“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” – Mario Andretti
Race: Tushar Trail Race
Distance: 93K (~57 miles)
The pull of the mountains is unrelenting in the summer. Following the Bryce 100 I found myself atop six fourteeners, repeating Boulder Skyline peaks and getting humbled on the Hardrock 100 course when a 28 mile training run devolved into a 7 hour hail and scree-marred adventure. Most days I was out longer than I expected, covered less ground than I had hoped to and generally felt crushed after these outings.
The Tushar 93K is the final event in the Grand Circle Trail Series and having run in every other Grand Circle event in 2016 I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I am also planning an attempt on the Uinta Highline Trail in September and figured this would be an ideal training event for that endeavor. After scoping out the course, elevation profile, previous reports and last years finishing times my “A goal” for this event was a 14 hour finish which would likely land me in the top ten based on the entrants list – lots of familiar and fast folks.
I arrived on Friday with 20 minutes to spare before the drop bag cut-off, threw my bags of chews, extra layers and extra socks in my plastic tub and finalized my race prep before crashing out in the camper.
4 am, the loneliest hour of the day and I am up (though still under the covers), eating a breakfast of Honey Stinger Chews and Nuun as I throw on my race day kit in the warmth of my fiberglass walled castle. I carefully pick my way across the muddy field, clouds obscuring the galaxy swirling around us in the sky and I enter the warmth of the registration yurt. Numbers are checked to see who is actually starting, a final reminder is given that this race doesn’t care about you and that you can drop to the marathon distance at the second aid station if you want to. If you drop after that it will likely be faster if you crawl to the finish rather than waiting 5+ hours for a ride out. The forecast says it will rain, there might be lightening. The flagging might get eaten by cows and elk. There is a 4,000 ft climb at mile 42.
Matt Gunn counts us down and the headlamp conga line rolls out into the mist. My mantra today is to “race smart and run with heart”. The running with heart thing isn’t supposed to happen until mile 42 so I plug in some tunes and settle into a nice easy pace. After about 5 miles of rolling hills my feet are soaked from the dew-laden lupine and innumerable creeks that are brimming with the previous days precipitation. The trail appears and disappears, stitched together with pink flagging, eventually dropping us on a road at the Alunite Ridge aid station. I have kept count and know that I am in fifth place at this point as I drop off my headlamp, fill up water and head up the hill towards Alunite Ridge and Delano Peak beyond it, though the clouds are keeping everything hidden for the time being. I reach back to grab my trekking poles and fumble in disbelief as I only find one attached to my pack. I think for a moment of going back to the aid station to see if it fell off there, but I know it is probably miles away. With 50 miles to go I try to quickly shake it off, and am finally free of the mental bummer by remembering that Kirk Apt is a master of the one-pole technique and has finished Hardrock 22 times. I can probably eek out 50 miles in the mountains with one pole.
The landscape transforms into a Scottish Moorland, thick in fog and damp, I navigate undulating ground as I climb towards the highpoint, Delano Peak. I startle and am equally startled by a number of birds and elk on the ascent and with one mile to go I see a runner approaching below me. Andrew Combs quickly catches up and informs me that the lead pack took a wrong turn at the Alunite Ridge aid station and that we are now leading the race. We chat, summit, mark our bibs and play connect the dots as we take turns spotting the flagging in the fog on the descent to Mud Lake.
Andrew pulls ahead and I run alone from mile 14 to 28 as the course rolls through the alpine scree slopes, thick pine duff forests and along abandoned mining roads to the Bullion Pasture aid station. Fresh socks at Bullion, Andrew is about 15 minutes ahead of me and there is a luscious double-track descent ahead. The solitude is broken temporarily as I run down the Paiute ATV trail (with, you guessed it, ATVs) to set up for the Copper Belt Peak climb. I envision myself flowing down the road, running light, easy but prudently quick. Free speed going downhill in the mountains!
Copper Belt is the only out-and-back section on the course when you can see where you are relative to the other runners so I wanted to note how far ahead Andrew Combs was and who was behind me. Just as Andrew passed me going downhill he told me I had company coming up the hill and I looked back to see Darcy Piceu casually running up the hill that I had been diligently power-hiking for the last 3 miles. She passed, said hello and then plugged in the jams and strided up the rest of the climb. I summited, turned around and immediately saw a train of runners coming up behind me. Adrian Stanciu (a master of steady pacing in ultra distance events) was only 5 minutes behind me, Cody Draper was 10 minutes back and a handful of runners I didn’t know were within 20 minutes of me. Having lost numerous races to both Adrian and Cody I knew I was going to be looking over my shoulder for the next 30 miles…
I haltingly ran down Copper Belt Peak, getting energy boosts from every exchange with other runners and even though I kept the effort easy I was not entirely in control and probably rolled each of my ankles 3-4 times each. Luckily I recovered quickly from each incident and since I was already wearing compression socks there wasn’t anything I could really do other than keep running – the pain went away quickly each time luckily, but each roll could have been a race-wrecker.
I power hiked most of the climb back to Bullion, with a few little shuffles thrown in when the grade mellowed. Benedict, Danny and Tiffin all looked in good spirits and would all go on to have successful races – super stoked for all of them. I still had the 4k monster to face and it was still time to just race smart and keep the pace under control. Tony was there to pump me up at Bullion, I reloaded on Honey Stinger Chews, watermelon and water, took a minute to consider grabbing a layer or my headlamp but decided that I was moving well and had enough time to finish in the light.
The long, rolling descent to Miners Creek is spectacular. I passed some backpackers setting up camp for the night, ogled waterfalls that fell hundreds of feet from precariously perched slabs, wove in and out of picnicking families and finally arrived at the Miners Creek aid station. Mile 42, the base of the beast, time to stop racing smart and start running with heart. I haven’t seen Andrew or Darcy, and despite looking over my shoulder more than I should have, I haven’t seen anyone closing in.
The 4k beast began innocently with a nice steady grade along an abandoned road now choked out with grass and lupine, and littered with logged-out deadfalls. Three thousand feet of climbing later I reached a gate and let myself think I was getting close. Turning the next switchback corner the whole world felt like it was falling away as the grade cranked up and I was forced to push on my quad with one hand and use my lone trekking pole for leverage on the other, trading off every 15-20 paces. The road grade eased and even flattened for a few hundred hards, the radio towers at the Mount Edna saddle were within sight, but the pink flagging sharply cut away from the road and headed straight for the talus laden summit of Mount Edna. I spotted Darcy on the ridge above, but what seemed so close was really a good 15-20 minutes away. I summitted Edna, no one in sight behind me and the final aid station, Alunite Ridge was visible just below. Luckily I was mentally prepared from reading previous reports that the trail weaves away from the aid station before finally climbing back up to it. From Alunite there were 8 miles to the finish along familiar ground from the morning. Andrew was 35 minutes ahead, Darcy was 20 minutes ahead. Yes to watermelon, no to soup – I’m gone.
Every hill seems a little steeper and a little longer than it did earlier in the day, but it’s hammer dropping time and I’m running everything except the steepest hills – chasing the spectre of Darcy and fearing that Adrian or Cody will catch me every time I slow down to eat or drink. Two miles out from the aid station I enter a meadow and where there were flags through the trail-less field there is now nothing, no signs of people from earlier, no cairns, no posts. I waste a couple minutes wondering around before I realize I can just use the map feature on my GPS watch to follow my route from the morning. I walk down the hill, across a couple of steep gullies and connect back with the trail. This section would become a nightmare for runners that passed through in the dark, though thankfully Andrew Combs notified the race director when he finished and together we were able to advise Sean Meissner on where to go to remark it before he swept the course. The removal of the flags was so complete that it was probably human intervention rather than hungry cows or elk…a bummer for sure.
The flagging started to appear again along the trail and soon I was cresting the final hill with only a few miles to go. A few pacers passed me going the other way as they ran out to meet runners at Alunite, a couple volunteers were out remarking the trail as it approached the finish and I visualized all of the people that had wished me well/were rooting for me as my legs burned with every stride. The slumbering ski lifts appeared, the final muddy hill and the distant sound of cowbells beckoned me on. One final look over the shoulder, and then I let gravity take a turn holding my lone trekking pole as I came to a stop.
I only realize that it is raining when I stop running and before I can start to process my finish I have to take care of myself. Back to the camper, fresh clothes, Nuun, Nutella tortilla, chips, salad, potato, fruit, water. I waddle back to the finish line, hug Tana, pick up my fourth podium vase for the season, and pick out a sweet wooden ladle crafted my the Tarahumara. 13:23, 3rd Overall, 2nd Male and 20 minutes behind Darcy Piceu.
I head into the warm yurt, chat with Andrew Combs, report on the missing flagging section and find myself lingering around the finish line more than usual despite the heavy rain. It’s a bittersweet ending and I don’t want to say goodbye to this place, these people or this amazing year running the Ultra Adventures Grand Circle Trail Series. This is a magical place and these people have such a deep love for all of the gems in the Grand Circle. Everything is steeped in Matt Gunn’s integrity. Adrian finished a great race in 3rd place, Cody Draper battled a gut revolt and altitude sickness for a proud finish and when the cowbells started ringing I would cough and whoop from my fire-side haunt, amazed by the things people are capable of every time someone crossed the line.
So many amazing people have made this season one of happiest times of my life. Thanks to Jess for supporting me, keeping me in check, and for showing me what a strong work-ethic and adventurous spirit looks like. Thanks to my family for their encouragement, crew support and turbo trumpets. Thanks to everyone that races, volunteers and supports the Ultra Adventures Race Series. Matt Gunn, Matt Anderson, Tony, Tana, Cory, Toby and everyone else that pours themselves into these epic, sustainable and community driven events are onto something wonderful. Thanks to everyone that has wished me well, said a kind word in passing on the trail or shared time on the trails with me. Thanks to coach Paul Giblin for his training wisdom and encouragement to go for it in the face of failure. Thanks to Pearl Izumi for their support this year (the custom arm warmers were amazing!), Swiftwick for making sure any lost toenails are purely my own fault, Honey Stinger for making dangerously good Chews, and Nuun for making sure those dehydrated miles are few and far between.
Cheers to the 2016 Grand Circle Trail Series!
A bit of kit: Pearl Izumi Fly Endurance Shorts, Pearl Izumi Team Jersey, Swiftwick Aspire Twelve Socks/Swiftwick Colorado Vision Socks, BOCO/nuun Run Endurance Hat, Smith Approach sunglasses, Black Diamond Sprinter Headlamp, Black Diamond Carbon Distance Trekking Pole
s, Pearl Izumi Trail N3 shoes, Ultimate Direction Groove Mono and AK 2.0 Vest, iPod shuffle and Yurbuds, and a steady diet of Honey Stinger Chews, Nuun, watermelon and a dash of Coke.
Favorite Song of the Race: A Tribe Called Red – Stadium Pow Wow (If this doesn’t put a pep in your step I want to know what you’re listening to).