Tag Archives: desert

Grandmaster of Disaster

After running the Grandmaster 100K last month in the Arizona desert, I now share one characteristic with legendary ultrarunner Jim Walmsley, who has now twice set the course record at the Western States 100.

No, I did not win Western States. I haven’t even tried to qualify for it (yet). But we do indeed share one type of experience. I shall explain.

My usual plan with an ultra is to run it once, enjoy the experience, and move on. The Grandmaster Ultra is one of the select few I chose to go back to. The stark beauty of the desert, the challenge of the course, and the camaraderie of fellow 50+ runners was too strong a call to ignore. And it was among the few ultra choices available in early 2021.

I’d run the 50-miler in 2020 (just prior to Covid and all that), so I signed up for the 100K this year. A way different beast. In addition to the extra 12 miles, the last few hours would be run in the dark. I looked forward to the challenge.

Check out the incredible scenery below. Believe me, these photos don’t come close to full vision, wide-angle experience.

The footing’s even more fun in the dark!

I arrived with lowered expectations, due to pandemic-related necessities. But aside from mandatory mask-wearing and slightly fewer food options, it was the same as last year, including bonfires at the aid stations after dark. The weather was perfect for running – in the high 30s at start, rising to around 60 degrees in the afternoon, then dropping fast after sunset. Good preparation was key. I made several checklists and packed my drop bag carefully.

I would be running the 50K loop twice, so I sent a drop bag to the halfway mark of that loop, and had another one in my car at the start/finish. I was all set. Or so I thought.

The first loop went exactly to plan. I finished it around 6 hours 15 minutes, right on schedule, feeling strong, and, unexpectedly, as the lead runner. I checked my feet – nothing serious going on – put on a fresh shirt and socks, drank a lot of Gatorade, and headed back out. At every aid station the volunteers congratulated me on being in the lead. I’d met the couple behind me, Gene and Julie, friends running together, and they congratulated me too. Did I mention how great the camaraderie is with trail runners?

And the aid station volunteers were awesome, too!

Partway through my second loop I put on my headlamp, a new design that promised to be lighter and more comfortable than the standard headlamp. It was great. It’s light and so well balanced on the head I didn’t feel it at all, and its medium setting was plenty to light my way. The only thing missing is a red LED on the back for a rear light. So I clipped a couple bike lights to my belt instead.

In the desert, stuff just kinda shows up outta nowhere.

I got to the halfway aid station still feeling good. It was dark and already noticeably cooler, so first thing was to switch out my sweaty shirt for a fresh, dry one. Only I didn’t have one in my drop bag. Somehow, despite my carefully detailed checklists, I’d overlooked packing one. Not good. My only option was the shirt I’d swapped out on loop one and left to dry in the sun. It was still damp. I put it on anyway, figuring it would be better than no second layer. And I had a wind jacket. It would have to do.

On my way back I encountered Gene and Julie again. “Your lead just keeps getting bigger,” Gene said. I indeed figured I could stick to my current pace. No need to hit the gas just yet. I refueled at the next aid station and began the next stretch, which I knew was the longest and toughest on the loop. And during that stretch, things began to suck.

First, the terrain seemed to have changed; I didn’t remember there being so much uphill. I became convinced that in between my first and second loops, a construction crew had come in, elevated the grade, and strewn extra rocks on the trail. And I was getting cold, due to my slower pace, rapidly falling temps, and wet shirt.

Every ultrarunner knows to expect highs and lows during a race of this length. I’d been marveling that even after 50 miles, I hadn’t hit a low. Now one showed up and gleefully reminded me constantly that I was sore, tired, and cold. And, by the way, there was still a long slog remaining to the finish. Those few miles seemed to go on forever. Finally I heard the noise and saw the lights of the aid station ahead.

The middle of that tough stretch. Easy during the day. At night…not so much.

I got there and stood by the fire a bit, which didn’t help much. I think my clothes were just too wet. So I moved on to the final aid station. It was less than two miles, but I was not in good shape. I was shivering and had to sit down. Fortunately, someone had some toe warmers, which I slid down my shirt. After a few minutes my core felt warm enough that I was ready to push on to the finish. It was nearly five miles, but mainly downhill. All I had to do was hold together a little longer.

Down the wide, gravelly road I went, feeling better from the warmers and a quicker, steady pace. I reached the bottom and the final turn to the finish. Just between one and two miles to go, on a nice soft runnable surface.

And I had a Walmsley moment.

At mile 93 of the 2016 WS 100, Jim was not only the lead runner, he was on pace to break the course record. Per his own account, all was on track – until he made a wrong turn, went two miles off course, and ended up walking the rest of the way.

And on my final turn by that highway I went wrong, ending up on a path that looked sorta right, except there were no ribbons. In daylight I would have figured it out pretty quickly from landmarks and the fence line. But it was dark, and I figured it had to be right. I kept going, getting more and more concerned. Then I saw a woman up ahead.

“Have you seen any ribbons?” she yelled.

Well, if I was lost, at least I had company. We ran on a little longer, not seeing anything familiar. So we decided to turn around and head back to the intersection. I took off hard, pleased to have a reserve to draw on, but frustrated I’d gone so far the wrong way. I estimated I’d gone over a mile off course.

I got back to the crossroads, found the correct path right next to the other one, got on it and continued hard to the finish, crossing the line at around 16 and a half hours. My second loop had taken ten hours.

And I’d finished third. Both Gene and Julie had taken the correct turn and finished well ahead of me. Julie actually won the race overall by about ten minutes. So I was second male finisher and earned a trophy instead of the winner’s belt.

I was bummed, naturally, but also amused at the irony. Last year I’d won the 50-miler by a single second, and the fellow I’d finished with had accepted his second-place trophy with good grace. Now after being unchallenged leader for nearly 61 miles of a 62-mile race, I had to do the same.

I did my best to smile as they took my photo. But I was suffering badly from cold and fatigue, so right after that I got in my car, cranked up the heat, and returned to my lodging. What a relief to get into a warm bed with dry clothes.

And how do I feel about it now? Just fine, thank you. One advantage of being over fifty is learning what’s worth getting upset over, and what isn’t. And a race result is a definite isn’t. Besides, it makes for a good story. And I like the trophy. People think it’s pretty cool. What was I going to do with another belt?

Now I ask you – isn’t that one cool-looking trophy?

And one other thing may change as a result. I’d been thinking this would be my final time at the Grandmaster. There are too many other races that look like fun. But I was not happy with my time, even accounting for the wrong turn. If I’d won, I might just let it go. But now? I’m beginning to think I can do a lot better if I give it another go. Jim Walmsley did.

Catch That Sunrise

My feet flew as I barreled down the singletrack, trying to keep an eye on the runners ahead while dodging rocks and roots and stepping on slippery leaves. I’d never run this trail before, it was still a bit dark, and I was fully focused on trying not to become a casualty.

Finally we reached the bottom and emerged onto a paved path for a short segment. The lead runners stopped to let the rest of us catch up.

“Did you all catch the sunrise?” one of them asked us.

It was 7 a.m. in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I was at the U.S. Trail Running Conference. This event includes a morning trail run before sessions begin. And thus a bunch of us, including a couple of pro trail runners, had set off into the woods in dim dawn light.

We agreed we’d all run together. Well, “together” is a subjective word. Before long I was alone, between the pros and the less ambitious who wanted to take it easier. It was either slow way down or try to keep the leaders in sight. I chose the latter and succeeded, mostly. It was all downhill for the first part, and I was way out of my comfort zone.

Catch the sunrise? Hell, it had been all I could do just to stay vertical. I’d had zero opportunity to catch what was happening around me. From that point we went uphill, so things were harder physically but easier mentally, and I had time to appreciate the beautiful woods we were running through. Which is one main reason why I run trails.

Another trail run, same conference. Had more time to enjoy it this time.

More than any other activity I do, trail running forces me to be in the moment. In addition to studying the trail terrain and trying not to get lost, I need to be body aware. How are my legs feeling? Am I breathing evenly, or too fast? Do I need water, or salt, or fuel?

When the mind strays is when bad things happen. Most of my falls on a trail have happened on level ground when I’ve zoned out a little. This includes last January’s snowshoe 5K, when I successfully navigated the singletrack’s hairpin turns and quick elevation changes, only to face plant twice on the wide, groomed straightaway a quarter mile from the finish line.

That said, in training runs, and even in a large part of trail races, there is time to look at the beauty around me and remember why I’m out there in the first place. At the Grandmaster Ultra 50 last February, just after I left an aid station the trail led into a valley. But I had to stop before the descent and just gaze at the scene that opened before me, a wide vista consisting of the valley floor, the mountains in the distance, and the myriad of colors everywhere.

Stark but stunning. (Pictured: Chris, who I ran with most of the way.)

I don’t have a photo of it, but one wouldn’t even come close to doing it justice. It was worth the couple of minutes standing there taking it all in. That race in particular I was “in the moment” a lot. Desert running will do that, with the scenery and its demands on the body. I was so grateful to have run that race, and others. They reset my perspective.

Do we focus on being in the moment in our regular lives? It’s so easy to get caught up in the thousand little things we “have to” get done that day, or what we have coming up, or reliving what happened the day or the week before. It can clutter up our minds so much we forget to feel alive. And while every moment is a gift, it’s a fleeting gift. It’s here, and it’s gone. So don’t forget to use it.

And take the opportunity to catch the sunrise now and then.

50 Miles in the Desert: A Grand(master) Adventure

IT WAS A PHOTO FINISH.

If only there had been a camera at the finish line.

Chris and I descended a sandy slope onto the road and charged toward the finish straight ahead. After fifty miles on rugged, rocky desert trails, we found the strength to sprint, and over those last hundred yards we continued to accelerate. After running nearly the entire race together, the top two spots in the Grandmaster Ultra 50 were ours. We hit the line side by side.

As we caught our breath and bumped fists, a woman carrying a large velvet bag walked up to us. “Which of you finished first?” she asked.

My co-finisher and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d been looking straight ahead and only knew it had been close. He had no idea, either.

She looked equally puzzled. “The problem is, I only have one winner’s belt.”

So which one of us would get it?

** Okay, if you really need to know right now who won, you can skip to the end of this post. But I’m a writer and I’m trying to tell a story here. I hope you’ll humor me and stick it out. **

The Grandmaster Ultras take place in the northwest corner of Arizona about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. As its name implies, it’s open only to people 50 and older. The race window is 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and runners have their choice of 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and 48-hour total distance.

The event is a UTMB qualifier, so that was one attraction. The venue was intriguing too. The Burning Man 50K, my only other desert ultra, is pancake flat on firm clay, never far from Black Rock City. The GM Ultra is in God knows where, with cacti, hills, rocks, and tricky terrain. If you fall and twist an ankle, help might take a while, though I suppose you could hitchhike on the occasional ATV rumbling along the trails.

I began my involvement in this race by freaking out the race staff.

I picked up my race bib at the race tent behind Beaver Dam Station Friday afternoon. My race didn’t start until Saturday, so I went up the road for a five-mile “dress rehearsal” run in full gear. This included testing my new snap-on bib attachments. They don’t put holes in your clothing like safety pins, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.

Closeup of the snaps. They worked well! I will use them again.

The practice run went smoothly, and the back muscle I’d strained the week before gave me no trouble even with a full pack, so I cruised back to the station feeling good. Someone took a few pictures of me, even. Then one of the race organizers ran out of the timing tent. “Are you running today?” he called out.

“No, just warming up.”

“Well, then, thanks for wearing your bib,” he shot back, going back into the tent.

I’d come by at a bad time; they were trying to locate a runner they’d lost track of, and just then someone had called, “Runner coming!” It was too soon to be an actual 100K or 100 mile runner, so they were really confused. I finished my run and returned to the tent to apologize. Things had been straightened out by then, and I was quickly forgiven.

Temperature at race start Saturday morning was 35 degrees but warmed up quickly, so my jacket came off in about an hour. I lagged a bit the first mile to take a few photos and retie my shoes, so at the 50K and 50-miler course split I had no idea where I stood. I’d chatted with a few runners the first two miles or so, but now I was alone, with no other runners in sight ahead. The course was marked with orange flags every few hundred yards, so I wasn’t worried about being on the wrong trail.

Chris caught up with me around the four mile mark. He’s from southern California and works at a wastewater treatment plant. I’m not sure how interesting that is to others, but as the owner of a Zero Waste services company, I wanted to hear about it.

Chris striking a pose on the trail. It’s some kind of trail hand signal.

We ran together and talked until the second aid station, where we found out we were the 50-mile front runners. I needed some extra time there, so he went on ahead. For the next few hours I would catch a glimpse of him ahead, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. I thought about trying to catch up, but it was too early to push; there was a lot of race left.

And then, just before the halfway mark, the trail became very runnable dirt, and I did catch up. We reached the Three Corners monument (Arizona, Nevada, Utah) and took an extended break.

Mandatory tourist moment. Look, Mom! I’m in three states at once!

I dropped off my pack and hiking poles, and went from two water bottles to one. A tad risky, but the reduced bulk and weight was a big relief. Chris also introduced me to Gordy Ainsleigh, founding runner of the Western States 100, who was there qualifying for his own race!

Gordy (left), and Chris. Never would have known without him!

We ran together the rest of the way. Our goal was to “beat the sundown” at 6 p.m., which meant finishing under ten hours. We were right on the edge, so we helped each other keep the pace up. I also felt safer; it was pretty desolate out there, and I was now without poles. And the miles just seem to pass faster with company.

As with all ultrarunners, we had our highs and lows along the way. I had a low stretch from miles 30 to 35. The heat, the tedium, and seemingly endless stones were taking their toll, and my gut began to hurt like it had at the 2019 Potawatomi 50. I suspected it was lack of water to aid digestion, so I stepped up my hydration and the pain gradually faded away. After mile 40 I got a second wind and had a “high” all the way to the finish.

Me at a “high” moment early in the race. (Photo courtesy of the event’s Facebook page.)

Chris had lows from miles 35 to 44, and needed to stop now and then for 30-second “walk and water” breaks. I walked with him until he was ready to resume running. In return, when I took extra time at the aid stations, he’d walk until I caught up again.

And so we covered the remaining miles, and emerged onto the ridge above Beaver Dam Station with the sun still up. We checked our watches, saw we could beat ten hours, and took off down the slope and onto the road to the finish line.

** SPOILER: Here’s the result. If you’ve skipped ahead, this is your last chance to go back and read the thrilling narrative that leads up to this part. **

*

*

*

*

*

*

** Okay, here we go. For reals now. **

We all stood there for a moment. Then, joking that she didn’t know how we could each wear the belt half the time, she walked off, presumably to check with other witnesses to the finish. We sat down in conveniently nearby camp chairs and just enjoyed being done.

Then she was back, and she handed the bag to me. “You finished first by one second,” she said. Nine hours and fifty-six minutes of running, and I was champion by one second.

Holy crap, talk about an overpowered award. Do I need a costume and theme song now?

Chris was fine with the outcome. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and we both posed for photos by the finish line. It was a real pleasure, my friend. Hope to see you at another race.

So there it is, my second ultramarathon win when I hadn’t expected to sniff the podium at either one. Life is funny, isn’t it.