A few months ago, I started talking with my long-lost friend Brian about running the Pemberton 50k in the Phoenix area (my apologies to my Phoenix-area friends whom I did not meet up with on this trip. I left Salt Lake Friday afternoon, ran the race on Saturday, and returned to Salt Lake on the 7am flight on Sunday). Brian recently caught the trail-running-ultra-bug, and has been soliciting advice from me. I have asked him to take everything I say with a grain of salt, because I am an established middle-of-the-packer, but admittedly a "finisher" (if you look away from my previous DNFs at Wasatch, and I redeemed myself last fall in that department, so there you go... )
So I decided that since this winter has been less good for skiing and much better for the sport of running, I would continue to hold my weekly mileage at 20-30 (I was doing 40-50 this past summer) and bust out a 50k. After signing up for Pemberton, I started looking at the particulars of the race, and saw that it would indeed be a challenge for me, although a different sort of challenge.
The races that I run (I like to call them "events", because rarely am I in contention for the podium... ) are typically Intermountain- and Mountain West-style events, meaning long, drawn-out affairs with lots of elevation gain and small groups of friendly faces. A race that I used to run years ago, the San Juan Solstice (formerly the Lake City 50) has grown so much in recent years, that I have lacked ambition to return, although the course itself is spectacular.
My most recent 50k finish was the El Vaquero Loco, in Afton, Wyoming in 2010. What a spectacular home-style event! And I did end up busting out a 3rd place ladies' finish in 7:47.
So anyway, I was talking about Pemberton 50k in Fountain Hills, AZ (northeast of Phoenix). From appearances, this would be an event on non-technical trail, primarily road-racers/marathoners, who were looking to do a little different style of event. Not your typical trail race by the standards that I am used to, but good nonetheless. Also, rarely do I run this far in the winter, and typically do I end gaining a few pounds and feeling a bit slower than I do in the summer months. So, this quick course would quite the challenge for me. There is an almost imperceptible climb that takes place over the first 7 to 8 miles, so slight in elevation gain in most places that you would think you are running a flat course, when in fact you are gaining about 100 feet per mile. Not enough to see with the naked eye, but enough to make you think to yourself, "Why won't my legs go any faster? What is the problem, here?"
Then you top out on a mesa of sorts, taking in the red rock peaks near Scottsdale and the McDowell Range and the miles of open space containing hundreds of cartoonish saguaro cacti, all with different limb attachments. The second 8 miles of the loop through McDowell Regional Park is more noticeably downhill, and you get the feeling as though you can make up a little bit of the time you lost on the first part of the loop.
The transition area is the campground, and a small crowd of cheery faces is there to greet you and move you happily into your second lap. The second lap, being the same in geography as the first, unfortunately is just a little bit noticeably more difficult, in the fact that yes, you are in Arizona, and you realize that you are thankfully here in February (as opposed to July) because the temperature starts to warm up, but admittedly is nowhere near as bad as you could possibly imagine it being in July (105? 110? ouch). Up on the mesa, halfway through the loop, the wind seems to disappear and the air is quite stagnant. You start to feel your legs, and hope that the (ever-so-slight) downhill will begin soon. I was almost a little too warm in my capri-length tights, but wanted to do everyone else the favor of not blinding them with my Utah-white-winter legs. I hope they appreciate the sacrifice I went through for them.
I knew this would be a good day when, at the pre-race chat at 6:45am I heard a jovial voice behind me and realized that it was my coach from last summer, Ian Torrence, who got me to my first Wasatch 100 finish. That guy could make an airport TSA official smile. And his smiles and encouragement continued through the race, as he was volunteering at the second aid station, 5 miles from the finish. To my further delight, his dog Zoroaster was also volunteering, and tentatively gave me a nudge on the first pass through their aid station when I said hello to her.
There were some fast folks out there this weekend. Kristina Pham took the women's course record down with a time of 3:47 and Josh Brimhall won the men's race in somewhere around 3:30. Despite the fact that I thought my legs would seize up from my continual fast cadence, I was able to keep forward progress a reality, I was happy with my Personal Record of 5:44 for a 50k... took about 2 hours off of my 50k time from El Vaquero in 2010. What a difference a little (less) elevation gain makes. Results are posted here.
This was a great, small event with a lot of really friendly people. Most of the participants (around 150 total) were from Arizona and a few from Colorado, and not many from Utah and other more northerly locales. It seemed like there were a lot of road-marathoners, and I was even asked by one girl if the Hoka One One shoes I was wearing were "trail shoes"... yes, my Hokas got some funny looks. You don't see many of them down in the flats of Arizona, unfortunately, but I did my best to talk them up for the wonderful shoes that they are.
My friend Brian scorched his first official ultra-run in 5:17. Congrats to him. He is well on his way to having a great summer of training, and looking forward to the Leadville 100 in August.