Tom Thumb 50K
That pretty much sums up my experience as a runner. Crash & Burn. Otherwise known as the "bonk." I've mastered the bonk. I could run a clinic on bonking. I've bonked on purpose. I've bonked trying to avoid it. I'm just plain good at crashing & burning.
No better example than the Run Toms Thumb 50k in the McDowell Mountains of Scottsdale. Being an area I do a fair amount of my running and training I thought it would be interesting to be in an "race atmosphere" on trails I knew so well.
"Race Atmosphere" quickly turned into five people. Not five people plus me. Five people.
So off we went up the Pemberton Trail, jogging along the bearded runner John who was jumping into his first ultra.. He picked an ultra with 5,200 feet of climbing for his first one. I like this guy immediately.
Unfortunately I would barely see him again as I passed him as we hit the turnoff for Dixie Mine Trail and he would stay behind me until the finish, as would everyone else. It was a lonely 28 miles after this.
I made it all the way up Bell Pass, down Bell Pass, up Tom's Thumb and down East End feeling pretty solid and well on pace to break Paul Bonnett's course record of 5:34. I was feeling great and at mile 19 I had 124 minutes to finish the last 12 miles, just one climb back up East End from 128th street, the downhill to Prospector Trail and then the long slog back to Pemberton, albeit a mostly downhill one.
Enter the Darkness...
Climbing I can do. I can do it exhausted. I can do it fresh. Doesn't matter, I'll keep going up. The downhill of East End however was a brutal, motivation crushing downhill where not only did my perverbail "wheels fall off" but they then went bouncing down the cliff, and burst into flames. I was toast. Done. Exhausted. Just like that I was staring at an incline to Prospector like it was the last hundred yards to Camp Four on Everest.
Prospecting for Pemberton
The heat was on. 85+ degrees, 24 miles and over four hours in my head was baking. I was completely exposed and I couldn't cool down. I doused my head, arms and legs in the ice water refill at the 19 mile aid station. Thank Jesus Melissa suggested ice in my bladder or they'd have been helicoptering me out. How would that be for irony, getting evacuated out in Phoenix when it was not 114 but 85. I'd never step foot on a trail again out of sheer shame.
With the course record still in tact I hammered some water, cooled off and headed down Prospector, trying my best to push the pace, open up the legs and hope for the best. It worked for about 30 seconds where I felt amazing, ran the hills, powered the downs and was picking up the pace considerably. I was probably doing 7 minute miles but had I been wearing a Garmin I'm sure it was really more like 9 or 10's but it's more about the mental thought than the actual pace. It didn't last long though and before long I was walking the hills, walking the flats and cursing the downhills. I'd worn myself out, burned my legs, ran myself out of this race. I was done.
I reached the water station with 6.7 miles remaining and realized I had to run the last 7 ish miles at 8 minute miles to break Paul's course record. I gave up. Who care's about this stupid record. My mind wandered between disgust, disdain, and feelings of utter failure. I felt like I was Anton and Roes had just passed me at Western States. I was in the lead all day and now when it mattered most I lost it.
Pushing on to the last 3.7 miles of Pemberton I did the mentally taxing pacing method of running 3 minutes, walking a few, running to that bush, walking to that cactus. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And through the course hope that 3 minutes turns into 6 which turns into a solid 15 minutes of running. It was getting hot and I was only interested in finishing. So I did, finally in a solid finish running the last 1.5 miles and the last part from the road crossing to the finish. I could see the tents up ahead, imagined the fan fare, the cheering, the cold drinks, food, and sprinted through the last few rolling hills, into the Pemberton parking lot, along the chalk lined "finisher's chute" and crossed the finish line in 5:55.
Nobody even so much as looked in my direction. People went about their business at the tents not related to our race, kept talking, kept milling about. Weren't they curious why the heck this salt covered, sweaty mess of a guy was sprinting for no apparent reason? Apparently not.
I made it back before everyone else did, considerably so, by over an hour. There were not any other "fast" runners though like the Michael Millers, Jay Danek's, Michael Carson's that would torch that course and the course record but I'm still claiming it as my first ultra win. I ran harder and longer than I have in any other ultra with more climbing and overall elevation gain. I simply got beat up with all the hills, probably should have walked a few more of them and done more to keep the heat from getting to me so much.
It was a fun event though, great course, and hopefully next year being later in the season it attracts more runners than it did this time. It deserves to be more than a 5 person race. Race Director Donovan Sarka does a great job putting it on, puts a lot of effort and it should be a staple race on everyone's race calendar. www.runtomthumb.com
Hopefully next year. By then I should have my doctorate in Bonking.
The back side of Toms Thumb with Michael & Jay up ahead.
It's really become something of a novelty, the 50K. It has become this cute little number & letter sequence, nice and round, nice and achievable. You see a 50K on a schedule somewhere, someone mentions it, you have some free time so you think, "I could knock out a 50K this weekend. Sure, why not?" Exactly, why not? How about because it's still 50 freaking kilometers!
I won't make any excuses for struggling so much on the last ten miles of this run. It was a bit bizarre but in the end the struggle only helps me for the next race. I go through bouts of arrogance where I underestimate a run based on location, distance, or terrain when any one of those three can beat you down. In this case, the distance (29 miles), terrain (4,500+ feet of climbing) and location (local so it must be easier right?? No. 90+ degrees in 100% exposed trails...). My stomach took a turn towards the South Pole on the descent, every step was horrible, and only after a dozen trips to the rest room throughout the day did my body get back to normal. Yet my legs felt fine, feet were great and generally everything was great. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the Monster I had at mile 20 before climbing up the mountain but regardless, it was ugly and took a lot longer to finish the last few miles than it should have. Big thanks to Jay for waiting around for me despite how much I didn't want him to at the time.
What did I learn?
1) Don't drink energy drinks on long runs. Ever. After a horrific Red Bull incident in the Canyon I tried it again at Zane Grey this year 33 miles deep. Tried it again this weekend with the exact same result. My stomach just can't handle it. Plain & Simple. Stick with Mountain Dew.
2) I've been avoiding the heat. This became very evident as it got hotter and hotter and there was not an ounce of shade to be found. Which I knew going in, again....dumb.
3) Never think a local course is going to be easier just because it's local. Mesquite Canyon 50K will teach you this every time. This course is no different. Despite little water access I decided to leave my handheld water bottle in my truck and go with just water and gels for the run. Why? Because I run in the McDowell's all the time so it must be easier right? No, I'm a moron. The last dozen long runs I've done with EFS, water, gels, real food, and a variety of electrolyte replacements in a lot of forms. This run was hotter, exposed and faster than many of the past longer runs and I never should have left home without more electrolytes. Jay was great to let me use his handheld with EFS in it the last 4 miles to get caught up. Never should have come to that.
4) I'm a king at overestimating my ability. I assume I'm capable of anything at any time, not through arrogance but instead through the mindset that I can just keep plugging along if it gets a little rough. I may plan ahead but my backup plan is always, "I'll push through it." Which is a stupid plan. Especially when your stomach can't handle another step without fear of extreme embarrassment on the trail as you rush off to drop your drawers. Which only happens when there are hot women walking by. This luckily didn't happen this time but you never know. Avoidance is key. Stop being dumb.
5) No matter how miserable a run is it's never pointless and you can always learn something. The first 15 miles were great, fast and fun. The second half, well...if I didn't in some small way enjoy a little misery I don't think I would be an ultrarunner. So it actually was kind of fun despite how tough that one section was. Just makes me want to train harder, learn more and go back and run that same course, faster, harder and with no problems the next time.
Check out www.mcdowellmountainman.com for a full report by Jay on it with maps and photos.