Race Report: 2011 Slickrock 100
I was excited to have the chance to participate in the inaugural Slickrock 100. Having endured a mediocre year after getting off to a slow start due to a foot injury last fall, I was finally feeling back to my old self again and had good vibes leading up to this race.
I know even the most established ultras have problems with organization, course marking, etc., and normally avoid first year events as their problems are usually multiplied. As I wrote in my last post, my biggest concern was marking and maintaining such a huge and remote first-time route, and the lack of detailed course maps. I imagined several scenarios, and tried to prepare the best that I could. The reality ended up being far beyond what I could have ever dreamed.
I couldn’t resist the chance to run in Moab, though. I love that place.
This was to be my 7th 100 miler. For the first time in all of those races, I was completely prepared with my gear and drop bags before I left home. I normally run without a pacer or crew, so I have learned to be self-sufficient and meticulous with my drop bags. They are my lifeline. With nothing more than rough distances between aid stations to work with, I was happy with my plan and felt I had everything dialed in.
The best laid plans…
We all congregated for the pre-race meeting on Friday afternoon at the group campsite which was also race HQ and the start/finish line. I was soon scrambling for the note taking app on my phone as the race director was announcing some major changes to the event. It turns out that the huge rains of the previous days had turned one section of the planned route into quicksand. He buried a jeep up to the windows while out marking the course and had to walk 15 miles back in the night. The rest of the northern half of the planned route was through bentonite (basically pottery clay) which was so slick and sticky that it was not an option for the race.
I felt bad for the RD. It was obvious that he was beat from dealing with course issues day and night all week, already had that sleep-deprived thousand yard stare, and it was only the day before the race. A lot of hard work had gone into the event, and I was very happy it was going to happen with some alterations. The easy way out would have been to cancel the whole thing. But in true ultra style, we all pressed on.
It was decided we would essentially be running the 2nd half of the course twice. A 60 mile loop, followed by another 40 miles around the inner section. This was fine by me, as I thought it was the part with the best scenery anyway. It took me a while to reconfigure my drop bags (from 7 down to 4) and figure out where to place my lights, spare batteries, and warm clothes. I got all of that done and slept well in my tent until it started raining just before 3:00. The sound woke me up and I never would fall back asleep. Got up at 5:30, very cold out. Still raining. The mud was incredible; I almost fell on my butt just walking from my tent to my car. It was easy to see why the northern half of the course was unusable.
I considered tights for a few minutes, but hate running in them and avoid it at all costs. No tights, then. Hat, jacket, gloves. No camera today. Despite the awesome surroundings, I didn’t want the distraction this time.
The original plan was for the 50k, 50 mile, and 100 mile races to start together. The revised one had the 50 milers driving out to a point about 6 miles away and starting from there at the same time we would – 07:00. It was certainly odd to start a 100 mile race mixed together with all of the 50k runners.
The sky was completely overcast and a light misty rain persisted, but the forecast was for improving conditions throughout the day and night. I opted for the New Balance MT101s and was curious if I could go the distance in such a light shoe. I had others packed in my bags that I could change into if needed. It was great to spend some early miles running with Leila. I should have been feeling comfortable, we weren’t going too fast, but my legs felt awful. Not totally uncommon for me at the start of a long race, especially after taking a few days off, but this was so bad I was really getting concerned. My hip flexors were killing me! I never have any problems there and could not figure out what was going on. Was it the 6 hour drive the day before? I’ve done that many times in the past with no trouble. I was starting to have some big doubts for being able to go the distance, and I’m barely past the one hour mark! Ugh.
I finally figured it out. The drop bags. When I spent time repacking them the night before, the camp chair I was sitting in had a really low-slung seat so I had to scoot forward all the way to the edge and hold myself there for about 90 minutes. Didn’t feel anything at the time, but I knew that had to be what triggered them into flaring up. It’s funny how just knowing what caused the pain helped me deal with it so much better. Not knowing was driving me crazy and letting a small amount of panic creep in to my mind.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
Or didn’t take a turn, as the case may be. Even after the hours I had spent studying the route in detail, knowing the area from previous trips, AND having coordinates loaded in my GPS watch, I missed a turn along with 50+ other runners and found myself way off course. We hadn’t even made it to the first aid station! I was guilty of blindly following other runners and not paying enough attention. I think I was concentrating and wallowing in my other issues and neglected the task at hand. Dammit, Boyack. Better pull your head out and get with it. Today is no time for auto-pilot, that was becoming obvious in a hurry.
Finally made it to that first aid station. Feeling like garbage that had been scattered by dogs, raccoons, and bears. Topped off the bottles and loaded up for the long haul. There would be an intermediate station, but the next drop bag location would be over 20 miles away across some of the slowest terrain we would see all day. The Gold Bar Rim and Poison Spider trails.
We had a few miles of smooth dirt road immediately after the aid station and I used that stretch as a chance to up the pace by quite a lot and see how things went. I got out of the tiptoeing-through-an-ultra mode and started running fairly hard. I felt better. I kept running hard, breathing and working up a sweat, and still felt better. After a while I settled back down into the all day cruise pace and could tell my hip pain was subsiding. Nice. Good to get the 15 mile low point out of the way early, I guess.
I hit the base of Gold Bar and saw one pink ribbon. It would be a long time before I saw another, and even though I was on more familiar ground now, I was still tentative until they started showing up with more regularity. The guys at the water stop up on the rim said most of the flagging had been pulled down by some people.
The next section was tricky. Lots of up and down over uneven slickrock. I was never entirely clear whether we were to run the same route that the Red Hot 50k race uses in the spring. I think there was some overlap, but not totally – which made it even more confusing. I knew from my Red Hot experience to never just put your head down and run. Always pick a spot and run to it. The next ribbon is ideal, but if that’s not in sight, you better have a good plan for where you are going. It’s so easy to run along in your own little world only to snap out of it and realize you have no idea where you are.
Check out Greg Norrander’s photos of the Red Hot race to get an idea of what we were running through:
Luckily Seth came along and we were able to tag team the route for several miles. That helped a bunch, but even then we went off one more time and I turned us around as I realized we were going to be cliffed-out between two drainages high above the Colorado River.
Navigation issues aside, this section was spectacular. The sun was starting to break through the clouds, the rain had stopped, and I was feeling better and better all the time. Seth and I had lots of things in common to talk about and I really enjoyed the company. I couldn’t believe we weren’t passing anyone, though. Nothing but empty slickrock as far as we could see.
We finally made it to the Poison Spider aid station and I asked, only half joking, if the race was still going on because we hadn’t seen anyone in such a long time. I was assured that it was, but now instead of running two laps of the course we would be running to the finish and then out to the aid station at Gold Bar and back to the finish again. They had made the call that getting everyone through the Gold Bar section at night would be too risky.
The next section was 7 miles of paved road to Long Canyon. I ran the whole thing. Reason, and my aching legs, told me to take a walk break now and then. I just kept running, knowing there would be plenty of time for hiking on the climb out of the canyon. How is it that you can run a road following a river in the downstream direction and feel like it is uphill the whole way? What should have been an easy cruise was really a lot of work.
I told myself that if I kept running to the canyon I would take a walking break after the aid station, thinking we would be going uphill in a big way. It turned out that there was still a lot of runnable terrain at the start of the canyon so I kept at it. I was so happy to finally hit the main climb and switch to a hike for a while. The climb went by fast, and wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. The views were incredible in the rich afternoon light.
I was starting to catch and pass several of the 50 mile runners now, but had no clue where I stood in the 100 mile event. I hit my 50 mile point sometime after I topped out of the canyon at 9:55 into the race.
When I got to the Dead Horse aid station several miles later, I was told that we would be running 9 miles out to the Gold Bar aid station and then returning to Dead Horse, then on to the finish. Ok, sounds good. This was starting to feel like an episode of the Amazing Race where you show up at each stop and tear open an envelope to read your next clue.
I cruised through mile 60 feeling 100x better than I did at mile 20. Funny how that works. Enjoying the sunset as it played out across the Fiery Furnace over in Arches National Park while I made my way down the Gemini Bridges road. The tunes were cranked and I was rolling.
I picked up my Garmin charger at Gemini and clipped it on for a few miles to top off the watch. I had been running alone for a very long time, so it was nice to have the data on the watch to help keep me moving well. The volunteers at Gemini told me I was in 6th place, and that put even more pep in my step.
In doing some math, I realized that running the course as it was described would leave us way short on distance. So I mentally prepped myself for the eventuality that we would be told there was yet more to do. Trying to soften the blow before it hit. I figured they would probably have us repeat the Dead Horse to Gold Bar section again before sending us off to the finish.
When I reached the turnaround at Gold Bar, I said I had only counted 4 runners ahead of me and wondered what happened to the other one. In talking it out with them I realized that the leaders that had passed me going the other way (Jeremy and Glen) were both in the race. Not a runner with a pacer as I had assumed. That accounted for all five. The aid station said everyone looked good except for #5, who was in rough shape and must have ended up dropping out somewhere because I never passed him out on the course.
As I climbed back to Dead Horse I started seeing tons of runners heading towards me. There were still people out here! It was nice to see everyone, say the requisite ‘good job’, and feel like there was still some racing to do. Rather than running a solo time trial across the desert. It sort of shocked me that the next closest runners were only about a mile behind me. I hadn’t exactly been taking it easy. Time to push on.
I made it back to Dead Horse feeling good and ready to keep rolling. Prepared for the news that there would be more to do. I was told to run to the finish, where there would be an aid station set up, and then we would do another out-and-back from there. I needed to run about a mile and a half down the highway and then make the turnoff for another 7 or so miles to the finish.
This is where my study of the course before the race came in handy. I knew we would be following the original route to the finish over Hell Roaring road, so I had my bearings and knew what to do. Running the Canyonlands highway past the Mineral Bottom road in the dark under a brilliant canopy of stars took me back a week shy of two years earlier when I was in the exact same spot in the dark with knobby tires under me cranking along to finish an epic, weather-beaten trip around the 100 mile White Rim Trail on my 40th birthday. Still need to write a story about that one. Me + Moab + October = tough rainy conditions!
There were a few tricky spots to navigate through, but I was really tuned in and concentrating hard on the task at hand. The iPod was put away, and I wore a headlamp and carried a high powered flashlight. I don’t like holding the flashlight when I run, but in places where you have to constantly be searching for course markers it can’t be beat. The headlamp lights up the trail directly in front of you, and the tight beam of the flashlight can be used to spot the flagging without having to constantly turn your head. It’s a good combo that works really well in those situations.
The flagging had bits of “reflective” tape stuck on it, but it wasn’t reflective in the least. More like the dull side of aluminum foil.
When I made it to the finish area, there was a lot of confusion and chatter. It sounded like the plan had been for us to run another 9 miles out and 9 back, but the driver who had gone out to set up the aid station at the turnaround could only make it 5 due to a road washout. There was talk of maybe having us do the now shortened section twice, but I left without knowing what would happen when I got back.
The leader (Brian) passed me inbound after I was about 5 minutes out of the aid station. Whenever I crested a hill with a long line of sight I would look back to see if there was a light following me. There never was, so I assumed he had won the race and they were calling it good with the shorter distance.
Only one other runner (Rhonda) passed me going the other way before I got to the turnaround. I was now in third place? I figured one runner had probably dropped out, and later learned that Jeremy and Glen sadly missed the turn to Hell Roaring road and continued several miles off course before dropping out due to being lost and without aid for such a long time. Huge bummer for them, they had it all sewn up for sure.
I passed the next runners (Michael and Leila) 1.3 miles after I hit the turnaround, giving me a comfortable 2.6 mile gap with 3 to go. I should have just kept it steady and cruised in, but instead found myself pushing harder than I had all day. Not sure why. Just ready to hit the line, I guess.
Plan Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
I finished in 18:41 with 89.2 miles on the Garmin. 3rd overall, 1st master out of 67 starters in the 100 mile race. I had been thinking for the last 30 miles that I might be able to pull off a sub-22 hour 100 miler. For a guy like me, on a course like this, that is HUGE. I may have finished, but I wasn’t done. I couldn’t pass up the chance to set my best time. I collected my buckle at the line, walked 50 feet and unlocked my car. Tossed the buckle on the seat. Avoided looking at the tent still set up with my sleeping bag in it. Took the biggest deepest breath I could, clenched my eyes shut for a second, locked the door and closed it. Then I ran off into the night. 11 miles to go…
I didn’t want to confuse an already chaotic situation, because the aid stations were tracking runners by writing their numbers down, so I left my headlamp off until I was out of sight. I hardly had any water, and luckily still had a couple of gels in my pocket. That would have to do.
My plan was to run the same out and back again, but to stop short of the turnaround aid station, and repeat until I hit 100.00 miles. I was mixing in a lot of fast walking on the uphill, and jogging the downs and flats. I got to run for a bit with Leila and Brendan, and heard the story about their dramatic day. LD is one tough runner!
Otherwise, I kept a super low profile, not wanting to interfere with anyone else’s race. There were very few runners around.
The math was finally working in my favor during one of these things. With 8 miles to go I only had to average a worst case 20 minute pace to get under 22 hours. With 6 to go, it had improved to 21:50. The number kept dropping as I was holding on to a 12’ish pace even with the walking mixed in. Sounds slow, but believe me it felt like I was hauling. My feet were fine, I had never even had to so much as retie my laces, and my stomach was great. My only real complaint was my long-time nemesis heels. They were burning hot with rage, limiting my running motion as my always too tight calves pulled on my Achilles tendons.
The math kept improving. I finally hit 100 miles at 21:15, stopped the watch, turned off the lamp, and looked up at the sky. What a day.
9,000′ of climbing.
100 miles in canyon country.