This day last year I was frantically driving back and forth down a 2 lane road between the state highway and the Albert Moser campground near Preston, Idaho. I hadn’t heard from the race director whether the race was actually going to continue as planned, so I kept driving back to get phone reception in hopes of a voicemail or email that would tell me the race was a go. Nothing.
I went back to the campsite and scouted out the surrounding areas including the start line and saw no sign of a race going on.
4am came quick and next thing I knew a small ford ranger pulled up to the start area 15 minutes before the start of the 50 mile race. Finally! My race number – 1. 1 of 2 I soon found out. The few others that had registered didn’t show and it was just Rob and I standing there in silence as we realized we had the entire course to ourselves.
Rob took off immediately as the race director verbally announced “start”. I was locking up the van at that point and he had already taken off. 3 miles in, I caught him on a climb and came to the realization of how much the day was going to suck.
Here I am now, one year later, sitting in the same campsite wondering if anyone else is showing up, but this time I don’t care. I’m not stressed about it and if I’m the only one, then so be it. I’ve got the route programmed into my watch and I plan to reference it so that I don’t get lost as I did last year.
For many people, one of the biggest appeals is the camaraderie associated with it. Hanging out the night before, being cheered on out on course, and then hanging out drinking beer afterward and talking about how the thought of quitting seemed so appealing at the time. It’s reflective of the mountain biking community and interesting to see the parallels despite the somewhat hostile attitude that is often shared between the two groups. Everyone has their own motivating factors for competing in ultra distance racing and mine is become a better version of myself. You learn a lot about yourself when you spend the time by yourself and that self-discovery can often be masked or avoided through social interaction and external gratification.
Am I ready? I’m not completely sure. But here it goes.
I wake up at 3:50, just minutes before my alarm is set to go off. Somehow, this always seems to happen, no matter what time I set the alarm for. I get up and immediately toss back a pre-mixed sweetened cold brew coffee with almond milk. Last year, it was bone chilling cold that morning so I whipped up a french press of unbelievably strong coffee, to the extent that my stomach was churning for the first several miles deciding if it wanted to reject it. This cold brew did the trick though. I rolled down past the race start and a couple miles down the road to the land of cell reception to make sure I didn’t miss any important phone calls, texts, emails, etc. I was kind of hoping in the back of my mind I’d have a couple of ‘good luck’ texts, but I had nothing beyond the usual social media clutter. Back to the race start to check in. I signed the same waiver as last year, but on the back of the paper this time. We spent a couple of minutes discussing whether the 50k and 50m started at the same place last year because he couldn’t quite remember. We were apparently supposed to start from the campground 1.5 miles down the road, but started at the Deer Cliff Inn instead – which explained the difference in recorded mileage last year. Now knowing the director, I got a good chuckle out of it as I hopped back in the van and sped down to the start line. I forgot one thing though… to give him my drop bag. I had plenty of time still to take it back down, but opted to just reload my hydration pack instead with the essentials I thought I’d need – a few bars, electrolyte mixes, and a spare pair of socks. My drop bag had a few other items including other foods I might crave and a spare set of clothes, but I knew I could manage without. I’d likely just be wasting time at Danish Pass sorting through it instead of moving on.
So last year there were 2 of us. This year there were 6. 2 middle aged women who came from Twin Falls, one older gentleman who didn’t fit the traditional running physique, a middle aged oriental women who’s boyfriend was overly concerned about her, and Shawn. Leland Barker, the race directer is a peculiar guy, so I wasn’t surprised that his method for keeping time was a few old school wall clocks that it looked like he grabbed off the wall of his house the day before. They were all synced together and he had one at each aid station for official time keeping. I feel like anyone else would have been a little stressed, but I had a huge grin on my face as we watched the second hand round the final quarter of it’s revolution.
The 2 women from Twin Falls were waiting on the vault toilet that Shawn was currently occupying, but the other 3 of us took off down the road. It’s gonna be a long day I said to myself. At least I have a good playlist going to keep my mind occupied. I knew the course up through mile 30 at Danish Pass where I chose to drop out last year and I remembered the first several miles being quite grueling. 1 mile, 3 miles, 4 miles, it seemed like time was flying by. Around mile 4, I glanced back and caught the faint glimpse of a headlight creeping up on me. It took a bit, but a mile or so later, he caught up to me. Shawn (or Shaun?) was his name, and I was thoroughly expecting him to pass me with the pace he would have had to keep to catch me following his morning movement. We talk for a few minutes and discuss the upcoming turn – the one that was unmarked last year and got me and the other runner lost. “That was you?!”, he exclaimed. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or be embarrassed so I chose to fill him in on the details instead. That’s when we hit the turn. The trail we were on continued straight, there were 2 side trails to our right marked with blue tape (bad), and then the crap shoot up to our left that was the way we were supposed to go. It’s the second steepest section of trail on course, but the longest consecutive. Maybe a mile and change of washed out moto trail and something like 1,500′ up? We reach the top and take the right turn – which was also unmarked last year. Leland did a great job marking, but the nature of marking a shared use trail multiple days before the event left open the possibility of people removing flags and ribbons not knowing what they were.
We crest the climb and head down towards the water stop. A handful of gels and 2 coolers of water, we’re doing alright so far. Just a few miles to Danish Pass where we can check in and begin the 18 mile loop out towards Beaver Creek. The 50k runners continue from Danish over to Paris Canyon and back to the finish while we continue off and do our loop before heading to Paris. I’m a bit of a visual person, so imagine a figure 8, although only for reference, not actually proportional. The 50k runners turn around at the apex, while the 50 milers do the whole thing.
I leave Danish a minute or two before Shawn but I knew he’d catch up. If either of us wanted to somewhat enjoy the day, we’d want to stick together as long as we could. He catches up and as we approach Beaver Creek and I start to have flashbacks of last year when Rob and I rolled up and his daughter decided to pace us to the next aid station. Where’s the watermelon? No watermelon this year, but they had hot boiled potatoes and salt ready which is by far my favorite food before or during an activity. A full potato later, we’re moving again. I’m jokingly looking off to the left where I tossed the remnants of the watermelon that left the aid station with me last year. We alternated between a walk and run for the next few rolling miles before hitting my least favorite part of the course. A handful of steep washed out uphills, with corresponding downhills. The trail builder could have easily made a straight line when designing it, but I imagine it is probably pretty fun on a dirt bike the way it is . We leapfrog each other on the up and downs depending on their grade, but when it leveled out, we were there side by side again. Just a few more miles to Danish (the apex of the figure 8). It’s easy dirt road miles in, but I think both of us were enjoying briskly walking it instead. Although hard to see in the picture, we had herded several hundred sheep along the way so we felt like we had earned a little break from all that hard work.
Meanwhile, my left foot is bothering me. It feels like I bruised it stepping on an awkward rock in the previous days, but I can’t quite figure it out. It’s getting worse though. I’ve gone blister free up until this point, but it needs some attention.
Danish Pass, round 2. We look at the check in board and realize the first time we came through, we had over an hour lead on the next runner. Huh. Apparently we’re not doing that bad. Even Leland was impressed with our time. A few fig newtons and a Mountain Dew were my choice, although you will never see me eat those on an average day. Sometimes you crave odd things during long distances. Toe socks were off and swapped to some traditional thicker socks in hopes that the ball of my feet would feel better with a little extra cushion, although minimal. We split up the hill and on to the later half of the course. 20 miles to go – 9 on the Highline trail, a few on dirt roads passing over power lines, then the choice for steep singletrack back or a slightly longer dirt road decent.
Just 2 miles from the aid station we reach a ridge. Holy ****. You’re telling me that I was this close to seeing this last year but dropped out instead? The 50k runners definitely get it good since they get to see this beautiful section of trail early on. The trail is a series of bench cuts along the ridgeline mixed with steep chutes up and over varying knobs. Both Shawn and I were really digging it. A few miles passed without much thought other than how astounding the scenery was.
My feet felt great up until mile 35 or so when the lack of buffer between my toes began to take effect. I wear toe socks (Injinji) to prevent these types of blisters, but thought I’d be safe switching over after the sandy parts of the trail had passed. As it got worse, I noticed myself slowly falling back on some of the descents from Shawn. Up until then, he mentioned my skilled footwork on technical downhills meant I should probably get in front, but the tables had finally turned. I hung with him as long as I could, but next thing I knew, I was glancing at him several hundred yards up the trail cresting a summit that I was soon to be on.
Not really sure what to do any more. we’ve literally run 30 miles together, and there’s no sign of anyone else even remotely close to us. We passed a couple of people slowly hiking the 50k course, but they weren’t looking so hot. I guess it’s time to get the playlist going again. Find some music and slip into a hypnotic groove to round out the final 1/3 of the course. Just a couple miles from the Paris Canyon water stop around mile 40, I caught glimpse of a runner far off in the distance as Shawn passed him. The only thing it could possibly be is a 50k runner getting a second wind? Considering his pace, he shouldn’t still be on course this late. As it turns out, Daniel’s car broke down on the drive in that morning and had to hitch an Uber to the start. I didn’t even realize you could catch an Uber out that far of town, but he managed to do it and started the course 2 hours late. I step inside the tent at the water stop we talk for a few minutes as we both refuel on water and supplies. We both stepped into the tent a bit dehydrated as the stretch between the Danish and Paris is the longest stretch without aid. It’s roughly 11 miles at high elevation during the heat of the day which was maybe pushing into the low 80s. We’re both somewhat out of it as we stumble around the tent discussing how each other were doing. He’s feeling alright but bummed about his hectic and stressful morning.
We take off together down the dirt road up and over the power line stretch out of Paris Canyon. It’s all downhill from here. On any other day, I’d be logging 7 and 8 minute miles down this descent. I’d be done in an hour no problem, but my feet were telling me otherwise. I held with Daniel as long as I could but I dropped back a couple of times to retention the laces on my shoes and walk for a minute. Somehow, I made it to the final water stop at mile 43 before he had left. Option number 1 was to take the road back 7 2/3 miles to the campground with a steady and gradual downhill all the way back, although with a lot of 4x4s and trucks flying by and kicking up dust. Option #2 was to take a ridiculously steep uphill trail over a ridge then an equivalently steep downhill over the other side before meandering down a quad trail back to the finish. It saves roughly a miles and avoids the road traffic, but it’s rough and steep. Maybe next year I’ll get to attempt it, but this year is was the road like Shawn and I had discussed. I knew with his feet being in better shape, he’d be flying down by this point.
Daniel took the trail and I took the road. The last few miles are always the hardest, but I knew in my mind that I was going to finish. Taking nearly 2 hours to cover a segment that would take you an hour on any other day is a hard thing to deal with. As stupid and straightforward as it seems, I found that not thinking about that was the ticket. Just focusing on the fact that I knew I was going to finish and how ridiculously beautiful the country surrounding me was kept me moving. Run a 1/3 of a mile, walk a 1/3. Doing the math in my head, I began to contemplate a sub 11 hour finish, but quickly realized that I was going to miss it by a few minutes at the rate I was going. The closer I got to the finish, the heavier the dirt road traffic got and I quickly had my bandanna out covering my mouth to filter all the dust and exhaust from passing vehicles. I walked in as Leland had his back turned talking to a 50k finisher and gave my bottle a little klunk on the table. He turned with a pleasant look of surprise on his face as he hadn’t seen anyone come through in almost an hour – the window of time that Shawn had managed to put on me in those final few hours. I was somewhere between 11:10 and 11:20 but I can’t quite remember.
Shoes off, socks off. Woah. I made quick work of the smaller blisters, but I can’t say it was the most sanitary thing I’ve ever done. The others I took care of the morning after and here I am a day later and I’m already walking normal and contemplating going for a short crack of dawn mountain bike ride.
As with every race I’ve done, I learned a lot. The interesting thing is that this time, it was mostly related to gear – socks in particular. I already know what I could do to remedy it from happening again, but unfortunately I’ll have to hobble around a few days while my feet recover. Mentally, understanding your current conditions and surroundings is the most important thing you can do. If you are self aware, you can correct problems or address them before they ever happen. Unfortunately, trying to remedy my problem created another, which was a bit ironic in this situation. Understanding that walk/running a 16 minute mile for 4 miles straight is what needs to happen is huge. If you focus on what you can do in other circumstances, you won’t be able to focus on what you’re able to do here and now. Every trail is different, every day is different, and sometimes the ones with the most challenges turn out to be the best.`