It was an accident, really, this Ouray 50 trail running race. Prior to Tuesday afternoon, I’d only heard of the race in passing. I might have clicked on the webpage only to see that there were qualifications (i.e. doing some prior race that proved you had some semblance of running ability) that I didn’t meet, and then moved on with life.
Then Tuesday afternoon, during the work portion of our day, Scott said, ‘Looks like we’re tracking the Ouray 50/100.’
I probably replied something along the lines of, ‘That’s nice.’
‘You should do it,’ Scott continued. I’d been making noise about doing a race in the middle of nowhere Utah earlier, but then decided the logistics were too much. But I definitely had racing on the brain.
I checked Ultrasignup to see when registration closed. ‘Monday,’ I declared, ‘Too late. Bummer. Maybe next year.’
Secretly, I wasn’t too bummed. Just from the front webpage of the race, it looked burly. 20,000+ feet of climbing in 50 miles. Ouch. I hadn’t run more than 20 miles since the Grand Canyon R2R2R, and those 20 miles were three days ago.
I’m not really sure what transpired next, but it involved an email from Scott to Matthew, who’d been the one in contact with the race director about tracking, Matthew talking to the the RD, and then me waking up to a personal invite from the RD, Charles, to come race Ouray, with the closing line of ‘See you soon’.
What had Matthew and Scott done!?
I went for an easy 4.5 mile run from camp to convince myself that my legs were too tired, but they felt surprisingly good, considering the previous days shuttle run, so when I got home, I signed up.
Then I downloaded the route description. ‘Extreme exposure’, ‘steep grades’, ‘scrambling’, ‘loose rocks’, ‘wear gloves’. Last year, one person out of ~20 had finished the 50.
Oh. Shit. What had *I* done?
We loaded up the Scamp the following morning and pointed south, ending up with a nice little spot at the Amphitheater Campground above the impossibly steep town of Ouray. It was the first time we’d paid for camping since the RV park on the North Rim of the Big Ditch when we ran out of power.
The second to last out-and-back of the course went right by our campsite, so we went for an afternoon recon. How steep could these trails really be?
We went down to registration/pre-race feed to see what this was all about. It was just like a bike race. Except there were more beards and short shorts. Not that I’m complaining, I like men with beards in short shorts.
We ended sitting with and talking to a Kiwi Christian, who was on a several month long road trip around the US, working his way west before heading home to New Zealand this winter, and Dan, who was doing the 100-mile version, and his wife, who was going to crew for him and pace him.
‘Hey Scott, you should pace me for the last 10 miles!’ I was worried about the time cut-offs and figured I’d probably be close to them. ‘I’ll probably start it between 5 and 6 am.’ (The time cut off was 6:30am)
He agreed. There was my motivation to make it through the first 40 miles.
The following morning, we went down to see the 100-milers off, and for Scott to make sure that everyone had a tracker in a position that it would actually track. Between work, pre-race puttering, and a little walk to discover that you had to pay money to see the Box Waterfall, the day went by entirely too quickly.
This is a supported adventure run. No one has any expectations. You just have to go out there and do your best. And not die. Try not to die. No broken bones would be preferable.
20 minutes before the start, the skies opened up. Rain jackets went on. I’ve never run in a rain jacket because of rain. Scott gave me the sage advice of ‘Just try not to get dropped by the main pack on the road out of town.’ Thanks.
Drowned rats. And we hadn’t even started yet.
And we were off. In the pissing rain. Seriously?
The whole pack (that didn’t drop me, for the record, a first since I’m notorious for getting dropped from neutral roll-outs at bike races because I’m busy talking) took a wrong turn right off the bat at a single track that was marked with flags, but wasn’t actually where we were supposed to go. There was a lot of yelling. The masses eventually found the right way, and up we went. I ran with Christian for a little bit until he dropped me, ran with a guy named Jeremy who apparently ran across the country this past summer, until he dropped me, and then it was pretty much me.
We made our way up the first climb as the rain stopped and the sun came out, thankfully, as the dirt was already greasy and a certain someone had never run in mud before, let alone greasy mud. It was an out and back, and after what seemed like a solid bit of climbing, the leaders started coming down. First Melissa, who’s husband I know and had failed to hook up with for running in Moab because I was too intimidated, then another gal, then some guys, another gal, and then the top of the hill. I punched a hole in my race number, took a picture, and headed down. Was I in last?
No! I passed a handful of girls and guys, counting. I was fourth girl, nine of us had started, I was solidly in mid-pack! Yeah!
Past the first aid station, down the road, to the base of climb #2. I’d never done a run that involved more than one big climb. Up I went. The trail was impossibly steep, and rocky, and exposed. Everything that the race description had promised. I passed one guy going through a rough patch, I told him it was a good thing that he had 40 more miles to work through it. I never saw him again. I passed another guy struggling up the steepness.
Typical. Four hours in I start catching people. This is just like bike racing.
Cresting Hayden Pass was the highlight. The trail followed some beautiful alpine meadows, and just as I started cursing the uneven footing, I looked down to see the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen. I may have squealed out loud.
Between the vibrant and abundant wild flowers, the mist surrounding the mountains, and the rainbow, I was convinced a unicorn was about to pop out of the rocks. It didn’t, but a deer did, so I just used my imagination.
Heading down to the aid station on the far side of the pass, I saw Melissa coming up with a boy in tow, then another gal, Patricia who definitely looked like she knew what she was doing, then Christian, another gal, then Mr. Green legs (he had neon green calf sleeves) came bounding away from the aid station as I pulled in. He was hauling ass.
I filled up water. Ate a half a sandwich. And watermelon! They had watermelon! Then the skies unleashed a torrential downpour. Awesome. I turned around to climb the hill that I’d just come down.
It was a productive hill, as I ended up catching two 100-milers, Mr. Green Legs, and the third place gal. Said gal passed me on the downhill and made me look and feel pretty silly as I stumbled down the trail. I passed Gabe near the bottom of the descent (I didn’t know his name at the time, so I called him One-stick Joe since he only had one trekking pole) and promptly hauled ass down the road. It was still daylight! Maybe I could get up the gnarly section of the next out-and-back in the daylight if I hurried.
The rain had stopped by the time I made it back to the park where Scott was waiting with my drop bag. I swapped out shirts, put a dry rain jacket in my pack, filled up on water, made sure my light worked, and left. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 24-hour mountain bike racing, it’s the importance of fast pit stops.
And up. This section was the recommended scouting section in the race description due to its excessive steepness and exposure. Plus, the top was Twin Peaks, which had a scramble. It was only 2.5 miles away, could I make it before dark? I popped half a caffeine pill and took off.
Apparently I was moving because I caught Christian halfway up. ‘I thought you weren’t a runner!’ he said.
‘I’m not, but I never said I couldn’t hike! And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t done a whole lot of running in the past 25 miles.’ I hammered, figuring that even if I paid for it later in the race, it would be worth it to see the scramble with some daylight.
It almost worked. I hit the summit just as the final colors were fading from the western sky with just enough light to see that said scramble really wasn’t that bad. I dropped my walking sticks at the base, scurried up, punch a hole in my race number, and scooted down on my butt. I’m glad no one was there to see that. What followed was a descent of one of the steepest trails I’ve ever been on. It hadn’t seemed half bad going up, but down was terrifying. Christian and I’s lights passed part way down, and I knew he’d catch me before the next aid station.
He did. And when he did, he told me that I was a beautiful climber. Smooth and powerful. Considering that no one has ever said anything nice about my running before, I beamed. And then tripped over a root. His light disappeared quickly into the dark.
When it came back, after being at the aid station, I knew that I had a good chance of catching him on the return climb as well. I made a quick turnaround at the aid station and started up in pursuit. As I crested the climb, several miles later, I saw his light just disappearing down the techy descent. Game over.
I got myself safely down to the aid station, seeing Christian heading off just as I got in. This racing thing was fun. Switched out to dry socks. Ate a banana. Filled up water. Time to climb to Chief Ouray mine.
Christian was on his way back by the time I got there, but two others were there punching a race number. Dan and his wife from dinner the night before! He looked wrecked. It was good to see familiar faces at 1am in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain.
And down! Scott was waiting at the park ready to go when I got it. It was circa 2:30 am. A far cry from the reasonable 5am I had predicted. Sorry! Fill up on water, eat a banana, time to climb. Let’s go catch the Kiwi!
I’ve always thought the concept of pacers was sort of silly, coming from self-supported bikepacking racing. But it sure was nice to have Scott along for company. We chatted about the race, about what had happened on FaceBook that day, about my fun micro-race with Christian. I think we can catch him, I insisted. He’ll drop me on the down, but it’d be fun to catch him first.
When we broke treeline, we saw the sole light of Christian just ahead of us. And just as Pete Basinger had done to me during the AZT 300, he took one look down the mountain, letting his light linger in our direction for a second, and took off. The gap he opened was impressive, he didn’t want to be caught. Flying down as we were still slogging up, he claimed we’d ‘Given him the frights!’ Which I think means that he was afraid we’d catch him, in Kiwi-speak.
We tagged the final summit, the Bridge of Heaven, just as there was a little sign of light in the eastern sky. And down.
My legs ached. My knees were pissed. My feet were in surprisingly good shape. We passed One-poled Joe first, the Mr. Green Legs, then two more gals. It got light out, headlamps were turned off.
It seemed like it took forever to get down to the pavement, a long five miles and 4,500 feet of down, the final mile through nasty talus. Please make it stop.
Then pavement. Holy shit. I made it! I gave Scott a hi-five.
Prepared to finish strong, I started jogging along the road, up the ever so slight incline. It didn’t work. Maybe I don’t need to finish strong, and I happily walked the final quarter mile back to the park where Christian, Charles, and a few other race volunteers were waiting.
Well. Shit. That was hard. And awesome.
I really can’t say enough good about the race. I’m not sure if all ultras are like this, but I loved it. I loved being out there all day and all night. I loved the new friends I made. I loved seeing how terrible of a descender I really was. I loved the mud, overgrown trails, and the aid stations. Aid stations are awesome. The volunteers were awesome.
Really, I loved trying something new, and in the end, I’m grateful for whatever conversation occurred between Matthew, Scott, and Charles four days prior that led me to clicking that register button.
And while I still maintain that I’m retired from suffering, I could see signing up for some more running silliness. That was fun.