26 June 2008
Zane Grey is self-billed as "the toughest 50-miler in America", and there is no doubt that the rocky, stoney, bouldered, sandstoned, gravelled, baby-headed, toe-mashing, ankle-wrenching route is indeed quite a challenge. The hot desert-like temperatures and 3% humidity just make it a bit tougher to manage. I have had the pleasure of running this course twice before back in 2003 and 2004, accompanied by my good friend Art. Art is always more than happy to regale anyone who enquires about how, after the race in 04, I was dehydrated and passed out on the floor of the bus on the way back to town, followed by some puking, then being curled up in a fetal position in the hotel bed while he made me suck pretzels and drink Pedialyte, as all the while MTV was on featuring a KISS concert and then a profile of Aerosmith. Pictures of Steven Tyler did not help the puking, btw. (moral - do not stop eating and drinking after a long hot race while waiting for your friend to finish)
So, when discussions this spring with my other buddy Wade turned from casual interest into "I'll do it if you do it", we both signed up and I headed to Phoenix armed with copious amounts of nuun to keep me from falling over again. Wade's friends Geoff and Julie Cleveland were fantastically generous in hosting us at their home in Phoenix and their gorgeous cabin on the Mogollon Rim, 40 min up the road from the race start. I am hugely grateful for their hospitality - being ensconced in a home made for a significantly better experience than staying in a hotel.
So let's be obvious - Arizona is freaking hot. All the time. Stupid hot. I mean, how can anyone live there? Really...
Race morning we got up at 3AM, and it is 0 CELCIUS (32 DEGREES) outside. Holy doodle, what to wear? Fortunately, the temperature went up a bunch of degrees by the time we got to the race start - about 1200' lower in elevation than the cabin.
Anton Krupicka was there this year and dressed in his usual race uniform: shoes, shorts and a water bottle. And perky nibs in the brisk air. (digression - I had a secret challenge to Anton for this race, that he would not be able to kick my butt by more than three hours. If I was within three hours of his finish time, I won and he owed me his leftover gel packs. If he won, well too bad because be never knew about the challenge anyways). As usual, that was the last time I saw Anton, but I headed off at what I thought was a modest pace. Wade was one person behind me in the train, and I expected my sandbagging-but-very fast friend to be with me for a while before dropping me and racing to glory. The Wade disappeared and I didn't see him until the finish; apparently he got lost with a bunch of others near the start, and then later on had some knee issues that caused him to pull out at the 50km point (so he wasn't sandbagging at all....this time!)
I cruised on and ensured that I was drinking a lot, never minding whenever I had to stop for a pee break. I found within an hour that there wasn't anyone else behind me whenever I stopped, so the small group I was near had apparently made a bit of a break. I passed a couple of guys, and caught some more at the first aid station. I stuck with these guys for a bit, then backed off the pace since one of them was pushing a bit too hard. The other guy and I carried on, and caught up to one other fellow as well. I felt really good after moderating my pace, and knew I was up on my hydration and energy. Before I knew it, three of us came into the 24 mile aid station at 5 hours on the nose. Wow - that was a great pace so far, but the hard part was the entire second half!
I took off from the aid station, looked back to see who else was coming....and that was the last time I saw another racer for the next 6 1/2 hours of the race. Weird. I totally dropped those guys. I was feeling great and moving at a really solid pace, but it was so odd not to see anyone ever again on the course. I just kept cruising and thought I moved quite well up the hills and over the rocks. This part of the course was totally exposed, though, and I think I was getting a little bit dehydrated even though I was chugging the nuun back. I also noticed that the visor I was wearing on my head wasn't proving to be all that cool, and that my scalp was frying. It ended up feeling like it was sizzling, and was beet red under my stubbly hair after the race. It ended up peeling dime-sized flecks of skin after a few days - that was some dandruff! Unfortunately, unlike in the first 24 miles, there were no creeks anywhere in the last 26 miles, so nowhere I could dunk into to cool down.
Despite all the rocks and tough footing, it was in a grassy section of trail where I tripped and went down. I sidestepped one of those pesky attacking bushes beside the trail (an unprovoked pre-emptive attack by a Bush! ha, that one kept me snickering for miles!) and toed right into a grass tuft which sent me down hard. Fortunately, it was grass I landed on and not rocks, but it really shook me up - one of those ones where you hit the ground and stay put for a couple of seconds wondering if anything is broken. I got back up and shook myself off, then headed off once more. This particular section was a really long 14 miles, and I was grateful for the third water bottle I picked up from Geoff at the last AS at Fish Hatchery. Still, I found that I had run dry in the afternoon heat, and could feel the effects of light dehydration taking a toll on my pace.
Eventually I rolled into the last AS, and had six miles to go. I was typically running 6 miles an hour for a lot of the race, so even accounting for general fatigue, I figured that refreshed and re-energised I might be able to pull another quick section off here.
I blasted out of the AS down a short hill, and had to pause while a family with four kids crossed the log bridge at the creek just out of the station. I'm in a race here....do de dooo do doooo....take care, don't you kiddies slip...no, don't freeze up there....OK, all off, let's go. And then the trail turned uphill for three miles.
Right. I forgot about that.
So I'm trudging up in speed-hike mode, and quite suddenly I notice that my left leg feels....odd. It was a very strange sensation and in a few more steps I found my foot was swinging and hitting my other ankle in the foreswing, and the leg was planting short of my intended stride. I would look at a gap in the rocks to plant my foot, and the foot would plant...on or into the rock. What the - ? I stopped, stretched, and started again OK, but in a few strides it came back. It was like I had a partial paralysis of my leg: I could not control the plane of the stride forward nor the extension. It was also proving to be a bit dangerous, in that, as mentioned above, my foot was not ending up where I wanted it to go and I was stumbling a fair bit. I have never had this happen to me. I drank more to get more fluid and salt in me, and took more gel to ensure my energy was up as well - all with no results. And so, with four miles left to go, I had to hobble the rest of the way in, always expecting someone to come running by me.
Eventually after a gruelling few miles, I came to a familiar view, and sure enough, there were Wade (agh, too bad, he had to stop at 50k) Geoff and Julie around the corner, with the finish just beyond them.
Whew! I made it in 11:19:42. Unfortunately, my earlier thoughts of speedy times and a PR were dashed with this leg thing, and I missed my previous record by 8 minutes. Nevertheless, I placed 6th overall, and was identified as the first male 40+ finisher*. Bedecked in a finisher's folding chair, mini backpack, and a gym bag as a prize for first master's, I jumped in the truck with Wade, Geoff and Julie to retire to the cabin for beers and a yummy dinner.
I did not pass out in the truck, nor was any Aerosmith played. My leg was fine after I finished, and it has never bothered me since then.
Anton continued his string of crushing victories over me by finishing in a zippy 8:02 - more than the three hours in front of me as allotted in my challenge. Til next time, Anton - train hard, you'll need it! Muah-ah-ahhh!
*seems the result was preliminary, the website indicates someone else in front of me now.