The Grand Ridge 50k – Racing to Win

With a week’s distance to catch my breath, it’s time to reflect back on last weekend’s Grand Ridge 50k, organized by Evergreen Trail Runs. It was going to be a special day regardless of the result, signaling a major milestone: a return to racing after my longest break ever.

For years I’d raced frequently. During a twelve month stretch in 2011-2012 I raced three 5- to 11-mile trail races, 8 road races of 5k to 10k, a 24-hour team relay, a marathon, my first four 50ks, and my first two 50-milers. It was exciting. That stretch of racing continued on even after that, but the drive within me started to fade. I’ve written about this before, but in review, I would still get “up” for every race, but with the constant tapering and recovering, I hadn’t put together a solid training block in years. My fitness was surprisingly low, and so I’d turn up to a race, put out a disappointing performance, and then start getting ready for my next race.

It came to a head in January, 2013, at the Bridle Trails 50k. I was running a 31-mile race after training a total of 14 miles in the previous month. I was suffering, and I realized that this just wasn’t worth it. At that point I decided that, with the exception of that summer’s White River 50, I was done racing until the drive was undeniably back.

Finishing the 2013 White River 50-mile Endurance Run. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Finishing the 2013 White River 50-mile Endurance Run. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Fast forward to Summer, 2014, and I’m in the middle of my longest racing drought ever…and my best training ever. I was having so much fun, motivated beyond measure by Jordan, my roommate at “The Summit House.” Not only was I getting out for long trail miles, but I was also finding opportunities to redline, pushing that VO2Max for the first time in years. We spent the Summer racing each other and the clock up and down all the mountains Seattle has to offer. With a previous personal record of 22,000’ vertical climbing in a month, I racked up totals from May to October of 33, 23, 23, 46 (46!!!), 22, and 36 thousand feet. I broke personal records on every single trail I attempted, up and down. We were having so much fun pushing each other, and my competitive juices were pumping hard again, dueling with Jordan and trying to climb the Strava leaderboards.

At the summit of McClellan Butte with Jordan.

At the summit of McClellan Butte with Jordan.

I was ready to race.

I hadn’t run more than 23 miles in over a year, but I decided on the Grand Ridge 50k. The timing was perfect, a week after my coaching duties with the high school cross country team ended. I knew I wouldn’t be specifically trained, but I was fitter and stronger than ever in my life.

Now of course I take to heart the oft-lauded ethos of trail running. Everyone out there on the trails is a friend, and everyone deserves respect, especially at the ultra distance. I’d never want to succeed at the expense of a competitor. That being said, trail running media and social media can at times be a bit saccharine. Sunshine and rainbows, everybody wins. There’s a place for that. I’m friendly on the trails, and everyone’s family at the finish line, but a race is a race.

I’m being honest about it. I came to race. I’m racing to win.

Before the race, I’d looked through the 42 pre-registered entrants. Gaming. Some were nowhere to be found online, others were unlikely to pose a threat. But I knew there would be at least one name likely favored over mine. Richard Kresser: not many results at the 50k distance, but some damn respectable times at 100 miles, and a recent speed record unsupported on the Wonderland Trail. Okay, this won’t be a cake walk; I’m gonna have to show up.

Grand Ridge 50k Course Map from Evergreen Trail Runs.

Grand Ridge 50k Course Map from Evergreen Trail Runs.

Grand Ridge 50k Elevation Profile, from my Suunto Ambit Altimeter.

Grand Ridge 50k Elevation Profile, from my Suunto Ambit Altimeter.

The course was almost entirely out-and-back. Maybe 7.5ish miles out, 5.5ish miles back. That’s the half marathon. Repeat. Then after finishing that marathon, with the finish line and its hot food and warm clothing beckoning, turn around and run the 5 mile race course. A mental challenge for sure, but opportunities at every turn-around to gauge gaps in front and behind to competitors. Interesting.

Race morning arrives and it. is. cold. I’m bundled in layer upon layer at the starting area, hands tucked deep inside mittens, breath frosting in front of my face, frozen ground crunching underfoot. 30º? Sounds about right. I get in a 10-minute warm-up run, doff my layers, and await the shared marathon-50k start.

3…2…1…GO!

I take off at a slow, comfortable jog. Nobody goes with me. The first half-mile follows a broad gravel bike trail. We hit the single track and up I go, cautioning covert glances only at switchbacks. Gaming. A mile in and I probably have 30 or 45 seconds, but slowing down won’t really save any energy, so I keep rolling. A few miles in and I can see across some drainages that nobody is within a minute or two. I’m running alone the whole way, but I usually do in training anyway, so no sweat. I hit the first aid station in 42 minutes, 10 minutes ahead of my pace from the course preview a few weeks earlier. I know that the northern turnaround has some self-service water and nothing else, but stopping there would be a waste of time, so I top off my water bottle, grab some Clif Shot gels, and move on. 19 seconds, in-and-out: not bad.

On-course at the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Takao Suzuki.

On-course at the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Takao Suzuki.

I keep trucking interminably northbound, when I think I see a flash of white behind me. Nah. A biker passes me headed southbound, and shortly afterwards I hear voices behind me. He must be talking to another runner. A quick glance over my should and sure enough, there’s that white shirt. We’re headed downhill, and although I can bomb the steeps with the best of ‘em, I’m preserving myself on this long, gentle grade. He comes up behind me absolutely flying on the downs. That’s when I look back to read his bib. 944.

“YES!” I think. When I checked in to get my bib I was able to read the entrants list. Bibs 915-956 are in the marathon, 957-998 in the 50k. Gaming. No worries. He’s a marathoner. We share a few words of pleasantry and encouragement, he confirms he’s in the marathon, I wish him well on the descent, he compliments my climbing and promises to see me on the uphill, and then he flies off ahead.

I hit the turnaround and am only 15-30 seconds back, but overtake him almost immediately as we begin the climb back up what we just descended. He’s hiking and I’m running. Wait. Am I really running? What’s the longest I’ve ever run on trails without hiking, even for a few steps? 8 miles? Maybe less. And this trail isn’t flat. Somehow the douche-grade* is just coming easy today.

(*Douche-grade: trail at a grade flat enough that every step of it is runnable taken alone, but added up over time eventually forces you to hike. That trail is a douche. That trail makes you feel like a douche for needing to hike what you know you should be running. The guy who goes running by you when you’re hiking is such a douche.)

3.5 minutes after the turnaround I see a pack of four guys. That means they’re 6-7 minutes behind me. Solid gap. I read three of their bibs: marathoners. The other bib is obscured. He’s a burly dude with a big beard, looks like a hundo-man. Is that Kresser? Maybe. I see the next runners 8 minutes after the turnaround, giving me a 15 minute lead, and they’re definitely in the 50k, but for now not worth worrying over. Just run my own race, stay comfortable, and see what happens. It’s far too early to get uncomfortable.

I blow right through the aid station on the return, knowing that it’s only about 20 minutes back to the start-finish, and there’s no sense wasting time now to top off my water bottle. I hit the bike trail and reach the half marathon turnaround aid station. Another quick top-off, some more gels, and I’m out. 22 seconds. Perfect.

I’m feeling smooth and strong. The cold weather is really feeling perfect now. The trail is firm and not muddy, I’m barely sweating: absolutely ideal conditions. I’ve sucked down a gel every 25 minutes like clockwork and my stomach’s still feeling good. Holy crap, I just ran that entire half marathon course, over 2000’ vert, and I literally ran every step with not a hint of a hike break. That’s definitely a PR right there! And I’m still rolling.

I see Jean-Gael, the white-shirt marathoner and I’ve probably got 3 minutes on him, plus any time he takes at the table. I hit the single-track again, switchbacking up the climb and finally see the bearded guy’s bib: 973. Should’ve looked his number up at registration, but that’s gotta be Kresser. Well that’s about 7 minutes after I left the table, giving me about 13 minutes of a lead in the 50k race. Gotta love that.

Onward and upward, I’m now retracing my earlier steps. I finally hit the one significantly steep climb on the course and start hiking. 2 hours, 30 minutes in and I take my first hiking step. Holy shit. 30 seconds later, I’m running again and won’t hike again for another hour+. This day is unreal. Can I seriously keep feeling this good?! 15 seconds at the aid station and I’m out again.

The course is crowded with half-marathoners now, going both directions. The leaders are flying south towards me with just a few miles to their finish, and I’m constantly passing the back-of-the-packers northbound. Their encouragement propels me onwards, and my well-wishes to them take my mind away from my own efforts. I’m still all alone in my race.

After I hit the northern turnaround for the last time, I see I have a 3-minute gap on Jean-Gael, still comfortably the marathon leader, and about 15 minutes on Kresser, with no other 50k runners challenging the two of us. Still far too early to celebrate.

Memories flood back of the 2012 Horseshoe Lake 50k in the Bay Area. I went out hard, leading the marathon and 50k early. It was also a half marathon + half marathon + 5 mile course. After 15 miles the marathon leader passed me. Then at 18 miles my calves started cramping up on me, my energy faded, and my body started to give way. Two runners passed me, and although I rallied to close gaps in the last 5 miles, the race was lost and I finished third. With the growth in the sport in recent years, I thought that would be the only shot I’d ever have at winning an ultra.

Don’t let that happen again. No lead is safe.

I hit the aid station southbound and top off for the first time with Nuun electrolyte drink instead of water. I take the first sip and, for whatever reason, get super light-headed. Fight it off. Don’t fade. I roll down and just as I’m hitting the bike trail with a half-mile to the marathon finish and my final turnaround, Jean-Gael catches me. He’s clearly hurting, but motivated to finish strong. The two of us run in together before I congratulate him and make my turn.

With my bottle still nearly full and plenty of gels on-board, I make the turn without even a glance at the aid table. My appetite for gels has waned, but I’ve still forced them down every 25 minutes. After my twelfth at 4:35, I’m done with them. Maybe that was a mistake.

After making the turn, I see Kresser and realize I’ve probably still got 13-15 minutes on him. I’m starting to hurt. I make sure to look strong when we pass each other. Gaming. He looks strong. With hundred-milers in his legs, I know he won’t fade. I’ve just got less than 5 miles to go now, but I’m hiking the climbs. I want to hike the flats. I want to hike the downs. But I will myself to run the downhills fast. Too much time to lose there. In 5 miles, a 15-minute lead can disappear in a heartbeat. If I’m hiking fast at 15 minutes per mile, all he’d need is a pedestrian 12 minutes per mile to catch me. And I’m not hiking 15 minutes per mile. Gotta keep running.

My hamstrings are getting those faint spasms, the early signs that at a moment’s notice, they’ll go into full tetany. The sun’s out now and I’m starting to feel hot. The hat’s come off, and now so do the gloves. I’m thirsty but rationing my drink. I don’t want another gel without enough drink to wash it down. Is this race really unraveling now? The mental anguish is even worse knowing that I so easily could have won the marathon had that been my finish line. Instead I kept going and now may win nothing.

Just. Keep. Running.

I hike when I have to, which is quite a bit, but I know that I have to keep running. There are a few spots on this bit of course with a good 2- or 3-minute view across drainages and switchbacks. I know that if Kresser sees me for even a second, I’ll lose. Not only does that mean he’s closed over 10 minutes on me, but it means that he knows it and can start pushing even harder. I don’t have the strength to answer any move he could throw at me. Every time I hit one of those sections, I push myself extra hard, just to get out of view as quickly as possible so he won’t be motivated to find that extra gear. Plus, on the offchance that he does see me, I’ll be running fast, looking good. Gaming. Racing to win.

I finally hit the high point and begin the descent. My tired legs can barely pick my feed up off the ground, but I’ve gotta keep running. Gotta keep running. Gotta keep ru–OOFFF!!! I’m on the ground. Caught my toe on a rock. The wind’s knocked out of me and the sudden loss of rhythm sends my hamstrings into full cramps as I’m sprawled on the trail.

Get up.

I’m going again. Gingerly running down the trail, fighting the cramps and I finally hit the bike trail. I’ll be furious to lose now, with half a mile to go after leading the 50k from the gun. I start running on the bike trail, but it’s ever so slightly graded uphill. Can’t hike, gotta keep running. I mentally prepare myself to kick and outsprint Kresser to the finish if necessary. I dare to send a few glances back over my shoulder and see nobody coming. I’m gonna do it. I see the line and run through it.

Finishing the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Finishing the Grand Ridge 50k. Photo by Gordon Naylor.

Wire-to-wire, I got the win. The last 5 miles took 1:10, and Kresser closed the gap considerably, but I held on just enough, a 5.5-minute gap. It’s my first ever competitive* win, but all I can think about after crossing that line is sitting down, drinking some Gatorade, and hugging my dad, waiting there at the finish.

(*Not counting team relays, high school JV races, and a 5-miler when I was behind four 10-mile racers.)

Once I catch my breath, layer up, and recover enough to get moving, I grab some of the amazing, hot chili at the finish, take a seat, and get to know Kresser. What an awesome guy and super fun to chat with at the finish. I’ll hang my hat on the win, but it’s obvious just how strong he is, finishing looking easy and comfortable. We talked a bit about the race and other things ahead. We’re fairly convinced the course was 33-34 miles. After all, at 5:48:41 this was by far my slowest 50k ever, but despite the late-stage blow-up, I doubt I’ve ever run the distance faster, especially with only 1:25 spent at aid stations total (I’m particularly proud of my aid time). I probably hiked a total of less than a mile, and that should definitely translate to a sub-5 finish. Nevertheless, if I wanted a perfectly-measured 50k, I’d head to a track. Trail running’s all about more miles more fun. 29 or 35 miles, the race is what the race is. Everybody covers the same course, and the first one to the finish wins.

On this day, that happened to be me.

Thank you so much to race director Jerry and all the fantastic volunteers; to my dad for being there; to Richard, Jean-Gael, and all the racers for the extra push; to Jordan, the SMRG, and all my friendly Strava rivals for the motivation all year; to the MI cross country team athletes and coaches for endless inspiration; and to all my friends and family that support me in this crazy sport.

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