Wednesday, August 08, 2018
Elkhorn 52K 2018!
On Saturday, August 4, I ran and successfully completed the Elkhorn 52K Ultramarathon, in the heart of the Elkhorn Mountains, just south of Helena, Montana. It was the 14th time I've run a race at Elkhorn, and my 13th official finish (I once got off track in the 50 Miler and ran my own 38 mile course). It was also the 30th running of the Elkhorn Ultras. This is an old-school race, run in wilderness with only occasional support. This was a great day for me, as it's the first ultramarathon I've run since having a full hip replacement on 2 August 2017. Among other things, this bodes well for Le Grizz this coming October. Here's a race report.
On Friday, August 3, I left Bozeman and drove the 100 miles to the Willard Creek Trailhead in the Elkhorns, where the race begins. I planned to camp at the trailhead, so parked my trusty Element in a likely spot and hitched a ride with some other runners back to Jim and Bobbie Pomroy's Elkhorn Fitness Retreat for packet pickup and the pre-race dinner. The people I rode with were great fun to talk with -- two brothers who were running together, plus the wife of one and another brother who were there in a supporting role; we ultrarunners love our support crews. The dinner was the standard spaghetti -- I'm pretty sure left over from years past -- and I devoured several plates of it. It ages well. I talked with several old friends and met some new ones, including some canines, and we had the usual course briefing. It was mostly the usual stuff -- I know the course very well -- but one thing I noted was that the race directors, Steve and Tammy Engebrecht, had recently experienced a family tragedy, and it was tough for them to be there. But they were proceeding, and their strength and courage and moving ahead typifies ultrarunning.
I caught a ride back with a Billings runner I've known for some time, Bill J., and his wife; it was good talking with them. Back at the camp/trailhead I hung out a bit with Fran Z., Carl, and some other friends, and then turned in for the night, sleeping in the back of my vehicle. I slept well, and the 53 Mile racers served as a great alarm clock -- they start at 5:00 AM while the 52K starts at 7:00. I got up, drank coffee and ate, dressed, and chatted with other runners until the start. If it matters, besides coffee I ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich plus a quart of water for breakfast. I had some doubts going into this race, because I know my conditioning is not that great and this is the least I have ever trained for an ultra. But I wasn't untrained, had done some very challenging runs, and most importantly had 43 previous ultras under my belt. I was relying on experience more than conditioning, and would see if that was sufficient.
The race starts with a long downhill followed by a stream crossing (no, there's not a bridge, and yes, there are many stream crossings like this). I was in what I think was second-to-last place in this stretch, which seems about the right place to be to me. After the creek crossing the trail (this is all single track trail) goes left, slightly downwards to Jackson Creek. At Jackson Creek we turn and run up. After an aid station there's a relatively steep climb, then a drop into the creek bottom. and then a very loooooong wet slog up for a few miles This is incessant climbing on "trails" that seem mostly notional. I know this area very well (it's where I got a bit off course during my 38 miler a few years back). I was not feeling that great -- it was hard to get into the climb and I didn't feel strong. A couple of 23K runners passed me in this stretch (they start an hour later) and that's very early to be caught by them.
After a while the course turns and follows the contour -- no climbing -- until it drops into Casey Meadow. A few more 23K people passed me here. I dropped into Casey Meadow -- a spectacular descent -- and started the climb of Casey Peak. I dragged. My climbing was so poor I contemplated perhaps dropping to the 23K race, and a number of people blew by me, including the one 52K runner who'd been behind me, a gal from Texas. But there's never any sense in making a decision before it need be made, and I slogged on. At the high point on Casey Peak I always do pushups to celebrate the mountain. As I dropped to do my 10, a 23K runner approached and I suggested she join me. Sometimes they do, but she requested instead I do some for her, so I did 20.
From that point it's a fairly quick drop down to Teepee Creek aid station. At Teepee Creek, 52K runners turn left and 23K runners turn right so it was time for a decision. I felt good enough, and running to Elk Park would at least get me a good 22 mile training run, so onward! I wolfed down handfuls of jerky and boiled potatoes dipped in salt (Yukon Golds!), thanked the wonderful volunteers, and headed out.
This next stretch is all uphill, climbing about 2200 feet over four miles, most of it in the last two miles. It's a grunt. But I started feeling stronger and better and began moving fairly steadily. I could see the Texas gal ahead of me and was gaining on her; I thought it might be a good idea to catch her and make a pact to run together -- after Elk Park you're really in the backcountry, and it would not hurt to have support. But odd events intervened.
As I began the steep part of the climb to Elk Park, I saw a dead tree atop which someone had placed a cow elk skull. I turned on my otherwise-shut-down phone to snap a picture and a passing runner (not in the race) took my photo next to it. Before I could power down again, I started getting texts from several of my students who are working on the Convention of States project; this stuff is dear to my heart so of course I replied... "how the heck I am getting texts from you I don't know. I'm in a 50K in the backcountry surrounded by mountains with no cell towers anywhere near and certainly not in line-of-sight." Go figure.
But this frittering away with cursed electronic devices was sufficient to allow Texas gal to vanish. I cranked up the hill, passing one couple who were having a bad patch. It's a quite a long climb, but I hit the high point and did 30 more pushups to celebrate. From there it's only a few hundred yards to the Elk Park aid station. At the station, I felt some hesitation about proceeding, mostly because I felt so slow. It was also disconcerting to hear that Texas gal has already left the station maybe 20 minutes before. She'd been less than 50 yards ahead of me before. I asked the station staff about proceeding, and one of them responded "You're eating and drinking, you're not hurting, no problems, you have time... it's really all a mental thing. I think you should go." Yup. I grabbed more jerky and potatoes (a crew dog offered to share my jerky, but I told him only if in return he would share his rawhide chew, which he didn't), and headed out just as the "bad patch" couple was coming in. They were doing much better and as I took off I said I'd see them ahead.
This is only 16 miles into the race, but I had no more doubts the rest of the way. Of course, once you leave Elk Park, doubts will do you no good. You're entering remote backcountry and there's no real way to get out except by completing the race, and no good way for anyone to extricate you if you can't proceed. You're committed.
It's a long (a few miles), steep (a few thousand feet) descent from Elk Park into Wilson Creek. At Wilson Creek the 53K turns left and follows a bad jeep trail for a few miles, passing Moose Creek. At some point the course departs the jeep trail for a single track climb to Tizer Creek aid station. This is an out-and-back, and it was here I finally caught the Texas gal, running towards me. I told her I'd been trying to run her down all day, and now that I'd caught up she was going the wrong way. She grinned and told me to try the whisky at the aid station. We high-fived in passing and I continued on.
At Tizer Creek an enthusiatic volunteer refilled my hydration pack (with water). And not only did they have whisky, it was nicely chilled Glenfidditch scotch. Man, did that hit the spot! More jerky and potatoes, and I turned around and headed back down to Moose Creek. The couple behind me was climbing u as I went down and doing well. (They did indeed finish successfully.)
Moose Creek is, in my opinion, the hardest part of the race. You've already done most of your mileage, and now comes the longest, steepest, most unrelenting climb. It's a sort of a road or trail or something. There are a few "cabins" along the lower parts, some swampy creek crossings (this year featuring hordes of mosquitoes), pieces of an old wrecked Model T or some similar vehicle higher up, and it is just a relentless, unceasing climb. I hoped to crack it off in an hour. It took me an hour and forty five minutes of slogging, one foot in front of the other. My friend Carl M. and another friend passed me here -- they were in the 53 miler and doing super. (The courses diverge at Wilson Creek but come back together at Tizer.)
The Moose Creek climb ends just a few hundred yards at the Elk Park aid station. At the station, devour more jerky, the last of their Pringles (I accidentally dropped them on the ground but the dirt just adds important minerals), and leave the last potatoes for 50 milers behind me. Now there are only 7 miles to go and there's no doubt I'll finish.
The rest was fairly anticlimactic. I found a couple more Pringles someone had dropped on the trail and ate them. Fran and a couple of other 50 mile gals passed me near the elk skull, and at Teepee Creek Helena's John Hallstrom (he's run every Elkhorn 50 miler -- a perfect streak!) and another guy passed me. I ate my usual meat and potatoes and ventured on. The last part is a long climb, not overly steep but steady for a mile or two. I ran really well in this section, feeling strong, and managed a sort of sprint across the finish. I bet I was doing a ten-minute-mile!
It was a really fine experience. The weather was good (perhaps low 70s), the smoke from California's fires had cleared and the air was good, later in the day we had some cloud cover, everyone on the course was fun to be with, and the Elkhorn Mountains were, as always, spectacular. To me, this is what life should be -- taking on challenges you aren't certain you can handle, being with good people, and being in beautiful places. This is living.
I owe great thanks to HURL (Helena Ultra Runners League) for putting this race on, and especially to R.D.s Tammy and Steve Engebrecht, for whom this was a particular challenge this year. I wish them and their family the best. Many thanks to all of you and your wonderful volunteers and sponsors.
Click any photo for enlarged version.