Monday, January 21, 2008

Racing at the Speed of Smell: A Ghost Town 38.5 Race Report

This weekend was the third running of the Ghost Town 38.5 mile ultramarathon in Hillsboro, NM and it was my second running of the event. The first year I ran it was the inaugural year 1n 2006 when the whole thing was run on roads and about 2/3 of the run was pretty much flat with a long climb at the end. The race has since changed course and begins with a little more than 6 miles of uphill road, ends with a little more than 6 miles of downhill road and has about 26 miles of sometimes intensely rugged, rocky and steep forest road and trail in-between.

My weekend was pretty much a whirlwind of activity and about the only time I was able to relax was during the race. I began Saturday morning by having to get a few odds and ends done around the house and wasn’t able to leave for Hillsboro until about 1:30 in the afternoon. Hillsboro is a 2.5 hour drive and the last race briefing and packet pickup took place at 4. The GEEKGRL and I sped south to the Black Range in the Gila Mountains and made it just in the nick of time to pick up my packet, get a race briefing and turn in my drop bags. When I went to turn in my drop bags I discovered I had left behind my water bottles filled with my pre-mixed Accelerade. This was all I had to carry my gels and fluids between aid stations, which were generally 4 or 5 miles apart.

Fortunately I had a water bottle lying in the back of my car and, more out of confusion and time pressure than any prior planning, I had brought along a few boxes of Gu and Accel Gel and a giant container of Accelerade powder. At least I had the basics for nutrition but this meant that I would have to grip a water bottle in my hand for 38.5 miles and who knows how may hours and would have to do the same with a stock of gels. I have been doing a lot of trailing with my hand-held bottles and have come to enjoy them quite a lot but gripping a bottle is a little different.

Race morning didn’t unfold quite as I had planned. The GEEKGRL and I were staying in a rustic cabin about 20 miles of narrow winding road from the start line at the race directors house. The start was at 6 a.m. and we woke at 4 a.m., no problem. I began eating and drinking to get in about 1000 calories for breakfast and then sat down to have a nice relaxing read. After a bit I looked over at the GEEKGRL and casually asked her what time it was, “6:15” she said. Holly Crap, 6:15! We hadn’t event packed up the car yet so we frantically set about throwing everything in a jumble into the car and sped off into the darkness. I was flying down this little road at break neck speed worried that I wouldn’t get to the start on time. When we arrived by my clock it was two minutes to start and I had to go to the bathroom. I went into the race directors house where all the runners were gathered and just then she announced “five minutes to start” so I hit the restroom and made it back out as the runners were filing out the front door. I checked in and went to the starting line and then we were off into the dark, cold morning.

It was 19 degrees and the morning was crisp and clear with a nearly full moon hanging in the sky. I had some vague goals for this race because there were many unknowns. The first year I finished this race in 8:44 and change but I was not as good a runner as I am now, it was my very first ultra distance event of any kind and I was carrying an extra 25 pounds or so at that time. Also, the course was almost entirely different and much harder now, mostly on trail, and I had never run a trail race of any kind. However, knowing I needed to have some goals to keep me on track I decided on the following.

In my past two marathons I finished in the top third of all runners so I figured that I would shoot for a top third finish in this race, something that is easy to keep track of given there were only 47 people registered. The top third would put me in 15th place overall. I also noticed that the last few of the finishers of last year’s race who finished in the top third did not reach the turn around point in the top third but passed people later so my second goal was to not reach the turn around in the top third…I didn’t know how to actually reach this goal except to try and start slow and count runners at the first little out-and-back segment. I also noticed that there was a guy named Marcus who had run the first year with me and had run last year. In the first year Marcus had beaten me by nearly an hour. In the second year his time was 8:34 so I knew the race was much harder. Marcus had finished last year’s race just in the top half, I knew what he looked like and so I decided that my ultimate, tangible goal would be to beat Marcus, who by the way is a very nice guy.

As the race began I was trotting up the road at a nice easy pace. The lead pack began pulling away immediately and I was not at all tempted to give chase and instead I just started chatting with the guy next to me who was a Deputy Sheriff from Denver. He was going a bit slower than I wanted so I pulled ahead a bit and started chatting with a guy who had come all the way from Montreal, Quebec. Canadian guy was a much more experienced marathoner than I and his PR was something like 3:45, six minutes faster than mine. I figured he would be a good person to hang with for a while since our abilities were close. We talked the whole way to the first aid station at mile 6.2 when the race turned off onto the forest road. By the time we reached the aid station my water bottle had long ago frozen shut and I was having to twist the lid off to drink the Accelerade slush inside. Canadian guy grabbed a bit from the aid station and took off running again but I decided to take a walk break.

The sun was beginning to rise over the Black Range and the temperature had dropped to maybe 15 degrees but I knew things would eventually warm up. I really enjoyed the experience of running on the dirt forest road. At this point it was pretty much a smooth dirt road with gentle rollers heading into the mountains but as we went the road became increasingly rugged. There were maybe 10 water crossings in all but you never got wet because they were so small they could be jumped across or they had partially frozen so the water was under ice and you could walk across on rocks.

Because the terrain was so rolling and variable I went with the strategy of running the flats and down hills and walking the uphill sections, not that I would have had a lot of choice because there were some sections that were so steep that you were nearly on all fours. There were sections of trail that were mostly covered in fist to basketball sized rocks with washed out dirt around them. There were other sections of trail that were steep roads than had been carved up by torrents of rain and were covered with an inch or so of decomposed granite and rhyolite, which was a bit like running on ball bearings. I knew that some of the run was going to be “rugged” but holy cow, I would have never guessed I would be facing some of the stuff I was running on and I was extremely grateful that I had been running the trails I had run so far, paved superhighways by comparison, and was extremely happy that I had been working on my downhill running. As a matter of fact a few veteran trail runners told me after the race that I was a good downhill runner and that my downhill running was “graceful.” Graceful…I like that so much more than what was going on in my mind, a panic stricken Clydesdale whose bulk is hurtling him down a very precarious mountainside toward almost certain oblivion.

I eventually reached the turn-around point, about mile 21 or so because of a little out-and-back section earlier, and I was in 13th place overall but there were two other runners immediately on my heals so I got there sooner than I had wanted but not by too much. The other two runners left the aid station before me so I was now in 15th place…the dead end of the top third. I suddenly found myself in a race and knew that Marcus was somewhere behind me but not too far because I had passed him maybe an hour earlier.

I headed back out onto the trail in 15th place knowing I had to hold that position and also knowing that there would be some runners attacking from behind advancing as others tired. I only hoped that there was someone up ahead that would be faltering, some I could drop late in the race and about two miles from the turn around I saw him, yellow-jacket, trudging up a particularly steep and nasty hill. I decided to push the pace just a little harder and catch him. In about another mile I was by yellow-jacket and back into 14th place.

When I got to the next aid station and drop-bag area it was time to change shoes and socks and inspect my feet. I don’t know what exactly was going on but it took me an impossibly long time to get through that damn aid station. I fumbled with my gear, joked around with the aid station workers, walked back and forth to my gear bag and the truck bed where all the goodies were laid out all the while never accomplishing anything. Yellow-jacket come and gone and I was once again in 15th place still farting around like an imbecile. I checked my feet and they looked good. I powdered them and started digging out my new shoes and then came Marcus. He sat next to me and I just chatted with him and then he took off and there I was shoes in hand, socks in my lap watching him leave as I tried on my new position in 16th place, out of the top third and behind Marcus. What an idiot. I hurried up and put on my socks, shoes and gaiters and hit the trail wondering how much distance I had to try and make up.

With about 26 miles down I started to push myself. I knew I would not be content saying I had done my best unless I had indeed done my best. This next bit of the race was a bit of a blur, a horse race with unseen competitors all fighting to advance. I was alone in the woods but I knew someone somewhere was pressing at my back and that Marcus and Yellow-jacket were fighting to push me further behind. I began running the downhill harder and longer, running the flats faster and even running some of the slight up hills.

It took me about 4 miles of hard running to finally catch Marcus. I saw him just as I crested a small rise in the road. He was heading into an aid station and Yellow-jacket was heading back out, I had closed the gap and with about eight and a half miles left they were both within striking distance if I could keep up the pace. When I reached the aid station Marcus was still there and seemed to be stuck in the same time-warp I had been trapped in when he passed me. I just drank down a few cups of Gatorade, grabbed a couple cookies and headed back out on the trail in 15th place leaving Marcus to ponder the assorted snacks. Yellow-jacket was somewhere ahead and now there was a new guy I hadn’t seen before who came running into the aid station as I left and he looked like he was running strong.

I started running as hard and as long as I could but knew I had to keep up with the walk breaks on the uphill portions or I would waste whatever energy I had left. I caught Yellow-jacket within a mile of the aid station and he was looking a little weary but I was feeling strong and running well and then it happened, an aching in my right foot. It was about mile 31 and I had the same kind of feeling in my right foot as when I had fractured it the last time. I tried curling my toes hoping it was a muscle spasm or something, hoping that maybe that shoe was just too tight and curling my toes gave me relief but now I was worried. That nagging pain kept coming back and I decided to take more walk breaks. I was also worried because I had a six mile downhill run on pavement on what may be a fractured foot.

The paved road back into Hillsboro has many curves so you can not reliably see people ahead of you or behind you. It is a bit like running in a strobe light, people are there and then gone and then there again but in a totally new position. With my increased walking I knew that Yellow-jacket and Marcus and any other number of runners would begin to gain on me and there I was in 14th place, precariously close to missing my goal of a top third finish and of beating Marcus. I looked back and could see a string of runners between a mile and maybe two back and I only had 4 miles to go. I looked back again and there was nobody. I looked back again and there was this woman barreling down on me at maybe a 8 minute per mile pace. I started running again and she blew right on by. I chased for a while but my foot began to hurt again and I stopped to walk now back in 15th place. Not one other person could pass me, not one, and I had three miles to go on a questionable foot.

As I walked I took another look back and saw three more runners, Marcus, Yellow-jacket and a third mystery runner. I know I have advised before that you never look back in a race because the race is in front of you. Maybe I’m just full of it but I wanted to spend as much time as I could walking to try and protect my foot but I also did not want to fall any further. I had two miles to go and it looked like I had the cushion necessary to finish in my current position but with only two miles to go I also decided to run as much as I could just to hedge my bets.

When the finish line finally came into view there was nobody to be seen behind me. I ran in as strongly as I could and the GEEEKGRL was there to cheer me in. I felt fantastic! I had finished in 15th place overall, top third; I had beaten Marcus and I had shattered my old PR with an official finishing time of 8:07:33!

I knew Marcus was going to be finishing soon so I stayed outside to cheer him in. The GEEKGRL was admonishing me to come in and sit down out of the cold but I still waited for Marcus who finished up maybe 8 or 10 minutes behind me.

When I finally took off my shoe I saw a bruise on the top of my foot. My first thought was “it’s broken” but there is no pain with pressure and it is not painful to walk on and loose shoes feel good so I am hoping that in my hurry out of the aid station where I changed shoes I tied that shoe too tightly and maybe inflamed some tendons and burst a blood vessel. I have an appointment with my podiatrist tomorrow morning to see.

All in all I had a great day, I met my goals and actually found myself wanting to come back for more unlike my first time at this distance that left me feeling like I was not sure when I would ever try this again. I am concerned about my foot but am holding judgment until tomorrow. For now at least I have earned my rest and I am quite happy to take it.


  1. I'm guessing you missed the part where I said, "It's 5:45, should we get going?"
    ;-) You did great, baby.

  2. Great job Brian. You da man.

  3. men...we never listen.

    Awesome report and finish, there Sweetness! I hope you didn't break your foot. I need you strong at CdA...I don't want to get beat by a dude with a broken foot - that wouldn't be right!

  4. You rock,Brian.

    Excellent report. I could hear the crunching of the trail...

  5. Great report and a great result. I'm impressed. I hope I don't read many reports of ultra distance races though cos i might just want to do one myself :(

  6. Congratulations! Best wishes for minimal damage to your foot

  7. Welcome to trail racing..

    Great job out there. Great finishing time..

    Racing down people through the woods is definetly interesting..

    Hope the foot injury is not a big deal. Rest up, you got a long running year ahead of you.

  8. I just came back from an appointment with my podiatrist and he did x-rays and an exam and there does not appear to be any fracture and he says that given the exam it is very unlikely that there is a fracture. I probably only burst a blood vessel somehow and maybe developed some inflammation. My plan is to rest and then try an easy 5 miles or so Friday and he gave me the green light and asked that I report back to him and let him know how the run felt.

  9. Congratulations on your PR- looks like a tough trail race! I just read a story about people cycling the Black Range and having to be picked up by support vehicles. I can only imagine what the interior looked like on your course! Great job!

  10. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Nice job, Baboo!

  11. Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto. It is time for your 3000 mile hydraulic oil change and while your at it take your foot off and we'll put a new one on. Everytime I read your blog you have just completed an iron distance race, marathon, or now an extreme off-road marathon. Amazing work and congrats on hitting your goal.

  12. You have earned a good rest. Great race, like the attitude.

  13. Great report Brian! It was almost like being there (except a little warmer here in SC) :-) glad you didn't miss the start. Doh!

    What a phenomenal effort. I've only done a small bit of trail running but I REALLY loved it and liked the fact that it was a toally different experience than running on the road. My body seemed to like it better and for some reason the miles seemed to tick by much faster off the pavement.

    Again, congrats on what lookes like a tough course!

  14. I'm so glad it's not fractured! I'm really impressed with what you've acomplished w/ your running in such a short amount of time. Keep it up!

  15. You and geek girl have turned into some running machines....any advice for plantar fasciitis (fashee-EYE-tiss). AHHHH!!!

  16. I love it bro!! you are totally awesome and I am damn glad to know you!!!


  17. Thanks for the Advice! I really appreciate it! I think I am going to try riding during my lunch hour!