Friday, February 24, 2012

Wasatch Front Ultra Relay 2011

Having just mailed our entry for this year’s race I figured it was about time I finished up last year’s race report which has been in writing for about 6 months now. Soon to be followed by Leadville and Hellgate... oh and I'll get around to my 2011 wrap up and 2012 goals before the (MN) winter is over!

I am not sure when we first started talking about doing this race. It was Chris who found it. He’d entered the lottery for the 2011 Wasatch 100 mile but didn’t get in. He was probably on a mailing list after that. In any case, several things about the event intrigued us. It was the inaugural year, it followed much of the same course as the 100 mile race which we knew to be challenging yet beautiful, and then there was the relay aspect of it. Neither of us had ever participated in a relay race but we had both thought about doing the Hood to Coast race and several friends had run the Colorado Outward Bound relay a number of times. Things really started to get interesting when we asked the race director (John Grobbens, same RD as Wasatch 100) if he would allow a 2-person team rather than the 6-person team described on the website. “Sure, why not?” came the reply. Alrighty then, 142 miles in the mountains, with 40,000 ft of elevation change, divided by two. As things came together we realized the race was the week after Badwater where we would be crewing Divesh (see previous post), so we figured we’d work in a bit of a road trip with a visit to Chris’ brother in Vegas. Things really came together when my mother and sister decided they would like a trip to California via Las Vegas. That took care of getting Milly back to Los Gatos and allowed them the same wonderful experience we’d had driving through Death Valley and Yosemite. This was quickly becoming my kind of summer vacation!

After Badwater we drove to Vegas, enjoyed some time with family, handed Milly over to my sister Caroline after a half hour “driving lesson” around the city and headed for Salt Lake City (it was Caz’ first US driving experience so I am pretty impressed they made it all the way to Los Gatos with only a very minor incident!!). I’d never been to SLC or the Wasatch Mountains before so I was pretty excited about this trip. Chris’ friend Cheryl picked us up and not only did they open up the B&B for the weekend, they also loaned us their old Subaru which was the perfect car for trucking around the mountains. We did have the jump the battery that evening as it hadn’t been driven in a while and we threw the leads in the car, just in case...

The race started at 5am Friday morning so we had an early start from the city, arriving at the Homestead by 4:30. The start/finish of this out and back course is the same as the finish line for the 100 mile event. We knew it would be a low key event as there were just 5 teams. And we were not disappointed. Three of the teams had 6 people, one team had 5 and then there was the 2 of us. Some of the teams were local while others had traveled from Wyoming and California. They were a mix of friends and families and ranged from experienced trail/ultra runners, to road runners, to non-runners. And they all thought we were nuts. Me, I was training for Leadville so I had a valid excuse. Chris was just happy to be in these beautiful mountains. John gave us our team bracelets (the baton) and went through a few directions, course info, snow levels, warning us that for the most part the trail would be technical singletrack and we might have a hard time staying upright while taking in the beauty all around us. Fair warning. With the late arrival of summer in these mountains, snowcapped peaks led down to green valleys, dotted with sparkling blue lakes and acres upon acres of yellow, purple, red and blue wildflowers that normally would be past their peak by July, but not this year. 

The relay consists of 12 legs. 6 on the outbound journey and the same 6 on the return. Each runner has to run a minimum of 2 legs but the order is up to each team so it was pretty random as to who was running when. We’d thought about several different ways to divide up the legs but in the end decided we would just run every second leg (or one might say, every other leg). With the out and back course, the altitude changes, the terrain, day vs night, fresh vs tired legs, there wasn’t really an easy option no matter how you looked at it! But that’s why we were here. That, and the scenery. Have I mentioned how incredibly beautiful the course is?

I took the first leg which was one of the longer ones at just over 13 miles. And 90% uphill. The first several miles were on dirt road and I ran a lot of it with one of the girls from a local team. It was interesting getting to know the area a bit better chatting with her. Daylight was upon us within the first hour as we continued up, up, up. The flagging was sufficient as it was easy to follow the route along here and one of the team vans drove to the various intersections to keep everyone on track. It wouldn’t be quite so easy later. I rolled into the first hand-off at Lower Old Goat Junction mid-pack in about 2:30 and feeling on top of the world. Chris took the reins and after chatting with the other crews for a bit and seeing the few runners behind me come through, I took off for the next exchange point. We were high up enough that it was pretty chilly so I got changed into dry gear and snoozed for a while. Chris’ 11 mile section was much more technical than the first one with several downed trees and a lot of singletrack. But he ran the fastest of any of the runners through here and came into Pole Line Pass sooner than I expected him in just under 2:45. As I was heading out I informed him the car wouldn’t start but that John would give him a jump start when he was ready to move on.

This next section was the shortest at 7.5 miles but also had the most altitude gain and lots of snow to contend with so we had estimated 2+ hours. It was so pretty for the first few miles winding up through a lightly wooded area at a fairly gentle grade, on mostly singletrack. Glimpsing views of Dry Fork Canyon below to my left as I navigated several short steep descents with narrow switchbacks, no falls yet! And then the snow came into view. I was headed towards Catherine Pass but not knowing the area I couldn’t tell at this point which of the far-too-steep slopes I would have to climb. With the bright white snow and only a few markers it was hard to tell which direction I should be going. After a few moments of indecision at a junction I headed to the right up along a waterfall. I had the “directions” for the section with me so I figured I was close to Point Supreme and that was Sunset Peak to my east. But the notes were quite narrative in nature and didn’t talk about distances so I was never quite sure which part of the section I was in! Thankfully another runner, who knew these trails well, was coming along behind me and soon caught up. Not only that but he loaned me one of his trekking poles once we got on the deeper icy snow which was a huge help. We had fun figuring out the way here. He was pretty certain which saddle we were trying to get to but the route was a bit of a puzzle. It was so pretty though that it was hard to get frustrated and anyway I needed my energy for the climbing. Soon enough we reached the top and saw the marker for the pass which sits at 10,400 ft. All downhill from here... we ran, skid, rolled, tumbled and butt-skied our way down the north side of the pass though trees and deeper snow trying our best to stay on track. The sun was out and I would soon have dry clothes so I cared little for how wet or cold I might get in these last few miles. Lake Martha and the much larger Lake Mary came into view. I knew we had to go by both and soon the trail got busy with day-hikers and was easy to follow. I was pretty much running all out at this point, eager to keep pace with the other team and having so much fun flying downhill. Soon we could see Brighton ski resort and after some more winding through trees and onto dry trail we were in the car park for the hand off. Phew!

Chris told me the car seemed to be running okay since he got it jumped but that I should start it up again soon. But now it was 1pm and I was ready for some lunch. We’d packed the car with all sorts of goodies having shopped in Salt Lake City the previous day so I changed clothes quickly and got some food into me. Tried to start the car. Nothing. Not a peep! John said he could jump start me when I was ready to head out. He was waiting on the other 2 teams to come through and the next runners and other team members were there also so we were chatting in the warm sunshine for a while. As it turned out one of the teams got word that their runner was at Alta ski resort having gone over the wrong pass! How easily that could have been me had I not found another runner. The team, who were local and regularly volunteer at the 100 mile event, decided to continue even if they wouldn’t get an official finish time. Being the first year of the race and the fact that we were pretty much all there for the fun and enjoyment of hours on the trail, it was totally in keeping with the event. Chris’ section was 12.1 miles with much of it along the ridgeline above 9000 ft and the next exchange point was only a short drive by road so I took my time gathering stuff together. Once I was ready for off John hooked up his jump leads. Nothing. Not a peep. Try again. Nada. Helen, are you putting your foot on the clutch? What? Um. Er. No. DUH!! Even though I’d never had that feature on any car back home and had been driving an automatic for all of my 6 years in MN, I had been driving a stick shift in California for the past 3 months... boy, did I feel a little silly. Not to mention relieved. It was okay at this point when all of the teams were fairly close but we expected things to spread out later and there were no guarantees there would be another car there for a jump start in the middle of the night! Off I went, driving the few miles down through Big Cottonwood Canyon to the next exchange point at Mill “D” Trailhead. I had a long section ahead of me, 13.5 miles, with a lot of elevation change including two 1500 ft climbs, so I got myself prepared for a long run with plenty of food and water. Chris again flew through this section relishing the steep descent to the exchange point on fairly technical trail with quite a few hikers and mountain bikers to contend with along the way. I think we were in the middle of the pack at this stage but since we were not really looking at it as a “race” we weren't too concerned.

I told Chris the car was running perfectly and off I went! A pretty steep start to the leg journeying back up what Chris had just run down for about 2 miles before a turn to the left. I had read the description of this section so I knew there were a few intersections I had to pay attention to as they may or may not be marked (this would be a running theme of the race and my sole complaint; we knew the marking was minimal and the few volunteers working with John had worked hard but the annoying thing at times is that 3- or 4-way intersections would be marked with just one or two ribbons so you had to judge which way the person was looking when marking the course and then make a best guess at which way to go. A little bit of reflective marking would have been nice too for nighttime. But more on that later!). I ran by Dog Lake and then into some wonderfully twisty rolling singletrack that was quite busy with tourists. I was making my way down towards the Big Water Trailhead in Millcreek Canyon but there were several trails wanting to take me there so I got turned around a few times. One of the funnier moments was running by a couple who I could have sworn I had passed in the opposite direction ten minutes earlier. I stopped to quiz them on where they’d come from and whether they had turned around and had they seen me earlier. I am sure they thought I was quite mad. Eventually the trail threw me out on the paved road (where a lady stopped to offer me a ride) and down I went for a few miles to Elbow Fork and back on the trail again. After all that downhill I knew what to expect. Up, up, up I went on narrow, somewhat muddy, singletrack. What I didn’t expect was the most amazing array of wildflowers. I couldn’t resist stopping every 2 minutes to snap a picture. They were just beautiful and completely obliterating the trail area in some areas! I topped out eventually and started the descent through thick forest into Lambs Canyon. I was keeping an eye on my watch hoping to finish this section in under 3 hours and was thrilled to hit the road at about 2:45 and hammer the mile and a half downhill to the exchange point under I-80.

Chris was ready to go and quickly asked me how long it should take him to run the 13.9 mile section (the longest of the sections with a few significant climbs). After a quick consult of the spreadsheet, I shouted “3:30” to him as he went on his way up the paved road that soon became trail. Needless to say I had done some research of the legs based on the descriptions and elevation profiles and put together a plan for us to finish within the 36-hour cut-off – though we knew it wasn’t a stringent cut-off given that it was the first year of the event and the teams were a mixed bag. I hopped in the car, and headed back up Lambs Canyon road to the junction with the trail and sat in the cold creek for 20 minutes. What an awesome refresher after approximately 34 miles of trail! Back to I-80 and headed west for a short stretch and then exited towards Big Mountain. On the way I saw a golf course which would cause me utter confusion later! The turnaround for the race was at the trailhead in the parking lot at the summit. I parked up and made use of the bathroom facilities to get ready for the next leg before settling in for dinner – a can of chicken noodle soup and a large bar of milk chocolate! How I now wish I had also spent a few minutes studying the course map and directions. Instead, when Chris arrived in EXACTLY three and a half hours, LEADING the race, I was still tucked up in the car chilling out... It had been a tough section in the heat of the evening, running through a lot of hilly open meadow reminiscent of the power lines at Voyageur but he had passed a few people and was in great spirits. I headed out with my headlamp as it was now just after 9pm. Chris advised me to enjoy the scenery as much as I could before dark. WOW – he was not wrong – the moon rising over the meadow of tall wildflowers is something I won’t forget. I met two of the other runners soon after I got going so I knew their teammates would not be far behind me. After about an hour, now completely dark, one of the guys passed me. Things were going pretty well for me and I felt a little better with company close by as I was beginning to get freaked out by the noisy fauna. Mostly deer I am sure. Lots and lots of climbing and a fairly rocky trail but I knew at some point it would begin to descend. And then I saw the golf course – I was convinced I was way off course as I didn’t think the trail went this far west. I turned around and about 5 minutes later met a girl from another team who told me to turn right back around! I did that but was pretty annoyed with myself that I had lost time and here is where things started to go downhill very quickly. If I had managed to keep up with the girl in front I’d have been fine but instead I let my frustration get the better of me and started whining to myself (and the deer) about losing time, bad course marking, too many rocks, too many hills, this, that and the other. And then, I was lost. Totally, utterly lost. I was in the valley between two hills, one of which I had come across and the other which I knew I had to go up. The trail was very wide in places and split off several times. I read and re-read the course directions but could not make sense of them. Added to this my failing headlamp (for which I had fresh batteries in my pack, oh yes). I went up and down the trail, no sign of a marker to indicate the turn out of this ravine up into the heavily forested hill. I talked to Chris on the phone until it died but he had come through here in daylight from the other direction and we were not understanding where I was in relation to the end of this section. I ended up going all the way east to I-80 knowing I had gone way too far but not getting through to my brain that I needed to simply re-trace my steps and FOLLOW the directions. Oh, and change my headlamp batteries so that maybe I would pick up the few markers at the turn! As I headed back from the road, my headlamp caught a reflection that at first I though was one of the markers for the pipeline but then I saw there were two reflections. Two eyes, about 2-3 feet off the ground. I stood still for a moment and then started shouting and yelling and waving my arms. In Japanese. For some reason when I am frightened, yelling in Japanese seems to come easier to me (it amazes me how much Japanese I actually remember at times like this). For a long moment the two eyes remained stationary before turning into the thick brush. I caught sight of a long bushy tail. The adrenaline rush carried me back to the area where I’d first realized I was lost, about 90 minutes earlier. And then I saw lights coming from the opposite direction. It turned out to be a lost soul from another team. It was SO nice to have company. Together we re-read the directions, re-traced our steps some more and followed the direction of the power lines overhead. Oh and I changed my batteries. Voila! The trail magically appeared a few minutes later and we were heading up through the trees. I have no idea how I missed it other than just failing to look to the right at exactly the right time to pick up the marker. But we were not yet saved! After meandering up the trail, we headed west along the ridgeline for about 10 minutes. Questioned ourselves, turned around, found a marker, turned around, and eventually saw a flashlight down below in the distance. I knew it was Chris. He came up to meet us and we headed down towards the final part of this section. Oh man, was I in a grumpy mood. I was tired and annoyed with myself for losing over two hours. I wouldn’t even talk to Chris who was doing his best to help and hadn’t gotten any rest once he knew I was lost. Yes, I am also surprised he wants to do this race with me again! We got to the car at the underpass and after a few minutes of deciding whether or not we really wanted to go on, I told Chris to head out with John from the other team who was ready to go and that I would see him in a few hours.

The guys from other teams were so good offering to drive the car to the next transition as it was a pretty long journey down I-80, back to the edge of the city, and up Big Cottonwood Canyon. I was clearly in need of sleep but mostly needed time to myself so I followed them down the highway and we made our way over. All day Chris and I had been leaving notes for each other on our spreadsheet reminding each other to eat or providing a little motivation. He had left some warm mash potatoes ready for me – this cheered me up no end while also adding to my guilt of being in such a bad mood when he found us. I parked at the Mill D trailhead and got changed for the next leg and then settled in for some sleep. I probably got about an hour total which helped a lot and my mood was much brighter as I waited for Chris to come in. Runners started to arrive before dawn with one of the teams having got quite lost on this section. John arrived sometime between 6 and 6:30 am and said he had been with Chris until daylight so I knew he wouldn’t be too far behind. Sure enough at 6:45 am, after 4 hours of mostly night running with a huge amount of climbing, he came hammering down the trail just as he had the day before on the outward journey. I knew that my climb back up would be slower than yesterday but I was anxious to get going and put the bad section behind me! We had a quick exchange and I headed off towards Lake Desolation on my second to last section. The climb did me good as it gave me a chance to settle in and get warmed up. I met several mountain bikers heading in both directions as this is a popular loop. The trail climbs 2600 ft in about 4 miles so I was quite happy to finally reach the ridgeline with awesome 360 degree views. It was breathtaking. The snowcapped peaks to the west and the rolling green valleys to the east. I tried to take it all in while continuing forward past the radio towers and past several bikers who were taking a break having climbed up steep terrain that I was about to descend. I was looking at my watch trying to get down the mountain and over to Brighton as fast as I could. I hit the forest road which was beautiful as it wound through tall pines. Eventually I came out onto the road and had another mile or so before turning up towards the ski resort. That last hill nearly did me in especially now in the warm sun, but I rolled into the parking lot where Chris was waiting. We were not too far behind the other team. We knew we were unlikely to hit our goal of 36 hours but we were glad to still be in the game.

Chris set off from here up the snowy trail quickly gaining altitude. I knew he would enjoy the snow but I figured the back side of Catherine Pass would be even more treacherous going downhill. I cleaned up and enjoyed the sunshine as I got ready for my final section. I was feeling 100% better than 8 hours earlier. I was so glad we had decided to continue and knew that eventually I’d be glad for the experience and would hopefully learn a few things about keeping calm when things go wrong... wouldn’t that be nice? I checked the directions to the exchange point and found my way fairly easily though it took a lot longer than I expected. I arrived as the third place team were exchanging runners. The other two teams a fair bit ahead at this point. I hung out with the other team members, one of them running the next leg and the other running the final leg. We were all pretty tired at this point but I was looking forward to the scenery up ahead. It was around noon and the sun was getting pretty warm but with the elevation (~9600 ft), I knew it wouldn't get uncomfortably hot. The only downside to this next leg were the dirt bikes. Unfortunately, many of the trails in this area are multi-use and the ATVs and dirt bikes have torn them up badly. As we waited around in the flat grassy open space, several bikers came through and milled around, no doubt wondering what we were doing filling water bottles and applying sunscreen. This leg had taken me 2:05 in the other direction but I knew that I had pushed pretty hard going down the front side towards Brighton. I figured it would be closer to 2:30 for Chris. He arrived in 2:25 and we chatted for less than a minute and off I went. The other team had left about 20 minutes ahead. I started out feeling pretty good and enjoying winding through the tall pines. Lots of lakes and beyond them mountains off to the west. The trail was pretty easy to navigate at first, apart from a few melted snow-mud patches. I came upon a group of bikers at a particularly muddy stretch and they asked me how many more? I said I was the last one before realizing they were more interested in the mud than the runners... Oh, a few more! I continued on and came to a T-junction with a single flag. I went straight at first but then retraced my steps and turned right. I wasn’t sure for a good five minutes before spotting another flag. I tried to remember the directions the girl from the other team had given me. She made clear I should turn right at a particular junction to avoid going around in a big circle. I spent most of the next two hours convinced I was in fact going around in a big circle. I kept coming to downed trees and sections of trail that looked just like where I’d been 10 minutes earlier. I was sure I had gone wrong. I read and re-read the directions. Finally, just as I was about to have another little breakdown, I came across the two runners from the other team. One of them had run the last leg and was running this one with his brother who wasn't having quite as much fun but was doing it all the same. We were headed downhill at this point and I was fairly sure I was getting close. I’d been out here over two and a half hours which was the original goal for this section but we knew from Chris’ leg yesterday that we’d underestimated this one. It was the only section with a lot of downed trees so that took a bit of extra time especially with super-tight hamstrings. Soon I was down by the river and could see the ridgeline above where I’d run along yesterday as we started this journey. I gave myself 15 minutes to get up there, running as much as I could of the switch-backs. At just over 3hrs I came around the last corner and saw Chris up ahead. I was at once thrilled to be done but sad the race was almost over. But there was still work to be done! I handed off to Chris and updated the other team on their runners.

Off to the finish line! I drove to the Homestead, got cleaned up and then chatted with John and the others hanging out on the grass at the finish line. When I figured Chris was hitting the downhill I drove out the road I had run along 36 hours earlier. It was about 30 degrees hotter now and I knew that the last few miles wouldn’t be easy as he hit the flat pavement with the sun beating down. Still, it was a fun 30 minutes or so of leap-frogging with Chris giving him cold fluids before dropping the car at the finish and running in the last half mile together. It was without doubt the most low-key finish line I have ever crossed and that suited us just fine. We waited for the final runner to come in a little while later and our two teams shared ice-creams and swapped stories. It was the kind of event that reminded me why I do this. To have the freedom to run for hours in the mountains, alone but not really alone. To be competitive with no one but yourself. To replace utter despair and frustration with awe and gratitude within a matter of hours. There is a clarity that comes with complete exhaustion, when both your mind and body are emptied. And when I reach that point, I like what I see.