Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Redemption at Old Pueblo

It's a fair statement to say that I've had Old Pueblo on the brain for the greater portion of 3 years now. After a DNF in 2014 (yes, the year of epic flooding), I would have raced in 2015 but sat sidelined with an injury. Fortunately, I was allowed to roll my registration over to this year and the time had come to dance with the devil that had dented my spirit.

First, let me just say that I wasn't thrilled with the course changes. I caught wind that one of the mining companies had reactivated their claim along the course and rendered the roads/trails as private property.  Sometimes these things are inevitable so there's no use crying over it - but the idea of running 2 loops of the same course for 50 miles didn't really get me excited. I decided to let it slide knowing that the weather conditions were expected to be awesome (e.g., warm and no rain!).

Course location

Loop 1

What started as an unusually warm morning at Kentucky Camp (high 40's?) would make for ideal running conditions for this first loop. The sun crested the mountains of Coronado National Forest at about 7 am highlighting the faint dusting of snow still present on Mt. Wrightson off in the distance. A reminder of how awkward the temperatures and weather can be in this part of Arizona.

Without much fanfare, we would follow the jeep roads for a fair portion of the first loop. Granted, there were sections of the course that hopped onto the Arizona Trail but in summary, I'd venture to say that the course is 3/4 Forest Service roads and 1/4 Arizona Trail. Here's some pros and cons I contemplated during my time out on the course:

Forest Service Roads
  1. Easy to follow, minimal marking required
  2. Very smooth in quite a few places
  3. Very rocky in quite a few places
  4. Easy to get into a rhythm on long stretches
  5. Minor ATV traffic, some campers in case you get into trouble
Arizona Trail
  1. Best views of the course (especially after Melendrez Pass)
  2. 95% of it is pristine, runnable single track
  3. Remote sections were overgrown with grass and cat's-claw (ouch!)
Course profile with aid station locations (approximate)
In summary, my first loop felt great as the temperatures started to rise. Soaking in the newness of the course, I was being somewhat aggressive with the climbs and taking advantage of ALL the downhill and/or flat sections of the course. I found myself running A LOT! There were a couple climbs that gave me pause but for the most part, they're short-lived and immediately provide a welcome downhill or flat stretch to regain your composure.

If memory serves, I would return back to Kentucky Camp just after 11 am to replenish my pack, get spritzed with sunblock (again) and head out for my second lap.

Loop 2

All morning I had been plagued with what I can only describe as an elevation headache. It wasn't bad nor was it debilitating but it was there...a dull pressure at my left temple. Just annoying enough to make me doubt my stamina and whether I could keep going. It's a looong 9 miles to the first aid station leaving Kentucky Camp - especially after a marathon. I would fill my pack with ice and water to make sure I could arrive at Melendrez Pass in one piece.

In case you're wondering, a pack full of ice and water at elevation after 25 miles on a 2% incline feels like it weighs 50 pounds. I might have been wheezing for a while but eventually, I got used to the additional weight and started to get into a solid rhythm.

Now I'm not going to lie - it was warm out. Was it blistering hot? No...but warm enough that hydration was an issue for some folks. For perspective, I was going through 2 liters of water every 6 miles...and went pee once.

It wasn't until I got to the Gardner Canyon aid station did I realize that I would be close to finishing around the 11-hour mark. Right as I was leaving this aid station, a volunteer mentioned I was in 8th place...and the 7th place runner was about 2-3 minutes ahead of me. Anyone that knows me will tell you that yes, I'm naturally competitive - more with myself than anything (or anyone). I left that final aid station with the notion that finishing around 11 hours would be a great goal.

So I ran.
I ignored my blisters.
I downed one last gel.
I focused on the finish line.

Eventually, that 7th place runner would come into sight. I felt like I was gliding over the final stretch of jeep trail leading down to the final turn onto the Arizona Trail that would deliver me home to Kentucky Camp. Words of encouragement were exchanged as I passed him - not a primary goal, but a welcome boost of satisfaction. Looking at my watch, it would still be very close if I wanted to finish under 11 hours (notice how that goal changed!).

Turning on the Arizona Trail, it was everything I could do to quell my anticipation and the need to see those Kentucky Camp buildings. A comfortable run turned into a full 10-minute-per-mile-sprint :) Crew started to dot the side of the trail and I knew I was getting closer. Applause and cow-bells rang out as I closed in on the final 1/4 mile. Of course it's rocky and uphill but I didn't let that deter me. Still sprinting and pumping my arms, I shouted and rejoiced as I glimpsed the race clock - 10:59:19.

Had I fiddled with a gate or stopped to tie my shoe, those precious seconds and a sub-11 time would have passed me by. Funny how those things work...

Catching my breath...
Teen angst
Happy to be done!
The vibe of the race was different this year. RD Bob Bachini has raised the bar and made some impressive changes. While I initially poo-poo'ed the 2-loop course, it is logistically safer and pretty darn predictable for everyone. The swag was way too generous (2 pint glasses and 2 t-shirts?!) and the aid stations/volunteers were top-notch. Thank you to all who made this a successful race.

"That's what I'm talking about!"
7th overall, 3rd AG
Thanks for everyone who supported me along the way and my wife who let's me spend the entire day traipsing about in the mountains...for fun :)

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