On Saturday, I competed in the Sage Burner 50K trail run in Gunnison, CO. I didn’t know much about the race leading in to it, and I took a more relaxed racing approach than in previous 50K undertakings. There was limited course recon available from the host’s website and just a few previous race recaps, so I had to trust my training and manage my pace in the early part of the race.
To get the nitty gritty out of the way, I finished the 50K in 1st place in a time of 4:16:28 with a pace of 8:15 minutes/mile. Oh and the night before the race, I slept in my car in a hotel parking lot in Salida, CO. Thanks for the use of your restroom at 4:30AM, fancy hotel! I had planned all along to sleep in my car the night before the race, and after learning of a fatal traffic accident Friday evening which shut down Monarch Pass – the main route to Gunnison, I was glad to have the flexibility to sleep wherever I wanted to park.
Fast forward to the first few miles of the race: I immediately began adjusting the vague race goals that I brought with me to the starting line. I knew the course would be a challenge with lots of elevation changes and a starting elevation around 7,700-feet, but I always enter a race with this grandiose vision of achieving a personal best and running the most perfect race imaginable. Perhaps this works to my favor, eliminating the fear and dread that others face leading up to race day. Though my confidence always changes abruptly after the starting gun, as the reality of the task ahead sets in. Here the altitude immediately took a grasp of my body, and I was fighting gravity as I ascended through the rock outcroppings.
I had the pleasure of briefly running with Salomon athlete, Stevie Kremer, as she passed me early on en-route to her repeat 25K victory! I was confounded as she passed me because I recognized her immediately by her running gait! A few days earlier, I had watched this Salomon video portraying how the Crested Butte school teacher balances her running career. It’s such a treat to be able to run with some of the best athletes in the world, right here in Colorado.
The course covered the large expanse of the Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, which is 8,000 acres of federally protected land. The exposed terrain was undulating, with a relentless mix of smooth, single-track bike trails, clusters of rock outcroppings, and dirt access roads. I imagine this land was the home to a glacier field a couple years back. For most of my run I was lost in a daydream about the vastness and remoteness of the land that I was experiencing.
Some people ask me why I pay for races, when I can just go run anywhere on my own. The answer is that there is no way I could have experienced this majestic terrain and scenery on my own. Without the organization, guidance, and support of the race directors and volunteers, I would have never stepped foot on this course due to fear of getting lost, eaten by a giant crow, or running out of supplies.
The scariest terrain on the course were the cattle guards. If you’re not familiar with a cattle guard, it is a grated platform that lies flush with the ground between a break in fencing, usually at an access road or driveway, and acts as a deterrent of livestock escaping the ranch property. For runners (or maybe just me), these are the scariest! Every time I approach a cattle guard, images of mangled ankles flash before me, my body tenses up, and I delicately aim one foot onto one of the grates of the platform. Who knew the toughest part of the adventure race would be the man-made obstacles?
It didn’t take me too long to know that I was going to win the race. After Stevie passed me, I was in fifth place overall, and everyone ahead of me was running the 25K (chasing the prize money!!). While this was exciting and all, the reality was that I still had at least three-and-a-half hours of running remaining. There are many things that can and do go wrong in three-and-a-half hours of running, especially when running on a desolate landscape on unfamiliar trails.
I considered easing off my pace a little bit to try and conserve my body for future races. That idea never really lasted, as my competitive nature always prevails, and I’m reminded how race days are the grounds in which I get to prove the hard work and dedication that I have poured into this sport and my lifestyle.
At around mile 3, I lost 3 of the 6 gels that I was carrying. They just flopped out of the measly velcro pockets of my shorts. This drastically changes things; I panicked. Thankfully, I had utilized other storage options for on-board nutrition including a rear-zippered pocket and my wrist band. Knowing that the course offered minimal “substantial” nutrition options, I had to change my fueling strategy to ensure that I could keep a steady stream of carbs and electrolytes in my system for the duration of the race.
The aid stations offered treats like watermelon, pretzels, and cookies, though these never quite interest or satisfy my needs for actually energy. So instead of a gel every 30-mins, I adjusted to every 45-minutes. Also, I would have to take on a lot of fluids to get the carbs and electrolytes needed to prevent bonking. Despite this uptick in liquid consumption, I still didn’t feel hydrated enough after the finish, so it was good that I focused on hydrating more than normal during the race. I did eat a few salted pretzels and watermelon slices at the later aid stations as I filled up my hand-held water bottle.
The Last 5
As is often the case in trail races, there are no mile markers along the course to gauge where you’re at or what you’ve got left. I never had a clue what mile I was at other than the rough estimations with each glance of my watch to check the time. It never really bothers me not knowing where I am on course, as I try to refrain from really caring until the last aid station. That last stretch to the finish line is always a struggle.
What I had hoped was the final aid station, in fact was, and the volunteers told me I had “about” 5-miles to the finish. At the time, I was 3-hours & 35-minutes into the race, so I kicked it into gear wanting to finish those last five with vigor. That’s when the mental math begins: the repeated watch glances, the “am I going the right way” doubts, the “I can’t wait to stop moving my legs” pleas, and the “why did that aid station volunteer lie to me, where is the freaking finish line” threats.
The tiredness in my legs really set in, yet the finish line was nowhere in sight. The weather had turned to sleet and what I thought was the last mile, was instead a final climb along a ridge called “Collarbone Alley.” The ridge climbed high enough that I could see most of Gunnison below, though I had no clue where the finish line might be. Many more turns and downhill switchbacks finally brought me back to the finish line, where I was greeted by two of the race crew. I actually had to ask them if they got my time, as it seemed they were busy taking care of other things. They asked me how the race went, told me I looked fresh, and I smugly retreated to my car, utterly satisfied with my accomplishment.
All in all, I could not be more satisfied with my result and my performance. I have gotten faster, stronger, and more informed as a 50K racer. The thought of running a 50-miler this year still looms, however, I’m not sure what I could or would want to change my training routine. I’ve got in a nice balance of November Project workouts, long city runs, and tough foothill trail adventures. This year my ground breaking path to running success has simply been consistent running. Running trails and softer city paths allows me to log more mileage and stay injury free.
Thanks to all who keep me motivated each day, I hope to see you soon out on the trails!