About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Flagstaff 50 Mile Endurance Run


I haven’t been this nervous about finishing a race in quite some time. With a recent DNF in the San Diego 100 my confidence is down a bit. The Flagstaff Endurance Runs website added to my worries by describing the difficulty of the course. Not for first time trail runners, steep climbs, elevation over 9000 ft, yada, yada, yada... Did I mention that recent rains caused a rock slide in this area and a Volkswagen sized boulder landed on a man seriously injuring him? Moreover, yesterday was Friday the 13th and while driving to Flagstaff, AZ I witnessed severe flooding along I-25 near Truth or Consequences, NM and a sinkhole opened up on I-40 west of Albuquerque closing several lanes. The forecast today calls for afternoon thunderstorms.




Nevertheless, I’m going to think positive and give this course everything I’ve got. I have 16 hours to finish and will focus on getting from aid station to aid station. About 20 runners begin the race before sunrise at Buffalo Park in town. We run along a dirt road that slices through a meadow of golden flowers with the San Francisco Peaks as a backdrop. A right turn takes us onto a muddy single track trail where we cross a creek and eventually pass some huge rounded granite boulders. It doesn’t take long before we are climbing up a steep hill so I settle into a power hike.  I’m mostly alone, but can see one runner ahead of me and one behind.



The course is well marked with orange flagging, arrows and “wrong way” signs which is reassuring. I reach the top of the first mountain which is about 8750 ft elevation, a climb of 1750 ft in 8 miles. I’m greeted by a man and his dog who offers to take my picture. (The man, not the dog.) The view is gorgeous of course, but the descent is very technical with many switchbacks and tripping hazards to keep me alert. Wildflowers are abundant on this exposed rocky slope and the dirt and rocks change color as I go lower. Think strata of the Grand Canyon that is only 80 miles from here. The red burnt sienna is the most impressive. 



After 12 miles I reach an aid station at the base of Mt Elden where I fill my hydration pack and eat some potatoes and oranges to get ready for the second and steepest climb. I’m out quickly and start up the scenic trail where I pass many locals who are enjoying the trail with their dogs. The sun is starting to beat down as I toil up the mountain, but I’m more focused on the beauty of the path to care. Yucca, rocks and flowers line the trail and some sections have a series of flat rocks that act as stairs to ease the steepness.




As I creep up the side of the mountain I see a runner coming back down so I ask if she is OK. She informs me that she is not feeling well and will have to drop. Maybe the altitude is affecting her. I’ve been there before and can feel her pain. I keep a steady pace and hope that I’m not in her situation later. Soon, another guy is coming back down and says that he can’t keep any fluids down. Too bad. I always have to wonder if over-hydrating could be the problem. Everyone talks about staying hydrated, but I don’t think we pay close enough attention to the possibility of drinking too much. 





Eventually the trail becomes less steep and I can walk faster, but pressure builds in my head as the air gets thinner. Soon I’m at the top of a saddle (9000’ elev.) where some hikers are resting taking in the view. A short distance away is the summit with radio antennas and a fire watch tower. I snap a few pictures and start to run down and then ascend a ridge that appears to have been burned by a forest fire. I remember traveling through Flagstaff several years ago and seeing smoke billowing from the mountains.



I come to a crossroads that I recognize from earlier. The sign points to a trail that I’ve already run so I’m a bit confused. I pull out my course map which confirms a repeat of this trail. A young lady catches up to me and asks, “Is this the steep trail with all the switchbacks?” “Unfortunately yes”, I reply. “Ugh, that really killed my feet!”. Well, here we go. By this time I’m really hot and yes, my feet are killing me because the trail is rocky and my feet are moving around in my shoes. Some hot spots are developing, but I just go with the flow to try to make up some time. 


At the bottom of the mountain we take a turn and start back up another slope for quite a while. A fast 50K racer catches me and asks where the next aid station is. “I’m out of water; I haven’t had any since the last aid station.” She says. It does seem that we should be getting close; we have been running for several hours since the last one. An eternity seems to pass and still no Elden Spring water stop. I pass a road with a dry stock tank and start to believe that this should be the location of the water, but there is no one here. Maybe logistics prevented it from being set up so it should be about 2.5 more miles to the fully stocked Schultz aid station. 



I look at my watch knowing that I have to make it to Schultz by 1:00PM or I will miss the cut-off. Another eternity of running passes and then the missing water stop appears. Oh well, I still have 2.5 miles to go so waste no time and just fill up a little bit and hurry on my way. Is that a cowbell I hear? A bustling aid station finally comes into view where people welcome me with cheers. “I need more cowbell!” I yell to a kid. He obliges with a smile.


I was hoping to make it to Schultz an hour early, but arrive at 12:30 feeling quite beat. I’m hot, my feet hurt, and I’m second guessing my ability to finish on time. I grab a cream cheese sandwich out of my drop bag, have some potatoes, watermelon, oranges and ginger ale from the snack table and get out of there. The course is uphill again on a rocky rutted trail. I alternate between a fast hike and slow jog. The sky is becoming cloudy and I hear thunder in the distance.


Soon I’m at the top and get to run down for a while. I come to a dirt road that passes through a campground. I start to get a second wind and pick up my pace for a while. Clouds continue to build which is starting to cool things off. Before I know it I’m at the next aid station at 30 miles and 45 minutes before the cutoff. My spirits begin to lift. Maybe I can finish this race after all. I get my drop bag and pull out a flask of dry chia seeds and fill it with sports drink. 


I nibble on my sandwich as I continue running and make the 3.5 miles to the turnaround point. Some volunteers are there to check on my well being and give me some water. The sky looks dark and ominous by this point and thunder is getting louder. I head back the way I came hoping to out run the approaching storm. Is that even possible? No, it starts to sprinkle and then a steady downpour. I stop and take a black garbage bag out of my pack and cut some neck and arm holes in it. It works pretty good at keeping my torso warm and dry. hypothermia is always  a possibility in the mountains. The coolness enables me to  keep a steady pace, but mud makes the trail slippery. I run as fast as possible and then my foot sinks into a thick mud pit. I feel a pull in my calf and then it starts to cramp. I just keep moving at all cost and then reach the aid station better than an hour early.  36.5 miles are done, but I have to go uphill now. 


I pass through the campground again and gain elevation. Rivulets of water stream through the dirt road as thunder rumbles off in the distance. I make it back to the trail and wonder what all the white stuff is on the ground. A closer inspection reveals larger than pea sized hail. Well, it pays to be slow on this course. I’m soaked to the bone, but at least I didn’t get pelted by hail.


The rain has stopped, but the trail is slick with mud. I reach the top of the incline and take a turn to start back down to the Schultz aid station.This section of trail is more like a flowing creek full of rocks so I try my best to keep from going ass over tea kettle. My feet are killing me now and shoes and socks are soaked through and through. I remember that I have an extra pair of socks, shoes and shirt in my drop bag at the aid station, but can’t remember how much further it is. 

I keep stumbling, slipping and cursing all the way down the mountain. The green aid station tent finally comes into view, but all is quiet. Is anyone here? I start to yell, “MORE COWBELL!”. The skeleton crew looks startled, but the kid I saw earlier grabs the cowbell and rattles it madly. I’m elated because I’m 1:15 minutes early and only have 9 miles to cover with four hours to do it in.


The aid station captain asks if I want something hot like tea or coffee. “You have coffee?” I ask. “Yes, but it’s instant.” he replies. Instant coffee never tasted so good after running through a soaker. They inform me that there is only one runner behind me and that many dropped out or switched to the 50K course. Since I have plenty of time to finish, I rest and change into my dry clothes and shoes. I get my headlamp and take off; It will be dark in about an hour.


The trail takes me past a small lake where steam is rising off the water. The sun is low on the horizon and clouds are still in the sky. I start up the last big climb where the trail is covered in a slushy hail mixture. A sort of fog is in the air and dim light pours through the tree cover creating an Ichabodian atmosphere. I expect to meet the headless horseman any minute, but am not scared. I feel like a new man with my dry clothes and shoes and just cruise on up the mountain. 


I arrive at the top just in time to watch the sun set through the trees and then start down again. The ambient light creates a pink and orange glow to my surroundings. Soon it is completely dark so I switch on my light. A chorus of frogs serenade me as I run. The course is marked here with reflectors that I can see from many yards away. This is very comforting when you are running all alone through Sleepy Hollow. I make good time for a while, but then come to a steep technical downhill. I begin to trip frequently and have to slow to a walk in sections. A large barkless tree blocks the trail so I climb on top. The smooth wet surface causes me to slip off the log, but luckily I land upright and just keep moving. I arrive at the last aid station with only 3 miles to go. How hard could it be?


Well, it is! I keep stumbling on the many rocks and ruts in the trail and become very hot because I’m lower on the mountain. Bombing down the trail would require less energy than a controlled descent, but I would probably have a broken ankle from all the rocks. 
I lose my footing and almost eat it, but am able to catch myself by resting my hands on a boulder and small tree stump. A few “F-bombs” and two “Jesus Christs!” later, I’m back down on flat terrain.


The next challenge is extreme mud. Deep shoe sucking mud that balls up on the bottoms of my shoes. I feel like I’m running in a pair of those rocker-sole Shapeup shoes. Mud is flying everywhere as I squish along trying not to slip and finally I near the finish line. The park is mostly empty and dark. There is no pomp and circumstance. No rock band. No cowbell. Just a few remaining souls who cheer me in after 14 and a half hours of running. I’m fine with that. This 50 mile finish has special meaning to me since I will turn 50 years old in a few weeks. I get my finishers mug and head straight for the car. 


For the record, I drank mostly plain water, very little sports drink, took zero electrolyte capsules, and ate real food including fruit and chia seeds throughout the race. I did enjoy a little bit of ginger ale at a few of the aid stations.


This was a beautiful challenging course. I had my doubts in the beginning, hit a low spot in the middle, but felt strong at the end. Only 13 out of 20 runners completed the 50 mile course and I was 12th, second to last which is better than DFL. Nick and Jamil put on a great race as usual. Thanks Aravaipa! See you on the trail.

6 comments:

  1. It look so beautiful! We've hiked those trails, and I put this race on my radar for sure. Great job! And happy birthday!

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  2. Thanks Olga, I'm surprised there aren't more runners in this race. Perhaps it will grow in the future. Hope to see the Hill Country runners soon. Bandera's my next big one.

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  3. Looks like another enjoyable run Greg - well done. Stunning pictures - love the sunset through the trees - magic moment I'm sure.

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    1. Thanks Richard, it was a beautiful evening indeed.

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  4. Your blog is awesome, like seriously (even though I'm not a runner... )! If you want, I would love it if you marked some of your posts on JourneyJotter.org it's an effort to collaborate all outdoor adventures on a map to help other people research and plan their next trip for a specific location. Your blog posts would be a wonderful addition for others to see!

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