If there had been a category in my high school yearbook for “Person Least Likely to Become a Runner,” I’m pretty sure I would have won it. It wasn’t even that I hated running…I just wasn’t very good at it. The most enjoyable times I could remember running were the handful of times we did a “cross-country” run on a dirt path around the school. That was so much more enjoyable than endless laps around the track, and I could pretend it was the kind of trail I might ride a horse on.
But despite the fact I wasn’t great at it, I didn’t actually hate it. I grumbled about it because that was just what you did in gym class when you weren’t that great at something. But running, or attempting to run, was always something that stuck with me, off and on.
And if you had told high school me that I would someday be able to call myself an ultramarathoner, I would have laughed. Hysterically.
Spoiler Alert!: After this weekend’s FINISH at Crown King Scramble 50k, that’s exactly what I am.
It’s been an almost three-year journey from my first “official” on-trail training run to actually finishing an ultra. It’s involved a lot of ups and down: race successes and failures, trial-and-error on gear, dialing in nutrition and hydration, learning to train smarter, avoiding injuries.
I DNF’d this race two years ago, and it was a pretty big mental setback for me. I’ve not chosen particularly “easy” sports to be involved in — endurance riding and ultrarunning — and I’ve not had the smoothest entrance into either of them (eventually enough setbacks and frustrations start eroding one’s confidence and determination). So to end my first ultra attempt with a DNF smacked of a repeat of my entrance into endurance riding, in which I rider optioned out of my first 50-miler attempt and it took me another 3 years to actually get to and finish a 50.
But I also hate unfinished business, so I knew I would be back to settle my score with this race. It took me until 2016 to really get my running mojo back to the point I wanted to even think about doing another race, and then when I saw the Facebook posts coming in after Crown King 2016, seeing some of my running friends completing the race, that was sufficient incentive/motivation to head straight for UltraSignUp.com and submit my entry for Crown King 2017.
But I also knew that what I did last time insofar as training really didn’t work.
For those that might not remember, this is the elevation profile of the Crown King Scramble:
That? Adds up to just over 7,000 feet of climbing over 31 miles. And 3,000 feet of downhill, so the downhill muscles don’t get off scot-free, either.
Let’s recap: I live at 1200′ elevation. My “trails” are flat canals and bridle paths, and I’m a 25-30 minute drive in any direction to actual trails. Nothing like a challenge, right?
Okay, so now with the back story thoroughly established, we get to the actual race. (Finally, the audience sighs with relief.)
I had mentioned in a previous post that I had managed to convince Kaity to come out and join me in this endeavor. It would be a first ultra finish for both of us — her first attempt, my second. Since the whole course is wide open jeep/4×4 road, it can help to have some company along the way to enliven things a little bit more.
Since the race start at Lake Pleasant is about an hour and fifteen minute drive from my house, and since we were doing the early start* at 5AM, we would have had to be up at around 2:00 in the morning in order to be there on time.
Um, no. I did that in 2015, and really didn’t care to repeat the experience of starting a race on what was likely a collective 3-4 hours of sleep. So we elected to get a campsite at Lake Pleasant for the Friday night before, as well as for Saturday night afterwards (after taking the shuttle back down from Crown King).
Kaity drove out and arrived Thursday evening, we packed up my truck Friday morning, and headed out to Lake Pleasant early afternoon. We had a slight snafu upon arrival with someone’s camper occupying our campsite…but no occupant around. We still set up our stuff (tent footprint was clear) and it got sorted out within a few hours after the occupant arrived and realized they had misread the site labels and were supposed to be in the next site over. All’s well that ends well, but we had a bit of potential drama and excitement for a while there, wondering exactly how it was all going to pan out.
It was nice to have the afternoon to prepare and go about things without feeling rushed. I had already packed my running pack, drop bag and finish line bag at home, but made sure everything was sorted and in its proper place, added some last-minute things, and set out my clothes for the next day.
Being well-prepped ahead of time also meant time to sit around camp and relax for a bit, and take in the lake scenery , have a fly-over from an osprey (only the second one I’ve ever seen!), and get serenaded by one of the wild burros.
The weather was doing funny things…a rather chilly cloud cover blew in, and we even got a few little sprinkles here and there. I’ve still got some PTSD leftover from Black Canyon regarding running when it’s cold/wet/muddy, so I had been stalking the weather like a crazy person in the 10 days leading up to the race, alternating between sighs of relief and hand-wringing as the weather vacillated between hot, cold, and perfect. The forecast was calling for snow Friday evening up in Crown King (!), and for possible rain early Saturday morning, but down at Lake Pleasant level it was supposed to be mostly clear, with overnight lows in the high 40s, and clear along the way and up in Crown King by the time we were expected to be up there.
After getting cozy warm in front of the campfire, bed at a reasonable hour (by 9pm) actually happened. Thanks to a tab of melatonin and some earplugs, I actually slept pretty well, especially considering I usually don’t sleep well in a new location, and it was a fairly active campground with plenty of traffic, music, and other campers.
My alarm was set for 3:20, and about 2 minutes before it went off, I awoke to more burro braying…for a second, I thought I was in ridecamp and someone’s mule was making its presence known.
I had done the taping I was going to do (big toes, and preventative on the ankle area from Black Canyon) the previous night, so it was a pretty simple thing to pull clothes on and make a beeline for getting coffee prepped. 4:00 in the morning is really not my idea of a great time to have to eat breakfast, but I managed to eat half a banana, several bites of oatmeal, and the surprise hit of the morning was a cup of rice pudding.
We pulled out of camp at 4:25 and were over to the start area about 10 minutes later. I checked us in, we deposited drop bags and finish line bag, and had enough time for one last porta-potty visit before being herded over to the starting area on the boat ramp.
At 5:00 on the dot, we were off, heading back up the road we had just driven in on. It’s about a mile and half of pavement before you hit dirt road, but given the fact it is still pitch-black out, the smooth surface is a welcome way to start, even with headlamps.
By the time we hit the first big turn, 4 miles in, I was able to ditch the headlamp and run in the early-dawn light.
The desert looks absolutely amazing right now; with all of the winter rain, this has been probably one of the best flower years that I can remember in the past 15 years or so. The brittle bush was going absolutely gangbusters, making the entire desert look like a bucket of yellow paint had been tipped over it.
Aid station 1, Cow Creek, was at mile 8.5. Paused there to refill my soft bottle with Skratch Labs and top off the vest bladder, plus grab a few snacks: potatoes, pickles, dates, and a bean roll-up piece. (My strategy was “eat early and often” so that I wouldn’t get behind on nutrition as the race went on. It worked.)
There’s a beautiful section that goes through a canyon between aid stations 1 and 2 that is full of some amazing rock formations, pretty greenery, and random abandoned cabins.
During parts of this section, I wasn’t thrilled with the fact I was having trouble getting into a really good cruising rhythm. I felt like I was really struggling to find a good breathing pattern, and my hip flexors were already feeling stiff.
Time-wise, my goal was to make it to aid station 2 in 3:30 and not tap into that early start “extra hour” time if at all possible, so I would have that in reserve for the second half. We rolled into French Creek aid station in 3:35, so 5 minutes off my time goal, but 10 minutes earlier than the previous go at it, and only some general discomfort versus “demoralizing injury pain.”
This was the longest stop, as I decided to change shoes into my older Hoka Challenger ATR 2s. I started with my newer ones (same model, just not as many miles) with the idea of having the freshest plush cushion for the hardpack running section, but I don’t think they were quite as well broken-in at the toe area, because they felt a touch tighter, and I got a small side-of-the-right-big-toe blister. Swapped to the older ones for the second half and they felt better, and blister didn’t get worse.
I also refilled my bottle (another Skratch Labs down), my hydration bladder, and re-packed more food refills. Took a potty break (third one thus far), grabbed some munchies off the the food table plus a little cup of coke, and then we headed out of there.
Let the real climbing begin.
I’ll be blunt: I hate this section, from miles 17-19, topping out at Silver Mountain aid station. The heels are steep, and they just keep going. There are several false summits, and the last climb to the aid station never seems to end.
I also didn’t take pictures this year; my multi-tasking was focused on eating and drinking. See my 2015 race story for pics. The climbs haven’t changed.
Kaity got ahead of me for the first time here, as she has about 6″ more leg than I do, so covers more ground both up and down hills. But compared to 2015, I did so much better, and only had to take two 15-second pauses in climbing during this whole section. (Credit my gym regimen and the interval training with some fast heart rate recoveries. Two years ago, I could not get my HR and breathing under control…just kept getting higher and higher, no matter how many stops I made.) And I was able to run all the flats and downs.
So my steady-eddy pace still got me into the aid station maybe 45 seconds to a minute behind her.
Another repeat: top off bladder, refill Skratch Labs bottle, grab some aid station nibbles.
The next section from Silver Mtn to Ft Misery aid station is much more friendly than the previous one. A few small hills, and some decent runnable sections. The hardest part here was the detour off the main road around some active mining activity. The reroute bushwacked us through a creekbed…with a flowing (and cold!) creek.
As we started climbing and gaining in elevation, the weather had started changing, getting colder and with an increasing cloud cover. A couple of times I regretted leaving my arm sleeves back in my drop bag, especially as the wind kicked up and some of the clouds looked like they were contemplating dumping some moisture on us.
Back to the creek…given that the weather had turned a bit chilly, we were reluctant to go wading through the cold water, so did a lot of rock hopping and picking our way through and around.
(Apparently Black Canyon didn’t completely cure me of my aversion to getting my feet wet. However, next time…suck it up, Wingert, and go blasting through that creek. You’ll make much better time.)
The lure of Ft Misery is the fact it is the “Ft Misery open bar” with just about every variety of alcohol one can imagine.
Last time, the thought of anything other than maybe a little slice of watermelon made me want to puke, but this time, I was still feeling really good, so topped off my hydration bladder and bottle, grabbed some snacks, and one little Bloody Mary (with a pickle).
But I also knew the next section would be a hard one for me, mentally. Not only is there the whole “screw with your head” factor of being able to look up and *see* the Oro Belle aid station…at the edge of the mountain side on a long climb up…there’s a section of trail that you do some decent climbing, only to drop all the way back down and have to re-climb again. And this was the section that I stopped in two years ago.
Physically, I was feeling tired and sore. The longest run I have done this year was 20 miles, and we were now at about 24 miles. I was slowing down on the hills again, due to being up in elevation, and just not being a super-strong hill climber.
Kaity pulled in front of me again at this point, and from about mile 24 onward, I was on my own. Fortunately I had been running with music, so I cranked the volume up and put it on one of my “strategically chosen” playlists full of songs specifically selected to cheer me up, energize me, or make me want to kick some ass or rock out.
I did my climbing, I scampered down the inevitable downhill, then “one foot in front of the other” trudged my way back uphill. I kept popping electrolytes, slurping a chia seed gel, nibbling on some Clif blocks, and hydrating. Slow-n-steady, just getting it done.
And then I got to “quitter’s rock,” this innocuous-looking lump of granite sitting next to a creek, right at the base of the big climb up to Oro Belle. But it wasn’t calling my name this year. No, this year, I walked right by it, flipped it off, and out loud said, “Not this year, f*#@$er.” If anyone was around me, they probably thought I was crazy. But hey, it is an ultra.
Passing that rock felt like I just smashed through an enormous wall. I started up the climb to Oro Belle reinvigorated. I had seen Kaity further on ahead of me as I was approaching the climb; I figured she was maybe 3-4 minutes ahead and if I kept this up, I might be able to catch her again.
I just kept steadily moving upward; what appears to be an absolutely awful climb is more of an optical illusion, and the grade isn’t nearly as steep as earlier climbs.
At the aid station, I just topped off my soft bottle and nabbed a couple of dates and was out of there in under a minute. Home stretch of less than 5 miles to go, 2 of which were downhill…I really didn’t need to stop and regroup at this point.
Now, the climbing keeps going after Oro Belle…another 2+ miles of consistent, steady up. Up into the pine trees, up to the highest point on the course of about 6400′. I had been keeping a steady, consistent pace, but all of a sudden I wasn’t seeing Kaity anymore. Had she picked up the pace? Hit the top of the climb and blazed her way downhill?
It was sufficient motivation for me to keep going…maybe I would catch her on the downhill.
Hitting the top of the climb was the sweetest feeling. I got a wonderful adrenaline rush, and I could almost hear my quads saying “Yeah, let’s go, about time we got to do some work here.”
And the road is pretty smooth at this point, too. Earlier, a lot of the downhills were pretty rocky, so I would take my time navigating the more technical spots. But now? Smooth decomposed granite footing.
I seriously did not know I would have the legs and lungs to, at 30 miles into an ultra, actually hit a sub-10-min/mile pace several times. But I did.
I was running for that beer at the saloon, for competitiveness (still hadn’t seen Kaity ahead of me), and above all, I was running for my own personal vindication, validation, and victory.
I turned the last corner, crossed the bridge into town, and actually sprinted up the main road and under the finish line banner.
Finish time: 8:57:40.
My “really optimistic” timing pace had been 8 hours. My “just get through it” pace chart was for the 10-hour cutoff (with the early start). But my own personal goal had been “get through in under 9 hours and not have to tap into the early start buffer.”
I felt immensely satisfied. I had finished under my own physical and mental power, uninjured, and if they had cruelly moved the finish line out by another mile or two, I still had gas in the tank to keep going.
(Once I finished, I was looking all around the area for Kaity and not finding her until I made another pass back to the immediate finishing area and saw her where she had just snagged a table for us with a view of the finish line so she could watch for me to come in…as it turns out, she had to visit the bushes off to the side of the trail, so I passed her on the downhill in and ending up finishing 2 minutes ahead of her.)
Included with the race entry is a meal ticket for a delicious BBQ lunch, and we had a good hour and half to linger before we had to catch the shuttle back to Lake Pleasant.
The shuttle ride back was interesting…you really appreciate just how deep into the mountains Crown King really is when you’re rocketing along a dirt road in a 12-passenger van, wondering just how much experience said van driver really has in driving mountainous dirt roads. I think it also might have beat me up just as much as the run itself did. Glad it wasn’t the shocks and suspension on my vehicle.
Once back at Lake Pleasant, we took advantage of the campground shower facilities (very civilized campground) before making a run into nearby Carefree to grab dinner at Chili’s. I was fully expecting to be in a crazy, ravenous, “consume everything around me” mode, but after splitting an appetizer of hot wings, I only ended up eating about half my dinner and boxing up the leftovers for the next day. I guess that means I stayed well-fueled through the whole race, so my body wasn’t in this massive deprivation/starvation mode.
Since tent camping isn’t actually a quick-n-easy affair, and we didn’t know how late we would get back or how wiped out we would be, we were already planning to stay at the campground until Sunday morning, then pack up in daylight and head back home.
That worked out really well…we were able to leisurely pack up camp and get everything nicely organized, then head home late morning. The dogs were incredibly thrilled to see me…I’m pretty sure they are smart enough to pick up on patterns of where I’m going based on what I pack, and the last time I packed the camping gear, they got to go. So they were pretty bummed to be left behind. (Sofie was glued to my side for the next several days afterwards.)
As I wrap this up, it is 6 days post-race, and I cannot believe how good I feel. The sorest part of me was my hip flexors, and they didn’t even hurt so much as just felt stiff. The worst carnage was a blister, smaller than the size of my pinkie nail, on the side of my right big toe.
I’ve even felt good enough to engage in “active recovery” this week — my gym workouts Tues/Thurs morning, a group run at Papago Wednesday evening, and taking the dogs out every morning. Granted, I can feel that I’m not recovered yet, so all of those activities were done at about 50% of normal output effort, but it’s gratifying to feel this strong, and not have my body screaming “I hate you” at me, or second-guessing if what I did was “too much.”
Actually, it felt just right, and I’m not a “one and done” with ultras. I will be curious to see if it correlates at all to horse conditioning and bringing a horse up through distances, where once you hit that necessary fitness/conditioning level for a certain distance, if you just have to maintain it to be able to still compete at that distance, but staying at that level is way easier than initially getting to it.
I don’t know how much I’ll do this summer, since the races around here are all night races, and the longer distances all end up being repeat loops…that just doesn’t really float my boat in terms of what sounds like fun. So I might do some shorter-distance stuff through the summer, and then I’m eyeing a couple of point-to-point or single-loop 50k options for this fall/winter.
A more in-depth breakdown of what worked/what didn’t/what I would change/other misc thoughts post is still to come, so if you have any questions or if there’s something you want to see me address, ask away and I’ll cover it in that post!