Kat’cina Mosa 100K Mountain Challenge Run
That. Was. HARD. I surely didn’t expect anything less. You know it’s a tough course when the winner’s time works out to a 12.5 minute pace…
I first heard about this race last November, and immediately knew I wanted to do it. Just the fact that it was a huge ultramarathon right in my old backyard got me interested. Nevermind the minor detail that I was currently going to physical therapy 3 times a week and couldn’t run at all. On January 1st of this year, I set the course map as the wallpaper on my computer screen, and started off my training with a 3 mile run. Now, after 280 hours of training that included 1200 miles of running and another 800 miles of cycling, I was ready to give it a go.
All was not well, though. I had trained super hard through June and early July, pushing my body and legs to the max. Then I started a taper period 3 weeks out from the race where I would reduce my mileage by about 1/3 each week and get some extra rest. I fell into a taper trap. The trouble with tapering is after all that training plus a little bit of rest, you start to feel pretty good. That’s the whole point. The trap I got sucked into was one of running faster than I should have been – because I was feeling so strong. So I ended up with a pretty good hip injury from a little 6 mile run about 10 days before the race. A small muscle on the front of my right hip was damaged (probably from over-striding), and it let me know it with every single step.
I spent the next several days, stretching, icing, walking, heating, massaging, medicating, and most of all hoping it would go away in time. I continued to run. It didn’t feel great, but it wasn’t getting any worse and wasn’t going to stop me from running – as long as it stayed put. If it flared up any more, I would be out. This weighed pretty heavy on my mind, and I was really down on myself for letting such a stupid thing happen that could ruin my race. Not to mention the investment of vacation time, training hours, entry fee, etc. I resoved just to do the best I possibly could, and get to that finish line any way possible.
My son Malcolm and I drove out to Utah on Thursday afternoon. It was great to spend some time with him before he starts 8th grade in a couple of weeks. We arrived late at night and were glad to get out of the car and go to sleep.
I spent part of Friday visiting family and then doing some last minute shopping (duct tape, bic lighters, vaseline, magnets – a crazy list of supplies, for sure). The race would have 9 aid stations stocked with food and drink spaced anywhere from 3 to 9 miles apart. They also allowed you to pack drop bags that would be taken from the start out to whatever aid station you specified. From looking at last year’s split times, I could tell that there would be some stretches that were 2 – 2.5 hours between aid stations. That’s a long time to be self-sufficient in a race. I planned out a strategy that included 4 drop bags. I allocated a gel for every 30 minutes and packed accordingly. I also packed blister kits (pin, lighter, duct tape), vaseline, sunscreen, and extra socks in each bag.
It was part of my strategy to run with just 2 bottles during the early morning hours while it was cool, and I had lighter shoes for that time as well because the route was mostly on dirt road. Then at aid station #4 (mile 23), I had a drop bag with my hydration pack and heavier shoes for when the sun came up and the trail got a lot more serious.
The hip was still a problem. It didn’t hurt to walk anymore, but when I would do a 30 second test run it would really give me a jab every time I landed on my right foot. Then it would ache afterwards. All my hopes were pinned on it settling down once I got good and warmed up.
I went to the race dinner at the Hampton Inn that night and got my bib number and goody bag. It was nice to get some instruction on the course and last minute directions. After that, it was off to bed after setting FOUR alarms to go off at, or around, 1:30 in the morning.
I got up fairly easily after the first alarm and headed to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and fries for breakfast. Yum… They didn’t start serving breakfast food until 3am – I had been looking forward to a sausage and egg mcmuffin. I ate while I drove up the canyon and found the start area buzzing with activity as runners made last minute preparations. I taped my feet, dropped off my bags, and tried to gauge the temperature – deciding to go with a long sleeve shirt over my short sleeve one. There was a sample of a medicated patch in our bags, and I opted to try it out on my hip, hoping that it would warm it up a little.
I felt alert and excited as we moved out to the starting line, reminding myself over and over again to just take it easy. I knew my fitness was sky-high, but I questioned how well my body would hold up. At 3:00 sharp, the group took off together, laughing and chatting. I kept quiet, running at the back, surprised by how fast we were going out. We were on easy rolling pavement now, but would hit the dirt and start to climb in about 2 miles. I was working a little harder than I wanted at that point, so in a rare moment of discipline, I drifted off the back and let the group go. I just kept an easy, steady pace so I could get nicely warmed up without angering the hip too much. Thankfully, it seemed to be holding its own and my optimism started to increase.
By the time we hit the turnoff to the dirt road, the group of 30+ runners was out of sight. Long gone into the darkness of the night. There were just a couple of people a little ways behind me, and that was it. Once I realized I wouldn’t be dropping out at mile two with a bad hip, the competitive fire started to burn a little hotter. I told myself, it’s Christmas, you got your wish – the hip is a non-issue. Time to play Pac-Man and gobble up all the dots…
The first part of the dirt road was much steeper than I remembered from years ago. I was surprised that I needed to shift into a fast power-walk to keep my speed high without going into the red zone for a lot of it. I knew it would eventually ease up, and there would be some good runnable sections ahead. I kept it up and finally started to see some lights up ahead. This made me smile and I was feeling great as I overtook many runners in the next few miles. Some of them seemed to be in a fair bit of difficulty already.
I love running at night, and having lights to chase up ahead made it that much more enjoyable. Cresting Camel Pass and seeing the lights of the valley below for the first time was a great moment. I was eating and drinking well, and feeling good! Time was flying by, but I started to have concerns about my schedule. I had written a few key times on my bottle with a sharpie, one of which was the time to the first aid station. Based on splits from last year, I wanted to hit it between 4:50 and 4:55 in the morning. Here it was after 5:00 and no aid station in sight. Crud. How could I be feeling this good, but going so slow?!? I started to get a little discouraged and wondered if I would ever have what it took to be a reasonably fast runner. As I sucked the last of the water out of my bottles and pressed up the climb, a truck pulled up behind me. It was the race director – he said the aid station crew had gone too far before setting up their stop and were likely a couple miles away. Whew, that was a relief. It turned out I hit the spot where the aid station should have been at 4:52 – right on schedule. I was able to refill my bottles from a jug left on the side of the road and keep on moving up the climb.
It was at this point, around mile 9, that I passed a woman pushing hard up the climb and thought – she’s sure breathing hard, that’s the last I’ll see of her. HA. Ha. ha. More on that later.
Finally at around the 10 mile mark, the climb topped out and I had some great running ahead as the course contoured along the mountainside heading north. Although my hip was going ok, I started to experience a lot of pain in my other leg. It radiated from my left hip, down the outside of my thigh, and concentrated on the outside of my knee. Great, more drama. I knew it was a tight IT band, but I’d never had any trouble with this leg at all and was concerned by the persistence of the pain and tightness. I thought if I just tried to manage my stride and relax, it might calm down a little. No such luck. I concluded that it was due to compensating for my bad right hip over the past week and a half. After a while, it wasn’t getting any worse, so I was relieved about that – and knew from experience that I would be uncomfortable, but wasn’t in danger of doing long term damage.
Now the fun part. It turns out that Brian and Dave (1st and 2nd place last year), both missed the start by about 13 minutes. They had been picking off people all the way up the climb and caught me shortly after the top. I sped up and ran with them for a few miles. It was a lot of fun getting to know them a little bit and seeing what it was like to run at a race-winning pace. If they would have started with the rest of the group, they would have been long gone by this time. So this was a rare opportunity for me. After dropping off the Brian and Dave train, I hooked up with Chad and Jim for a while. They were strong, experienced runners that had great races and went on to finish in the top ten. In all, I spent between 5 and 6 miles running at a pace that was far above where I should have been. I knew I would pay for it, seeing as we still had 50 miles to go!!! It was fun while it lasted.
Soon we hit aid station #3 which marked the start of the second big climb of the day. 2,400 feet in just under 3 miles for a 15% average gradient. I took a minute at the aid station to drop off my headlamp as it was getting light now (6:22am), put on my visor, and grab a handful of potato chips. Salt and grease, mmmm. I slowed down quite a bit on the climb, but was surprised to still catch a few people in the hour that it took me to get to the top. Running along the ridgeline just below 10,000’ at sunrise was the highlight of the day. The view was stunning! The valley floor was over a vertical mile below us now, and range after range of mountains stretched off to the east. Concentrating on the rocky trail was a tough task with so much to look at. The guy behind me took a hard fall while admiring the view and tore a chunk of flesh out of the palm of his hand.
The trip down to the next aid station was very steep. Unlike Leadville where I had bombproof legs on the downhill, I was unable to really fly on this one. I tried, but it just wasn’t happening. Marcee (eventual women’s winner in record time) and Jarom (who I recognized from blogger-land) came flying by on the descent and were looking good. I managed the best I could and was glad to finally hit the bottom. Aid station #4 was one of the larger ones, and it bustled with activity. I was now at just over 23 miles and 5 ½ hours into the race. This is also where I had my largest drop bag stashed, and I grabbed a chair and got to work tending a blister, switching to heavier shoes/socks, and stuffing bananas in my face. I ended up taking about 10 minutes, but it was time well spent. To me, this seemed like the real starting point of the race. Everything before was just a warm up.
Now I had my hydration pack on my back filled with plenty of food, gels, and fluid. I was ready for the next climb to Windy Pass and aid station #5. After a nice bit of running while the trail traversed over to the next canyon, we started the next major climb. This one would be 4.5 miles and 2,500 feet. Not quite as steep as the last one (10% avg grade), but much longer. There were rocky sections exposed to the sun and even this early in the morning (10:00am) it was starting to feel mighty hot. I passed a couple of people that were looking REALLY rough, and felt bad about their situation. I was feeling strong and climbing well, and I said ‘are we there yet?’ in an upbeat tone of voice as I passed Kristen Swenson. All I got was a stare/glare in return. Ouch! She would come flying by me about 15 miles later with an extremely chipper (ok, dripping with sarcasm) ‘are we there yet?!?’ as she left me choking in her dust. Ah, such love for the fellow competitors out on the trail. I talked to her after the race and we had a pretty good laugh about it. Turns out she was in very bad shape going up the climb where I passed her and had to lay down at the aid station for 20 minutes covered in blankets and slowly getting her strength back. Wow, what a comeback! She put over a half hour on me by the finish. She said she went on to pass every single person that had passed her while she was out of action.
Back to the climb. It was very long, and finished with a 30% pitch where I thought my legs were just going to explode all over the mountain. Man, was I glad to see that aid station! This one was unique in that everything there had been backpacked in over 5 miles by volunteers. They had all kinds of fruit and melons, cookies, chips, etc. Luckily, they didn’t have to haul water as that was availble from a nearby spring. The volunteers and workers at this race were the best I’ve seen anywhere. They really took great care of us, and obviously had a deep love for running and the outdoors.
Crossing the halfway point of the race was very nice. Only 31 miles to go!! I got a good run going on the downhill after Windy Pass. It would be almost 9 miles to the next aid station, so I knew I just had to keep covering the ground the best I could. My running was interrupted several times by having to climb over logs in the trail or part bushes out of the way as things got more and more primitive. It was tough to generate much momentum, even though it seemed like you should just fly through this section. At one point, I really did fly, right onto my face. I don’t know what I tripped on, but it sent me down in a hurry. At least the dirt was soft, but I did get scratched up from a few branches on the way down. My legs cramped up badly when I was on the ground, and it was tough to get back on my feet again. Once I did, I was amazed at how much better I felt! I think the adrenaline from falling combined with the cramps flushing the crud out of my legs gave me a much needed boost. I just might be on to something here!
Slowly the trail conditions got a little better, and the soft, overgrown trail turned hard, fast, and rocky again. As I was running through a bit of gravel, I heard a grunting noise behind me. It sounded like an angry wild boar was charging me! I spun to face my attacker only to find an empty trail. It dawned on me that I had just taken the last sip of water from my Camelbak and it was the gurgling of air and water in the pack that had made the sound. While relieved, I felt pretty stupid. I just had to laugh. Here it was high noon, I had been on the go for 9 hours, and now I was being chased by wild hogs. The heat and effort of the day were definitely starting to get to me…
Aid station #6 was a welcome sight. It had taken me 2:18 from the last stop to get here, and other runners had been few and far between. This station was at the 40 mile mark, and we had to run about a half mile up a road, tear off a piece of ribbon, and bring it back to the volunteer. This added the distance necessary to make the huge loop we were doing come out to exacly 100K (62 miles). It wasn’t too bad because I was able to just drop my pack and take a bottle full of ice water with me to get the ribbon. That was a nice break, but I was starting to feel really run down.
Leaving this aid station, we faced the 4th and last major climb of the day. 2.5 miles of 10% grade. It was definitely easier than the rest, being on dirt road helped, but about halfway up my world came crashing down. I hit the skids like never before. I felt like if I were to have an X-ray taken of me, they would see the word ‘F-A-T-I-G-U-E’ etched deeply into my bones like grafitti on a picnic table. I was in a world of hurt, but resolved to keep moving forward. Knowing that it wouldn’t last (I hoped) and I would eventually feel better. The only way I could make progress up the hill was to lean my body far enough forward that I either had to move my foot and catch myself, or fall on my face. It was a decision I made with every step. Remember the woman I passed before sunrise at mile 9 who I thought I would never see again because she was breathing too hard?? Here I was at the lowest point of my (short – 8 month) running career, literally inching my way up this climb, and I become aware of some loud voices behind me. It was the girl from mile 9, Emily. She was traveling with a pacer (someone, usually a friend, allowed to run with you for safety and encouragement – but they don’t count in the race results) and moving fast! They both had iPods on and were chatting to each other loudly without a care in the world. Just out for a nice run in the mountains. I really wanted to curl up in the shade and pass out. I would learn over and over again in this race, that seeing someone down, doesn’t mean they’re out. I hoped I could get out of the slump I was in.
Finally topping out on the last big climb was a great feeling, and I managed to start shuffling forward as the road traversed the head of a canyon. The shuffle gradually turned into a jog, then I started to run. Could it be?? I felt a rally coming on and started to get down to business again. Aid station #7 appeared and the girls were just leaving when I got there. I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to blow through the stop and keep going while I felt good, but knew that I needed some major refueling. I was still on pretty thin ice.
I spent a couple of minutes eating and drinking all that I could, taking a few slices of watermelon on the road with me. I came across a lady on a mountain bike and offered to buy it from her, she took one look at me and just laughed. Just as well, all I had to pay with was the watermelon anyway. One last moderate climb remained. This one was mostly shaded, and a lot more gradual than the others. Knowing the top of this one meant 12 miles to go downhill was a huge motivator and I moved faster than I had in hours.
Once over the top I really gathered some steam and put in some of my fastest miles of the whole race. I ran fast by Emily and her pacer and expected to be minutes ahead by the next aid station. Fact is, they trailed me by just over a minute and managed to get out before I did. That’s another thing I learned in this race. Just because you catch someone, doesn’t mean you’ll leave them. Often times, they are cruising along at a manageable pace while you are digging deep to catch up and pass. When you go by, they seem to be able to easily stay with you because they haven’t been working as hard as you have. That can be a little frustrating! In hindsight, I should have just hung with them and we could have all stayed at about the same pace, but I was anxious to keep moving fast while I was feeling decent.
When they took off from the aid station (#8 – one more to go), I was deflated. They still looked strong and I was pretty wiped out from running hard for several miles. Jim Skaggs also left me behind for good at this point, after we had swapped leads over the last 10-15 miles. I figured that was it as far as my interaction with them was concerned and resigned myself to just trying to hold my current position. Not really thinking about gaining any more ground.
Now we were back on some steep singletrack trail heading down Dry Canyon. One aid station to go, just under 4 miles away – then another 6 miles on the pavement down Right Hand Fork to the finish at Kelly’s Grove. The top part of the canyon really slowed me down, I just couldn’t move very fast on the really steep sections. I was still drinking and sweating a lot, but realized I hadn’t peed for several hours. Not a good sign. Soon the grade started to ease up and the trail conditions improved. The lower part of Dry Canyon turned out to be the best trail of the day. I was having a good time swooping along the trail from one side of the canyon to the other. There were may undulations that were just small enough to slow you down, but they didn’t totally destroy your momentum. As I crested one small hill, I was surprised to see Emily’s pacer standing in the middle of the trail. A very quick scan of her facial expression told me that her runner was off-trail taking care of business, and not in a heap of broken bones at the bottom of the gully. We exchanged pleasantries as we had each time our paths had crossed, and I thought to myself – ok, 8 miles to go. Game on!
I ran as hard as I could for a while to create some distance between us, then backed down a notch to see if they would come blowing by me again. Keeping a steady pace, I could hear voices behind me echoing off the canyon walls, and thought they would show up at any moment. I was working hard and having fun ‘racing’ with 54 miles in my legs. The trail was awesome, and it was great to be running in the cooler evening temperatures.
As I saw the corral in the distance that marked the location of the final aid station, I took one more look over my shoulder. Seeing no one, I sped into the aid station and tossed my water bottle to the volunteer from 15 yards away while I was still on the approach. He immediately began filling it for me while I emptied my pockets of unused gel packs, wrappers, and anything else I could do to lighten the load. I grabbed a handful of food along with my newly filled bottle and hustled down the road. My plan was to ‘sprint’ (makes me laugh just to type that word) down the road and get around the first bend before anyone else showed up at the aid station. Hoping for an out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario. I made it to the bend and snuck a glance back just as I went out of sight. All clear.
I ran, and I ran, and ran some more. I eventually had to take some quick walk breaks, but I kept them short and tried to keep my speed up the best I could. My legs were very tired, but not too sore. My feet were killing me, though – and running on the pavement wasn’t helping them out. I saw 5 snakes on the side of the road on the way down. Strangely, each one of them was a different kind. One was bright green, another gloss brown. There was a tan one with black spots, a grey one, and one that was dark green with stripes. Who knows, maybe I was hallucinating at this point. No pink or purple ones, though…
There were some old mile markers painted on the road from races they’ve had up here in years past. I concentrated on making it from one mile to the next. Always pushing, wishing I could ask someone to drive up and see where the next runners were. Finally, just as I rounded the curve at the end of the longest straightaway of the whole canyon, I chanced another look back over my shoulder. No one there. I had just under 2 miles to go, and at least a quarter mile lead on my chasers. I just might hang on…
In what seemed like only a minute or two later, I heard the dreaded footsteps and talking coming up behind me. I tried to speed up slightly without looking back. When I did this, one of the people said, “We’re just pacers.” I looked over as they passed me and it was Emily’s pacer and another guy I didn’t recognize. That’s strange, I thought. Why are you leaving your runner?? My brain was so fried, I couldn’t even get the words to my mouth. I concluded that pacing duties must be over and they are just enjoying an evening run down the canyon. Once they got about 50 yards ahead of me, they looped around and headed past me going back up the road. It didn’t register immediately, but as soon as they went by it clicked. They were on a recon mission! Crap. I was feeling ganged up on, and very, very tired. I knew they were reporting back to her, “he’s just around the corner, you can do it!!”
After pushing hard for the last 7 miles, I was spent. Kaput. I didn’t even have fumes to run on, the needle wouldn’t budge. I had been writing check after check that my body couldn’t cash. Now the payments were due with interest. I was a shuffling, hobbling mess. I had half a mile to go and it might as well have been 10. She caught me almost within sight of the finish line and spat me out the back of her group. One tough lady.
I would have liked to stay ahead, but I had a great time battling it out. I ran myself into the ground when I should have just stayed within sight of them and conserved my energy. Not my style, though… It was epic, and makes for some great memories. Those efforts will make me stronger in future races for sure.
Once I was passed for good, I took some time to look at my surroundings and reflect on what I was about to accomplish. Making it to the finish of a super-tough 62 mile mountain run when I was in doubt about even making it to the first aid station. In my first year of running, rubbing shoulders with people much more experienced than myself. It was a great feeling, and made the efforts of the day totally worth it.
The icing on the cake was having my dad and Malcolm cheering for me at the finish. Malcolm was waiting for me as I turned off the road and we ran side-by-side the last 20 yards to the line. That was very cool. I asked him how it felt to finish his first 100K…
I was a wreck. Streaked with dirt, crusted with salt, dripping with sweat, adding bruises, scratches, and a little blood to top it all off. I shook the race director’s hand after the finish and couldn’t stay to chat. I was afraid I was going to puke all over him! I sat down for a minute, then hobbled about 50 feet away to lie down in the grass. I was flat on my back for the next hour, in very poor condition. As I talked to my wife on the phone, I told her to bag up all my shoes and put them out at the curb. This boy was done!
I was dehydrated, but full of fluid at the same time. I think I had taken too much sodium and was really imbalanced in that regard. I finally threw up into the grass, with all my muscles cramping simultaneously to further enhance the experience. That sucked. I threw up what seemed like about a gallon of water and immediately felt better. Not that good, but a little bit better. I knew then that I would be ok and just needed to recover slowly. I made it into a chair and sat there for another hour, sipping on a coke and regaining my strength. Dad and Malcolm took very good care of me, it was great to have them there.
Surprisingly, my legs still didn’t feel all that stiff or sore. I’d been much worse in that regard. We waited around a long time for my drop bags and finally made it home after midnight. What a long day. Even though I was beat, I coulnd’t fall asleep until sometime after 4 in the morning. The day’s events just kept racing through my head. Wow, what a day it was!
I ended up in 13th place out of 39 starters. My finish time was 16 hours and 32 minutes (15:57 pace).
In the end, I would rate my logistical planning and preparation for this race as a B+. For a first timer, I don’t think anyone could have been more prepared. However, I made a critical error in not adding up my sodium intake. I used energy gels with 4x the normal sodium content, and took sodium/electrolyte tablets once an hour on top of that. I believe this lead to my dehydrated condition with all of the water I consumed staying in my stomach.
My physical condition leading up to the race rated a C+. I was very fit due to my extensive training, but started the race injured due to my lack of judgment/discipline. I give myself a D for execution. While I made it to the finish, there were several spots where I pushed too hard and paid for it later. I tried to ‘race’ when I had no real business doing so. Just completing the run should have been enough.
As I laid on my back after the finish, doing a hundred miler at the end of September was one hundred percent out of the question. Now that a little time has passed, I’m actually quite excited about it. I don’t have any goals for this event other than to finish under the time cut, and have a good time doing it. I’m relieved that I can relax about the pace, and just plug away at a steady rate to get the job done. No racing others, it’s just me against the course this time.
My hip continues to nag me, but it is slowly improving. I have run a couple of times in the last week and am feeling pretty good about how things are going. I’m looking forward to training at a more sensible rate and just going for time on my feet vs. distance covered. On to the next adventure…