San Tan Scramble 50K
The year couldn’t have started off better with a 1st place finish at the San Tan Scramble 50K (31 miles) – setting a new course record with a time of (3:51:53). It was fun, fast, and a hell of a good time out there. Before I recap the race, I must give a huge shout out to a guy who has been a running mentor to me for some time now (although I’m not sure he knows that) and is becoming a good buddy, Catlow Shipek. Catlow ran this race as a training run for an event coming up with some serious talent, the Black Canyon 100k.
That being said, this race didn’t feel like a race. The starting line was like a race, it was organized like a race (very well done I must say @AravaipaRunning) and concluded like a race, yet something was far different from any other event I’ve run in. It felt as though I was simply on one long, fast trail run with a friend just like any other Sunday.
The day started with a 4:30AM departure from Tucson. Catlow and I carpooled up to Phoenix. We briefly talked about our goals and intended performance in the race. Catlow, holding the previous course record from last year, was treating this race far more casually than I. I let him know I have never run a 50k so I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body. He replied, “Well it’s definitely a faster pace than a 50 miler.” Hmm I thought to myself, sounds like I’ll stick with my go to plan – run hard ‘til I can’t run no more. In the past this strategy has come back to bite me in the ass. Shocking, I know. However now I am a bit more experienced, and way ahead of my nutrition during the race. I figure I’ll throw the dice and hope when it comes near the end of the race I’ll still have something left to burn – be it calories or grit.
The course is a 3-loop course changing directions each loop. It is primarily rolling hills on single-track trail – great for zoning out and cruising fast. The weather was ideal for running. We had a beautiful sunrise just after the start with mostly cloudy skies at consistent temps in the 60s. The course has one defining feature and that is a very steep hill towards the end of the first and last loop (or beginning of second loop). It is about 500 feet of vertical in less than a mile. Just to put that in perspective the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” in the Boston Marathon is 91 feet in a half-mile…weak sauce, right?
(FYI excuse my writing, it may juggle past and present tenses.)
Catlow and I went out fast, yet comfortable. We chatted a bit for the first several miles, and then conversation started to dwindle as the quiet running mind set in. We knew it was just going to be the two of us out in front this race. The first loop went by quickly and I was introduced to that lovely hill around mile 8. It was steeeeep! On a pair of fresh legs I was able to hang with Catlow up the hill, barely, albeit quite energy depleting. This guy is the best ascender I know. It was important that I got to know this hill, because seeing it again 2 miles before the finish would be a deal breaker for me.
We made it back to the start/finish line aid station in a good time for our first loop, both of us pleased with the pace. Quick refill of the water bottle, grab a handful of potato wedges, and its time to head back out…
I hear Catlow and race director Jamil Coury shouting at me, “Charlie, turn around!” OK…now it’s time to head back out in the right direction. (I have my moments.)
Loop two was a breeze. At this point I think Catlow realized that this guy was going to hang with him. At least, that’s when I realized that. We enjoyed that loop, taking turns leading and pushing the pace. There was something far more pleasant racing with a friend in this situation than a fellow runner you don’t know. We were pushing each other, but not in a very aggressive way. It was casual, lightly conversational, and it seemed so…fluid. All the while we completing the second loop faster than the first!
Last loop, now it’s on like Donkey Kong. I remember Catlow saying something like, “Hey we are on pace to break the course record.” After a subtle inner dialogue of…Oh shit, I don’t think I can keep up this pace another 10 miles. I replied “Dude, let’s crush the course record.” …Ya gotta roll the dice. So off we went.
Now Catlow and I had exchanged multiple times throughout the race, “Hey don’t let me hold you back, take off if you want.” It was said from each of us, however neither of us chose to detach from the all ready course-record pace we were at. Catlow also made mention to me that this was not an epic enough race to end in a tie, and that he expected a sprint at the finish. It was actually quite nice to hear that because I did foresee a somewhat awkward finish if we hadn’t defined that.
We ran the majority of the last lap together. I started to show signs of distress. It is always some leg muscle that starts to tighten up on me and eventually cramps up intensely, forcing me to have to stop and stretch it out. This time it was the hamstring. There was a distinct moment around mile 26 where I felt it tighten, on the verge of locking up. I let go a bit of a groan. Catlow responded to my sign of anguish with some words of encouragement. I listened, made a strong fist with my right hand, and slugged my hammie. It seemed to worsen the problem momentarily then slowly, slowly, it loosened back up. “OK, I’m back in action.” I declared.
We are nearing the end of the race now, still together, and my old friend the hill is in the distance. I knew that if I were going to hang with Catlow until the finish I would need to get a head start on that hill. In my condition, with leg muscles starting to tighten up, against a guy who takes on hills like a mountain goat, I need a handicap. I’m not sure if Catlow was thinking the same thing, but about a mile from the hill he gave me one more, “Hey you can pass me if you want.” Initially, in a state of completely zoned out, I responded “No.” But then I looked up, realized where I was, and took him up on the offer. If I didn’t, that hill would be the last time I would see my friend until the finish line. So I zoomed ahead, skipped the last aid station, and got my head start.
God damn that hill hurt this time! I was hiking up it, hands pushing down on my quads to try to climb it with some of my upper body strength. I climbed and climbed. When I was 20 feet or so away from the top I looked back and saw Catlow running up it close behind me. That is an intimidating site for someone in my state to see. I put my head down and kept grinding up. When I finally peaked out and felt a wave of relief smash me in the face like a tidal wave, I didn’t even bother to look back. The downhill felt sooo good.
While the thrill of going down vs. up felt great, my legs felt like rubber and now every muscle felt like it could lock up at any second. My form warped into something that must have resembled some strange Gumby-like creature. It felt as though I was twisting my hips back and forth as to fling my legs out in front of each other. I had a mile to go. I figured Catlow would be catching up to me soon and it would be a painful dash to the finish as predicted. But then I looked at my Garmin watch. It said I was running a 6-minute pace. Woah, I thought to myself, sure doesn’t feel that way. I kept on flinging them legs out there and I looked down again…5:50 pace. Then I could see the finish line. No matter what race I have ever been in and how hurting I am, when I see and hear the finish line it all goes away. I’m home sweet home.
I finished the race with the last mile being the fastest mile of my entire run. Catlow and I smashed the previous course record (That he set in 2014!) and I set a new time of (3:51:52) Catlow came in a minute later and third place was about 30 minutes behind us. Had Catlow not been treating this race as a training run, I know the last couple miles would have unfolded quite differently. I couldn’t be more appreciative of the companionship throughout the race.
And wouldn’t you know it…the dude brought some tasty local beers for us at the finish!