Thursday, November 20, 2014

Colossal-Vail 50/50

2014 has been one wild ultra-running adventure for me. It all started at Old Pueblo when a torrential rainstorm absolutely demolished the Santa Rita mountains and the race course. And than it was Zane Grey. A blizzard. A damn blizzard whipped through the Highline Trail during the race. A Haboob was next in line. Yes, a freaking Haboob had to join in on the fun and blow through the White Tanks during the Vertigo Night Race. Good times if you ask me!

With all the wild, crazy, wet and cold fun I had been a part of, it was far from over.  I hadn't yet raced the Mogollon Monster 100. MOG was a goal race. A race I had trained months for. So why wouldn't the cursed weather want to get in on the action?!

And so it was, another weather shit-storm crashed the monster ending the race 51 miles in. For the love of God, I can't catch a break! 

So here I am, fit as ever with nowhere to run. Such a lonely place to be. I had to find a race before I let all this hard earned fitness go to waste. That would be a damn crime!

So I began to think about my options. The most obvious choice was the Javelina Jundred. I wanted a 100 mile race and after last year, Javelina is a race that is begging me for my redemption. But having already done a bunch of loop courses over the summer, I was having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around doing more loops. Loops were making me kinda loopy.

Then like a brick to the ole' noggin, it dawned on me; The Inaugural Colossal-Vail 50/50. Hell, the race was being put on by some of my closest friends and fellow TTR'ers (Tucson Trail Runners). The course also runs along the Arizona Trail, right here in my own backyard. It just made sense.

I felt like I was in great shape and was focused on setting a new 50 mile PR. I had run some of the course and it is pretty damn fast. Lots of runnable trail with rolling hills. Holding back in this race was going to be the biggest challenge of all!

I spent the next few weeks throwing some flat runs into my repertoire. I focused on some long sustained flat running in hopes of getting used to the continuous grind. I knew that this race was going to be a grind, "flat" or not..

Sleeping in my own bed the day before a race was simply delightful. I felt well rested as my co-pilot, Kristi and I cruised through the early morning darkness. We made it to Colossal Cave Mountain Park about a half hour prior to the start.

Several people had teased me that since I had registered, they'd better bring a raincoat and gloves. But the sky was crystal clear. There wasn't going to be any crazy weather today. It was crisp and cool as the first sign of light glimmered beyond the horizon. However, the course is completely exposed. There is virtually no shade..

"It's going to get hot once that sun comes up.." I thought to myself. "I'll take it!!"

I immediately ran into Charlie Ware at bib pick-up. I figured it was going to be a good race between Charlie and myself. Charlie is a friend of mine and we had done some of our training together. This was going to be a blast!

"There is a guy that ran a six forty five 50 miler a couple week ago doing the race." Charlie informed me.

"What? Damn, that is friggin' fast.." I responded.

"I know. Looks like there is some more competition!" Charlie quipped.

The minutes quickly dwindled down and it was time to line up. The RD and good friend of mine, Ross Zimmerman got us all pumped up to be participating in the inaugural event. It was fun having a lot of familiar faces at the start of the race. 

I felt the adrenaline make it's usual pre-race trip through my veins.

I did my usual pre-race pep talk with myself;

"Don't go out too fast blah blah blah..."

"Stay hydrated blah blah blah..."

"Don't forget to eat blah blah blah..."

"Why do I do this shit blah blah blah..."

It was go time!!

I had told myself over and over not to get sucked into a fast start. That wasn't as challenging as I expected it would be. No one bolted away at an unreasonable pace. Charlie, myself and another runner led the way up the initial climb.

We all chatted and I got to meet the other runner, Kent Green. Kent was the runner that Charlie had told me about. Just a couple weeks back, Kent had run a 6:44:19 at the Chicago Lakefront 50 miler. That is solid stuff. Two weeks is not a whole lot of recovery time, so I wondered if that would hurt him in the long run. Regardless, the kid has a ton of talent and I knew he would be hanging around.

The three of us cruised at an easy pace and continued chatting away.

"What's with all the chatter?" A female voice surprisingly chimed in.

It turned out Kelly Wild was right there behind us. 

The four of us ran together as the sun rose, lighting up the beautiful surroundings. Sometimes I have to remind myself to look around and appreciate nature and absorb the moment. I did that a lot on this particular day..

Soon enough the four of us galloped into the Gabe Zimmerman AS. Dallas was there with his infectious encouragement that I've grown to love so much. We all stuffed various food items down our throats and made a quick exit.

The single track was glorious. The temperature was perfect. I could see Mount Wrightson looming in the distance. I was really trying to keep myself in check because it was such a runnable section.

"Keep it easy, Sion.." I mumble to myself.

Eventually we had to cross underneath I-10 through a tunnel. Steve Hughes and Gene Joseph were there to make sure we went the right way. We made our way through the pitch-black tunnel and suddenly a skeleton wearing a pair of Hokas appeared out of the blue! Well played, Gene. Well played indeed.

As we made the climb out of the tunnel and back atop the trail, I could see several other runners right behind us. I figured we had made good separation, so this was sort of surprising to me. 

As much as I didn't want to fall back, the feeling of my bladder exploding forced me to make a pit stop. I watched Charlie, Kent and Kelly pull away. Then two other runners came rolling passed me. Then another. 

"Hey, that's James Mills." I said to myself.

James was the very first person I ever ran with upon moving to Tucson. I met him doing one of the many road races that I did long ago. I quickly caught up to him and we had the chance to chat a little bit.

"This is my first ultra." James told me.

"You better watch out, this shit becomes addicting.." I said as I cruised away. "Enjoy!"

Soon I passed the other two runners and made it back to the original three. Only it wasn't three anymore. Charlie had made his move. I figured that it was still really early, so there was no reason to worry about that right now. I reminded myself to focus on my race.

I was feeling pretty darn good. I was chomping on Honey Stinger Chews and drinking plenty of water.  I hit the Sahuarita AS and bolted out of there in seconds. I began to pull away from Kelly, Kent and the others. I felt myself falling into a groove. This was going to be a good day. 

I hit a section that was actually a pretty good climb. I kept my heart rate in check as I cruised up the steep. All of a sudden a runner appeared behind me and quickly blew right by. Fortunately, it was Gabe McGowan, who was absolutely destroying the 50k! 

As I neared the turnaround I saw Charlie in the distance. I wasn't very far back and that gave me a little boost. Gabe came flying by again, in the opposite direction. Soon after Charlie and I crossed paths as he made his way back toward Colossal Cave Mountain Park. 

"Good job, bro!" I shouted.

"You too!" He replied.

I hit the Twin Tanks AS and quickly refueled. I talked briefly with Steve, Becky and Michelle Hawk and made the turnaround. I was a few minutes ahead of the third place runner and the next section was going to be a lot of downhill. I made the decision to use the downhill section to establish separation from the rest of the pack with hopes of closing the gap on Charlie. One of those worked out.

While I did pull away from the rest of the group, there was no sign of Charlie. 

"Damn, dude is like... Gone.." I said to myself. 

Between the two races, there were a lot of runners going in the opposite direction. Lots of "good jobs" and "keep it up" were being thrown around, keeping me company. But by the time I made it back to the Sahuarita AS, I had passed all of the other runners. I was on my own!

I love to be alone on the trail. It is a special feeling being out in the desert all by myself, knowing I am going to spend the next several hours with only my thoughts to keep me company. 

I hit the marathon mark at 3:45 and felt phenomenal. 

I made it back through the tunnel and passed the bag-a-bones. As I approached the Gabe Zimmerman AS, I realized that it was really beginning to heat up. The second half of the race was going to be a grind, I already knew it. 

I felt myself struggle a little on the climb that started around mile 30. It was constant climb from there to about mile 33. Nothing very steep but a continues ascent. This "flat" course was going to be less flat than I had anticipated. Which I had anticipated. 

Once I topped out and saw the Colossal Cave Mountain Park, I got a spark of energy. I sprinted down the winding single track, excited to see Kristi and get some cold water. Charlie appeared once again, as he started the North Leg. We exchanged quick grunts as we passed one another. I made it into the AS about 6 minutes behind Charlie.

It was great to see Kristi as I got refueled. Catlow was helping out as well as Doreen and Ross. 

"Charlie is only a few minutes ahead.." Ross explained

"Hopefully he falls apart.." I cynically responded.  "In a friendly way.."

Last minute I decided to bring my second handheld with me, which turned out to be a very wise decision. I said my good byes and took off!

As soon as I began the North Leg, I felt gassed. I was sucking wind. I couldn't breath. I wanted to turn back and call it a day. I felt the urge to vomit. I dry heaved. I cursed myself for always choosing to do this silly sport!!!

"Ahh hell..." I moaned. "Instead of saying 'hopefully he falls apart'.. I should've said 'hopefully I don't fall apart'..." 

I continued fighting off the urge to stop. Everything becomes so simple, yet so difficult. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. Don't stop. Keep on going... 

I slowly began to feel better. One foot in front of the other. I took a deep breath and looked at the beautiful desert landscape. Each step I took, I felt even better. I made it though the rough patch! 

I picked up my pace and ate a few chews. I smiled and remembered that I do this because I love it! I love to run!!

Before I knew it, I was approaching the Pistol Hill AS. I rolled on up and was greeted by Mr. Bob Bachani and his classic: "That's what I'm talking about!" 

That phrase never gets old!

Renee handed me some grilled cheese and I filled up my handhelds. 

"Three and a half miles to the turn around." Renee informed me.

"Three and a half miles.." I said.

I looked at my watch: 41:20 miles

"Wow, this race is going to be a lot further than 50 miles!" I shouted with desperation peppered in my voice.

On I went!

The next few mile were a steady descent. Not steep at all, but I did keep in mind I was going to have to run this section in the opposite direction, so I kept my pace very reserved.

Eventually I noticed Charlie running back my direction. His stride looked smooth, like he was floating along the trail. We said a few words to one another and continued on. It took me at least five or six minutes to make it to the turnaround, so I realized that Charlie had extended his lead,

"You're not going to catch him, just focus on holding onto second place.." I told myself. 

I thanked the volunteers working at the turnaround. 

"The 50 miler that's actually 54 miles.." I said to the group.

"Yeah. That's good!" One of them shouted.

"Of course it is.. More bang for your buck!" I yelled back as I began the final stretch back to Colossal Cave.

I was going to get a good idea of how far in front of third place I was. I was beginning to feel drained again but was moving reasonably fast. It had been at least five or ten minutes when I saw another runner coming towards me. Wouldn't you know, Kent was hanging onto third place! 

Not long after that, I saw Kelly coming my way as well, looking solid as ever! Then it was Pete Ziegler and Tim Stackhous. It felt like I should have arrived back at the Pistol Hill AS... The way back felt like it was taking an eternity..

"Oh, thank God." I said with relief. "There it is.."

But as I looked up again, it was gone.

"What the? Damn, I'm hallucinating." I mumbled.

After a few more hills, a few more hallucinations and a few more curse words, I arrived back at the Pistol Hill AS. 

I put some ice under my hat, got my bottles filled and got gone! Time for the home stretch! 

My watch decided to quite on me and I was riding dirty. It was kind of freeing to not look at my watch anymore, though I was a little disappointed that I wouldn't know my exact time at 50 miles. 

I hammered out those final few miles. There was a lot of suffering during those last couple but I knew it was almost over. Sometimes you just gotta embrace the suffering!

I came rumbling through the last hundred yards and across the finish line in second place with a time of 8:17:03! Hell of a PR considering the race was closer to 54 miles! 

It was over and it all made sense again! The feeling of accomplishment is something I can't put into words. It is simply priceless. I enjoyed my best 50 mile performance ever. I accomplished my goal of running the entire race (without walking) and setting a new PR. And that feels pretty damn good!

Congratulation to Charlie Ware and Kelly Wild on winning the Inaugural Colossal-Vail 50 miler! You both ran incredible races and clearly deserved to take the top spot. Also, congrats to the 50k winners, Gabe McGowan and Chrissy Parks! Well done! 

For everyone else out there pushing yourselves past what you thought you were capable of, congratulations. You are all my heroes.

It is hard to believe that this was the first year that this race has been held. The organization of the event was impeccable. First class in every way. I will definitely run this race again and highly recommend it as well. You won't be disappointed! 

I would give personal appreciation for each and everyone of you, but that would take all day. So I am just going to say thank you to everyone, staff and volunteers alike. You know who you are.

                               ~All Photographs courtesy of GOATographer (Kerry Whelan)

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