We left Geromino Aid Station for the last time and entered the forest on a mission. Closing out this last climb up West Webber left only one long downhill to the finish line. Our up's and down's and misery was all out the window. We were 90 miles into the race, there wasn't an obstacle that was going to stop us.
Fifty five miles into the race I felt my ankle start to burn. I ignored it for thirty miles before it wasn't something I could ignore. Sharp shooting pain continued with every step as the pain started its way up my shin. Leaving Geronimo with a big climb left, there was no stopping. I'd heal tomorrow.
Our group of 6 had dwindled down to 3. Our pacer all night and good friend Jay Danek had dropped us off after the Highline section and got us to sunrise. His usual basket of low brow humor and general inability to empathize with anything we chose to complain about. Both key attributes to any good pacer. We had Tobias Sorenson from Utah (by way of Sweden) for the entire night and we'd clicked along miles together since our second trip through Houston Brothers as the sun had just set. Pacing along with the same long stride, the same dry sense of humor, we were no long a couple of brothers, but a trio of runners driven to the same finish line.
We hit the West Webber climb as the sun started beating down on the tall Ponderosa pines, shielding us from the intense Arizona sun. At least temporarily. My ankle was miserable, throbbing incessentlay and fragile to any unstable footing. The entire course is unstable footing. It hurt to walk, run, stand, lean. I just wanted to be done. My leg hurt so bad I stopped caring what was wrong with it. My stubborness took over and I took control of the pain but telling it to shut the hell up. To prove my own point to myself, I pushed harder up the trail. I pushed harder as we started up the mile climb, gaining 1000 feet at mile 93-94. Sharp switchbacks straight up the face of the 2000 ft. Mogollon Rim, we pushed each turn. Each one harder than the last. Noah up ahead, pushing each other faster up the turns, we pushed with a vengeance on this course, Tobias below us probably wondering what he'd done to us to deserve this. Cresting out on the top I knew we'd crushed it. Out of every training run, every fun run, all the times I've climbed up West Webber over the years, that was the fastest I've ever climbed that mountain.
Hitting the Donahue Trail walking became nothing but pain and misery. What isn't at 95 miles though? Running was all I could muster with my leg and we all pushed on across the top of the Rim before we caught a sight of the town below. Several miles of switchbacks and a stretch along the road and we'd be there, crossing the finish line of this sufferfest.
We'd end up running the entire way down.
Coming into the small town of Pine, Arizona and crossing that bridge I had the drive to push harder. My body was broken, hobbling on a leg that had been battered and shredded for the last 45 miles. We pushed up that incline past the saloon and the market, the same places I'd cheered finishers on year after year. Screaming at the top of my lungs in a town full of old cowboys and retireees, wondering what in the hell happened to their quiet Sunday afternoon. I'd cheer people on when I knew they just wanted to walk it in to the finish. I'd scream louder until they started running. I'd hammer on the cowbell until they pulled up a trot. One foot, then another, leaning forward until their momentum helped get them to at least a shuffle. A shuffle and some cowbell turns into a jog and as they come into view of the finish line, we'd see some push even harder. Every last drop of energy depleted as they cross under the big Monster sign, to a meager crowd, limited fan fare and a general populace that will be too confused to truly appreciate what you accomplished when you tell them at home.
We were in a different place looking up the hill and listening to the cheering. Looking up the road at the finish line instead of down at the runners was new to me. Families, wives, kids, friends, all following us around the mountains for two days, happy as can be to see us finish. Proud as can be to see us finish.
I wanted to think about that but I couldn't. My leg had been on my mind for the entire night. It dominated my thoughts for hours.
Would I be able to walk tomorrow? Did I completely tear the ligaments? Are the tendons shredded? Did I break my ankle? Is it the stupidest thing I've ever done running on this injury for so long?
Yet as we moved up the road towards the finish my mind shifted.
I looked over at Tobias and Noah as we moved from a walk, to a shuffle, and eventually to a jog, and I didn't feel my leg anymore. A random stranger that half way into a race called out to us, "Do you guys mind if I join you for the night?" We say sure. Eighteen hours later he's part of the family. That's ultrarunning.
My brother had never attempted a hundred miler and he was here crossing the line of one of the hardest hundreds out there. There were several times in the race early on I wasn't sure if I was going to even be able to keep up with him. But we ended up running every step of the race together. 100 miles. Step for step. Tobias and Noah looked weary, tired, dirty, covered in salt lines and dust. Their packs bouncing lightly as they trotted, their eyes squinting in the high sun overhead. You could see a smile breaking through each of their faces. The finish line was near.
We crossed that finish line holding our kids in our arms, with our gang of Dougherty's scattered about, under, around and through the finish line. They were everywhere and for a moment, it felt like everyone was a Dougherty.
I'd sprinted every single finish line I've ever come across. Unnecessarily so to some, harder than necessary even to myself, but something I've always looked forward to in any race, and what keeps me pushing hard towards the end of any race. I know when I get close, I need to gear up to empty the tank. When it feels like it's empty, I always know there is more in there to push hard, even if only for a short sprint. I've dreamed for years of hammering that finish line, straight across that bridge, and up the completely obnoxious 3% incline on pavement to the finish line. I've done training runs and run the finish line, and sprinted it as if I'm finishing the Mogollon Monster 100 one day. Like a kid pretending to hit the game winning homerun in the bottom of the ninth, I instead dreamed of sprinting to the finish of a hundred mile mountain race I'd helped create years before. A kids dream in an adult world I hoped to experience one day.
One day came and we finished. I didn't sprint and I didn't care. I wouldn't change a thing about it, it was a hell of a race. I don't know what place we came in, and I don't even know what time of day it was, or what our finish time was. Noah and I started this race and that day we finished it together.
It's now September 12th, 2018. The race is in three days and my Facebook feed is flooded with 7 years of past photos, video's and memories of time up on the Rim prepping or planning for the race. This will be the first time I'm not there.
Mogollon is always on my mind because it will always hold such a special place for me. So much of the course is ruggedly beautiful, raw to its core, and destructive at its worst. It's a beauty I haven't found in other places, and something about that area draws you back in and can't be replicated elsewhere. The natural, physical aspects are memorable enough, yet what I often think back on the most, now 3000+ miles away living on the coast of northern Maine (seriously, I couldn't' have picked a place further away...) is how much I miss the moments within a race that often define it. Hammering West Webber with my brother at the end of a physical beat down, in unison and without words, we didn't accept a difficult climb and hobbled our way to the top.
We owned that climb.
We destroyed that climb.
Feeling the pain of the course, wanting to quit so many times, feeling like there was no way I would finish, and then trotting up the road and under the finish line. Thirty minutes later thinking about the twenty ways I slowed myself down and where I could have saved time. Seeing Jamil's genuine excitement for us before, during and after the race, a guy that has been with me through this Monster journey in so many roles, and now the passionate driver in it's long term success. Seeing other runners pass us early on and then passing them late in the race with a "Keep Going" while secretly thinking "Yup. Shouldn't have passed me Turkey Springs..." Running through the night with a big group that ran together with a level of cooperation, teamwork and unison I don't know I've ever experienced before in an ultra. We'd all finish the race and seeing everyone come through after experiencing huge sections of time on the course together is one of the underappreciated values of ultrarunning. The "story" of a runner, from signup, through the training, the emails, the questions, to their nervous excitement at packet pickup, to the race high's and low's and their finish, IS the 100 mile race to me. Our sport is so much more than the 36 hour cutoff, it's the part that goes into all the planning in advance, training, travel, scouting, and hours of work time spent reading maps and past race reports. Then seeing that play out on race day. That's the part I miss the most.
Seeing our families at aid stations along the way, the now five kids big enough to set up a cheering section, jump in our arms and ask, "When are you going to be done running Daddy?" at mile 23. Friends at aid stations, pacing other runners, and the special people that have made Mogollon, or any race, is such a unique part of this sport.
Right now runners all over the country are planning their travel, or maybe already on their way to the dusty town of Pine. Packet Pickup is in two days, and all the stories, fears, talk of weather, heat, hills, and mountains will come up. Smiles, beers and laughs consumed before the impossible sleep begins.
The morning will come too soon, and not soon enough. The Monster will rise above the start line, and as the sun rises over the Rim, the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner will echo off it's cliffs. You'll get chills, no doubt. There is no gun to go off, you'll just go. Up the switchbacks and into the glaring sunrise. Enjoy it, embrace it, crush it.
Take what the trail gives you, hammer the finish, and remember,
"You're only tired because you think you're tired. Keep going."
I had my doubts more than a few times these last few weeks. Yet here it is. Finally.
That’s not to say it’s still not cold out. We’re still wearing hats and gloves, and layers out on the trail, but we’re at least seeing the ground beneath us and if there is anything I’ve learned this winter on the island, its that simple traction is in and of itself, something to be grateful for.
We still will see snow in patches between mountains well into May, but just being able to run, just run is so exciting. Piecing together the various trails in Acadia National Park because you WANT to run them, not because they are the only passable ones, opens up a world of fun that for the most part, has been really restricted this winter. I haven’t run more than 11 miles since the Black Canyon 60K in Arizona back on Feb 17th. Only once did I run 11 miles, nothing else over 10 miles since then. Now that we are past the last major snowstorms, and recent rain and 40-50 degree weather for a week plus, the majority of the trails are runnable. And that gives me a lot of motivation going into the spring running season.
Heading into running season I have to keep goals dangling in front of me or I struggle mightedly with consistency. Lining up a cross island traverse of the park in May was key as it was something I really enjoyed last May but wasn’t able to allocate the time to do the full distance. It’s about a 50K from point to point and this year should be a lot of fun now knowing the terrain and trails that much more. It’s a lot of climbing and a punishing route, but a stunning one and I’m excited to see it through.
Leading up to that over the next month I have to build up my base and get back to those big mileage runs and get used to the granite again. Much of the mountains are a bedrock of granite and while the lower trails are plush, soft pine needle trails the upper reaches of the trail network are almost exclusively running on rock. Going up is fine, but the downhill on the granite can give me some problems if I don’t build back up to it. One great thing about the snow is the cushion it provides. After a 13 mile, four hour run today I’m looking to jump into 30 mile weeks for the next two weeks and then 45 and then hit the traverse that week. It’s not a lot of training but my body is used to short training schedules followed by a painful day long abuse of my body.
With that base on my body I really want to take a crack at the FKT for the 26 peaks in Acadia National Park. It’s a bit of an unknown one with little information on what was attempted in the past, and with so many variations, hard to nail down what that might even be. So if nothing else, I’ll create my own attempt, go for it, and someone can at least use that time as some kind of measuring stick. I don’t care about the time, more about the effort and having a set goal to motiviate me. I can do the miles and the climbing. I need more to push me to train hard. A fixed time goal is enough for me.
I struggle planning further out than that. So much in my life now depends on the immediate, and often so much changes that makes 3-4+ months out planning needless for me. So I focus more on the training for the next 30 days, and 60 at the most. I find that I can focus more on getting in shape and for the next few weekends, then planning 3 months out and not knowing what family or work committments are going to shut down those plans. At the end fo the day, running is dead last on the overall calendar in terms of priorities. I’ve learned to not get too excited and put too many eggs in the proverbial running basket, chances are it’ll just end in disappointment.
But the the next 30 days? Yeah, I’m going to crush those.
I stood there in my front yard thinking it over. Or rather, just kind of staring blindly at the pallet and wondering how did I get to this place. How quickly things have changed. I didn’t think about it long, and grabbed at the plastic cover and starting to pull the bags off. Two bags at a time, 40 lbs each, I’d spend the next hour taking 25 trips to the basement to re-stock my wood pellet supply to heat my house.
Not exactly something that pops up as a regular household task as a resident of Phoenix the last 16 years. Moving 2000 lbs of tiny compressed sawdust pellets into a basement. Heck, they don’t even have basements in Phoenix. Yet, its exactly those almost routine tasks that remind me of what New England life is all about. Shoveling snow, pulling weeds, raking leaves, cutting wood, and moving bags of pellets. It’s what gives Mainers and other cold weather states that edge many softer (see: winter free) states just don’t have. In Phoenix you just pay your bills and go about your day, all year round. There is literally nothing to worry about beyond making sure your AC is working. No grass, no leaves, no weeds, no wood. You can just be as lazy as you want. Its why so many people retire there, they are sick of the work it takes to live in a cold weather state.
Lazy doesn’t have much place here in Maine though. If you don’t put in the work, you might just freeze. But if you put in the work, and you prepare for the conditions that come at you, you are rewarded with one of the most magical places you could ever live.
Much can be said about the running experience you get here on Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park (or most of it) and the town of Bar Harbor, Maine. We’re on an island with a population that has less than most Wal-Marts on Black Friday and despite Acadia National Park being one of the top ten most visited national parks (3.5 million visitors last year, another new record) you rarely see anyone on the trails. (At least everything outside of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard and the easiest to ascend with that convenient pavement leading its way to the top for all those visitors seeking instant gratification without any of the work.) This is particularly true in the offseason here whe visitors drop to under 500 a day spread over 46,000 acres. Last year I saw not a single person on the trails for 47 straight days. I was starting to think I moved to a deserted island, not Mount Desert Island.
I soon figured out why. It was winter when I moved here last year.
Winter in Acadia
March 6th last year it was -15 with the wind chill. I wore a coat. Several of them.
Before I had even moved from Phoenix I spent almost equal amounts of time preparing for my new position overseeing operations at the iconic and historic Bar Harbor Inn as I did pouring over topo maps of Acadia. I scoured the map and countour lines to understand how each unique path connected to one another, how to string together larger runs, bigger runs, steeper runs. I knew the entire trail system before I crossed the border into Maine. But I was 16 years removed from winter conditions and it quickly showed.
My first runs were in shorts. Because naturally I didn’t own any leggings/tights or anything remotely close to “winter running gear.” I resorted to my trusty 15 year old Adidas wind pants trying to see if there was also some magical way they would protect me from the inevitable mid section freeze I experienced with each and every run. The park is stunning in a fresh coat of snow and the ice covered rock walls. The unique way mountains light up in the low lying light of winter was enough to get me out the door every morning. And opening the front door every morning and feeling the brutally cold wind was amost enough to get me to turn right back around and go back to sleep every morning. I froze morning after morning trying to figure out the right number of layers to stay warm. (I settled on 19.) But more of what got me out the door was a new trailhead every morning, and the mystique of what I was going to find every day. I was addicted to the unknown, how much I could cram in before work, how much changing terrain could I handle.
“Can I connect the Gorge trail with Cadillac and down the Featherbed and not fall to my death on the ice?” These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I shivered in my truck driving to the trailhead. Often I had to alter the course mid-way through, or sometimes I pushed through and it was the adventure I didn’t know I was looking for that day. Every time it was spectacular, and immediately I fell in love with the area. While my wife and kids were still assimilating to the area, I was already hooked.
Spring in Acadia
Running in the winter here isn’t all rosy Instagram posts. Every mile takes the effort of three and the time I spent doing the extra laundry was excessive at best. After awhile you’re just excited to see some dirt. Any dirt.
And eventually, spring arrives in Bar Harbor and the park. Its certainly not in March. The first day of spring on the calendar is meaningless. We had 20 inches of snow on the ground when it hit “spring.” April saw several small snow storms but was also 72 degrees on Easter. But it sure wasn’t 72 degrees the next day. As any good self respecting New Englander says about the weather, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” Most of April is spent with wet shoes as everything is melting so eventually it just becomes an accepted part of your run. That eventually gets old too but the excitement of seeing dirt patches and slivers of green peeking through, certainly reigns supreme. I ran almost every day of April and soon had covered a huge portion of the 120+ official trails of Acadia and beyond. It became a fun game to find the route that could connect me to a new section I hadn’t seen yet, without repeating any prior segments. It was a game I thought and planned out often and called the “Acadian Pac-Man Project.” The Pac-Man project soon took over as my primary motivator when the alarm clock went off at 4:30am.
With spring also comes the pure discovery of sections that previously were covered in snow. What was originally a trail I had covered, now looked totally and completely different in the spring. Norumbega mountain was completely ice covered on the Goat Trail every time I took it, and the descent was always ice and snow. Yet in spring it became this stunning mass of bright green moss covering huge granite boulders amongst the tall pines. Light was peeking through on early morning runs and lighting up the wet moss like lanterns. It became a wonderland of color and life. You felt like you were in The Hobbitt every time you visited.
With spring comes more than just newborn wildlife and fresh vegetation. The runners on the island come out of their winter hiding spots and you start to see cars in the parking lots and even occasional hikers around the more popular peaks. While local runners certainly do run in the winter here, very few actually run the mountains and trails. (Clearly all of which are wiser than I am.). Yet with spring comes a new collection of “regulars” that increase your chances from 1% to 5% in seeing another trail runner in the woods. The 46 miles of crushed granite carriage roads are closed for several weeks in April as the imprints during the mud season can ruin the roads, and that pushs people out on the trails. The 20 mile driveable park loop road that circumnavigates a large portion of the national park opens up to traffic in the spring and with that comes Cadillac Mountain access. The park is open for business and that brings out the hikers, runners, andadventurists. Come May 1st, the park is open for business usually and active again.
In May I was fortunate enough to connect with Tom St. Germain, author of an incredible resource “A Walk in the Park, Acadia's Hiking Guide” as well as the best map available of the National Park. (He also co-authored the fascinating "Trails of History; The Story of Mount Desert Island's Paths from Norumbega to Acadia." Tom was someone I found online prior to deciding to move to Maine and interestingly (see: stalker) enough I found him through Strava.com. In researching Bar Harbor and the area as a potential new home, the running community I came to love in Phoenix was something I didn’t want to give up. Finding a similar community in Bar Harbor was a key aspect of the decision and I found Tom through activities he’d run in Acadia over the years. As it turns out, Tom is as experienced a runner in Acadia that likely has existed for decades and he’s published the literature to prove it. Reaching out to Tom via social media as a total stranger prior to moving to Maine proved to be a pivotal reason we did move. Come May of 2017, I was fortunate to go for a tour of the park with Tom starting from the west side in Seal Cove and finishing after Pemetic Mountain. That came after this 27 mile solo adventure the week before. Reading my comments on that run last May still ring true, "I thought I was a tough trail runner. Then I moved to Maine. Didn't even do 6 other peaks, didn't have the five extra hours to get it in. Or the heart to endure more rocks. 7:44 total time on feet."
That's the challenge of Acadia. As with any trail system, you quickly discover your biggest adversary after you spend enough time on the trails. In Phoenix, and Arizona in general, it was always about the heat and exposure. A long run in the desert was always planned around the available water, or how much water needed to be carried to make it through the chosen trails for the day. Here, water is abundant, particularly when the park is fully open and water fountains are functioning a several trail heads and parking lot locations you come across along your route. While the weather is ever changing, there isn't really much to worry about for the seasoned trail runner in these mountains. What will get you are the rocks.
Specifically the abundant supply of granite rocks. Entire mountain tops of pure granite, stairs of made of granite, boulder fields of granite. I remember finding the first person on an actual trail last winter on Dorr Mountain and even in that brief conversation he mentioned, "Be careful with stress fractures." My first thought was, "Oh please, I'm from Arizona. Land of the Rocks."
He was right. It's an entirely different running experience bounding between loose rocks, and running down granite bedrock for miles. Literally, for miles. It's stunning, rugged, and wild while you are doing it, but it takes a toll on your legs. So running Acadia in the spring, coming off the usually soft and forgiving snow packed trail, becomes an effort in easing into the Acadia Pounding that is the granite cliffs and rocks. Later in the season, with more conditioning, and rotating in carriage roads and soft mossy trails, my legs can handle it. But early on, it's a bruiser. For the casual visitor or runner they'll probably be fine for a weekend trip to Acadia, but week after week, it'll break you down.
Somewhere around late May comes the first leaves on the trees and like the flip of a switch in June, we're in summer.
Heaven on Earth.
Summer in Acadia
Long in daylight, yet short on time sums up the nature of summers on the island. Ranked by National Geographic and the Today Show as one of the best places to visit for the Fourth of July, it's the kind of place you dream about for summers. Time slows down, Saturdays become Tuesdays and weekends become weekdays. Nobody seems to be working and everyone seems to be on vacation. The streets are packed, the parks are full of people hiking, biking, running, and just experiencing the area. It's the busiest time of the year for a lot of residents, particularly those of us in hospitality, so it also limits how much free time there is to enjoy the area. Luckily, the sun is out until after 9pm so even after dinner we'd sneak in hikes or runs before the sun went down. The sun is up at 4am too, so there's plenty of no-headlamp time on the calendar!
Summer in Acadia also brings a lot of visitors you may even know, and with that brings some running companions. One of my favorite things to do in Acadia is show fellow runners the local trails here in the park, and then to see their reactions as we pass through one mountain range after another, up a sheer granite cliff and down a mossy one, and along a river to the Atlantic Ocean. Very few places can you smell the mountain air and ocean air in a few short miles and it provides for some incredibly scenic, and memorable routes that I'll never tire of showing people. Likewise, it brings a greater awareness to the difficulty of the trails in Acadia, often overlooked due to its shortage of elevation. At 1500 ft, its not exactly an imposing mountain on paper, but the grade up several of the mountains here, and quick accumulation of elevation gain, make any run in Acadia extremely difficult, and rewarding. It isn't difficult to put together a 7000 ft gain 20 mile run here, and you could do it a number of different ways covering a variety of different trails. It's part of what makes Acadia such a fascinating running paradise, you're not committed to any one trail for more than a few miles, and always have several options to add, delete, or edit any planned run based on your mood, the conditions, or how much caffeine is racing through your veins at that particular moment. Feel like going straight up a 30% grade? Just wait half a mile, you'll find one. Want to run along a fern covered single track in the woods? Take a left on the Jordan Stream Trail. Feel like running through maple and oak trees? Follow the Kebo Trail to the Gorge. You'll see plenty.
My favorite run of the summer last year was a 41 mile jaunt through the park, hitting most of the peaks, and all in the name of a 40th birthday for the super strong local runner Jen VanDongen. We hit 15 of the 26 peaks in the park and had 9000 feet of gain to show for it. Finishing the route in a dive into the frigid Sand Beach was a truly memorable way to end a 12 hour day in the woods. For the ultrarunners out there, the accessibility of this park is truly unique and almost perfect for these kinds of adventures. I left my truck at Jordan Pond the night prior (parking is very difficult in the summer, planning ahead is key,) a very central location on the eastern side of the island, and stocked it with water and food supplies. Then the following morning we kicked off from the Visitor Center and proceeded with the route. Every few miles we'd pass by another trailhead for parking, most of which have restrooms and some have water fountains. So even what you have to carry is quite limited, because there are frequent re-supply points along the way. To top it off, as Cadillac Mountain is a premiere destination for all visitors of Acadia, they have a gift shop at the top of the mountain! True story, I'm not even making this up. I started to bring a zip lock bag with $6 so I could get a coconut water and a Mexican Coca-Cola when I ran through the top of Cadillac. Literally, nothing on this earth exists that is better than a Mexican Coke at mile 20 something of a summer afternoon. (For those that don’t know the difference, Coca-Cola made in Mexico still makes it like Coca-Cola origially did. Before high fructose corn syrup.) It's incredible and became my go-to visit I'd look forward to each weekend trip up there. Best of all, you can finish your runs in the town of Bar Harbor quite easily as well, as it's only 1 mile from the trail heads to town. Finish at the Village Green in the center of town and there are 15 places to buy a beer, poutine or a lobster roll within 15 feet.
Fall in Acadia
Fall for many of the locals autumn is their favorite time of the year. Traditionally it was when the tourists would start trickling out after Labor Day (now it's Veteran's Day), and that quintessential crisp autumn morning air starts to greet you as you head out the door for your run. And with the change in weather, comes the change in scenery and as the month progresses you see the transition on the trails. As we enter October the leaves are sharp red and oranges, drawing you to a full stop at every opening in the trees. Your pace on any run slows considerably in the fall, it's just spectacular outside and yet again, the trails seem new again. As the leaves fall, the trails become a tricky set of rocks and roots, guesswork of where your foot is actually falling. But you don't really care because you still can't believe how beautiful it is outside and that you are running through this forest and nobody else is out there.
Fall also brings a number of races in the area, most notably the MDI Marathon & Half Marathon (www.runmdi.org) which has been named one of the most beautiful marathons by Runners World and I'm sure other publications and articles. It runs along the coast of the island through the various villages and towns and really highlights all that you can see in the island. Held in mid-October, it's often during foliage season and great weather for a marathon. It has a unique feel to it you won't find at many of the bigger marathons and the charm of the villages and people cheering you on is really something special. And unique, there are some interesting characters you see along the course that capture as much of your attention as the actual scenery. If you're going to come to Acadia to run, and road running is your thing, the MDI Marathon is special and a worthy reason to visit Maine in and of itself. I mean, you get a lobster claw medal. I probably could have just skipped that entire paragraph and just left it at that.
Run MDI. Always & Whenever.
It's been almost a full year of running on the island for me. I haven't done everything, I haven't seen everything, but I've seen a lot of the island. What I've seen, I've fallen in love with. It hasn't all been an easy go of it though. The winters have beaten me up bad and I've paid the price physically for some of the routes I've tried. One bad fall after another on the ice has damaged my motivation at times and contributed to the deep, dark "winter blues." Now in my second winter, I yearn for those clear trails again and the impending snow storms aren't quite as charming as they were leading up to Christmas. Yet, it's a part of the lifestyle here and I'll grab my drill, my box of screws, and set a new pair of running shoes for the ice. I'll throw on my running tights, my four layers, hat and mittens and dive out into another negative wind chill morning for a trip through the mountains. If we’re being honest though, I don’t really like it.
Spring can't come soon enough though as its truly a reward for fighting through these winters. Normally I would be anti-entitlement for any aspect of life, but I feel like I've EARNED the spring this year. We ALL earn these springs and the eventual summers. I've taken more falls, slips, smashes, trips, and pure pain and bruising from these trails than any combined five years of trail running in my life. Every step is an effort, every mile is a battle, and every mountain ascent comes with its own risks.
Spring brings with it new changes, new life, and a literal and psychological rejuvenation. While the winter is beautiful and welcomed on some levels, I'm more excited to repeat this cycle and seeing that green moss poking through the waning snow cover...and sticking around for the summer.
About one year ago today I was thinking I was on to something great. I wasn’t.
Eleven months ago I was looking for a new job. I found several. One in particular was holding onto my heart, and despite the logistical pieces of it all, I hoped secretly it was the one that was going to come through. After the Patriots made a dramatic comeback to win the Superbowl, my wife and I boarded a plane to fly 3200 miles away to Bangor, Maine.
I know...how do you even say that city? We arrived in the morning in February to temperatures I didn’t even recognize. We grabbed our rental car and drove the hour drive to Mount Desert Island, the home of Acadia National Park. We crossed the anticlimatic bridge to the island and I scanned the horizon feverishly for every morsal of positivity I could find to hopefully convince my wife this was the right move. The job was already ours, it was just a matter of us saying “yes.” We met the hotel owner, the new President, saw the hotel, did the dinner deep dive and it even snowed. In three days we saw almost no other humans in the town of Bar Harbor. It was insanely cold, the hotel was closed and in full disarray, and 90% of the national park was closed for the winter and inaccessible. It was the hardest pitch imaginable.
In the airport in Bangor on the way back to Phoenix, I called the President of the company and told him we were taking the job. He jokes today he never thought we would say yes.
Life on an island
We came to Bar Harbor, Maine in early March. March 6th to be exact. And as it turns out, that was about the temperature too.
It's not warm here. It's windy. It's brutally cold on some days. And not "oh you just came from the desert' cold. More the "even the Mainers are bundled up like they are going to the top of Everest, not the 12 ft to the grocery store entrance." In fact, most people seem to just leave their cars running in the parking lots of stores and go in and get what they need.
But now having seen some of the winter, spring, summer and now winter again, its clear life here is more about your attitude than about the temperature. From my office in the hotel I have this beautiful view of Agamnot Park right in town on the water. As soon as a spring day peaked through the clouds and it creeped above 55 degrees, people started coming out of the stores and seemingly nowhere, to just go sit in the grass and enjoy the beautiful afternoon. As the spring progressed, I found myself texting my wife that the afternoon was supposed to be really nice, lets go see a new part of the island.
And so we would. And as the summer progressed, we took every one of those opportunities that came our way. We weren’t moving this far away from our Arizona family to sit in our houses or sit in my office. We saw a ton of the island, visited the communities, went to events, tried a lot of restaurants and all the shops. We met a lot of people. I just started walking up to people and introducing myself as, “Hi, my name is Jeremy. I just moved here from Phoenix and don’t know anyone here.” That usually sparked at least a conversation about the weather. We had family and friends visit from all over the country, all summer and into the fall, which helped greatly as both excuses to try new places, but also not feel so far removed from everyone. The move to New England has allowed us to see so much more of our family that is in upstate NY and Vermont. Now a seven hour drive away versus 60. And because of that the kids have seen their grandmother 3 times these last 10 months instead of 3 times in five years. Its a big give and take with the move, and while there certainly is some major takes (my brother and his family in AZ, Jen’s parents and friends in AZ), the gives (my parents and sisters are in New England as well as dozens of others) are helping to offset it all.
What’s Maine Like?
I’d never stepped foot in Maine before I interviewed here in February. I was from Vermont and like any self respecting New Englander, you never went to another New England state because the assumption was always, “Well, I’m from Vermont, what does Maine have that Vermont doesn’t have?”
Turns out, quite a bit and its not even all that similar. The New England spirit is the same, a collective pride in self reliance, independence and general hardiness that even when not vocalized, it’s tangible in how people talk about just about anything. Coming to Bar Harbor there is an immediate and palpable spirit of community and an immense amount of pride that people hold for the town and the island (MDI for short) in general. We could live here for 30 more years and still not be considered “locals.” People are involved, they treat people with respect (expect on Facebook but that’s pretty normal) and you get a real sense of “it takes a village” now knowning many of the families here on the island. When you go to just about any family event, it’s not just the mom’s with the kids. Almost every event you’ll find both parents there for their kids. While you can certainly find that in Arizona if you look hard enough, the neighborhood feel was always something that was missing in my 16 years in AZ. Here, we know a significant portion of the community, and it seems, they know us. “Oh, you’re the family from Arizona?” There is a certain amount of charm to that, and while eventually I’m sure seeing someone we know every time we go somewhere will lose that small town charm, for now it’s quite reassuring and leaves us with a feeling of belonging. Even if we’re not quite sure yet we do.
A few observations about the island and Maine.
There are no brands on the island besides a Circle K, one Subway and a Hannaford grocery store. Well, I actually consider that a positive. Especially the lack of a Starbucks.
There is literally ZERO traffic. The human wall of traffic in the summer is a bit much at times, but generally, it’s a breeze getting anywhere.
There is literally ZERO crime. Well, maybe not zero, but it’s pretty close. Some locals think it’s a gang riddled spot that requires National Guardsmen to be ordered in because some pumpkins were smashed on Cottage Street, but that’s small town life. It’s basically The Sandlot in the summer here. Or Gilmore Girls. Totally looks like Gilmore Girls. Not that I watch that show...
There is literally ZERO chance you’ll get a pizza delivered to our house 6 miles from Bar Harbor. Better stock up, NO delivery available.
There is not a single Taco Bell on the island. It’s a “treat” to go to Ellsworth and even that’s a KFC combo. Which we all know is not the same as a real Taco Bell.
There are no Mexican restaurants worth spending a dollar at here on the island or in a 50 mile vicinity. And that’s a brutal adjustment. In fact, I haven’t met a single Mexican since I got here. Which helps explain the challenges.
Oil is wicked expensive to heat your house and since winter is not December 21st until March 21st as that stupid calendar tries to trick you with, it’s a bit more than the wickedly expensive AC bill was in Arizona. But the winter here is just as long as the summer in AZ, so that’s pretty much a wash.
Maine has an excise tax for your vehicles along with your registration. If you own a newer vehicle, its going to hit you for around a grand to register it. Our property taxes are 33% more than in Phoenix. So that’s also not particularly fun.
But you know what is?
We live in one of the most beautiful places on planet earth. Literally and without an ounce of sarcasm or exaggeration. We were so fortunate to find a great home right in the middle of the island and in the town of Bar Harbor. I have a 10 minute commute to work, and am able to take Dean to school each day as it’s a couple blocks from the hotel. When he is older, he could literally just walk through town to the hotel after school. Our home has much more space and land than we had in Phoenix. We have a huge backyard and a forest to explore. Our first day we moved in a deer (later named Blueberry until we realized there are a billion deer here and it was a different deer every day...) stood in our lawn eating the grass. A flock of the same wild turkeys come by every morning and we have cardinals, bluebirds and all kinds of wildlife constantly in our yards. It’s incredibly peaceful and relaxing just being home.
Acadia National Park is all around us and where I run 99% of the time. It’s a wide open national park with access (trail head parking lots) in dozens and dozens of places. You just drive down the road, grab a parking spot and start from a new place. There are over 120 miles of trails over 20 some mountains carved out between inlets and sounds of the Atlantic ocean, and deep, clear lakes and ponds. You climb a 40% grade granite cliff and are granted access to a 360 degree view of the island and the park all around you. It’s remarkable and as the seasons progress, every mile is new all over again. Not once has it gotten old, and not once have I tired of any of the miles. It’s an incredible place to live and for that, I’m happy to pay the premium in taxes for the privledge to live in this community.
There are a million other incredible reasons why living here in Maine has been a positive change. None of which totally cancel out the challeges that come with leaving behind my brother, his wife Jeanine and their three awesome kids that our kids were so close with. Jen’s parents now don’t get to see their daughter and grandkids when they want and that’s difficult for everyone involved. We miss our Arizona friends greatly, and because of them we return to them in our minds in these blistering cold days in Maine or the month where it just decided to rain every day. For now though, we’re at least enjoying Maine and what it has to offer. The kids LOVE Maine, and have met so many great kids here they have become fast friends with. Dean has quite possibly the greatest Kindergarten teacher ever in Ms. Pickers, he absolutely loves going to school and for that we can only be grateful. If the school wasn’t so amazing in Bar Harbor, our entire feeling of Maine would be so much different.
I've wanted to explore the side canyons of the Mogollon Rim for years now, and after this last trip, I know I'll be exploring them for years to come.
No trail, no route. Simply following what game trails can be found, pushing your way through thick manzanita, berry bushes and everything else that comes your way. Down and out steep ravines holding to themselves their own secret kingdoms of life, then up the steep cliffs to the rocky outcroppings that top out to the 8,000 ft Mogollon Rim. I saw more elk than I could count, came upon a newborn even that scurried off. Had it not jumped up four feet from me lying at 7,000 ft in the sun, I never would have seen it. A bald eagle soaring above me, an Arizona Rattlesnake I nearly stepped right on top of. Everywhere I looked wildlife was there, alert of my presence, but generally not caring. After several hours the elk had seen me working my way across the valley and canyons, and just kept a few hundred feet away, and eventually they became my guide to the only remotely accessible ascent to the top.
I ran .6 miles on the Highline Trail before I took an unexpected left turn into the woods. I wasn't planning on it, I just did it and almost 4 hours later I was on the top of the Rim, but had only covered a little over 3 miles.
I spent the rest of the day wandering through the forest. Quite literally, with no intent on mileage or direction, just walking through the woods alone. I came back out to the edge of the Rim and found another elk trail leading down the face of the Rim towards the railroad tunnel. What started out as a well used trail turned into a "how in the hell do elk go up or down this????" trail. Eventually I made it down the rock pile and then went on the Mogollon Monster course for about 100 yards under the powerline before breaking off into the woods again to follow the river downstream to the Washington Park trail head where my truck was. I found a game trail, and then a more worn trail that pushes through marshes and small streams before opening up into a beautiful field of waist high ferns.
One of the most incredible routes I've ever done.
82 Days and counting...
After the Tucson Marathon deflating defeat I went on vacation.
I was beat. I was working every day, long hours, and hours that never really ended with the phone, email and responsibilities tethered to me like a fish on a line. So getting back to Vermont, my home state, for Christmas and without access to phone and email was a dream.
Then I remembered that the weather there is absolutely terrible. This whole "winter" thing was quickly jogged back into my mind and I remembered that people owned coats and gloves back there. Twelve years in the desert does that to you but nonetheless I got out and ran. My first run was a 35 degree rain shower where I ended up running stronger, faster and easier than I had in months. I had nothing to worry about except finding my way back to our rented house. I absolutely hammered that run, every bit of it. Running through the rain and sloppy wet snow was more fun than I remembered. It was the single most fun run I've had in the entire year in running.
A week later I set out on Christmas Eve at 4:30am in 8 degrees. 8.
I ran 11 miles of trails with 3,500 feet of climbing, got lost, bushwhacked down the ridge, found the trail and flew down the mountain with a reckless disregard for my own safety only a drunk can appreciate. I finished down the grassy hill past a llama barn and my watch read a 3:43/mile pace for the max pace. Clearly my Garmin is broken...but again...one of the most fun runs I've ever had.
Those two runs in Vermont gave me hope that running could again be fun. For months it's been almost a chore getting training in. Partly because my work schedule has drained me so getting up at 4am for mile repeats on a track isn't exactly like someone just gave me Superbowl tickets. Doing it three mornings in a row doesn't add to the appeal either. Throw in a toddler who wants/needs attention as much as I want to give it to him and a wife who is wondering if I ordered a cot for my office or if I'm actually coming home from work one of these days. To say I've succumbed to "Runner's Guilt" more than my fair share of times is an understatement. It nearly killed me at Javalina Jundred when I went into that race averaging 33 miles a week of training, then Tucson with less than that.
Track on Tuesdays and then long runs on Saturday's does not equate to successful results in racing...
Fortunately I hate quitting as much as anything so instead of hitting my goals I instead just spend the middle of every race thinking about how I should just focus on my hidden talents in landscaping and bedtime stories and save the legs for carrying babies up our stairs. Then I get passed that dreaded wall, finish the race hard and magically forget how miserable I was and sign up for another race...it's a vicious cycle.
So I went into 2014 with another near empty training month to close out the previous year but with some great, and more importantly FUN, runs. With the turn of the new year comes the start of training for the most important race of the entire year.
The Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Race.
My "A" Race. My only race.
Everything else is just filler.
Last year I set a more than ambitious goal of breaking ten hours. My previous high was 12:26, followed by a terrible 13 plus hour finish in 2011. I skipped '12 to volunteer and in 2013 I finished in 10:36, 13th place overall. It was disappointing to not hit sub 10 but very gratifying knowing I gave it 100% from start to finish and didn't leave anything out there. I ran steady, strong and was passing people every segment of the race while never once getting passed by someone I didn't ultimately beat to the finish. I learned a lot about pushing past what you think is fatigue. Jay Danek paced me the final 17 miles and he pushed me hard to the finish. We'd come around a corner or over a ridge and spot a runner up front and he'd just give me a look over his shoulder and then immediately take off for the guy. We'd push a solid pace right past them and give a polite hello and speed on by. All the while my mind raced and prayed that they would just give up and not give chase because I could only hold that pace for the 40 more feet to the next bend where we could walk again...
We came across the finish line with more daylight left than any previous time I've ever run it. I was proud of that finish but it only left me wondering how in the world I'm going to take off 37 minutes next year and break 10 hours???
Race, you just have to race
I think the key for me is consistency and that's no small task. Already in 2014 I'm down 55 miles in January to what I ran in January 2013 and putting in the miles continues to be a real challenge. My time is so limited right now that heading out for back to back long runs on the weekends after working 60+ hours during the week is a tough sell with the wife.
And it should be. Ultimately running is down at the bottom of the food chain in our family, despite how important and prevalent it can be at times. Given the option of doing something with my little boy and my wife on the weekend, that always trumps a 5 hour run in the mountains. So instead I have to get up earlier, run faster, and get home sooner. Its certainly not ideal, I look back longingly at the weekends where I could just get up and run 8 hours and be back whenever I happened to finish.
Now I have to make every run count because it's a common occurrence that work or life will interrupt my scheduled runs and there won't be an opportunity to replace it. You can't run Zane Grey on borrowed training hours, it just doesn't work. I tried that in 2011 and it broke me in two.
February is a key month for me. I'm focused on a major event this week in Grandpa Jim's 12 Hours of Camelback. A fundraiser for Sunshine Acres (www.sunshineacres.org) where we will hike/run up and down Echo Canyon non-stop until 6:30pm. 1.3 miles up, 1.3 miles down, 1250 in climbing. The record is 12 roundtrips and my goal for the day. That would end up being a 15,000 foot in climbing 50K. My knees are already destroyed thinking about it...but it will be great training for the month and assuming it doesn't wreck me long term will get me back on track.
I'm planning on tackling Elephant Mountain 35K again this year after having a lot of fun out there in the inaugural running. Mountain to Fountain 15k is March 9th, a great local road race that involves beer, running on the Team RWB team and beer. Hopefully this year I cross both timing pads and not stop at the first one like last year...1:00:02.
Mesquite Canyon 50K in late March will be my last race tuneup before Zane Grey and will be my fifth time at the race, every year its been run since Aravaipa Running started their race series. I ran a 5:07 last year there, good for 4th place, but really want to be sub 5 hours this year after missing it last year. It's a tough course but perfect Zane training with the rocks, exposure and climbing there.
If none of that gets me where I need to be, well, then I'll be in Pine anyway for the start of Zane. I mean, what's the worst that can happen on the Highline when you're unprepared??
So it begins...
Its amazing the things you can talk yourself into.
Everything is a great idea until you're smack in the middle of it's misery. Like childbirth, hangovers and road marathons.
I ran the Tucson Marathon in 2009 on one 16 mile run through downtown Phoenix and a 20 hour R2R2R hike as my training. Nothing else. I finished in 3:53 on the help of 1600mg of delicious NSAID's and spent the next 8 hours on the Omni Tucson's tile floor with my arms wrapped around the toilet hoping someway, some how the ceiling would cave in and end my misery. Of course I wasn't that lucky and instead...was on the start of new obsession.
A month later I ran the Mountain Mist 50K in Alabama for my first ultra. I wouldn't run another road race for four years while running 30-40 trail races over the same span. Why would I? Road races were painful. My mind had etched in memories of that bathroom floor. That wretched feeling in my stomach. That horrible pain. No WAY was I going to run a marathon again. Instead I started running 24 hour loops, 100 mile mountain races, and horrible abusive runs in the Superstition Wilderness area. Because that was SOO much better for me...
Over time I started to get a little quicker and with that I wanted to see what I could now do on the same course, several years later.
I was going to run a sub 3 marathon. I was going to do it.
Because running 6:51/mile is super easy.
Jay Danek and I planned to run the race together in whatever way we needed to that ended with one or both of us hitting 2:59:59 at 26.2 miles.
Miles 1-5 - I better not feel this way in ten miles...
My toes were frozen and my pace was uneven. I couldn't tell if the steep downhill at the start was causing a silver dollar blister this early in the race or if I simply couldn't feel my feet. At two miles in I thought, "Please let this just be the cold...I'll feel better in a couple miles. I know I will."
Miles 6-10 - This isn't so bad...
10K in and we're right on pace, even 30 seconds ahead. I don't feel great, certainly not loose and certainly not strong. But we're holding on, sticking with our pace and going with it as long as we can. We hit LONG stretches of open desert, running along the side of the road clipping off the miles. Doubt starts creeping in on how long I can hold this pace and that Gatorade at the start is really starting to be a major regret. I have to piss but I can't stop. This is no bueno.
Miles 11-15 - I'm done...
We hit the turnoff for the Biosphere turnaround spot where the half marathoners start and for the first time I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to keep up. We climb one hill after another and Jay gaps me. I push on up the hill and I can't fill the gap. I catch them at the turnaround and we run together, both feeling less than awesome, doubt crushing both of us but still optimistic that we can hold on now that we are past the half way mark. I talk two gels in 2 miles to try and get something out of my body. My quads are extremely tight, my feet feel bruised somehow and I can't get my legs under me. I'm trying to run but am wobbly, clumsy and can't get into a rhythm.
Mile 16-20 - How bad can a car hurt you?
Mile 15 was rough. The rough miles where you stare at your watch thinking you are 15-30 seconds ahead of your pace but instead are 30 seconds behind and you want to just quit right there and sit down and pout. Full pity party, balloons and everything. Already exhausted, beat, broken, demoralized and a full mile later and barely hitting pace?? How in the world can I hold on for another ten miles??
I was hurting.
I was losing ground. I wasn't going to catch them.
I stopped, took a leak finally and when I got back on the road, they were gone.
That's just perfect...
And then the wheels really fell off. Not just fell off but the whole damn vehicle exploded.
Why a failure?
A lot of people would be excited to run a 3:16 marathon. I know I would have been years ago. But even though that's technically a 36 minute PR on the marathon, that means little to nothing to me. I set out to break 3 hours and I didn't do it. So to me, it's a failure.
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.