Earlier this month I ran my third race of the year, the Golden Gate Dirty Thirty, a 50k trail race held at Colorado’s Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The race was more or less a single 31-mile loop, primarily on singletrack trails, at elevations between 7,500 and 9,500 feet.
Unlike the Quad Rock 50 miler in May where my goal was to run conservatively, this time around I wanted to run hard. I told Kelli going into the race that my target was to finish in about 5:30.
The morning started off very brisk, with temps in the high 30s, maybe the low 40s best case. I was very glad to have my arm sleeves. A number of runners who dressed sparingly in favor of the warmer temps that would greet us later in the day stood around shivering at the start line before the beginning of the race.
The race director gave us all a few last-minute instructions, including two items that caused my ears to perk up. 1) The race offered a $100 award (or thereabouts) for bloodiest finisher. That was a first for me! 2) The race also offered a special prize to folks who became members of the 360 club, finishing in less than 6 hours (360 minutes). The 360 number initially struck me as liberal. Six hours is a relatively modest time to run a 50k. Shouldn’t “club” membership have stricter standards? I’d soon learn why 360 was the number to beat, and by the end of the race I’d eat my words.
At first glance, the distance and elevation profile for the Dirty Thirty seemed similar to the Fruita trail race that kicked off my season. That was my benchmark, and I planned to match my exertion level in this race.
The race began with 3/4 mile or so of dirt road that allowed some of us to get sorted out before we hit the glorious singletrack that wound its way through the mountains. Life was good. I hit the first aid station feeling good, but by the time I met up with Kelli and the girls at the second aid station, questions were beginning to swirl in my head. I was falling behind my target pace, and even maintaining that slower pace was taking more exertion than I expected it to.
As I set off on the next leg of the race, more thoughts crept into my head. Something wasn’t adding up. The number of climbs, and especially the magnitude of those climbs, just didn’t seem to match the elevation stats and profile of the course. A realization slowly dawned: I had mis-read the stats for the course. What I thought was 8,000 vertical feet of elevation change was actually 8,000 feet of elevation gain and 16,000 vertical feet of elevation change (ascents plus descents). Talk about a major miscalculation!
That made this, per mile, the steepest ultra I’ve ever run. As one racer said later at the finish line, “You were either going up or down the whole time. None of that course was flat.” Word.
I caught up with Kelli and the girls at the third aid station, located at a T junction in the trail. It was a demoralizing spot. The race course went left and uphill. But water and food was location right a few minutes downhill closer to a trailhead parking lot. I knew I had to head downhill to grab some nutrition and top off my bottle for the long leg ahead, but didn’t relish the idea of having to re-climb back to that same spot where Kelli and the girls were waiting.
Then it was off up into the mountains once again. After hitting another aid station about an hour later, it was time for the biggest climb of the day, up to the summit of Windy Peak. The climb turned into something of a never-ending death march. Up and up it kept going. At one point I thought I’d reached the top—through the trees I could see a clearing ahead, with some race volunteers ringing a cowbell. Finally!
Only that turned out to be just the saddle between Windy Peak and another mountain, from which you continued the climb up to Windy’s actual summit. It was a relief to finally reach Windy’s high point. There another race volunteer punched your race bib as confirmation that you reached the top. “You must be popular today!” I told her. Oh yes, she agreed. “A number of people have told me they love me. I’ve even had one marriage proposal!”
After a long descent off Windy Peak and a modest climb toward the end of the race, there was just a moderate and wonderful downhill back to the finish line. By now I was running strong again, after really suffering through some of the big climbs and descents in the middle of the race. I popped out of the forest, off the singletrack and onto the dirt road that led in brief back to the finish line.
I crossed the finish line in 6:58:10, nearly an hour later than necessary for entry into the 360 club and an hour later than my slowest 50k race to date. Humbling, to say the least! I placed 123 out of 259 finishers. Right in the middle of the pack, really, but not where I had wanted to be.
It was incredible. My legs—and especially my knees—felt more beat up from this 50k race than they have after tough 50 milers. The relentless, steep climbs and descents really took a toll. But it was a great race none the less, and an important building block toward my biggest race later this year. More on that soon!
All photos by Kelli, except #1, courtesy of Glen Delman Photography, used with permission.