“The last two miles [of the peak] are extremely steep, as the road builders decided to charge directly up the mountain rather than bother with those wimpy switch-backs...It is so steep that if you tumbled, you'd probably keep rolling until you ended up in someone's front yard in Fountain Hills.” –Ksorenson (Hikearizona.com)
Thompson Peak, at just under 4000 ft elev., is the high point of the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 mile course in Fountain Hills, AZ outside of Phoenix. I hope I’m tough enough to run a marathon, make it to the summit and then run another marathon to the finish line. It is daunting to think about as I wait patiently at the starting line. This will be a long day for sure.
The sun hasn’t risen yet as about 50 runners toe the line. After a course briefing, the race director informs us that the remoteness of the route will require us to walk, limp or crawl to the nearest aid station if we decide to drop out of the race. “Three, two, one, GO!” We are finally on our way.
The race starts with a train of single file runners snaking through the terrain and then roller coastering over some whoopty doos. After the pack thins out, the sun peeks over the mountains and brightens the desert landscape. I enjoy the smooth sandy trail and look across to the horizon observing my surroundings. The scenery is spectacular and the weather, with a chill in the air, could not be more perfect for running.
I skip the first aid station, but hit my fuel bottle of honey and chia seeds. At the second one, I fill my water bottle and choke down a peanut butter sandwich quarter. We ascend a ridge and come to a beautiful grouping of saguaro cacti. These amazing plants only grow here in the Sonoran Desert and some are as large as trees and have numerous arms.
The trail is flat for a while and then we descend the ridge making our way toward Dixie Mine and to the big climb. I maintain a brisk pace, but not nearly as speedy as the lead runners who are already on their way back! I get my first glimpse of Thompson Peak which makes my stomach turn and then I pass through a cholla cactus lined section of trail.
From a distance the teddy bear or jumping cholla appears to be a benign fuzzy plant, but up close you can see that it has wicked thorns. This cactus multiplies when little prickly arms are blown off or when an inattentive runner brushes against them. Western folklore claims that the spines can actually jump off into a victim so I make sure to give it a wide berth just in case this wive’s tale is true.
|Jumping Cholla, watch out!|
Finally, I arrive at the Dixie Mine aid station and stock up on water and snacks, have some energy concoction and don my sun hat. The sun is getting high and I’m ready to get this climb behind me. The road is as ridiculous as anything I’ve ever seen and the word steep does not do it justice. I break into a fast walk and observe the runners who are stumbling back down. I keep a slow steady march and occasionally stop to take a few pictures; a good excuse to let my heart catch up.
Time seems to fly by and before I know it, I can see over the other side of the mountain with stunning views of Scottsdale and Camelback Mountain. After much toiling, the summit nears and other runners give me some words of encouragement. A warning sign reads, “Beyond this point: Radio frequency fields may exceed FCC rules for human exposure.” Well, that just motivates me even more to get to the top and out of here as quickly as possible.
Reaching the pinnacle is anticlimactic as there are just some cell phone towers and other manmade intrusions on nature. I quickly about face and head back down which is like descending a black diamond ski slope. I try my best to stay upright and not gain too much momentum and sometimes stop to look out over the desert floor where the trail snakes its way as far as the eye can see.
I finally make it to the bottom and back to the aid station. This is the half way point of my race so I celebrate by digging into my drop bag for some molasses and ginger cookies that Cara made for me. I will return to this station once more after completing a 5 mile loop into the mountains of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
After filling my water bottle, I quickly get going. I pass one runner and then begin a slow gradual ascent where another runner overtakes me. The preserve is as challenging as it is beautiful and, after reaching a high point, I get a glimpse of the fountain in Fountain Hills. This manmade geyser was the tallest in the world when it was built in 1970 and can shoot 560 feet into the air. I must be at least 10 miles away, but can see it clear as day.
|Fountain Hills, AZ|
As I run along I’m beginning to feel lethargic and am having doubts about finishing the race. I still have a good 20 miles to go and my mind is not very focused. I arrive at the aid station for the third time where I get some more fluids and snacks and then am on my way. This stretch is not as steep and I get to run some smooth downhill sections, but nausea is getting the best of me. Something moves across the trail up ahead and then I see a coyote turn to check me out. He scurries off into the brush before I can take his picture.
|A helicopter buzzing the runners|
By the time I reach the next aid station at mile 38, I feel like a zombie and probably look worse. “Do you have any coke?”, I ask the volunteers, “My stomach is really unsettled.” They serve me a cup of warm soda and give me some candied ginger. I hope it works. I grab my headlamp out of my drop bag because I don’t think I’m going to beat the sun to the finish line. It’s about four o’clock; I’ve been going for almost 8 hours.
|Don't ask what I'm doing under this saguaro|
I start out the way I came from earlier today and then someone says, “That’s the wrong way. You’re supposed to go this way.” Well, it would be shorter If I went my way, but that would be cutting the course now wouldn’t it?
Once headed in the right direction again my stomach feels better, but my legs begin to cramp. I keep moving at all costs and alternate between a walk and a jog which brings some relief. After an hour and a half I reach the finish line at mile 44, but unfortunately it’s not over yet, because I have another 5 mile loop to run. The sun is almost down and it has become chilly so I put on another shirt and leave before I decide to quit.
The sun hides behind the mountains and a pink and blue sky entertains me for a while. The trail is easy at first, but then becomes sandy and washboard like with short steep hillocks. When it is too dark to see any more I turn on my headlamp and immediately become disoriented. The wash of light against the bright sand causes a whiteout and I can’t judge the distance to the ground. I almost fall down so I stop and then walk until my eyes adjust. I run for a while and then turn off my light to enjoy the view of a star filled sky. Gorgeous!
I can see other headlamps bobbing along in the distance and then the tents from the staging area high above me come into view. I must be almost there. I keep running, but the finish line seems to be getting further away. Did I miss a turn? I come to a junction with signage which sends me in the direction of the peak I climbed earlier. Shouldn’t I be going left towards the finish?
My mind is really starting to play tricks on me so I stop to look at my course map. The last loop is small and intertwined with many other trails. It looks like a spaghetti bowl and I can’t make heads or tales of it. Another runner comes along and I express my concern, but he gives me words of assurance. Eventually I’m doubling back the way I came and then go through a drainage tunnel that I ran over earlier.
I start climbing up a rough steep slope and am staggering around like a sailor on shore leave. My left foot begins to slide down off the trail so I cast my light over only to see a precipitous drop off into an eroded gully. I drop to my hands and knees before I slide all the way in. After getting back up I’m more careful; scanning my light left and right to choose the right footing.
Once I’m back on high ground, I see the finish area and hear cheering from a distance. I’m highly inspired to finish this run so I pick up the pace and run down some switchbacks. Just before reaching the end I get some high fives from a few of my local training partners and then I cross the finish line in under 12 hours, my goal.
I’m congratulated by my loyal support crew, Cara, Maddie and our good friends from Phoenix. It never felt so good to see my loving family after such a long day. It was a grand adventure that could not have been completed without all the help from my running friends and family, Aravaipa Running, and the many race volunteers. Thanks to all!
See you on the trail.