Antelope Island 50 mile….. so near and yet so far
As I flew in to Salt Lake City, Utah last weekend, I caught a glimpse of Antelope Island, where I would be attempting to run 50 miles the next day.
Antelope Island is the largest island (42 square miles) in the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. This ultramarathon is called the Antelope Island Buffalo Run, after the herd of 500 or so bison living on the island.
I looked down and wondered what to expect. I had just come down with a yet another bronchitis only two days previous. It was my fourth infection in six weeks. Only two months earlier I was hoping to attempt a personal best for the fifty mile distance. Now, I was both frustrated and angry. All of my hard training side-tracked by a series of viruses.
Due to the repeated illness over the last six weeks, I had run half the mileage would normally run, and only 1 to 3 times per week.
I wondered: "will I even finish?"
I got my rental car, picked up my packet at the Striders running store and registered at the hotel. Soon, I got a phone call from Lisa, one of my ultra-running buddies. I met she and her friend Jarom and went along when they picked up their packets.
Afterwards, eight of us went out to eat. That was fun. It isn't often that I get to sit around a table with other utra-running fools sharing stories of previous and upcoming races, bonking, dehydration, hallucinations and lost toenails. Most of the time I struggle to explain why I do what I do to others who can barely walk around the block, much less run- so usually I don't bother.
Lisa tried to convince me to do the 50-kilometer race with her. That was extremely tempting. We both have a similar pace… ie slow. It would have been fun to catch up while running with a friend. However, I decided to try to do the 50 mile anyway. I thought it would be better to DNF at the 50 mile than to finish the 50-k and realize I could've gone further.
The race began at 6AM on Saturday. I awakened early so I would have plenty of time to eat, gather my gear and tape my feet. Ever since I began preventively taping my feet, blisters have become a thing of the past.
I had a bit of GI distress from the fried food consumed the night before. I almost never eat greasy fried food so my bowels did not remember how to digest such high fat. I thought it would be smart to make a pit stop before the race. While doing my thing in the porta-potty, I heard the race director shout, "Go!" and then cheers from the crowd.
"Darn," I thought… "Today is not off to a good beginning…my stomach's cramping, I'm coughing from bronchitis, the race has barely begun and already I'm in last place!"
I gathered my gear and joined the other runners, only a few hundred yards behind the pack. I have all day to go, no problem I thought.
At least I'll be out of the way of anyone wanting to run faster.
I saw the line of headlamps moving up the hill. Soon, we crossed over a ridge and could see the lights of Salt Lake City and other communities along the Wasatch Front. I didn't want to take the few minutes to set my camera on a rock and take a decent photo, so instead waited until there was enough light.
I started out slow, knowing that if I had any chance of finishing, it would be by just squeaking by the 12:30 hour cut-off. My legs were strong… but how could they not be? I hadn't run much at all for a month and a half! However, my lungs burned and I coughed so hard I couldn't catch my breath. I had no choice but to do a lot more walking than I had anticipated.
Nevertheless, I stayed at my target of 14:45-15:00 min/mile. To my surprise, I discovered that with concentration I could power-walk for an extended period at a 14:00 min/mile pace with a heart rate barely over resting. I even passed some other runners!
So that is how Uli Kamm the legendary ultra-walker does it! If I practiced this sort of walking I could be even better at it, maybe even finish a race before cut-off!
As we headed up the hill, we reached the Elephant Head aid station, we had a short out and back (about one mile give or take).
Along the way, I spotted a small herd of bison for which the island is famous for. A small herd was introduced onto the island in 1893. Descendants of this herd played an important role in re-populating this species across North America after near extinction.
Apparently, the herd got frightened and ran near some of the other runners. I guess there is some advantage to running back in the pack after all!
My bowels complained again about last night's meal. I had to find a private place among the boulders. I shall not make the mistake of eating fried food the evening before a race ever again. I will also never forget to pack toilet paper again. Cheatgrass makes a poor substitute. Ouch!
Back at the aid station I turned west. The most rugged part of the race was the first 25 kilometers. The 50-k'ers would do this loop twice, we 50 milers would do it once and then head to the other side of the island.
The views were magnificent. This was the most challenging terrain of the race. However, the scenery made it worthwhile. We run ultras for the experience and not only about the distance or time. I was grateful that we were running this section in morning instead of later in the heat of the afternoon.
I came across another runner: Thor. We ran together for awhile but soon he sprinted off. My heart rate was too high, even when walking. I had to be cautious. I did not care about m pace or even finishing. I wanted to get as far as I possibly could. I know well that the only way I had any chance of doing the 50 miles today is if I did it as slow as possible.
Near the top, I came across an old horse corral.
Brigham Young introduced some of his best stallions and brood mares to the island in the 1850s. Raised in a rocky, harsh island environment, these horses were prized as surefooted, tough cowboy and calvary steeds. At one point, it is estimated 1000 horses roamed the island.
Many horses attempted to return to their beloved home whenever the had the opportunity. This posed no challenge. They willingly swam across the Great Salt Lake to reach the island. The legendary Sheriff Lot Smith's favorite saddle horse swam back several times, once while still wearing his saddle.
When the island changed ownership in 1884, the horses were considered a nuisance and removed. Now the island is populated by bison, antelope, deer, coyotes and a number of waterfowl and other wild bird species.
Soon, the 50 milometer runners started passing us. These were the elite. Most of the rest of the pack we passed coming towards us.
Nikki Kimball glided passed me, floating easily. She said "looking good!" or something similar. I love how supportive ultra-runners are of each other. Even the elite have something encouraging to say to us mere mortals in the back of the pack.
She would later go on to finish as first female 4:45:35, 7th overall. Wow!
We took another loop back to the start-finish. Around a bend, I could see it below. At that aid station I filled my Camelback and water bottle. I find that I drink more from a water bottle in my hand than I do from a Camelback.
Usually, I keep my bottle full of sports drink and my Camelback with plain water. On a hot dry day, I might switch over to water entirely, making sure to take in extra SUCCEED! S caps to replace the sodium lost in perspiration. One an hour is about right.
Today, I carried Boost as my main source of nutrition. I packed extras in my drop bags. I took sips off the bottle about every 15 – 20 minutes, followed by a swallow of water. At 240 calories, 41 gm carbohydrate, 10 gm protein, and 4 gm fat- one bottle should last about one hour, somewhat longer if taking in extra nutrition as I did today. I tolerated it well, without the stomach upset I seem to get from energy gels after 30 or 35 miles. Boost will be an important part of my race nutrition in the future.
After passing the start-finish line, we headed towards the eastern side of the island. The sun came out and the day began to warm up. I saw Thor as was coming back from the Mountain View Trailhead (mile 21.4). He had passed me early in the race and was surprised to see him behind me. He started out too quickly and was paying for it now.
Ultras are all about pacing yourself. This is more difficult than it sounds because your body is constantly trying to trick you into stopping or slowing down. On the other hand, sometimes the messages it sends you are real and must not be ignored. The challenge is to learn how to tell the difference.
We began heading south towards Field Garr Ranch.
I soon saw "the Nick Kid" or Nick Pedatella age 25 from Colorado. He nodded. I had barely made it to the half way point and here he was already in the home stretch only 9 miles from the finish.
He ended up winning the 50 mile and also setting a new course record in the process: 6:43:01!
To the east we were rewarded with beautiful vistas of the Wasatch Front. I saw a few bison grazing on the green spring grasses. Occasionally, pairs of chukar scolded me as I passed by.
The afternoon grew hot. I began to get a dull headache and realized that I hadn't peed for at least a couple of hours. I had gotten dehydrated without realizing it.
Quickly I began sipping water. In a half hour I had to pee and my headache disappeared. Fortunately, I recognized what was happening before it became more than a minor problem.
At the Fielding Garr Ranch turnaround mile 32.8, I ate some chicken-noodle soup, refilled my Camelback and water bottle, and got another bottle of Boost from my drop bag. Although I was going slow, I thought I had a chance of making it the full 50 miles, as long as I kept my current pace.
Fielding Garr Ranch is notable as the oldest continually inhabited building in Utah, from 1848 through 1981. The nearby Garr springs have been used by wildlife and ancient peoples long before the Anglos arrived. It is the largest and most reliable of the total of forty springs on the island. Archaeologic evidence confirms human activity at this site for at least 1000 years.
I turned around and headed the last miles towards the finish. In a mile I saw Thor. Looking dejected, he said, "Today is not my day!"
I replied,"It's not mine either… but here we are and isn't it beautiful?!"
I came into the Lower Frary Parking Lot aid station and changed into my short tights. That felt better!
One of the volunteers wore a Kettle Moraine 100 shirt. It turned out that he was at the race last year as was I. His name was Larry. We spoke about the thunderstorms, lightining and tornado for a bit. We agreed: "Some race that was!"
I had to say goodbye and head down the trail but before I did, Larry asked me, "Do you know what the difference is between a 10 hour 50 mile and a 14 hour 50 mile?"
"I don't know…. four hours?"
"A fourteen hour 50 mile hurts a LOT less!" He's right!
Larry is going to be at the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Race this June as will I. He is registered for the hundred mile but because of recent surgery, he may be dropping down to do the 50 mile. I hope I get to see him!
As I came down a hill, I felt a sudden twinge in my left iliotibial band. Immediately, I slowed to a walk. ITB injuries kept me from running for almost 8 months a couple of years ago.The possibility of such an injury returning haunts me still. After a half mile, the pain disappeared. I don't know why it came and why it went but I changed my gait and tried landing differently so perhaps that was the reason.
As I arrived to the Mountain View aid station mile 43.8, I saw that they had mostly packed up and only two volunteers were still there. Although they did not come out and tell me that I had to stop, I could sense they really would like me to.
"Only six miles to go." I thought, "I can make it if I keep going."
Then one of them made an off hand comment that by the time I get to the finish the folks with the food will be packed up and gone. Well, that made up my mind for me.
All afternoon I had been eyeing the bison and thinking: "You… or I should say your brother or sister… is going to be tasting good in the bison stew tonight!" Before the race, we all brought a can of vegetables and the race organizers supplied bison meat. They cooked it all day for the runners to enjoy after the race.
So decided I'd had enough and I hopped into the nearest truck. "Let's go! I might be slow but don't call me late for dinner!"
The bison stew was remarkably tasty. Good enough to be worth running almost 44 miles for and also worth dropping only 6 miles from the finish.
Had no one been at the aid station, I would have kept going and made the full 50 miles… eventually. I would have kept moving on… slowly… until I finally made it.
But what would the point been of that?
Before the race I wasn't sure I could even go 20 miles, much less 44. I am very pleased by how far I did go, considering that most folks would have stayed home in bed.
Thor dropped after me. He was dejected and discouraged. I told him to not be so hard on himself. No one can have a good day every time. As long as we do the best we can under the circumstances, that is all anyone can do. I told him to focus on what did go right.
For myself, besides going farther than I had expected, I took satisfaction in knowing that I consumed proper nutrition, addressed dehydration as immediately as I realized it, and stuck to my planned race pace.
My pace might have been too slow for a 50 mile but it would have been right on for a 100 mile race. My friend Dave Elsbernd pointed out that as a budding 100 miler, 50 mile races are technically "speed" training for me.
Today as I write this, I look off my back porch onto the canyon and hills beyond. The chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, crossbills, juncos and jays are active on our birdfeeders. A wild turkey gobbler came by and gazed over the cliff for 20 minutes before moving on.
Yesterday we had another spring blizzard with a foot of snow, the third in two weeks. If I don't run, I might go snowshoeing later this afternoon. My lungs feel better and I'm not coughing so much. Will this be the last infection of the season? I don't know but I sure hope so. I can't wait for the snow to melt and trails to open.
The Black Hills have got to be among the best places for a trail runner to live. If you don't believe me, come out here on vacation. Make sure to bring your trail shoes!
One benefit of running slow: my legs feel great, even better than after a 26.2-mile or a 50-kilometer. This might not have been my fastest 50 mile but it did turn out to be a nice long training run. I made several new ultra-runner acquaintances. I hope to see them again sometime.
Strolling Jim 40 mile will be here in only four weeks, barely enough time for me to rest, recover and taper. I'm planning to do a lot of tempo and intervals to increase me leg speed these next few weeks. I need to get back the cardiovascular fitness I lost during the series of infections. I also will need to focus on doing mountain running and strength training for Bighorn in June. My quads ache just thinking about it.
Well friends, thank you for reading, be well, and keep dreaming of spring!