Every year around the first of June the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty happens and I say to myself “gee, I should really run that one“; it’s a single-loop trail ultra (which is hard to arrange), it’s organized by my old running pal Megan, and it’s local. Well, this was the year. I trained hard (“married-guy/kids/career” hard, not “single-guy/pro-athlete” hard) for a three months but still limbered up at 6 am on race day feeling ruefully underprepared. As usual, I was surrounded by a couple hundred other people who, weirdly, also paid good money to get up at 3am and make the drive up here for five to ten hours of masochism.
Also as usual, I followed Bakwin’s Law and bottled up all that starting-line energy into a sedate walk in as close to last place as I could manage. While this strategy has always paid off for me, I quickly learned that it wouldn’t this time; after a quarter mile of dirt road, dozens of people were stopped, literally waiting in line beside the latrine to join the single-file hike up the first minor climb of the day. D’oh! Perhaps a more aggressive start would have been wise just this once. Start slow, start slow, a few minutes of waiting in line was nothing compared to what I anticipated, optimistically, as a seven-hour race.
After no more than a mile, runner traffic was no longer the chief obstacle. What followed was thirty miles of wildly schizophrenic course winding between 7500′ and 9500′ in the second-rank mountains of the Front Range. One minute found me trudging up too-steep-to-be-sustainably-runnable dirt road, the next screaming down technical roots-and-rubble in full float-like-a-bumblebee mode. We wound through forest and meadow, clearing and canyon. There were segments of glorious single-track cruiser through aspen glades strewn with early-season flowers and long, switchbacky climbs on steep, piney slopes.
Sounds lovely, yes, but don’t forget the 8000′ (plus or minus, reports vary) of elevation gain, there was plenty of leg burning beyond the usual. In particular, there were four climbs of 1000′ or more (with matching descents) and a dozen or more smaller climbs. After a tough first half (featuring the first of the two big climbs and perhaps the most bipolar of the course segments between miles 12 and 17), I was glad to reach the third aid station (mile 17). Fortunately, I’d sent my running poles with my drop bag and gratefully deployed them for the third big climb. I saw no one else with poles, but judging from the number of people I passed uphill, they served me very well. What’s more, I found that I could run with poles folded quite comfortably. Those poles have paid for themselves many times over already, but I’m now even more sold on them.
Ultras are weird. This was my fifth bona fide ultramarathon and a lot of the gee-whiz push-myself-to-my-limits novelty has worn off. Sure, it’s still exciting, but I have a pretty clear idea of what I’m doing now. There was never really any doubt that I’d finish, only how much it was going to hurt to get there, and by the half-way point, I could predict my finish time to within half an hour or so. I was in the middle of the pack of runners, but you’d never know it. I’d run along with some people early in the race until our paces had dispersed enough that we’d parted company (a downside of Backwin’s Law). By the second half, I was getting a little lonely and, truth be told, maybe even a little bored. I looked forward to aid stations as more than just a chance to refill my bottle and grab a handful of chips. Perhaps this is why it’s called an endurance sport. It’s about slow-twitch, long-form fun and the biggest challenge is living within yourself for long periods of time.
The final challenge (topographically, at least) was Windy Peak, an only-briefly-relenting 1200′ climb in about two miles up a south-facing open slope. In previous years this has really taxed a batch of runners, but this year it was cool and breezy. The last mile to the summit is an out-and-back and I slogged upward facing a speedy stream of runners headed back down. Almost there! I see daylight ahead through the trees. This must be the summit. Oy, my legs can’t take much more of this. What! Another 0.4 miles? Nooooo! But finally I reached the summit checkpoint-slash-radio-shack manned by my compadres Kari, Chris, and Michael, took a much needed breather (nice view), and changed into my downhill legs.
And now, for a vertical quarter mile and horizontal 5k or so to the finish! Surprisingly, my downhill legs were in pretty good shape and flying down the trail past the other runners still climbing up was quite satisfying. I won’t claim I ran every step (hardly), but I set a pretty good pace and was gutting through the rolling ascents and relentless downhill of the last mile less than an hour after staggering to the summit of Windy Peak. Finished! Time for the smugness of the finish line and the party atmosphere that makes these things so worth it.
So my race went pretty well. I never bonked (aside from the constant sore legs I started with) and never had any stomach issues. The credit for these two facts probably rests with the 13 shots of VFuel I consumed along the way and the great running temperatures (breezy and in the 50s throughout). Megan runs a very tightly-organized and fun race with a nice, local feel but fully challenging course that requires all your attention and effort.
Fifty k’s are the shortest of the standard ultramarathon distances and are sometimes spoken of scornfully by veterans of “real ultras” (usually meaning hundred milers). “50k is only five miles more than a marathon and any idiot can run one of those. Easy-peasy.” Maybe this is the case for some 50ks, but there was certainly nothing easy about this race. I met quite a few people in the early part of the race for whom this was their first ultra. One woman I ran with at mile 9 or so had never run longer than a half-marathon before! Congratulations to all the finishers, but especially these ultra-virgins. You guys picked a heck of a race to start with!