Way back in October Cat and I decided to run the Old Pueblo 50 mile endurance run in Arizona. She was looking for a second 50 miler to do now that she had one under her belt, and I needed a 50 mile race in the spring. I remembered this as one of my favorites from when I lived in Arizona. I have so many good memories of this event, how beautiful the course was, and how much fun I had out here with Laura, Geri, Woofie, Duane & Julie, and others, that I thought it would be fun to share it with Catharine.
So we signed up back in October at the earliest possible moment, knowing that the year before, the race entries had filled within 4 hours.
My friends Heidi and Dan Gabalski live in Tucson, they moved there from Colorado shortly after Dennis and I moved back to Colorado a few years back. I hadn't seen them in a long time and Dan decided he was going to run Old Pueblo as his first 50 miler.
Bumpus, Heidi, Radley, and Dan.
We flew into Tucson and stayed Thursday night with Heidi and Dan. We cooked dinner there, a mixture of rice noodles, tofu and veggies that Catharine called "glomp". Good pre-race fuel.
The week before the race I got sick with some kind of viral gastroenteritis ("stomach flu") and spent nearly a full day camped out on the floor of my bathroom in between bouts of hugging the porcelain. I knew it would be important to refuel and rehydrate as much as possible and I was eating solid food by last Tuesday and all I could do was hope for the best.
Friday morning Dan and Heidi went to work and Cat and I went grocery shopping in Tucson and then to Fleet Feet, the running store, to pick up our race packets. We did a little shopping, too. Cat got a new running skirt and I got a new tank top.
Then we headed south toward Patagonia, where we were staying the night before the race at the Stage Stop Inn. On the way down we drove to Kentucky Camp, the historic mining camp where the race starts. Cat and I checked out the road accessible parts of the course. We walked a few miles along the first part of the course so Cat could see it.
Mt. Wrightson in the snow.
Then we drove into Patagonia, passing the border patrol checkpoint, a reminder that we were only 20 miles from Mexico. When we got into town it was too early to check into the motel so we went across the street and ate lunch at the Velvet Elvis.
We checked into our rooms and got our drop bags ready, and it was time to head out to the pre-race pasta dinner at the Elgin School, a benefit for the school kids to go on an educational trip somewhere. When we got to the school we saw a lot of people but none who looked like runners. We went in and were greeted by a cute little girl about 12 years old with long blonde hair and a cell phone. She asked us, "Do you want meat sauce, or just normal sauce?"
I was feeling adventurous so I decided to try both.
We didn't stay long at the dinner, but it was fun watching the kids. We drove back down to the room and sat up talking. We set our watches so we'd have four alarms to wake us up.
At 3:30 the alarms went off and we were up and ready to go. Cat was nervous, she was wired in the way that I never seem to be anymore.
We drove to the start, parked, stashed the rental car keys under a rock next to the tire, and headed down with our drop bags in the darkness to check in. The sky was partly cloudy with stars, and it was cold, but not freezing. We dropped off our drop bags and got some hot water in cups to use as a hand warmer, and checked in and got our numbers. I had forgotten about all the little special touches in this race, like the handmade race numbers.
We saw Dan, who had driven down from Tucson that morning, and I saw about a half dozen other runners I knew from Arizona before the start. It was cold and we were trying to stay warm until the gun finally went off.
The first part of the race goes up a 1/4 mile long hill before leveling out on a dirt road to the first aid station. Cat and I walked most of this hill in the dark along with everyone else. It didn't take long to warm up.
We ran with Dan for a few miles in this section but then we didn't see him again until later.
We dumped our long sleeved shirts at the 7 mile aid station at California Gulch.
I have run this course nearly a half dozen times but it's been 7 years. I could not remember the section from mile 7 to 15, where you go down a sandy wash in Wasp Canyon and then climb to top out at Gunsight Pass. I knew we ended up climbing to the pass but everything else was a fog.
Things were going well. We were moving well, eating and drinking, except I forgot to grab one of my bottles of gatorade at California Gulch so all I had was water. Arizona water is not the best tasting stuff, unless you like drinking from a swimming pool. I missed that Gatorade and looked forward to it at 25 miles at my next drop bag. The only glitch I had was that my camera wasn't working. I decided to dump it at the next drop bag since Cat had hers.
Speaking of water, they had warned us about the stream crossings. In the early sections, we crossed a few little "streams", no more than a trickle, not even enough to get your toes wet. I laughed about this. Every time we crossed one, I said, "Oh yeah, there's another Arizona stream crossing. hahahaha..."
We topped out at Gunsight Pass before making the 4 mile plunge to the 19 mile aid station at Helvetia.
I remembered this part of the course well, all the way to 33 miles my memory proved to be quite intact.
We blasted down the road toward the halfway point. This is a beautiful part of the course. You climb over shin dagger hill and then it's a nice rolling downhill into the 25 mile aid station at Box Canyon. We powered up the hills, Cat lagging slightly behind me on the uphills but catching me on the downhills. I still have my super powerwalk "walk like you're possessed".
This year has been tough for me to do my usual training. With the snow and ice, I haven't been able to get up to do Rock Repeats which would have given me more uphill powerwalking practice and downhill quad-blasting runs. I knew this going into Old Pueblo and figured I would end up with sore quads. Since I'm running the Keys 100, hills aren't a big priority for me right now, but I knew I'd pay for it here.
I felt amazingly good and didn't have any soreness or bad patches as we continued at a good strong pace all morning. Cat seemed to be doing great too. She was drinking and eating at the aid stations and drinking from her pack. What she needs to practice is getting the fluids and calories in and getting over the marathon mentality of worrying about numbers, pace, and time.
We got into Box Canyon and it was still sunny with big clouds moving in. The forecast was for rain the day after the race but I was watching the sky the whole time, keeping in mind that at Cat's first 50 miler, she had become hypothermic in the cold rain above Leadville. But Cat ate her whole sandwich and was drinking and getting extra snacks at the aid stations. The weather was holding, a few clouds to keep things cool but mostly sunny.
We were having a great time as we powerwalked up toward California Gulch, eating and digesting our sandwiches, and leapfrogging with a group of 3 runners. I knew two of them. One was my friend Laura Nagy from Arizona, we used to train and run a lot of races together, and Liz, whom I used to run speedwork with at the Scottsdale Community College track in a running group called Brett's Bandidos. The third woman, Rachel, was in her first 50 and Liz and Laura were running it with her. It was a great chance to catch up on things with Liz and Laura.
As we got closer to the California Gulch aid station, there were signs along the road telling us we were making progress. Two guys on horses passed us on the way up this stretch and remarked on our matching pink gaiters. As they passed us, we said,"They're not leopard spots, they're age spots!"
We got through California Gulch and ran into Steph Buettner, another runner I know from Across the Years. She joined our leapfrogging group for the next several miles. We went up over the rocky single track section to the 33 mile aid station at Granite Mountain. It was getting warm, and Cat was quiet. I could tell she was paying attention to her watch and the pace and getting worried that we weren't staying on 5 mile per hour pace. I told her it would be roughly that pace, but that certain sections, including this one, were slower. I knew she was in her marathon mentality and I tried to think of ways to keep her from looking at her watch.
More Rock than Roll
At 33 miles, it was hot and I reminded Cat to get plenty of fluids as the next section to the 40 mile aid station would be long. I thought her face looked a little red so I wanted to make sure she wasn't overheating. I stopped and sat in a chair at the aid station to dump gravel out of one of my shoes. I had a nasty bloody blister going on the inside of my big toe. It hurt. I jammed my shoe back on, dumped some ice in my bottles, grabbed a third bottle of gatorade from the drop bag and started walking up the road with Laura. Cat was just ahead with another group of male runners.
Once I caught up to her, I suggested she take some electrolytes. We both did, and we were both feeling the downhills. I had a vague memory of the 33 to 40 mile section being rolling hills. What I didn't remember were the rocks. It was extremely rocky on some of this section, steep, loose rocky downhills on loose dirt, the kind of rocks that roll under your feet and throw off your foot plant as you slide down in the dust.
Our pace slowed considerably on this section, but we were still moving along very strong. We stayed with the same group of people. We did catch up to Dan, whom we had not seen since early that morning. He was limping along but in good spirits. We passed him and I hoped he would finish.
Cat was not in a good mood. She apologized for being cranky. I said, "That's okay, you can be a raging bitch if you want to. You're doing great!"
I could tell she was focused on her watch, and the pace. The best case scenario time was out of reach now, and I knew that was what was bothering her. As we got into the lower section through the rocky stream crossings, which were still not very wet, I was apologizing to her for my memory lapse of how the course was, that I didn't remember all the rocky stuff. I told her not to worry about the time, to focus on the fact that she's doing great, she's still got a PR in the bag, and how beautiful the course was.
The section dragged on and on. Finally we got to a sign that said one mile to go to the 40 mile aid station. At that point we were about an hour behind the time I'd projected for us. I felt bad for Catharine but she needs to learn this about ultras, that the course is going to determine how long you're out there and you cannot look at your watch and worry about pace. It's not a marathon on a flat smooth asphalt road.
Finally I told her, don't think about the watch. I told her about Laura and Liz and their running abilities. Both are extremely strong, talented runners. I told Catharine, if she looks at where she is relative to the other runners, and how strong we were running, that she is among this group, and doing great. That seemed to perk her up.
We got into the 40 mile aid station where our last drop bags were. I knew we'd have to be ready for anything, cold, darkness, a long stretch without an aid station, and possibly slowing down. Cat was in a hurry to get out of the aid station. I asked her if she had warm clothes. She said she had her jacket. I said, "Take a long sleeved shirt." She sort of scowled at me. I said it again, more forcefully. I said, "I'm being a bitch, but you might need it." I made sure she grabbed her headlamp.
I was still feeling great. I took an extra shirt and made sure I had my gloves and jacket. I saw the tights and garbage bag I'd packed, but it was still warm and the sky looked more clear than cloudy. I decided against those. I did bring extra gatorade and the big piece of Starbucks coffee cake I'd stuffed in my drop bag, and started stuffing that in my face as we made the turn up the road.
Cat was feeling good and she was moving up the road. I was trying to finish eating and drinking so I could keep moving too.
At about 41 miles, suddenly I became extremely chilled. The wind was blowing hard and the sun was still strong, but the breeze was cutting right through me. I went from feeling great and powerwalking to shivering and cramping up within minutes. I had side stitches, arm cramps, even my neck muscles around my collarbone were cramping. I'd been taking in plenty of fluid and electrolytes all day, I'd been peeing, but suddenly I had the exact same feeling as a week earlier when I'd finished puking my guts up. That depleted, chilled, drained feeling. Minus the nausea. My stomach felt fine.
I thought maybe I just needed to digest all the calories I'd put into my stomach, maybe all the blood went there instead of my skin, and that's why I was cold. My quads and hip flexors seemed like they froze up too, and I was feeling spaced out. I couldn't seem to concentrate on what Cat was saying to me and putting my feet in front of me at the same time. I put on all the clothes I had, and Cat gave me her jacket. I was shivering in the sunshine.
We moved slowly up the hill and began to hit some stream crossings. They were getting slightly wider and wetter, and the water was cold. Every time we went through the ankle deep or calf deep water, I'd get a chill up my entire body. I was bundled up in 4 layers, but I was freezing. Cat was still in her tank top.
We climbed up the nasty little rocky hill to Gardner Canyon Road, the smooth part I remembered. I warmed up a bit and it seemed like as my body rewarmed, my legs loosened up again. I kept drinking and trying to run as much as I could. I told Cat if she wanted to go ahead I didn't want to keep her from getting a PR. It was only another 5 miles or so and I knew I would be okay, but she didn't want to leave me.
Finally we got through the last of the twenty or so freezing calf-deep stream crossings, the Arizona stream crossing gods were getting their revenge on me for mocking them earlier in the race! We hit the last water stop, a minimalist aid station at 46 miles. We were on the home stretch.
I had forgotten all about this part of the course too, a smooth single track that winds along an old railroad grade with interpretive signs about the mining history of the area. We had been ahead of Laura, Rachel, and Liz for a long time but they passed us along this section. We climbed the big hill up to the final stretch along the ridgeline.
From here you can see Kentucky Camp, the parking area, and the finish area, but you keep going down this road that lasts forever and takes you in a direction away from the finish. I remembered this part. We were on top of the ridge for two or three miles and the wind was blowing and I started to get chilled and my muscles were locking up again. I knew as long as we finished in daylight Cat would have a PR. I just felt bad that she could have run it a lot faster had I not been slowing us down.
We kept going down this stretch and talked about dinner at the Velvet Elvis, and the bigger reward, a glass of wine.
Cat Goes to the Dark Side
After what took forever, we descended into the ravine and did the last mile out of the wind, still in the daylight, to the finish line. Catharine and I crossed together. As soon as we finished I looked over to my right and saw Duane. I hugged him and then in earshot of Catharine he reminded me of how the course is long. It is actually over 51 miles. I knew this too but of course I wasn't going to tell her that before she ran the race! But I knew she would hear it so I admitted I lied about bringing her all the way down here for a 50 mile race.
We finished in 12:17 which was a 20+ minute PR for Cat, but it counts for more since the course WAS long. And this was Cat's longest run ever. She crossed over the 50 mile distance for her first time, entering into the world of real ultras, the "dark side". She was ready for her next challenge along the way to her first Leadville Trail 100 this summer. Cat got her first belt buckle here too. Way to go, Cat! Congratulations!
We didn't hang out long, it was getting dark and cold. We said our goodbyes, thanked the race people, grabbed our drop bags and headed up the hill again to the car. Cat drove, my legs were so locked up I could barely keep from tripping over little pebbles. Dan ended up finishing too, his first 50 miler and first ultra ever, about an hour behind us. Great job Dan!
By the time we drove into Patagonia, our plans for dinner and wine had deteriorated into convenience store food and leftover sandwiches from our drop bags. We stopped at the little store across from the Stage Stop Inn and got some cold drinks and a bottle of wine, then we dragged ourselves and all our gear up the stairs to our room. It took me more than two painful steps for each of the stairs going up to our second floor room. Going down in the morning was beyond my imagination.
We got into the room, assessed our chafing, bruises and blisters, waited forever for the water to turn hot so we could take showers, and sat in our beds as we ate our pathetic post race drop bag dinners. We sat up and talked and giggled for a while, but then we were out.
In the morning we woke up with enough time to repack, check out of the room and drive to the Tucson airport and return the rental car. We talked about walking in the airport while we waited for our flight. We both forgot the Tucson airport is so small, there wasn't a lot of space to walk around.
We sat there and recounted our weekend, and as we were sitting waiting for our flight, an airport worker pushed two wheelchairs to a spot next to where we were seated and left them there. I wonder if he saw us in our pathetic limp, giggling as we hobbled around.
We decided they were going to make a movie about us, Flakes on a Plane.
Today I am doing much better, it's only taking me two baby steps to go down each of the stairs in my house, but I can make it upstairs with no problem. In retrospect, had I not had the stomach bug last week, I probably would not have bonked like I did. I might have had a bad patch, but I think my body only had 40 miles worth of energy at that point.
Always a good reminder, no matter how experienced a runner you are, that things can and do go wrong. I was lucky to have my newbie Catharine with me, watching over me, because things could have been much worse if I'd not had the extra clothing.
I have not had such sore quads and hip flexors in the longest time. I can't even remember how long it's been since I bonked and got this sore. But I don't care. The run was as beautiful and fun as ever, I had a great time with Catharine and I hope I forget all about the rocks and the pain soon so I will come back and run this race again. In ultras, memory lapses can be a good thing.
So I've finally figured out why so many older runners do ultras!
photo credits: Catharine Speights