Trails of Glory

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Race Report: Aravaipa Running - Mesquite Canyon 50K, Saturday March 22, 2014

I woke up at 3:30am the morning of the race to drive to White TankMountain Regional Park in Waddell, Arizona, 173 miles from my house in Vail, Arizona. The 50K start time is at 7:30 so leaving the house at 4:15 was necessary to arrive there by 7am and get ready. The sun started to rise on the White Tank Mountains while I was still driving west on I-10 near Avondale. I had never given much thought to that big range west of Phoenix during past trips to California. Now those same mountains held many mysteries as to what I should expect over the next several hours of trail running.
One of the coolest things about being part of Team Aravaipa this year, besides my awesome teammates, is that I have experienced several new mountain trails that I never knew existed in the Phoenix Valley. I pulled into the overflow parking lot just in time to pin on my race number and stash my after-race bag. The temperature at the start is already in the low 60s with a forecast high of 82 degrees. I line up next to Jane Larkindale and her husband Jim Holmes, both of whom also drove up from the Tucson area. Jane won the 50-mile event last year. She like many other runners are here to get a good training run in for Zane Grey 50M in 5 weeks. I'm here to ramp up my race distance in preparation for Crown King 50K in just 2 weeks.
My plan was to do a training 50K on this semi-mountainous single-track trail. I use the word semi because the highest elevation is around 3200 feet and the toughest climb on the course is 1700 feet over 3 miles. No drop in the bucket but definitely not alpine. One logistical factor of note is that there are 9 miles without aid or water between miles 4 and 13 and returning from 13 to 22. This prompted me to use a 70 ounce hydration pack. I also carried a 20 ounce hand-held for electrolyte fluids. I did notice several runners only carrying 2 hand-held bottles. I’m not a big hydration freak but knowing that the course is exposed on a sunny 80 degree day made my decision easy. Luckily there were light breezes up on the higher trails as well as some wispy clouds to take the bite out of the direct sunlight.
I have been regularly training in the Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail shoes and wore them during the race. They seem to be holding up well at over 300 cumulative miles. The week prior I used the Rapa Nui on the 21 mile Esperero Loop in Tucson, gaining 5,000 feet in 8 miles and then mainly descending over the next 13 miles. My quads were abnormally sore for four days after that run and I was concerned the Hokas were losing their magic. It turned out that it was just Esperero being difficult.
I clicked my Garmin on but made a conscious decision to not look at my time during the entire race. I started off at a conversational pace for the first two miles. After reviewing the elevation profile I knew somewhere around mile 3 would be the start of a 7-mile 1600 foot gradual ascent. The profile looks worse on paper than it feels while actually running. After some initial short steep sections the trail is very runnable even on the gradual uphills. I don’t mind walking up hills when needed but the majority of the uphill through Mesquite and Slick Rock canyons is doable even if only in granny gear.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
By mile 5 the field had thinned out and I focused on bodily feedback while enjoying the beautiful desert views. The trail ascends along canyon walls and as you get higher the views of the surrounding valley are expansive. Thankfully we got a good soaking of rain a couple weeks ago; the wildflowers were in full bloom and very fragrant. Jeremy Dougherty caught up with me on the last mile of ascent on this section. We chatted about how great the day was turning out. After topping out at 10 miles the course drops precipitously for 2 miles through an obstacle course of ankle twisting rocks. Jeremy’s ability to negotiate the downhill was better than mine and he quickly disappeared ahead of me. The first 30K runners coincidentally were halfway up their ascent from the Black Canyon aid station.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
The descent into Goat Canyon is a preview of the climb back up from the 13-mile Black Canyon aid station. By the time I reached the turaround and aid the temperature at 1500 feet elevation was noticeably warmer than up on the higher trail. This was especially evident running through the sandy sections on the way back into Goat Canyon and climbing out to the top-out at mile 16. Occasionally as I passed other runners on the uphill I noticed several were sweating profusely and taking breaks. This served as a good reminder to ingest a couple of electrolyte caps.
Speaking of nutrition here’s how my day went. I carried 5 GU salty caramel gels and only used 3 of them. These are delicious by the way and have 20mgs of caffeine. I drank three 20 ounce bottles of Gatorade and a small cup of ginger ale. At the 13-mile aid station my 70 ounce hydration pack was still half full and only needed another 20 ounce refill at mile 22. So in total I drank 60 ounces of electrolyte fluid and another 70 ounces of water over 5 hours. I used 4 e-caps and 600mgs of liqui-gel ibuprofen. I also had about a half-dozen Tums and a single ginger capsule to settle any stomach issues. Oh yeah, I had a small handful of peanut M&Ms at mile 5 and a half of a tortilla wrap at mile 13.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
After topping out at mile 16 on the return to Mesquite aid station, the course gradually descends for 6 miles providing excellent single-track running. Through here I struck up a conversation with Andrew Heard. We both shared our positive experience with the Rapa Nui Hoka shoes. It seems we both found some form of nirvana with the Hokas. After the aid station at mile 22 the next four miles of trail undulates through Willow Canyon. I was amazed by the beauty of multitudes of wild flowers and classic Sonoran Desert vegetation in all of its spring greenery. Then all of a sudden the real adventure began – Ford Canyon.
“Fear the Ford,” I had heard many say before the race. “It gets hot in there.” Ford Canyon is 2.5 miles of gradually descending wash and boulders. It reminded me of hiking through a riverbed and getting to places that you have to backtrack in order to find better passage. Except on Ford Canyon the trail keeps going. I managed to shuffle as much as possible in between climbing boulders and jumping down off of rock ledges. Through 27 miles of the course I had yet to see water until Ford Canyon. There were stagnant pools from previous rainfall. A couple of times I had to splash through pools of water getting my feet wet for the first time.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
(Photo: Giridar Gajapathy)
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
Eventually the trail scrabbled up the side of the canyon and continued for another mile to the Ford Canyon aid station. I thought I had around 3 miles remaining but the aid station volunteers said 1.9 miles to go. This was joy to my ears. I pushed the pace into the finish and for the first time looked at the clock to see 5:19. I ended up in 9th place overall. The first master runner had just finished one minute ago unbeknownst to me.
Overall it turned out to be a fabulous day. The trail had mostly pristine single-track with lots of runnability and an interesting diversion through Ford Canyon. I finished the run feeling great physically, no cramps, nausea, or overheating. Unfortunately I still needed to drive 173 miles home.
Aravaipa Running really does a tremendous job organizing their races; from sign-up to the start line; course marking and aid stations; and the finish line and post-race festivities. Mesquite Canyon is definitely a race to put on your list of adventures.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Makes You Want to Go Back?

What makes you want to go back to the same races year after year, especially when there are are countless opportunities to do something different? Is it the scenery, the challenge, camaraderie, or maybe the great post-race party? Looking back I recall making the comment that I don’t care to do the same things over and over again. But as time has passed I haven't always lived up to that claim. To start with, I have been employed at the same job for 20 years. I have served in the military for 29 years and counting. I did a 100-mile trail race that involved going around the same loop 6 times and I once ran around a quarter-mile track 369 times in 24 hours. Maybe I am a creature of habit.
Repetition is built into our nature. The sun rises, we brush our teeth, drink our coffee, and drive to the same job on the same roads at the same time everyday. These are the type of activities that can make life mundane until we learn to identify the subtle nuances. What most often alters our experience are different flavors and toppings, cloudy versus sunny, rain or snow, beer or wine, wisdom and knowledge, and meeting new people. 
I discovered certain running events to be so attractive that I found myself signing up for them year after year only realizing several years later, “Hey! I’m doing the same thing over and over again. What gives?” Upon reflection I remember what drew me back; the changing conditions, the new friendships, and hoping to improve my time. That’s what this article is about; those repetitive events in life that I went back to more than 3 times and what it was that made me want to go back.
1.  Air Force Marathon, Dayton, Ohio, 4 times – This race is my least favorite of come back races. So why did I continue to go back? The inaugural Air Force Marathon started in 1997 in celebration of the Air Force’s 50th anniversary. They gave finishers a really cool medal displaying a different aircraft every year. The medals are big and the first one had the Wright Brothers aircraft on it. The race was held in mid-September and it turned out to typically be warm and humid. It is a road course with many long straight-aways and a circuitous 10K journey around a very flat airfield. There are a couple nasty hills between miles 21-24 and then you can see the finish line 2 miles away.
That year I was in my marathon running prime and I ran a fast race and finished in the top 5 and won some nice gifts. The weather killed me though and after the race was over I nearly collapsed and spent a half hour laying in the grass and the shade of a vehicle, eliminating the contents of my stomach. Being that the race was new and I had never participated in an inaugural event I thought it would be neat to try and go back every year. You always see these people raise there hand to proclaim they have run all 37 years. And I always wondered how in the world they pulled that off? Well I thought this could be my event. I went back the next two years and battled the humidity of central Ohio in late summer. I finally gave it up but did end up revisiting the race 9 years later when they changed the course to eliminate some of the nasty hills in the late part of the race.
2.  Marine Corps Marathon, Washington, D.C., 5 times – Marine Corps will always have a special and historical place in my heart. It was my first marathon and I was serving in the Marine Corps when I ran it. There are also painful memories associated with that race. I was 19 years old in 1986 and not very prepared for the marathon distance. Previously I had run two half-marathons going back to my junior year of high school. Those were my longest runs. I had been running 5 miles 4 times per week in the two months leading up to the race but had no real long run training. Race day came and after 13 miles I ran into uncharted territory. I made it to 20 miles and hit the wall. I was bonking and my legs began to feel like washcloths being wrung out of moisture. I walked most of the last 10K and eventually finished. I took a hiatus from running after that and never got serious about running again until 5 years later. I revisited the race in 1992 and took nearly an hour off my time.
Marine Corps is held in late October and the weather can be unpredictable; some days are really windy, others hot, and oftentimes very cold. The leaves are changing color and the course runs a circuitous route through many of the Capitol Mall monuments. The finish is up a short steep hill that takes you to the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial. I ran the course 3 more times over the next decade with my last race in 2003. In 1997 it started to rain after the gun went off and never stopped. I always enjoyed walking the Mall the day after the race to get the blood flowing in tired legs. Marine Corps Marathon has become one of the largest marathons in our country capping registration at 30,000 participants.
3.  Zane Grey 50-Mile Trail Race, Payson, Arizona, 5 times – I first ran Zane Grey in 2000. I had 3 other 50-mile races under my belt as well as a few 50Ks and felt I was ready for what was arguably considered the toughest 50-mile race in the country. You had better be prepared when going to ZG; this course will eat you alive and spit you back out if you’re not careful. My first adventure on this course that runs just under the Mogollon Rim involved getting lost off course two different times. I finished in 11:30, the longest time that I had ever run in racing or training. The trail has everything that a trail runner can imagine; undulating hills, rocky unrelenting trail with washed out sections, pine forests, and beautiful expansive views of the desert below. The other thing ZG can have a lot of too in late April is 90 degree heat which makes a recipe for nausea and cramps.
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It took me a couple of years to get the gumption to go back and try ZG again after the first time. I ran the race in 2003 when Bob Redwanc first directed the race. He succeeded in making the race nationally recognized as part of the Montrail Trail Race series. Many of the top trail runners of the day showed up and the day turned out to be highly competitive. I ran what would prove to be my best time of 10 hours, suffering from debilitating leg cramps out of the 44-mile aid station. I used ZG as a trainer race in 2006 prior to my first 100-mile finish at Western States two months later. I truly believe that anyone planning to run a 100-mile race can benefit from what ZG has to offer as far as mental conditioning and body fueling lessons. I actually chose to run ZG two years in a row, 2011 and 2012. I opted to take 2013 off. This is one tough course.
4.  Pemberton 50K, Fountain Hills, Arizona, 6 times – Pemberton has become one of those great races where you will find everyone you know. It is held in early February before it gets warm and usually doesn’t snow. The Pemberton loop in the McDowell Mountains has become very familiar to many people especially since Javalina 100 began several years ago. The race is a two-loop route of 15.5 miles with very little hill climbing all on dirt single-track trail. The race date is perfect as it is a good early year trainer for Old Pueblo 50-mile and Zane Grey later in the spring.
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I first met Brian Wieck, the race director, as a local ultra-runner before he moved to Helena, Montana. Every winter he visits his family in Fountain Hills and directs the 50K. If you are looking to set a personal best or make the jump from the marathon to the challenging distance of 31 miles then this is the course for you. Brian’s mother makes several crock pots of delicious chili to eat at the finish.
5.  Crown King Scramble 50K and 50-mile, Lake Pleasant to Crown King, Arizona, 10 times and counting – Crown King is where I cut my ultra-running teeth in 1997. I had been getting burned out running road marathons and often times during the winters in Tucson I ran the back country trails with my running buddies. One day on a long run a friend of mine, Darryl Wagner, started telling a story about an adventure he had earlier in the year 1995. He spoke of a race that starts on the desert floor at 2,000 feet of elevation at Lake Pleasant northwest of Phoenix. From there he ran up and down dusty roads for 15 miles where the race became drastically more difficult for the next 14 miles. The route turned into rough jeep roads with steep climbs and searing sunshine. At mile 29 he topped out on the course near 7,000 feet of elevation at which point he stumbled downhill for two miles into the town of Crown King and collapsed. This sounded intriguing.
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I signed up for CK in 1997 as my first attempt at a distance beyond the marathon. There are some logistics to consider as this race is point-to-point. My wife Trish dropped me off at the start and then went back to the hotel with the kids and dog before driving to Crown King to see me finish. The race was difficult as advertised. I ran it like a marathon and paid later on the hills. Due to a bit of ultra-running naivety I managed to finish ahead of all other runners but collapsed in a state of bodily shock after the finish line. I vowed never to do that again until the race director Mike Sheedy offered to compensate my entry for next year’s race. The game was on. I went back 8 years in a row.
After 5 CK finishes, I fast-hiked the entire course in combat boots due to a high ankle problem. Another year I decided to do the unthinkable and take on the 50-mile course. The 50-miler starts at 3am on a dirt road outside the town of Wickenburg. After 21 miles the course joins the 50K course and then the real fun begins. I outran the early water stations that morning and ended up going 10 miles without fluids between miles 7 and 17. Apparently I didn’t suffer too greatly as I managed to win the race that year.
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Crown King became an annual party for many of our running friends. Every year a few more people would come up and run or just go to Crown King for the socializing afterwards. We rented cabins in the pines and relaxed for one or two days in the mountains. Trish ran the race 5 times and we managed to convince many of our friends to do their first ultra at Crown King too. The race was discontinued after 2007 and just last year in 2013 was resurrected by the Coury Brothers and James Bonnett. This is really cool to see as James has been a top finisher at the early age of 15 and even outkicked me coming down the hill to the finish. I went back last year and am signed up for April 2014 for my 11th scramble to the town of Crown King.
6.  Kauai Marathon and Half, Kauai, HI, 5 times and counting – Kauai is one of those experiences that grow on you. We had the good fortune to be able to visit the island for the first time in 2009. I had just healed from a hamstring tear a few months earlier and could only safely run the half-marathon. Kauai is nicknamed “The Garden Island” and deserves its moniker. The race starts on the southern part of the island at Poipu Beach and runs a circuit through the Tunnel of Trees at sunrise. Most mornings at 6am there is light rain and a gentle breeze to help you coo off before the warmth of Labor Day weekend.
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2009 also happened to be the inaugural Kauai Marathon and Half-marathon race. It was special to be able to be a part of something new. I ran the half-marathon the first year coming off of a hamstring tear. We traveled again in 2010 when I completed the full marathon distance. Once the course splits off from the half-marathon at 11 miles the marathon course enters into a hilly part of the island away from the coastline. I encountered long gradual hills, short steep hills, and long steep hills. The course goes through small communities on the island and the aid stations reflect a very local flair. After experiencing the full marathon I was hooked. By the way, you can count on adding about 10 minutes to your current marathon time due to the hills and sometimes muggy weather if the clouds break too early in the morning.
When I say Kauai grows on you I mean that after spending the winter in Tucson and experiencing the dry heat of summer, I begin to dream of tropical breezes, cool waves, salt air, and pina coladas. Thus we made the trip back in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Last year’s race came two weeks after completing Leadville 100. It was my slowest Kauai marathon but I still managed to win my age group. The race organizers bestow a repeat medal for those runners who have entered and finished every year. In 2014 I am going for the Six-peat. This really could be the race that someday I can say I ran all 25 years of the race.
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7.  Lincoln Marathon, All-National Guard Trials, Lincoln, Nebraska, 18 times and counting – How to tell the story of Lincoln? I think that all of the details on that one will have to wait for the book. Suffice it to say that nobody does something 18 times unless there is a very compelling reason. Mine was the fact that since I renewed myself as a runner in 1991 I discovered that the National Guard has a marathon running team and that to be a part of the team you have to go to Lincoln every May and compete against all of the top National Guard marathoners in the country. The team selection is renewed annually thus the need to update your status on the team by running the marathon every year.
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The benefits of team participation are many; like traveling to events around the country and representing the team and the military at expo booths and wearing the Guard team uniform in races. After making the team the first time in 1992, my third marathon and my second since October of 1991, I couldn’t wait until next year to go back. It became a family affair where my best friends have been made. Trish has traveled with me many times and ran the half-marathon at least a half-dozen times. I went to Lincoln for 9 straight years before I missed a year. I ran with the Minnesota team for 3 years before moving to Arizona where I eventually became the State coordinator.
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I DNF’d in 2004 due to an injury and missed 2005-06 due to other military training. I revisited the team in 2007 and haven’t missed since. 2014 will be my 19th finish in 23 years. A lot of people think that traveling to Lincoln every year for over 20 years is a bit strange and I couldn’t argue. It is the Midwest and the weather isn’t usually pleasant and unpredictable in the early springtime. It is middle-America though and a good central point for the all of the states to include four territories to travel to. The race course and organization is top notch as well. You won’t find a better supported race anywhere with the community out in full force as well as the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard setting everything up and taking it all down.
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As long as I am a member of the National Guard I will go to Lincoln in order to see if I can continue to make the All-Guard team. Quite honestly, it’s really the main impetus for me to stay in the Guard.
As you can see, what makes me go back is the camraderie, the scenery, the renewed challenge, and the friendships. What makes you want to go back?