Old Pueblo is a beautiful, well-organized 51-mile trail run through the high country of the Santa Rita mountains, about an hour southeast of Tucson. It features more dirt roads than is to my trail purist's liking. But fortunately these are mostly pretty remote forest service roads, with little or no vehicle travel. Some well graded and smooth, but occasionally pretty rugged. So you still get that "away from it all, out there" feeling, as you go back and forth from public land to private ranch land, crossing more cattle guards than I carry to count! Plus there are three distinct sections of the beautiful Arizona Trail single track. These tend to be the sections with the most forest cover in what is mostly a pretty exposed course. You have that "I can see for miles and miles" feeling at many different points in the race, contrasting sharply with that "closed in, don't know what's around the next curve in the trail" from our eastern Appalachian races.
Perhaps the most spectacular feature of this race are some of the high mountain passes you cross, as you hit points of 5,600-5,900 feet five different times. Particularly Gunsight Pass at around mile 17, from which the views are vast. For what seems like the majority of the race, there is a range of glorious higher peaks of around 9,000+, covered with lots of snow, gazing down at you quite tantalizingly. Just in case you're feeling too high and mighty at your piddling elevation! (Can't seem to find the name that one racer gave me afterwards for this range or one particular peak, as I peruse just now a long web list of Arizona's higest peaks.)
For someone coming from sea level like me, the moderate mile-high elevation of the race--ranging from about 4,100 to 5,900--adds a decent level of difficulty. The climbs aren't particularly long or steep or technical, and pretty much all the course is runable if you have your "wheels still on." Total elevation gain is 7,000, with equal amount of descent, so more moderate than, say, Mountain Masochist or Bel Monte among eastern 50 milers. Yet still for me, at a comparable (at least) level of fitness to doing those two races over the past year, it was a decidedly slower course than Masochist, and maybe in the same category of Bel Monte for overall toughness (I was 20 minutes or so faster at OP50).
I think that's mostly the altitude factor, but also the second half of the course is considerably tougher, and with a greater quotient of single track and (somewhat) technical terrain and lots and lots of stream crossings (falling in the last third of the race when you have the least patience and manueverability left in the legs for rock hopping--some wetness is inevitable, so better to just go with the flow!). So all that tends to slow you down quite a bit despite the general runability of the footing. A 50 mile trail PR course this ISN'T! But neither is it a Zane Grey or Jemez Mountain or HURL Elkhorn or some other "epic western mountain 50 miler," which will take mid packers 14 hours and up and up.
The weather was quite pleasant. Party to mostly sunny, highs in low 60s, winds got up there into teens and maybe 20s but were never a both for too long. Just when I got warm enough to roll down the arm warmers and unzip the vest I wore (beneath my Nathan mesh carry-all vest) and would think about discarding it at a drop bag location, I decided to keep it. Later on, as I rolled the sleeves back down, and zipped up the vest, I was glad I had kept it!
Race organization was first-class. Extremely well marked. Particularly as there were many side trails or roads where you could go wrong, if each turn weren't so copiously marked, wrong turns well chalked off, and ribbons placed nicely every few minutes so you never went far without knowing you were on course. Aid stations were well-spaced for a backcountry race, every 6 miles or so, with friendly volunteers and pretty good offerings (though a bit more in the way of sandwiches and soup throughout might have been nice).
Overall, I loved the setting, the wide open feeling, the high desert terrain of low forest and prickly pear, sotol, cholla, and other cacti, and the vast views of surrounding mountains in almost all directions. Quintessentially Southwestern. I had one of those "isn't it great to be a trail runner and to be alive" moments somewhere toward the middle of the race. Cholla and prickly pear and other cacti gleaming in the sun. The mountains I had just descended on a lovely stretch of screaming downhill behind me and off to one side. A beautiful string of snow-covered peaks pulling me onward as I ran toward it through a vast rolling valley...it doesn't get any better than that, and it's what ultrarunning is all about to me! All that, plus the spectacular couple hours I spent the day before at Saguaro National Park (west section) absolutely made this cross-country destination race trip well worth it--and one I'd do again!
Overview of My Race
I wasn't quite sure what to expect, so formulating goals was hard. I put down 11 hour, 11:30, and 12 hour aid station splits on my pace chart. I figured it was probably slower than Masochist with the altitude, and turned out I was right. I knew it was "way easier" than the venerable Zane Grey a couple hundred miles north, but so is pretty much any other race, so how much easier? Three hours? Four? Hard to plan!
Anyway, for the first half of the race, I was on a pace that would get me in around 11:30, and was moving well. Watching the heart rate, monitoring the effort, climbing pretty efficiently, gliding smoothly on the downhills. But it turns out the course is really backloaded in terms of difficulty. I moved well on the mostly uphill dirt roads from 25 to 29, and then on the single track from 29 to 33. But still my pace had slipped to a 12 hour pace by then. So I thought, well, 12 hours would still be quite decent on a course like this.
Then things slid a bit, and the energy faded for a couple miles at a time, at various points between about 35 and 46. My Garmin was registering mile splits in the 15-18 minute range, after lots of 12-14 minute ones in the first 35 or so. Turns out, my overall pace per section was pretty even through the race (from a high of 14:41 to a low of 13:18).
But in any case the pace did slip, and what I thought would be a "long heroic charge" over the last 15 miles ended up being confined to a "last-minute heroic charge" over the last 3-4 miles trying to salvage a sub-12:30 finish (which I barely made, at 1:29:26, good for 81st out of 122 finishers--173 were registered, but not sure how many of them started).
And charge it was, as I was suddenly able to rev it up to do 10-11 minute miles and surge past two people who'd passed me in previous miles, getting the old ticker up to the 170s to low 190s (could that be right?, I asked myself, as objectively my HR hadn't gotten that high in even recent speed workouts, and I was even doubting I could get it past the mid-180s based on those workouts!). I was pleased to make it in by sunset, and never have to turn on that headlamp I picked up at mile 40. But I did have way too much left in the tank?, I wonder in retrospect.
Oh yeah, and there was that extra third of a mile or so I had to run, when I left one of my bottles at the mile 40 aid station and had to run back for it!
The goal of finishing in the top half didn't materialize, as I was more like bottom third. But not too far off goal if you consider probably total starters. Anyway, since this is all about the buildup to Bighorn in June, the positive takeaways were that I still had a lot loft in the tank at the end (probably too much!). And that I never got too discouraged even when I slowed, and more ambitious pace goals went by the wayside. Never had one of those stretches where a stream of racers pass you by. And all in all from 33 on I passed a net total of eight people (the last of them a "re-pass" of someone whom I'd passed in the first half). So I was at least slowing down to a lesser degree than those around me! Stomach was ok (one brief pit stop aside), ate and drank regularly, blister issues only minor, no need for shoe and sock changes, efficient aid station get-thru, yadda, yadda, yadda.
So, all in all, I guess it fulfilled its dual role as "winter getaway destination race" and Bighorn tuneup. Though we'll see about the latter come late June!
(a more detailed section by section recap still to come in a separate post)
Obviously still need to work on limiting those bad patches