and she was gone. All business. And it was great to see someone doing so well so late in the day.
About now the weather had given us a break. There was a breeze, some clouds, a few rain drops, and a bit of thunder to go with it. And it all felt great. I appreciated every drop of rain that hit me. I spread my arms and let the wind wick moisture off my skin and clothes. The thunder? Well, I wasn't by the ski lift and I wasn't the highest thing in the area, so that would probably work out fine.
I made the final turn and could see the top of the aid station tent. I was nearing the moment of truth. The question asked was, "What can I get you?" I answered with a question of my own: Have I missed the cutoff?
The answer was no. There had been no word to hold people up at the aid station. I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the first time I knew I was going to finish this.
The aid station stop took a bit longer than I wanted. The help at the last stop jammed up my bladder a bit and it took some work to get it open. I spent too long looking at food I knew I wasn't going to eat. There was a warm, flat coke that I slammed. That felt pretty good, so I had some grapes. I had two full bottles of tailwind, and about 60 ounces of it in my pack. I had about nine miles to go. I wasn't going to risk vomiting again, so I left the rest of the food and just went.
On the way out I passed two more 50 mile runners coming into the aid station. One wouldn't leave on foot. She looked worse than I felt.
I focused on the sections. First, climb back up to the road. Next, run this flatter section. At the climb, power hike it. This climb was big and seemed to never end. First time through there were people all around. This time it was just me. I heard a car roll up behind me. I got over and waved, but the car didn't pass. I looked over to see a couple of faces I recognized as being part of the race directors crew. I felt my stomach drop. Were they sweeping the course? Was I done? The window rolled down, and I heard a question, "How are you doing Matt?" Yes, my name was on my bib, but they all made a point to know who was out there and to call us by name as often as possible. And that was awesome. I smiled despite my fear of being told to get in the car. The answer that came to my mouth was paraphrased from the movie 100: Head, Heart, Feet. "Everything hurts, but I'm in a pretty good mood about it."
She asked another question that I really wasn't ready to answer: So, you're going to finish your first 50 miler?
Yes. Yes I am.
Turns out they were out marking the course for the 100 mile runners that would be running through the night. There were glow sticks that needed to be put out. No one was getting swept today.
The car pulled away and I was left with my thoughts and the sound of my footsteps grinding on the gravel road. Crunch. They aren't going to pull me. Crunch. I'm like 1.5, maybe two miles from the top of the hill. Crunch. Crunch. Wow. Crunch. So... I just need to finish this climb. Crunch. Regroup at the water station. Crunch. Creep down The Death Hill. Crunch. Make it through the woods alive. Crunch. And... then it's like a half mile of easy pavement to the finish. Crunch. Of my first 50 mile. Crunch.
And that's pretty much how it went. I stopped at the water station and enjoyed a cup of cool water and re-centered myself. I decided I was going to break this part up into smaller chunks.
First up was The Death Hill. My goal was to simply make it down without falling. And I did. I moved slowly and deliberately.
After the death hill was a mellow downhill twin track through the grass under the ski lift. I was able to run this without much issue. The tire tracks were pretty smooth.
One right turn to bring me into the woods. The sun was getting low. The shadows would be deep. I briefly thought of my headlamp that I had for the first six miles stashed away in my drop bag. The woods I split up into a few different sections based on terrain, things I saw, and what the trail did. I didn't want to fall. That was my main concern. Falling and getting hurt would be a stupid reason to DNF. The top section was mostly walked due to partially hidden rocks in the grass in and along the trail. No biggie. No falls. The upper switchbacks went nicely. Run the straights, walk the turns. No falls. The middle section wasn't switchbacky, but had some turns and longer straights. Same strategy. Stream crossing section - same strategy. The rocks across the stream were perfect for running across. Under the bike bridge, lower switchbacks. Same strategy. Run the straights. Walk the turns.
With each step, I was getting closer to the finish. With each step I started feeling better. The first place 100 mile runner was coming up the trail. (Chris - he would set the course record at 26:45 or so.) He stepped aside and let me "run" through with a smile and kind words of encouragement.
A few more turns and the second place 100 mile finisher and his pacer were working up the trail. This was a wide spot. The pacer went to one side and the runner to the other. I took the middle and gave them a hoot as I cruised through. I wanted to give them a high five, but they were carrying poles and that just wasn't a safe proposition. (Wait, exactly how did you lose your eye running a 50 miler?)
I got turned around at the funky climb just before the condos. I missed the turn again and started heading into the bike park. I thought of the 100 mile runners. On their next pass through here they would be in the dark. If it were me, I doubt I would find the way out at this point.
But it wasn't quite dark yet, and I was able to backtrack a few feet and find the landmarks I tried to remember from the last time through. One short, steep effort and I was on the dirt road by the condos. Just a bit more up. I power hiked the gentle hill partly because that's about all I had, and partly to recenter, and rehydrate. I was starting to get really excited now. I could feel my pulse race. As the angle tipped downward I started to run again. I turned off the feeling in my body. Shut up calves. We're doing this. I don't care hamstrings. Time to finish. And so on with every ache that came up.
One of the mountain bike racers gave me a yell from a bit away, "Keep going brah! Looking great!" I gave him a fist pump in the air. Continuing to pick up the pace as the downhill carried me closer to the finish line; and it wasn't long until I heard the whir of bearings coming up on me. It was my new mountain biking fan. He pulled up beside me and we had a bit of a conversation:
Bike: You're almost there man. Looking strong!
Me: Thanks. I'm feeling really strong right now.
Bike: Keep it going. You're going to finish this.
Me: Bike in with me. It isn't far.
Bike: No brah. This is yours. But I'm going to podium tomorrow just for you.
He gave me a hoot and turned off into his condo. And I was at the last turn. I started to pick it up. My head was on a swivel as I came to the main road. There were no crossing guards at this point. I was traveling faster than I had been all day and really didn't want to stop. There was one car a ways off, so I darted into the street, and across. About this time the people in the parking lot started to cheer, and I dug deeper and started to kick it in as best I could. Into the parking lot (don't trip!) and to the finish chute. As I line up the chute Chisholm is on the far side with a camera. I raise my arms in celebration. (It felt like they were a whole lot higher than the picture shows...)
Victory. 52.24 miles was my recorded distance. And the last couple miles felt really good.
I wandered around the base area a minute gathering myself. The people there were offering me things - water, food, a chair, a sponge. I took a drink and found my drop bag. I took out the damp washcloth someone told me to pack. (Brilliant!) and wiped down my face and neck. It felt wonderful.
It was about that point the race director wandered over and asked me if I was ready for my stuff. There was a nicely printed certificate of completion, a medal of sorts, and a small, simple, wooden trophy. I'm not sure how long I stared at the trophy before I recognized the words. Third overall male. It seems in the middle of the day, when it was hot and I was suffering several other runners were also hot and suffering. Suffering to the point that they decided 50k was enough for the day. By showing up and enduring some discomfort and suffering to finish what I said I was going to finish, I earned my first podium. Ever. It's safe to say it felt nothing like I expected. There was no shoulder to shoulder duel with a rival. There was no real fanfare. Just a nice simple trophy to commemorate a nice simple day.
It wasn't until the next day that I noticed the medal had a quote from Thoreau on the back.
"The moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow."