I'm so close. I know they are too. Right on my tail, looking down at my watch, trail crunching beneath my feet.
I'm doing it.
I'm out in front and nobody is going to catch me.
I look down at my watch to check my pace and see it ticking off at 6:37 minute miles as I feel someone coming up from behind me. He's making his move.
There he goes.
My lead has disappeared, my single greatest moment in my ultrarunning career. My first lead.
All 0.87 miles of it.
I should have quit right there.
I went into Mesquite Canyon for the fourth year, every year since it's started, and I wanted to put my training to the test. My last 10 weeks of hard track workouts, higher mileage, more climbing, faster paced long runs.
I was ready to see what I could do and I wanted to do so much better than I had before. I wanted to take a full minute off my overall pace, down to 9:28 minute mile and under 4:45.
Granted I've never ran a 4:45 50K, or at least at a race, and this wasn't an easy one. Mesquite Canyon has 4,700 feet of climbing and some rugged, rocky technical terrain. The climbs are long and sustained as the downhills are but very little flat running, maybe six miles total. Add in a couple tough sandy miles in Ford Canyon around the marathon mark and it's a very challenging course. A fact I conveniently forget every year.
In the end though, it was a PR for me with a 5:07, about 6 minutes faster than last year. I ran all but 1.2 miles of it. I wasn't sick, I wasn't overtrained, I just didn't pull it together on the goat camp climb and put in some terrible miles. I used to get away with that when I was going out there and putting in a 5:30-6:00 hour 50K time but when you run one mile in 19 minutes followed by a 16 minute on a climb...that hurts your overall time and I just needed to hammer that and I didn't have anything in me.
I still went from 8th to 4th in the back half of the race and ran nearly the entire course, something I was hoping to do to see where my real fitness level came out to. As tired as I was throughout, I was still able to run a solid pace and that's at least encouraging. I'm not going to dwell on the disappointment of it all. I have 4 remaining weeks to take from this race what I need to and dial everything in for Zane Grey.
Huge congratulations to Bret Sarnquist for winning the 50K. He passed me heading into the bottom of Goat Camp around mile 12 as I expected and went on to pass everyone else including what was the leader in the final stretch into the finish. He's a huge finisher and if I'm in front of him at Zane Grey early on...I'm doing something wrong.
That's me in first place....yup. First place. By default really because nobody wanted to start the race out front...
Mountain Lions...in the White Tanks
Look at this photo? Yeah...cool except for the deer. This is a water tank that is on the western slope of the White Tanks put out there with a motion sensor camera. It has captured a good deal of mountain lion activity over the years (this photo is somewhat old), and not the most healthy looking of cats. Although would you really care if it was healthy or not biting into your neck? Me neither. But it's interesting to see the documentation of their presence even though I knew they are out there.
There aren't many times I'm in the Tom's Thumb rock formations at 4:30am thinking I'm alone...there always seems to be something lurking in those rocks and being that I've seen deer all through the eastern slope of the McDowell's, I'm almost positive they are up there. Add in some photos from last march at the Boulders Resort (just a couple miles up the road) where a female and her two yearlings were hanging out on the golf course.
So that's pretty encouraging. I wonder how long before a runner comes across one up there? Between the White Tanks, McDowell's, Spur Cross, you'd think there would be more sightings, even for a very reclusive cat such as the cougar. Or maybe I've been readingthis site too much...(Warning: It's quite disturbing and you'll never want to go to British Columbia after reading a few. Or at least Vancouver Island...)
Spur Cross Trail - Elephant Mountain 35K
The training has worn on my but the progress is there and as the race inches closer and closer I continue to get a little faster, a little stronger and a little bit closer to my goal.
Dominating the Highline Trail on April 27th.
In itself it's a stupid goal. Nobody really "dominates" that trail, they just more or less survive it at less visible rates of misery. But I stated my goal, I'm sticking to it.
Sub ten hours at Zane Grey.
The closer we get to the date it is both more daunting and more conceivable with each passing training day. I'm logging more miles than I ever have and on a heavy work schedule with limited time for actual running. I've been creative in getting the runs in and sometimes I've just outright had to miss some key workouts, workouts I hate missing but time is simply at a premium at my house.
One big test for me was the 35K at Elephant Mountain, a new Aravaipa Running race. I wanted to run this race as soon as Jamil Coury, one of the two founders and race directors, told me he had it in his plans for the upcoming DRT Series. I'd run the Spur Cross trail many times and twice had run out of the Spur Cross Conservation Area across the Maricopa Trail to the Cave Creek Recreation area. One in particular in mid-summer where I ran out of water 5 miles from the car in 100+ degrees and was sucking on a rock barely running the downhills as my kidneys were screaming F-bombs at my stupidity...
Aside from that the trails are stunning, runnable and fun as any single track gets. I knew it would be a fast but challenging course and a great one to test out my new found fitness, if you can call it as such.
My goal was to break 3 hours and hit 2:55. It's 21.7 miles with 2,300 feet of climbing. I ran the Cave Creek Thriller 30K back in October on some of the same sections and did it in 3:04 for two less miles and the same climbing. I wanted to run every step, skip most aid stations and remain up front the entire race.
I hit the turnaround in 8th place in 1:29. I had just passed the first 7 guys and saw Bret Sarnquist saying to his buddy ahead of me to push it hard on the way back. I hit the turnaround and ran up every hill, seemingly never catching anyone, getting more and more frustrated that somehow I'm running a 9 minute mile uphill and NOT catching anyone??
This doesn't happen in the middle of the pack. I'd be passing everyone by now. We're in a new world now.
I watched the runner in white up ahead, a double switchback ahead of me and I wasn't gaining any ground. I pushed on and as we crested the Spur Cross trail I knew we had a long, gradual downhill for several miles. I planned for this downhill, knowing we were at a good mileage where my body always feels good and I thought I could push sub 7 minute miles. I pushed on as soon as I hit the decline and within a half a mile I caught him and once we hit the flat I made the pass and went on barely stopping at the aid station to fill up water.
In every other race I've ever run I'd have stuck behind that guy and played it cautious, fearful I'd be passed right back.
Not anymore. I passed that guy like he was standing still and blew by the 50K'ers and everyone else on that long, steady downhill. People were barely trotting on and I was off in the bushes trying to pass them and maintain a pace where I could catch the guys out in front. I knew Jeremy Schmucki, my arch nemesis, the Jeremy I've never beat in ultra running. Bret was somewhere up there and I wanted to get as close to him as I could, if at all.
I kept plugging away, surprised I wasn't fading at all and came up on Jeremy walking up a small incline. I knew something was wrong and sure enough he was having a bad cramp on his toes. I asked if he needed water or anything but he was fine and just walking it off. He'd come in much slower than he normally would so I won't count this one quite yet.
I started to really struggle once we hit the road and even though it was flat (ish) I couldn't keep the sub 8 minute mile and started to fade. I needed food, some kind of nourishment and within a couple minutes I hit the last aid station. Half a banana later I started up the final climb to the big descent into the finish, the finish I dream of throughout the entire race, every race. I dream of coming down the hill, passing by everyone in a full sprint into the finish line with an insignificant time but one that I worked hard for and finished as hard as I could. It pumps me up throughout the race and keeps me motivated. I wait for the final miles, suffer through all the others, just for that moment. I left that aid station amped to catch the guy in front of me.
I didn't care who it was.
I didn't care how far up front of me he was.
I was going to catch him.
So I set off running up the mountain. One switchback after the next I plugged away. Hikers were coming down the mountain, my head was up and I was running with a smile. I was going to pass that guy.
I made it a half a mile before I first saw him. And he was not close to me at all. I looked at where he was when I spotted him and then clocked it until I reached that same spot...
.67 miles away...
Two miles left.
No matter. Big goals just mean you have to work harder.
After several more climbing switchbacks I knew I was gaining on him. If I could reel him into a quarter mile with the final descent left he wouldn't stand a chance. He can't possibly run downhill as fast as I can.
So I hit that downhill with a reckless abandon I can't remember in a race since Jay Danek and I crushed the hills at San Tan 50k last year. Just absolutely smashed the hills to the point I couldn't make the turns on the switchbacks without coming to a complete stop. Hikers slowed me down and as I descended the mountain I could see him out in front.
He's getting close.
This was going to come down to it. It's going to come down to me pushing my body to the max the rest of the way and to the very last inch of this course.
I geared up mentally, took a few deep breathes and as I reached the flats I pushed on hard, getting ready for a full sprint last couple hundred meters.
The guy was nowhere in sight, I turned the corner along the road, a hundred meters before the final right hand turn leading to another hundred meters to the finish chute.
He was about to hit the right turn.
I didn't catch him.
I deflated a bit, slowed and looked down and took a deep breath.
A few feet later I see him out in front of me. Trotting near me from the other side of the turnoff. He'd gone the wrong way and was coming back to the turn.
We reached the turn at the exact same time. I could have easily turned in front of him but put my arm out signaling him to take the lead and finish it out.
I wasn't going to beat him anyway and we trotted it in together for a finish time 1 second behind his.
It would go down as my only race...ever...in my life...hat I haven't sprinted to the finish. 5k, 50k, 50M, 100M, whatever it has been I've sprinted to the finish. I look forward to it, gear up for it and really enjoy knowing at the end of a race I put every ounce of remaining effort into it.
Trotting into the race chute and seeing that 1 second difference continues to eat at me. Maybe because the guy never said anything to me afterwards or maybe because I'm not going to ever let someone beat me at the finish in a sprint. But it does and continues to.
Overall, it was a solid race. I did run the entire 21.7 miles and ran at a faster pace than any other trail race I've done. I ran a bit conservative not knowing how my body would respond to the pace so it's encouraging to know I could have maybe knocked a few more minutes off with a little more experience "racing."
Aside from the Elephant Mountain race I knocked out a 50K in the McDowell's mostly solo on Saturday. Grandpa Jim Fowler met me for the first 9 miles but he had to head home and I finished up the remaining 4 hours alone in a 5,600 ft 50K in 5:30. It was a tough run solo but mainly because I wanted to try a full 50K without any caffeine.
It's my last 50K without caffeine.
This weekend I'm running my first road race in 4 years. The Mountain to Fountain 15K. It's a 9.3 mile road route from the McDowell Mountain Regional Park into the town of Fountain Hills. 900+ are scheduled to be there on the course and my coach has me pegged for a sub 60 minute time.
That's a 6:26 pace.
For 9.3 miles.
Which would be the fastest I've run.
I think I can do it, it's just going to be very hard. I've hit faster times at track, had a relatively "easy" time at track at fast paces but that's going to be a real challenge.
March 23rd I'm in for my 4th year at Mesquite Canyon's 50K. It's a very challenging course that last year I ran in 5:14. I'm shooting for a 4:45 or under this year knowing that I can run a lot of what I walked last year and really can just push the pace much faster all the miles without as much concern that I'm going to be worn out later on. Whether that actually happens is another story but I'm big on goals that are outside my comfort zone.
Crown King 50K on April 6th is up in the air. I hope to make it to that race but also need to get up to the Rim for some Highline Training and have limited time to do both. I'm also not sure I want to run a fast, uphill 50K 3 weeks before Zane Grey. We'll see.
Until then, I'm excited to see where this will go and as each day passes I'm one day closer to starting out on that trail in Pine, Arizona.
In the cold.
In the dark.
Setting out on what will almost certainly be my most challenging physical feat to date.