A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse: HURL Elkhorn 50 Miles & Escarpment 30K Race Reports

Well, when you're out with an injury, missing valuable training time and cancelling race trips (Bighorn and Tahoe Rim) and generally just missing the trails big time, it's kinda important to....GET BACK ON THAT HORSE! That would be the "horse" of logging serious trail miles and doing those nice organized training runs they call trail and ultra races!

The short of it is that a month back into training I tackled the ever-tough Escarpment 30K (for the fourth time) in the Catskills and HURL Eklhorn 50 Miles near Helena, MT.... within six days...and came out of both in one piece! I can't say I posted stellar times or had super races, but that wasn't really the point. The point was to get in my first runs over 15 miles or 5.5 hours since MMT back in May, after all that forced time off in late May and June with the mysterious knee thing. And to build back that endurance and get back into that race mode and see if Cascade Crest 100 on 8/29-30 is a pipe dream and where I stand for it, just a month out. On that front, I think I boosted my fitness, confidence, and....well, maybe, just MAYBE, I stand a chance of making that 32 hour cutoff at CCC (or at least to put up a decent fight!). If I do make it, I'll look back on these two runs as crucial steps toward that goal!

Synposis of Escarpment: This is still the gnarliest, twistiest, rockiest, eat-you-alive 30K you'll ever find (the 30K that wants to be a 50K and that requires a marathon qualifying time or previous trail run of 30K or longer and where you spend as much time scrambling as truly running). I ran a pedestrain, above-the-official cutoff 6:19:45. Had a decent race as I slogged through the mud (from the previous week's rains), pretty high humidity, and made it up those 5,000+ feet of climbing and equal amount of descent without any major damage (unlike last year, with the scary lightning storm and torrential downpour and flooding on the ridge mid-way, which blew what was shaping up to be one of my better performances there).

Little faster than last year, a few minutes slower than my first time there in '05 (where I first really realized how different and wonderful trail running was and that I needed to COMMIT and FOCUS on it to really enjoy it). And considerably slower than in '07, when I ran like a 5:42. But most years it comes at a point on the race calendar where I'm in recovery mode or otherwise not in peak shape or worried about not expending too much energy due to a race the following weekend (like this year, or last with Catoctin), so I can't say I've ever been able to just sort of go all out. It's really an organized fat-ass (no winners, no prizes), so I like to treat it that way. But a 30K of this difficulty and caliber mid-summer really is something nice to break up the year and "bridge" my running from one phase into the next, I'm finding. After you tackle it, you feel like any tough stuff you encounter in other races you've already been through (and then some) before! A sort of trail running crucible!

This year it was sloppy and wet enough (some light rain in second half) that I just didn't want to plow through those hypertechnical downhills, including those ledges you have to lower yourself down on all fours. Plus I still didn't feel like I had good confidence or leg strength to take the downs fast, so I was conservative, letting several folks pass me in the last few steeply downhill miles (one of whom took a bad fall shortly thereafter, a fate which I know would have befallen me if I had pushed it in that section!). But I did feel pretty good on the climbs, including the ones up to Blackhead Mtn. at 10.2 (3,940') and Stoppel Point at 14.4 (3,430'). Felt like mid-week hill workouts at the Palisades and on the treadmill the previous three weeks had really paid off in terms of getting my climbing form and condition into some semblance of where it stood before the injury, when I was in good shape (for me at least!).

This race is a really important annual ritual for me that I'd hate to ever miss. Love the grassroots feel, the people who come back year after year and get honored with t-shirts marking how many Escarpment miles they've logged, the bus to the start, the in-your-face quality of the trail, the great volunteers who hike all the aid in along this remote point to point trail, the fact that they don't do awards or get carried away with bells and whistles...and this year the nice cool refreshing dip in North Lake right after the finish! Nice way to cool off and wash off all that MAJOR MUD from foot to waist (yes, one not to bad fall about midway!). Oh yes, and they sold an inexpensive, nicely designed technical T at the finish too (the race fee is rock-bottom so no automatic shirt)!

I will also confess to be utterly, completely perplexed at why my local trail friends seem to shun this race, or maybe choose not to go back having done it before (I know Garth didn't know I might be doing it, otherwise I'm sure he would have gone back.) We have a real mecca in our backyard!!! Maybe it's the cumbersome entry procedure, or the fact that it's "only a 30K" and "not an ultra." But I really think that you won't find a better test of your mountain trail running fitness and skills than this one...or a more challenging and rewarding local/regional Northeast running experience. And c'mon, you can be there from the city in like 2 hours and a quarter, 2 and a half tops! But at the same time, I kind of like that this is sort of my "own" little race that holds special meaning and others seem to not "get it" or to go to the trouble of sending in that SASE to get an application. Trail and especially ultra types are rugged individualists and iconoclasts, and decidedly don't "run in packs," so here's to those wonderful traits that make our sport so exciting!

HURL Elkhorn synthesis: It was a great experience to run 50 miles through scenic Montana high country. I loved the mountain meadows, wildflowers, and especially the pine-forested sections, running over soft pine needles. Some awesome vistas of lakes, mountainsides, and vast valleys. I held up pretty well, despite a middle section before and after the long 2,000' climb up to the highest point in the course, where I flirted a little closely with the cutoffs. But got a good burst of energy and picked up the pace from around mile 30, and held it together fairly steadily effort-wise the rest of the way.

Race director Steve Engenbrecht (sp?) and "RD for a day" Martin (as Steve ran the race) put on a well-organized event in Helena National Forest, with 10 aid station, helpful volunteers, and nice camaraderie. The course has a lot of twists and turns as it goes from trail to trail, and sometimes through meadows, with often faint signs of a trail and nothing like the blazes we grow accustomed to in the East. So navigation is tricky, and once I had to backtrack and wait for another runner and pull out my map and instructions. Maybe ran an extra 1/3 to 1/2 a mile. Two other times I either stopped and waited for other runners or encountered another runner doing the same for me, as I checked the map and directions and we made sure we did the right turns. There were several nervous moments, since I ran all alone probably 2/3 of the time, when I kept wondering if I would see the next marking, or had missed a turn. Elk didn't eat their markings this year (they used orange duct tape instead of flagging tape), but still they were spaced wide enough and the trails used don't have their own permanent markings to help, so that you had to use extra caution. A woman who passed me at the next to last aid station and waited for me at one point to make sure we were on course apparently missed a turn and ran four extra miles in the early section of the course!

The longer story: "What, a New Yorker? What brings you out to Montana?" I wish I had a dollar for every time I get that good-natured reaction when I go to a Western ultra! The usual reply, "Why this race, of course! And plus a nice excuse to check out a beautiful part of the country, get in some hiking, etc.!" But mostly at the nice pre-race dinner/orientation at the Elkhorn Fitness Retreat the talk with the nice folks I met was about the course, other races in the area like Devil's Backbone, various 100s people had done or were doing, and the usual ultra stuff. After a long raffle in which I think almost everyone of the 75 or so (out of 100 or more) 50K'ers and 50 milers won something (I got a nice Adidas bag), we got a thorough course briefing from R.D. Steve and were sent on our way. Had there been an award for who came from the farthest distance, I think I would have won it!

Driving out the road that leads into the National Forest and quickly turns to dirt, I was glad I had chosen to rent a 4WD! And really got the sense I was "out there," despite being maybe 8 miles from the Interstate, and maybe 20 minutes from the hotel in Helena where I stayed.

Start to Jackson Creek 1 (mile 10)

It was pitch black in the primitive Crystal Creek Campground when we started. It was an immediate steady climb up a dirt road for two miles or so (where the RD had some jugs of water to top off bottles), until we hit the forest service road, which really amounted to double track. Then a steady swithbacked climb up a low-forested section, where we encountered a lot of cattle, early morning moo's, and "cattle business" left on the trail. We got up to a nice section of ridge where we went through a lot of meadows where the trail grew faint and we had to rely on cairns. I saw what I thought was a cairn and then another that looked more like a rockpile leading down a steep grassy descent...but with no apparent trail. The footpath led instead straight across the meadow. After going on a quarter mile fearful I'd missed a turn that wasn't clearly signed, I backtracked. Along came a runner from Sheridan, WY named Liz, and by then I had checked the directions and my map. Between that and her sighting of an orange marking down the descent on some trees, we realized it was indeed the turn.

Then it was, as I recall, a few miles of rolling but mostly downhill double track surrounded by low new-growth forest till the Jackson Creek AS, staffed by a lone woman. She looked like she had quite a hike to get there! Overall, I averaged about 15:42 for the first 10 miles.

Jackson Creek back to Start/Finish (10-20)

Here we followed the creek up, up, up, before turning up to meet the trail we had come out, and facing a nice switchbacked descent off the mountain, and back onto the direct road headed back to the start/finish at the campground. Things slowed down a lot with the initial climb. It was quite pretty, and the sun was starting to burn hotter. It felt nice to be on the single-track descent, and then on the steady descent on the dirt road you could really pick up a nice head of steam.

I was a little confused at the trail intersection, not recognizing we had been there before and that we were headed back. I pulled out the instructions and maps, and looked at the signs with arrows (one seeming to direct us left, another that seemed to be for those coming another direction directing us right). I didn't recall the signs from before. Anyway, just then Liz and an older man came up, and assured me it was a left, confirming my general sense. She said "do you know this gentleman is 80 years old?" Turns out he was someone that had been paying a lot of attention to at the pre-race dinner. He asked "where you from?," and when I replied NYC he said something like "New York, why did you come all this way?" When I asked where he was from he said "Vermont, but I live around here." "When did you come out?" His mater-of-fact reply: "In the 1950s." Had to laugh at that one! You can take the New Englander out of New England.....! (Though he had finished a number of times and owns the over-60 course record, he ended up not finishing.)

Anyway, I got some distance on Liz and this gentleman on the downhill section, and didn't see anyone those last 5 miles or so. At the start/finish was my dropbag, and I took the chance to change my shirt, re-apply sunscreen and repellent (there were some bugs out there, especially in the low-lying areas), re-load Heed and load and drink some Ensure, re-lube, etc. I was probably there about 15 minutes. Just as I was leaving, Liz came in, and when I looked back after I re-traced my steps a few yards (forgot the damn bottles on the AS table!), she had made a quick visit to the portasan and was close behind me

My average pace per mile in this second section slowed to a more sustainable 17:18 I was happy to leave the 20 mile station with an average pace per mile of 16 minutes so far. I had done my pacechart with 16 and 19 minute paces, and knew the overall cutoff pace was about a 19:20.

Start/Finish Area to Elk Park 1 (20 to 27)

This section had maybe a mile and a half of dirt road, then a nice trail through new growth pines going steadily up to an AS at Teepee Creek at around 23, and then four of the steepest, toughest miles you'll encounter anywhere as you switchback your way up to Elk Park at 27. I was doing pretty well in the shaded trail section up to Tepee Creek, happy to be off the direct mid-day sunlight. The footing was a nice bed of pine needles and it was pretty smooth. There was a large crew of friendly volunteers there, and just beyond you could hear a bunch of kids playing in the stream.

Teepee Creek is at about 5,800', and Elk Park is just beyond the highest point on the course at a lung-busting 7,880. The first part of the climb is a series of switchbacks through broad grassy meadows with awesome views of peaks, including one mountainside off to the left denuded by the '88 fires, with only burnt out stumps of old grwoth. Eventually you get into a really nice pine forest, as it continues to climb upward. The length and steepness of this climb, a lot of it at what would prove the warmest part of the day (direct sunlight, as more clouds would thankfully roll in later!), reminded me of races like Jemez and Bighorn, though it didn't get up to 10 or 9K like them. It was a draining climb, and made a bit demoralizing by the fact that there was a fairly steady stream of 50Kers (whose course started where we hit mile 20 back at the start/finish) as well as, presumably, a few of the 50 mile leaders...all already on their way back home. They were moving wiftly downhill, and it didn't seem to be fair they would be doing that AND be miles and miles ahead of me all while I was straining my way upward!

At one point the climb seemed to reach its high point (we never really summited on any mountain on this course), only to dip and then proceed back upward. I had to ask runners coming towards me a couple times how far Elk Park was. I kept eating and drinking, and had by then upped my total hourly Endurolytes from the usual 2 to 3 and even to 4. I was worried about cramping, but fortunately it never came at any point in the race.

It was a real relief to come to the Elk Park AS, famously run by real cowboys. They were quite friendly, and one even scooted a few steps after me after I left one of my two bottles on the table (seemed to be a real problem for me in this race, when they would take the bottle and fill it while I did something else and got distracted). They said something about the "good part is that you made it under the cutoff." As I left, I realized that I had only about 22 minutes on the cutoff (which I knew from my chart was set at a sub-19 pace for that point).

My average pace slipped in this section to a tortoise-like 35:12 (with all miles rounded off, so that's very approximate, but still!). I hadn't loafed through the section, and no one was gaining ground on me, but nor was anybody in sight in front of me. In fact, I spent over half the race with no one (at least going my direction) in sight before or after me! Talk about spread out in the backcountry! I didn't mind at all--I really kind of enjoy the solitude,but I know it's dangerous pace-wise.

Elkpark 1 to Wilson Creek (27-32)

In retrospect, this was the make or break section. A little shocked I was flirting with the cutoffs and dismayed I couldn't really generate much turnover on the nice, curvy pine-forested descents, my morale faded a bit for a few miles. Would I have to play the old exhausting "beat the cutoffs" game the whole rest of the way? Maybe I should have signed up for the 50K (I joked to a volunteer at th eWilson Creek aid station about it being the 50K finish)? After all, I had already been out several hours longer and several miles longer than I had been since mid-May at MMT. So maybe my eyes had been bigger than my stomach in signing up for a 50-mile so soon?

Well, somewhere along there as I traversed some rolling to flat jeep roads, mostly shaded, I took the second dose of Vivarin and Advil. That seemed to buoy my spirits by the time I hit the next AS. That plus seeing that my pace had picked up, and that my gap on the cutoff had increased to 28 minues! (Somehow my Garmin wasn't properly charged at the start, so my only pace feedback came from comparing my watch times to the pace chart and the various paces I had charted out at each aid station)

My pace in this section improved considerably (thanks to considerable downhill and some flats) to 16:48.

Wilson Creek to Elk Park 2 to Teepee Creek 2 (32 to 39)

There was a little spring in my step, even as I realized we had a considerable climb up the other side of the mountain back UP to Elk Park! But it was through some of the most beautiful sections of the course, as we wound up wooded forests, across meadows with wildflowers and awesome views, and with a lot of pine needles and dirt and not too many rocks. My spirits were buoyed, and now I felt pretty certain I was going to finish this baby!

It was a mental boost to get back to Elk Park again, see the same volunteers, and realize that I was now on the "way back," with a very considerable downhill section ahead! Again, I didn't linger long, just filled by bottles, grabbed a few snacks, and was off.

The downhill felt good, and while my turnover was never great on the downhills throughout the day, I was able to at least take advantage of gravity to run them. The views going down of the valleys and neighboring peaks (one with a few spots of snow) were awesome. It was nice to see the same kids playing at the stream crossing, and to get back to Teepee Creek. Here I had my other drop bag, and took a few minutes to apply sunscreen and body lube, fill up my Heed and Perpeteum bottles, stock up on Endurolytes, and grab my second headlamp just in case. I left with a nice 40 minutes on the cutoffs, which now put me closer to an 18 minute than 19 minute average, which was very pleasing! I knew this would be a finish,and the only question was how far under 16 hours I could go.

I averaged 20:54 on the climb up to Elk Park,and 16:45 on the descent down to Teepee.

Teepee Creek to Casey Meadows to finish

I read from the race description: "From Tepee Creek, the course immediately beings a fairly steep uphill. This entire uphill section is exposed to the afternoon sun. The climbis approximately 2 miles and elevation gain is approximately 1,500'"(up to a little over 7,000'). Indeed! The sun and clouds continued to play tag, and this was maybe the rockiest part of the course. Some of it verging on scrambling at times. It was a LONG, TOUGH climb for that late in the race, but I plodded on steadily. There were some awesome views from up there, and some exposure but nothing too scary. It was also one of the steepest and most technical downhills of the day, descending toward Casey Meadows AS. My pace slowed down to a 22:45 in this section. I was 39 minutes under the cutoff at Casey, and still under a 19 minute pace overall.

Here we were (I thought) back on a section we had been on earlier in the day. It was a little confusing! Anyway, just a few hundred yards behind me was a woman who appeared to be in her 30s, gaining on me. I left the AS just before her, but sensed I should let her pass as she was moving very well. We conferred a little at one tricky turn, and exchanged a few pleasantries. Turns out she had run maybe 4 extra miles in the first 20 due to a wrong turn. That could have been me! Glad I waited at every junction where I wasn't sure throughout the race!

Anyway, after a fairly short climb, with some awesome views down over the valley and of the nearby peaks, we started a fairly steady, windy descent through mostly new growth. Markings were scarce, and I got nervous at a few points, only to finally see the elusive orange duct tape. At one point, there was a considerable climb again, and I saw the woman, who had gone far ahead, waiting for me. No, there hadn't been any turns I had seen, I told her. She ran a little ahead and finally saw a marking and yelled it was ok. From there we wound further down to a small aid station--the last!--at around mile 48, back at Jackson Creek (which didn't look at all familiar from the morning--were we approaching from a different side this time?). In this downhill section I got my pace down to a 16:48. But she was far ahead of me, and I didn't have any illusions of keeping up or catching her.

From the last AS, it was what seemed like a never-ending 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile, including a closed livegstock gate that I chose to climb over as it didn't seem easy to untie and retie the wire closing it, to get back to the dirt road. Now it was mostly a steady 1.5 mile descent on the dirt road to the finish. I didn't have enough left, or much feel compelled, to really turn up the juice, but I managed to run the whole last section on heavy but not unbearable legs. I though, well, might be nice to break 15:15, if I couldn't break 15. Ran into a guy walking towards me with a dog, and he clearly was a runner. I said to him his dog was the pacer I needed all day, and he told me it was just around the bend. I expressed some skepticism as they jogged beside me a few paces (I think he thought I wanted HIM to pace me!), but sure enough around the bend was the campground, and the little right turn intothe finish under pine trees!

It was a pleasant little scene at the finish area, as they offered a nice spread of food. A gentleman handed me a pencil drawing of an elk with the race name and my name and finishing time. Got to talk to Steve, the R.D., who had had to drop out with cramps or some issue at Casey Meadows. And to a guy from Alberta whom I'd talked to early on. And Liz, who came in a few minutes later as last finisher, and her training partner from Sheridan (he had missed the cutoff). And briefly with the woman who passedme and finishe dlike 8 minutes ahead (from AZ, it turned out). We saw a deer in the distance up a ridge. Earlier in the day, I had nearly stepped on a small snake (kicking a rock accidentally toward it as I braked on a dime!), seen various small rodents, a ton of cows,and some kind of vulture-like bird. The wildflowers were spectacular, and even one giant ubiquitous weed with a purple flower was beautiful!

All in all, course beauty aside, I thought this one was just what the doctor ordered! It really gotme back into the swing of things. I learned my legs and mind could still "go there" when the chips were down and the haul was long. The time (15:14:32, for an 18:18 overall pace) wasn't great, and I feel like had I been in better shape and more race-sharp and more time-focused, I should have been able to shave a good half hour to hour on that course. The course is only just one notch below Zane Grey (less technical) and Jemez (less altitude) in difficulty, so it was a good test/tune-up/ramp-up-into-shape run for Cascade. And in terms of the setting, the people, the race organization, the weather, everything was just real darn nice! Really enjoyed it!

Not sure why more folks don't know about HURL Elkhorn, but they should! Maybe they're deliberately keeping it low-key for a reason, so I'll try not to spoil it!

1 comment:

The Lisa said...

How you remember all the race details amazes me, Scott. Great description of HURL Elkhorn - worth putting on the 'maybe' pile for upcoming years.