On march 6th the GeekGrl and I rolled out of Tucson, AZ and drove an hour south east to Kentucky Camp and the heart of the Santa Rita mountains. The Old Pueblo 50-mile endurance run was set to start at 6 a.m. And it would be one of the biggest races of the year for the GeekGrl and I. At the race morning packet pickup I met up with Johnny Tri and his Las Vegas crew and also ran into one of my Albuquerque ultrarunning peeps.
The race started off dark and cool about 30 minutes before sunrise. We began with a continuous uphill dirt road that gradually became a jeep trail and then transitioned into single track trail. We continued to climb through civil twilight and we reached a high plateau overlooking a vast section of Arizona desert with cobalt blue skies and glowing pink clouds lightly scattered along the horizon. The scene brought forth an intense memory of running the single track along the edge of Bandera's sky island at sunrise. This scene, the emotional high generated by this type of scene is a huge reason I run ultras despite my size and lack of speed.
Just after this beautiful scene we had a nice long downhill stretch on easy single track that brought us to a creek bed at about mile 8. Here we ran into a few runners that we would spend our morning with. There was two couples like us and one woman there by herself. In general the course was well marked but between miles 10 and 17 there was a fair number of spots where we were left guessing. At about mile 12 we were running a steep downhill dirt road and The GeekGrl and I somehow missed the turn. I was running along just a bit ahead and suddenly I heard people yelling. I kept going but the yelling continued and I was wondering “What the hell?!” so I stopped and turned around and the GeekGrl was standing there telling me people were yelling that we had missed the turn so we trudged back up the hill and there was a turn big as day. I kept looking over my shoulder because I thought there may be more people further ahead going the wrong way but I couldn't see anyone.
Missing that turn sucked because it was a steep climb to get back on the trail, which was also a steep climb. On this section of trail there was a lot of green colored rock because of large copper deposits. We were also still in the part of the Santa Rita mountains that more resembles the Texas hill country with lots of scrub oak, juniper and prickly pear cactus. As we topped off the climb we were looking down a steep, rocky road into a true Arizona desert basin filled with Octillo, barrel cactus, creosote bush, agave and sand. The road was so steep and rocky that is was almost slower running downhill that it was walking up.
It was in this stretch between about mile 12 and 15 where the marking was the worst, at least by the time we got there. At one point we were running along and a road diverged to the left in the direction I knew we eventually needed to go but I didn't know if this was the right place or not and there wasn't any obvious marking so I started scanning the ground for foot prints. I didn't see any but I suddenly came across a milk dud that was in perfect shape so I know it hadn't been there long. I ran ahead a bit to look for a trail marking and finally found one so I called the GeekGrl on. When we pulled into the aid station at mile 19 we looked at the time and realized we may not be able to make the mile 25 cutoff. The GeekGrl was about to sit down and rest a bit but I was a big meanie and told her that we needed to get going. We made it about a quarter mile down the road and the GeekGrl said she was feeling a hot spot on one of her feet. She said she could probably make it to the next aid station at mile 25 but a hot spot is nothing to mess with in an ultra so I stopped us and pulled out a bandage while she pulled off her shoe and sock. We fixed her foot and were off.
We pushed this section as hard as we could and rolled in to the 25 mile aid station just in time. Here we were able to sit and relax a bit, catch up on our nutrition and change shoes. However, when we left we knew we were behind the 8-ball and needed to make it to the mile 33 aid station by 3:00 p.m. The stretch between mile 25 and mile 33 was all uphill almost every step of the way. The first six of those miles was a steady uphill on a nice dirt road and there was a nice mountain stream running alongside. The wind started to pick up and at one point it blew the GeekGrl's hat off and down into a ravine. She kept on running while I climbed down into the ravine to get her hat and then I clamored back out and caught up. Despite being all uphill this six mile section was really nice. The next two miles, also mostly uphill was on some rocky single track. We were starting to fall behind and we got to the 33 mile aid station at about 3:14. We figured we would be pulled but much to our surprise the aid station workers told us that the next cutoff wasn't until the finish line and we had about five hours to make it. The GeekGrl was clearly disappointed but I was really happy because I have wanted an Old Pueblo belt buckle for the past three years but I wasn't going to break my oath by leaving the GeekGrl behind.
So, after not being pulled at mile 33 the GeekGrl pulled off her shoes and the aid station workers wrapped them up in duct tape and in a few more minutes we were off. The trail segment between mile 33 and mile 40 was pretty rocky, especially on the downhills, and contained several stream crossings as well as a couple sections where the trail and the stream were one and the same though it was possible to stay dry by rock hopping or running along side on dirt. The GeekGrl and I were falling farther behind the course cutoffs that had been posted and we were still unsure if we would be allowed to continue but when we hit mile 40 continue we did.
At the mile 40 aid station we put on our warm night running clothes and broke out our new headlamps. I a horrible experience at Rocky Raccoon in 2009 when I ran through the night with a weak headlamp and then had to drop at mile 80 because the muscles in my back and legs were so cramped from being bent double trying to see the trail that I could barely move. Ever since I have been on the hunt for a super powerful light and boy did I find some. When the sun went down and we turned on our lights they produced huge beams of light that practically caused the trees to explode into flame. It was awesome, I could see everything, which was good because they had not yet finished hanging the glow sticks so I was still sticking to the trail based on strips of cloth tied to tree branches on the side of the trail.
As we continued on we continued to hit more stream crossings and they seemed to be getting deeper and wider. By the time we rolled into mile 46 we were very close to the 15 hour mark, the time when the race deadline was to occur. However, the volunteers were all happy and ready to serve. They had a fire roaring and a table loaded with goodies. They even asked us if we wanted to sit and enjoy the fire a bit. We declined and headed on thinking we only had four miles to go. At this point in the race the GeekGrl was pretty unsteady on her duct tape covered feet and the stream crossings were getting deeper, wider and colder. There were three crossings when I put her on my back and carried her across. I'm sure she could have made it on her own but what was the point?
We ran on into the night and after five miles knew that the course was long. It ended up being 51.8 miles and we finished about an hour and a half past the stated 15 hour cutoff but they let us finish and we earned our buckles. I don't know if they just decided to let us continue because we were making consistent progress, because they knew it was our 10th anniversary or just because they had a new policy where you get to finish as long as you make the 25 mile cutoff. Whatever the reason we were both glad they let us finish. We worked hard and appreciated the acknowledgment.
Next up is Ironman St. George. It will be ugly and I still haven't found the motivation to train for triathlon but we will be there on the course doing our best.