The car's thermometer read 59 degrees. That was at about 5:15am when I rolled into Bear Creek Lake Park for the second annual running of The Bear Chase, for my 6:30 start. Ya, kinda early, but I didn't want to be late. It's my first race and I'm not really sure what to expect. It's a beautiful clear morning, with a light breeze putting some nip in the air, and a crescent moon laying on its back low in the eastern sky. A photo would not have done it justice. Good thing about getting there early - sweet parking spot. Front row, about 20 feet from the start/finish line.
Things are still getting setup so I'm not exactly sure what to do at this point. There aren't a whole lot of people around yet. So, I started to putter around in the back of the car with my drop bag (packed the night before) and my gear a little bit. Figure I'll get my shoes (Merrell Trail Gloves) on, sunscreen up, get my race shirt and bib on, and walk around with my headlamp to take in some pre-race ambiance. Nipple band-aids, some toe tape, and Lanacane anti-chaffing gel were applied well in advance at home so that’s covered. It's nippy like I said, so I pulled on the 'tube socks with the toes cut out arm warmers' (awesome idea Chris!) and the cheapo Walmart disposable gloves. I find the 50mi drop bag area, 10 feet in front of my car, and the port-o-johns. Not much else to figure out really. So, I listened to some A7X in the car, made a couple of pit stops, positioned my drop bag and waited. At 6:15 I downed a Salt Stick cap, a Clif Mocha Shot and finished off my 24oz of PowerBar Perform. I strapped on my Camelbak Delaney Plus loaded with enough GU Roctane, Hammer Perpetuem Solids and Salt Stick Caps to get me to mile 25 and clipped my hat onto the belt. I was ready and anxious to get rolling.
By now things were in full swing. There are a ton of people about, and anticipation was building in everyone. A nervous excitement was in the air, or maybe that was just me. Morning is just kind of getting started and it's still pretty dark but dawn is starting to break from behind Mt. Carbon. It's no longer dark enough for headlamps so no need to drag that along. I talk a little bit to the guy standing next to me at the back of the corral. We're both first time ultra runners. He asked me about my Trail Gloves asking if they were minimalist and if I was wearing socks or not - which I wasn't. We wished each other good luck. When the announcer asks how many first timers’ there are quite a few hands out of the 80 participants go up into the air - mine being one.
You know, I don't even remember if there was a bang, or a countdown or what exactly to start the race. I just remember thinking - "Stick to the back; Ease into it; Keep your HR down; Run the tangents if there are any; If it feels like you're going too fast or working too hard, you are." The front people took off amidst lots of hooting and hollering and I started out in a crowd of slow walkers at the very back, which turned in to slow jog, and into an easy pace. It was on. My first real race, and it's a 50 mile ultra at that.
Habitually checking my Garmin for pace and HR I notice my HR is about 220. WTF?!? Well, I know it's just my HR monitor acting up at least, or interference from other HRM's around me maybe. After a while it sorts itself out I'm in the low 150's. Beauty. 1st mile clicks by at 11:40 pace. Feeling good, and I figure I'll speed up a little bit, but keep it in check since I've felt awful during training my last two weeks. There's a guy just up ahead of me running with a girl and he's jabbering non-stop to her. If that's his thing then cool, but it’s got me kinda got me irritated since I was hoping to enjoy the silence of the morning and really only wanted to hear the rhythmic foot-steps of the other runners around me.
That first mile and a half heads due west from the start/finish. Beautiful trails winding in and out of green, lush, canopy with the sounds, and occasional sight, of the creek next to us. The leaders had already done the 180 degree turn after a quick bridge crossing and were heading due east again. I would catch a glimpse of them every so often across the creek and through the trees. They were moving - fast.
It's only 3.2 miles to the first aid station from start/finish, but I had had enough of the talking before I hit 2 miles in. So I gave a courteous; "I'm going to pass you on your left" and never saw him again. I guess I expected there to be a certain ‘feel’ during the race and I wasn’t getting that. Call me high maintenance I guess.
Other than my plan to take a GU Roctane every half hour, and a Salt Stick Cap every hour, I also had a plan to drain 24oz of liquid (either H20 or PowerBar Perform or combination of those) in the distance in-between each and every aid station. Seems like a lot of liquid, almost 100oz per 12.5mi lap, but they were calling for an 86 degree day and no cloud cover at all. It was going to be hot. On top of that, I'd estimate that only about 45% of the course provides any shade. The other 55% is totally exposed with no cover. I'd have to stay on top of keeping hydrated. That meant never letting my mouth get dry and monitoring my urination frequency and the color of it. I also wanted to take in a bit of food - potato chips, pretzles, watermelon, bananas, etc., at every aid station. I'd been having problems with my stomach for weeks, whether running or not running, and I wanted to keep food in there to try to keep it settled. Any stomach issues would probably end my race early I suspected.
|Before the 1st Aid Station|
Before even getting to the first aid station, where I ditched the gloves and arm warmers, I had settled into a comfortable pace behind an older guy in a Bear Chase 2011 tech shirt. He'd been in the rear pack with me earlier. I thought "Man, this guy’s form isn't very good. I hope he makes it." We were moving at a 10:15 - 10:45 pace now and I never though about passing him up. I was comfortable right now. He had no belt or fuel with him that I could see, a hat tucked into his shorts, and a handheld bottle. Nothing else. About a mile after the aid station we had to cross a small bridge where there was a manned timing mat. Well, the guy there went absolutely nuts! "Marshall!! Marshall Ulrich!!! We Love you Marshall!!" He ran along side us lavishing lots and lots of praise on 'Marshall'. I knew that there was an UltraMarthon, Adventure Racing, Legend named Marshall Ulrich running the race today, but had no idea that I had been tailgating the guy for the past few miles, and negatively critiquing his form! What's extra funny for me is that my buddy Chris told me that he ran with Marshall (ya, first named basis now) during his first 50mi ultra! Small world I guess. We ran mostly together until the aid station at mile 10.1 where I forged on ahead and didn't see Mr. Ulrich again. Checking the results it looks like he dropped out at the end of the 3rd lap. We had exchanged a few words during our run together, mostly about how beautiful the day was, but once I knew who he was, I knew I had a cool little story about my brush with fame and left it at that. Quite a few people recognized him, and he was always very cordial with them. Seemed like a class act to me.
Before that 10.1 mile aid station, we had climbed Mt. Carbon, done three creek/river crossings, and gone through an aid station at 7.8mi. Now, Carbon isn't all that high - something like 220' of vertical climb but in only 0.4mi, so it's pretty steep, footing is loaded with loose rock, and I saw no-one running, or even jogging it (though I'm sure all the top guys and gals ran it). The descent from there is narrow single track with lots of loose junk on the trail, but you can make pretty good time here and it's a welcome relief from the slow climbing. From there you enter a scenic wooded area, where the three water crossings await you. The water is cool and refreshing but now there are the squishy shoes to deal with. The Merrell Trail Gloves shed the water fairly well and I don't have socks to deal with. I'm golden. A quick turn north from the water takes you to the 7.8mi aid station. Fueling and hydration is going well, and my urine is good. I take on food, top up my empty bottle with half H2O and half PowerBar and head out to what I will now call the 'soulless' part of the course heading west - 7.8mi to the 12.5mi start/finish.
|1st Lap Water Crossing|
From 5500' at the 7.8 aid station, you're now exposed to the elements, just like on Mt. Carbon. You continually climb, with a few miserable ups and downs in there, past the 10.1mi aid station to the highest point on the course at about 5800' somewhere around the 10.6mi mark. From there it's mostly downhill back to the start/finish, but still with no tree cover and a good mile of single track that seems like a foot deep, foot wide trough cut out of the dirt, with baseball sized rocks strewn throughout. I crossed the line in 2:18:31 - a decent pace for me. I'm happy with that effort.
I have a drop bag at the start/finish, but I don't need it yet. My feet are feeling fine in the Trail Gloves. I've got no chaffing, my stomach is perfect, and my fueling and hydration is spot on. My HR is still in the 150's and I'm feeling good. I think it was here that I stopped with the PowerBar and went just with H2O for the duration. I was getting overloaded on sweet. Lathered up more sunscreen, grabbed some pretzels and banana chunks and off I went.
Now, on the first lap, I had been running with people, or had people fairly close in front or behind me the whole time - but now - crickets. Literally. Total silence and solitude, except for the crickets. Suddenly it felt like one of my 3am training runs, except that it was light out. I think I encountered 2 people over the next 3 plus miles. At the 3.2 aid station there was a runner/gopher/volunteer this time - a teenager asking what I needed - just a refill on my bottle - which he handed back to me once I arrived at the station. I thanked everyone for volunteering and supporting all of us, which I had done at every aid station previously, and everyone hereafter. I have to say that the volunteers were just awesome during this event! I have nothing to compare it to, but I don’t see how it could have been done any better!
I noticed as I was leaving that my bottle was only about 2/3 full and contemplated turning around to top it up, but I was already on my way. I would just conserve it. I made a mental note to remember next time to really top up and to even take some extra swigs before leaving the aid station on the next lap since it was 4.6mi until the next station. A little bit too far for comfort considering the mounting heat. The other stations are 3.2mi, 2.3mi and 2.4mi in between only, so 4.6mi was stretching it.
The rest of this lap there was little to report, other than maybe the speed walker / gazelle leaper runner that I kept encountering ever since we started out this morning. He would speed walk, then doing this bounding running stride, then speed walk again. Over and over and over. And if he wanted by someone, he was going by them at all costs it seemed! I was a bit disappointed in lack of etiquette in general after asking Chris what to expect, but it is a race after all I guess. I gave myself a quick systems check at mile 16 since on my last long training run, that's when my legs started to struggle. I was good this time though. I got to the 7.8 station ready for liquid knowing I had stretched it. I think this is when I ran into Matt - the guy I talked to at the start who was doing his first 50mi as well. He was struggling with stomach issues and was slowing. Things looked grim for him.
This is where I hit the port-a-john on the first lap - but not this time. Hmmm.... Off for the soulless section to get back to the start/finish. This is where the mental and physical struggles began. At mile 20 my legs started really feeling it. My pace is slowing and I'm doing about 13:00 pace now. I know that my wife and girls are waiting for me at the line and know that will give me a boost. I grind through to get to there at exactly 11:30am. Five hours - 25mi - a 2:40:29 lap, only 20 minutes slower than my first. I'm happy with that, but my pace is slowing and I know it.
|Half way there...|
As I approach I hardly notice the cowbells and people cheering - where's my family? I'm scanning and scanning the crowds, but I can't find them. I had felt some emotion coming on on my way down the hill to the line in anticipation of seeing them, but now I wasn't sure what was going on. Quick thinking – “Get to your drop bag - restock, check your feet, beware the chair, and get moving. They're probably setup just down the trail picnicking - you'll see 'em.” But now, I feel like I'm really struggling. Two more laps of this!?!? I just don't know if I can do it. Then, Diana is right in my face. "When did you come in?!? We've been watching and listening for you! Let me go get the girls!" I told her to bring them to the side of the course since I couldn't go to them. The tears started as soon as I saw them walking over and calling 'Daddy!' I fought so hard to bottle them up so that the girls wouldn't get concerned. They had made me some awesome little signs at home that morning to cheer me on and showed me them. I gave them big hugs and kisses and we had a short chat. I told Diana not to come back for the finish. I explained that I was struggling and wasn't sure of the outcome. I didn't want my girls to see daddy as a big mess at the end - if I could make it. I had to get moving and so I bid them farewell and set off on what was going to be the hardest physical thing I've ever gone through...
|Laps 1 & 2 - Pace / HR|
|Laps 1 & 2 - Elevation / HR|
The water crossings provide some relief for the legs, and I soak myself good. Just have to get up the hill to the aid station. Still no urine and I'm doing 16:00 pace'ish now. "Just get to the line and you can pretty much walk the last lap; Don't give up; Get to that tree down there; Get to that gate; Think about people that know you’re out and are cheering for you; Keep the legs moving; Keep going; Keep going; Keep going."
I turn to comedy for support now. I keep thinking of some movie lines from Step Brothers - just stupid juvenile stuff - but it gets me laughing. And the Brooks Running commercial where one guy is running and the other is in the van lending support. "Tell my kids I love them!" "Karl, you don't have any kids...". That helped me kind of 'check out' during the 'soulless' section of the course that I now pretty much hated with a red hot intensity. Matt had caught up again at this point and had his stomach troubles behind him. Said he was feeling good again. Good for him, not much help for me. Really the only issue I was having now was tired, screaming sore, legs. My longest run before today was 26.2mi. I was slowly approaching 37.5mi now. I notice the girl with the pack and tattoos coming in the same time as me but most things are a blur at this point. That lap took me 3:10:30. 30 minutes longer than the last lap. Things are getting worse. At least I was 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff time required to start the last lap.
|3 down - 1 to go...|
I knew at this point that I had 3 hours 50 minutes to do the last 12.5mi. I still wasn't 100% confident that I could do it - but I was going to do everything I could to get it done. One aid station guy was telling a story; “The girl came in and sat down. I asked her if she needed anything. She hesitated… finally said “Nope, I’m pretty much done.” Got up and walked away.” Crazy. I debated a change of footwear to conventional trail shoes but decided against it. My toes on my right foot were all blistered, but I felt nothing. No pain. I taped 'em knowing that I had to. I taped the other foot too and my left heel. Matt had taken up a chair behind me and told me he was on pair of shoes number four! Wow. I felt that my hydration was back on track, fueling and salt was good, but man, I was sick of GU Roctane and so I tried some Honey Stinger Chews... Ugh! WAY too sweet!! Abandoned that. I had done three Hammer Perpetuem Solids Tabs somewhere on lap 3 and abandoned those too. You need about 8oz of water to choke just one of those 'tabs' down. I'm getting set to head out when tattooed backpack girl appears right in front of me; "Let's get going. We're going to finish this together."
It was tough getting up and heading out, but it was way easier than if I had to do it myself. We walked for a while to get the stiffness worked out and would kind of jog and walk, walk and jog. Can't call it running any more really or at least it didn't feel like it. We were doing about 15:00 pace so it could have been much worse I suppose. My compatriot in pain was Joanne McKay from Denver. We chit-chatted along the way with each of us alternating with 'OK, let's jog this section for a while.' We talked about how we were both slightly nauseous – though she seemed worse than me. I was dreading every single GU Roctane gel that was still to come, but still needed. She had a good support team there, including her boyfriend who drove out to meet her at the bottom end of Carbon to cheer her on. I told her about losing it when I saw all of my girls at the mid-point. We had some good conversation and it most definitely helped.
Being smarter this time, I filled my bottle at the top of Carbon. Not sure if it would have helped me on the previous two laps but it sure would not have hurt! It didn't seem like there were too many people behind us at this point. I know now that 26 of the 80 starters had dropped out by this point already, and only seven people would finish behind us. One of those was a guy we found sitting on a log. He was toast. Joanne offered him some ginger chews to help his nausea but he was done. He had done 42 miles but couldn't go on. We had to keep moving. We finally hit the water with a couple of other people. Everyone there just sat down up to our waists letting the magical water cool our aching legs. Three several minute stops to do that were totally worth it. Finally at the 7.8 station I was able to urinate - not a good color. Less than 5 miles to go now though. The toughest 5 miles I've ever done.
The soulless stretch seemed to go on longer than ever and be steeper than ever too on this final lap. We were talking a lot less now it seemed and we each were taking turns leading us forward. It was nice that the sun was finally getting lower in the sky and it was cooling down. I don't think the heat really bothered me as much as it did most of the other people though it seemed. My feet now though, had become very sore. Not because of blisters, but just from the 45 miles of pounding in minimalist shoes. Several people on the first lap commented on them and I didn't see anyone else wearing any. One guy asked; "How do they feel after 30 miles in 'em?" My response: "Dunno. I've never gone that far before. Guess I'll find out today." And that I did. My feet felt like hamburger now. I kept doing calculations on what pace we needed to maintain in order to make the 12 hour cutoff. When we reached the 10.1mi aid station, we could do a 20:00 pace and make it in time. We knew with 99% certainty, barring disaster, that we'd make it... And so would speed walker guy, because he was hot on our heels! I later found out that Chris has raced with guy before. He’s an old-timer that’s been in the ultra scene forever. He told me that last year, he got passed by him in his last mile of the Leadville 100!
My goal now, was not to let speed walker get in front of us. I don't know why exactly, because my only competitiveness from the get-go was against myself, but both Joanne and I kept a close watch out for his position behind us. With less than a mile to go we knew we had it in the bag. We'd have some time to spare. That last 2.5 miles was the worst ever though - twice as bad as the 2.5 before it. I started to hope that Diana and the girls would actually be there to cheer me in, and I could feel tears building again. There weren't a lot of people around any more and Joanne sped off ahead at the end to meet her boyfriend and support team who were waiting for her. I crossed the line at 3:30:37 for the lap - 20 minutes slower than the last. Elapsed race time: 11:40:14. Chip time: 11:40:05. I got my finishers medal and stumbled to my car. I don't think anyone was even taking pictures anymore.
|Laps 3 & 4 - Elevation / Pace|
"Daddy's home!" More tears... I couldn't have done it without them.