This was my second visit to Pagosa Springs - each time to run a race. In June this year I had run the Turkey Tracks Half Marathon and really enjoyed the single track trails, the rolling terrain, low key atmosphere of the race and was impressed by the race management / volunteers.
Having never run a 50K before I was quite unsure as to how I would handle the distance, but I had prepared well in training for it, having had lots of time on my feet, running 3 marathon distances over a 4 week period of training and spent a lot of time getting vertical training. I had figured out fueling and fluids in training also - so going into the race I was feeling quite prepared.
Even the 27 degree temperature at the start wasn't too bad - I had planned accordingly with layers of clothes to drop at aid stations on the way. My upcoming gall bladder surgery had little impact on training or during the race.
So, at the race start I was quietly confident that things should go reasonably well. For the most part they did - with a very bovine exception. Cows are not my favorite critters right now. In fact at the end of the race there was grilled hamburgers and even though I am not supposed to be eating ground beef to set off my gall bladder - I ate a burger with great satisfaction. More on the bovines as this report unfolds....
The 6:30 am start time was more dark than light - but the race began along a dirt road for almost a mile before swinging on to single track. By the time we reached that it was light enough to see. Of the 60 or so starters I settled right in the middle of the train of runners - settling into an easy and slow rhythm. We ran along smooth single track for the next mile - fairly flat. If only the rest of the course was this smooth.
We turned back onto the road briefly and then turned onto a rugged fire road. Footing became a little more difficult due to it being mostly a mix of loose rocks of varying sizes - we began steadily climbing also, but the changing elevation wasn't noticeably hard. It was the rocks of varying shapes and sizes that were just everywhere though - so any rhythm was lost. I kept working and within a mile had reached the crest of the hill and in doing so had passed several other runners.
As we crested the top, the fire road we had been on now adjoined another fire road - and this one was much less filled with the rocky scree. For the next 6 miles an approx. 1700' gradual descent allowed me to ease back into a better running rhythm - all the while being careful not to push too hard as there was a long climbing section soon to be encountered.
10 miles into the race the low elevation point (7100') came and with it the first obstacle I was not prepared for - a stream crossing. It was about 15' wide and at least a foot deep, with no way around it but through it. Being in a valley now, with heavy frost on the ground and wet feet it would have been easy to have some negative thoughts, instead I just pushed on with now squishy feet.
Ahead lay a 7 mile stretch of single track with over 2800' of elevation gain. I expected it to be not too terribly bad compared with what the Barr Trail has for the first 6 miles of the Pikes Peak Marathon. I thought that way going into it any way.
Introduce the bovine factor into the race. I was born in New Zealand - so cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and other farm animals were part of my life growing up. Almost all farm animals are domesticated down under - meaning they are fenced in to rolling meadowed countryside. Apparently in this part of the planet they are set to roam free during the Summer - and not just in the fields - but also the forests. It was on race day that I discovered that I never knew that cows liked single track trails as much as I do.
Add in the large amounts of rain in the past weeks, including rain, sleet and snow the day before the race - footing became ridiculously hard. What was frozen now became mud and the hoof-prints of the cows made the footing completely unstable. For the next 15 miles any hope I had of trying to run steadily was gone. But everyone else was experiencing the same conditions - if I wasn't having fun - then I figured not too many others were thrilled either.
At 13 1/2 miles I almost caught up to a guy as we entered the 2nd aid station. I dropped off my hat, gloves and long sleeve shirt to try a have less weight. My shoes were anchored in mud though. The people at the aid station told me I was now in 10th place. Wow, I had passed more people than I thought after the initial mile. Thoughts of a top ten finish now entered my mind. It was still a battle to be positive and not depressed by the tough footing - but a potential top ten finish was helping the mindset a lot.
A mile after we left I passed the other guy and moved into 9th place. The sun was now causing the footing underneath to really get sticky, so as I continued uphill oftentimes I would slide completely backwards, I resorted to grabbing tree branches and pulling myself up some of the steeper spots.
After 6 miles of going noticeably up I had slid up into 8th and then for the next mile the course took us out of the trees and across a high meadow. This allowed me to see another runner about a 1/2 mile ahead - but also a bunch of cows. I yelled at the cows something along the lines of "I can't wait till you're hamburgers!!"
The next mile continued up as we traversed across to the high point of the race (9976'), I gradually began to gain on the guy ahead of me but by the time I got to the high point we were now back in trees and began heading down so I had lost sight of him. We now had a 4 mile downhill stretch that was a snowmobile trail of sorts, with a lot of trees down across the trail it made for some hurdling experiences. About 2 miles into the downhill I caught and passed the next runner. Now I was beginning to think I may be able to get into the top 5.
Aid station 3 came at mile 20 - the volunteers there told me the next 2 runners had left at least 5 minutes before I did. So I took a little extra time at the aid station to fill my water bottle and grab some extra food. Just as I left I heard them cheering for the next runner coming in - but I knew that it was the guy that I had just passed and he was slowing.
2 more miles of downhill followed by 2 1/2 miles of nagging uphill over fallen trees, muddy trails and the sound of cows mooing close by - but not close enough to see - this was a quiet part of the race for me. The final aid station at mile 24.5 came out of the blue - I had been running by myself almost all morning and then all of a sudden I came upon it with a half dozen volunteers. It was good to see life forms and I snapped out of a bit of a trance.
At this aid station the course splits - 50 milers went one way, 50 K'rs the other. All had started together and run the same course to this point and the race rules were clear that a 50 miler was allowed to drop to 50K at this point. I asked the volunteer where I stood. 1 runner had gone the long distance - 5 were ahead of me heading for home. The 2 runners were ahead of me by 5 minutes I was told.
I really wanted to get into the top 5. 6th didn't sound as good to me. What did look good though was there were no signs of cows to be seen - and the next 4 1/2 miles was mostly downhill. I was hoping to be able to get some time back on the downhill - but we followed another old fire road that was strewn with many more downed trees and rocks that were lying in wait to grab an ankle. So I couldn't really open up the gas much - despite wanting to and feeling capable. But at least it wasn't muddy - and the cows had not been here. The descent increased and I managed to get some speed however and caught and passed a guy. I was now top 5.
As the downhill was nearing an end we crossed a road. In the previous years - apparently the course finished on this last 6+ miles of road. This year the race directors had found a trail to have us run on. So we crossed over the road and headed down into a valley.
I think I may have preferred the dirt road after I experienced this so called "trail". The trail was a narrow game trail that ran alongside a stream - that then crossed the stream, only to cross it again, and again - we crossed it a half dozen times. Mud, water, climbing over trees. Rinse and repeat. This last 6 mile stretch was going to be tough - but little did I know the first part was the easy part. Then the tough part came.
I caught 4th place guy just before we came to the last stream crossing. I made an effort to look like I was strong and charged passed him - crossed the creek and then discovered the trail went vertical - as in - straight up.
Checking my GPS data post race this was a stretch that was just over 1/4 mile - that gained about 250' of elevation. B-R-U-T-A-L-L-Y T-O-U-G-H. I told the race director at the finish that if he had a shovel at the top of the hill I would have used it to dig a hole and bury myself in it. 28 miles in to the course and then a quarter mile of energy sapping misery. It was almost game over.
But I had passed the guy at the bottom of it and was determined to not let him stick with me on the incline. My slow stagger upwards apparently was faster than his and when I got to the top, I couldn't see him behind me. 3 miles to go. I was spent. I ate the rest of my food trying to find some energy. It took me about a mile to get moving faster than a shuffle. I was nervous he was going to catch me. I knew that I had no chance of catching up to 3rd place. At this stage though I was just wanting to finish.
I kept plugging and after going through a bunch more mud I finally saw the finish line. A very welcoming crowd cheered me in and I crossed the line with a time of 5:42:12. Good for 4th place overall, 1st in my age group and first Master.
It was a day of firsts for me. My best race result ever. A truly demanding course that required a lot, that took a lot - but all in all I was glad I did it and now a couple of days later - has left me with a desire to do another 50K in the near future. It will be one with no cows.