Thursday, November 30, 2017

2017 Indian Creek 50-Mile Race Report

Back in April, I wrote a brief post about my desire to move up from the marathon distance and begin exploring the world of ultra running. Shortly thereafter, I planned my 2017 race season, which would culminate in an attempt at my first 50 mile event: the Indian Creek Fifties, hosted by Human Potential Running series.

Why I chose Indian Creek Fifties
There's no shortage of fifty milers in Colorado, so why did I opt for Indian Creek? It came down to a number of factors that, when combined, actually made the decision pretty easy.
  • The Timing Was Right - I had a few work obligations that prevented me from racing in September, and the weather in Colorado is actually pretty damn nice in October anyway.
  • The Course Was Exciting - Coming from a road marathon background, I wanted to run a true mountain ultra. IC50 is a beautiful romp through Roxborough State Park and boasts nearly 9,500 ft of lung-busting vertical gain. Every step of that race is a climb or a descent. Nothing is flat. Perfect!
  • The Event Itself Was No Gimme - Race director "Sherpa" John LaCroix makes a point of saying that runners will face a ton of adversity during the event, and, from what I could tell, he wasn't exaggerating. The aid stations are spread out* (at least for my limited experience), there are stretches of trail with residual flood damage from 2013, and did I mention the vert?
The exhilaration of putting in my credit card number and clicking "Register" was a rush, but it quickly faded into a chilling thought:

"Oh crap. What have I gotten myself into???"

Ultra runners are dudes with beards who live in their trucks and cover 100+ miles per week in the mountains, and here I am...this short, stocky road runner who is lucky to run 100 miles in a month! I'm the guy who chows down on pepperoni pizza while reading ultra-stud Scott Jurek's vegan manifesto. My favorite part of Ultra Runner Podcast is when they talk about beer! 

I was a suburban wannabe, and I had just committed to a 50 mile mountain race.

"Shit. I better get training."

Training Leading Up To The Race
On top of everything else, I had created a goal in my head: I wanted to finish the race in under 12 hours, conditions permitting. Achieving that goal would require a level of consistency that I had never mastered as a runner, but I was excited to give it my best shot. I aimed to push my boundaries every time I laced up my shoes, which led to a lot more fun than I'd anticipated!

On my days off work, I would browse Trail Run Project and look for routes that sounded fun. One of those was a muddy June slog around the High Lonesome Loop Trail, which tops out above 12,000 ft in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Another time, it was the Boulder Skyline Traverse, which, as Peter Jones later pointed out to me, I had foolishly undertaken on the hottest day of the year. In years past, I would never have even considered outings like these! But fear and ignorance turned out to be amazing training partners, and the more I suffered, the more confident I felt. My heart, my legs, and my spirit were growing, as was my weekly mileage. I only maxed out at 40 miles in my peak training week, my nutrition was garbage, and I wasn't doing any cross-training, but I felt great about the journey. I felt like an ultra runner.

The Race
My crew chief (a.k.a. my amazing wife Alex), my pacer Will, and I got a hotel room in Castle Rock the night before the event. Will is a bartender at a local brewery, and he and I had grown into friends and training buddies over the Summer. The Indian Creek Fifties allows 50 mile runners to have a pacer for the final 18 miles of the course, and Will was stoked to be along for the journey. We had a big, noodley dinner while I pored over my pacing charts and aid station details, and I slept like a brick that night. Not surprising. As Alex can attest to, I tend to sleep well in most circumstances.

The pre-dawn drive to the starting line was about 30 minutes up a twisting canyon road, but we eventually arrived to the chilly starting line and I got checked in with the race volunteers. The wind is notoriously strong in Roxborough State Park at 5am, so we huddled in the car while I double checked my gear. Among other things, I was using:
  • Nathan Vapor Air Hydration Vest w/  a 2-liter bladder.
  • La Sportiva Akasha trail running shoes.
  • Balega Hidden Comfort moisture wicking socks.
  • Garmin Forerunner 230 GPS Watch w/ heart rate monitor.
As for nutrition, my plan was as follows:
  • 1 Gu packet every 30 mins.
  • 1 SaltStick tablet every hour.
  • Some "real food" and a cup of electrolyte drink whenever I hit an aid station.
  • Drink water to thirst.
When I was certain I had everything I needed, we left the heated comfort of the car and shivered toward the starting line for a pre-race briefing from Sherpa John. He's as passionate as they come, and he shared some rousing words about overcoming adversity that the day was sure to present. Before I knew what hit me, the race had begun. I fist bumped Will and gave Alex a kiss, and began my journey into the unknown.

The race starts right off the bat with a healthy climb. I made sure to power hike the ascent rather than try to run up it, knowing that my legs would be toast if I tried. I watched other runners motor up the hill, unsure whether I should be amazed by their fitness or amused by their folly. Ultimately, I chose to mind my own damn business and run my own damn race. Smart choice.

The climb gave way to a beautiful downhill bomb-fest just as the sun first started to creep above the horizon. I opened up my legs on these early downhills to make up a little time on my slow climbing pace. The legs were feeling healthy and fresh early on, and there would ultimately be more hiking later, so I figured what the hell. Things were going according to planned...

...until I got to the first aid station and realized that I had made a terrible mistake.

I had assumed that there would be gels at the aid station. I had assumed that they were pretty standard fare. But you know what they say about what happens when you assume...

The aid station was packed with tons of food, but no gels. The realization dawned on me that, since I had only brought a handful of gels to the race (stupid), I was going to have to severely modify my fueling strategy for the day. Time to improvise. This is that adversity that Sherpa talked about. Let's do this.

My plan switched to eating a couple hundred calories at the far aid station, and then stuffing my vest pockets with enough Oreos to get me to the main starting area, where I had a few more gels waiting in my drop bag. I would still have to be conservative with them, but I could make it work. I would have to.

Adversity reared its ugly head again on the second loop, when the fatigue began to set in and the climbing began in earnest. Mile 27 marks the start of a particularly memorable stretch: 5.5 miles and 1600 ft of relentless uphill grinding. It doesn't sound all that dramatic when you take it out of context, but when you're halfway through your first 50-miler, staring up that hill can be a real bear. This, for me, was where the mental game started coming into play. The 50k runners, who had started their race later in the day, began zipping past me looking fresh and strong. The midday sun seemed hotter somehow. It was rough. 

By the time I made over the hill and back to the start/finish area to begin the final loop, I was more than ready for Will to join me on the trail and lift my spirits. Alex refilled my hydration pack, I stuffed my face with aid station snacks, and Will and I set off for the final 18 miles. I was still moving pretty well, so we were able to keep up a good trot.

I can't begin to describe how wonderful it was to use a pacer for the end of this race. There are plenty of folks who prefer to run solo, but that ain't me! At least not for this race. Having Will there just to chat with as I grinded through those last miles was so crucial. He kept me out of my own head when I was getting negative, and he whooped and hollered alongside me as I found spurts of energy and motivation. With 5 miles left, when it became clear that a sub 12-hour finish was probably out of reach, I turned to him and said, "Buddy, I don't think sub 12 is happening today. I'm sorry."

"You're doing great pal," he assured me. "Don't even worry about it."

A minute or two passed.

"You know what?" I said, "Fuck that! Let's go get it!"

"YEAH!" he shouted, "THAT'S what I'm talking about! You're an animal!" We both charged up the final 1400' climb that lead to the finish line.

That valiant uphill effort lasted.... oh, probably 20 seconds before my lungs and legs pulled my hopes right back down to Earth, reminding me that I was 46 miles into the longest run of my life and I was climbing a damn mountain.

With a quarter mile left to go and the evening sun sinking into the horizon, we passed through the parking lot and rounded the corner into the finishing area. Though the final couple miles were mostly hiked, I stubbornly broke into a jog once we crossed into sight of the volunteers and spectators of the finish line. No way was I gonna walk it in now.

Twelve hours and twelve minutes after I had set out, I crossed the finish line of my first 50-mile race.

Holy. Crap.

Sherpa John was there, and I gave him a monstrous hug and thanked him for organizing the event. He congratulated me and handed me a badass clay finisher's pendant handcrafted by a local artist. I collapsed into a camping chair, and a volunteer handed me the most delicious bacon cheeseburger I've ever tasted. Will and I cracked a couple beers as the sun set behind the Rockies. As the temperature dipped and the cold began to settle into my tired bones, I couldn't help It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

I missed my time goal, but I crushed my "experience-some-really-hard-shit-and-come-out-the-other-side-a-stronger-person" goal. And I'll take that any day. If you'd like to dive into the nitty gritty details of my day, you can check out my Strava activity.

Oh, and I can't say enough about how well-organized the event was, particularly the generous volunteers! They trudged all that food and drink uphill into the woods on foot! Unreal.

If you're exploring mountainous ultras and looking for a relatively small event with a ton of heart, you've found your race. Indian Creek checks all the boxes and brings the adversity in spades.

Go get lost in the woods and find yourself.

~JVB

*EDIT: Looks like there's been another aid station added for the 2018 IC50!  Sweet.

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