I started the year with the Olympic Trials in mind. That’s got to be every track and field athlete’s dream. My last year of running in college didn’t end quite how I wanted it to and I was hoping I still had something to show on the track. I raced the steeplechase at Stanford and at BYU and unfortunately my times just weren’t where they needed to be. It could be due to me not having a coach, not doing as much strength work, or the lack of motivation from not running for a team anymore. I think one of the biggest factors, however, was that I was looking beyond the Olympic Trials at the opportunity to get into long distance trail running. It sounds weird, I know. The Olympic Trials is typically a once in a life time opportunity, and something that you’d give your all for, but I think I was kind of burnt out on the track and it didn’t hold the same appeal for me as it had for so long.
So I switched from speed work to long runs in the mountains, preparing for my 100 mile race in September. That transition breathed life back into my running as I found joy in exploring new trails and tackling peaks. Trail running has long been a favorite past time of mine. It makes me feel alive and I love being able to explore God’s creations by running through fields and mountains and canyons.
My first ultra race was the Capitol Reef 50k last weekend. I chose it mainly because it fit well in my schedule and it was relatively close to home. I lucked out because it was a well organized race with a beautiful landscape.
I drove down to the registration location the night before the race and was able to meet a few Tarahumara runners there. If there was one book that was most commonly read among runners it would have to be “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. The book highlights a tribe of runners called the Tarahumara from the Copper Canyons of Mexico with different yet excellent running capacities. It was awesome to meet them in person and I had to buy a pair of the sandals they ran in.
After a surprisingly good night’s rest in a nearby motel I caught a shuttle to the race start. While driving up there I was looking around and wondering how we were at 9,000 ft of elevation. Usually when I’m at that altitude I’m on top of a mountain or something. But I had to keep in mind that Capitol Reef is one of the highest plateaus in America.
I checked the course record and saw that it was 5 hours and 5 minutes. I got it in my head before I started that I wanted to beat the course record and get under 5 hours.
We gathered to start the race. There wasn’t a ton of people, and no one I really recognized. I chatted with a few runners and got to know a couple other people before the race got underway. Then the count down began and just like that we were off on a 31 mile adventure. I guess I’m used to a tense feeling of toeing the line, anticipating the gun going off, and then fighting for a good position on the track. The start of this race was 10 times more chill as everyone started strolling forward casually.
So I felt a little awkward taking off at a faster pace and forming a pretty big gap right from the start. There was one other runner who went with me, however. His name was Holden and he was in a similar boat as me. He just graduated from Oregon State where he was on the track and field team and now he was getting into ultrarunning. We ran together for a while. The first 4 miles of the race climbed over 2,000 ft to put us up high on the plateau at about 11,000 ft. The altitude didn’t seem to get to me much, nor did the elevation gain. I hope my days of climbing peaks and steep uphills attributed to that.
One of the things that I was most worried about for the race was eating. I’ve never really taken anything while racing and I wondered how my stomach would handle it. About 5 miles in I took my first Gu. I took enough so that it felt like it would sustain me but not so much that it felt like I wanted to throw it up.
I was feeling good and rolling through the miles. I put about a 6 minute gap on Holden and the rest of the field. There were many spots where there was no trail, just open fields and pink flags to show you where to go. I thought that was a very fun section of the race.
It was at about mile 14 where I biffed it on a rock and ate dirt, blowing a big hole in my shoe. I wasn’t too hurt but after that I concentrated on the trail in front of me more. I was so focused on my footing that I missed a turn and instead of heading North I began circling around a lake. It was about 4 minutes later that I noticed I hadn’t seen a pink flag for a while. I knew I was losing valuable time but I had no idea where I was supposed to go. Luckily there was a fisherman at the lake. I asked him if he knew where Donkey Point was (that was the next aid station). He pulled up a map and pointed me in the right direction. I thanked him and made my way back.
I found the trail again just in time to meet up with Holden. I lost about 6 or 7 minutes overall I would guess. Not a huge deal, plus I had someone to run with for the next several miles. Halfway through the race I was just under pace for breaking 5 hours.
At mile 17 I finally stopped at an Aid Station. I was out of water and there was a can of Pepsi there that, at that point in time, tasted like nectar from Heaven. The volunteers at the station were very helpful and got me through pretty quick. Holden came into the Aid Station just as I was taking off. I downed another Gu and was hoping I could open up and roll through the next few miles.
That was not the case, however. The next section was very overgrown and the trail was hardly visible. Instead of opening up with a good pace I played: “find the pink flags” instead. My focus was just on making sure I didn’t get lost again.
After taking 3 Gu’s the texture of the Gu gel tasted terrible to me so I ate an Epic bar instead, which seemed to do the trick. It was starting to get kind of hot and I splashed water on my head and shoulders whenever I came to a stream.
Mile 26. I came to the last Aid Station. I had a very large lead on everyone else and was still feeling good. My water supply was thin due to the heat so I refilled before the last stretch.
“If you can average 8 minute mile pace for these last 5 miles you can get the record.” Someone at the aid station told me. 8 minute miles… I can do that.
Luckily the last stretch was an open dirt road and slightly downhill so it made it that much easier to open up. I turned off my brain and went into cruise control, clocking off an average of 7:25 minute miles.
I crossed the finish line at about 4 hours 56 minutes. It was done. I did what I came to do. My body was not used to that kind of racing and I couldn’t sit down or my legs would tighten up. So for the next half hour I shuffled around, just letting my legs cool down until I was back to normal.
Overall it was a very rewarding and encouraging first Ultra race. I still wonder how I’m going to do that distance three times over for my 100 mile race but somehow it will come together. I feel very blessed and fortunate to be able to do this thing that I love and am very thankful for family and friends who support me.