Racing the Rabbit

Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler

Steamboat Springs, CO, September 18, 2010


“Goooooooo!” The mass of runners shuffled forward into the dark morning leaving the crowd of up-too-early loved ones and other spectators standing spaced at random intervals in the cold. This is it; the big show, the whole enchillada, the capital-R race, the nominal purpose to all the training I did this summer… no pressure. Really, just run casual. Ready or not, here I come.

Backwin’s first rule: Always walk the first mile of any ultra. I was surrounded by a hundred and fifty adrenalinalized, caffienated, low-heart-rate, ultra-fit individuals (in which I guess I must include myself) all grooving on the same mile-zero race vibe, but I dutifully slowed to a brisk walk and let the people stream past, dispersing up the trail. After a long summer of remote, self-supported mountain runs, I felt naked going into this. No backpack, two liters of water, emergency gear, space blanket, ten essentials, 5000 calories (mostly in semi-liquid form), extra layers, or even a flashlight. Just a hip pack with a few calories and a pair of gloves, the emergency iPod, a single small bottle of water, and a smaller bottle of gel.

It was certifiably dark out, but enough other people had lights, I was able to piggyback off them for the first mile of trail. Fortunately, Brian and I had pre-run the a bit of the trail the afternoon before, so we knew what to expect. By the time we reached the wide dirt road we’d follow the rest of the 10k up the ski area, it was light enough to see clearly. Probably I could have run this section, but 50 miles is a long way. Save your legs. Everyone else was of a similar mind and the mood was light and social. Introductions were made and we transitioned into ultra mode. 

I’d spent a number of sleepless nights the week before calculating likely pacing information and estimated splits at each of the ten different checkpoints along the course. Ostensibly, this was to give Amy, Cindy, and Joe, my loyal crew, a good estimate of when I’d be arriving at the Dumont Campground aidstation (miles 22 and 28) where crew and spectators could congregate. But really, I was curious to see how close I might come to my somewhat-arbitrary goal of a 12-hour finish. I’d budgeted 2 hours for the 3500 foot, 6.4 mile climb up Mt. Werner and was somewhat surprised to see the aid station appear at 1:44. No matter. But whatever, I kept telling myself. Twelve hours or not, things will have to go seriously amiss for me to not better my previous 50-mile best of 14:22!

Six miles down and half the day’s climbing already taken care of! Past the first aid station, the mood changed quite palpably as everyone got down to business. The trail was beautiful, the sun was shining, and the views were spectacular. We were faced with 7 miles of rolling downhill to the Long Lake aid station at mile 13. I fell in with a group of half a dozen folks setting a good pace down the dusty, narrow trail. My 10-minute pace down this section seemed conservative, but the trail was moderately technical and it ended up taking ten minutes longer before we rounded a corner and came to Long Lake.

First quarter down, feeling good, running strong… maybe too strong? Minimize stopped time; just grab what you need and keep moving even if it’s only 2 mph. Most people had sent drop bags ahead to Long Lake, myself included. You never know ahead of time what aid stations will and won’t have, nor did I want to try a bunch of new foods and food-substitutes that I hadn’t thoroughly tested in my training so I’d sent ahead anything I might conceivably need. However, the aid station was well-stocked with lots of familiar goodies and the only thing I needed was to swap gel flasks and drop off the extra layers I’d brought from the start.

Moving on. It was getting pretty warm. The trail climbed up to the Continental Divide and then ran along through open woods for five miles to the next aid station. We passed a series of small lakes and open meadows full of golden grass. This was another section where I’d hoped to be able to keep a great pace, but I was again slightly slower than expected. In fact, this was the closest I came to a serious bonk all day. By mile 16, I was really feeling it and wondered if I shouldn’t have reined it in a bit on the initial climb.

On one of many short climbs, we started hearing serious cheering up ahead and figured we must finally be approaching the Base Camp aid station at mile 18. Sure enough, two girls were cheering with the enthusiasm of 20. This, along with a few goodies at the aid station put me back in good mental territory and I left the aid station at twice the speed I arrived.

Section four was a short downhill cruise through meadows and forests to the Dumont Campground where Amy, Cindy, and Joe awaited (also a change of shoes, a new gel flask, and some turkey-avacado wraps which were equally on my mind). It was really pretty hot by the time I got to Dumont Lake and ran the long, flat trail around to the campground on the other side… and down some dirt roads… past some campers… and finally to the chaotic throng at the aid station.

Amy and Joe were amazing! I was really glad to see them and wanted nothing more than to hang out for a few minutes and relax, see how their day was going (did I mention that it was our sixth wedding anniversary?), but Amy greeted me with “What do you need?” and from then bustled around at high speed like a Formula-1 pit crew. “Now get out of here!” “I’ll see you in 90 minutes,” I said heading regretfully out for the turnaround.

The course description mentions the 900 feet of climbing in the 2.7 miles from Dumont to the Rabbit Ears. No problem! What they don’t mention is that most of this elevation gain is in the last quarter mile. Wow! The final climb is steep, loose, hot, dusty, and a real leg-burner after 24 miles of race-pace running… however… the view from the Ears was amazing! I paused for a minute to take in the view and cool breeze, and mentally prepare myself for the second half.

The Second Half

On training runs, I hate having to see terrain twice, but in a race, it gives me a good idea what to expect. I’d been a little ahead and a little behind my 12-hour goal, but generally a little more behind than ahead. And I had this sinking feeling that I hadn’t enough left in the tank for a second 25 miles at a similar effort level. My training this summer was brutal, but it was mostly shorter distances on much rougher terrain and at slower paces. The 12 hour finish was looking a little like a stretch. Whatever. Soldier on.

After scrambling back down the wicked slopes, I managed to run it back in to Dumont for a second round of crew ministrations. This time, I took my time and relaxed for a bit, relishing seeing my loved ones and mentally preparing myself for another 22 miles of this. While I try to minimize aid station time, I was down here for at least ten minutes. Perhaps the psychological advantages outweigh the time penalty?

I regretfully walked out of Dumont for the second time waving to the awesome aid station crew and miscellaneous spectators with one hand while stuffing my face with grapes with the other. I’d planned for the return leg to be a lot slower since it is, on average, a long, gradual up hill to the top of the ski area. As expected, it was hot and I was tired, but I felt no worse than I had an hour or three earlier. I alternately ran/walked back through Base Camp (still cheering), and back past the small lakes and forest clearings. People I’d been running with out the outbound leg appeared before me and I started reeling them in. I felt better both mentally and physically at mile 35 than I had at mile 15, just a little bit more frayed around the edges. But if I didn’t pay attention to the edges and just kept pushing along…

Later, I discovered that, just as I was rolling into Base Camp for the second time (mile 31) ultra-phenom Geoff Roes was flying across the finish for a new course record of 7:11; half an hour better than the old record. That’s right, he beat me by 19 miles!

Long Lake again. Three-quarters down. Right on schedule, to my surprise, so I sat down to gird myself for the seven mile, thousand-foot climb up to Mt. Werner again. The high spirits of the Long Lake crew (who had a 2 hour 4×4 drive to get there early this morning), not to mention the half beer I consumed, got me in the right frame of mind for the final quarter of the race.

Now is when a pacer would be really handy. For the race up to this point, I’d been playing leap-frog with a number of fellows I’d met along the way. Chris the Brit, Jeff of the large white hat, Jay the gregarious ultra-newbie from Longmont, and a few others whos names I never caught. I fell in with these people as well as another ultra-newbie Jenny and ran within a minute for the next couple hours. In particular, Jenny effectively paced each other over the final two hours of the race. We set up a good banter and ran when we could, walked the rest through the pleasent afternoon forest.

I’d budgeted 2:10 for the climb and 1:30 for the final, blistering desent of Mt. Werner. But much to my surprise, I heard the clanging cow bells and assorted shouts of the Mt. Werner Aid Station at 1:40-something! Heck, twelve hours was looking pretty good now. I paused for a decadent nine minutes enjoying oranges, turkey wraps, a great view, and the fine service at the aid station. I’d dropped Chris, Jeff, Jay, Jenny, and the rest on the climb up, but they caught up as I lingered (don’t get cockey, kid. Save the celebrating for the finish!)

The road was relentless. I knew I could make my time goal, but I knew it was going to hurt, regardless. The scenery was stupendous and the footing good enough that I could look around without fear of wrecking. Jenny and I ran most of this together and her conversation kept the pain farther toward the back of my mind than it might otherwise have been. I only hope the same was true for her. We dropped steadily down the road we’d climbed only a handful of hours before (hard as that was to believe) seeing the buildings getting closer and the air getting hotter.

finish_joeJust as the road was really getting intolerable, we reached the junction with the wide single-track. 1.5 miles to go! Time to spend the reserves, if any. Jenny dropped back and I soon passed walking-it-in Jay and “really hammered” Chris. I was pretty seriously juiced on the finish line adrenaline (oh yeah, that’s why I do this!), but the last lonely cruise down the gravel road past chairlifts and construction equipment was absolutely eternal. But finally I came over the rise and caught sight of the finish line… and they of me. I distinctly heard Amy yell from well over a tenth of a mile out, let out a tremendous yell of my own, and redlined around the final three turns. Joe ran out with 20 feet to go and jumped into my arms so we finished together in a triumphant 11:25:09. Done!

Checkpoint Miles Segment Gain/Loss Pace Split Elapsed
Mt. Werner (AS#1) 6.4 6.4 +3450′ 16:15 1:44 1:44
Long Lake (AS#2) 13.4 7 +665′, -1090′ 11:34 1:21 3:05
Base Camp (AS#3) 18.5 5.1 +516′, -407′ 13:08 1:07 4:13
Dumont CG (AS#4) 22.3 3.8 +67′, -527′ 10:47 0:41 4:53
Rabbit Ears 25 2.7 +905′ 18:53 0:51 5:44
Dumont CG (AS#5) 27.7 2.7 -905′ 11:51 0:32 6:16
Basecamp (AS#6) 31.5 3.8 +527′, +67′ 16:03 1:01 7:17
Long Lake (AS#7) 36.6 5.1 +407′, -516′ 13:55 1:12 8:30
Mt. Werner (AS#8) 43.6 7 +1090′, -665′ 15:00 1:45 10:14
Finish 50 6.4 -3450′ 10:56 1:10 11:25:09
Total +7627′, -7627′ 13:42 11:25 11:25:09

Finish line adrenaline is an amazing thing and I was seriously hopped-up for about twenty minutes. Jeff had finished a few minutes before me and I was there for my other friends as they crossed the line. Brian had been a minute or two behind me on the way out but apparently his wheels had kind of fallen off at the midway point. Cindy said he was a good 15 minutes behind me at Dumont and was feeling pretty grim. Apparently he got his wheels bolted back on, however, because he came into view half an hour after me and finished his first 50 in a very respectable 11:54 looking strong but pretty drained.

Speaking of drained, my adrenaline was rapidly wearing off. I couldn’t control my body temperature anymore and felt dusty and fragile. Time to get horizontal. We hobbled back up the course to the condo and directly into the ice baths, then the couch. All the dreams I’d had of mass quantities of food and beverage turned into a single beer and two slices of pizza forced down on principle.


My race was about as good as I could have hoped for. I did everything right from the five months of training beforehand to race day gear, pacing, and nutrition. I struck a good balance between minimizing aid station time and deriving maximum benefit from the physical and psychological support they offer. While I managed to thrash my way through two previous fifties, I matured as a runner this season and maybe even kind of knew what I was doing this time. At #67 out of 162 starters, I was well above the median which has never happened in an ultra before. I also cut nearly three hours off my 50-mile personal record!

It was a fun race. Not spectacular, but very nice for most of the course. The organization and volunteers were top-notch and it felt very personal. The course was easier than most of my training runs, yet rougher than I’d expected. Looking through projected and actual splits, I go uphill faster than I expect and downhill slower. Despite consistently taking longer on the “easy” sections, I made up serious time on the long climbs and came in under both my public 12-hour goal and my private goal of… well, less than 12-hours.

Having Amy and Joe there to see me in action rather than just start and finish was fantastic, not to mention the amazing job they did crewing for me at Dumont. I could just as easily have sent drop bags to Dumont and been entirely self-crewed, but the pychological boost of having loved ones there was incredible.

This year reminded me why I both love and hate ultrarunning. It takes a single-minded focus and a lot of time away from family. The short Colorado summer is devoted entirely to training (though, fortunately, the training can be in amazingly beautiful places), and family and work both suffer. But the feeling before, during, and after a race are the payback. The people (both racers and volunteers) are universally fantastic and you get about a 25% energy boost from race camraderie and spectator support.

What’s next?  Why the Blue Sky Marathon, of course! (a scant 15 days after Rabbit).  Immediately after the race, I couldn’t imagine running a 5k, never mind a full marathon. However, a week of rest makes me, if not excited, at least receptive to the idea of just a marathon. After that, who knows? I have no plans for anything big in the future, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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