I chose my first ultra marathon and my second trail race as a doozy. It was a long, hard day. What follows is as much detail as I can remember about my experience at the race.
- What: Quad Rock 50 Miler
- When: May 13, 2017
- Weather: 80+ degrees
- Finish sub 12 hours
- Result: 13:18:02 strava
None of this would be possible without the undying support of my wife, Savannah, who has lifted me up back from the depths of life more times than she knows. Her innumerable acts of support were integral in this effort.
Why This Race
After training for and running the Moab Trail Marathon with a goal in mind, I discovered how much I loved racing and the feeling of pushing my body for long endurance efforts. Prior to the marathon, I crewed my friend on the Pine to Palm 100 miler. Seeing her determination win the day and allow her to finish such a grueling race had reoriented my perspective on what was hard in life.
I decided to train for an ultra marathon near my home in Boulder, CO. I also wanted one with a significant elevation profile, as that is pretty much what I run [well]. Quad Rock fit perfectly into my schedule.
I had never run more than 40 miles in a week before I started training for this race. Ramping up to 50+ miles was a daunting requirement.
Unfortunately it wasn’t so easy. I endured usiness trips to flat places, a rolled ankle, the flu, and a strained soleus muscle during my training. Luckily, after my flu disappated I was able to run 40+ in 7 of the next 8 weeks (5 at 50+) before I tapered. Ideally I would have run more like 12 50+ weeks. Even so, running this much was very enjoyable and I’d like to keep it up.
Because the course had so much elevation (they claim 11k+ but strava only claims 9600-9800), it was important to train for that aspect as well. The core of my training included 4 10k+ weeks. Again, this was less than I’d like but enough to feel prepared.
From a physical standpoint, I felt ready for the race. Mentally, I had no idea how to prepare for 10-14 hours of running. My longest effort on my feet ever had been an 8 hour bushwacking hike. My longest run up to this point was a training run for 6 hours. This is where the my inexperience with ultras was very noticable.
The race is two 25 mile loops with the second in reverse. It hits the 4 aid stations a total of 10 times. The aid stations carried VFuel drink and bulk gel, along with water, ice, and various real foods.
My plan was to carry two 500ml bottles in my UD hydration pack, one electrolyte drink and the other water. I’d also carry salt tabs to take every 30 minutes and a few of my choice running snacks (like Skratch gummies and Clif Shot Blocks Margarita flavor).
My split planning had a few options, with the most likely seeing me finish between 11:30 and 12:00 depending on time needed in aid stations.
Race day started at 3:00am with a bagel and an hour car ride up to Lory state park. Savannah and I got there early, got a good parking spot, and slept in the car until 5:00am. At 5, I went and dropped off my bag and started stretching and preparing to race.
First 17 Miles: Resetting Expectations
At 5:30am, we were off. The race starts with 2 miles of dirt road to warm up on. I found my place near the back of the pack. I was very nervous, so I started chatting with a couple runners from Leadville. This is when I overheard one of the Leadville runners (who has run 100-milers for many years) say that he finished last year’s Quad Rock in 11:30, with much better weather. This was the first, but not the last, thing to make me question my expectations for this race.
Soon, we reached singletrack and started climbing. I was stuck behind a group going slower than I wanted for this first climb. I eventually was able to pass and started running with some effort up the first climb. About 5 miles in, my pinkie toes start to hurt. I had taped up my 4th toes to protect them from my pinkie toenails. Unfortunately, this tape was now causing blisters on my pinkies. I stopped and ripped off the tape, hoping that would alleviate the problem.
The next few miles went well, as up turned into down and into some smaller climbs. By mile 10, it was getting hot and my energy was draining. I picked up my pack from the mile 10 aid station drop bags and filled up on water and VFuel. The upcoming climb was going to be brutally exposed and steep, so I took it easy out of the aid station and started power hiking. Shortly into the climb, I met a runner named John. He’d done many ultras and was training for a 100-miler this season. After learning this was my first ultra, he immediately told me to forget any time I had in mind. “Finishing is all that matters.” I wasn’t sure how to take his advice. I was still on par to finish in my time goal. I kept moving and started jogging up the climb’s easier sections, leaving John behind.
Around 13 miles, I was really starting to feel the heat. My breath was shorter, probably 60% regular running capacity. My energy level was low and my drive was unfocused. I was still moving well, but every climb felt hard. Luckily, the next few miles were shaded and downhill, so I didn’t notice very much.
It was around this point that I discovered how terrible VFuel is. It tastes like corn syrup, ugh! I never filled a water bottle with VFuel again. I still kept chugging down 100 calories of VFuel gel every hour to keep my energy up. Every time, this would make me nauseous for 15 minutes and slow me down. It wasn’t until mile 40 that I realized it was the gel. I’ll never trust unfamiliar gel again.
At mile 17, I was still doing well, having just run down a 3 mile descent feeling good. I came into the aid station to see Savannah and a couple friends there to greet me. Trying to talk to them, I realized I was more tired than I thought I was. I still thought I was feeling good, so I left the aid station after a couple minutes and went off on the hardest section of course, a tough exposed ascent of Arthur’s Rock plus a long exposed switchbacked descent into the start/finish/middle.
Miles 17 - 25: Exhaustion
The upcoming ascent hit me like a freight train. I walked the entire thing. My feet felt like cinderblocks I was dragging up the mountain. We took a turn I hadn’t seen in my scouting runs, which turned out to be a bit harder than the trail I expected. Eventually the climb ended and I found tree cover. But for the next 4 downhill miles, I couldn’t muster more than a slow jog for a few minutes. My energy was just not high enough.
Miles 23-25 are nontechnical singletrack that winds down the hills into the start area. At the end of a 25 mile training run, I had busted down these at a good 8:30 pace. During the race, I barely managed 17 minute pace. A volunteer from Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Runners (a local group of ultra runners who run really fast) could tell I wasn’t doing so good. He paced me for a few minutes and helped me get focused on reaching the aid station.
During this descent my desire to continue reached its lowest point. I felt tired and exhausted. I didn’t understand why just a few weeks prior I had run a better 25 miles than I was doing today. Earlier in the race, I overheard that two years ago it was also very hot and 50+% of runners dropped at mile 25. That was starting to sound very appealing to me. I pushed the thought from my mind. A couple minutes later, it came back. The thought of dropping kept badgering me as much as I was trying to beat it away, it kept coming back. I eventually gave in, just 5 minutes from the aid station. With my tear ducts trying to cry, but not working right, I succumbed to the exhaustion and decided to drop. I would tell my crew and deal with the consequences.
Half-way Aid Station (6 hours in)
I dragged myself into the aid station as the first place finisher in the 25-miler raced past me to finish. I couldn’t form words to my crew. All I said for the first couple minutes was “Sit Down.” They put ice on my neck. They handed me fresh food and cold water. The first bite of bell pepper snapped me back into something near conciousness. I was able to say “Its hot”. I asked for my bandana I had packed so I could do the Indiana Jones thing. I asked for pickles (the third place woman had run by yelling about the benefits of pickles). Pickles are amazing. They are now my favorite race food. In the first lap, I had eaten very little real food, mostly surviving on gels and some snacks I brought with me. As I kept eating more and more real food, I started to feel much better.
I discussed with my crew my eating and drinking habits. It was very clear I was not consuming enough water or food to sustain this race. I had to increase my water intake to a liter an hour. I had to make sure I ate enough calories, which was getting harder the more I had the VFuel gel (as it tasted worse every time). After about 10 minutes, I felt well enough to continue. I stood up and started jogging out.
Alan, one of my friends crewing me, ran me out. As we were jogging along the first 100 yards or so, I said I had planned on dropping, but forgot to tell them because I was so exhausted. He said that dropping was “not happening.” I ran off not knowing what to think.
Miles 25 - 37: The Resurgence
The next 23 miles retraced my steps from the last 23 miles. Which meant I had 2 miles of exposed singletrack climbing to do. The same 2 miles that had destroyed my confidence just 30 minutes prior. Despite the rousing pep talk from Alan, I was still skeptical of my ability to sustain my body for another 6 hours. But, with a trail in front of me and fuel in my pack, I kept moving.
After 5 minutes, I started to believe I could continue. I focused on my routine, eating salt and calories every 30 minutes. I made sure to finish off a 50ml bottle every 30 minutes. My life revolved around 30 minute intervals. All I had to do was keep my legs moving, and I would keep racing.
With a belly full of food and a renewed determination, I kept my eyes forward. I power hiked my way up the climb that had doomed me just minutes ago. I met a nice lady from Red Feather who is going to try her first 100k later this year. I passed her.
I got to the tree cover, a mini-miracle. I caught up to a runner that had been with me for most of the last 7 miles. We talked. He’s running Hardrock for his 8th time later this year. He was having a lot of trouble today though. He blamed it on doing repeats of the Manitou incline a couple days ago. Thats one possiblity. My moneys on the 82 degrees though. When we reached the summit of the climb, I jogged on ahead.
For the next few miles, I continued to pass runners who had passed me on the way into the half. Each time I learned of their troubles and their plans for future ultras, I felt more confident in my own energy, more determined to finish, and more understanding of my heat exhaustion.
Coming into the mile 32 aid station, I was a new man. I smiled. I knew what I wanted from the buffet of real food. I had my plan and I was sticking to it, and it felt great.
The next 4 miles were going to be a brutal climb. I was prepared for it. I set off and started power hiking up the Mill Creek trail. I passed an exhausted runner who couldn’t talk to me. I came upon John (from mile 10-13) soaking his shirt in a creek. We both joined the Mill Creek Pool Club to cool off. I hiked passed him. I met a runner named Carl who lives very close to me, doing his first ultra since recoving from a bad bicycle accident. I hiked passed him.
When I arrived at the mile 37 aid station, I was surprised to find Carl and John not too far behind. They had used me as a pacer to get through the tough climb. In that moment, I felt like a true ultrarunner.
Miles 38 - 50: Grind It Out
When I passed John at mile 36, he said he was going to grind this race out. Those words stuck with me. With a few miles of rolling terrain in front of us, my energy waned. John had left the aid station first, with Carl and I in tow. I did my best to keep up with him. It felt like a peleton rotating the leader, but instead of fighting wind, we fought ourselves.
At some point Carl dropped behind me and John disappeared in front. I eventually reached the last large technical descent of the day. My feet were screaming. I knew one of my pinkie toenails was lost. My quads were not happy. But, through the pain, I felt strong. I pushed it downhill. I sight John at the end of the technical section walking along the road. For some reason, I don’t feel tired. I keep running the last mile down the road and into the mile 40 aid station. John follows.
If pickles are now my favorite race food, salted watermelon is my second favorite. I discovered it here, at Horsetooth trailhead, the mile 40 aid station.
At this point, I know what must be done to finish the race. I know my routine works. I know how to handle the heat. I know I only have 10 miles left and 3+ hours until the cutoff. The only thing left to do is execute.
I head out and take my place behind a runner named Enrique (preparing for his second 100-miler this year) and a shirtless runner I don’t know. The climb out of Horsetooth is surprisingly hard and exposed. I hike and try to keep up. We pass a group of three runners travelling slower. When we summit and start to descend, I blow past all of them, eventually putting minutes between me and the next runner. The excitement of the downhill leads into a good power hike up to the mile 46 aid station.
Ahead, I have 4 miles of downhill and 2 miles of home stretch. I’m excited and raring to go. By now, I’ve discovered what the VFuel was doing to my stomach and stopped eating it. I’m trying to compensate with real food, but calorie counting is hard. I know that I’m close to finishing, but those last 6 miles will probably take me over an hour. I have one last piece of salted watermelon and take off.
200 yards into my descent my water bottle pops out of its place and lands under my foot where I promptly step on it and break the mouth piece. It still contains 250ml of water. I slow down to prevent it sloshing out so that I can drink it along the way.
In the next 3 miles I don’t pass anyone. The descent is hard as my legs and feet are screaming. I’m convincing my body to run for 5 minutes at a time. Eventually I keep up a run for 10 minutes and finish the descent. Now, there are 3 miles of what is basically desert weather running left.
I continue to convince my body to run. I pass two runners slowing down. I pass a runner lying next to a small bush (I told the aid station about him, but he got up eventually). I hit the mile 48 aid station and drop off my bag. I fill my unbroken water bottle and take off for the finish.
I pass a walking runner at a 9:00 pace. I keep up my fast pace for almost 10 minutes before the energy dies. I still can’t see the finish. I pass a lot of people camping and hanging out on boats in the resevoir. I wonder what beers I’ll enjoy when I’m done. Its 13 hours and counting since I started this race, but I’m almost done.
I finally see the finish and run as hard as I can through to the finish. Video evidence later shows my running form was quite poor. It doesn’t matter. I’m done. I can stop moving now.
I have a lot of questions about how I feel about the race:
Am I proud of my finish time? I tried a hard ultra marathon as my first. I’m proud of my accomplishment.
Was it fun? Not sure, type-2 fun if it was.
Did I find my limits? I found some of them, but not all.
Why was it so difficult? Aside from the heat which affected many other runners, I believe that I did not understand the rigor one has to have to sustain energy and hydration for an ultra. I figured it out mid-race, which is probably how everyone else does it too.
Did I train enough? I felt strong through the end, passing many runners in the second half. So, I think I trained my physical body enough to finish this race. To perform at my previously expected time, I’d need to train more. Mental training will just require more races I think.
Will I do it again? Almost definitely. But I have to recover first.
I feel like this race was a microcosm of my life’s struggles and how I’ve dealt with them. Ignorance, exhaustion, depression, excitement, and routine. Maybe thats why people like these races, because they represent life.