I caught up with Bronwyn Rittner in her motorhome at a gas station in Walden after leaving work at lunch on Friday afternoon. She was going to be providing me with a warm shelter on wheels as well as race day crew support as I attempted my fourth trail ultra in Ft. Collins the following morning. Some veteran runners might think that being crewed at a 50-miler is unecessary but Bron's aid proved to be indespensible at Quad Rock, especially as rain fell and temperatures dropped into the 30s the evening before the race. She had secured a campsite within 20 minutes of the start area and after dinner and last minute preparations, we retired early in anticipation of the 5 a.m. start time.
The bright sunlight, casino-like location and multitude of people should have been a clue that things were not as they seemed, but I still panicked as I frantically looked for my race gear. Nothing was where it was supposed to be! I panciked more. Who is this person laying down where I laid my gear just hours before? Why is my dog here? I couldn't answer the questions. Why is there now a child wearing a leash where my dog once was? Now, I see the motorhome driving off in the distance and I run to catch it but soon lose it in the crowds of people that have materialized. I panic more. I'm going to miss the start! Damn! What is happening? ...and suddenly, I wake up. It is dark. My alarm then goes off and I realize I have been dreaming and it is now 3 a.m. race day morning. Relief strikes me and I quietly laugh to myself. I already miss my now-pregnant wife-to-be and want to call her and tell her about my dream but it's too early. It's going to be an interesting day.
Bron prepares breakfast and I drink some coffee. Outside, the rain has stopped and the ground is wet and it is very cool so I dress appropriately for my run. We arrive at the start area a little after 4:30 a.m. and as I pick up my race number I notice elite ultrarunner Krissy Moehl is working the registration tent. I think to myself how cool it is that ultrarunning is still so small and intimate that it isn't uncommon to see the best in sport volunteering at a race (I later saw Krissy working an aid station and, again, running back to the start area). Without any fanfare, the race begins and about 200 runners head off into the morning darkness to complete a 25 mile loop through Lory State Park and Horsetooth Mountain Park, at least once.
Only minutes into the race, we turn onto single track trail, headlamps guiding our way, and I get the feeling that I will be pulling over into the bushes before anyone else. After less than 2 miles of running, the notion turns into a certainty and I find a quiet spot, turn off my light and descreetly let nature run it's own course. By the time I rejoin the race, I've fallen back to near the end of the pack but it doesn't bother me in the least as I am determined to run my own conservative race and know that I have, literally, all day to see where I stack up. As the sun begins to come up, I find myself working my way up past a couple of groups, never working too hard, but still able to make some progress with regards to my overall position. Still under 4 miles into the race, the climbing begins on single track, so I patiently fall into line behind about 20 people and find a hiking groove. The morning light reveals beautiful pine trees and rocky trails that snake steeply up the mountainside but any views into the distance are obscured by thick fog. As we climb higher, frost and a little snow cover the plants and rocks. After a while, we hit the wide trail up to the Towers so I surge past the group and then return to a steady hike, climbing up into the cold cloud layer. Nearing the top, I strike up a short conversation with a Ft. Collins runner who tells me he is going to his son's soccer game after he finishes his 25 mile loop. It makes me think about my own future child and fills me with happiness as I press upwards. At the aid station, I don't linger too long but I make sure to have my water bottle topped off and grab a handful of food to eat. I've started eating a gel packet every 45 minutes to help keep my energy up. After Towers, we begin the first descent and I manage to pass a few more runners as the field stretches out. Again, I maintain a steady, even pace. It's much colder than I expected it to be but not quite as wet. I hope that it will warm up as the day progress, though, so when I reach the next aid station, Horsetooth, I decide to drop off my gaiters, change shoes and, optimistically, change into a short sleeve shirt, grab new gloves and eat some food and chat it up with Bronwyn a little bit. I easily spent several minutes in the aid station before leaving feeling refreshed.
The next leg was another climb back up to Towers via a different trail. The climb was another steep one and I'm sure I hiked almost every step to conserve energy. On the way up, I catch a few people and one of them is Steamboat runner, Mike Hlavecek, who has finished several ultras including last years Leadville Trail 100 in just over 22 hours. I have the utmost respect for Mike's endurance and know that if I pass him, I'm probably going too fast. We strike up a conversation and we run the next downhill leg together until we arrive at the Arthur's Rock aid station at mile 17.6. Again, I take my time and I see Mike take off. It occurs to me that I should be meeting Bronwyn here but when I don't see her, I assume it was the next aid station or something. So, off I go on a long 7.4 mile leg back to the start/finish area at Soldier Canyon. (Later, she tells me that I had beat her to Arthur's by five minutes.) I'm still carrying a couple of gels but it also occurs to me that I was supposed to pick up a little more food from her (and, maybe, a long sleeve shirt). I still managed a good pace on the leg but as I made it back to Soldier Canyon, I begin to feel my energy fading. Before I hit the aid station, though, I am lifted by the comic scene of a fellow runner going outbound on the course again and proceeding to vomit just 20 feet in front of me. His moment of abject misery dwarfs mine and I laugh to myself and I run into Soldier Canyon.
Once at Soldier Canyon, I spend a good 10 minutes there getting readjusted, eating some potato chips and sweets and refilling my running vest with gels, beef jerky and some Clif Bloks. I empty my shoes of rocks and really feel refreshed and ready to tackle the second lap as I head back out.
On the climb out, I maintain a steady hike, rarely running, and catch several runners, including the "vomitter", another guy moaning in pain and limping, as well as few people doing well but just moving slower than me. It's another 7.4 miles back to Arthur's, a climb and descent, but it goes super well for me. Hiking up, I eat the entire packet of Clif Bloks and the beef jerky. On the descent, I run through the woods on a cool, rocky trail and have moments of pure bliss, engulfed by the joy of running smoothly through a clouded, frosty wonderland. It is a pure runner's high. As I arrive back at Arthur's, I'm stoked to see Bronwyn there and she relays the story of her getting there after me. Again, I take my time, drink some miso soup and refill all my bottles with water and Gatorade. I change my shoes, again, although it wasn't really necessary and leave after a few minutes, ready for another 1600' climb back up to Towers.
At the beginning of this leg, my feet hurt a little and I'm afraid that my shoe change was a big mistake. It also feels even colder as I hike upward into the clouds again but my forward motion is enough to keep me warm and my feet start to feel better by the time I reach Towers. Again, I top off the water bottles, grab a couple cookies and shove them into my pockets and eat a handful of gummy bears and I'm off, down the mountain another 1600' to Horsetooth. The downhill treats me good again but I decide to change my shoes, yet again, once I hit the aid station.
At Horsetooth, I lingered a full 10 to 12 minutes, drinking more miso soup and eating a turkey and rice burrito that I had prepared for the race. I change up my footwear one last time and chat it up with the aid station personnel, one who even suggests a cool name for the baby. Clearly, I'm just having a great time at the event and not even thinking about racing for a fast time or place. Leaving, I'm amazed at how good I feel so late into the race so I just stick to the plan and power hike all the way back up to Towers for the fourth time of the day.
After going up to Towers, I met a couple of hikers on the way back down. They ask how far we are running and when I tell them 50 miles they are both amazed. I look at my GPS and tell them that I am at mile 45 and I've been going for 9 hours and 55 minutes. As I move on, I realize that if I hammer the last 5 miles, I might be able to break my own personal best time for 50 miles so I finally let myself go and begin to run hard for the first time all day. I reel in a couple more runners and really can't believe how fast I'm able to run so late in the race. I press and press my effort the final two miles, trying to catch two more people in the distance before the finish but can't close the gap before the race ends. I cross the finish in 10:42:57, a new 50 mile PR by 10 minutes. I can't help but think that if I hadn't spent so much time in the aid stations I could have finished nearly a half hour faster than I did.
Overall, it was a great training run and learning experience. The race volunteers were awesome, the course was well-marked and ridiculously hard. Bronwyn's help was top notch and much appreciated and I can't wait to team up with her again in July for the Leadville Silver Rush 50, where I think I will push hard for a sub-10 hour finish.