Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Grand Mesa 50+ race report

[I apologize in advance for the length of this post. I don't blame you if you just look at the pictures...]
Post-race quotes about Grand Mesa 100/50:
"This is way harder than Leadville 100"- Ryan Burch, the 100 mile winner
"This should be marked as primitive and not for the faint of heart"- Anonymous runner

My grandparents live in Cedaredge, Colorado, so I have visited the Grand Mesa several times and was excited to participate in this first-time race. The Grand Mesa is the largest mesa in the world, measuring 500 sq miles, almost all above 10,000 ft, and with 300 mosquito-breeding lakes. The race was advertised as a "54 mile" 50-miler, with 5000 ft climbing, and a predicted winning time of 7.5 hrs for the 50 and 17 hrs for the 100. These times would prove to be overly optimistic, and the amount of climbing was greatly underestimated. I was hoping for 8-8.5 hrs.

Friday was my last day working at ATK, and I drove straight from work to Cedaredge in my non-air conditioned car. Hot and sweaty. Talked to 100-mile runner Ryan Burch at the pre-race briefing, met his pacer, Duncan Callahan (2009 Leadville 100 winner), and also met my only expected competition in the 50 mile race, Zeke Tiernan. Zeke was a two-time NCAA All-American runner at Univ of Colorado with a 29 min 10k PR. And he is awesome at trails, placing 3rd in the Leadville 100 last year. Nice guy, and I knew he would be good competition. Game on.

Me and my dad on the mesa Friday evening

Elevation profile. Starting elevation is 10,400 ft.

My parents were generous enough to crew me (even though they could only crew me at Aids 1, 3, and 5), and they drove their camper up for us to sleep in. The weather for race day was predicted to have a low of 40 deg and a high of 65, but actual temperature would be about 15-20 deg higher. The 60 starters (between the 100 mile, 50 mile, and 37.5 mile distances) gathered for the 5:30 am start with a bit of nervous chatter.

The first 11.5 mile loop was fabulous, running along pine forest and then climbing to a narrow, volcanic crag with steep dropoffs on both sides. Ryan and Zeke took off immediately, and I hung back just a bit with Marty Wacker, a local runner. It was nice to have Marty to pace me a bit at the start and not let me go out too fast. I felt great and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise, even startling a porcupine on the side of the trail. After about 80 min, I decided to pass Marty, worried that Ryan and Zeke had built a big lead. I had one quick pit stop (my only star of the race) near the end of the loop, then zoomed through the aid station. My parents had my bottles and gu's ready for a 10 second hand off and tolerated my focused, semi-rude attitude. 1:46 for the loop.
The trail along the top of the crag. Beautiful.

Approaching Aid 1

I was very happy to pass Zeke as he took a pit stop just after the aid station, and to spot Ryan just a minute ahead. We eventually ended up in a group as the trail turned from road to 4WD to rough ATV trail as we descended to Aid 2. Shortly after Aid 2, we had 2 ankle-deep stream crossings, then found several trail junctions with no flagging, which would end up being a common occurance all day. After several minutes of scouting and map-consulting, we choose the most likely path. It ended up being the correct one, but we didn't know until we found a flag after 10 minutes. (To the RD's credit, an aid station worker later went and added dozens of flags along this section, making the path obvious). Aid station split was 42 min (5 mi with lots of downhill).

Typical ATV trail from Aid 1 to Aid 3

Ryan, Zeke and I were still running as a pack when we reached Aid 3, which was handy due to the several fence crossings that required multiple hands and a fair amount of tugging to open and close some of the "gates". My stomach was rebelling a bit at this point from too much sugar, so I opted for only water, which was fabulously cool and much appreciated as the temperature was rapidly rising. My parents had everything ready for me at the aid station for another quick turnaround. 1:02 split for 6.25 mi with net climbing.

Aid 3

At this point, the 50 and 100 milers do a huge, 15 mile loop around a peninsula on the mesa. The trail was generally flat, but it was an often faint and always "lumpy" (as Ryan appropriately labeled it) or rocky singletrack. My lower leg stabilization muscles got a very good workout. I followed Zeke and Ryan for about 5 miles till Zeke fell back a bit. We reached where the aid was supposed to be... but nothing was there. I ran out of water and was very thirsty when we finally saw some horses and riders in the distance. Sure enough, the aid station was just arriving. They were not prepared for us, with all the water still in containers on the horses. Ryan filled his bottle from some water bottles the riders had, then took off, while I held a horse. I was a bit annoyed that this allowed Zeke to make up the 2 minutes we had put on him. After 3-4 more minutes of holding horses and untying saddle bags, Zeke and I filled out bottles and were off. The riders were very nice, though, and I was just happy to get lots of water. I was carrying 2 bottles while Zeke and Ryan only had 1, which I think gave me a big advantage as I stayed well-hydrated.

Zeke hung with me for a bit, but then took a soft tumble (he was ok) and started falling back again. I focused on catching Ryan, which I had almost done when we discovered we were lost again. After a bit of map-consulting and cross-country running, we found the trail and returned to Aid 3 (now morphed into Aid 4). The 100 milers seperated here, but I wasn't able to wish Ryan good luck like I wanted due to all the aid station hubbub. He would go on to win the 100 in 23:26, beating the 2nd place guy by 2.5 hrs. On a side note, Ryan ran 5:53 for the first 38 miles with Zeke and I (9:17 min/mile), then 17:33 for the next 64 miles (16:27 min/mile). Only 5 of the 30 runners in the 100 would finish. My split for the 15 mile loop was 2:20. My parents had another quick turnaround for me, and I was out of the aid station before Zeke came in. I did see him briefly, and he wasn't looking too great, while I felt good.

Legs 4 and 5 circled this whole "peninsula" of the mesa. Great views, rather flat, very long.

The trail was faint and very lumpy for much of the loop. Slower running than expected.

I enjoyed hugging the edge of the mesa, but my legs tired of the monotony of running on flat trails.

Section 6 dropped off the edge of the mesa on a very steep descent, skirted along the side for quite a while, then climbed back to Aid 2. I pushed hard at first to put some distance on Zeke. The dropoff was very steep and overgrown, but I enjoyed it. I got lost at the bottom for a while, but eventually found my way back onto the course (note: I estimate I spent 15-20 minutes lost during the entire race). I will admit that I did not enjoy the rest of this section- it was very overgrown and most of the trail was little more than a cow trail, with many other intersecting cow trails. It was constantly rolling, very rough, and impossible to get a steady, fast rhythm. And it was hot- I was worried how fast my water was disappearing. I kept expecting the trail to turn up the mountain, but we just kept going along the side for about 30 minutes more than I thought we should have. The only good things was passing a few 37 mile runners and sharing some encouraging words. I also told them to tell Zeke that I was 30 minutes ahead of him and running strong, which gave all of us a good laugh.

Finally, the trail turned uphill... and it was a doozy. The next mile was honestly the steepest climb of my life, steeper than even Black Mountain on Wahsatch Steeplechase. It was a slow, slow walk, accompanied by only a ton of mosquitos. I felt terrible and ran out of water, though I kept dipping my head in streams to cool down. This was the only place I could really feel the high elevation. Fortunately, the RD's had some hardcore ATV-ers set up an aid station mid-climb (I really don't know how they managed to drive an ATV on that steep/rocky of a trail, especially with gear attached). It was quite literally a life saver- I gratefully filled both bottles. I know ALL the runners really appreciated this aid station- it relieved a lot of suffering.

Unfortunately, the climb continued for quite a ways past the aid- I think it gained 1600 ft in 1 mile. Slow and hot, with lots of gasping for breath. And the walking gave the mosquitos plenty of time to feast on me. I finally reached the summit to find my dad waiting for me, ready to pace me to the finish. He sprayed water on my head and was very encouraging in this words, telling me that everyone looked terrible coming up the hill (there were ~6 37-milers ahead of me). After a few minutes of walking on the flats, we began running a bit. After a few miles, we reached Aid 6 (previously Aid 2), and I scarfed down some melon and coke while the awesome volunteers filled my bottles. Time for leg 6 was 2:35 for 10.6 miles, almost an hour slower than expected. I was very glad to be done with this section.

The warning...

Can you see the trail coming down? Very steep and overgrown. Much steeper than the picture makes it look.

After Aid 6, the race runs back up the course to Aid 1 (and the finish), all on ATV/4WD road, and mostly uphill. I was greatly energized by the aid station and the walking, so started running everything except the steepest uphill. My dad kept up for a few miles, but soon I was running 7:30/min miles on technical uphills and he fell behind a bit. I passed a few more runners, catching everyone except the first place 37 miler (a woman). I knew exactly how far the finish was, so kept pushing harder and harder, though eventually I was forced to walk some of the longer uphills. I looked back on a few stretches but saw neither Zeke nor my dad within 600 yards of me. I finally rounded the final turn and ran across the finish line- First place! Final split of 53 min, giving me a total time of 9:21:57 (10:24 min/mile). My Uncle Boyd and Aunt Connie and 4 cousins had been visiting my grandparents and came to cheer me across the finish, along with my mom and my Aunt Sue. My dad appeared 3-4 minutes later, and Zeke finished 11 min after me. 3rd place was 90 min back.

I couldn't catch my breath for 30 min after the finish, but staggered around trying not to faint. There was no food at the finish line, so I just congratulated Zeke on a good race and promptly went to a lake to soak my legs. After grabbing my 1st place award, my family all drove into Cedaredge for food with my grandparents. I had very minimal soreness, and no soreness on Sunday. Unfortunately, I got absolutely fried by the sun, making laying down painful and resulting in blisters all over my back and shoulders- ouch. Sleeping was painful on the sunburn. After a second night with my parents, I drove straight to Salt Lake City airport Sunday morning to go house hunting with Marci in South Carolina- it was a busy weekend!

Worst sunburn of my life (?), 4 days later. Blistered all over. I did discover that going down a water slide on your back will painfully remove all these blisters, though.

Overall, I enjoyed this race. It was in a gorgeous location. I really enjoyed running with Ryan and Zeke, and was very glad I didn't have to run the whole thing by myself. I feel very lucky to have beaten Zeke- I was surprised to have won that battle. The race had the typical first-time snafus (inadequate flagging, aid stations not ready, no food at the finish line)- I know most of the 100 milers dropped in large part due to course marking problems and being worried about night running. I found the aid station workers to be very friendly and helpful and the course to be well designed, though it was far more challenging than I expected and had more vertical than advertised. But, I thought it was fun overall and would likely run the 100 miler if I were around next year. Good times.

Just after finishing. I can barely breath or stand up.

With my pacer. Notice the matching green shirt/short combination.

Things I learned: Too much warm Perpeteum = bad. Very cool drinking water on a hot day = good. Parents as crew = good and enthusiastic.

Final stats
30 runners registered for the 100 miler, 5 finished (all men)
21 registered for the 50 miler, 16 finished
10 registered for the 37 miler, 12 finished (due to some 50 and 100-milers dropping down. 37 miler won by a woman, beating 1st man by 2 hours!)


  1. Great description of the race and course, Jon. Your mom and I really enjoyed being your crew and getting a more intimate feeling for what you go through on a long race.

    I kept thinking, this is two marathons at a 10,000 ft altitude with lots of vertical. Hard for me to fathom. But it was great. You ran a smart and very strong race.


  2. Nice work at Grand Mesa! I hadn't heard of it until now. Sounds brutal but an incredible course.
    I ran with Cody at the Speedgoat 50k, and he mentioned you're moving. Good luck in SC. Watch out, you might get tempted to work on the AT record. We're actually in the process of moving to Flagstaff, AZ. Probably see you at races in the future nonetheless.

  3. ... and if you're still planning on a Grand Canyon double crossing this year, Jared Campbell and I were talking about doing that in November.

  4. Karl- thanks for the note. If I fly back to the west around November, I'll let you know. It would likely be around the week of Thanksgiving. I definitely want to do another R2R2R sometime.

  5. Jon, congrats on the win. I didn't see the report until just now. I think I was at scout camp when you ran this. Very cool to go out and win a 50 miler when you have only done a couple until now. Good luck in NC. The best to you and your family.