Imagine -- it's 6:00 AM. You line up in the dark with a few other people behind a line on a road in the middle of nowhere. You start to run down the road. You turn off the road and head up the side of a mountain. You run and walk your heart out and don't stop for anything except to eat and drink four times. When you stop you have been in motion for over eight hours.
That's how I spent my day on Saturday, March 20, 1999. The occasion was the 1999 edition of Crown King Scramble 50K / 50M (CKS) ultramarathon, known by insiders as "Arizona's cult race," sponsored by Arizona Road Racers. This year was only the third running of the 50-mile trek, but the fourteenth for the 50K, the original race.
Some ultrarunners call CKS50K "the toughest 50K on the planet." I didn't know that until I was on the course. Whether that assessment is accurate I'm not qualified to judge, since this was my first trail race, and my first effort at any race longer than a standard marathon. If it's not the hardest 50K, I'm not sure I want to try whatever surpasses it.
Readers who are familiar primarily with the popular and glitzy designer marathons that draw many thousands of runners may be surprised to know that in the US an ultramarathon with 250 runners is considered a big race. This year Crown King Scramble had 51 finishers in the 50-mile race, and 194 in the 50K.
The 50K race begins near Lake Pleasant, AZ, and winds almost due north. It ends in the tiny town of Crown King, AZ. In addition to the 50 kilometers of horizontal distance, the course traverses an overall rise in elevation from beginning to end of about 6,000 feet. That's more than four times the height of the Empire State Building, including the antenna.
Getting to the start of the Crown King 50K provides logistical problems for most runners. ARR provided, for a fee of $25, two circa thirty-passenger buses to deliver runners coming from Phoenix to the start.
On the bus I met 64-year-old runner, Donald Lang, from Glendale, CA, who wore a T-shirt testifying that he has run at least two marathons in every one of the 50 states. Crown King Scramble would be his 189th marathon.
The first bus arrived at Lake Pleasant barely twenty minutes ahead of the early start, just in time to check in, prepare, and line up. It felt strange standing by the side of the road in darkness and cold, spreading sunblock over myself. Personally, I was glad not to have to wait around for a long time in the dark getting chilly and nervous.
A couple of minutes before 6:00 AM an official called for all the early starters to line up behind a line drawn across the two-lane highway. We were about to get under way when, whoops! we all had to dash to the side of the road to let through a caravan of gawking bass fishermen on their way to their own early start on a busy day of murdering little fishies in the lake.
Despite the interruption, order was restored, and we were able to start right on time. There was no cannon or gun for the approximately seventy-five early starters. Just a guy who stood up and shouted, "Ready ... Go!"
I realized immediately that I forgot to pull my running gloves out of the pockets of my warm-up pants. I'm glad I did. It was chilly, perhaps below 50 degrees, but within fifteen minutes I had no need of running gloves, and didn't want to carry them all the way to mile 23, where my drop bag was being delivered.
By the time we started, the morning light was dawning rapidly. The first 1.2 miles of the race is on that comfortable two-lane highway. I felt very, very good when I started. As I ran I made a few new running friends.
That was the last pavement I saw until my return to I-17 late in the afternoon. The course turns left onto a well-maintained dirt road. It's hilly, but not bad. For a while I ran with a woman who said she had run all fourteen races, including the first unofficial run, when it was just a bunch of people who got together one morning to do it for fun.
The scenery in this part of Arizona is superlatively beautiful. As we gained elevation, it was possible to look back over our shoulders and view Lake Pleasant. Any runner who failed to hold his head up and look around during this race was there for the wrong reason.
The CKS aid stations are the best I've ever seen in any event, even better than the popular and well-supported St. George and Grandma's marathons. Each one was different, and I remember them all well.
The first aid station was at mile seven. I was made to feel like a special guest at the Plaza hotel. A woman rushed up to take my water bottle and fill it with the drink of my choice. They were offering either plain water, or Zing, a new hydration product. I had read the data sheet they passed out on Zing at the packet pickup dinner two nights before, and was favorably impressed. So having never tried it, I decided to trust it. It was a wise decision.
In past marathons I've had a problem with bonking prematurely at the proverbial wall. It seems that my problem has been not eating and drinking enough en route. This time I was determined not to make that mistake again.
In addition, two weeks ago I purchased a bottle of Succeed! electrolyte capsules after reading a convincing testimonial from Suzy Shearer on the Ultra email list. I stuffed eight in a Ziploc baggie and consumed one every single hour the entire course. I will do that in every long race I ever run for the rest of my life.
They had laid out a table six or eight feet long filled with enough food to fuel the army of Atilla the Hun. Everything a runner might want was there: oranges, bananas, Powerbars, GU, gels, cookies, candy, plus amenities like Advil and Vaseline. I was in a bit of a rush, so didn't contemplate the spread closely enough to remember the whole menu. I grabbed some cookies (my favorite food) and a miniature Powerbar and left hastily.
The road soon got rougher. Before long we passed through an isolated area where there were a few primitive homes. One homestead featured a large fleet of dilapidated VW buses on display in the front yard. A sign in front advertised rock art. I can't imagine who would buy it. They appeared to be miles from civilization, and the road was barely driveable.
At mile 15 we were entertained by attendants in early western costume, including a couple of ladies dressed as dance hall girls, or perhaps as -- ummm -- shall we say G-rated ladies of ill repute? CKS is, after all, a family event. We were told at the packet pickup dinner that the site had at one time been the location of a brothel.
Once again I was greeted by a personal attendant who filled my bottle with Zing, and I stuffed more food in me before heading off. I was beginning to feel like a Conehead: "EAT ... MASS ... QUANTITIES!"
So far I still felt wonderful, not at all tired. I was having way too much fun to trouble myself with being tired. And then the real fun began.
At the mile 15 aid station the road heads off to the right. This is where it ceases being a road and becomes a real trail through the Prescott National Forest. I was not expecting it to be as challenging as it was. Silly me.
Sometime in the next eight miles it occurred to me that Crown King Scramble is not exactly an ultramarathon. It is more like a biathlon with a reasonable 15-mile run, followed by a mercilessly grueling 14-mile uphill endurance hike, with a two-mile downhill sprint to the finish tagged on for those who manage to make it that far. Looking at it in another way, based on average finishing times, it's more like a marathon and three quarters.
Mile 15 to mile 29 is almost all very steep uphill on rugged trail that is difficult in places even to walk on, let alone run. There may have been some heroes and heroines scampering up parts of those hills, but there weren't many of them at my end of the race.
As I progressed I looked for every opportunity I could to run. Even if the trail was going slightly uphill but doable within reason, I ran it. But much of the way from there on I was forced to walk.
Mind you, this was no case of moseying along, enjoying a leisurely stroll and inspecting the scenery. Most of the way I pushed as hard as I could stand it.
My hamstrings became fatigued. I didn't wear my heart rate monitor, but at times I estimated my pulse to be around 160 BPM. My maximum heart rate was measured last October at 171. I was sustaining rates of over 90% of my MHR for extended periods of time.
As the day went on the temperature went up. The sweat poured off me in rivers.
The race rules require all runners to carry at least one 16-ounce fluid bottle the entire distance. I carried a 20-ounce bottle, and ran out of drink twice between stations.
At mile 19 there was a water-only station. It must have required considerable effort to get the truck carrying bottles up there. A sign said the water was for drinking only, not for bathing. They didn't want runners grabbing a gallon and pouring it over their heads.
The temperature may have risen as high as 75 degrees on this last day of winter. All week I had been eyeing the forecast nervously. They had been predicting cool and cloudy, with a storm front expected to come through the next day bringing rain and snow. As far as I know, no storm front came through Sunday. And on Saturday the sun was out all day long.
Remarkably, I continued to move along steadily, though frustrated by how frequently I had to walk. After all, wasn't this supposed to be a running race? But I still felt just fine, thanks, I'm sure, to my intelligent hydration, refueling, and electrolyte replacement strategy. At no time during the race was I in pain or unduly uncomfortable. Despite the amount I drank and ate, when I got home my weight was down about four pounds from the day before.
Sometime after 22 miles, as a couple of runners passed me, one said, "We're getting near the margaritas!"
Five minutes later I rounded a bend and descended into a large flat clearing where they had bivouacked the 23-mile aid station. We passed beneath a large banner labeled "Hash House Harriers," identifying the curators of this magnificent oasis.
I'm not aware of the exact makeup or purpose of this group, a.k.a. the "Hashers," but gather it to be a coalition of ARR members that one runner friend said describes itself as "Drinkers with a running problem." At the packet pickup dinner a group of them were sitting at a nearby table and whooping it up. They were having so much "fun" it was difficult for me to hear the speakers.
The Hashers promised that at mile 23 there would be margaritas and daiquiris for runners. Apparently they actually made good on this promise in at least one previous year. Whether this was available on Saturday I did not find out, but I would not be surprised if it was.
There was definitely some beer being handed out to the volunteers. Just how many runners were insane enough to swill booze at this juncture in the race I do not know.
Perhaps it fortified the spirit of some runners, enabling them to face the next part of the course. Little did I know that by far the hardest part was just ahead of me.
Once again I was greeted by a friendly personal assistant who gave full attention to me and my every need for as long as I remained there.
As usual, the first order of business was filling the fluid bottle. This time I wanted some plain water. Lots of it. I had run out of water well before the aid station, and was obliged to swallow an electrolyte capsule on the trail without liquid. It took a couple of minutes to gag it down my reluctant dry throat.
If you have ever eaten something extremely salty without water, you know that a strong shot of salt can produce a burning sensation in the stomach. It took a couple of icy bottles of water to help dilute and distribute the contents of the capsule.
Immediately I located my drop bag. My helper even unknotted the top for me, since my hands seemed for the moment not to be up to the task.
She probably would have dressed me if I'd asked. I was wearing a long sleeve Coolmax shirt with a singlet pulled over it, and wanted to shed the long sleeve shirt. My drop bag contained a clean singlet. The volunteer dug around and asked if I wanted to wear it. I declined, because my number was pinned to the one I was wearing. She offered to repin it for me, but I didn't want to take the time.
I could have taken the time, because after slathering fresh sunscreen on myself, there was still one more task to tend to, namely to sit in a chair, take off my shoes, and dump an accumulation of rocks out of them.
Next, I headed over to the food table, grabbed more cookies, and drank and drank more water and coke, all with the assistance of volunteers who grabbed for and handed me anything I asked for. Finally, I filled my bottle once again with Zing and headed into the unknown. I must have spent at least eight minutes at the aid station.
The last cookie I tried to consume was about as appealing as sand and I nearly gagged on it. After letting it sit in my mouth for a little while, I jettisoned the offending glop with a noisy Bronx cheer.
The course description said that between aid stations at 23 miles and mile 29, the road climbs approximately 2400 feet. Indeed it does.
From near this point on I encountered numerous washes running across the road. If there had been more rain recently, these would have been stream crossings. As it was, not a single one had so much water that I was unable to skirt around it or hop across it, so I never got wet.
Before long I found myself on the stairway to heaven, a series of long, straight, extremely steep switchbacks. From various vantage points it was possible to see the next aid station way up in the sky, with a stream of ant-like runners walking toward it.
So far I had retained my good humor. After all, I paid money for this experience -- why would I not make every effort to have a good time? But it was becoming more difficult.
At times I was mildly irked by yahoos who passed by on vehicles, since I had to move over to the edge of the road to let them get by. One particular 300-pound oaf on an ATV gunned his engine as he went by. He probably didn't intend to annoy me, but I didn't think kind thoughts about him as he passed.
Somewhere in this segment of the course I saw a bright yellow convertible jeep coming toward me on a very narrow strip of the road, and knew I would have to step up on the rocks along the side to let it by. As I was about to start grumbling to myself, I saw that it was carrying four pretty young women.
"Great job!" "Woo hoo!" "Looking good!" "You rock!" "Way to go!" How could I possibly resent that? It perked me up for almost five minutes.
The effect would have lasted longer, except that's when I did a swan dive into the dirt. Yup, this geezer just caught a rock with his right foot and went down to the right side, landing in thick dust and raising a cloud.
This happens to me a lot on trails. It's sort of a tradition. "Hey, Lynn, don't fall down this time!" my friends jokingly say to me as I head out for a trail run. Hmmph.
I do a great deal of running on an indoor track. My stride is efficient. That's a scientific way of saying I barely leave the ground when I run. In all the time I have been a runner I have never fallen on a flat surface, but it happens often on trails.
At least no skin was broken and no blood was drawn. I added a few scrapes among the still-healing scabs on my right knee from the last spill I took, and also decorated my right hip with a new bruise. My right hand still shows some gravel marks. But I was not injured, just humiliated.
Ten minutes later a runner passed me by. "Did you fall down?" I thought he'd seen it. No, he could tell by my brown badge of courage, the thick coating of dirt clinging to my right leg, arm, and butt. At least I didn't fall off the cliff nearby and plummet to my death.
The segment from mile 23 to the next aid station was by far the most trying part of the course. From about mile 25 to 27 there was no place at all flat enough to run. Several people walked past me there and disappeared quickly ahead of me. As one vibrantly healthy young woman streaked by me, I commented, "I wish I could do that!" She just laughed. I don't think she intended it to sound like derision.
The view was magnificent all along the way. And the higher I rose, the lower the temperature dropped. The change was quite noticeable, and by this time it was only about 12:30 PM, when one would expect it to be on the rise.
The aid station was visible from a very long way down the mountain. I heard periodic bursts of cheering and encouragement as each runner approached.
Finally it was my turn. The station was nestled on a steep incline at a turn in the road. Once again I had magnificent personal service from everyone on hand who did everything possible to get me fixed up and sent on my way in blithe spirits. The slope was very steep, so they had energetic young boys scampering about 25 yards down the hill to greet each runner and get their bottles, then running ahead to fill orders.
Meanwhile I had lost my mind and was Pollyannishly thinking that this had to be mile 29, and that the earnestly sought two-mile downhill to the finish was right around the corner.
Bzzzt! Wrong! It was mile 27, and I had two more miles of steady climbing to go.
At this news I nearly panicked, not because of the anticipated exertion, but because of the time. My watch said I had been on the move for seven hours and two minutes. When I undertook this race, based on the estimates of friends who had run it, I figured it would take me more than six hours, probably six and a half, maybe seven, or even seven and a half if it was really rough and I was having a bad day. Here I was looking at over four miles to go, two of them impossible, with only 58 minutes left to get in under eight hours.
There was no way I had anticipated a run time that long. So from that time until the end I pressed on with a greater sense of urgency because I really wanted to finish in less than eight hours.
Remarkably, I still felt strong, though tired. During this race, I never bonked, and I didn't get sick to my stomach, as happens to many ultrarunners, including many who continue despite it. I just kept plodding steadily until it was over.
The walking I did was not because I was too tired, but because it was too steep for me to handle. Yes, there are elites and specialists in hill running who are able to run that sort of route. Any of them who were on the CKS course that day were by this time busy relaxing, celebrating, and enjoying the party at the top.
I am not one of those runners. I'm just a geezer with gumption. And I still had a long way to go.
As I went I frequently eyed my watch, pushing hard as I was able, even after I realized a sub-8:00 time was hopeless. My only chance was if the alleged final two mile run was really only two miles or less (and I believe trail distances tend to be rounded down), if it was very fast, and if I could muster up enough strength at the end to run a couple of 8:30 miles or faster. Ha! Maybe if a bear appeared out of the woods.
The air began to feel pleasantly cool. As I passed some shady stretches, I spotted patches of unmelted snow by the side of the trail. I don't know what the peak elevation is on the course, but it must be over 7,000 feet.
Finally, I came to the mile 29 peak! I was greeted by an enthusiastic cheering squad who proclaimed, "This is it, the top! Here's the hill you've been waiting for! There's no more uphill from here on! Only two more miles of easy downhill and you're done!" My watch said 7:49. I wouldn't make it under 8:00.
They offered water, but I didn't need it this time. Food is unnecessary at this stage.
The volunteers graciously explained for at least the two-hundredth time that day that for the next quarter mile the downhill was a bit rough, and after that it would be gentle.
True enough, it was a course ending to die for. But they lied about the distance. There was closer to a half mile of very steep downhill to contend with which I had to tread down gingerly.
Finally I came out on a real road, still dirt, and still going downhill, but less so. A bored-looking man wearing a turban was sitting there in a pickup, presumably not lost on his way to Mecca, but stationed there to steer runners who might be inclined to run the wrong way in the right direction. However, the entire course from beginning to end was very clearly marked. There was no possibility of making any wrong turns anywhere.
That's where I encountered a road sign that said it was two miles to Crown King. Ha! I knew they lied.
Where I found the strength to kick out the jams and run that last two miles as hard as I did I'll never know. In truth, I did not run the whole thing without stopping. I walked for about twenty seconds once, partly out of frustration from knowing I could not finish sub-8:00.
But the rest of the way I hauled some serious tush, running harder than the last two miles of any marathon I've ever done. As my watch rolled over to 8:00, I was approaching a stop sign, and there was no sign of a finish line nearby. The stakes indicated I should turn left.
A couple of minutes later I saw cars, houses, and an increase in the number of people. I encountered folks by the side of the road who cheered wildly as I came by. A woman told me I was only 700 yards from the finish. It sounded so short, like it had to be around the next curve. I wish she had said four tenths of a mile, which is how far 700 yards is.
The finish line hours before I got there
The clock was set for the 50-mile race
The race announcer is the man in blue on the porch to the left
And then I was there. I rounded a corner and there was the town and crowds of cheering and celebrating people. I later learned that the previous runner finished over four minutes ahead of me, and the next one was more than a minute behind. A race volunteer stepped out into the middle of the road, read my number, and called it out behind him. The announcer on the PA system was able to identify me, calling my name, and to reel me in, as I maintained good form and speed for the last two hundred yards, crossing the finish in the midst of a great burst of cheering that was all for me! What a kick!
Coming into town
Suzy visible just to the right,
Bill Perkins (a running friend) waving
Running past my brother Dean, whom I did not see
Crossing the finish
A poor picture, but all I've got
The clock had been reset for the 50K 7 AM starters
I started at 6 AM, so add one hour
I had done it. My finishing time was 8:07:46.
Suzy (my wife) appeared immediately after I finished. Then Cyra-Lea (my daughter) popped out bewailing that she forgot to turn the camera on and didn't get any pictures. A minute or two later my brother Dean came around the corner, and said that he'd gotten the pictures you see here.
I barely remember the first few minutes after I finished. Somehow I acquired a tube of something called Jog Mate, a muscle recovery supplement. I still have it. I'd had enough of goos and gels and high tech survival nutrition. I wanted some real food.
Fortunately, Suzy had the presence of mind to pick up our tickets to eat and my finisher's jacket. There was no official around to hand me those items. I was more in a frame of mind to stand around and gab about my experience, but was so full of things to say I was babbling.
Hot showers were available for runners. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to take advantage of it. So instead we just got in the food line, barely ten minutes after I finished.
The party at the finish in Crown King is one of the features that makes this race so good. The food was excellent and plentiful. They offered hamburgers, green salad, spaghetti, beans, soup, and a couple of other items. I passed on the hamburger, having vowed years ago that I'd never eat another one, but accepted copious quantities of everything else.
Since I started training for longer distances, I've found that a very long run of 25 miles or more can kill my appetite. This has happened the last three times I've gone that far. Despite this, I managed to eat almost everything, and continued to drink whatever was put within arm's reach of me.
After eating we enjoyed just hanging out for a while. I found a few people I know and chatted with them. Suzy bought me a new long sleeve Coolmax shirt with ARR verbiage on it from the gear table.
Talking with Paul Bonnett-Castillo,
ARR Vice President of Ultra Events
I'm still wearing a thick layer of dirt from my fall,
which I was unaware of until I saw this picture
With my brother Dean and Cyra-Lea
Sadly, it was time to go much too soon. Runners not met by family or friends in Crown King needed to take one of three 14-passenger vans back to Phoenix. My brother brought Suzy and Cyra-Lea up in his pickup truck. There was not room for me unless I was willing to ride in the truck bed, which I wasn't. So I had to take the van. They were scheduled to leave starting at 3:30. That gave me barely an hour and twenty minutes to enjoy the party.
The trip from Crown King to I-17, about four miles north of Black Canyon City, took about an hour and a half, including time for one wilderness roadside rush-to-the-woods potty break. The trip is all on rugged, narrow dirt mountain roads that you wouldn't want to drive your family sedan over.
The experience was not unlike riding a stage coach. Our chauffeur was a tough cowgirl granny who could not be deterred from her mission of breaking the world record for getting down the mountain. Drivers ahead of her anxiously scurried for places to pull over and let us pass. Meanwhile, her exhausted cargo occasionally let out yelps of fear and groans of pain as they variously clutched the upholstery and each other while veering around the hairpin turns and bouncing their heads off the ceiling.
When we hit the Interstate a spontaneous cheer of relief went up from all 13 passengers, and there was additional applause, elation, and perhaps a bit of prayer expressed when we finally arrived safely 35 miles later at the parking lot where we had left our cars so early in the morning. Vanmates shook hands, bid each other farewell, and disappeared into their automobiles. Twenty minutes later I was home.
Readers whose personal familiarity with distance running stops with the standard marathon might be inclined to think of a 50K trail race in terms of a 26.2-mile road race that goes on another five miles, and to extrapolate estimated effort required and finish times on that basis.
That thinking would be a mistake. A big mistake.
I believe that in my present condition I'm capable of a 4:15 standard marathon or better on a good day. Recently I ran a 2:03 half marathon in training. My finish time at Crown King was 8:07:46. And I had what I considered to be one of the best running days of my life!
What accounts for an additional 3:52 on a course that is less than five miles longer than a marathon? The difficulty of the course is everything.
Here are some miscellaneous factoids to help put things in perspective.
However, Paul's amazing 12-year-old son James, Arizona's own genuine running prodigy, a.k.a. the Pocket Rocket, finished the 50K 9th overall in 5:03:04. He did it despite throwing up.
James Bonnett-Castillo finishing in 5:03:04
The blur is normal for him
Remember that boy's name. You'll be hearing it again.
All in all I am not at all disappointed by my performance, and view it as a quantum leap forward in my running history. So then,
Lynn David Newton
March 20, 1999