March 5, 2011
I love going to either Old Pueblo 50 Mile in March or Zane Grey 50 Mile in April, because both are beautiful 50 mile courses and most important, both are great ways to get out and see my parents, who live in Arizona. Last year, it was Zane Grey, a technical course I adore. This year, Rob signed us up for Old Pueblo, which is significantly less technical but no less scenic.
We flew out a couple days in advance to spend some non-race time downtime with my parents, which is a great break from the usually jam-packed schedule. For me, it’s reliably renewing just to be there, though I’m never sure why. But whether it’s being with my parents and on their schedule or soaking up Arizona’s naturally healthy, sunshine-y vibe, while it’s still dark, bleak, and winter at home, it feels like I’ve had an entire week of vacation time we get to the starting line.
Yes, the race is in sunshine-y Arizona but that doesn’t mean it’s not cold. In fact, the start is exceptionally cold, 28 degrees F. Chalk it up to being in the desert, where daytime heat disappears almost instantly in the open night skies, and elevation. The race start in Sonoita, wine country near Tucson, is a respectable 4879 ft.
I’ve run the race a couple of times and never even consider not finishing but the big unknown this year continued to be my hip. I’d been through weeks of physical therapy since Louisville’s Lovin’ the Hills 50k, in February and though fewer muscles were in pain, those that were in pain were stubbornly and deeply so. I had to accept that the day could turn out painfully frustrating and with less than a finish.
Mom, Dad, Rob and I parked and walked downhill to the start at Kentucky Camp where there was lots of the usual rushing around and sense of panic you get at any race start. It’s the last chance to take care of things and double check your decisions. Rob got our numbers while I checked my pack one last time and huddled with Mom and Dad to stay warm. Before we knew it, the RD made a two-minute call and we shed jackets and split from Mom and Dad to group with the other runners for the start.
The race started up the same steep hill we walked down from the parking area, and there was plenty more walking to do in the early uphill miles so we took it slow. That’s just as well since it makes it easy to pause and turn around for the glorious desert sunrise behind us to the east.
While most of the field passed us, Rob and I chatted in the growing light and soon found ourselves settling into a comfortable pace with another runner who introduced himself as Ben. He had a cheerful, positive attitude that made him great trail company and seemed to be running smart, unlike many of the runners who take off fast and die in the later miles as we pass them. It was his first 50 miler and trail race, and we learned that he had a coach and was intelligently keeping to the pace his coach had outlined, instead of getting greedy and seeing visions of great finish times in these easy, early miles. He was using the race to train for Ultraman, an ultra-distance triathlon with a 52-mile run.
While he and Rob talked, I took advantage of the time to take photos, watch three mule deer cross the road, and find a form sustainable for my hip. The only clues I had to work with were to take it slow and finish my full stride instead of cutting it short as I tend to do when running with others and falling into their cadence. So far, I felt out of shape but also out of pain, so there was hope.
At a left turn through here, our slow threesome got surprised by a fast threesome coming up from the side road. They’d clearly taken a wrong turn on the ranch/mining roads we were running and when we said “hi” and the lead guy snapped that the turn “wasn’t marked.” I glanced over at the flagging clearly lying in and around the turn. Was he expecting a neon sign or someone to tell him what to do?
Granite Mountain Aid Station (3 miles)
With a quick stop at the aid station, we now faced some nice rolling Arizona Trail single track that was usually pretty fun. One way or the other, this would be a key test for my hip and for the rest of the race. The verdict after a couple of hills: stiff, awkward, and not so fun, but possible. I would have to think about each step or risk lapsing into bad form that could irritate those muscles so much that I might not be able to finish, but with attention, I could finish. And as awkward as it felt, I managed to stay ahead enough of Rob and Ben enough to stop and take plenty of photos.
California Gulch AS (7 miles)
Rob and I had staged a drop bag here, at the start of this first loop of the dumbell-shaped course. The sun was definitely up now, so I picked up sunglasses and dumped my light jacket and headlamp in the drop bag. I could pick those up when we hit this aid station again on the return.
The route to the next aid station was dirt road and passed through old mine and ranch territory. Although dirt road’s not my favorite, it does allow Rob and I to run side by side and gives other runners plenty of room to pass. We yo-yo’ed easily through here with other members of Ben’s team, all in yellow shirts, and a few other runners we were now catching. Though Ben eventually dropped back some, he was still in sight.
Wasp Canyon AS (13 miles)
As I approached the aid station, I spotted Minnesotan Mary Croft, who I know from years at Superior Trail 100. It’s always a bit disconcerting to see someone I know from one geographic region in another so opposite place – I’m never sure if I actually recognize the person or if I’m imagining things – but I’ve seen Mary enough in Arizona to be sure she wasn’t an early race hallucination.
One nice surprise of the day was that she introduced me to fellow aid station volunteer Harry Sloan, who’s name I recognized immediately as the creator of the Superior Trail 100, my favorite race. It’s hard to come up with an appropriate thank you in the few moments you have at an aid station for something you treasure that much, but I hope I did it justice.
A cookie, some Coke and a refilled bottle and we hit the trail again, just as Ben was coming in. There were some turns ahead and as a new trail runner, I worried a little that Ben might miss a turn. The dirt road from here winds long and gradually up to Gunsight Pass the high point of the course. At 5459 feet, the views over the high plain grassland toward Sonoita are spectacular and the view at the top toward Tucson is almost dizzying. In a nice surprise, a determined Ben caught up and kept us company on the way up toward the pass.
At the top, the wind was crazy so I yelled to Rob to go ahead down the other side. I downhill faster than he does and could linger here to take some photos and still catch him before the bottom. The challenge was that the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hear anything else and couldn’t see to take photos because my eyes were tearing so badly. The funny part was that each time a tear rolled off my cheek to the bottom of my sunglasses, the wind blew it off my face. So I aimed, waited for a tiny break in the gust, and hoped for the best.
As noisy as the wind was on the Sonoita side, two steps over the pass was perfectly quiet. No one talking and no battering wind. No energy, just peace. Like being in the eye of a hurricane, it was nice to just stand there and be for a moment.
Since there was no real rush and no one around, I treated the rocky downhill as playtime, and had fun swooping around and through the rocks. While I couldn’t afford any injuries and didn’t want to aggravate the hip with races the next two weekends, rock hopping down the long switchbacks felt great, and for the first time in months, my hip was almost pain-free. Doubt changed to cautious elation and I started looking forward to the rest of the race.
With the hip feeling better, it was fun having someone to catch, and just before the bottom, I caught Ben, passed a Jeep and old VW Bug headed up the rocky, rutted road with more optimism than I could imagine, and then finally caught Rob.
Here, as the dirt road eased out of the shelter of the mountain and turned left into the valley floor, the wind reappeared in full force. There was nothing to do against the relentless force but don a hairband and be grateful to have the sunglasses I’d bought at REI the day before to replace the ones I’d forgotten to pack. The dust and grit were deadly to my contacts and each time a car approached, I moved us as far to the upwind side as possible.
Helvetia AS (19 miles)
Another quick stop here, being careful to take in extra fluids, and we were off, no Ben in sight.
Instead of talking, Rob grew a bit quiet, a sure sign we’re pushing cutoff. How could this be? He ran on each time I stopped for a photo and we’ve been running well, haven’t we? When I asked, he said it wasn’t bad but we needed to keep moving.
Still, I couldn’t resist stopping for another moment while Rob ran on in this isolated valley at a tiny, but well-decorated roadside cemetery. For a moment, I put the race out of mind and tried to imagine the people and lives behind the names. There were stories there, as there are in everyone’s life, and it felt good not to pass them by.
I caught Rob again as we turned left up the long Forest Service road that would take us into the Box Canyon Aid Station. This road has been lined with glorious saffron-colored poppies in years past but it was still too cold for them this time. Instead of poppies, we had the wind in our faces again so strong it literally sandblasted us. It flung a steady stream of grit at exposed legs and skin and my sunglasses now functioned as safety glasses, keeping the grit out of my eyes. It was again hard to hear each other and the wind was so loud I honestly wished for earplugs. The only sound I could hear outside the wind was a jet decelerating to land in Tucson, but the sound kept on long after the plane should have been out of earshot. Hmm. I looked around and finally realized it was really the wind though the phone lines above. Now that’s windspeed!
With the main climb over, there was another mile or two left across a high valley and over a series of cattleguards (which also function slightly as Rob guards) to the Box Canyon Aid Station. The valley was drier and browner than I remembered but snow-covered Mt. Wrightson (9453 feet) commanding the ahead and my hip still feeling ok, I was free to enjoy the view instead.
Box Canyon Aid Station (25 miles)
Another left turn onto Box Canyon Road and we were at the aid station. As cool as it was this year, we were still amazingly dry and hot. In an impressive feat, the aid station had a full tray of what looked like Subway wraps but they all had cheese or chicken, so I had to pass. Rob didn’t hesitate to enjoy one in front of me, but I consoled myself with the reality that one would have been too heavy in my stomach for the climb up Box Canyon. It was smarter (though much less appetizing) to stick with the GUs and electrolyte caps I had in my pack.
The dirt road uphill is long, windy and steep, so we walked it, and darned if my hip didn’t tighten up like a knife blade was stabbing the muscle. Go figure. We were taking it easy, not even running, and the pain became unbearable? Things had been going so well and I love to climb strong and fast, so it seemed unfair for it to return here. I tried all the tricks I knew with no relief, and eventually had to resort to stretch breaks. I wanted to avoid taking Advil today, with the potential for dehydration and wanting to be aware if I was creating more injury, but I was sorely tempted – we still had almost half the race left to go.
Near the top of the hill, we passed a older guy and what looked like his grandson just hanging out kind of suspiciously at the bed of the truck. I was trying to guess what they were up to when a hound bayed loudly from inside the box in truck bed. Ah, they must be waiting for us to pass to run their dogs. They certainly weren’t there for a picnic, but with my hip hurting so bad, I really didn’t care.
Finally, finally we made it over the last bit of hill and out of the wind back to the California Gulch Aid Station. As the dirt road into the aid station leveled out, the pain eased a bit.
California Gulch (now at 29 miles)
This was the last chance at the drop bag, so I picked up a light fleece, tied it around my waist, and stuffed the lightweight jacket and headlamp into my small pack. We’d be finishing after dark for sure, and it didn’t take long to get cold. I turned around to see Ben sitting with Rob. He’d dropped and was now in the car with his team crew, supporting other runners. He still looked cheerful and determined. He’d probably be back.
Full bottles, some extra fluid to boot, an electrolyte cap, and we were good to go. The section ahead was the middle of the dumbbell that we did in the morning, so back now on single track, mostly uphill. I took it slow, hoping like crazy the hip would ease out again, that that hill climb hadn’t locked it into a permanent spasm. Eventually, it did ease out enough to stop for some photos and catch back up to Rob. This time through, since we were still some of the last runners, and made sure to latch the cattle gates behind us.
It was hard not to compare running the section this time to running it earlier that morning. Even with all the dirt road on this course, there are plenty of rocks, and though I forget, 50 miles is a long way to run, especially if you’ve never run a trail race. Ben might have made a good decision this time. I’d hate for him to have a bad day and turn completely against trail running.
Granite Mountain Aid Station (now at 33 miles)
Arriving at this aid station signaled that we were back again to the end of the dumbbell and getting ready to start on the last loop. That was reassuring, progress-wise.
Unfortunately, in the course of the day, bees had taken over management of the aid station, while human volunteers looked on. Rob, I, and the volunteers all stood together and watched, gauging our chances of getting some fluids without getting stung. One of the volunteers said they were Africanized bees, the kind that swarm and kill people when they sense panic. Though I helped Mom some with the hives when she kept while I was growing up, the odds here didn’t look good and the consequences in a race setting could be less than favorable. I asked how far to the next aid station, hoping we could skip it, but 7 miles in arid Arizona heat was too far to go without water.
Eventually, one selfless volunteer went above and beyond the call of duty and filled our bottles while I watched a couple of bees walk around on the back of his shirt. I sure wasn’t going for extra fluids this time. Just grateful to have a full bottle.
This is a nice loop, and I probably like it better than the other. In general, it’s more closed in with nice twists and turns instead of long, straight dirt roads, through high chaparral pine forest with a few choice vistas toward Sonoita. My hip apparently liked it too and had finally settled back to feeling good again. The more easy running I did instead of walking, the better it felt. The fact that it hadn’t locked into a permanent spasm was huge, and I grew more confident in what I could do.
As the sun tilted toward late afternoon, we started to catch a few runners, a good sign that we were on schedule. In another good sign, we also passed the windmill that’s the race “mascot.” The only noticeable sound her were the blades were squeakily turning in the breeze.
The steep, rocky descents shortly before Cave Canyon aid station were great for my hip but would have been daunting, if not defeating, for a first time trail/ultra runner. I wondered again what Ben would have made of it.
Cave Canyon AS (40 miles)
After running the race a few times, I recognized the turns into the aid station even before I saw the cardboard signs and started listening for a familiar call. Soon enough, I heard the oh-so-familiar “THAT’S WHAT I”M TALKING ABOUT!!!” Sure enough, Bob Bachani was here. Having done several Zane Greys and Old Pueblos now, he’s now a mainstay I look forward to seeing at each. I’d miss him if he wasn’t there – it wouldn’t be the same – and it was a treat to see him. He recognized me coming into view and we had a good laugh to see each other again. We talked briefly until another runner came into view and needed the full treatment, so I left him to it.
The aid station just up the bank was playing bagpipe music, as usual, and I have to say that there’s nothing like it to get you stirred up and motivated. While Rob sat down to work on his feet for a moment, I scanned the fully stocked aid station table and noticed a guy wearing a coonhound rescue shirt, something that I would expect at home (maybe) but certainly seemed out of place here. When I complimented him on the shirt and he seemed surprised I knew about coonhounds, until I told him I WAS, after all, from Tennessee. I told him I had a Walker hound and we laughed for a while about the virtues of hounds and how they’re are either “on” or “off,” no in between.
Only one more aid station and my favorite section of trail on this course to go. I could almost “smell the barn” from here. We turned up the Cave Canyon Road to pass the the camping area – almost devoid of campers in the “cold,” as the sun was setting.
This was tough for two reasons. First, I was sure we were usually here before the sun was this low and second, it was another walking uphill, and my hip almost immediately began to sear in pain.
I didn’t particularly like this canyon anyway, probably because of the rushed feeling caused by impending sunset, and I really wanted to get past it, as if it was some marker beyond which everything would be fine. The low sun at this landmark, more than watch time, affected my perception of how we were doing because it didn’t lie. I could tell myself we were about the same distance along as usual but the sun said otherwise, and even the temperature agreed – I had to put my gloves on. It would be nice to get at least as far as usual before headlights were necessary, and I hated to be rushed.
As much of a mental back-to-reality downer as that was, the next section of rocky downhills and undulating pine-grass land, from about Sweetwater Spring to Tunnel Spring, was a bit higher with more sunlight, and was also better running for me than anything yet. My hip began to felt great, and probably as a result, the section ran shorter and was over faster than I remembered from before.
We passed a few more people, though not nearly as many as usual, another data point suggesting we were slower than usual. As disappointing as that might be, we would finish, it had been a beautiful day, and my hip at the moment felt better than I’d imagined it could.
Not far from the stream crossing at Tunnel Spring was my absolute favorite section of Arizona Trail. It’s narrow single-track, down a slight topo descent, and surrounded by tan, knee-high grass and flanked occasionally with a short green pine. In three times here, I’ve never failed to perk way, waaaay up on this section, and while I didn’t have high expectations this time with my hip, it had to at least be relaxing.
Rob said goodbye and to take off, so I turned up the dial a hair. And then another. Faster…and faster…and then everything began to flow. If you’ve been there, you know what it’s like. Your mind stops thinking and you just blend out into everything else until there’s no “you.” You’re part of the entire universe. It’s a incredible feeling that’s impossible to accurately convey in words.
My lungs and heart kept asking for more, so I let it go some more and my body ran faster on it’s own. In the last twilight without a headlamp I could still just pick out all the footing a few feet ahead that I needed and the dim light increased the intensity of the moment. I didn’t react to rocks and roots so much as being a part of them. What little thought was left didn’t want to blink or breathe and break the spell, so it let my body keep doing it all without me. Past the stone wall and the mining history plaques. And at the exact moment I ran out of safe light, the section ended. I stopped and breathed and basked in the last golden-feeling waves of it for a few moments more, not wanting it to leave. Then I took one last deep breath, still a little dazed and put on my sweater and headlamp (still off) and paced slowly back and forth to keep my body warm while waiting for Rob to catch up, and smiling in the last of the deep glow.
When Rob appeared in the gloom, it was still startling to have the last of the spell broken. I held onto the memory and feeling as close as possible while we trotted ahead with headlamps on, back in the real world.
Gardner Canyon Aid Station (46 miles)
Bob was there to greet us this aid station too, another treat. He asked about Zane Grey and I had to tell him I wouldn’t make it this year because we were doing Old Pueblo instead. He seemed so disappointed, I forgot to ask him about his run at Leadville 100.
The route to the finish is basically up and across a long hill, then down into a gulch and winding around through the gulch back to Kentucky Camp. It’s not a place or a time you want to miss one of the many turns so as lead, I had to pay closer attention than usual to the markings. On the positive side, we had glow sticks to help navigate, and no one else was going to be hanging glow sticks besides the race, so they’re a sure bet. On the downside, they were now dead sticks, out of glow. Still, seeing even the dead ones hanging from a tree was a sure sign we were headed in the right direction.
We got to the top of the last small downhill and my hip started hurting to walk. Things were clearly not out of the woods as far as it was concerned, but I had learned over the day that it felt better to run and since we were headed into the finish, with maybe a mile or mile and a half to go, this wasn’t bad incentive to keep running. In the dark, passing other runners, I couldn’t tell how far Rob was behind me without glancing or calling back every so often, but he stuck pretty much with me and thanks to the hip, we passed a slew of people in this last distance.
We crossed the finish line with Mom and Dad waiting. It was great to see them and reassuring to feel like I could have run further. But the immediate concern after finishing is cold. I can get hypothermia here very quickly and wanted to prevent it before I had to worry about fixing it. Fortunately, the house there was open to runners and Mom had already scoped out the situation and found us some veggie burgers.
Real food was good, since none of the few restaurants nearby were going to be open now, though I wasn’t that hungry. All in all, I probably ate three GU and some stuff off the tables – some potato chips, corn chips, popcorn, two cookies, soda, and five electrolyte tabs or fewer. We must not have been running fast if that’s all I wanted to eat. We all sat on a bench in the house and stayed warm while Rob and I ate and were ready to plunge out in the cold and dark toward the car.
The race reminded me things don’t have to be perfect to make the experience worthwhile, and even wonderful. At the most basic level, I was again thankful I can do this at all. For a while the hip seemed like a chronic injury that could prematurely end my running life but by the end, it seemed curable.
On top of that relief, meeting Ben reminded me that even though I was out of shape and hurting and things were far from what I would consider “perfect” I wouldn’t have wanted to pass up the chance to be here this year and do without this. It had been a wonderful day and after all, who knew how many more years I could do this?
But beyond relief and a deep sense of gratitude, the unexpected dip back into the river of flow was an unexpected taste of bliss. That’s as perfect in running as it gets – and on a day laced with low expectations and pain makes it even more remarkable.
So you never know when bliss might turn up. Never use the thought that circumstances might not be perfect to keep you away from something that might be.