Bringin’ it home! Near the finish of my first 50k (Photo by Roger “Compass” Morse)
I consider myself to be a “noncompetitive” trail runner. I run because I like being out on the trails, because I find it fun out there. I don’t want to be on a training program, per se, and I run according to how I feel and not for a time. For that reason I don’t sign up for many races. But a race in my own backyard on my favorite trails, put on by friends and mentors? This sounded perfect, or at least back in March it did. The fact that it was a 50k excited me even more as since the drop-dead heat of the Las Vegas summer had hit we’d been intermingling with the local, esteemed “ultrarunners,” to include Pearl Izumi-sponsored runner Josh Brimhall. With the ultrarunners’ arrival to our weekly runs, we’d eagerly listen to their stories, like little wide-eyed kids sitting around a campfire, engrossed in scary tales. We’d follow their progress, race results and reports absorbing all tips and words of advice. Their experiences made me to want to run farther. Forget the faster part, I just wanted to go long!
I flirted with this idea, distance running, doing my first trail marathon in January. With the race being a bit shy of marathon distance, approx. 23 miles, and running with 4 friends who’d agreed to stay together, at the end of it I wasn’t sure what my full potential was out on the trails. In fact, I didn’t know if I had any potential but I did know that I just loved being out there.
The word was out about the upcoming Bootlegger 50k and I was eager to see what I could do out there on my own, on beloved trails familiar and comforting to me, with plenty of time to prepare since it was yet many months away.
My “training” was going well. Training for me being frequent runs, including a longer run each week. I put a couple more races under my belt doing two in August, one being a 25k and the other a trail marathon in the mountains outside of Ogden. I followed those up with a 30k in Big Bear in September and was feeling pretty strong, confident, and eager to get out there for the Bootlegger 50k. I was, that is, until about a month out from the race. I don’t know if I should call it self-sabotage or what. I wasn’t exactly burned out but I just basically stopped running. Being quite busy, I’d postpone a run thinking I would run the next day. Then the next day would come and I would end up being busy again! This happened for a couple of weeks. I kept thinking I’d get that one last long run in – but it didn’t happen. I was staying active, mountain biking and such, but the 3 or 4 runs I had been doing during the week dwindled down to maybe 2 runs and they were very short ones. All I could do was hope that when the Bootlegger 50k arrived, I’d be out there running on really rested legs.
The entrants list didn’t show many females signed up. Outside of my friend Paula, there was only one female name I knew, Keira Henninger. I was excited to meet her and run with her, or should I say start the run with her, but my biggest fear was that she (or any of the runners) would lap me at some point on this two-loop course.
I’d read about marathons and ultras and how people get caught up in everything and run too fast from the get-go. I didn’t want to peter out in the last few miles, which I’d done before on long runs, so my plan was to just run, to run based on how I feel (as I usually do), making sure I was slow and steady on the first loop.
We’d just gotten a little weather system through here the night prior and I’d heard some of the race setup the day before took place in pouring rain. The forecast initially called for possible rain on race day, a little rare here in the desert, but I welcomed it as most desert dwellers do. The race gods, however, stepped in and delivered ideal running weather. There was a definite chill at the starting line. I wasn’t sure if that was just the temperature or the effect of nerves and excitement. I think both. The day had finally arrived and I was so excited to just get it behind me. My few words of wisdom to my friends, “just enjoy it,” were in and back out of my thoughts throughout the race.
My fingers and toes stayed numb until into the 2nd mile as I slowly but surely worked my way uphill and through the switchbacks of Red Mountain. I dreaded these switchbacks every time I would run this trail but with each time through, when I was near the top, I would realize they weren’t as intimidating as they look from the bottom. I tried not to look up to see where the leaders were but I couldn’t help myself, nor could I see them. They were long gone.
One of the many cool things about running a local race is having your own cheering section. As I came off Skyline and ran down through the aid station at Caldera, I could hear cheering and my name being yelled out. I had friends working that aid station and others apparently were in that area, although to this day I’m not sure who exactly was there. I was afraid to take my eyes off the ground so I just waved as I ran by. It was early on and I wanted to keep on moving. I also knew the trail immediately ahead was narrow so I took the opportunity to jump ahead of a runner toting trekking poles. I really didn’t want to get caught behind her and I was hoping to make up a little time on the next section. If there was a window here, my slow and steady plan was already out it.
Out on the Caldera trail, runners (if they looked off the trail) were treated to a gorgeous view of the snow-dusted Spring Mountains off in the distance rising above the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, a view most visitors to Las Vegas will never get to see.
A few more miles in and the trekking-pole toter was not far from me. She was strong on the uphill and I was strong on the downhill so we had a little cat and mouse game going on. That’s when I heard it and it didn’t sound good. The sound of someone falling is never pleasant. I turned and went back to make sure she was okay. The scars on my knees and elbows can attest to the fact that these Bootleg trails can be unforgiving. She said she was okay, as I think we all do just out of embarrassment with these situations, but she looked okay so I continued on. Funny that we didn’t talk or get one another’s name until this happened.
The back section of Bootleg, Ernie’s Epic, is one of my favorite sections. It’s rough and rugged and somewhat remote. There are high, jagged rocky points and a plethora of caves along with beautiful desert washes and canyons. This trail is ever-changing in its makeup. You may find yourself on hard-packed dirt and sharp rocks, then sandy gravel followed up by glorious rich, red dirt. In the springtime we run through knee-high grasses along the trail here and wild flowers abound. Who’d have known you’d get that in the desert? For those that pause along the way to take in the sights, or catch their breath, many times you’ll find herds of bighorn sheep up on the hillside watching you.
I finished this back part of Bootleg, dropping down the hill to the second aid station where another friend was working, stopping long enough to grab a drink and chat briefly before continuing on. Not far from there was the saddle over the golf course. I knew that the trail from that point was undulating, swoopy, and fun, weaving around the hills above the golf course, Cascata. I was happy knowing there wasn’t any strenuous, continuous uphill for a while. My goal at this point was to get to the top of POW, from there I could pound out the quick, sweet downhill quite painlessly and this would take me right into the next aid station. I was practically giddy running down POW, happy to be feeling so good at this point and finally just taking my own advice and enjoying the experience.
Getting to the POW aid station was fun, heading out from there.. not so much. Gradual uphill yet uphill nonetheless. Knowing I was so close to the start/finish, albeit having one more lap to go, helped power me back up. I was hoping to have completed the first loop quicker, I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one with that hope. I cruised back through the start/finish still feeling good and opted to not wait around long because I knew I needed to get far away from there and my car. Not like I’d ever just get in the car and leave, but it was tempting to linger for sure.
Second verse (loop) same as the first! Well, same but different. I noticed at that time that my left leg had some miscellaneous aches and pains but that was the only issue I was having. On the way back up the switchbacks, I walked a lot this time around. I would run the flatter parts and walk the uphills. The weather was still sunny and beautiful and the canyon is very scenic so I was enjoying the views as I made my way through the switchbacks and over the top. Back through the Caldera aid station I went, this time stopping to visit with the friends working there and to grab more electrolytes before heading off onto Caldera.
I was unsure of where I was in relation to anyone else, aside from knowing there were a few other girls somewhere behind me with one being not too far back. Did I say I was a noncompetitive runner? Um yeah, well I always thought I was. Maybe that’s to preserve my dignity because I’m not a fast runner, which is also why I’d rather go the distance than bust out a 5 or 10k. While out on Caldera, a shirtless runner (male, for the record, who I found out later to be none other than Dave James – cool!) is headed at me, running opposite the course direction. I wasn’t sure if he was helping out with the race or if he was just a random runner out on the trail. As he passed, he called out, “You’re 3rd female, good job!” And there it happened. I knew there weren’t many females and by golly I wasn’t going to lose that 3rd female spot!
I don’t remember much after that. I did pass a kid who was walking slowly, asking him if he was okay, asking him if he was in the race because I couldn’t see a bib number. He was and he said he was doing okay so I kept going. It’s a blur from there for a while, uneventful. I remember the next aid station, stretching there briefly, taking peanuts and M&Ms and walking the uphill while eating, determined to keep moving. I was still having soreness in different parts of my left leg. I crested over the golf course and was seriously slowing down, alternating between walking & running as I made my way around the swoopy and once fun part, very eager to get to the POW downhill once again so I could turn it loose, turn it on and blast down the hill but once I started that eagerly awaited downhill fun, my left knee didn’t want to cooperate. It became so sore that I actually left it stiff instead of bending it and sort of walked, ran down the hill attempting not to bend it. That was a huge disappointment to me but I also knew I was close to the finish and, if absolutely necessary, I could just walk it in from there.
I was able to finish out the downhill and left the last aid station quickly, starting out ahead of a couple of males that had arrived near to the same time. On the blasted uphill out of there, and not far from the aid station, here comes the next female. Damn if she wasn’t smiley and looking strong. Arggghhh!! I’m not competitive, I’m not competitive, I’m not competitive, but I’m not going to lose my spot! I powered it in, slowly, but fueled by the desire to hold my place. It also helped that beer was awaiting my arrival. After all, 31 miles makes a girl thirsty!
I had the best experience with my first ultramarathon being the Bootlegger 50k, the beautiful trails, the friends, mentors and fellow racers, the sweet Bootlegger 50k jacket, and the coolest “medal,” which was a Bootlegger 50k commemorative beer glass AND beer to fill it up with. Nothing personal, but thank you Keira for not coming. I have no doubt I will see you in the future, if only at the start line.