They say any idiot can run a marathon, but it takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultramarathon.
Well, I guess I'm a pretty special idiot, because I finished my first ultra on Saturday: the Mt. Disappointment 50k Endurance Race. Better yet, I even enjoyed the experience!
With a total of 5,610 feet of climbing and an equal amount of descent, the course involves 11,220 feet of elevation change over the race's 31.3 miles. It's challenging, make no mistake, and my strategy for the course (my first ultra) was to take it slow from the outset, and aim merely at finishing within the allotted time limit of 11 hours.
Race morning was cool and clear. The stars were still shining brightly above the Mount Wilson Observatory as I stood in line with other shivering runners to pick up my race number. As the sun crept over the horizon, runners took their marks at the starting line. Race Director Gary Hilliard cautioned everyone about starting out too quickly, urging us to take our time with the uphills. "If this is your first ultra, you're going to remember this day for the rest of your life," Hilliard said, "but be careful: if you go out too fast and aren't able to finish, it'll be memorable for all the wrong reasons."
I was fortunate to run into Mike Schneider at the start line, a runner some of you will remember from a previous post as The Runner Who Saved My Life. Mike, too, was planning to run the race to finish, rather than to set a course record, so we fell in step together and paced each other the whole way.
The race begins with a two-mile run down the paved Mt. Wilson Road, then turns at Eaton Saddle to follow a dirt road to Markham Saddle, then up Mt. Disappointment. The views on this part of the trail were wonderful: below us to the west was (in theory) Los Angeles, but low-lying blue-tinged clouds obscured the city, making it seem as though the mountains dipped straight into blue water.
After Mt. Disappointment, the trail descends to the Red Box Ranger Station, and keeps descending for another five miles or so to the Switzer Picnic Area. Somewhere between Red Box and Switzer's, a rock grabbed my toe (or vice versa) and I went hurtling forward like Superman -- except that instead of flying, I landed on my hands and knees, leaving my left knee and left hand pretty bloody. Fortunately, with all the endorphins coursing through my veins, I was feeling no pain -- so after dusting myself off, Mike and I were off and running again.
We reached the Switzer's Picnic Area a bit ahead of pace, and hikers we ran past in the parking lot couldn't believe we'd started at Mount Wilson. Several switchbacks up the paved road out of Switzer's, and we quickly found ourselves at the Clear Creek Aid Station along Highway 2. There, the fantastic volunteers helped clean out my wounds and gave everything a once-over with antibiotic ointment. "That oughta catch the dust pretty well," one volunteer noted with a smile, as he spread the sticky ointment across my knee.
From the Clear Creek Aid Station, we took Fire Road 2N64 up a series of switchbacks to the top of Josephine Saddle. This part of the course was really hot when I did a training run a few weeks ago, but on race day it was still early enough in the morning that heat wasn't a problem. Again, the views that spread out below us as we climbed were amazing: crisp blue sky, green hillsides, and the city below masked in clouds.
When we reached the top, the Josephine Saddle Aid Station volunteers were waiting for us, and eagerly topped off our Camelbak reservoirs so we could safely reach the Red Box Aid Station at mile 21.2. Adequate hydration is critical on this part of the course, which descends to the northeast and is often buffeted by dry desert winds. Other than that, it's a very pleasant trail, winding around Strawberry Peak and through a meadow to the Strawberry Trail. Not long after reaching the Strawberry Trail, we climbed to the point where I so famously bonked (and blogged about in a previous post.) I happily waved goodbye to that spot, passing it now in much better condition, physically and psychologically, than last time. Taking a GU packet every thirty minutes was keeping me in good condition today.
We reached the Red Box Aid Station on pace and feeling good. It was tempting to pick up the speed, but we knew we'd need to save all the energy we could for the final climb up Mt. Wilson to the finish line -- so Mike and I tried to hold each other back despite the spring in our steps. After refilling bottles and eating a handful of trail mix, down we went into the canyon, toward West Fork. This part of the trail descends steeply at first, then more gradually as it connects to the Red Box Fire Road.
Along the Red Box Fire Road we saw a beautiful snake (not certain what kind, but it looked a lot like this Pituophis melanoleucus.) The toughest aspect of this part of the course was fighting the urge to speed ahead. The gentle downhill urged us to run, but our strategic planning kept us at a gentler trot. We were not going to set ourselves up for failure by burning all our energy now!
Several stream crossings later, we reached the final aid station at West Fork, mile 26. The volunteers here asked us a lot of questions to ensure we were ok to continue. A number of other runners at this aid station were having serious stomach trouble, and I felt grateful to still be feeling pretty good.
Having topped off our Camelbak reservoirs, Mike and I now headed up the toughest part of the course: the 2000-foot climb on the Kenyon DeVore Trail out of the canyon to Mt. Wilson (and the finish line!) Mentally, I still felt sharp, but I was definitely feeling the physical fatigue. My feet were hurting and my shoulders were starting to hurt, too, from carrying the Camelbak for more than 26 miles.
The first two miles after the West Fork Aid Station weren't too steep, but the three miles of climbing that followed were every bit as tough as I'd remembered from my training runs. By the time we'd taken the umpteenth switchback up the mountain, I was ready for the race to be over! The mountain almost seemed to tease us: we'd reach a point where we could see blue sky through the trees, and think we'd reached the summit --- only to reach yet another switchback. It was tough physically, but even worse was the psychological letdown. I kept moving by telling myself to just put one foot in front of the other, and then pick up the other foot. Relentless forward motion saved the day.
Finally, we came to a point that was unmistakably close to the finish line. Though we were still below the summit, we saw a car pass by above us, on the road, and we could hear the finish-line cheers and the sighs of happy runners who had already finished. This motivated us to pick up the pace and cross the finish line!
We finished in 9:42.32. Lovely Christi was there with Elliott, one of our pups, to greet us at the finish line. I can't quite describe the emotions that flowed through me as I finished. Tears came to my eyes; I couldn't quite believe I'd done it. A wonderful race volunteer put a finisher's medal around my neck. I'd really finished!
Race Director Gary Hilliard was there to greet us at the finish line and congratulated us. He also had a surprise for me: turns out, I'd placed third in my age group and would receive a really cool plaque with a rock carving of Mt. Disappointment on it! I thanked Gary for putting on such a fantastic race, and Mike, who was such a great traveling companion. Then, I cooled down with an ice-cold can of Coca-Cola: the pause that refreshes, indeed!
Congratulations to Jorge Pacheco and Diana Rush, the first-place finishers on Saturday. Thanks to Race Director Gary Hilliard, and all the wonderful volunteers who made the race possible and kept us safe. And a big thank-you to all my readers for your words of encouragement and support.
See you on the trail!