Race Report: Sage Burner 50K
See 2009 report here.
I found out about the Sage Burner 50K by scouring some trail racing calendars looking for something to do in June. This seemed like a perfect fit. Reasonably close to home, and at 31 miles a chance to try a ‘sprint’ distance ultramarathon. The plan was to give this a real race effort vs. the training/practice I have been doing at the other recent events I’ve done.
I had some reservations about making the trip down for a first year race like this one. The course map revealed a vast spiderweb of trails with names like tail pipe, top-of-the-world, dirty sock, enchanted forest, skull pass, sea of sage, and rattlesnake that would be used in the Hartman Rocks Recreation Area near Gunnison, CO. I was worried about how they could ever mark a course like that well enough to keep everyone on track. It seemed like a tall order, and I really didn’t want to run around lost all day.
I signed up several weeks in advance, and made all of the necessary arrangements. Then some stuff came up on the Monday before the race weekend that looked like it would make the trip a no-go. That was fine, sometimes life happens when you have other plans… As a result, I put some extra effort into my training during the week – thinking that I wouldn’t be racing. I ran hard on Tuesday, Wednesday, and again on Friday morning – and then things worked out on Friday afternoon so I would be able to go to the race after all. My son Malcolm and I packed up the car in about 30 minutes and were on the road at 7:30 Friday evening. We hit the Gunnison KOA and had the tent set up just before midnight.
Four hours later we were awakened by the sound of 1,000,000,000,001 birds competing against one another to see who could chirp the loudest before dawn.
We broke camp and drove the short distance to the race start. I tested the climbing prowess of my Pontiac Vibe by driving up the steep dirt road called ‘Kill Hill’ to scope out the lay of the land. We found some course markers and it looked like everything was ready to go. I was looking forward to getting started!
View from the start, looking away from the course
As I was jogging around to loosen up a little, I bumped into Dave from Boulder whom I had met in Fruita. It was nice to see him there and we wished each other good luck. It was Dave’s first attempt at a race this long. He did great! Check out his report here.
I did my best to get Malcolm set up for the time he would have to spend waitng for me – talk about an ultramarathon! He would have to spend all morning on his own. I made sure he had the keys to the car, my cell phone, water, food, chair, etc., etc. He was a super good sport about it and I was very happy that he wanted to make the trip with me. He has already said he wants to go back and run the 25K next year.
Being a first year race, the numbers were fairly small (66 total between the 25K and 50K), but the talent and ability of those I was standing next to at the start was immediately obvious. I recognized a few from other races I have done and knew they were very fast and strong. I felt quite humbled by the prospect of being there to try and ‘race’, but that’s the next step I’m taking in my evolution as an ultrarunner. I no longer have the ever present fear of not being able to finish an ultra like I had last season. I have been training super consistently and am very well coached. I’m thin on raw talent and speed, but am trying to make up for that with good technique, efficiency, proper fueling, hard work, strength, and my ability to quickly recover. Time to start pushing it a little bit, take my lumps, then take what I learn and keep trying to improve.
It wasn’t really that cold, but I was shivering violently while the last minute instructions were given and couldn’t wait to just start running and warm up. The route quickly funneled into singletrack and started climbing. I felt terriible. My legs were like cement and I was gasping for air. The altitude was only 8,000’, and I usually don’t have any problems, but I sure was breathing unusually hard. I was starting too fast, and I knew it. I just hoped I could hang on for a while and settle down. Being mixed in with the 25K runners was a bit of a challenge, they are running half the distance so can afford to push it a little harder. It is a fairly common practice to start all of the distances together, and dealing with it is something I need to get better at. On a very long, rocky, singletrack climb I found myself leading a train of about a dozen runners. I was digging a whole lot deeper than I wanted to, pushing my heart rate to 170 and beyond, but didn’t want to give up my spot and then have to try and work my way through the traffic again (optimistically thinking I would feel better on the descent).
My legs and lungs were downright angry, and I finally had to relinquish my position and start letting people go by after we reached the top. I was in trouble and was having a tough time imagining how I would continue in the state I was in. I hadn’t even made it to the first aid station! Sure, I had gone out too hard – but something more than that was going on. Maybe all of the hard running I had done during the week? Lack of sleep? Terrible diet? The ice bath I took yesterday? Whatever it was, it wasn’t fun. I tried to knock away the negative thoughts and resolved that I would keep going the best that I could, and that I wouldn’t let my frustration get the better of me. I would also make an extra effort to be gracious to the volunteers, and be friendly to those around me on the trail. The beauty with ultrarunning is that having a bad race automatically qualifies as good training. So many things can go wrong, and you can’t really simulate them all in a training situation. Dealing with bad times during a race is an aquired skill that takes practice and experience to develop. If today was one of those days, I was cool with that. My challenge would be to see if I could deal with my issues and pull out of the funk, or have the fortitude (nice word for a mile-wide stubborn streak) to just keep dealing with it to the end.
Coming into aid station #1 I had my first encounter with ‘bike guy’. He was a spectator and/or volunteer that was leapfrogging the runners and would show up at trail intersections and aid stations during the first half of the race. This dude was the Tony Robbins of race spectating. Most people will give you a clap and a cheerful “looking good!”, or “keep it up!”. Not bike guy. He got close to you and in the most sincere voice would say “Man, you are running SO smooth. YOU are going to kill this thing. You are 70% done with this climb. Focus. Stay STRONG. You can DO IT!”, and in 5 seconds would have you believing that you were the best runner he had ever laid eyes on. It was amazing – at one point he even put his hand on my waist pack and gave me a small push up a hill like I was racing the Tour de France or something. Thanks bike guy! I couldn’t help but feel better after our meetings.
Shortly after the 2nd aid station around mile 10, the course split and the 25K runners headed off towards the finsh line. I was hours from the finish, in no man’s land, and still struggling. I finally backed off quite a bit and spent about 30 minutes letting everything settle down and trying to get my act together. I was tired, and my legs were sooo achy! Just before the halfway point we ran down a steeper slope for a while followed by a steep climb that I chose to hike up. It was only 5 minutes or so, but that little hiking break was what finally put me on the road to recovery. I started feeling more like myself and got stronger with each passing mile. Ok, the 2 ½ hours of sucky running was over – time to wind it up and get going!
I felt like I had a new lease on life and wasted no time making the best of it. A runner that had been locked at ¼ mile in front of me for the last hour started getting closer and closer as I ran strongly up the hills. The climbs in this section were perfect for me. Not too steep, and very long. I passed him as he took a walk break and we chatted for a moment, but I was feeling too good to linger. I set my sights on the next runner way off in the distance. It took me a good mile and a half to catch him on a long doubletrack section, but I was able to do it without increasing my effort level at all by running smartly and using some techniques Coach Karl has had me practicing. This was fun!
I got one more as we hit the 20 mile aid station. I had only been filling a bottle at the stations and was totally self sufficient with gels, so my quick stop put me ahead. I put on my iPod for the first time and rocked out as I cruised the trails through the sagebrush, over piles of boulders, and down a nice little canyon. I kept increasing the intensity bit by bit and seemed to be holding up well.
Coming down the canyon I encountered a couple of guys with shovels working on the trail. I didn’t think much of it as we exchanged greetings and I continued. Rounding a bend I was soon immersed in a huge crowd of people all working as a team on repairing erosion damage to the trail. They paused while I went through and gave me a huge cheer as I dodged wheelbarrows, rakes, picks, and shovels. Kids were clapping, dogs were barking, they made me feel like a superstar! What a fantastic group! I waved and thanked them profusely for the cheers and for the great work they were doing on the trails. The first Saturday in June is designated as National Trails Day and they were out in force to take care of their little slice of heaven. I’ll be putting in some time doing the same thing this summer.
After a short stretch of pavement, the course switchbacked up a very steep sun-baked hill. I ran up for a few minutes until it became pointless for me to continue, then shifted into a fast hike. I caught up with another runner who was obviously suffering from some painful leg cramps (I’ve felt your pain, brother). I offered him some salt caps, but he had just taken some so I wished him luck and continued on.
I rolled strong over the summit with nobody in sight ahead or behind and fought some wind that had steadily been picking up for the last little while. Soon I made a turn and was cruising down nice singletrack into the final aid station at mile 26. Just another fill of the bottle and I set off to regain all of the elevation I had just lost. The grade was uncomfortable for trying to run fast, but the worst part was looking way out to the horizon line and knowing there wasn’t going to be any relief until you made it all the way to the top. In reality it was a little over a mile, but it felt like 10.
I kicked up the pace even higher after the last aid station and was going for broke. My heart rate for that split averaged 167 which is really high for me that late in a race. Usually my legs are too tired to drive my HR up to that range. They were definitely tired and hurting, but I was pouring it on with all I had. I passed two more runners in this stretch for a total of six since the halfway point, and came within 4 seconds of another at the line. My 5:14 was good for 8th place out of 35 finishers.
The original goal was to break 5 hours, and I was slightly disappointed to miss it by so much, but I was very happy to have pulled out of my problems and put together a strong last half. It was only my second 50K, so I’ll have plenty of chances to improve later on.
Malcolm survived his time waiting for me and we hit Taco Bell for some much needed grub. He had lived on 3 Clif bars while I was running and was eager to get his hands on some tacos! We drove down to the very full and fast running Gunnison River where I waded in thigh deep to cool off the legs. Man, that was some COLD water! I can take a 15 minute ice bath no problem, but could only stand about 90 seconds of the river. It was so painful! After that we raced a few hundred yards back to the car. Me with frozen legs, sandals, and 31 miles of fatigue. Malcolm hopping on one leg to even the score. It was close, but he got me in the final sprint.
Time was killed walking through the shops of Gunnison, spotting a shirt that we just have to get for my horse-loving daughter.
We spent the afternoon hanging out at the park and enjoyed talking with Dave while we waited for the awards ceremony and finisher shirts to be handed out. I badly wished we had more time to spend in the area. A trip out to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was seriously tugging at my mind.
The Gunnison River drops an average of 43 feet per mile through the entire canyon, making it one of the steepest mountain descents in North America. In comparison, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon drops an average of 7.5 feet per mile.
We would have to settle for the incredibly scenic drive home over the Continental Divide and through South Park. We stopped on Monarch Pass to strech our legs and take in the view. Then went to Pizza Hut for another ‘recovery’ meal. It was a great time and I was sad to see it end. It won’t be long before Malcolm is waiting on his dad again – after he’s beaten him to the finish line!
Misc Thoughts –
Hartman Rocks has been a long time host to mountain bike races, and is a great playground for trail oriented activities. One really cool thing is the 50K race was a single giant loop, which is a rare treat for a trail ultra. It was neat to always have new territory ahead. While it wasn’t extreme in nature, I did underestimate the difficulty by a long shot. Especially the first half which was full of very rocky ascents and descents. There was 5,200’ of climbing which was about double what I anticipated. Ha, this is Colorado after all… The course markings were very well done. A combination of signs and ribbons were used to keep you on the right track. According to one of the RDs at the awards ceremony, much of the course design/marking credit goes to Dave Weins – the 5 time Leadville 100 (MTB) race winner and course record holder. Thanks, Dave!
For a first year event, this was very nicely done. I’m totally happy to have made the last-minute trip down and participated. The entry fees went to a good cause (various Western State College groups), and we were more than happy to pump some funds into the Gunnison economy. Although I only took water, the aid stations looked well stocked and were perfectly spaced. The volunteers were great and very helpful. This race will definitely grow as word of the quality spreads. Nice work, everyone!
AS 1 – 4.8mi – 45:40
AS 2 – 10.5mi – 58:12 – 1:43
AS 3 – 15mi – 48:08 – 2:32
AS 4 – 16.5mi – 22:31 – 2:54
AS 5 – 21.3mi – 51:32 – 3:46
AS 6 – 26mi – 49:00 – 4:35
Finish – 39:54 – 5:14