To put it simply, my running since Bighorn has been pretty.....meh. I really didn't feel all that bad after Bighorn and took things easy, in no hurry to rush myself back into high mileage/high intensity weeks. Just as it felt like my legs were regaining some of their normalcy, I ran the Missoula Marathon, which just seemed to set me back a couple of weeks. After running long runs on trails for the majority of the winter/spring, my legs weren't ready for a long (moderately) hard effort on pavement just three weeks after Bighorn and I was left feeling much more sore after the marathon than I was after Bighorn. Not really a big deal, except for this other race on the horizon: the El Vaquero Loco 50K (aka "the crazy cowboy").
I first learned about El Vaquero Loco last summer when my friends Ryan and Nathan ran it. Located outside of Afton, WY, just south of the Tetons and Yellowstone, the course is brutally tough, featuring about 9,000 feet of elevation gain over the out and back route. Now, I certainly haven't run every 50K in the country, but this one has got to rank right up there with the toughest. Speedgoat in Utah is probably tougher, but not many others can make that claim. To put the elevation gain in perspective, the Bighorn 100, widely regarded as a fairly tough 100 miler, has between 16,000 and 17,000 feet of gain. El Vaquero Loco has over half of that across less then a third of the distance. In any case, at last year's race Ryan met the race director, Ty Draney, who is himself a very talented ultra runner, and offered him a free entry into the Black Hills 100. Ty accepted and, in exchange, offered Ryan and I free entries to this year's El Vaquero Loco (this race directing thing has some perks!....hey, if any Leadville race directors are reading this, drop me a line...). So here we are.
Eventually, my legs did start to recover a bit from Missoula. I found that the more I stuck to trails, the better they felt in general. But, still, I wasn't able to manage much in the way of weekly mileage. Between starting a new position at work and an admitted lack of real motivation, it's been a struggle to break 50 mpw. One thing I have tried to focus on is elevation gain, so with that in mind I ran two different "long" (in terms of time more so than distance) runs up Crow Peak hoping to whip my climbing legs into shape. The first was a double summit of Crow, approximately 3100 feet of elevation gain in just under 13 miles. The second, a week later, was a triple summit, 4600 feet of gain in just over 19 miles. Still less gain than I'd face at El Vaquero Loco, but the best I can do with what I have available in the Black Hills.
After that Crow triple, I was actually feeling fairly optimistic about things. The third ascent was a slog, but I was able to recover and still run the descent fairly strongly. Things were looking up. And then I got sick. Nothing starts off a two week taper quite like feeling like a miserable pile of shit for three days. After sitting around feeling like I'd been hit by a truck, with some nausea thrown in, for three days, I got back to running on Thursday (9 days before El Vaquero Loco) and it was one of the more horrendous 4 mile runs of my life. Five miles the next day didn't feel any better. It was like I had taken 3 years off of running instead of 3 days: burning lungs, dead tired legs, pathetically slow pace....it was a mess. Ten miles on Saturday went okay, but not great and then 7 on Sunday was less than remarkable as well. So, a week to go before I'm planning on running a 50K in the mountains and it takes all I've got to run 10 flat miles at a slow pace. Super. Thankfully, things started too look up a bit in the final week before the race as 6 and 7 mile runs on Lookout Mtn. and the Tinton trail felt much better than the road efforts over the weekend. With nothing else to do about it, I was left hoping that normalcy would return by Saturday.
Ryan and I set off for western Wyoming on Thursday afternoon and were immediately faced with the conundrum of how exactly to get across Wyoming. If you've never tried it before, finding a direct east/west route across northern and/or central Wyoming is basically impossible. The highways tend to avoid going over mountain ranges as much as possible, resulting in a bunch of back and forth travel as you skirt around the mountains instead, which consequently adds significant mileage to what is already a fairly long trip. Ultimately, we chose to head over to Buffalo, across the southern end of the Bighorns and then on to Worland, Thermopolis and Riverton before heading up the Wind River and setting up camp for the night about 20 miles west of Dubois. By "setting up camp", I mean that we crashed in a camper that a friend of Ryan's has parked in a storage shed for use during backcountry ski season. We were up fairly early Friday and finished out the 11 hour or so journey by skirting past the Tetons through Jackson and finally down the Star Valley to Afton and onward to our campsite at Cottonwood Lake (the start/finish area for the race) about 15 miles outside of Afton. We were somewhat surprised to be among the first runners there, but that was fine since it meant we had plenty of campsites to choose from (by late afternoon, the campground was packed).
Turns out, we chose a campsite fairly close to some folks from Salt Lake City, Jeremy and Ashley, who had volunteered at the Nemo aid station during this year's Black Hills 100, so we got a chance to catch up with them around the campfire that night. That is, until Mother Nature put the kaibash on the campfire with some fairly significant rainfall. As we retreated to the tent for the night, Ryan asked if I'd ever camped in this particular tent in the rain before. Nope, sure haven't, but surely the Walmart special tent will be water-tight, right? Turns out it was, other than a very small leak around the door zipper that didn't cause us any real problems. And the rain was fairly short-lived anyhow. After a fairly fitful sleep that alternated between me being too hot in my sleeping bag and too cold outside of it, my alarm fired off at 4:00 AM and we were up making coffee and a quick breakfast ahead of the 6:00 AM start. A bit of standing around in the dark ensued before moseying down to the start/finish line and taking off with just enough light to see comfortably without a headlamp.
The course itself is an out and back, starting at Cottonwood Lake and climbing up to and past three high mountain lakes before descending into the Swift Creek drainage and the turnaround at the Swift Cr. trailhead (which is also where the 25K race starts before covering the return leg of the 50K course). From Swift Cr., it's back up and and over and down to Cottonwood. All told, about 9000 feet of gain for the 50K, with a big chunk of that coming in two climbs: the initial 4 mile climb from Cottonwood up to the first, and smallest, of the lakes and then from Swift Cr TH up for a solid 8 miles to the northernmost of the lakes. For me, the plan was simple: take it fairly easy on the uphills (i.e., hike everything) and then try to make up some time on the downhills. Hopefully, this would result in still having the legs to run the final 4.5 miles of downhill at the end. Ultrasignup had projected my time as 7:02 and I myself thought maybe sub-7 was possible if I had a good day, but I really didn't know what to expect on a course like this coming off of a slightly lackluster training cycle and a few days of being sick. So, I just what I got and dealt with it.
What I got was some absolutely stunning scenery. I didn't carry my camera with me, so I don't have pictures to back this up and words will hardly do it justice, but this has to be one of the most scenic race courses in the country. Once the course topped out near the high mountain lakes, it was like you were running through something you usually only see in magazines or on postcards. Definitely made all of that climbing worthwhile.
For the most part, my pacing strategy worked. I ran when it felt comfortable and hiked when it didn't (which was often). Ended up hitting the turnaround in 3:25 and knew it was highly unlikely that I was going to pull off a nearly even split and get a sub-7. This suspicion was verified on the long slog back uphill on the second leg. Near the top of said slog at about mile 20, I felt my stomach turn suddenly and before I knew it, I was Tebowing in the wildflowers along the trail with the dry heaves. After three bouts of this (on the third, a very small amount of liquid came up, but nothing significant), my stomach felt much better and would end up feeling rock solid for the rest of the race. I finally topped out not much later and, as hoped, found I was still able to run the downhills fairly comfortably. After one last grinder of a climb coming out of the last aid station, I hit that final 4.5 miles of downhill and was able to run it all. I wasn't laying down 6:00 miles, by any means, but it's all relative at that point. I was moving forward in a running motion, and that was good enough for me. I managed to pass three other 50Kers in the last few miles, and didn't get passed by any, and ultimately returned to Cottonwood Lake in 7:34:53, 21st place overall. Ryan had laid down a smoking good time, running a 6:02 and finishing 4th overall.
Funny thing is, the day before the race I had been joking with Ryan that every time I ran a 50K, it took me an hour longer than the one before it. My first was Lean Horse, which I ran in 4:46. Then came Bighorn in 5:46. Then Elkhorn in 6:40. Well, looks like the trend continues. Of course, those hour differences are directly proportional to the difficulty of the course. Guess I have two choices: find an easier 50K to run or just go whole hog and run Speedgoat next year (not likely).
In any case, all in all a great day in the mountains. I'd highly recommend this race to anyone who's into ultras; you'd be hard pressed to find a more stunning course. The race itself is kind of obscure and not well known outside of the Utah/Idaho/Wyoming area, but it's well worth looking in to.