I've wanted to run Elkhorn for a couple of years now. I grew up in Montana, have run several marathons in Montana, but had never run an ultra there. Unfortunately, Elkhorn just never fit into my schedule until this year. Still, I kind of wavered back and forth trying to decided if I actually wanted to do it. After running two 50 mile races (Collegiate Peaks and Bighorn) in May and June, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, if anything, to finish off the summer racing season. The Lean Horse 50K or 50M was tempting because of its proximity, but a schedule conflict there eliminated that idea. After running the Missoula Marathon in July, I finally took the plunge and registered for the Elkhorn 50K, opting for a "short" ultra (and, man, I ended up being VERY glad I didn't register for the 50M).
One of the draws of Elkhorn is that my cousin John lives in Helena (the nearest city to the race). John ran the 50K last year and was registered again this year. He has also run the Missoula Marathon with me the last few years and we finished within a minute of each other this year. So, free lodging with he and his family and someone to run at least part of the race with. For the cherry on top, John is also a home brewer and a pretty damn good one at that, so free homemade beer too. It's like an ultra runner's dream come true!
I made the 8ish hour drive over to Helena on Thursday and spent that evening and pretty much all of Friday just hanging out at John's place and basically just sitting on my ass. After a fairly rough weekend last week, where my legs just felt totally dead, I was erring on the side of caution and resting as much as possible heading into the race. On Friday evening, John and I drove out to the packet pick-up/pre-race dinner. This is wear things started to get a little crazy. Now, Montana is a big state geographically speaking, but a very small one population-wise. Inevitably, when I tell someone I'm originally from Montana they say, "Oh, do you know so-and-so from Montana?" More often than not, I don't....the population isn't THAT small and it's spread out over a large area. Well, my experience at Elkhorn did nothing to dispel the myth that everyone from Montana knows everyone else from Montana. Beginning with packet pick-up, I ended up meeting four random people who I knew or who knew somebody I knew. First off was one of my friends from college who was at the pre-race dinner with some of his friends who were running. I knew he lived in Helena, but had totally forgotten that fact until I looked up and saw him standing there. Then, the lady handing out the race packets recognized my name...turns out her mom was my grade school English teacher. The next day at the finish line I ran into a guy who was my lab partner in Ecology class back in college and another guy who knows one of my best friends from college. So, yeah, apparently everyone in Montana DOES know everyone else. In any case, the pre-race dinner was fairly decent. Nice relaxed scene and I scored a free pair of shoes at the prize drawing after the meal.
Race morning was nice and cool...about as good of weather as you could hope for in Montana in August. This race has experienced some pretty hot days in its history and I can't even imagine how much tougher the already brutal course would be with temps in the 90s. I'm pretty sure it never got out of the 70s while we were running and I never felt hot...in fact, in some places I actually got chilled.
There are three events at Elkhorn: the 50M, the 50K and the 23K (totally random distance there, but I think that just happens to be how far the lower loop of the trail is). The 50M had already started at 5:00 AM when we arrived. The 50K start was at 7:00 and then the 23Kers took off at 9:00. All three events follow parts of the same course, which is almost entirely singletrack trail save for the first (and last) mile and a half along a dirt road. The 50K course follows the dirt road out to the McClellan Creek trail, which heads basically straight south past the Teepee Creek aid station (which isn't open yet the first time through) at about 4 miles. From Teepee Creek, the trail continues south and starts the first big climb of the day, ascending up and over a ridge to the Elk Park aid station at about mile 7. Elk Park marks the beginning of an 8 mile loop, which first takes you downhill to the Wilson Creek aid station and then up the 2nd big climb of the day back to Elk Park at roughly the halfway point. From there, the course follows the same trail back down to Teepee Creek at mile 19, which is an active aid station this time. And this is where the fun begins....the toughest climb of the day heads up from Teepee Creek and along a ridge, eventually topping out and then descending a little bit to the Casey Meadows aid station at mile 23. Another shorter climb takes you out of Casey Meadows before you drop into the Jackson Creek drainage and start heading down to the final aid station. However, that downhill is interrupted (quite rudely) by one more steep but fairly short climb before heading back down to Jackson Creek at mile 28. From there, it's downhill for a ways on the trail and then back on the road to the finish line. All told, approximately 6,900 feet of elevation gain (and subsequent loss) over the course of 31 miles....nothing to shake a stick at.
My overly optimistic goal heading in was to run a sub-6. This would be only my 3rd 50K. I ran a 4:46 at Lean Horse a few years ago, which means nothing considering how flat that course is. I also ran a 5:46 at Bighorn two years ago on what is certainly a much tougher course than Lean Horse, but I wasn't really sure how it compared to Elkhorn. I knew sub-6 would put me in the top 10 almost assuredly and possibly top 5. A lofty goal for me, but what did I have to lose?
As the race started, I felt okay. Not great, not bad, just okay. The first stretch to Teepee Creek is almost all uphill, but gradual enough that it's totally runnable and John and I ran almost all of it. After Teepee Creek, we hiked much of the climb up to Elk Park and I did not feel good at all on that section. Considering that I was less than 8 miles into the race and was hiking, I felt like I was working WAY too hard. My legs didn't feel into it and I was starting to feel some impending digestive issues. After Elk Park, John started to pull away from me and I eventually decided that a trip to the bushes was necessary if I was going to be able to run this downhill section properly. As I had hoped, that did the trick and soon enough I was feeling much better and running fairly well. In short time, I caught back up with John and we ran into the Wilson Creek aid station together. He pulled ahead of me a ways on the subsequent climb (all hiking) back up to Elk Park, but we hooked up again at the Elk Park aid station and started the descent back to Teepee Creek together. This was the high point of the race for me. It only took me 15 miles or so to find a groove, but I did finally find one. Descending back down to Teepee Creek I pulled away from John and passed three other guys who we hadn't seen since climbing the same hill earlier in the race. By the time I reached Teepee Creek, I was feeling great and was actually thinking that I might be able to make up enough time over the rest of the course to be somewhat close to 6 hours (my pace had drifted so much on the first climb to Elk Park that that goal seemed lost early on).
And then the climb started. Actually, I felt very good for at least 3/4 of the climb to Casey Meadows. I was power-hiking all of it but was consistently passing 23K runners and wasn't getting passed by anyone. My legs and stomach both felt solid. At what I thought was the top, we crossed a meadow and I was all psyched up to start running some downhill. Except there was no downhill. Instead, the course headed up more, steeper than before and extremely rocky. And just like that, I hit the wall. My legs started to quiver, I started feeling lightheaded and was sure I was going to hurl (which is appropriate, considering the race is put on by HURL - the Helena Ultra Runners League). I pulled off the side of the trail, hunched over and waited for the inevitable to come, but it never did. The nausea faded eventually and I continued on. My last mile up that climb was somewhere in the 23:00 range. Just brutal. Finally, the climb did end, but by then I wasn't so eager to run. I tried a few times, but the trail was so rocky that my pathetic shuffle just resulted in tripping every few steps, so I was resigned to more walking. Eventually the trail did smooth out and I was able to achieve something resembling a running gait as I approached the Casey Meadows aid station.
The climb out of Casey Meadows featured more walking. This climb wasn't nearly as steep and under normal circumstances I would have run much of it, but normal circumstances are fairly abnormal during an ultra, so hike I did. Along that climb, I got passed by the 1st place 50 miler, who was absolutely cruising and ended up crushing the course record. John also caught up to me on that stretch. I knew by our position high up on the ridge and the finish line's location at the bottom of the drainage that eventually we would have to lose quite a bit of elevation, but the trail just didn't seem to be cooperating. We were heading down, but gradually. I finally asked John if the damn trail ever went down for real and he pointed ahead. Sure enough, there was the turn onto the Jackson Creek trail. I was able to do some decent running here and again pulled ahead of John. About halfway between Casey Meadows and Jackson Creek, the downhill is interrupted by a short but steep climb. By this point, my legs had absolutely no appetite for going uphill, no matter how slow. I started slogging up the hill and got hammered again by a wave of nausea. Again, I pulled off to the side of the trail, hands on knees, and waited for the inevitable. And, again, it never came. I continued the slog and soon enough was running back downhill into the Jackson Creek aid station.
John caught back up to me at the aid station, although I pulled slightly ahead as I left sooner. There's just a short bit of trail after the aid station and then the course meets back up with the same road we started out on. When I got to the road, I looked back and John was right behind me. I walked for a bit until he caught up and then we shuffled together down the road. By this point, we were both fighting cramps and would each have to take short walk breaks, but always ended up catching back up with each other. With about a quarter mile to go, we saw John's wife Vanessa and his son Jack cheering us on and, as we passed them, Jack ran out to pace us to the finish. John and I ended up finishing side by side (not hand in hand, although I'm sure that would have been a tear-jerking moment) in 6:40:23, about a minute faster than John ran last year.
All told, not a horrible day on the trails. I definitely underestimated the difficulty of the climbs. I had some cramping issues, but nothing debilitating. My nutrition was pretty poor...I don't think I ate any gels after the last big climb and the last two aid stations didn't have any Pepsi, which I had been drinking at all previous aid stations, so I basically didn't take in any calories for the final 10 miles or more (other than a few chunks of watermelon, which doesn't even really count). I was drinking plenty...ended up emptying my 70 oz. hydration pack a couple of times. I just need to learn to force more calories down, something I think I let slide here because it was "only" 31 miles. Of course, it was easily the toughest 31 miles I've ever run. All in all, a great event with some pretty spectacular trails and scenery. They say that if you can finish the Elkhorn 50M you are probably ready for a 100 mile race, and I would say that's true. I myself didn't finish the 50M, but after running the 50K I feel like I ran at LEAST 50 miles. It's a tough course, but well worth checking out.