Monday, May 1, 2017

Salt Flats (Adjacent) 50k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 11; 7th Edition 
115.5 miles run; 750m swam in 2017 races
Race: Salt Flats 50k
Place: Salt Flats, UT
Miles from home: 1410
Weather: 40-50s; WINDY; Partly Sunny

Taking part in a race in today's world is interesting for a variety of reasons. The biggest intangible is weather. And if any climate change denier wanted to simply look at what has been happening in races all over the country the past few years, they would probably at least raise an eyebrow.

Two years ago I ran the 50 mile race here in Wendover and helped convince the RD to hold a 50k entirely on the Salt Flats.  Biblical rain covered the flats that year and we had to run an alternate course.  (I will say, off the bat, regardless of climate change, weather in the salt flats is always a little touch and go.  Especially in a long race that encompasses 24 hours or more, through a variety of geographical areas, the hodge-podge of weather is a mixed bag at best.  But I digress.) It did not appear that would be the case this year and running an entire race on the flats looked like a possibility.

Then that changed. We received an email a few days prior stating that it looked like, while not as deep, water would again be covering significant portions of the course. I know no one was as bummed as the organizers but we runners definitely would have preferred to run on this amazing surface. Personally, my training had not gone as well coming into this race as last year and while the alternative course isn't exactly hellacious, it is obviously more hilly than the flats. I had been looking forward to not dealing with any climbs at all, especially here at elevation. Alas.

This not only required a change of attitude but a complete change of gear. Gone were the Icespike-clad shoes and regular ole running shoes were on my feet. This alternate course is so runnable that I am sure most hard-core "trail" enthusiasts would scoff at it. The biggest obstacle we would face was going to be the wind. And that is an understatement!

Race Morning:


One of my athletes that I coach, Sonia, was going to be taking on her first 50k at this race. Her training was going stellar and I had high hopes for her.  She and virtually everyone else were at the starting line decked out like a snowpaclypse was upon us.  Granted many runners were doing the 50 and 100 mile version of the race so warmer clothing was necessary. With a 39 degree starting temperature, my warm-blooded self was in heaven.  But all these heavily-clad people began playing with my mind.  Then I remembered when I ran the Around the Bay Race in Canada and crowd mentality got me to abandon what I was sure I should wear and I overheated like crazy. So I went with what got me here, knowing that if the sun came out as predicted, I would soon be warm, sweating, and covered in salt.

And with one of the least amount of fanfare possible, away we went!

First Aid Station (9.5 miles) 1:11:37

From the start, two guys jolted out of the gate like it was a 100 yard dash. I had looks at the sign-ups and saw one gentleman who had times right around mine in the 50k.  I assumed he was one of the sprinters.  The other was an unknown.  Regardless, I wasn't going to try and match their opening speed. IF they were going to keep that up, I did not have it in me today. 

Within a few hundred yards, last year's 50 mile winner (Joseph), last year's 100 mile winner (Steven) and the 50k winner (me) were running side by side.  This is how we did it (with a few others) in one of my all-time favorite race photos ever last year.  A first time event runner, Dave, from Pennsylvania had joined us and this is where we were. The wind, off the bat was ridiculous.  Swirling at times but mostly from the side, it was gusting far higher than one would expect for this time of day.

As the front runners faded into the distance, Steve fell back a few feet to run with Dave and Joseph and I moved forward. It appeared that Joseph would once again have no competition for the race as he went for his third straight win (he kicked my butt in 2105; helped by me taking a big ole wrong turn around mile 40 or so.) We turned north off of the paved causeway and were immediately blasted by the wind directly in the face. We went silent as we trudged up the largest hill of the course (for the 50k) and the win pushed us back.

Turning right a mile later the wind abated a bit as the mountains tend to block it but not as much as in previous years. The next stretch was me trying to see if the runners ahead would come back to us at all and Joseph wondering if he was going to a bit too fast. He was, for all intents and purposes, running a time trial with no competition so sticking together helped us both. I might be running a bit conservative and him a touch fast but it was better than running alone.

We approached the aid station where he took off his pack and quickly handed it to the volunteers and I jumped in the portapotty happy to see I was still rather hydrated.

Second Aid Station: 26:03
 
Sliding down the backside of the hill that led to this aid station was nice indeed.  I recalled how this was a cruel surprise coming back last year when I was having some stomach issues. I would remember it was here this time.

Joseph and I swapped some stories but by and large just ran in lockstep with each other, feeding off
the other's energy.  Doing so had us clip off some uncannily even splits. While he was using a watch which told his average pace, I was just running by feel.  Regardless, he wasn't looking at it much.  We just seemed to be in a nice little zone.

The wind was unrelenting however.  As soon as we think we figured out what direction it was coming from, it just would switch and hit us a different way, this time with a vengeance. However, I found running with a person who is going to run 19 more miles than you to be a great way to keep your own complaints in check. Nevertheless, A few "Oh, come on"s popped out of my mouth when the wind lifted us both and put us on the other side of the road.

Before long had passed we saw the next aid station ahead.  Now, just seeing an aid station doesn't mean it is close by. The open desert plays tricks with you and we knew it might be another ten minutes of running before we got there.  That being said, it snuck (it's a word, Jennifer Garner) up on us quicker than we expected. Joseph filled his pack and dropped off some gear and I hopped in the bathroom again. Very hydrated today.  Good job, Dane. *self-five*

 

Turn around: 21:04

We knew it was a short two and a half miles left together before I turned around and we parted ways. Joseph would run further down the road before heading back as well but we wouldn't see each other any further. 



I was expecting to see the two runners ahead of us coming back any minute now.  But as each minute passed I have both elation and dread.  Elation thinking perhaps I had closed the gap a bit; dread as perhaps the turnaround was further away then I recalled. There were no mile markers out here and the race was run on a rather spartan existence. This is fine for many but I do like just a little bit more guidance so to speak. Call me a road runner, like it will hurt my feelings. (If you follow me on twitter you will see I am called far worse.)

Finally, one runner appeared on the horizon and he was the one who had been second of the two going out.  As we passed by I noted time on my watch to see how far ahead he was of me. We exchanged "waytogo"s and I was more than impressed at his turnover. He was definitely crushing it.

We turned the corner and crested the hill. I gave Joseph a fist bump, didn't even bothered to stop, turned around and began the trek back. I was 8 minutes behind the leader. Probably insurmountable.


Second Aid station Part Deux:
20:27

While I would be running alone for the second half of this race, at least the next 5 miles or so would spent running in the opposite direction of other competitors. This would allow me to see how close my competition was as well as cheer on every single other runner in the race.  I love stuff like that.

Last year I was surprised how close one of the competitors was behind me. This year there was no repeat. I did see the two 100 milers I was running with earlier in the day and wished them both the best of luck. Then a few others runners passed me. Then I saw Sonia. I was beyond thrilled with how well she looked and she appeared to be on a stellar pace.

One of the nicest fellas running this race is a guy named Andrew Jensen. I met him a few years ago and love watching his spirit and resolve in the pictures he posts.  Andrew's brother, Matt, is out on the race course taking amazing pictures. (Most of the ones I have posted form the last three races come from his lens. Thanks, Matt!)  I saw Andrew and gave him a high five.  He was, as always, smiling.

I was feeling good, thought that perhaps the worst of the wind was literally behind me and I might run a negative split on this course. As with the last aid station, I didn't even bother to stop here. I hit my watch and was already ahead of my time on the way out.


Final Aid station: 26:34

I knew I basically had about 90 minutes of running left. In my mind I broke that up into three segments. The first would be to the next aid station.  The next would be to the top of the long downhill we climbed near the beginning.  The final would be from there to the end.  Amazing what you can convince yourself in an ultra is doable.  Double digit mile totally can be broken down into bite-size portions.

It wasn't long after this aid station last year when I began having some stomach troubles. I was hoping to stave off any repeat of that but often it is beyond your control. For the most part, the race weather had been rather ideal for me, not counting the wind tunnel.  It was chilly, dry and rather cloudy.  In fact, Joseph had mentioned how funny it had been on the way out that it seemed we were running as fast as this one cloud covering the sun was traveling.  However, ever since the turn around the sun had been ever-present.  I could feel it was warming me up and any thoughts I had previously entertained about another layer were obviously way off.  Having not made that mistake actually buoyed my spirits.

I haven't mentioned the wind in this section because it was, well, palatable.  I kept trying to determine which direction it would be coming from in order to see if it would be at my back on the final road stretch, but it was ever changing.  As I approached the final aid station what appeared to be the last 50k runner appeared to be leaving it. I definitely hope he wasn't injured as being 9 miles in at approximately three hours seemed like it might not be what he was hoping for.

Clicking my watch I saw I was just half a minute slower than the way out.  I took a quick break in the bathroom then sauntered over to the aid station. I felt that for this last hour plus I might need some calories - my first of the race. I took a small sliver of a toasted PB&J sandwich, washed it down with a gulp of coke and walked out of the aid station.  About 50 yards down the trail, ready to set a negative split, I took off running.

To the Finish: 

Even with no mile markers, or any rather discernible landmarks to tell a runner who hasn't run out here too often where they are, there are still a few places that if you pay attention you can use to help guide you.  I knew from the aid station to a sharp turn with a big boulder it had taken me eleven minutes to go out earlier in the morning.  Then from there to another sharp turn next to a crested butte it was another 13 minutes. From there to the last downhill of the course was another 11 minutes.

When I got to the first of those landmarks, I was 13 minutes behind where I had been on the way out. That included, however, the bathroom break and walking break. I figured that with the wind at my back I would make up this and more. Last year I had begun what was a series of walking breaks as the stomach problems worsened the longer I ran. This year, however, all was well in Tummyville and expect for one break to take in a sip of water as I was trying not to run, drink and battle the wind at the same time, it was smooth sailing, running-wise.

Hitting the butte, I had knocked a minute off the time from the boulder and was feeling good.  Then the wind whipped in like I had insulted its mother. Stood me straight up and took my breath away.  Then it would shift to the side.  Then it would stop.  Oof, enough already.

I soldiered on knowing that the one way the wind had not blown yet was due north.  Since the downhill was south facing, I would at least have a mile of good running. I hit the downhill, and knew it had taken me 36 minutes to get there from the start.  My time was 3:24.  I could still break four hours for the race even if I didn't exactly negative split the course.

The wind didn't seem to aid me much as I ran down this hill but at least it wasn't hindering me. Up ahead on the road a race official was painting a white line across the road for the 50 mile runners to follow. Or something.  It didn't pertain to me so I ignored it. I turned the corner onto the paved causeway and just had 3.7 miles to go. It had taken me roughly 29 minutes to get here when I started. I was immediately picked up by a wind from behind. Let's rock this!

LOL JK the wind said half a mile later and switched directions 180 degrees.  BAM, right in my face.  And just like that, any chance of having a strong finish was, well, finished.  I spent the next 30 minutes trying to find a place to breather as the wind sucked the water out of my mouth and the air out of my lungs.  I was all but assured my bib number was going to be torn from my shorts and my sunglasses blown off my face.  If this race had not been the windiest I had ever run, it was on the short list.

As the finish line came into sight (like a mile and a half away) I was just content to run out the string.  I finished second overall in a time of 4:04:44 breaking my course record by over 8 minutes.  But when you finish second, breaking a course record means you still got beat.  As I finished, the winner was there to greet me and we spoke for a few seconds.  He then congratulated someone else and my head spun around. The third place runner had finished not too far behind me.  How?!

I had the chance to check out his Strava data and saw he ran an unbelievably fast second half. In those last 3.7 miles alone he made up over five minutes on me. I was running 8:15s and he was running 6:40s. Steven Evers was his name and at just 18 years old he appears to have quite a running future ahead of him.

Fully expecting Sonia to come in anytime I took a small breather in the car and then got ready to cheer her on at the end. Then another person finished who was behind her previously.  Uh oh, I thought.  As it turns out, that marking I ignored because it had nothing to do with me caught Sonia's eye and she followed it. All told she ran off course and added 2-3 miles to her first ultramarathon. When I drove down the causeway to see if she was OK, I saw her walking.  Tired and spent both mentally and physically I could tell she just wanted to be done. All told, she ended up winning the race nevertheless and I was super happy for her.  I saw someone mocking how running coaches seem far more proud of their athletes than say Super Bowl winning coaches and I found the analogy to be quite-off base. Helping a runner find their stride and help push them to new found heights is so much different than coaching a position player in a team sport. When you happen to be running the same race and know the same trials and tribulations your athlete is going through, it is even more poignant. So huge kudos to Sonia on her first ultramarathon and her first ultramarathon win!



The race was a little more barebones than usual this year and for many looking to run relatively unimpeded in a relatively "easy" place, the Salt Flats is it (at least for the 50k).  The further distances, however, get incrementally more difficult as the miles go up. Even the flat Salt Flats (when you can run on them) only account for 16 miles of the 50 mile and 100 miler.  In addition, the weather out here can be very tough which is one reason why the organizers are thinking about moving the race day forward a week or so. I would concur that doing so greatly increases the chances you will actually be able to run on the Salt Flats. 

I count myself lucky indeed that I did back in 2015. You should definitely not miss your own opportunity to do so.

1 comment:

Andrew Jensen said...

I love how detailed you are and I could picture each section that you talk about. Those headwinds were really difficult and the fact that you were knocking out such fast miles is a credit to the mental and physical strength that you exhibit! Great write up and well done on getting a new PR for the Salt Flats 50K. I know I'll see you again next year!