Photo: Greg Norrander
Having run Salida 10 minutes quicker than in 2010 two weeks ago, I was hopeful that I could put up another course PR this weekend in a 50k, this time on the fantastically scenic outcropping of mountains lifting out of The Great Salt Lake, forming what is known as Antelope Island - a place where the buffalo roam and the antelope graze. Even better than the fauna are the dawn views of the stunning Wasatch off to the west of the island - alone worth the price of admission. But there was also some racing to be done.
With Salida still in my legs and the American River 50 upcoming, I was a little unsure about racing this one too hard. I knew that the winner from the Bear 100, Mike Foote, would be on the start line but beyond that there weren't too many other names that I recognized from the start list. I was hopeful therefore that I might be able to cruise this one and still come away with a win.
From the gun, I was on the deck being trampled after a somewhat inglorious drop of my EFS Liquid Shot flask and subsequent stumble to the ground after trying to scoop my fuel from the ground in stride. In my rugby days, I think I would have pulled it off, as scooping a rugby ball while on the move is a skill that is frequently practised, but it's been a while. In the process of falling, I dropped my water bottle under me and landed my ribs hard on it in exactly the same spot as I bruised them last year whilst coming down off of Pikes Peak. Another set of bruised left ribs as I sit here writing this. Sweet. Wheeze. After the stampeding, I was able to get to my feet, shake off the fall, and get on with the 32-mile task at hand.
Last year, Scott Dickey set an uncomfortably hard pace up the opening 600-foot climb; this year, thankfully, the pace was very casual which allowed for some good banter and a gentle warm up. Christian Johnson, who paced me in expert fashion through the final 25 miles of the Wasatch 100 last year, was up in the lead pack of five or six guys as we climbed through the first couple of miles. He made a few introductions, singling out Seth Wold as a 'fast marathoner,' while Jake Krong introduced himself as a newcomer to the SLC area, just as we were starting to ratchet up the tempo toward a more race-like effort. Mike Foote and another whose name I didn't catch were also in the pack.
After a quick wrong turn - approved by Christian who mapped the course, ahmm - we cut cross country back onto the jeep track that wound around a ledge before starting the descent down on the connector section between the two loops that together make up the 25k lap that done twice makes up the 50k course. On the steepest section of the lap, a short but sharp 300-400 foot climb up to the Elephant Head aid station, I could feel that my climbing legs were not with me. Six miles in, and this little grunter felt way harder than it should have.
By this point Seth, Jake and I had created some separation on Christian and Mike, and it looked like it would be the three of us racing for the podium places. Seth and I had mainly been taking turns with the lead and all three of us seemed on board and comfortable with the pace. I led us through the switchbacks at the far end of the Elephant Head loop, and I could tell that Seth and Jake were still running well within themselves. While I wasn't laboring up this climb, which is very generously graded (long switchbacks), I continued to feel like the climbing was more work than it should have been.
Connecting back up to the first loop, I let Jake and Seth gap me a bit as the grade steepened. I was able to catch up quickly as things flattened out, but by this point 11-12 miles in, I was beginning to feel like I was in for a grind of a second lap. Finishing up the rolling last few miles of the first lap on the return side of the first loop back to the turnaround at the start/finish, Jake assumed the lead and upped the tempo a touch - maybe feeling Seth and I out a bit. This work actually felt good and I was enjoying the increased blood flow that accompanied the faster pace, which gave me some encouragement that my legs might finally be ready and up to the task of racing the second lap.
We hit the turnaround, after the long downhill cruiser into the finish area, in 1:49 which I think was a minute faster than last year. On the climb back up for round two, I knew immediately that I was in trouble. Jake and Seth kept the effort level right where it had been for the last few miles, and despite the feeling that my legs had opened up a touch through the rollers of the last couple of miles, I just couldn't get them firing on any kind of sustained climb. I hung on for the first half of the climb, but soon made the executive decision that I just wasn't going to be able to hold this pace without an inglorious implosion long before the finish. And so I let them go.
By the top of the climb, Jake and Seth had 45-60 seconds on me. I figured I might be able to pick them back up on the flatter/downhill stuff, but it wasn't to be. After holding out hope for a few miles, it became increasingly clear - on this course with wide open, sweeping views - that they were gone.
Knowing by Elephant Head at mile 21-22 that the racing was essentially done, I dropped down into training mode and started thinking about American River and the fact that I will need to be careful with the mileage and effort over the next couple of weeks if I want to be at all competitive there. Flat legs again and there is no way I'll be competing.
Coming back around toward the finish with three or four miles to go, after passing probably 100 people in the 25k race ("on your left," "coming up behind you," "on your right, "right behind you guys," "nice work"....), I caught sight of Seth five minutes or so ahead, which was closer than I thought he would be at this stage. However, with the proliferation of 25k runners between he and I, it was unclear if Jake was ahead or behind him. In the vain hope that I might be able to pick up second, I increased the tempo for the final 20-25 minutes, but it wasn't to be.
I ended up coming in a touch under 3:48, which was a few seconds quicker than last year (in comparable conditions), but way off Jake's new course record of 3:38, which given the 4,000 feet of climb, 4000-5000' of altitude, and long course (32-32.5 miles) is pretty impressive (at least to me). Seth - a 2:22 road marathoner - also finished way under my time from last year (3:43).
Clearly, I need to be a little careful as I get ready for American River, which is something of a goal race. I didn't feel great at Salida, but came away satisfied with my run. Yesterday on Antelope Island it was a grind pretty much the whole morning, which tells me that it's time to take things a little easier for the next couple of weeks - a mini taper in the middle of my build for Western States. Hopefully that way I can run well at AR50, while also recharging the batteries a bit before the last six or seven weeks of work before Squaw.
Elsewhere on the island, Coloradoans Dan Vega and Dylan Bowman held up their ends of the bargain with impressive wins in the 100- and 50-mile races. Dan beat Mr.100 himself (Meltzer) in the inaugural 100, while Dylan reset Burch's 6:30 course record from last year with a zippy 6:15. Both these guys look to have found good early season form - and both will be running at Leadville in August. Put them both in your picks for the top five. Defening Leadville champ Duncan Callahan also had a good run in the 50, finishing in 6:30 or so.