Monday, May 14, 2012

Quad Rock 50

Seems that traveling to Colorado to run a 50 miler in May is becoming something of an annual tradition for Ryan and I.  Last year, it was the Collegiate Peaks 50 in Buena Vista on Mother's Day weekend.  This year, the inaugural Quad Rock 50 in Fort Collins, again on Mother's Day weekend (did I mention our extremely understanding wives??).  Hanging out at the QR finish line on Saturday evening, still caked in sweat and trail grit, Ryan was already plotting our adventure for next year.  Can't say for sure that it will include Colorado again but, regardless, that's getting a little ahead of ourselves.

We heard about QR back in November or December and it immediately moved to the top of our radar.  For one, it's relatively close (a 5 hour drive from Spearfish).  For two, the course looked like a beast (more on that later).  For three, the timing was good.  I had already locked in on the Bighorn 100 as my big target for the year and QR fell 5 weeks before Bighorn, making it a perfect long tune-up race.  For four, I knew some people in Fort Collins, all of them acquaintances from the blogosphere.  One of those acquaintances, Mike,  was so gracious as to offer us a place to crash for the weekend.  Many thanks, Mike!  And, speaking of understanding wives, thanks to Mike's better half J for putting up with three strange trail runner dudes from South Dakota for a few days.

So, QR it was.  Ryan and I initially recruited a couple of other locals, Nathan (who had ventured to Collegiate Peaks with us last year) and Andy to come along with us.  Unfortunately, Nathan was sidelined with some hamstring issues so he couldn't make the trip.  We decided to leave on Thursday, giving us a chance to just chill on Friday.  This worked out well, since Mike clued us in on a local group run and potluck on Thursday evening, which was a great way to stretch the legs after the car ride and meet/run/drink/dine with some of the Fort's local trail runners, including Alex and QR co-directors Nick and Pete

After wandering around the Fort Collins/Loveland/Longmont/Boulder metroplex for most of the day on Friday, it was time to finally face the task at hand on Friday evening.  At some point on trips like this, I inevitably have an "oh shit, I actually have to run a race in the morning" moment.  That moment came on Friday evening as I stared at the random pile of crap I had shoved into my luggage before leaving South Dakota and tried to determine if I had everything I would need the following day (or if I was even sure if I knew what I would need).  The primary concern was the weather.  It was a balmy 85 when we hit the Fort on Thursday, but a cold front blew in and the forecasted high for race day was around 60 with a 30% chance of showers.  A bit cooler than what I had planned for, but I figured I'd be okay so long as those showers didn't become a steady downpour, as they sometimes do (they didn't).  

It seemed as though I had the requisite gear to run 50 miles, but for some damn reason I couldn't shake the thought that Saturday wouldn't be my day.  Why?  To be honest, the course was starting to intimidate me a bit. For months, I've barely even thought about this race.  Now that it had snuck up on me and I was staring it straight in the face, I was starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into.  Much of the talk at the potluck on Thursday had revolved around the course and its challenges, namely 12,000 ft of elevation gain over the 50 mile route.  That's a shit-ton.  I've been running a decent amount of trail miles this year, but was seriously doubting that it was enough for a beast of a course like this.  And if I couldn't survive this, what would that say about my chances at Bighorn?  Pete had mentioned on the QR website that in order to finish the 50 mile race, you had to hit the turnaround at 25 miles knowing that you would be going out for a 2nd loop...the thought of stopping and taking a 25 mile finish couldn't be an option.  I tried mightily to think that way, but I just couldn't really convince myself that I would be able to make that turn on Saturday.

With those thoughts swirling through my head, sleep didn't come all that swiftly on Friday night, but it did eventually come.  Morning came quicker, at 2:45 to be exact.  As I got dressed and gave my gear one last check, the sense of trepidation remained.  Honestly, I don't even remember if I was this nervous immediately before running my first 100 at Lean Horse.  Of course, Lean Horse was a known quantity....a course that I knew I could run well on.  This was a totally different situation.  Standing in the dark at the starting line, I felt totally unsure about what was about to transpire.  Confidence was nowhere to be found.  It seemed to me to be a lot of worrying for what was supposed to be a simple training run.  As much as I was dreading it, it was probably merciful when Nick finally counted down from 10 and sent us on our way.

So, back to the course.  As I've alluded to already, the route is comprised of two 25 mile loops through Horsetooth Mountain Park and Lory State Park.  In conjunction with the 50 mile race, there is a 25 mile option. Everyone runs the first loop in the clockwise direction.  After reaching the start/finish line at the 25 mile mark, the 50 milers turn around and run the loop again, counter-clockwise (essentially making it an out and back course).  As I also mentioned, 50 milers have the option of calling it a day at the turnaround and accepting a 25 mile finish.  The total elevation gain for the 50 mile race is in the vicinity of 12,000 feet, which comes in six big climbs (three on each loop, obviously).  The entire route includes precious little flat's basically go up, go down, repeat (actually, it says something similar right on the race shirts).

Once the race was underway, it was time to stop over-analyzing things so damn much and just run, and it turned out to be a great relief to be underway.  I had lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack and was somewhat unprepared for just how congested the trail would be early on.  I was basically forced into running the pace that people immediately around me were running and it seemed very slow, much slower than I probably would have started off if left to my own devices.  But this was a training run for a 100 miler.  I kept telling myself to treat QR as if it WERE a 100 miler and run accordingly.  In retrospect, being "stuck" back in the pack was probably the best thing that could happen to me as it prevented me from going out too fast and consequently crashing and burning later on.

Almost before I knew it, we were atop the first big climb at the Towers aid station, about 7 miles in.  I grabbed a drink of Coke and a PB and J wrap and was on my way.  As for fueling, I was gun shy about trying the EFS gel they had given us right before the race as I'd never trained with it, so I was sticking with the trusty ol' Hammer Gel between aid stations and making a concerted effort to eat some "real" food at each aid station.  Leaving Towers, I was still "stuck" in a bit of a crowd and went with the flow down to the Horsetooth aid station.  Upon arriving at Horsetooth, I was immediately greeted by a familiar face in Rob, who ran the inaugural Black Hills 100 last year.  Funny how a seemingly inconsequential thing like seeing someone you recognize can give you a boost in a race, but for some reason it always does.  I grabbed another Coke and a turkey/cheese wrap (this turned out to be my food of choice for the day) and headed up the hill feeling great.

Climbing back up towards Towers past Horsetooth Rock was the first time where the field really started to spread out and I felt like I could maneuver a bit.  I started to pass a few people here and there, but still didn't feel like I was really pushing all that hard.  I did a lot of walking on the uphills, even though there were several sections where I most certainly could've run.  I didn't have a heart rate monitor on, so I basically judged my HR by feel and tried to keep from pushing it too high.  After reaching Towers, drinking some more Coke and eating another wrap, it was down Mill Creek toward the Arthur's Rock aid station.  I noted a few steep, straight-shot descents (i.e., no switchbacking) along this stretch that were going to be a pain in the ass (or legs, more accurately) going back up the other direction.  Oh, and speaking of the other direction, by this point in the race my mentality had changed completely.  The fear of not being able to make the turn at the halfway point was virtually gone.  My legs felt great, my stomach felt great and I was in a groove.  I still had a long way to go before even hitting the turnaround, but quitting there no longer seemed like a probability, or even really an option.

The Arthur's aid station is back down in the valley where we started, just up the road from the start/finish line.  But of course it would be too easy (and short) to just haul ass down the road to the start/finish.  Instead, it was back up the trail for the third an final climb of the first loop.  It was on this climb that I hooked up with another runner, Jason, who seemed to be going about the same pace as me.  Well, actually, I seemed to be pushing a bit faster on the uphills, even when just hiking, and he seemed to run the downhills a bit faster, but working together we stayed pretty close to one another.  At the top of climb, we hit an old road and it was here that the leader of 50 miler, Ryan Burch, came cruising by, running the uphill in the opposite direction steady and strong (he would go on to win the race and, consequently, he also won the Collegiate Peaks 50 last year, so he's won every ultra I've ever run in Colorado).  As we continued the long descent toward the start/finish line I saw Ryan and then Mike not too far behind, both also looking nice and strong.  And when I say long descent, I mean lllloooonnnngggg descent.  At some point, the trail emerged from the timber onto some open, brushy slopes that afforded a view of the start/finish area down below.  Of course, upon seeing such a sight, my immediate thought was "hey, almost there!".  Wrong.  You can see, and hear, that damn turnaround point for a solid few miles as you switchback down the hill before you finally get there.  But, get there I eventually did, hitting the turnaround in about 5:25, over a half an hour ahead of pace for my totally arbitrary goal of 12 hours for the full 50.  Of course, I knew I would slow some over the 2nd half, so sub-12 certainly wasn't in the bag just yet.

Immediately upon hitting the turnaround, I was greeted by Alex, who had just finished the 25 mile race a little over an hour before and was now volunteering.  He grabbed my hydration pack and refilled my water while I rooted around in my drop bag for a fresh shirt and refilled my gel flask.  All in all, thanks to Alex's help, it was a fairly efficient turnaround and I was back out for my 2nd loop before the 5:30 mark.  Jason had left the aid station right before me and we ended up hiking (and running a bit) back up the hill as we chatted about the race and other events we've done.  This was a great way to kill the time and made the long climb back up go by much faster than it would have if I was alone with my own thoughts.  We ran fairly strongly back down to Arthur's together but then got separated a bit when I took a bit of a walk break after Arthur's, on relatively flat trail, to finish eating my wrap.

Now it was time for what would be the hardest climb of the day.  Several hours into the race and facing the steepest ascents along Mill Creek.  Early in the climb I walked when it felt appropriate and managed to run a few of the mellower sections, but when the grade increased it was nothing but a slow hike.  For the first time all day, I felt like I was really working hard, even while just hiking.  But, when I hit a downhill grade, I still found it easy, and comfortable, to resume running, so I was still making somewhat decent progress.  Eventually the trail topped out and I found myself cruising back down into the Towers aid station for the third time.  Only one more big climb left.

After Towers, there's a bit of fairly technical trail near Horsetooth Rock and I was able to run this comfortably, if not carefully.  My quads still felt perfectly fine and I was able to move my feet quickly enough to account for the terrain.  When the trail hit the wider, totally smooth trail lower on the descent it felt heavenly and I was able to open up my stride and just cruise for a bit for the first time since....well, all day, really.  As I hit the Horsetooth aid station, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was 8:49 into the race.  I fleetingly wondered if Ryan or Mike had finished yet (both were gunning for sub-9) and, as it turns out, Mike was finishing at almost that exact moment, with Ryan not far behind.  Leaving Horsetooth, Rob told me I had just a few miles of climbing left and then mostly downhill for the last 7 after that.  Music to my ears.

The climb up Spring Creek was fairly slow going as my legs were definitely starting to feel the elevation gain.  I was walking several grades that I could easily run under normal circumstances, but let's face it, there is little "normal" about running an ultra.  At some point, I glanced up to my right and realized I could see Towers Road and then saw a couple of people running down it, which led me to believe I was nearing the Towers aid station again.  Wrong.  Like the turnaround, that glimpse of the road was deceiving as the trail parallels it up the drainage for quite a ways before I finally caught site of the aid station and the top of the climb.  Once back at Towers for the fourth and final time, I was a bit disappointed to find that they were out of Coke and Mountain Dew.  They did still have turkey wraps, but I was tired enough from the last ascent that I didn't really feel like eating and, with only 7 miles to go and a long downhill on Towers Road ahead, didn't feel like wasting the time to walk a bit and eat.  It was obvious by this point that sub-12 was practically in the bag, but I also thought I might be tantalizingly close to sub-11.  So, I grabbed a handful of gummy bears, shoved em in my mouth and started pounding down Towers.  As I had arrived at the aid station, I noticed Jason sitting and eating.  I wondered if he was feeling alright, but assumed he was and that he would probably catch back up to me eventually.  Turns out I was correct on both accounts.

Although my quads still felt relatively good, I did have 43 miles on my legs, so the descent down Towers and then back onto the trail wasn't exactly blistering fast, but I was able to run fairly comfortably given the circumstances.  Jason did catch up with me as we neared the bottom of the descent and at some point he wondered aloud if we could break 11 hours.  I told him I'd been thinking about that myself, but that in order to do so, we'd both have to really kick some ass over the final few miles.  I did some quick calculations in my head and, assuming my GPS mileage was accurate (it was), we would've needed a few solid 8:00ish minute miles to come in under 11 hours.  Turns out, neither of us really felt like kicking quite that much ass.  But, as we came off the hill and onto the nice, smooth, gentle trail through the valley, I did get another chance to open my stride up a bit and pulled ahead of Jason.  At this point, it wasn't so much that I was trying to gap him, I was just ready to be done and had a bit more push left than he did.

Although the valley trail is easily the flattest part of the course, I did find myself taking a few short walk breaks here and there.  I knew sub-11 was out and my new goal was to beat my Bighorn 50 time of 11:15 from last year.  A totally, ridiculously arbitrary goal, but something to shoot for none-the-less.  I cruised straight through the Arthur's aid station with two miles to go with a few encouraging words from Alex as I passed by (I would say "flew by", but let's face it, I wasn't really flying).  Eventually, the finish area came into view and before I knew it I faced that somewhat surreal moment that comes at the end of every ultra when, finally, after hours and hours of running, the finish line is right there in front of you.  I had somewhat jokingly told Andy the night before that my goal for the race was to finish before my Garmin battery died.  Turns out, that battery has at least 11:11:51 of time on it, because that's what it read when I hit the stop button (my official time is 11:11:21...not sure where the 30 second difference comes from, nor am I all that worried about it).

I grabbed my finisher mug and immediately noticed that Nick was conducting the awards ceremony down at the picnic shelters, so wandered down there where I quickly located Ryan, Andy and Mike and heard about their extremely strong runs (10th and 11th in the 50 for Mike and Ryan, respectively, and 25th for Andy in the 25).

Hands down, the best paced 50 I've ever run.  Standing around the finish, my legs felt relatively fine.  Tired, of course, but not shot.  Could I have gone another 50?  Well, we'll never know for sure, but I'd like to think that the answer is yes.  Running this course faster than Bighorn, and with a bunch more elevation gain thrown in, has restored all of that confidence that I was severely lacking early Saturday morning.  Not really sure that things could have gone any better.  All that worrying for nothin'.

All in all, a great trip and a great race.  The organization was top notch (Nick and Pete know a thing or two about ultras) and the volunteers were outstanding (again, it's obvious when the volunteers are runners themselves).  The course is a beast, but it can be tamed (sounds corny, but whatever).  Definitely a worthy early season goal race or a great training run for other races such as Bighorn, Black Hills, Western States or Hardrock (of course, when choosing amongst those four, one must ALWAYS consider Black Hills first #notbiasedatall).

Huge thanks to Nick and Pete for putting this thing together, to Rob, Alex and all of the other volunteers for, well, volunteering and, again, to Mike and J for the lodging.  Much appreciated!

EDIT:  Meant to add this before, but spaced it.  Garmin Connect link to my GPS data from the race.


Rob said...

Sounded like a very well-executed race by someone ready for the Bighorns. Hope you enjoyed your stay. Sorry I missed you on Thursday, and the Spearfish brews

Kyle Fanning said...

Nice writeup. Sorry I missed you guys on the Thursday night social run...would've been great to chat with the South Dakota contingent. My parents lived in Spearfish for about 15 years (until last year) so I've had the fortune to hit some of the local trails (Crow Peak is definitely my favorite). I'm running the Bighorn 100 as well so hopefully our paths will cross there.

mike_hinterberg said...

Great race, fun time, glad you guys came out.
We'll definitely have NoCo folks head up there in the years to come!

Lots of physical and mental training that's going to come in handy at Bighorn.

Chris said...

Rob - It was a great time. Too bad the weather wasn't a bit nicer for hanging out at the finish line. But, of course, not TOO much nicer, or else it would've sucked for running.

Kyle - Crow Peak is a good one for some significant elevation gain in a short period of time...I actually direct a race on that trail in late July (Crow Peak Ascent). Because they're more convenient lunchtime runs for me, I get more miles in on Lookout Mtn. and the Tinton trail. Hope we can meet up in Sheridan or Dayton.

Mike - The NoCo contingent will have to duke it out with the Minnesota crew for supremacy of Black Hills in the coming years. The Minnesotans dominated last year, but I know NoCo has some big guns.