After crossing the finish line, letting out a long slow exhale, a big smile - and then a little cry to myself in the corner of the parking lot: my 2015 Dirty 30 was in the bag @ 5:50:33.
The days leading up to the race were a little less than ideal: I caught a cold! Right when the weather relented from the weeks of rain, rain, rain. I missed a few runs I wanted to do, and exchanged them for very easy sessions of spinning on the bike indoors, or doing nothing at all. Better to let the cold pass, than to potentially make things worse. A bit too sheer of a drop off for tapering for my tastes, but it's what I was given. Sometimes it's hard to remember that I have years of base building, I've been relatively injury free all year - save a small hamstring strain I've consciously worked to prevent in the future, and I've been PR'ing all over the place. Time to line up!
The morning of the race started for me at 3:00am. Awake, I rode my bike to C's, and she drove us to the fairgrounds parking lot, where I caught the shuttle to the start, while she slumbered in the back of the Sub for a few more hours before her own 12 mile race. Waking up four hours before the race seemed less than ideal, but it gave me plenty of time to drink coffee and graze the food I brought: raw cashews, dates, oranges and bananas; without being overly caffeinated or giving myself cramps during the race itself.
The starting area was just simply cold. After getting my number, there really wasn't anything to do for the next hour, except be a bit miserable around a lot of people I didn't know, and waffle on what to wear. My instinct was to wear little else except my running shorts, socks and running shoes - this is a race! Other people had alternative ideas and were wearing more conservative clothing options, packing additional food and clothes, and making up their drop bags for the halfway aid station. I elected to do nothing else except bring along some gels, my GPS (which I found out afterwards hadn't worked), and a water bottle.
When the five minute warning came, and I wandered to the starting line, did a half-hearted warmup jog, then lined up with the 4 - 6 hour finishing hopefuls that made up the first heat. 6 hours was at the more aggressive side of my time goals, but what the heck. I slotted in somewhat in the back, knowing full well that there was going to be those who would gun for the hole shot - the start begins on a wide dirt road, but after a quarter of a mile goes into single track. In past runnings of this race, this entrance into the single track causes a terrible plug of people needing to walk up the first hill having to contest with dozens of people in front blocking easy access to go faster. I just anticipated this happening, so when it did, I was calm. I felt absolutely no nervousness. The start was a calm affair - nothing like the hecticness of a cyclocross race, where gunning for the hole shot is almost mandatory, the consequences of not getting through in time are a wasted (and expensive!) race, the chances you'll get through are as low as the chances you'll crash out are high.
Looking back at just the start of the race and if I was to be critical of myself, I would say that I'm not much of a runner - that's my built-in fixed believe that may or may not have real-world truth, so my conservative nature here is thinking that I couldn't really run the course. I kept remembering the shambles of my pre-run, and how much I had to walk and how easy that terrain was. And I'm proud to be a cyclist.
But surprisingly, my legs felt great. I can't even remember how rested and ready to go these pups have been in the last year. If I needed a well-timed shot of confidence, well that was it: I successfully peaked! When the single track hill finally relented to a double track descent, I switched modes immediately from, "highly conservative" to, "Run! Run! Run!" and gave my inner governor the green light to use all the downhill running skills I've amassed in the last year and a half. And then, I just kept running. And you know what? It was all just mindless fun.
Aid station #1 came quickly enough and was the first time I stopped moving for more than a second. The legs still were giving good sensations, so I just kept going after nibbling on some gels. I dare say I was racing, though. What I found myself doing, unaccustomed to foot races, was simply finding someone that had a comfortable pace for me, and shadowing them. Hard. This is a nervous experience, since half the time you want to go faster, but I just tempered my impatience and remembered that there's hours of trail to cover and plenty of time to accelerate. Other than having someone set the pace, I just simply kept my mind clear, monitored my breathing, and kept highly aware of my footing.
After a short while, I found myself slotted right in the back of Laura Tabor - last year's women's winner, and 8th overall @ 5:49:44. In comparing her and I, you really couldn't find two different running styles or body types: she's short and stocky; I'm lean and tall. She's a grizzled veteran, I'm a newbie that thinks he can run. I knew Tabor had an incredible amount of experience and success. If anyone knows how to pace themselves for a race and this race specifically, it's this women. I also knew she was a much better racer than I was and passing her was certainly a fool's errand for me.
So, I didn't. I utilized her to set my pace and learn from her. What I gathered in short time is that she's an incredible competitor. Her pace was solid, if not a little conservative (I thought), but once she saw another women on the course, she would find a source of additional energy and just power past them in cold blood. Sometimes she would wait for a little rise, or a turn, or just any opportunity in the trail where she could pass by and the other person could not follow. I must have seen her do this a half dozen times. I usually didn't try to keep up with her on these accelerations, but after a few minutes, I would naturally find myself right behind her again.
I lost Tabor a bit in the scrambly bits of Black Bear trail - she mumbled something about not being the greatest of hikers which is a total lie, but scrambly bits are a place I can excel and I knew I could bomb the downhill with aplomb and have some fun in the process. So, I did. (Tabor would again finish as the women's winner)
Surprisingly, for a total loner like me, running with such a large group of people actually helped me greatly in keeping my mind off attempting to control the little parts of my own body, and just keep me concentrated on going forward. My legs felt and kept feeling ,fast. Aid #2 came, and Aid #3 quickly afterwards. This, I thought, was going to be a piece of cake.
My goal this day was to finish under 6 hours, and I set the alarm on my watch to go off 3 hours after my start. When it did, it was the first time I looked at it the entire race - I don't look at it while training either. I was at Aid #3, 17 miles into the race. Perfect. I had a slight cushion of time to do 15 more miles, I had ran a conservative first half, I had all the confidence in the world in power hiking/bombing down the last climb - basically half of what was left of the course, and I knew between it and myself, there's a long, easy climb I needed to walk, and a long, easy descent I needed to run. And that's just what I did. If I was more nervous, I would have tried to run the uphill, but I knew I didn't have that in me, so I didn't. I ate a ton of gels at Aid #3, as eating anything later wouldn't have helped (probably) get much energy and could cause some cramping.
Getting to Windy Peak (the last climb) did seem to drag, but not as much as it did during my prerun, where I continuously got lost, and today: that felt good. At the base, I just began my power hike-with-intent, knowing exactly where the summit was. I passed C on her 12 mile course, and gave her a kiss and kept going. On the places I could run, I ran, but mostly kept to my power hiking. I knew it would be just as fast or faster than running up the hill, confirmed recently by the experiments in ascent styles I did. It felt as if I may have gotten a second wind, so I gunned it a bit at the top. The scene was one of slight anarchy, as two races were going on, on the same trail, and the trail saw traffic in both directions, as the summit was an out and back. Somehow, it worked.
Made it to the top, got my bib marked and bombed down. I passed C (but didn't see her) - she told later me that I was going very fast, with someone right on my heals, going just as speedily down. Hiking up hills and bombing down them is basically what I've been doing for the past year, so this is where I felt most comfortable - certainly not in the plain running portions of the race.
Near the bottom of the hill, I met up with Marily of Ultimate Direction, who was just out running the course to check things out, if not a little lost. She had a ton more energy, and incidentally found me as I approached my lowest point of the race: going from the bottom of Windy Peak, over a small rise, and then the final descent to the finish. Sadly, I had to walk some very easy terrain, which afforded probably a half a dozen people to pass me - the most critical error of the entire day for me. I glanced at my watch a second time and realized I had less than a half hour to make it to the finish, if I wanted to finish in less than 6 hours. Somewhat deflated at feeling a bit tired on easy terrain, I gave it my best, tried to cut my losses and just mentally prepare to give everything I had for the final few miles. The last aid is severely close to the finish line, so I didn't find the need to stop.
With luck on my side, I chanced the final swift descent without completely falling off the side of the hill - my legs seemed that used up and I collected a time of 5:50:33 or so, enough to get myself in the 360 Club and succeed in my own personal goal of finishing the course under 6 hours.
Things that worked:
Food - this race is short, gels are good enough. Ate enough beforehand in the morning, but not too much. Ate enough in the days preceding too. Cut out a bit of dairy as well in the week before the race, but nothing super drastic
Pace - went out conservative, knew the course enough to know what ascents were long ones, and which ones were just short rises. Prerunning the course work well!
Homework - Ran the Dirty 30 fun run beforehand, and listened closely to the Elite Panel set up by Runners High in Golden a few weeks beforehand. Knew even who to look for on the course and predicted their times, based on their past efforts.
Shoes - La Sportiva Helios SR, which I bought only a few days before, were excellent. Happy to have a pair of new kicks to run in, as they were in great shape, and my previous pairs were not - so much that they developed a hole in the sole days before the race.. Usually a pretty bad idea to race in a pair of shoes that aren't broken into, but this is my third pair of Helios - they seem to work well for me.
Things I need to improve on:
Running! - this sounds terribly obvious, but for a course that has so much runnable bits, it helps to be good at running, which I'm sincerely mediocre in. My training is mostly powering up hills, just to bomb down them again, and any slightly rolling or even flat terrain wasn't remotely as comfortable to do. Still, I attempted to hold my own.
If anything, this was an interesting way to gauge my trail running fitness. I already know what I could improve on, to get a faster - perhaps much faster time, the next go-around. This may be the first time I've felt that getting a time that an, "elite" received isn't beyond my reach, it's just a matter of adjusting my training. For example, it's obvious to me at least that there's diminishing gains to be found for me doing even more vert. than I already do, while putting in a good, long, flattish run once a week would pay off in spades. On this same course, I'd def. see about a half hour of improvement within a few months of that one adjustment.
This doesn't mean I will. I have other goals and passions, none of which really align to, "get better at ultra races". To become even better, it would take a lot more sacrifice, like giving up entire hobbies, like climbing or cycling, which I'm not even considering doing. I'd have to also trim down the body a bit - I surprise myself when I get on the scale and have it read 175 lbs or so. Losing 10lbs wouldn't be difficult, but I'm pretty slim as it is - all that weight would be lose of muscle in my upper body.
The Dirty 30 was technically my first ultra trail race, but that's a little silly to say. Sure, it's the first running trail race I've done and only the second running race I've competed in (the very first being last year's Mt. Evans Ascent), but to say I'm new to ultra distances seriously ignores my ultra cycling career, which includes two Tour Divides (2700 miles! Each!), one Colorado Trail Race (500+ miles of singletrack!), and a plethora of gravel grinders and ultra cross races - some that I've done pretty well in, or have even won.
The 32 mile distance of the Dirty 30, in comparison, is an absolute sprint for me, when the majority of my efforts are measures in days or weeks. My mental game is hardened - 6 hours is usually a warmup for the next 12 hours I'll be up on the same day, and that day is just one of many more days or even weeks. But as a quick fix to get a lot of mileage in a short amount of time - it's a good distance.
A great even all around. My thanks to everyone who has worked on the Dirty 30 race.