Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Grand Mesa 50 Miler

I've wanted to do one of the Grand Mesa Ultra distances for a few years now, it's just never fit into the schedule. As you may recall (but probably not because it was a LONG time ago), I paced a 100 mile runner at this race several years back. It ended up being a scary, crazy experience as we got stuck in a torrential downpour in the middle of the night while trying to ascend 5000 feet in 5 miles... You can read more about it here. And while that left me with not really wanting to attempt the 100 here (seriously, this mountain can be brutal), I did still want to do one of the shorter distances. So, sometime during the winter, after I had committed to Lean Horse 100 and knew I would be focusing on trail & ultra running this summer, I signed up for this years 60K. Unfortunately, the race director decided to cancel the race sometime in late spring (April maybe?) after holding it for 4+ years. I was pretty bummed, but quickly found another race to do instead - the Rocky Mountain Half.

Well...about a month later, two local friends from our run club announced that they had taken it over from the old RD and would be putting it back on! Ugh...I was frustrated. I had JUST signed up for the Rocky Mountain Half... what to do, what to do?? This was a much closer drive and much more in the realm of the training I needed to do, but, I paid good money for the other race. Well my dilemma was quickly answered when I found out I won a free entry into this race, AND that the Half I signed up for had a deferment policy. It was finally settled - I would FINALLY do the Grand Mesa Ultra this year. Now my only question was which distance - the 50K or the 50 miler? Since I won the free entry, I decided to sign up for the 50 miler and then decide as it got closer whether I wanted to switch to the 50K or not...

Before I knew it, race week was here and I still hadn't committed to a distance. I felt pretty good after Chase The Moon 50K, so I was pretty sure I wanted to go for the 50 Miler, but I kept having that "don't over-train" thought going through my head (several seasoned ultra runners have told me it's better to under-train than over-train for a 100). But I also knew that having another 50 under my belt would be really good for me mentally (and I really struggle with the mental aspect in running)... so I decided to just go for it.

It was an hour drive and with the 6am start, I woke up at 3:45 on Saturday morning, hitting the road at 4:15. Just like clockwork I made it to the starting line at 5:15. I went and got my bib and T-shirt (which I really like!), used the restroom, and then worked on trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to carry with me. I would go through 6 aid stations, with some stretches as long as 10.5 miles between aid. That meant, I definitely wanted to carry a decent amount of food with me (and a variety because I NEVER know what I will be in the mood for when running long distances). So, while I'm sure I had way too much stuff, at least I had enough stuff... I also got my drop bag ready which would go out to the Flowing Park Aid Station which I would pass at Miles 25 and 40.

At about 5:50, I made my way to the starting line. We got a short race briefing (follow the orange flags and orange & white checkered ribbon), then I nervously chatted with some local runners for a few minutes until the gun went off and the start of my LONG day began.

The first section of this course is run along what is called the "Grand Mesa Lodge Trail". I think I'd use the word "trail" very loosly here. It was not much of a trail at all... Thankfully though, the RD's did a great job marking this part, so it was basically just cross country running to each flag or ribbon. I'm not going to lie though, not having much of a trail made it pretty difficult. I found myself stumbling on rocks a lot and going much slower than I had anticipated considering it wasn't a very difficult section elevation wise. Nevertheless, I knew I should be starting out slowly anyways, so I just kept at it and eventually made it to the Grand Mesa Lodge. We ran around the Lodge, then crossed Highway 65 and got onto a very short section that took us to the Crag Crest Parking Lot, where we had our first aid station (around 3.75 miles).

The sunrise shortly after we started!
I shed my long sleeve and gloves, grabbed a handful of peanut M&M's, and headed out for what I knew would be the toughest section of the course (although I still wasn't expecting it to be AS tough as it was) - the 10.5 mile Crag Crest Loop. I've ran this a couple times before and I knew it was semi-challenging during certain sections - and that I wouldn't be running that much on the crest (which is the high point of the course and a very thin almost "bridge" of rock that you go across - very cool views, but ROCKY), but in the realm of elevation gain and climbing, this trail isn't that significant. You gain about 1000' from the parking lot to the crest. That all being said, I was also doing this loop counter-clockwise for the first time. I've always ran it clockwise in the past... According to some runners, this was was supposedly easier. I guess we would find out!

Along the Lower Loop of Crag Crest Trail

Running counter-clockwise means you do the lower loop first - which is mostly through tree's and doesn't have a ton of elevation gain. This section went pretty well and I was very steadily running 13 minute miles. Not fast, but a decent pace for a somewhat technical trail (it wasn't insanely technical, but there were a lot of miscellaneous rocks here and there that made the probability of tripping very high). Eventually, I made it to the junction between the lower loop and upper loop. This meant it was time to start heading UP. Heading up, meant time to start walking. I settled into a nice power hike as I made my way up the 2 or so miles to the crest. On the way, I saw some wonderful wildlife - Cows - complete with fresh manure all over the trail! Yum. Finally, I got to the really rocky section... which meant I was just about to the top. Once I made it to the top, I very slowly jog/ran over the rocky stretch, eventually getting to the course photographer - who was right at the top of a not sure how that picture will turn out (it's a little hard to smile when you're huffing and puffing up a hill at over 11,000'). Shortly after passing the photographer, I got passed by the first and second place runners of the 25K - who had started an entire HOUR after me. That was depressing (I did know I would get passed by them, but it was sooner than I had expected). I also got passed by a friend, Jen, who was doing the 50K and got this photo of me:
Just a few rocks...

The "Crest" of Crags Crest
More of the "crest"
Official race photo!

Before I knew it, it was time to descend the 3 miles down from Crags Crest and back to the parking lot/aid station. One of the best sections! Once you're off the crest, this section is pretty runnable downhill. So I settled into a nice easy downhill pace and ran a few of my faster miles for the day, making it to the aid station (approx. Mile 14) in about 3 1/2 hours - MUCH slower than I had planned...but happy to be done with the hardest part!

Some of the downhill "runnable" section
This meant it was time to head back to the start/finish area on the "not-really-a-trail" Grand Mesa Lodge trail. With the exception of getting passed once, I was completely alone for this entire 3 1/2 mile stretch...and my attitude and mental game plummeted. The entire 3 1/2 miles I kept thinking, "how in the world, am I going to complete 50 miles today?" I wasn't even to 15 yet... I had been briefly thinking about this on my way up to the Crest earlier, but not as much as during this stretch. The lack of a trail, paired with being alone, and I kept stumbling on rocks sticking up (I never hit the ground, but I had a lot of close calls) left me down in the dumps. I was really thinking about asking what the policy was on dropping to the 50K when I got to the start/finish area (the 25K runners would be done here - the 50K and 50 milers continued on another trail that left from this same parking lot).

EVENTUALLY, I made it back to the start/finish area aid station. I grabbed some food, but I didn't see either of the two RD's to ask about dropping distances. So I decided I would run the Mesa Top section out to the next aid station (and turnaround point for the 50K) and decide then. My legs were really achy by this point too - which seemed so early in the race, it was just adding to my negative attitude. So I decided to take some Ibuprofen (my first time ever taking a pain killer during a race) and see if it helped, then I headed out on Mesa Top Trail - which would be a 7.5 mile stretch to the Flowing Park Aid Station.

I've done the first 6 miles of the Mesa Top Trail, so this part wasn't new to me. I knew it would be significantly easier than the first 18 miles had been. However, it was still a somewhat rocky trail in places and I had to watch my footing. It's slightly downhill, so I hoped I'd be able to run a decent amount of this, but my legs were just achy and tired and I wasn't having it. I ended up running a lot of 14-16 minute miles through this section. About 4 or so miles in, I think the Ibuprofen sunk in and I did start to feel better. I had several miles much closer to 14:00 instead of the 16:00 range. It was also kind of crazy that I didn't start to see a lot of 50K runners headed back until the last two or so miles to the aid station (I figured I would see the front runners WAY earlier). I guess everyone else felt like the course was pretty tough and slow as well!

At least the views were good!

Eventually I saw Jen headed back (who had snapped the picture of me earlier) and so I asked her how far it was to the Flowing Park Aid Station. She said I was pretty close - so I tried to pick up my pace a little as I finished my way along Mesa Top Trail. I was still debating if I should drop the the 50K at this point, but in the back of my head I knew that I had no viable reason to quit. The Ibuprofen had helped immensely - I was still tired, but my joints and muscles didn't feel nearly as achy as before. Plus I just knew that if I quit, I am sure to think back to that when the going gets tough during Lean Horse later this summer... So it was settled...I would continue on.

I got to Flowing Park, and spent a little longer at this aid station than the others - topping off my pack and fueling up on various snacks they had. It would be 9 pretty exposed miles to the next aid station - which was just an unmanned spot with water - and 15 until I made it back to this same Aid Station. After grabbing a packet of tailwind and my old Garmin out of drop bag, I headed out for the 15 mile lollipop loop of Flowing Park and Indian Point.

This lollipop section starts along a dirt road which was pretty runnable before you jut off onto singletrack for the remainder of the section. Right as I passed the junction between the outbound part of the loop and the inbound part, I saw who I assume to be one of the front runners in the 50 on his way inbound. I had been trotting along so slowly, I wasn't surprised at all to see him about 11 miles ahead of me. I also knew as he passed me that it was highly likely he was the last runner I would see on the course today. So I did something I rarely do in races, especially trail races... I got out my headphones and put on some music! I knew I was going to be on this long and lonely stretch for awhile and figured it would help pass the time. And not only did it help pass the time, but my mood really picked along with pace - and I ended up doing several miles in the 12:00 range.

Shortly after this, the course started nearing the edge of the Mesa - something I had really looked forward to. This was one section of the course I had not ever been on - but I had heard that this part hugged the ridgeline for many miles. So, of course the views along this section were stunning, which just continued to help my mood. This was why I was out here. THIS is why I run. Needless to say, the next several miles went by much quicker as I enjoyed the views, stopping every so often to take pictures. I also still had my music on and since there was no one around was having a blast just singing along, out loud. I especially enjoyed "On Top of the World" by Imagine Dragons coming on right as I was at this awesome spot along the ridge - where it really DID feel like I was on top of the world!

Attempting to get a selfie with all my brands shown (Skirt Sports & Runners Roost) along with the background!

There were a few sections every so often with beautiful aspen trees!

Click on this picture to enlarge it. Stunning!

Eventually I made it to the Indian Point Aid Station - which was just a water jug and some gels - no people. I filled up my hydration pack and continued on. As much as I was enjoying this stretch, I was also pretty darn happy to see that aid station. It meant I was, for the most part, headed back home. I still had a few miles before the loop was over, but I was headed in the right direction!

So happy to see this!
A couple more miles later and I made it back to the road section of the lollipop, and then finally back to the Flowing Park aid station. I grabbed some soda and pickles and found out there was one guy behind me. I quickly headed back out of the aid station and made my way back onto the Mesa Top Trail. Just 7.5 miles of this section and I would be done! Unfortunately it was mostly uphill - so I knew I would be walking most of this and it would be awhile. Thankfully it was a very gentle uphill, so I was able to easily walk 17 minute miles. Not fast by any means, but much better than 20+ minute miles. I also knew by this point that I could finish in a faster time than Silver Rush, 3 weeks prior. Not nearly as much as I wanted - but still faster.

The wildflowers were stunning!
I continued with my singing and hobbling along mile after mile. With a couple of miles to go I saw a Porcupine. With about 1 1/2 miles to go I saw a Fox. Coolest thing ever. He was just about 100 feet in front of me and we both made eye contact for a second before he sprinted off. He was beautiful. After enjoying that for a moment, I continued on. With about a mile or so to go I saw the wife of the guy behind me - she was heading out to meet him. I knew I must be close. I kept going... I thought I still had 1/2 mile to go when all of a sudden I saw the outhouses - I was just about there! I then realized I could come in under 13 hours if I picked it up - so as soon as I hit the pavement, I sprinted (well what can only be considered a sprint for a slow, back-of-the-packer who was about to finish a 50 mile trail ultra) to the finish, finishing in 12 hours, 57 minutes, 42 seconds!

Finishing! (The only paved section of the entire course was the parking lot to the finish!)
Scott and Kristi (the RD's), myself, and Rochelle who stayed to see me finish!
This was definitely not the time I wanted to finish in, but it was nevertheless another 50 mile finish. Another almost 13 hours of time on my feet. And another step in my journey to complete my first 100. The fact that I pushed through a REALLY big low point before I even hit 20 miles and went on to finish (and even enjoy some of the later sections) is HUGE for me. I am not fast. Even saying I "ran 50 miles" is an overstatement. The truth is, I run/walk/trot/hobble over the course of 50 miles. But I don't quit. When the going gets tough, I stick with it. And that is what I plan to do at Lean Horse. Of course I have no idea what will happen on August 27-28th...but I intend to give that race everything I have!

Race: Grand Mesa 50 Mile Ultramarathon
Location: Grand Mesa, Colorado (no real close towns - Cedaredge would be the closest)
Distance: 50 Miles (my Garmin came in at 47.94)
Elevation Gain: 3791'
Maximum Elevation: 11,142'
Minimum Elevation: 9894'
Official Time: 12:57:42
Average Pace: 16:12
Overall Place: 6 of 7 (quite a bit different than Silver Rush which had 384 finishers!)
Division Place: 1 of 1
Gender Place: 2 of 2 (that reminds me - I placed! AND got PRIZE MONEY! :) I know finishing 2 of 2 doesn't sound that impressive, BUT there were 4 other women signed up - so the fact that I didn't drop and finished this darn thing when I wanted to quit is worth that prize money!)

Course Map
Elevation profile for the first 38 miles (I had to switch watches after that)

Post-Race Thoughts:
For taking this on only a few months before race day, the Race Directors did a great job! The t-shirts are great, the course was marked REALLY well (although I would have preferred a few more "feel good" markers during the Flowing Park/Indian Point loop - I didn't get lost, but there were some sections I went awhile without seeing any markers and would start to second guess myself), the aid stations had a great variety of food and drink. The course was beautiful. There were actually a decent amount of people still waiting around to cheer me in despite finishing long after most people had left (including my friend Rochelle - which was SO awesome - thank you!!!). I got prize money for the first time ever (and probably last time, but that's okay)! The only thing that I felt was missing was some sort of finishers medal/token/trinket...but maybe I'll just frame the card I got that says I finished in second place ;)! Overall, I did like this race a lot despite the course feeling very deceivingly hard. If you just look at the total elevation gain, you're going to be disappointed by your time. This is a pretty technical course and will slow you down, despite not having a lot of elevation gain. The fact that the first place 50K finisher finished in a time of 6:12 shows me that. MY first 50K was 6:30 and I am SLOW trail runner. Nevertheless, the views are pretty stunning. I will be back again sometime - just maybe not for the same distance!


  1. Great job! I'm surprised there weren't medals or finisher awards. I got a "medal" and a "tile" for my third place finish. Prize money is super cool, especially if your entry was free. :)

  2. That is me in the middle of your first picture plugging my ears so the start gun doesn't hurt them. Great write-up of a great race.

  3. That is me in the middle of your first picture plugging my ears so the start gun doesn't hurt them. Great write-up of a great race.

  4. Kate, you still "ran 50 miles", even if you did run/walk/trot/hobble part of it.
    It's all part of the strategy towards finishing the darn thing!


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