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Pocatello 50 2011
Pocatello50 Race Report
Last year the Pocatello 50 race was cancelled due to a severe snow storm on top of the mountains. My brother Blair and I were caught up there for hours, wandering around, cold and wondering if we would ever find our way out. Other runners had to be rescued off the mountain. It was a real mess, but gave us something to talk about, so overall I think we were glad we made the attempt.
But the thought lingered with me. “Could I have made the 9.5 hour cutoff at the 33 mile mark if the weather was good?”
So on September 23rd last year I drove up to Pocatello to find out. The weather was beautiful, no storms, just me and the mountains. I hit the trail at 7am, confident I would make my goal. At 6:15 that night, over eleven hours later, I stumbled back to my starting point thoroughly beaten down by those Pocatello skyscrapers. I remember thinking at the time, “I gave it my all today. How in the world am I going to be able to shave off over 1.5 hours to make the cutoff for this race?” It was a huge mystery for me but one that I was determined to solve.
Fast forward to Thursday, May 26, 2011. I left Layton at 6:00am to meet the race directors, Jared Campbell and Ryan McDermott to do some race volunteer work. I spent the day helping set up a giant tent and hauling gear from Pocatello to the Mink Creek Campground. It was a lot of fun for me to hang out with the RDs and quiz them about their Ultrarunning.
Turns out that Jared Campbell was the 2010 winner of the most difficult 100 mile race in the US, a race held in Colorado called Hardrock. The Hardrock Endurance race has 68,000 feet of elevation, that’s like climbing straight up a ladder for 13 miles and running 100 miles along rocky trails, and Jared had finished that race in 27 hours! Compare that to the measly 12,000 feet of elevation for the Pocatello 50 and you start to get the picture how tough these guys are. I felt it a great priviledge to be hanging out with them.
That night I pitched my little one man tent and spent a restful Thursday night, watching over the gear and dreaming of Pocatello mountain trail running.
On Friday I drove into Pocatello and spent the morning at the Rec Center, lounging in the steam room and sauna and massaging my legs with muscle rub. The smell of the muscle rub irritated some of the other steam room patrons but I informed them of my challenge on Sat and they became a little more supportive once they understood my objective.
After a refreshing stay at the center I looked up a fellow British South Missionary, Dave Gallafent, a prominent attorney in Pocatello, and we had a great chat for about an hour. I then drove back up the canyon for the Pre-Race meeting and to hang out with the other runners.
The weather was the big worry for the race on Sat. It was looking like an exact duplicate of last year’s race. It had rained steadily on Thursday and on Friday turned cold and started to hail. Ryan and Jared warned all the runners that strict standards would be enforced regarding proper gear for the race. Anyone not dressed appropriately would be pulled from the race, no exceptions. We were all a bit nervous as to what tomorrow would bring.
It rained all night long. I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, full of jitters over what race day would bring. Finally morning came and I got up at 5:00 to get ready. At 6:00 about 100 of us assembled and the word “GO” was spoken. We were off.
I knew I had a slim chance of making the cutoff with the trail conditions that awaited me. In the runner’s briefing the night before they warned us of the long stretches of muddy trails, traversing over steep snow covered section of buried trails, and wading through creeks flowing down the middle of the trail. That would all take extra time. Precious time that I already was worried about and didn’t have.
So I had to do something that everyone knows you shouldn’t do, and that I even warn about, which destroys the race for nearly every runner, “going out too fast”. But I had no choice. Either I pushed it hard or I would face the inevitable DNF. I had to risk it. My rationale was to exhaust every ounce of energy for the first 33 miles to make the cutoff and then worry about the last 20 miles if I did make it. (Yes the 50 mile race is really a 53 mile race)
So off I went, petal to the metal. First mile was 9 minutes. The next few miles were uphill and I ran those stretches. When I would come to the downhill sections I would really push hard and thanks to my Hoka cushioned shoes, I could take long strides on steep downhill sections.
Sections of the run were amazingly beautiful with grass, flowers, trees.
I reached the first aid station at Gibson Jack, mile 8.3 in 1 hour and 43 minutes, which is an average pace of just over 12 minute miles. Pausing only long enough to fill my water bottles I next headed out for Knife Ridge, the steepest climb of the entire race, about 1600 vertical feet in one mile of distance. This was the section of trail where Blair and I had become lost due to the white-out snowstorm that was raging last year. So far, the weather had been cooperating and there was neither rain nor snow to get in the way.
This is just before the top of Knife Ridge.
Because I train 3-4 times/week on steep sections of the Great Western Trail in Layton, just outside our front door, I have developed pretty good climbing ability. Cardio is my strength so I pushed hard to get a maximum advantage on that section. And I did. I passed nearly 10 runners trudging up the mountain. They all seemed surprised, an old guy passing them, but I was cheerful and tried to make little conversations as I passed each one.
Looking back from the top of Knife Ridge.
I reached the summit at the 2:53 minute mark, mile 11.4, and started the long descent into the City Creek Aid Station at mile 17. I arrived at City Creek at 10:07am, 4 hours and 7 minutes into my run. I was right on schedule averaging just slightly over 15 minute miles over challenging terrain.
But a big concern was starting to creep up. Climbing the steep section at mile 11, I began to experience hard cramping in my calf muscles. I knew this was a direct result of pushing too fast. Essentially what happens is that the muscles produce lactic acid waste faster then the body can process it out. The excess waste causes the muscles to cramp. If a runner can’t work out the cramps, his run is over.
There is one trick though that I have learned. Drink lots of liquid. That helps to flush out the toxins and somewhat mitigates the effects of pushing hard. I had planned for that and had been doing that.
In fact that aspect of my run really differentiated me from the other runners. Because it’s hard for me to carry a lot of weight around my waist, I had created plastic inflatable bottles that strapped to my upper arms and held about 30 ounces each. I filled them with Pedialite (an electrolyte replacement drink) and my special formula of running fluid.
The end result was that it looked like I was wearing I/V bags on my arms. I was to catch A LOT of flack over the day for my little inventions. And then I had constructed two 14 oz specially made inflatable plastic bottles that I had strapped to my hands. I was a spectacle to behold. But it turns out that my invention worked and probably was the main effect of helping me starve off the calf cramps over the course of the race.
Back to the race. I only stayed at City Creek long enough to get into my drop bag and refuel my fuel system and then I was off. We had been warned the night before the upcoming section was going to be tough. I had no idea just “how tough” that was going to be for me.
A typical snow field at the top of Cusick Creek.
The trail out of City Creek to the top of Kinport Peak was very challenging with mud, water running down the trail and worst of all, traversing across snow glaciers, slipping and sliding, many times on all fours just to keep from sliding off the mountain.
Slipping and sliding, falling and scrambling on all fours was common on these sections of trail that traversed across steep hills.
This 5 mile section took its toll on me and my schedule. It took me 2 hours and 10 minutes to cross that section and by now I was really feeling a lot of fatigue. I was so happy to finally hit the aid station at mile 22.7, top of Kinport, and get some hot soup and refill my bottles. But now I was behind schedule. The next 10 miles I would have to push hard with a tired body to make the Mink Creek Cutoff at mile 33 in time.
Aid station at top of Kinport Peak.
That next 10 miles into Mink Creek was just putting one foot in front of the other and trying hard not to get discouraged. I knew it was going to be close. My legs were getting “rubbery” and those calf cramps were back. I couldn’t run fast at all, mostly just jog and fast walk. But no matter what happened, I was determined to make that cutoff.
For the next 5 miles the trail transitioned back and forth from snow to soupy, slippery mud. I slipped and fell down a few times but just got a little dirty, no permanent damage.
Long sections of muddy trails was the norm.
The final 5 miles into Mink Creek were free from snow and mud, and a pretty gentle slope, but by now I was really tired so I wasn’t moving very fast. I couldn’t imagine where I would get the energy to go on after Mink Creek. I decided to not even think about it, to just concentrate on making the cutoff.
Finally at about 3:20, 9 hours and 20 minutes into the race, I hit the Mink Creek Aid Station. I was so thrilled to have made the cutoff. I plopped down on a chair and some kind aid station workers scurried around me, bringing me food and helping me refill my “I/V” bottles. In what seemed like just two minutes, Jared the RD came over and said, “You have 40 seconds to get out of here.” I knew what that meant. Either go now or drop out. I jumped up, grabbed a handful of Doritos, and took off. I had no idea how I was going to make it for 20 more miles. I couldn’t even muster a jog as I left the aid station for the climb up to Scout Mountain.
It was 6 miles of uphill to the Scout Mountain Aid station. One mile past Mink Creek the trail turns up a junction and now I wasn’t even seeing other runners passing me going the other direction. I was on my own, trudging along. I couldn’t run, my body was exhausted. I really hadn’t had adequate time to refuel with food and drink at Mink Creek and now I really started to feel it. To make matters worse, I had ditched my snack belt as it was really bugging my hips, so I just had to wait until the next aid station for anything to sustain me. I did have my I/V bottles but by this time my body was sick of the stuff and so all I was drinking was water.
And then it started to snow. I thought, “Oh great, here all by myself, in the middle of a snowstorm, hungry, tired, no food, and can hardly move. What’s next?” Well something great was about to happen. My guardian angel was about to arrive on the scene, in the form of Ross the “Sweeper”.
At about mile 37 I was startled to see someone approaching from the rear. I knew I was the last runner out of Mink Creek so I wondered who it could be. Well it was Ross Flom. The volunteer guy who was assigned to pick up all trail marking ribbons and anything else along the trail, the Sweeper Guy.
It was Great! Ross told me he was going to just stay with me until we finished, no matter how late. He didn’t care. He just wanted to help me finish.
Welcome sight of the Scout Mountain Aid Station.
Wow, what a boost that was for me. New energy flowed into me. My pace started to pick up a bit. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Scout Mountain Aid Station at mile 39. And to add to my happiness, one of my ultrarunning heros, Karl Meltzer, was manning that aid station.
Karl Meltzer is the guy in the blue coat.
As Ross and I were sighted by the 5 man aid station crew they broke into cheers and started ringing the cowbell. They sat me on a cooler and began filling me with delicious hot chicken soup. I had four cups of it. Chips, crackers, cookies, M&Ms…. I was gobbling down anything I could lay my hands on. Then Karl gave me some Red Bull, pure sugar and caffeine, and “Boom” I was back in the race.
Someone snapped a picture of Karl and I together (I hope they send it to me), filled me a little goodie bag and sent us on our way back on the 7 mile return route to Mink Creek.
It was amazing. My body now felt wonderful. I started running and this was when the realization hit me. No matter what happened from now on, I was going to finish this race. There were two guys about a half hour ahead of us and I was hoping to catch and pass them so that I wouldn’t be last. (Of course that hope never did come to fruition)
For the next five miles I was doing great, then the caffeine wore off and I could feel terrible things going on with my feet. My big toe on my left foot was so sore I started limping just to take some pressure off it to ease the growing pain. Something was going on with my right foot as well. But at this point I didn’t want to know. My entire focus was just getting back to that aid station.
At around 8:00PM we arrived back at the Mink Creek Aid Station to prepare for the final 7 miles of the 53 mile run. It had taken a whopping 4.5 hours just to do that little13 mile loop. But time was not an issue at this point. I had made the race cutoff. Now as long as I finished, no matter how long it took, I would go down in the record books as having made it.
I took off my shoes to determine the foot damage. My right sock was bloody and a couple of toes were pretty black. My left big toenail was black and the toe was swollen to about 1.5 times its normal size. I put some tape on those sore toes, pulled on some clean socks from my drop bag and painfully squeezed my feet back into my shoes. That was about all that could be done for now.
I filled up on soup, sandwiches, chips and hot chocolate and put on my headlamp to finish the last 7 miles in the dark.
Ross and I left the aid station at about 8:30. Initially I was limping badly. But I had taken 2000mg of pain killer at the aid station and about 15 minutes later I started to feel much better. I took off on a nice jog…uphill. I held that jog for about 2 miles to the amazement and encouragement of Ross. I was thinking that I would love to be done shortly after 10:00. But that was not to be.
About 3.5 miles into that last leg the wheels started to fall off me. The muscles of my back became so cramped and sore that my body bent over into a permanent posture known as the “Runner’s Lean”. There’s absolutely nothing a person can do about this when it happens. And it’s devastating for a runner on trails. Because it completely messes up your balance.
To make matters worse, that last section of trail was pure mud, full of deep ruts. I would find myself constantly tipping over. Ross had to stay right beside me and grab me when I would start to fall. It was a pretty helpless feeling. It felt like the run was never going to end. To make matters worse, we lost the trail for about 15 minutes and had to backtrack to find where we had lost it.
Finally at about 11:15pm we came out of the mountain trail onto the highway. It was now only one mile to the finish line. Ryan, the RD was there waiting for us to break out of the woods. He honked his horn and flashed his lights. “I’m going back to tell everyone you’re coming,” he said, and was gone.
The last mile was a joyous occasion for me. I was tipped over in pain but I felt invincible. I was going to make it. I had conquered the mountain. Around 20% of the runners, all younger than I, had dropped out. I was the old man of the race. I was going to finish!
As I turned off the Mink Creek highway and headed the last few hundred feet to the finish line I started to run an awkward “leaning to the right” kind of run. It must have looked pretty funny because a number of people asked what was wrong with me. At 17:40:44 I crossed the finish line. About 15 people had stayed around to cheer me in.
It was awesome! I was presented with the “Caboose” award which has a pretty amazing story. Last year one of the guys marking the P-50 course saw a cougar and snapped a picture. The RDs blew up the photo, framed it and decided to give it to the last person in. In their view that last runner would put out a lot of effort to make it. I don’t think they were disappointed in their expectation.
So there you have it. Another successful race by the seat of my pants. I won’t kid you, it was hard. But I loved it! Every minute of it. Even the tough times felt like heaven to me. I love being outside, challenging myself. I am so grateful that I discovered this amazing activity before I was too far “over the hill.” I love being out with these youngsters, swapping stories and just enjoying the great outdoors.
Next, The Bear Endurance run in September. 100 miles of grueling trail from Logan to Bear Lake into Idaho. It will be like doing the Pocatello 50 twice, without stopping. Can this old body do it? Hard to say. We'll see. But that’s the lure of it all.
Cheers for now!
Ryan is the one on the left, Jared on the right.... very cool guys!