Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Salt Flats 50 Mile Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 8th Edition 
125.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Salt Flats 50 Mile
Place: Salt Flats, UT
Miles from home: 730
Weather: 50s; overcast; windy

Running five races in twenty-seven days can be taxing enough. Having all five of those races nowhere close to your home makes it a tad more difficult. Finishing with a challenging 50 miler? That's probably a bit dumb. Well, no not really dumb. Dumb is taking your health for granted or not trying to see what is possible. Or thinking vaccines cause autism. Or that there is no climate change. Or Ted Cruz has a shot at being President (There. I have probably alienated every sect and/or group by now. Still reading? Cool. Not the typical, smile-and-nod athlete with no opinions recap you are used to reading, huh?) But it wasn't exactly the best planning of the schedule.

We often neglect the wonders in our backyard in search of the awesome other out there somewhere. I touched on this on my recap of the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile run from two weeks ago. Four years of living in DC and I never once ran that iconic race. It took me moving across the country (twice, mind you) to somehow finally go back. The same happened with this past weekend running a the 50 mile race at the Salt Flats 100.

My first time ever encountering the Bonneville Salt Flats was in pitch black. I was driving across the country and racing to get back to my final semester of law school before classes started. I zipped through all of Utah and slipped into Park City under the cover of darkness. Could not find a hotel. Didn't realize I had arrived during the Sundance Film Festival.  I somehow smooth-talked my way into a decent rate (it was 2 am after all) and crashed. A few hours later I caught a flick (Bob Hoskins in Where Eskimos Live- not a bad movie, actually) before heading out, never knowing I drove right past this geological wonder. I once again went out the way of the flats with my car, fully intending to see how fast I could go on these roads but never worked up the courage. Last thing I needed was a broken car in the middle of the white desert.

So, after sending some time talking with the RD of the event, an affable and altogether pleasant chap named Vince Romney at the Endurance Expo Show in SLC earlier this year, I know my time had finally come to check out the area. With my upcoming running of the Grand Canyon in May, I knew I needed a training run of this length anyway. What better way to train for a 40-something miler than by doing a 50 miler? So I signed up for the race and promptly put it out of my mind. I had four other races to run in the preceding four weeks.

However, I did not forget about the race completely. I just knew that there was not a great deal I could learn online. I could pepper the RD with questions about every inch of the course but really the only way to learn would be the run it. I felt I had done enough research going into the race to know what was in store for me. I was incorrect.

My friend Shannon joined me on this trip and it was so cool to share this unique area with someone close to me. She was going to be trying for a 50 mile PR which in retrospect was a little silly. This is not an easy course. It is not the hardest course in the world but it is not one in which one should try to running their fastest. But I will get to that in a moment.

When I attempted my first 100 mile race, the Old Dominion 100 in 2007, I was upset at how little information was out there about ultras. Even today, light years away from that time in internet days, ultras like to hold their secrets from the masses. Still thinking of themselves as pure (no sport is pure) ultra races and their participants enjoy sharing how awesome their events are with pictures of the terrain and their finishing medals but at the same time, like to keep much secret. So, while I recap this race, I am also going to tell you, as much in detail as possible, about what the event itself is like. Hopefully this will serve as a great "go-to guide" for how to run (or not run) the Salt Flats 50 mile. (We joked, when asking what hashtag we should use for pictures and posts and were told "#saltflast100" that only in this type of event could we be running 50 miles and refer to it as "only".)

To Aid Station 1 (Mile 10)
My time: 1:22:42 (8:16/mile)
My Place: 2nd

Credit: Lucid Images
Run straight. For 10 miles. It really doesn't get much simpler than this. But in the simplicity there is a magic quality. This is the portion of the course where you are truly experiencing the Salt Flats. Six feet deep, the salt deposit lying in front of you is ready to be tramped upon. The surreal nature of the landscape has been the setting for many movies where the mood needed to be, well, surreal.

Now, obviously, the weather can make any footing different on any type of surface and that is no different here. However, salt does not act like dust or dirt, for example. One rarely will have to worry about it blowing into your eyes. In fact, if the winds are strong enough to blow this salt into your eyes, you have other problems to worry about.

For our race day, the conditions were just about as ideal as possible. The first few miles had the salt nice and crunchy underfoot. If you are used to wearing gaiters (or something to keep dirt and such from going into your shoe) I would say go right ahead. If not, well, you are probably fine without it. I didn't wear anything and just had a little bit of salt going into my shoes in spite of how much got kicked up onto my legs.

There were three different terrains I remember running across during this section. One was the crunchy kind of salt you would expect. But unlike you would expect it was very sturdy, easy to run on, and did not slip out from underfoot. (Imagine crusty-East Coast-type snow. You know, the kind which lasts until like May and never fully goes away but clings to your rear bumper until it drops off while driving, nearly killing the people in the car behind you?)  The middle section, a tad more wet, stuck to your shoes a bit more and could possibly weigh you down.  But this lasted no more than a mile and before long you were kicking all the excess off your shoes simply by running. The third and final section was an even drier portion, with less crunchy salt and more cracked surfaces you'd expect to see in dried lake beds (which is essentially what you are running on anyway!)

For my race, all I wanted to do was keep an nice even keel. I knew that I had a chance of placing high in the race but this was simply the training to get me ready for the Grand Canyon. As I found myself in second place, this holding back strategy was harder and harder to keep in mind. At one point there were four 100 mile runners in front of me and just one lone 50 miler. As we neared the first aid station, only one 100 miler and one 50 miler remained there as I had passed the others when they seemingly remember they were running 100 miles. But the two that remained were so far in front of me I could only wonder if they were uberhuman or going to crash and burn. Yards before the aid station (as I stopped to relieve myself for the fifth time, all while barely taking a sip of water) two hundred milers passed me. One barely stopped at the aid station and the other lingered while I grabbed a glass of Mountain Dew. As he ate some food, I was off with barely 30 seconds of rest.

To Aid Station Two (mile 16) 
My time: 2:08:31 (8:02/mile)
My place: 2nd
The first ten miles were marked by a slow haze of the sun, barely peeking out here and there. These next six were where that haze burned off and the day finally began. With the temperature barely breaking 60 degrees it was a fairly perfect day weather-wise at this point. That said, it was exceedingly humid for the desert. I found beads of sweat dripping from my hair down onto my Julbo Venturi sunglasses.

Throughout these first 16 miles, runners are essentially heading toward Floating Island in the middle of the flats. Actually, the island itself is in the middle of the mud flats, with the actual salt having finally burned off a few miles before. Nevertheless, in spite of this 16 plus mile run to the island (which is just a mountain peak that looks like an island due to optical illusions) you always feel like you are going to be there in just a few more minutes. But those minutes and many more pass and the land is seemingly no closer at all.

Here is where a runner must simply keep their eyes on the ground in front of them and follow the markers left out by the race organizers. With nothing to gauge your bearings it is amazing how un-straight of a line one can run. Plus it is a bit defeating to be running and have nothing get any closer to you in the distance. The random branch or debris you see seems so foreign. Those interruptions from the stark white which surround you are so few and far between that you can't depend on them to help gauge your pace. You must simply trust in your training.

This section might be the most flat-out runnable section of the entire course. In only a few places are you running over some softer mud or dirt and that is still rather hard-packed. In fact, this portion was so runnable I made it a point to tell Vince that the race needed to seriously consider running a 50k simultaneously as well. A simple out-and-back on this coolest portion of the race (no offense to later portions, and honestly, those later portions can suck it, as you will see) would easily bring another hundred runners out with virtually no change in logistics. I told Vince if he does that, he can expect me back next year to run it. (N.B. He did add the event and if you use RUNDANE you save 10% off your registration!)

As these miles worn on, the three runners in front of me continued to put more and more distance between us. According to the time cards, that first 50 miler was 8 minutes ahead of me by the time I checked in at 16 miles. At our current pace, he was a full mile ahead of me and I had picked up the pace in the last six miles. It was here I reminded myself that I was using this as a training run. I might be in second place and sure my ego wanted to win but I needed to make sure to be smart. Crushing this course was not my goal. With me not having run over a 50k in 1.5 years, I knew completing the race was far more important that competing in it.

Ambling into another great aid station filled with warm, friendly and helpful volunteers, I asked for my Camelbak Marathoner pack to be dumped and refilled.  Something skunky was in the water and I wanted it to be fresh. After a brief two minute stay, I took off again. By now, I was virtually alone.

To Aid Station Three (mile 23)
My time: 3:07:35 (8:09/mile)
My place: 2nd 

Coming out of this aid station I could see one of the 100 milers in front of me named Steven. I couldn't believe how many of the guys running the 100 were going out at what seemed suicide pace. Perhaps they were just taking advantage of these flat miles and making hay while the sun shines. In either regard, it was nice to kinda sorta see someone else.

This seven mile stretch was, again, extremely runnable. The footing was solid as you traversed the final bit of the mudflats. Then a quick right angle turn has you running on some well-packed jeep trail. This was a twisty-turny bit with a few gentle rolling hills and maybe even a bit dusty for the first time in the race.  In addition, the sun had now come out and was beginning to make things a little warmer. I was doing my best to take in salt tabs, eat little bits of Shurky Jurky, and drink wholeheartedly from my pack. Nevertheless I could see the salt was forming on my upper shoulders. Whenever I sweat heavily in a race and become a bit dehydrated, this is the first place I see it. I am not exactly sure why it seems to form there first.

By now I had lost sight of the runner in front of me. I turned back and saw no one. Yet another race in many where my position often leaves me feeling like I am doing a solo training run. I lost myself in the moment and looked around a bit. It was rather gorgeous. But, contrary to what many say, you can't take it in for too long. Uneven terrain will make a faceplant fool out of you soon if you don't watch where your feet are going.

The aid station appeared out of nowhere. I was so happy to see it and sit down.  I could tell I was going too fast and needed to slow.

To Aid Station Four (mile 32.5)
My time:4:46:46 (8:49/mile)
My place: Tied for 2nd

When they volunteers told me the 50 mile leader was a good 15 minutes in front of me, I decided to no longer attempt to track him down. There was no point. Not that I couldn't catch him (maybe I couldn't) but rather because pushing myself when I was not trained to do so was idiotic. So, instead I sat and cooled my heels a bit. I kept waiting and waiting for some other runner to come in to keep my company or at least to chase. When none arrived I realized I needed to get going. Getting up finally after about nine minutes of sitting, my legs were a little shaky. I decided to walk for about a mile and get things going.

As I was walking, finally, another runner passed me. I let him get a little ways in front of me and then eased back into my own pace. I wanted to stay more conservative on this nearly-10 mile leg. I knew that soon after this leg ended the climbs of the race would begin. This section was another series of rolling hills, a little bigger and longer than the last section. I used some of the uphill portions for small walk breaks to take in as much water as I could. I spent the next few miles playing cat and mouse with the runner in front of me, not wanting to pass him.  Eventually I did and could see the next aid station in the distance.

In hindsight, this makes me laugh because even though I could see the aid station, it was at least another 30 minutes of running away. I also could tell that in spite of my best efforts to stay hydrated, something was amiss. The ridiculously frequent bathroom breaks in the first 10 miles should have told me something but if not, the ever-increasing salt on my shirt was the telltale sign.  With about a mile to go before the aid station, in a walk-break, the runner behind me leapt in front again. I followed him into the aid station and collapsed in a chair. I looked at my shirt and realized I might be done for the day. Although, I do see a horsehead over moonlit troubled waters. What do you see?

To Aid Station Five (Mile 39.3)
My time: 6:49:15 (10:24/mile)
My place: 9th

I sat in the chair here at this aid station for over 25 minutes. I was drinking and eating and debating. If I pulled out here my day would still be a nice long training run. But then I would have to somehow get a ride back to the start. By the time any vehicle came out here to do that I could be a few miles of walking down the road, even if I went the slow route.

So after a change of clothes I finally got my butt out of the chair. Seven other people had come and gone while I sat there. Oh well. I was moving forward. In fact, earlier in the race I was curious if I would even get this far. Right after the first aid station at mile 10 and then again around mile 18 I had experienced some uneasiness in my groin.  When it went down to my knee I was more than a bit concerned. I promised myself if it hit my Achilles or ankle I was done.  It hadn't and in fact had disappeared altogether. At this point that seemed so long ago as to be in a different race.

The next portion would consist of the hardest portion of the course for the 50 milers. For about two miles you would climb a large but not ridiculous mountain.  What made it very tough, however, was the footing. A mixture of some technical but mostly sand underfooting made me want to scream. I hate running in sand and was not prepared for this type of running, especially after I was so close to deciding to DNF.  Yet now that I had made the move forward, I wasn't going to turn back. From the minute I left the chair to when I finally crested the mountain, I ran not one step. Even if I had the energy I don't think I would have run or could have run very much. Some of the ruts were so deep a small child could have easily been lost in one. Heck a large child. Or a medium sized human.

After finally cresting the mountain I was looking forward to running down the other side. Unfortunately, the same sand and technical footing was on this side, too. If my energy and bearings had been a little better I am sure this would not have been as treacherous. But as it were, I was becoming very wary of my balance and footing. Last thing I wanted to do was take a tumble in an effort to run a few minutes faster and finish 9th overall and not 10th.  Regardless, even in my conservative approach, I had to stop a few times on the downhill to walk out a side stitch. That was a tad demoralizing.

We finally popped out onto a road and I expected it to be a short jaunt to the next uphill climb.  From my memory, the elevation chart showed we ran for just a bit and then began cresting another big mountain.  Unfortunately, my memory was not too good at this point.

I pulled over to the side of the road to shake out the sand and rocks from my shoes. In reality, it was an excuse to sit down. One runner passed me and asked me if I was OK. I gave him the thumbs-up signal.

After fixing my shoes and socks I began moving again. I could see the runner up in front of me and saw the road continue to snake up ahead.  Realizing we must have ways to go on this road actually rejuvenated me. I began to pick up the pace and run actual miles again. The road here was extremely runnable if a tad bit dusty. Fortunately, at this point, not many of the crews for people running the 100 miler were barreling down it kicking up the dirt. Later, I would hear it would get a little cloudy out there.When you are running at elevation and in the latter miles of a race, the last thing you want is dirty air.

I finally saw the aid station ahead and what I thought was the trailhead for us to begin our next climb.  I pulled in and while I did not collapse like I did at the last aid station, was happy to cop a squat for a bit.

To Aid Station Six (Mile 45)
My time: 8:24:42 (11:12/mile)
My place: 10th

I again pounded some Mountain Dew, Shurky Jurky and ASEA at the aid station.  I could tell I wanted solid food but chewing was an exercise in exercise I did not wish to do.  But after only about nine minutes I was ready to go again. I was ready to get these last ten miles done and call it a day. In spite of a rather terrible day I saw I could still finish right around 8:30. Not great but not bad.

As I ran along the road, a little more dusty now and with a few more cars, I kept wondering where in the heck we would climb the next mountain. As I pondered this, a large truck with a trailer appeared in front of me. He didn't look like he was going to get over and with a very small shoulder on my side I decided in the preservation of my own body I would simply run to the other side. He passed in a hail of dust and I turned my head the other way and ran that way for about 10-15 seconds.

Now if I was just telling and not typing this portion of the story I could go into great detail of what happened next. Let's suffice it to say I ran the wrong way. You see, right when I crossed over to the other side of the road and turned my head was the exact moment when the truck passed between me and the road telling runners to turn left and start heading over the mountain. When I eventually realized my mistake and doubled back I could see the large marking. The organizers had done a very good job of pointing it out. In fact, if I had noticed when I missed the turn that the small pin flags were green only (100 milers) and no longer doubled with the blue (50 milers) I could have reversed course after 100 yards. But I didn't. So, if I can tell you how to specifically run this portion of the course my number one advice tidbit would be "Don't miss the turn."

After the race, piecing together where I finally turned around, the RD figured I ran an extra five miles (2.5 out and back.) I was cursing myself for missing this turn and realizing I added an hour to my day, but right now, during the race, I simply had to get to the top of the next hill. In hindsight, in and out itself, the climb was not that high.  But again, it was a sandy mixture that made running it rather impossible. So I resigned myself again to simply walking. And swearing. Out loud. A lot. I was rather defeated at this point knowing how much more mileage I had done than necessary.

I pushed forward and finally crested the last hill of the day. I took solace in the fact that no one from behind had caught or passed me. They too wanted none of this mountain. When I took in the view below, for a second, forgetting the Salt Flats were in front of me, I thought it had somehow snowed on the other side of the valley.

Fortunately, I was able to run fairly well down the other side of the mountain. The sand was not as slippery and the route not as technical as before. When we cleared the view of one of the mountains blocking the way you could actually see the finishline some six odd miles away.  To my right I could see my hotel about 5 miles away. I began wondering if I should just run to the hotel.

The course as this point took a turn off of the actual road we were blessed to finally be running on (I know my trailrunning friends probably blistered at the idea of pavement like possessed children to holy water) and started to go away from the finish. NO!  Not AWAY!

We hit a salty parched patch and it just broke me. I began walking. It was flat and very runnable but I could see the aid station ahead that would signify five miles to go and knew I should be done. Suddenly two runners passed me who had been in front of me.  My quizzical look made them both say: "We got lost."

"You, too, huh?" We nodded in shame, disbelief, slight anger and weariness.

To Finish

As you approached the aid station you actually had to walk like 20 feet in the wrong direction. Then, once done, you headed back on the course. I asked them why they did this and the volunteer said it was placed by the sign for the hundred milers. I pointed out the 100 milers had to also go the direction we were going and it was cruel and unusual punishment to make us 50 milers walk an extra 60 feet total. I was mostly kidding but it still didn't make any damn sense. I wanted to see if he would just pick up the table and move it but I knew if I sat down I was not getting up again.

These final five miles leave little to tell. You are once again on the salt flats heading toward the back end of where you started. It is flat as a board. It is runnable. Yet this portion can be quite taxing as it appears you are not going anywhere. For me, it was a place where my body was finally refusing to work with me. I was dying of thirst but every drink sloshed in my belly.  My stomach revolted with some dry heaves. I was worried until I realized I had very little in my body to throw up.

The organizers very nicely put out mile markers for the last four miles. This added touch here helped so much I cannot even begin to tell you.  Even though you could see the damn things for about half of a mile it at least gave you some perspective in this perspective-less landscape.

As I finally had a goal that I could see, I began running. In fact I passed one of the runners who had passed me earlier, in spite of my desire for him to run alongside me. I was catching up to the overall female leader who I had talked to briefly a few miles back. She walked beside me for a bit there and we lamented taking wrong turns. When I told her she was still the female leader a fire lit under her. She quickly put half a mile between us. The fact I had finally closed that gap meant I too was ready to be done.

Ideally, I would have liked the three of us wrong-turners to have finished hand-in-hand.  Unfortunately, I was too fast for the guy behind me and the gap too big for me to catch the female in front of me for this wonderful picture opportunity. Instead, I finished about a minute behind Erin and five minutes in front of Mark. Their presence in those last five miles meant so much to me.

In either regard, I finished 7th place overall in a brand new personal worst of 9:26:34. But I finished in a rather healthful manner. I didn't have to push through broken bones and felt no need to test the limits of my kidneys or anything else particularly stupid. Furthermore, when you have a bad day, it is fantastic to be able to come back and see your friend have a great day.

Shannon, in spite of hating the sand as much as I did and dealing with lots of rain and wind (we all got it somewhere- it just depends on the severity and location) set a huge new personal best. Bad days are made quite OK when your friends have good ones. Some of those friends were people I had just met that day as well. Seeing people finish their first ultra or cheering on grizzled vets of makes for one damn fine day in one damn unique portion of the world.

I would highly recommend this race for those looking into running an ultra, especially if I can convince Vince to add the 50k.  It is challenging for sure, but hopefully this recap will help you prepare for it a little better than I was. The volunteers and aid stations were beyond friendly and well-stocked.  The cutoffs for the race are rather generous. The scenery is second to none and the feeling of elation when you finally wash all that salt off your body is pretty nice indeed.

Plus, if you are lucky, your body will decided to act like you tasered it without actually needing to taser it!

1 comment:

Biz said...

Thanks Dane for telling your story. The Salt Flat 50-Miler last Friday was my first 50-Miler and your story brought back some great memories. Fortunately for me no wrong turns and the big arrow and 50 painted on the roadway helped to take that left up the mountain. I second your feelings on the hills with the sand...there was just no way to run those areas... Take care and wishing you success on your Grand Canyon endeavor.