On March 17, 2001, another Crown King Scramble 50K/50M race went into the record books. I survived my own participation in the 50K surprisingly well.
In 1999 I ran Crown King as my first ultra and wrote an extensive report on it, which is on my web site, with pictures.
The course has not changed, and the weather was even similar this year. (Fabulous!) Therefore, I decided that this year I'd write a briefer report than is my usual habit, sparing you the details of my preparations and recovery.
Given my present level of conditioning, my aspiration was to make it to the finish before some official in a Jeep came along and informed me I'd had enough and had to quit. There was never any doubt in my mind that I could make the distance. The only question was how long it would take.
The reasons for my reserve were:
In summary, I was in substantially better running shape in 1999, when I finished in 8:07:43, than I am now.
I wanted to repeat Crown King last year, but blew up in training, trying to recover too quickly after running a 24-hour race the end of December. So I dropped Crown King from my schedule, and ran no races in 2000 until St. George marathon in October.
I don't mean to imply that I've been lazy about training. To the contrary, I've been working as hard as circumstances allow. But this year I needed to ease back into it to avoid crashing again. My tactic was to rebuild my training gradually, in the expectation that at best I would be marginally ready to complete Crown King, but not achieve the best I am capable of. I prepared myself to be satisfied with that, and accordingly made my goal.
The most salient feature of the Crown King 50K course is its relentless incline, particularly from miles 15 to 29. For kicks, here is an elevation guide you can look at to give you an idea what we were up against:
The guide is for the 50-mile course, which joins the 50K course four miles before the arrow in the middle.
Although the miles I've been putting in have been relatively few, they have included some long treks on a treadmill inclined at 15%, and two double round trip hikes of Camelback mountain here in Phoenix, most of which is steeper than any part of the Crown King course. A double, less than six horizontal miles, is roughly equivalent to a 16-mile flat run, in my estimation, a very good workout that takes me just over three hours to complete.
No verbal description of the scenery from Lake Pleasant to Crown King could ever do it justice. Every step is beautiful, with endless turns and new panoramas to be enjoyed, each one seemingly more attractive than the last. The only thing lacking is sufficient oxygen in the higher elevations, which our Creator saw fit to supply sparsely, foreknowing that in the future some crazies would try to run up there, and desiring to keep them humble.
If I were younger, faster, and stronger, I would mosey it next year with a digital camera, and would put the images on my Web site for the benefit of those who haven't been privileged to experience it in person. Regrettably, I'm unlikely ever to do that, as it takes every shred of my effort and concentration just to get my porcine body up the hill.
One advantage of being one of the slow guys and taking the early start (6:00 AM) is the opportunity to see and greet almost everyone else in the race as they fly by. Indeed, I did make the effort to wave, greet, or at least groan at every person that came near.
At 2:17[*] the 50K leader flew by so fast I could see the red shift. That turned out to be Karl Meltzer, 33, from Sandy, Utah, who won the race by a margin of 22:06 in 4:17:53, which is an 8:19 per mile pace.
[*] Times are in early start race time. We started at 6:03, so 2:17 was at 8:20 AM.
The course record is a mind-boggling 4:00:27, set in 1996 by Scotsman fell runner Dermot McGonigle, a 7:44 per mile pace. To me it is unimaginable how such a performance is even humanly possible. Most of the terrain in the latter half of the race is so steep I can do nothing but powerwalk at a pace that took me a calculated 20:00 per horizontal mile. It took me 4:40 of relentless effort to get from the aid station at mile 15 to mile 29.
To put this achievement into even sharper perspective: If I sharpened a couple of weeks for it, had three days rest beforehand, warmed up carefully, and did it in the morning on a cool day, I probably could run one mile on a flat track in my present condition in about 8:15, maybe less. I once ran an 8:00 flat, and nearly needed a paramedic with a defibulator afterward.
The next runner to come by, at 2:36, was elite ultrarunner extraordinaire Eric Clifton, recognizable by his trademark bizarre homemade tights, this set with one leg of yellow and black stripes, and the other dark polka dots on a pink background. Eric has a reputation for going full blast in every race until he bonks. If he happens to get to the end before that happens, he sometimes wins by spectacular margins. From what I saw, it appeared unlikely he would ever catch Karl Meltzer, unless Karl crashed. But Eric was a strong candidate for second.
At 2:42 I heard a friendly, ``Hi!'' over my right shoulder, and turned around to see my young buddy 14-year-old James Bonnett-Castillo come charging by. James told me at the Arizona Road Racers club meeting on Thursday that he was aiming to go sub-5:00, and that if he did, his father would buy him a didjeridoo, an aboriginal Australian instrument, sort of their version of the Jew's harp. I hope he learns to play it well, because he finished in 4:52:58, seventh overall, only one second behind 29-year-old Josh McLaughlin from Albuquerque, and to my amusement, 34 seconds ahead of Eric Clifton.
Love it. Way to go James!! I have nothing but respect for Eric Clifton, who is a legend. But I'm a big James fan, having been able to watch him often at close range since I first saw him tear by at least four miles ahead of me on the return leg of a half marathon in 1997, when he was ten years old. James is Arizona's Wunderkind running prodigy. At least he will be until he discovers girls.
So on the race went. At the club meeting we were advised to take it easy the first 15 miles, and to save strength for the rugged, rocky, mostly uphill 14-mile stretch to follow. Having been through this before, I determined this would not be my strategy.
I knew I was good for a respectable 15-mile run, and that I can always keep walking almost no matter what. Therefore, I decided that I would go out as hard as I could tolerate, knowing there was no way I would be running most of the second half, just powerwalking.
The rules state officially that runners would have to make cutoff times at the aid stations, and that they would account for the hour difference with early starters. Though I really doubted that they would pick early starting runners off when the aid station had to remain open for at least another hour anyhow, I ran under the assumption that being pulled was a real possibility. All I needed to do was get to the last cutoff in time, and I would be allowed to finish.
In this respect I did well. My times at the various aid stations were:
|7||47 minutes ahead of cutoff|
|15||31 minutes ahead of cutoff|
|22||15 minutes ahead of cutoff|
|27||6 minutes ahead of cutoff|
The aid station at 22, nicknamed Fort Misery, is special, being ensconced in a beautiful, flat clearing, and well-supported by enthusiastic Hash House Harriers (famous as ``drinkers with a running problem''), where those crazy enough to indulge could fortify their courage to continue with a beer or margarita. That number would not include me, however.
In 1999 I spent too much time at the aid stations, particularly at 22, where I took a short vacation. This year I spent almost none at all at any of them. Though I sent a drop bag to Fort Misery, I stopped for nothing except to fill my water bottle, grab two pieces of salted boiled potato, and head on out.
Immediately past the clearing is where the stream crossings begin. I saw runners trying to hippety-hop across on rocks, or pass over at narrow places. I've heard many times from experienced trail runners that running straight through the water is refreshing. Indeed it is. At the first stream, I simply splashed through the middle of it, while others struggling to do a delicate dance across the rocks upstream watched in surprise.
The first stream was well up above my ankles. It felt wonderful on my tired feet. I counted eight streams that had to be crossed that way. In 1999 it was drier, and I managed to skirt them all. I'll never again be squeamish about wading through streams on a trail. It's fun.
The last miles before 27 are the toughest of the course. There are steep switchbacks from which you can look up and see the aid station high above, with runners ahead looking like ants. It was here, with the station in sight, that I put in some of my hardest effort, in order to make it in time. The consequence of that effort was staggering and stumbling on rocks for the next two miles, in the thinnest air on the course (near 7000 feet in elevation), where there were still occasional patches of snow on the ground.
Most of the time I breathed deeper and my heart pounded harder and faster when I was walking than it ever does while running, unless I'm doing speedwork. On perhaps a half dozen occasions, when it got to be too much, I stopped suddenly, dead in my tracks, and breathed deeply to a count of five, then continued. The effect was like slapping an oxygen mask over my face, and was all I needed to keep going.
I followed a strict schedule of drinking and electrolyte replacement, which seemed to be sufficient. Despite this, for at least two hours I felt mildly nauseated, and for a while wished I would just hurl, because I'd probably feel better. But I've never done this while running.
Near the highest elevation one runner passed me by and asked how I was doing. I replied, ``Everything hurts. Even my fat hurts!'' This was true. Whenever I was able to run, it seemed that even the bouncing roll around my stomach ached.
Another runner commented as he whizzed on by: ``What a bargain -- all this for only fifty bucks!''
At about mile 29 they supply water only. It's there that the terrain changes dramatically, descending steeply the last two and a half miles into town. For those who have the legs left, it's a sweet way to end it. I managed to run most of it, including all of the last mile, at a blazing 12:00 pace, which was substantially slower than I ran that segment in 1999.
At the edge of town people sit by campsites by the road, cheering the zombies on their way to the finish. The PA system can be heard from several hundred yards away. Then it was across a little bridge, down the main street, around a turn, and I was done. My time was 8:26:41.
It was not until a few minutes later, when I was standing at the table to pick up my sweatshirt, meal ticket, and van ride return ticket, that I learned that I finished just ahead of Ultra List subscriber Sue Norwood from Montana, with whom I've recently gotten acquainted. Her husband, Jim O'Neil, ran the 50-mile race. We had come into the 7-mile aid station at the same time, and ran close together for a while. But the last I saw of Sue was when she came into the 15-mile aid station just as I was taking off from it. I looked back a few times during the race, often to see no one in sight, and wondered where Sue disappeared to, since I know she is a better runner than I am, and kept expecting her to pass me.
The festivities area is small enough to find anyone you know within two minutes. In fact, you can search the whole town in five. It didn't take long for me to check in with all parties and find all hands accounted for, and everyone still alive and well, with the exception of one friend who had experienced a surprising bonk and dropped at mile 22. Then I got my post-race meal and joined Jim and Sue. Somehow, I didn't have much of an appetite.
The hard numbers show me as coming in 168th out of 185 50K finishers, in the 90th percentile. It's true that this is not exactly impressive by most standards.
However, I'm not at all embarrassed by my performance. I did not have a bad day. I ran hard as I could until 15 miles. I did not fall apart, and did not give up, even for a minute. I gave it everything I had the entire race without letup.
There are several ways of looking at the numbers that put a slightly different spin on it. For instance:
Do those numbers sharpen the picture any? Perhaps I didn't do especially well even within my age group, but I have a theory about that. I believe that most of the runners who have stuck with distance running until my age have been doing it for quite a while, and were probably a lot better when they were younger. I doubt that many of them are like me, having run seriously for only seven years or less.
On the other hand would it be realistic to compare what I do with a bunch of 30-year-olds? For most of us it just gets tougher as time goes on. The only one I know who keeps getting better from year to year is James.
As always, I come out of this race with plans in motion for the next one. I'm now officially into the first days of my big buildup for the year. Next on my schedule will be the Whiskey Row marathon on May 5, which is merely a pit stop on my way to my main target for 2001: The USAT&F national championship 24-hour race at Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio on September 15-16, where I hope to accomplish some good things.
Full speed ahead!
Lynn David Newton