Old Pueblo 50 Mile / Mesquite Canyon 50K
Part I – The Fail
“It’s OK babe, you need to break a glow stick before it can shine.” She so lovingly and cheesily explained to me. My wife Ronika, that is. She couldn’t have timed her remark any better as I sulked on the couch, spirit broken, attempting to mend myself with the sweet nectar of Stone IPA. It was the evening after the OP 50 Mile Endurance Run this year.
This was the race I had been training for. It was my race. I had built up a crush-all attitude for this race since last year when myself, and five others, were disqualified from the run after missing a two-mile section of the course amidst one of the worst storms the area had seen in years, on an unmarked course. The DQ (disqualification) was OK with me. It was appropriate. What I found unsettling was Ronika at the finish line, overhearing murmurs of her soon-to-be husband as a cheater. That set a fire in me. But hey, looking back on it, I couldn’t be more grateful.
Soon after last years OP catastrophe I started hitting the trails hard. I was going to come back the next year and blow it up. I let my wife know I was going to be spending additional time running and I would need her support and flexibility. She more than accommodated this. I befriended the areas best ultra-runner and started running with him. He welcomed the company. With the aid family and friends, old and new, I elevated my game.
I showed up at the Colossal/Vail 50 mile race 8 months later as a different runner and smoked it. I ran the second half faster than the first. I was on track for OP and it affirmed that the training had paid off. The San Tan Scramble 50K offered another affirmation that I was now able to hang with the big kids. My confidence was high and a 2-win streak allowed me to head into this years’ OP-50 with some leverage. I wanted to extinguish those flames still burning from last year with a demonstration of an entire years hard work and training.
It was another early start the morning of the race. I picked Catlow Shipek up at 4AM and we proceeded down to Sonoita, AZ. Similar to our last race together, we briefly chatted about our goals and forecast for the race. It was pretty clear on my end in case you missed it – I came to get down. Catlow was unsure how his day would go. He was only three weeks off the epic Black Canyon 100K, which he impressively placed 4th in. In my mind, he was a wild card – he could go big or ease up, I’d have to wait to see.
The pre-race banter amongst friends and trail acquaintances is always a pleasant scene. It was a nice morning, not as cold as it has been in the past at 5:30AM in Kentucky Camp – an old mining camp on national forest land. I caught up with all the ballas that were running the race. A plethora of local talent would be out running 50 miles today, as this race is a Southern Arizona staple amongst ultra-runners.
Everyone lined up and at 6 o’clock a strange alarm rang. We all stood there. Was that a fire alarm? “That was go!” shouted the race director and the befuddled motley crew headed out of the gates.
I felt good. I had a somewhat off week health-wise going into this. It felt as if a cold was coming on and I combated the warnings with airbornes, emergency-C and steam room sessions. I dealt with it. Now we are 3 miles out from the start and my body feels clean, healthy, and strong. I chatted with the front pack a bit. It was the first time I met or ran with Nate Polaske, an excellent local runner and a very nice dude I came to find, who runs on the Aravaipa Running team. He was looking strong and confident as he offered compliments on my blog. (Thanks by the way) I wondered how these 50 miles would be for him. Some healthy competition up in here, I thought to myself!
It wasn’t long before Catlow and I had separated from the front of the pack and powered ahead. 15 miles deep I started to notice a couple things that were going on. One, Catlow was running hard. He was not going to take it easy this race. Two, I was running with him, and we were running fast. Catlow seemed calm, collected, and at ease with the hard pace we were at. While I tricked myself into maintaining a similar temperament, in the back of my mind was a whisper of uncertainty asking if this was a smart move to hang with him.
20 miles deep and we hit a strong headwind. We attempt to try drafting off each other, taking turns every half mile or so. I had never done this technique before, taking a page from the cyclist handbook. I couldn’t tell if it was making a difference, so the strategy dissipated as I focused more on my breath and cadence. The wind slowed us a bit but looking down at my Garmin around mile 24, about halfway through the race, I knew we were on pace for a killer time.
There is a large gradual hill from mile 25-29, the crux of the race for most runners on this course. The head wind came on even stronger. I felt like I was climbing up through a wind tunnel. Catlow started to pull away a bit. I kept him in sight while I was beginning to show signs of fatigue. I knew if I could just get past this brutal, grueling climb then I could try to catch back up with him on the back 9 of the course. I soon lost sight of him. Arriving at the mile 29 aid station I asked how far ahead he was. “Just left a minute ago,” they said. A minute, that’s nothing…I’ll catch up. Heck even if I can’t, I’ll take second to this guy and still have an incredible time, that’d be just fine with me!
Replenished and refreshed, I take off swiftly from the aid station and begin my assault.
Three minutes later…Boom.
My quad, hamstring, and calf in my right leg seize up after an awkard step and I’m sent straight to the ground. The feeling when a muscle clinches and cramps up is one of the most uncomfortable, agonizing sensations I’ve ever experienced. I try stretching it. Boom. The left leg does the same thing.
After about two minutes of self-massage and slowly easing into stretches, accompanied by zombie-like moans, I am able to make it to my feet and start walking. OK, I am moving again. I give my legs a few minutes of walking to dissipate the tension. I start a jog and within seconds, boom. Again.
I repeat the process, only this time the zombie groans are louder and the creature has learned how to moan out some choice four-letter words.
Then, it happened again.
The white flag went up. My legs won’t work anymore. Stick a fork in me…I’m done. It happened so quickly, just like that.
Mentally I’m crushed. My mind wants to keep going. There is no acute pain or injury preventing me from completing the run, but my legs won’t cooperate. I begin the walk of shame to the next aid station, luckily only a few miles away. I think about what went wrong. I had to pee a lot, was I not absorbing fluids? Was it the cold I had been fighting off? Enough salt? Calories? Was I simply not trained to run that hard for that long? I’m still working on figuring that out. Perhaps it’s a combination of several factors. What I know for sure is more training and higher weekly mileage is in order if I am to compete with guys like Catlow.
As time passes I wonder when the next runner will come by and witness my defeat. Just before the mile 33 aid I heard a rustle coming from behind. It was Nate. He looked sturdy and energized. He encouraged me to start again. All I wanted in that moment was to look as he did while he gracefully soared by me. I couldn’t start again, Godspeed my new friend. I was too far-gone, physically and mentally at this point.
I hitched a ride back to Kentucky Camp to await family that was on their way down to come watch me finish. I wasn’t supposed to be there before them. My wife, her folks, and my Dad – who was visiting from Buffalo – arrived and I started to come back to life.
As the comfort of family (and beer) helped to ease my troubled mind, I began to think less about myself and more about those amazing guys and gals that were still running. I was excited to see them come in and talk with them about how their race was.
Then I saw the first of them. Catlow went on to set a course record in a blazing time of 6:53:51. His run was flawless and impeccable. He did something really special out there that day, and I was proud to run the first half of it with him. Nate came in at 7:22, which on any other given year would likely have won the race. Kudos. Another friend and running buddy, Sion Lupowitz finished out the top three with a PR of his own that day. Kelly Wild, a consistent familiar face on race day, also has an amazing run and won the woman’s field in commanding fashion. They were the heroes of the day, as well as everyone else who finished their 50-mile endeavor.
And so there I was, the broken guy on the couch that night. A DNF (Did Not Finish) was not sitting well with me. The situation needed to be remedied immediately. The next day I emailed the race director of the Mesquite Canyon 50K outside of Phoenix and asked if I could join even though registration had closed. There were several strong runners from around the state attending. He said yes. It was in 6 days…
Beers with Dad afterward (Photo: Richard Saldivar)
Photo: SweetM Images
The top three! From left…(Nate Polaske, Catlow Shipek, Sion Lupowitz) (Photo: Mindy Polaske)