I knew going into the North Fork 50 mile that I was biting off a lot. Living in Iowa and at about 1200 feet we just don’t have anything that I would consider an mountain. Also we have not had access to the trails this spring due to the rain. Add in the Colorado altitude and I knew things were going to get serious real quick.
I want out to Colorado a week early to get acclimated. I knew without giving my lungs the change to get used to the thin air I had no chance of finishing. I stayed n Evergreen, CO at about 7500 ft at a friend house. My plan worked out better than I expected. I had a handful of runs between 6 miles and 3 miles with a 3+ mile hike 2 days before the race. Each day leading up to the race I felt a little better. I could run the down hills and flats without any effect of the thin air. The up hills were hard and I knew I was burning more fuel that I ever would have at 1200 ft back in Iowa. The extra calories would be easy to account for come race day. I had no injuries so my confidence was high come race day.
The family and I drove to the race without any issues. It took about 40 minutes from Evergreen. We arrived a good hour before the 7:00 AM start time. I heard the start of the early starters that left out at 6:00 AM. I met Barrett who is a Daily Mile friend and also Mark who is an Instagram friend for the first time. 7:00 came and both the 50k and 50 milers started together. As I left the family at the start I knew I wouldn’t get to see them until mile 16.
The first 3 miles went from 6900 ft to 8000. Mile 5 to 10 had us dropping from 8100 down to 7400 and then right back up to 8100 again. After that it was the first major downhill and it felt great to open up the legs and get some turnover. I was able to catch up with Barrett and we ran together for a bit. I also saw Mark again as I was leaving an aid station and he was coming in. I eventually had to take a potty break on the trail. Number two in fact so I said good bye to Barrett and headed for some rocks. I saw Mark pass by as I was taking a squat. I hoped to eventaully catch him after I finished. Things were a blur the rest of the first 16 miles.
When I hit the mile 16 aid station I was drained. I thought to myself that I felt like I did at mile 35 of the North Face 50 mile last September in Wisconsin. How could I finish when I spent so much energy already? I knew I was in trouble. As I pulled into the mile 16 aid station and saw my family for the first time. I saw my daughter first as she took photos on her iPhone of me arriving. Then I saw my wife. The first thing I said was, “I dont think i can finish. I might be done.” She told me that people were dropping out already. She pointed to a guy and his family that were walking to there car. Terra was talking to his wife while everyone waited for us. They were from Colorado. Apparently he had never dropped from a race before. As I watched him walking away I turned to Terra and said, “I’m going to run until they pull me off the course.” That became my plan for the rest of the race. My competitive nature kicked in when I saw that guy quit so early. I would simply go until I just couldn’t go any more or they made me stop.
I refilled water and ate what I could at the aid station. I had been following my normal Gu plan. One pack every 2 miles and eat all I can stomach at each aid station as quickly as possible. I would pass through this same aid stations 2 more time so the family could stay put. Tera told me racers were saying the next section was really hard. It was about 3 miles up going from 7400 ft to 8100 then 3 miles down to the same aid station getting me 22.5 miles. Almost half way I thought to myself. Lets do this!
The next 3 miles there nothing but pain. Hardly any running took place going up hill. I was passed by one guy but managed to pass 3 racers going up despite my slow pace. When I finally started my decent I was spent. About a half mile into the downhill I started to feel really good after chewing a ginger thing that was part of my race packet. This was my first time trying the ginger chews and I felt fantastic. A was running and passed 5 people on the down hill. One person I passed was the guy that passed me on the up hill section. With a half mile before the aid station the same guy caught me again and we came into the aid station together. 22.5 miles complete but I was in a new world of exhaustion that I have never experienced before. My knees were starting to act up. It was the down hill running that was taking its toll on my body. I met the family again, refilled water, ate, and pulled out of the aid station eating watermelon. Spectators might of thought I was smiling but it was a pain grin.
The next 5 miles was virtually all uphill. I was hoping for a little break but no such luck. It was hard going even at my slowest pace. I finally ran into Mark again and he had just left the aid station on the out and back. He told me the aid station was just over the hill. We chatted a bit and then parted ways again. The Rolling Creek aid station was a welcome sight at mile 27+. Refill vitals and back to work to meet the family at mile 32.
As I started back the next 5 miles were mostly downhill the same way I just came. Again, knees were taking a beating. Up until now I welcomed the down hills but no more. Going down was as painful as going up. Again I questioned finishing. Well past my comfort level of both pain and exhaustion, I wonder how much worse it could get. I found out shortly as the sky opened up with flashes of lightning followed by immediate cracks of thunder. I was at ground zero at the highest elevation of the race direct below a thunder-storm. With each flash and immediate boom I was thankful that I was under a canopy of tall trees and not exposed. The rain cooled me down so it was not really that bad despite the lightning and thunder.
At mile 32+ I was finally able to see the family again. They said they were worried since it took me so long. My daughter asked if I was going to finish. I replied, “That’s the plan.” On the down side of the 50 I just was just hoping to make the cut offs now. I did not ask how close I was since I already knew I was moving as fast as I could. I didn’t thing fear of not making the next aid station would help the situation any. I was wet and my shoes were filled with rocks so I decided to switch shirts and change socks before heading out again. It took some help from the family to get changed but we made short work of it. Sitting down felt really nice at this point. I refilled and told the family I’d see them at the mile 38 aid station. The family was already packed up by the time I arrived. I later found out that they did that in case I quit they’d be ready for me to get in the van and drive away
I left the mile 32 aid station and a race volunteer walked with me for a bit as he explained where I was to go. I really couldn’t pay attention due to exhaustion and only remembered, ”take a right at the end of the road and then a left at the bottom of the hill.” Trying to remember what I was told I posed for a photo as I entered the trail as the family drove by.
I soon realized I was back tracking on the route I took between mile 14-16. I saw no one and started to get worried I was not on the right route. After a couple of miles I finally saw a sign that assured me I was on the 50 mile course. The next 4 miles were again all up hill. More pain in the knees. I remember passing a few people but the miles were brutally hard.
I finally hit the last aid station that I’d see the family at before the finish. Mile 38+ was done. I walked up to the aid table as someone asked if they had one seat left in their car for a runner. I thought, “Great, I missed a cut off. It’s over. I’m done.” I acted like I did not hear them and maybe I could just sneak out of the aid station. It turns out they were not taking about me. It was someone else that just quit. I remember the aid station person asking me questions like he was testing my ability to answer questions correctly. I must have passed the test as he wished me well. I refilled again and kissed the family.
12 miles left is all I thought about as I lifted my knees, pushed my feet against the ground, and leaned forward. There was 2 more aid stations before the finish so I focused on the last 12 miles as 4 mile segments. This worked out well but my knees were fried. At this point I was running as far as I could then walk. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. The miles slowly passed. I hit the mile 42 aid station and grabbed some watermelon again. I was sick of Gu now so aid station food is what fueled me. I finally reached the mile 46 aid station and got up the nerve to ask about cut of time. I was 2 house ahead so no worries about not finishing now. The final 4 miles was 1 up and 3 down. My Garmin died at mile 46.5. It was pretty lonely after that point since I had no gage on distance. It tried to catch a few people the 3 miles down hill to the finish but I just couldn’t do it. The knee pain was too much.
I remember seeing the final sign saying I had .8 of a mile left. Soon after that I saw the lake and knew I was really close. I passed the lake and it was just a few 100 feet to the finish line as one of the volunteers radioed my number ahead to the finish line crew.
With a sarcastic lean across the finish line like I was running 100 meter dash, mission accomplished. As I crossed the finish and the family greeted me with hugs. I was handed my award and then I followed a kid to the beer cooler. I finished in 12 hours and 11 minutes. That is just shy of 2 hours slower than my 10:16 finish at the WI 50 mile race. Considering the elevation and the ways my knees acted up I was happy with the time.
I was able to see Mark again. He finished just 15 minutes in front of me. We hung out for a bit but I started to shake from the lack of body heat. As soon as I stopped running my body couldn’t generate enough heat on its own. It was running in the rain that did me in. I went to get a hamburger but I wouldn’t even hold the paper plate I was shaking so much. I had to ask the volunteer to put the plan on the table as I waited for my wife to help me. I ate and the kids loaded up the van. I wrapped myself in a blanked for the 40 minute ride back to Evergreen and tried to stop shaking. It would be about 4 hours before I would eventually stop shaking.
I’m not sure I could have done anything different for a faster time. My feet had no blisters or hot spots the entire races. I never fell which is rare for me. I felt as fueled as I could have been. The only thing would be if my knees didn’t act up. It is not an inner knee issue but ligaments around the knee. I also don’t really have any knee issues when training. If I was able the run more of the down hills late in the race I know I would have been in the 10-11 hour range. Living in Iowa I just can’t give my legs a 3-5 mile up or downhill workout like I really needed to be doing in my training to race in the mountains. As long as I continue to drop weight maybe next year it will be easier on the knees. Yes, I do want to run this race next year.
The week after the race I was not sore at all. Muscles were just fine. The knee pain is just about gone and I am ready to start training again. I also had just a little hip pain that I also attributed to the downhill pounding.
Overall the race was a blast and I am happy with how it turned out. Big thanks to all the volunteers and organizer of the North Fork race. I hope to see you next year!
Gear used during the race:
Altra Lone Peak 1.5 shoes
2 pair of Smart Wool socks
Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest with one 20 oz bottle
Garmin 305 Forerunner watch
Nike running hat
Tifosi Tempt sunglasses
1 Nike Coolmax shirt and 1 Altra microfiber shirt
Too many Gu packs!