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March 6th, 2004 – Old Pueblo 50 Miler

June 5, 2009

Old Pueblo 50 mile race report – longer than normal
We’ve came about 45 miles so far; the next aid station is in another mile, and only four miles from there to the end.  “The last four miles never seems to end,” Don warns, and I take his words to heart.  Don’s ran this race before, and quite a few other races, from Badwater to Western States to… but I digress.  Don suffered a particularly bad patch at about mile 37, but he persevered through it, and it’s a matter of slogging out the last miles to the finish.  The sun is partially behind the brusque shoulder of 9454 foot Mt. Wrightson, and the air is becoming a little cooler, but our spirits are as high as they have been the entire day, and we know we’ll finish well ahead of sunset, and the fifteen hour cutoff.  I can’t see Don’s face after he comments on the last four miles, but I sense that he’s beaming ear to ear.  There are so many reasons we do this sort of thing, and my running companion’s spirits are as high as I’ve seen them today.
Not that I knew Don Meyer before the race began, or even at the halfway point.  I had gone into this particular race knowing it would be tough, knowing that I might not finish before dark, knowing that this particular race would have particular lessons for me.  I even had three particular issues that I planned on mulling over during the long miles of this race.
Ahh.  But you never get to choose what you get to learn.
The weekend started for me on Friday morning, heading out to the airport, listening to my mp3 player, taking a later train than normal into the city, heading for the airport on the El fully expecting my flight to be delayed by, oh, it seemed the trend was 15 to 20 minutes, but I fully expected it to be several hours.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot’s voice crackled after our full plane had a chance to get settled.  “I believe we’re the only flight out of O’Hare leaving on time today.  Please buckle up – it’s pretty rough up there.” 
I had been thinking a lot about simple pleasures over the last few weeks, and I realized that simply flying is definitely one of my favorite simple pleasures.  Not that it’s really that simple, and it certainly isn’t free, but there’s a certain feeling about it… let me try again.  I’ve often said to whatever audience I might have captive at any time when it comes to happiness and simple pleasures that one of the purest and most fulfilling activities I partake in is the simple act of driving down the interstate.  This may seem incongruous – especially to those of you who know how leery I am of driving in Chicago!  But it’s quite true.  You’re commandeering a vehicle that is the culmination of many separate disciplines – physics, engineering, metallurgy, plastics, glass, electronic circuitry, aerodynamics, assembly, etc., etc.  Maybe it’s not the most elegant expression of man’s culminated knowledge – some romantics I’m sure would argue that various architectural and even more traditional works of art speak more of the beauty man can create – but I disagree.  A well-created machine, built by expert hands, constantly undergoing iterative improvements, for the utilitarian purpose of mobility – there’s something noble and even somewhat divine about that, for me.  Couple that with interstate highways, man’s moulding of materials to purpose of movement – it’s all very complete, and neat.  Driving down the interstate – particularly at night, mainly for fewer people to detract from the experience of movement – it’s a blissful experience.  Riding in an airplane, especially with a view out the window – looking at snow-clad mesas in New Mexico as I fly back – is a similar feeling, though lacking the idea of control. But looking down, you see so much earth and, particularly out west, so much earth that man hasn’t conquered.  You see Lake Mead, and its receding waters.  You see thousands of miles of odd hills and gullies that from the air seem almost entirely untouched. Richard Hugo once wrote, on flying missions in Europe during WWII, “The sky where it ends does not end, and you will pass its horizons.” It’s a fitting mantra for ultrarunning as well.
The flight into Phoenix is unremarkable; I step out into a sixty five degree or so heat (hey, I’m from Chicago, after all), grab a shuttle bus and I’m in my rental car about the same time I expected to be landing.  My rental car is a silver something or other – driving may be a simple pleasure, but I really don’t pay too much attention to the specifics of cars, viewing them basically as a commodity with a clever amount of smoke and mirrors done as branding.
My, don’t I seem iconoclastic tonight? My mental state going into this ultra was different from any other – I hadn’t really prepared that much, I only had a vague idea of what the map looked like, knew the mileages of only a couple of aid stations (25 and 40), and really didn’t feel like I was heading to an ultra. My notes from the plane trip out indicate that I really didn’t even believe I was going to run 50 miles on Saturday.  It just didn’t seem like it was part of what would happen.  It was similar to that feeling you get when you buy a lottery ticket – you know, when the prize is up over $100M and you purchase a single ticket and for a second, your head swims with an unrealistic vision of what would happen if you did get the winning numbers – the idea of running 50 miles on Saturday had about as much reality as buying Montana does in lottery land. It was only rooted in some dim knowledge of something that just could happen, but hey, what are the odds?
The drive to Green Valley, south of Tucson, is nerve-wracking (lots of traffic on I-10, as I catch the front end of Phoenix’s rush hour and the tail-end of Tucson’s), but peaceful, even noting an interesting and distinctive peak while driving down (Pacecho Peak, more on this later).  I get checked into the hotel, make a run to Wal-Green’s to buy some last minute supplies (like masking tape and a permanent marker to mark my drop bags), search in vain for salt tablets (I forgot mine!), grab dinner at Pizza Hut, lay out my clothes for in the morning, find my hotel phone does not work (d’oh!), and hit the hay by about 9:30 PM. 
4:00 AM comes early, and it is with a definite degree of unreality that I roll out of bed.  At least I have everything planned out well for this – I get dressed easily, and I’m out of my hotel room in under fifteen minutes.
Unfortunately, I booked my hotel about an hour’s drive away from the race start.  I head east towards the start, and have to slam on my brakes to keep from hitting a deer in the road right at an intersection. The deer goes on, and I follow the main road. Which, of course, is the wrong way, but I don’t realize that until, literally, the road is closed in this amazing canyon (Madera Canyon) on the northwest side of Mt. Wrightson.  The snow is glistening along the ridgetop, and the moon – the most brilliant and full moon I’ve seen in a long time – makes the whole picture seem also tinged with silver, and I imagine this is how John Muir saw a lot of the Sierras and other areas of the west.  Of course, I’m now possibly running late, so I quickly retrace my path and find the choppy dirt road.  I manage to make the race start with plenty of time to spare, though I think I actually caught air on some of the larger bumps to get there. 
I get checked in and grab my race packet – I look inside just long enough to find my race bib – a nice, handmade quilted number that is emblazoned with the number “57”.  Sweet, it’s the Heinz run for me! I think as I quickly doff my wind pants, pin the bib to my shorts, and drop off my camelbak to meet me at mile 40, and stash my race bag.  I don’t even look at the race shirt – the clock is counting down, so I head to get started. I run into several people that I’d met briefly at other races (Bandera, Diablo, Le Griz), and fall into the middle of the pack for the unceremonious start.  We start out up a steep uphill – the first quarter mile, in fact, that we had to hike down to to get to the start.  And that, of course, we’ll have to hike back up after finishing to get to our cars.  And yes, most assuredly, that was on purpose. 🙂
The first three miles are a blur, running with a couple of people, holding it back, taking it really easy on even these fire roads – Bandera had taught me what going out fast on rocky trails can do to someone not used to rocks, and even though most of Old Pueblo is on jeep roads (some probably impassable by Jeep, in fact), the rocks are still quite prevalent.  The first three miles are slow, taking about a half hour. I grab a pack of electrolytes at the first aid station (hooray!)  The next four miles are all on some relatively rocky single track on the Arizona Trail – it’s not nearly as quick going as the fire roads, but it is trail running, so I’m pretty blissed out as the sun comes up enough to be able to make out some of the surrounding mountains.  The next aid station takes about 45 minutes to get to (for about four miles), but it’s all fireroads between here and the next aid station, and I clear the six miles in an easy hour.  Unfortunately, the big climb on the course comes between here and the next aid station – it is definitely a climb to get to Gunsight Pass, but it’s not too bad (about a thousand feet in elevation gained over 5 miles), and then it’s a serious amount of downhill running, losing about 1800 feet over the next four miles or so – I definitely was happy that I had dedicated one day a week just to downhill runs (a one hour, -5% run at between 9 and 11 mph on the treadmill).  Despite the long climb, I still covered the six miles in 1:17.  The fire road madness continues, and I quickly find myself on the same roads I had driven to the race on!  Unfortunately, this meant I knew what the next dozen miles or so had in store for me… I pull into the 25 mile aid station at about 4:45 – not exactly fast, but definitely a lot faster than I thought I would be.  There are an equal number of aid station volunteers and bird watchers here.  The sun’s beginning to get a bit warm, but it’s nowhere near hot, and I don’t feel any nausea – but I grab a couple of antacids just in case, as I know the long climb I’m coming up on could spell danger if I don’t take it seriously… The four miles are all uphill, up a long, gorgeous canyon.  I take it easy, as I’m well ahead of cutoffs (about three hours), I’m here to just finish and enjoy the day, and I chat with others as they pass.  It takes me an hour and ten minutes to make it up over the ridge and down to the second aid station, manned by Geri Kilgariff.  Geri’s a pretty well known character in the ultraworld, and her recent organization of the first Javelina Jundred (pronounced Havelina Hundred) was top-notch.  She wields a whip (yes, a real whip) and makes everyone kiss this odd, wild-pig looking stuffed animal on the way out of the aid station.  I oblige, both in the spirit of the race and, well, there is that whip… 
I should mention two particular aspects of this race that tend to make parts of this race a bit different from most ultras I’ve ran.  First are the gates – this isn’t new to me, as growing up with my dad, surveying in Southwest Missouri, I was used to going through cattle gates all the time, with the requisite rule of “If it’s closed, close it back, if it’s open, leave it open.”  This certainly cost all of us some time, but I’m definitely thankful to all of the ranchers who agreed to let us run through their property.  Something I had never encountered during an ultra, though, were cow grates.  OK, we’re all familiar with these, and I’ve ran over them from time to time in the past.  But never so many, in such a fatigued state.  Coupled with a surprising number of wet stream crossings, the course definitely kept you guessing about what would lay ahead. They added a definite charm to this race, and kept you awake.
But meanwhile, leaving Geri K’s aid station, bringing me back to the single track. It’s uphill mostly this time.  I take it easy, and get back to the first aid station (now mile 33) in about 7 hours.  From here, there are only two aid stations left – at mile 40, which is where my camelbak is (and my car keys – nothing like planning your way out of even considering dropping out of a race!), and at mile 46.  I know the next seven miles will be the longest of the race, so I run what I feel like and don’t pay too much attention to the clock. I’m making decent time, watching with amusement someone coming up from behind me but never quite catching me.  About a mile from the aid station, I come up to Don Meyer.  Don’s reduced to a walk at this time, and he doesn’t look very good.  That’s not saying he looks horrible – a lot of ultrarunners won’t exactly be GQ material at any given point in the race. But Don’s obviously having some troubles. I stop and ask if he needs anything, as I have a good number of energy gels, antacids, salt tablets, extra water, etc.  Don declines, but he seems haunted, and, knowing what that’s like, I stop and walk with him for awhile.  Don was walking just fine, but was obviously in pain, but seemed fit to continue, and was in no danger of hurting himself.  He’s thinking about dropping, and although he’s much more of a veteran than I, I urge him to at least give it ten or twenty minutes to think it over, and plant that annoying seed that almost always works with me (from experience):  you’ll be kicking yourself later if you don’t finish, you know.  He urges me ahead, and I go ahead to the aid station, grabbing my camelbak, sitting for two minutes (Heaven!  You have no idea how good sitting is until you’ve sat after running 40 or more miles!), and grab some bean burrito wraps while Don walks in.  Don rummages through his drop bag, gets some gear, and heads back out of the aid station before I do – he’s determined to finish and, since he’s not entirely tracking right, I decide to join him.  It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I’m doing what I love, and it’s nice to have some company.  Besides, I can tell Don’s a good guy, and I am a bit worried that he might miss one of the many turns in the course.  Plus, walking alone when you’re hurting gives your mind all sorts of time to figure out ways to kid yourself into quitting, just to make the pain stop.  The trick is in ignoring your brain at such moments.  I catch up to Don in a few minutes, and let him know I’m walking in with him. He protests a little, as he knows I want to get in under twelve hours.  But I’ve done the math, and figure that we can walk in in under thirteen easily (which is when darkness settles in).  I think he’s happy that I’ve decided to join him, though, and I’m happy to have good company.  The last ten miles don’t exactly fly by, but talking about ultras, running, family, religion, politics, vegetarianism, places to live, etc. make them a very enjoyable ten miles, even if it does take us 3:20 to cover them.  Heck, I don’t mind.  It’s not like the ultrarunning community is that large, and it’s always good to have more friends who do these things – I even discover that I ran with a good friend of his at Le Griz for awhile the previous year.  One huge topic we keep coming back to is – why do we run ultras?  Part of it’s the community, part of it’s the challenge, part of it is the excuse to travel – for me, mostly, it’s the ability to do something as simple as putting miles under your feet in an extended fashion – it’s a very ancient and pleasant human binding with the earth.  In this modern world, you could dig up one of my ancient ancestors and they would be able to grasp what it was that I was doing.  Ultimately, Don’s thankful, though I try to downplay what I did, especially as the company was most welcome.  To prove no good deed goes unpunished, though, Don offered to help crew for me if and when I decide to run Badwater.  Yipes. We cross the finish line together in 12:20 and change – ironically, even though with our snail’s pace, only two people pass us after mile 40 (Rob Apple, running ultra #457, I believe he said as he passed), and Anthony Humptage, about a dozen people finish within the next half hour (beating sundown, albeit barely).  I receive a great belt buckle for finishing – and a cactus, grab my gear, give Don my email address, and head back to the hotel.
Sunday saw me with a phone connection still, and a day spent in the hotel room, with a brief excursion back to Madera Canyon to hike to get my legs moving again. (For anyone who runs marathons or longer, this is highly recommended – it’ll be a bit painful at first, yes, but your recovery time will improve dramatically).  I even ran into one runner who came in shortly after me – I need to learn her name, as I knew her previously from the Western States 100 tape.  She was hiking back as I was hiking out, and I guessed correctly that her Miwok 100K shirt identified her as an ultrarunner, not as a bird-watcher. 🙂  My quads were still quite wobbly from the 50 miles of the day before, and tackling a 20 mile hike with over 6000 feet of ascent is probably not recommended for the condition I was in. I was happy to get in a solid, demanding hike and have stronger legs for today.
Monday, saw a late start, a huge breakfast (good to have one’s appetite back), and a very interesting side trip to Pacheco Peak.  I got an early start to make sure I had some extra time to explore – and was glad I did.  There’s a state park right along I-10 for Pacheco Peak, a giant, papoose-type of mountain that rises like a giant, rounded letter M from the landscape.  It’s not too tall, it’s not difficult, and it’s right along the interstate – a perfect place to kill a couple of hours!
Of course, had I known exactly how long and how severe the trails are to get to the top of Pacecho Peak were, I might have budgeted more time. It’s only about 2 miles to the top from the trailhead, but it’s a pretty demanding two miles.  his would be a class 3 climb except that someone bolted cables into the mountain at specific spots, making this interesting peak accessible to about everyone with some endurance and sure-footing.  I make it to the top in about 45 minutes and back down in 30, and will happily circulate pictures to anyone who wants them – the view of literally thousands of acres of cactus was one I had never before seen. For me, it was the perfect cap to the weekend.  After all, part of why I’m in shape to do ultras is so that I can do hikes like Mt. Pacecho without thinking twice.  I hope this report helped you understand why I do ultras a little bit more – I know I’m always a bit flummoxed when people ask me, as there are so many reasons and none of them, by themselves, ever seem sufficient, or even real – their explanations are as dreamlike to me as the thought of running a single mile was – and still is – to me. Some things will stay in a dreamlike state, and you can never explain them, or nail them down with however many carefully chosen words. But you know what? Just because something is seemingly ethereal in nature doesn’t make it less possible. Trying to pin down something so ethereal, by defining it, doesn’t make the path to accomplishing it any more evident. You simply have to jump into that dreamlike state and do it.  
Next race is the 25th running of the American River 50 April 3rd in Sacramento, then the Ice Age 50 Miler in Wisconsin May 8th – followed by my first attempt at a hundred miler June 5th on some of the same trails as Ice Age.  Anyone in the Chicago area is welcome to come up and cheer/pace me on – I’m shooting for a very modest 28 hour finish.  Cheers! – Jason

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