However, I know my adventures are not yet done. I suspect that I may get a bit faster but that isn’t really something that concerns me much. I still have experiences to savor and share with anyone who cares to read. I have yet to run Western States, Wasatch, Hardrock and many of the other 100-mile trail runs of the Western mountains. I have yet to run a marathon in each of the 50 states and I have yet to run Boston. There are also some races in foreign countries that I’d love to run; the Comrades marathon in South Africa, the Athens marathon in Greece and the Reggae marathon in Jamaica are the only ones by name that I have my eye on but I’d like to run an ultra in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Germany. I’d also love to go Fell Running in England, Ireland and Scotland.
So, with that prelude my 2011 season begins and it actually began with a bang. On January 1st I had a local run called the Egg Nog Jog scheduled and I also had a 31 mile run to do. The Egg Nog Jog began at noon so I got up early and headed out for a preliminary 27 miles. I ended up arriving at the Jog about 30 seconds after it started so the main pack of runners was still barely across the start line when I joined them. That day I ended up running a 50K in just over 5 hours, which beat my only 50k PR by about 40 minutes though I didn’t count it in my official record of PRs because it wasn’t an official race though it was a good omen for things to come.
January 17th was the sixth and final, at least for now, running of the Ghost Town 38.5. I have a fond affiliation with the Ghost Town because it was my first ultra and I ran it during its inaugural year along with 41 other runners. That first Ghost Town in 2006 was all road from Nutt, NM to Kingston, NM and it began at 4 in the morning. In subsequent years the race began at 6 in the morning and shifted to being about 1/3 road with the remaining miles on dirt roads, jeep trails and a little bit of single track in the Black Range wilderness.
So, at 6 a.m. on the morning of January 17th about 68 runners lined up at the starting line ready to enjoy a day of running in the Gila. I was determined to bet a good time and knew there were some southern gents there from Georgia and Arkansas who were duking it out for bragging rights. I thought I may try and hang with them but I really didn’t know what kind of runners they were. When the start was sounded we all surged out of the race director’s yard and onto the road to Kingston. I stayed with the lead pack of about 15 runners for maybe the first half-mile, just long enough to see what kind of pace they settled into and get a good read on whether or not it was reasonable for me to keep that pace. It was not, these folks were running an 8:30 pace.
Normally an 8:30 pace is easy for me to hold and it felt good that morning as well but I suspected I knew more about the course and less about the lead pack of runners to make it a prudent start. The thing about running in a place that is both mountainous and wide open is that you have these have vistas of land reaching for the sky and so lesser grades, though still going up, can look flat or even downhill. I knew that pretty much every foot of the first six miles of road heading for Kingston was uphill but it frequently looked flat or downhill and the only way you knew this was either by running down and seeing the road fall away below you or by paying close attention to your legs as you are ascending and not mistakenly thinking that maybe you are still trying to shake the morning lead out.
So, knowing the course and not knowing my competition I fell back to about a 9:15 to 9:45 pace and just cruised up the road all by myself. The lead pack continued to pull away and the main following pack of runners was still well behind me. The morning was silent and all I could hear was my own breath and the rhythmic padding of my shoes on the asphalt. The sun rose slowly over the Gila Mountains streaking the increasingly blue sky with shades of violet, red and pink. Mornings are always best in the mountains. The world around you warms with color and light but the silence of the night lingers on, sacred.
Turning north off the paved road and onto the forest road heading into the wilderness I was passed by one guy who had been slowly gaining for a while. I kept my pace, caught him and left him behind for the remainder of the race by the time we hit the Stone Hut aid station. At this point there was no sign of the lead group of runners that I had let go earlier but in the 4 plus miles between the Stone Hut aid station and the turn off leading up the steep trail spur out and back I caught sight of two runners. They were the two leading female runners and they had slowed their pace considerably. I passed them and probably within a half mile I saw yet another runner and I passed him as well just before turning off onto the forest spur trail.
Much of the forest spur trail never sees direct sunlight so the stream was mostly frozen and there was plenty of snow. The guy who I had just passed quickly passed me back. He was wearing Vibram Five Fingers and had much better traction in the snow than I. I decided to walk much of the snow because it was taking more energy than I was willing to expend trying to run. However, each time I hit a dry patch I closed the gap on five finger guy never letting him get too far ahead.
Because the forest spur is an out and back it is at this point in the race that you get your first look at who is ahead of you and you also get a sense of how far ahead they may be. I wasn’t sure if I actually got to see the very first runner or two because they can be there and gone depending on how fast they are going and how far back you are. I wasn’t wondering about the very front runners though, I was wanting to know about how far back I was and more specifically, how far back I was from my Southern friends. I got my answers in pretty short order; I was in about 17th place and I was about 45 minutes behind the Southern men, damn they were moving.
The final outbound section of the forest spur trail is a steep climb about 100 yards long and fortunately it does get full sun so was almost entirely snow free. I was easily able to pass five finger guy and then left him well behind because unlike him in his super thin soles I was able to hammer down the slope and charge over the rocky sections back out onto the forest road where I was able to see the GeekGrl for the first time. She was just entering the forest spur right as I was exiting. I noted that she was running very well and she said her Achilles wasn’t bothering her at all. I grabbed a quick kiss and was on my way.
I very short order I passed two more people who had been taken down a notch or two by the forest spur, one of them a Southern gent but not the two I was looking for. On the spur I had also seen a big guy who must have been my same size. That really bothered me because I don’t like guys my size to beat me in a race. It happens of course and I am certainly not the fastest Clydesdale out there by any means but if I can do anything about it I won’t let it happen. So, I was now on the hunt for the big guy.
At this point I was running alone again having passed all the initial front runners who had clearly gone out too fast. The rest of the people in front of me may have gone out too fast but they were all strong runners. However, I knew that what is commonly referred to as the back end of the course, the area leading to the turn around, is pretty brutal. The back end of the course has lots of steep climbs and curving descents and very rocky, slippery trail. With this in mind I eased up on my pace just a bit and settled in for some strong hiking.
When I arrived at the Vista aid station, the one just before the turn around, I saw my long-time Ghost Town friend Marcus. He was volunteering this year because he has apparently gotten hooked on triathlon. When we first ran Ghost Town in 2006 I was the “primarily triathlon guy” and he was the “primarily ultra guy” and now we have traded places. In any case it was good to see him again. I spent too much time at the Vista aid station just kind of futzing around. By the time I left the leaders had already gone by and as I was departing one more person was on his way back. I started counting people as I headed for the turn around and from what I could tell I was in 13th position. I saw the Southerners that I was trying to catch and I knew I was gaining position on them but I couldn’t recall how far it was to the Cave Creek aid station at the turn around so I didn’t know if I was actually gaining any time on them and they didn’t show any signs of relenting.
On the bright side though, I quickly caught sight of the one big guy I knew to be ahead of me. I passed him moving at a pretty good clip and then left him behind. On my return after the Cave Creek aid station I could see that I had put about a half mile into him already and it didn’t look like he was speeding up any. At this point it seemed to me that I was well behind the leading group and putting distance on everyone behind me. I was satisfied with the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t catch anyone else but I was still trying to turn in a good performance and I certainly didn’t want to get caught from behind by surprise.
The reason I didn’t think I’d catch anyone is because I knew at least three of the people ahead of me, all New Mexico ultrarunners and all with much stronger histories of finishing than my own. Much to my amazement about 12 miles from the finish I saw one of these guys and I was pretty certain that if I had close the gap on him I would definitely pass him if I was just careful and bided my time. No sooner did I think that than he took off at a pretty brisk pace and I wondered if he had just taken it really easy in the back half of the course and was now ready to sprit to the finish. He was soon up a hill, around a corner and out of sight. I just kept up the pursuit. Within about 11 miles of the finish I saw him again and he was walking. I knew that he was done racing and was just trying to hang on to a good finish. I caught him and by the time I was departing the Stone Hut aid station with 10 miles left I had already put about ¾ of a mile into him.
However, the most amazing part of my race was just about to begin. I saw another of the strong New Mexicans ahead of me. He was well ahead of me but still, I could see him. I had about nine miles left, he was in sight and that means I had been gaining ground. I figured if I didn’t get overly excited and just kept up a solid pace I just might be able to catch him especially since my specialty was only three miles away; a six mile stretch of downhill road all the way to the finish line.
The entire final three mile stretch of dirt road I kept seeing the last New Mexican I thought I had a chance to pass and he kept getting closer but it was a very slow process. The final aid station comes at the intersection of the paved road back to Hillsboro and the dirt forest road. Right then I passed another guy who was waking and looking pretty bad and maybe 100 yards ahead of him was another person, also walking, also looking bad. I put them behind me quickly and started to pick up speed. I was determined to run the entire six miles to the finish as fast as I could manage no matter how uncomfortable it got.
The road down to Hillsboro is pretty exciting because it windes through a fairly narrow canyon almost the entire six miles and there are times you can see a couple miles ahead and behind you but can’t really see much inbetween. This means that if you are chasing you may see someone off in the distance but not know how many people, if any, lie between you and that person. Similarly, if you are being chased you can look back to a similar view and are forced to wonder “how many people are bearing down on me between where I am now and that guy way back there?
At just one of these junctures I saw who I knew to be one of the Southern men I had been chasing all day. I knew he was at least a couple miles ahead of me because of how small he appeared but if he was really hurting, forced to walk, I knew I had time to catch him but I had more immediate work at hand, the last New Mexican. I could see him maybe ¾ of a mile ahead and low and behold, he was walking. I knew I had him now, it was only a matter of time.
I picked up my pace just a little allowing the adrenaline of the chase to take hold of me for the first time all day. The extra speed was a little painful but I knew it would all be over in about 30 minutes so I pressed on. With maybe two miles left I passed the last New Mexican and couldn’t believe I had pulled it off. This is a guy, though older than me, is still very strong, very experienced and is someone who has actually won this race outright one year. I passed him but didn’t let up my pace. I knew full well that if he got another wind he still had time to catch and pass me. I also knew that the last of the Southerners was not far ahead and I hadn’t seen him in a while and had no idea what kind of shape he was in.
The final mile or so is a straight away and by the time I hit it I saw the last Southerner cross the road and hit the finish line. I obviously wasn’t going to catch him and at this point the cumulative fatigue of the day was wearing one me. I only had one goal left, to break 7 hours, something I would have never even considered setting as a goal for myself in this race. On the one hand given the time I had left and the distance I had to cover it seemed like it was in the bag. On the other hand I was really hurting at this point and it was a real struggle to hold my 8:30 pace. In my mind I could explode at any second and be forced to slog in the few hundred yards at a snail’s pace.
It was not to be, however, the grand explosion never came and I crossed the road and charged across the finish line as strongly as I had started the day albeit with far less energy. I finished the final Ghost Town 38.5 in six hours, forty eight minutes and sixteen seconds. I was a little less than two minutes behind the last Southern man and I was tenth place over all. I was also the first XL athlete to cross the finish line by quite a stretch. It was an unbelievable day. The GeekGrl also came in on record pace beating her old course PR by about 40 minutes. We grabbed a bite to eat and drove home to Albuquerque both exhausted and happy.
Our next challenge will be Rocky Raccoon where I will try and break 24 hours for the full 100-mile run and I’m thinking the GeekGrl will hit 12 hours or faster for the 50-mile course.
It’s going to be an interesting year!