Crown King Scramble 50k: My first ultra attempt and DNF

I knew going in that it was an overambitious plan. An ultramarathon (anything over the marathon distance of 26.2 miles) is tough enough…but to pick the somewhat notorious Crown King Scramble, with its over 6000′ of climbing, as a first? Well…see the quote at the top of this post.

Maybe choosing an “easier” 50k as a first ultra would have been the “smart” decision…but following “smart” decisions doesn’t always result in fulfillment either. If I finished, it would be a major accomplishment…if I didn’t it would probably at least net me a major learning experience and hopefully a good story.

It was a bit of both.

Ultimately, I pulled myself at the 26.5-mile point…so it was the unadvertised Crown King marathon, at least. ;) That is the absolute farthest distance I’ve ever gone (again, some might question the wisdom of starting an ultra when the longest run you’ve ever done was 22 miles), and definitely the most climbing. I ran out of body (lungs/legs) for the time I had left…if you look at the elevation profile, I still had the steepest point to cover — about 1000′ of climbing, in 3 miles, in an hour…at a  pace that was netting me approximately 23-minute miles…even my tired brain could do the math and realize I wouldn’t make the cutoff, especially since I was physically out of gas to be able to push myself any faster. I also had some IT band issues that prevented me from adequately being able to run the downhills (lost time there) — and the last two miles was all downhill.

So you’ll pardon me if this is a bit disjointed as I go through it…brain is still majorly fuzzy. I actually feel better than I have coming off of other races…the IT band at my left knee is the hurting-est part, and my forefeet are letting me know I need to reevaluate my shoe choices (again!), but muscle-wise, I feel good…and mentally, I’m vacillating between satisfaction at how far I did manage to get, disappointment at not finishing, a bit of feeling sorry for myself for failing, and lots of introspection.

I definitely learned a ton and got a good dose of reality (and ego smack-down) handed to me in that I can honestly say I was under-prepared and under-trained for what I was tackling. Sure, I didn’t know what to expect, having never seen the course…but I greatly underestimated the elevation profile and the difficulty of that much climbing. I’m a strong hiker and decent, albeit slow, climber…but I underestimated how much the first 15 miles would take out of me, as I’m not world’s strongest runner (since that’s the “flatter” section, you have to make your time there, so you end up going into the climbing second half on already-tired legs).

Getting drop bags set up and food sorted

The aid stations were spaced at miles 8.5, 15.3, 19.1, 22.3, and 27, and drop bags were allowed at stations 1-4. The first two were spaced further apart than I’m used to…I think the longest stretch I’d done at a race was just over 5 miles between aid stations, and I’m kind of a “needy” runner in that I require a lot of hydration and a decent amount of nutrition to keep going steadily. (It’s the same reason I always carry so many water bottles on my saddle at endurance rides…I dehydrate quickly and physically cannot function on minimal hydration.)

So my plan was to wear my Ultimate Direction hydration pack, which has a 1.5-liter (50 oz) water bladder, and carry an Amphipod Hydraform Thermal-Lite handheld. I have to say, this is my new favorite handheld. Definitely the easiest to carry of all of them I’ve tried, and I love the insulating sleeve that kept the whole thing cold. Plus the wide-mouth bottle is really easy to fill at the aid stations. I started the race with Succeed Amino in the handheld, drained it by mile 8.5, refilled it with water + more Amino, drained it about halfway by mile 15 where I topped it off with straight water, and then by mile 19, I was over the Amino and just wanted cool water in both the pack and the handheld.
For food, I had Honey Stinger gels, Honey Stinger chews, Honey Stinger waffles, Pay Day bars, Clif ShotBlocks, GU, Bonk Breaker bars, and a gel flask filled with a peanut butter and honey mix. Looking back, I thought I was doing pretty good, nutrition-wise, at the time…but now I know I really could have done way better, and I think it caught up to me by about mile 23. Out of my stash, I ended up eating one Honey Stinger gel, one pack of Honey Stinger chews, one Honey Stinger waffle, and maybe 1.5 ounces of peanut butter mix. I had real food at the aid stations: bean roll-ups, potatoes, pickles, and at mile 19, it was a brief moment of nirvana when they handed me an OtterPop. 
But once it started getting warm, I had a harder time finding things that would appeal…so that’s going on the drawing board of “Things To Work On” this summer, along with still messing around with shoes, and potentially hydration packs.
(Honestly, I envy the “non-fussy” people out there that seem to be able to run through anything. I tend to nitpick my equipment to death, trying to get everything “right”…and when I’m in a bad mood about my abilities or lack thereof, I think “Maybe I’m just blaming my gear for my shortcomings when in reality I just kind of suck as a runner.” It’s the same mentality I grew up with when riding: “A truly good rider can ride in any saddle, so if your position is bad, it’s just because you’re not good enough.” …never mind the saddle might be a bad fit for you and completely putting you out of balance and unable to find a good position. I think the same thing goes here…there’s a certain amount of discomfort you have to push through, but you hit a point where there’s only so much lack-of-proper-function you can work with before realizing “Something needs to change.”)

The start for the race was at Lake Pleasant. Normal start was at 6AM, and finish cutoff was 3PM. First cutoff was at the 15.3 mile aid station, at a time of 9:30. They also offered an “early start” option that started at 5AM; only caveat to that being you were only eligible for finish status, not any of the top prizes. 
(To which my comment was I doubt any of us that were doing the early start were in danger of setting a new course record and thus having an unfair advantage. I could write a whole post on the pros/cons of the early start and whether it’s “fair” and blah blah blah…but the bottom line is, if the race offers it, then there’s not a problem with taking it.)

Obviously, I opted for the early start option. My reasons were two-fold: one, I was worried about making that first 15 miles in the time cutoff, because that was right up against my comfortable pace limits, especially if I needed to have something left in the tank for later. Second reason being that we’re experiencing some slightly unseasonably warm temperatures here…AZ hit the fast-forward button over spring and is beelining us straight into summer. So if I could get myself that much further down the trail while it was still pleasant out, all the better.
Major, major kudos to my dad, who got up at 2:00 in the morning in order to drop me off at a friend’s house where several of us would be carpooling together. Since the race was a point-to-point, it involves quite a bit of coordination, cooperation, and multiple willing sherpas/pack mules/drivers/patient-and-wonderful people.
The carpool was on the road by 3:20ish, and at the race start at the north boat ramp at Lake Pleasant by 4:15, where we had lots of time to deposit drop bags, check in, pin/re-pin number bibs, and I worked on finishing off the breakfast (ham/cream cheese on a bagel) I’d been nibbling since the car ride.

Before the start! I’ve met all of these wonderful ladies through
the Aravaipa groups runs and races, and it was wonderful sharing
the race and the weekend with them!

You can see all of yours truly’s gear above (far right): started with a Buff (which I then swapped out for a hat at the first aid station), headlamp (dropped at first aid station, but first four miles were in the dark), Kerrits IceFil tank, Kerrits IceFil sleeves (kept me warm enough in the morning and then soaked them down at every water spot available), Salomon XR running shorts, Dirty Girl gaiters, Salomon Speedcross3 shoes (swapped out at mile 15 for my New Balance Fresh Foam Trail…more on shoes later), and Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta.

And see all that tape on my left leg? I had tweaked my IT band somehow during the Mesquite Canyon half marathon two weeks prior…the first half of the race was great, and then all of a sudden it hurt to run or even walk downhill (of course the rest of the race was all downhill at that point), and although I had been icing and slathering with arnica and foam rolling, it still wasn’t 100% by race day and I was hoping holding myself together with large amounts of tape would be effective.
Sorry, I warned this would be a bit disconnected and all over the place.
Back to the start…right at 5:00, we were given the countdown and probably ~50 or so runner who had chosen the early start option were off in the darkness, headlamps bobbing and lighting the way out the same road we had just driven in on. The first mile was the pavement road leading out of Lake Pleasant and onto a wide, smooth dirt road that curved around the northwestern edge of the lake and then started heading north.
We had been told the first 15 miles was “extremely runnable”…but when the race director/source of information is an extremely hardcore ultrarunner, “consider the source” may be wise words to remember next time. Sure, it was runnable compared to the second half…but there were still some rolling ups and downs, and enough ups that walking was still a good option. If you look at the course profile, you can see if starts gaining in elevation the whole way…it just starts the real climbing halfway through.
I have to say I loved starting in the dark. For whatever reason, it mentally didn’t feel like I was racing, and the first four miles kind of flew by before I even realized it…so it was a bonus to realize that much distance had passed.

getting passed by race support vehicles on their way to set up
the aid stations

looking back at Lake Pleasant

probably about mile 5 or 6

One of my “mini goals” I had set for myself was to at least make it to the first aid station at 8.5 miles before the front runners from the regular start caught me…and I made it. They caught me almost immediately after…effortlessly running up a hill, looking barely warmed up.
approaching Aid Station #1, Cow Creek AS, mile 8.5
someone has a sense of humor

At Cow Creek, I ditched my headlamp, and retrieved my running cap out of my drop bag, refilled my handheld with more Amino, topped off my water pack, grabbed some potato pieces, and was out of there in I want to say under 5 minutes.

Unfortunately, my IT band had started making its presence known by a couple of miles in…it hadn’t gotten much worse, but it was impacting how well I could run downhill.
The hard-pack road was also making me re-evaluate my shoe choice. I had started with my Salomon Speedcross3, which I am quite fond of…but they’re more of a technical/soft-dirt type of shoe…as I was getting passed by people, I noticed there were a number of cushioned type of shoes like Altras, Hoka One Ones, and some of the other more cushioned varieties.
Partway through this section was a really lovely, green, shaded area with some old abandoned buildings. Very scenic, and some truly amazing rock formations.

yes, as a matter of fact, most of my running selfies do have me
looking somewhat skeptical…that would be the part of my brain
asking me how much alcohol was involved in this particular decision

At the mile 15 aid station, I had another pair of shoes waiting, since I’ve learned from past experience it never hurts to have extra shoes. I was definitely glad to have done the early start, since had I not, I would have been out for the time cutoff at mile 15…normal cutoff time allowed 3:30, and I reached it in 3:45…but since I had done the early start, I had the extra hour time buffer.

the famous Crown King directional rock that points the way to go
It was starting to get a little warm, since almost the entire course is exposed and lacking in shade, so at aid station #2 (French Creek AS, 15.3 miles), I grabbed my neck cooler I had stuck in a ziploc bag and added water ahead of time (a carryover riding item), and changed into differnet shoes — my more-cushioned New Balance Fresh Foam Trail shoes. I also topped off my handheld and hydration pack, and grabbed a couple of bean roll-up pieces.
One of my running friends was working the aid station, so it was nice to see her cheerful presence and get a bit of encouragement, since I was already starting to feel a bit mentally frayed…one of my goals had been to actually make it to the second aid station within the 3:30, so to be slower than that had me demoralized.
Hindsight, maybe I should have stayed there a little longer and recovered better, but I get into a “constant forward motion” mode and feel like I’m wasting time if I linger at an aid station. 
Almost immediately, the climbing started…and so did the road traffic. The course is on the 4×4 jeep/quad road that is the back way up to Crown King. And despite notices posted, and heads-up notices that had been posted on online forums, there was still a ton of off-road vehicle traffic…and in a lot of spots, you have to stop or move way over for them to pass, thus losing time and forward momentum.
I get it, it’s not a closed course, blah blah blah…but it’s just for one day out of the other 364 in the year…not even a full weekend…couldn’t people go kick up dust elsewhere???
The climb between aid stations 2 and 3, miles 15-19, was awful, with 17-19 being especially brutal. It was the kind of sustained, steep climbs that kept on going, where your heart rate keeps going up, and you can never get your breath, and you just plod forward one step at a time.
Or maybe that’s just flat-lander me, who got a humbling dose of real hill education that day.
around mile 17-18ish, looking back on where we were

Mile 19, Aid Station 3, Silver Mountain AS, was a small piece or nirvana, as they greeted me with an OtterPop and scoops of ice that I stuffed under my hat and into my sports bra. (Finally, a use for the excessive boobage…I can hold a good amount of ice in there.)

I did stay for a few minutes there, getting my hydration pack filled with ice, and dumping the last bit of Amino out of the handheld and replacing it with just ice water. Aside from the OtterPop, I nibbled some potato chunks, a pickle, a bean roll-up, and a couple of ginger cookies.
I had been told the section between AS3 and 4 (miles 19-22) weren’t as bad, so I was heartened a bit by that and set out again. The creek crossings also started shortly after this point, as the road wound through/across/alongside a small creek at the bottom of a canyon, and at every water crossing, I would get my arm sleeves wet, refresh my neck cooler, and dunk my hat/wet my hair. That made a huge difference, and I felt really good all day, metabolically. I was also religiously taking my S!cap electrolyes, starting with a schedule of one an hour in the early morning, then one every 45 minutes, and then one every half an hour as it heated up.
Around mile 20ish, my good humor started fading. I was unable to run the down sections (they were there) thanks to the sore IT band…and I was out of energy/strength to do any kind of sustained running on the flatter sections aside from a shuffle for a couple hundred feet. And uphill was reduced to a hike…not even the power-hike I had hoped for.
I came into Aid Station 4 (the appropriately named Fort Misery, mile 22.3), manned by the Phoenix group of Hash House Harriers, which, based on my understanding, is best described as “a drinking group with a running problem”…and they certainly lived up to the reputation, offering me both beer and whiskey shots. 
They were super-cheerful, offering me the option of dropping there (“Highly overrated, this ultra thing…you could stay here and drink with us!”) I politely declined, declaring it would be a waste of good whiskey since I would probably puke it right back up again, based on how I was feeling. I did, however, take them up on their handheld pump sprayer cool-down (and apparently I had the most enthusiastic reaction of the day to that offer), grabbed some chunks of watermelon, tried to shove my crumbling psyche to the side, and trudged out of there.
I had been warned to “not look up” during this section, but you know what happens when edicts like that are issued…I looked up. And saw the road winding around, switchbacking back and forth up the side of the mountain, to what looked like a pick-up truck and some easy-up canopies at the very top. Yep, that would be aid station 5…about 5 miles and 1400′ elevation away.
The next couple of miles weren’t as bad…but then at about mile 25, I was faced with another big climb…and then I rounded the corner and the whole road went downhill, meaning I would effectively have to redo that entire climb, plus more. 
That was it. That was my breaking point. I couldn’t do it. My IT band was hurting, my feet were hurting, I had no legs or lungs left for climbing, and the clock was running down. I trudged down the decline, where it ended at a water crossing where one of the very nice radio communications volunteers was hanging out. In a funny coincidence, it was the same gentleman who had been doing the radio communications at the aid station I had volunteered at during the Black Canyon 100k in February.
He was super nice, and sat me down on a rock in the shade, topped off my handheld with some fresh cold water, and had me find something in my pack to nibble on. I really appreciated that he didn’t pressure me one way or the other — to either drop or really push me to keep going. I sat for about 10 minutes, and right about that time, the last couple of runners and a couple of the other radio communications operators that were doing course sweep caught up to us. 
I was feeling better after nibbling on a protein bar (Bonk Breaker Cookies N Cream…actually pretty good), but my IT band and knee were pretty stiff and sore after sitting, I had done the math with the kind of pace I had been keeping, coupled with the time and miles and climbing left, and concluded that I would put a ton more wear and tear on my body, and still ultimately not make the time cutoff at the summit (mile 29).
So I opted for the ride out with the sweeps…and the way out was on the same road I would have been traversing as the course, and looking at it confirmed that it definitely got way worse before it got better, and I am positive I would have run out of time.
the road on the right is part of the course

I was at the 26.5 mile point when I pulled, so I at least made it a marathon…and that’s the farthest I’ve ever gone. 

It’s kind of a long drive back to Phoenix from Crown King — at least 2 hours without traffic, and the road in/out is about 25+ miles of dirt road, some of it with some switchbacks and steep dropoffs that wouldn’t be much fun to drive in the dark, so some of us had made plans to stay overnight and share cabins. That was a fun way to spend the rest of the afternoon/evening, hanging out with some of my running friends, and enjoying the way-cooler temperatures (down in the 40s at night, up at 6000′ elevation in the pine trees) and clean mountain air. 
pine trees!

Was I disappointed? Oh, hell yes. I’ve tried to be a “mind over matter” person, convinced that quitting or failing at something meant I wasn’t strong enough or wasn’t tough enough…you just have to dig deep and push through it. But that’s not me. Maybe that means I’m a wimp, or not mentally strong enough to be able to break down all barriers and blocks. Part of me feels like I let myself down…I didn’t train hard enough, or let my lazy streak get the better of me on slacking off physically and figuring mental fortitude would get me through.
It was something I wanted badly, to be able to say “I’m an ultrarunner” and maybe I just didn’t set myself up for success right from the start, with picking such a challenging course, and then my unscientific, laissez-faire approach to training and running in general.
I don’t know…my whole running season, with the exception of a good 26k at the San Tans in January, has not been a rousing success…which is a risk one takes when one uses races themselves as long training runs, and figures out partway through that piece of gear isn’t working, and so on.
So now I’m going to take some time…let the IT band (which is commonly an overuse/too-much-too-fast injury) recover and heal, and then reevaluate. I still have enough stubbornness and ego that, when I get kicked down, I tend to pop back up swinging harder…so my game plan is to shoot for another easier 50k towards the end of the year (getting too hot now to do much) do I have the mental confidence boost that I can do the distance, train more at hills, and tackle Crown King again next year,
But for right now…I’m really tired of getting kicked down. My pity party will eventually pack up and move on, but for now, I think I just need some time to lay low and maybe not attempt anything with a success/fail option for a little bit.

2 thoughts on “Crown King Scramble 50k: My first ultra attempt and DNF

  1. You are a total and complete beast, I hope you know that.

    I'm so very happy you wrote this up as I was very interested to hear how it all went after following your few facebook updates over the weekend. I even remarked to a friend I was spending the weekend with that, “My friend in AZ is doing her first 50k today! She's the main reason I've begun pursuing running more.” to which the response was, “Wow. That's crazy! 50k?!” and I just grinned and nodded. Then, when I saw your update later, I remarked, “Oh no! She DNF'd at 27 miles.” “Isn't that basically the whole thing?” *quick math* “Yeah, it is. Wow. Must have been an insane run. How awesome though….”

    So you were definitely on my mind this weekend. =)

    I understand your mental game post-race as my head works much the same way. I think you've got a good plan going forward, lay low and let your mind do its thing without antagonizing it with much else for a bit – or antagonizing your poor IT band! YIKES. Be easy, lady!

    Congrats on such an oustanding achievement on such a gnarly course. Finish or no, it's definitely something to be proud of. Loved being able to follow along the journey and hear about how it went. I got a particular giggle about the hashers as they sound just like the ski hashers I know. Your retort about wasting good whisky was an oustanding one, as well. =)

    I wish you a speedy IT band recovery and encourage you on in your stubbornness to pursue more awesome as time passes. Congrats again on running your farthest yet over some truly rough terrain!!

  2. OMG. I felt ill-prepared and undertrained for my measly 5k this weekend. You are amazing. People die doing this stuff!

    Also, freaking love the Honey Stingers. Much preferred over Gu's!

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