Quad Rock 50
In January I signed up for the Quad Rock 50 mile race. This is a local Fort Collins event, on trails I run frequently, run by almost everyone I know, put on by race directors I run with regularly. This was the race I really wanted this year. Then a couple weeks after registering I injured my knee and struggled with the pain throughout the Spring.
I gave up on my hopes of a strong race at Quad Rock. Down but not out, I was determined to participate somehow, even if it meant dropping down to the 25 mile race and walking every step of the way. My training for Quad Rock was far more hiking than running. I spent many hours on the course. I was ready for the long hike in early May. Then the sky split open, poured rain for days, flooded everything, and postponed the race. Sure it sucked for some would-be participants, but it was good news for me. Now I had 5 more weeks to prepare. It was a miracle.
A second miracle followed shortly thereafter. By the end of May my knee was feeling better. I ramped up my running mileage with no ill effects, so I tried a now-or-never long run two weeks before Quad Rock. Success. I’m going to run this damn race.
My expectations were pretty low. I mean, this is a really tough course with six mountain climbs totaling close to 11,000 ft of ascent and descent. I figured best case scenario was to simply complete the 50 mile course under the 14 hour time limit. There were many other (worse) scenarios I didn’t particularly care to entertain. If I could (mostly) run the first 25 mile lap in under 6 hours I was confident I could hike the entire second 25 mile lap (if I had to) in the remaining 8 hours.
I started near the very back so I wouldn’t face the urge to jockey with fast runners at the beginning. The first few miles felt super easy. 2 miles in we turned off the wide dirt road into single track and I really truly experienced my first ultra conga line (a solid line of runners moving the same speed with no good opportunities to pass or be passed).
This was the real test of my patience. I passed. Mostly.
Part way up the first climb the single track gave way to the wide Towers Road trail where I was free to move at my own pace again. We were all hiking up the steep trail, but I was moving at a faster pace than most others around me. I spent so much time hiking this Spring that this felt pretty effortless.
At the top of the climb we hit the Towers aid station for the first time. I refilled my bottle and began the descent down Spring Creek trail. Midway down I got caught up in another conga line (is that supposed to happen on downhills?). Again my patience was tested, and again I sort of passed.
At mile 10 I reached the Horsetooth aid station where Melissa and Will were waiting to see me. One mountain climb down, five to go.
I took a few moments to put a bandaid on my left heel where I was developing a hot spot that seemed likely to turn into a blister. I wore the same shoe + sock combination I’ve worn for many, many miles without problems… but today I had a small problem. Fortunately it never got much worse.
I was pretty proud of myself for having the self control to start the race so conservatively, so I promptly ran almost the entire way up Horsetooth mountain after leaving the aid station. I probably should have been walking more.
I have to say, things were going pretty well at this point in the race. I felt great. I wasn’t even remotely fatigued. It wasn’t super hot yet. I was eating and drinking well.
Another trip to the Towers aid station, followed by a rapid descent of Mill Creek trail and I made it to the mile 17 Arthurs Rock aid station, where, once again, Will and Melissa were waiting to see me.
I still felt good. Two mountain climbs down, four to go.
The Howard trail switchbacks are interminable. I mostly hiked at a quick pace, with a bit of running thrown in.
Once I reached the top it was back down the switchbacks on Timber trail, followed by a completely unshaded final few miles down to the start/finish area. It was getting pretty hot by this point in the day. While the first 17 miles of the race were pure joy, I was starting to notice all the downhill miles wearing on my knees (both of them). I slowed down a bit to ease the pounding a little and that seemed to help.
Three mountain climbs down, three to go. Will and Melissa greeted me after 25 miles. Will showed me a sign he made for me and his drawing of the planets. It was adorable. I replenished my food and drink supplies. I put on a bandana around my neck with some ice in it to cool me down. It was really hot. A lot of the people coming into the start/finish turnaround weren’t going back out.
My legs weren’t cramping or sore, but I didn’t have much power left. While I could still run the flats and downhills, I knew there was no more running uphill left in me. Still, I moved with a purpose. There was no stopping. Every moment I wasn’t moving forward was just that much longer I was going to be out there.
The second lap is run in reverse, so it started with a long unshaded climb in the heat. Furthermore, I was passing all the runners who were still coming down into the start/finish area. At the first aid station of the second lap I began to see the carnage from the day’s heat. There were three guys sitting on the ground next to the unattended table of water jugs. They were out of the race, but they still needed to get back to the bottom of the mountain somehow.
I ran the descent and made it back to the Arthurs Rock aid station where Melissa and Will were waiting once again. I didn’t spend too much time there. I wanted to get this over with. Four mountain climbs down, two to go.
The next climb up Mill Creek was possibly the low point of my race. It was incredibly steep. I was hot. I was thirsty. I was no longer moving (even walking) at a good pace. I was just barely moving forward. When I eventually reached the top of the seemingly-endless climb I was greeted by enthusiastic volunteers at the Towers aid station who had a kiddie pool full of cold water for me to dunk my head in. It was glorious.
I ran much of the way across West Ridge trail and then down Horsetooth Rock trail to the mile 40 Horsetooth aid station. The descent was a bit slow on account of my knees, but I was still in one piece. Five mountain climbs down, one to go.
I really wasn’t looking forward to the last climb up Spring Creek trail. It’s not super steep. I can run up this trail. But not today. Not right now. I walked almost every step of the way. For the first half of the climb I had a buddy to share in my misery. We never said a word to each other, he just walked two steps behind me at the exact same speed for a couple miles. Eventually another runner passed us (running!) and my buddy left me for the faster guy. C’est la vie.
At the Towers aid station for the final time the enthusiastic volunteers game me a popsicle, which absolutely made my day. Just one more painful descent, then a few miles in the valley. Oh God, the valley. The hottest part of the course. I didn’t know if I could handle it.
Then came the final miracle of the race. The moment I hit the valley, the clouds moved in for the first time all day. I wasn’t getting pounded by the sun as I had feared I would be.
Just after leaving the final aid station, with about two miles to go I took a quick glance behind me and saw another runner about 100 meters back and closing. And I did what had to be done. I ran a mile faster than I had run the previous 35. Another look behind showed nobody in sight. Crisis averted.
Melissa and Will saw me approaching, and Will ran beside me to the finish line. It was done. A month ago I couldn’t run 3 miles without pain, and now I just finished the most difficult 50 mile race of my life with no major problems.
There was massive carnage in the heat. Some runners who registered for the 50 mile race dropped down to the 25 after seeing the weather forecast. Of the 95 that actually started the 50 mile race only 43 finished it. I somehow ended up 13th.
All photos of me taken by Melissa.