Monday, September 7, 2015

A race fit for Smokey Bear

I needed one more race in the Brazen Ultra Half Series, and for reasons that show a distinct disregard for common sense, I decided that their Bear Creek Half Marathon would be perfect. Mrs Notthat was still not up to running yet, so I headed out alone.

The Bear Creek course is tough. It is always hot, and heat was certainly promised for this day. It is also number three when you rank Brazen Half courses by elevation (only Double Dipsea and Rocky Ridge beat it, although there are a couple of races that are pretty close - you can see a sortable spreadsheet here that shows all the Brazen races).

But I figured that this would be a good training run in preparation for the Half I was going to be doing the following weekend in Colorado, so I smiled and said "bring it on!" (Ha! I cowered under a tree, cried, and said "please be gentle.")

Dublin Mike threatening the toilet line with a banana peel. It didn't work.
"How many of you are carrying bear repellant?" (For the first time, there would actually be a bear on the course! Sort of.)
As opposed to last year when we had a cool, cloudy start, it was warm already. For reasons that mostly involved wanting to sleep a bit more, I chose to use the regular start (as opposed to the early start). This meant the cutoffs would be in play, and I couldn't fool around too much.

Volunteering can be exceptionally stressful.
If you look hard, you can see runners climbing that ridge and running along its top.
After a bit of rolling trail, we started up the first real hill, most of us humming "Sunshine, On My Shoulders" and enjoying the clean air.

But once you reached the top of the ridge, everything changed. It was still warm, but the air was no longer clean. This caught me completely by surprise, and I was really worried that a wildfire had broken out near here overnight.

If you have really good eyesight, you can see the trail, some runners, and the first aid station off in the distance.
We found out later that this was all smoke from a wildfire up by Clear Lake, over 100 miles away. Breathing the smoky air quickly started to irritate my throat, which had the effect of getting me to drink more.

The first aid station was at mile 2.9. The fun thing about this aid station is that it means you've got a few downhill miles ahead of you.

Most of those miles are exposed, but there is a nice stretch of tree-infested trail that brings some much needed shade.

The second aid station, at mile 5.8, is important for a couple of reasons:

  • It has the first cutoff (which I made by 35 minutes).
  • We have a long four miles to the next aid station, and much of that is exposed, uphill, or both.

I made sure to fill my bottles, douse my hat, and generally get as wet as possible before heading out.

After leaving that aid station, you get this sweet downhill trail. Enjoy it while you can.

I assume mom was forced to wear cowboy boots just to make sure she didn't decide to jump in and run the race at the last minute.
After that downhill, you pass a bathroom and get on a nice single-track trail that follows a dried up creek. About a half mile away from that area, I could hear loud enthusiastic cheering, and was a bit puzzled - there isn't an aid station anywhere close and nobody in their right mind would be hanging out there.

I was right about the "right mind" bit - the cowboy boot-wearing family of Planks, Fartleks, and Family Fun fame were hanging out and cheering us all on! This was an awesome boost!

Once past the cheering throng, it was on to the most fun part of the course, on this single-track through the trees.

The thing about this trail is that you know how it ends, with a horrifying but kind of fun steep bit that comes close to requiring you to scramble on all fours.

But just before that climb, we were directed to the right, up to the wider fire road. This was a complete surprise - in previous years I had taken pictures of the fire road off to the right and mentioned that it was sheer torture to have that relatively smooth trail available while we were struggling up a root- and rock-filled "trail."

Looking over at the trail we were avoiding - trust me that it's much more challenging than it looks in this shot.
One thing I learned was to be careful of what you wish for. That fire road trail was indeed a bit smoother, but I'm pretty sure it was steeper, and it certainly wasn't any easier (although I suspect the proper runners would have found it a LOT more runnable than the old trail).

After we left the trees, and a long slow climb, we had a nice downhill stretch. Then we hit this - an exposed uphill that is pretty much pure torture. It's not very steep, at least in the beginning, so you feel like you should be able to run it, but man, that heat really gets to you. Toss in a bit of smoke and this was really hard.

But if you stick with it, you make it to the third aid station, mile 9.9, and the last cutoff (which I made by a bit over 30 minutes). From here it is just a (slightly long) 5K to the finish, with a bit more climbing followed by some nice downhill. I really hoped to make some great time on this last stretch, but, as usual, I was in pretty rough shape at this point and "speed" was not in my vocabulary (unless you put "extreme lack of" in front of it).

Forgot to clean the lens on this shot - this area was actually pretty much smoke-free. That's the last aid station way down there.
It was a slog up that last climb, and by the time I hit the downhill, there wasn't much left in my legs. Fortunately though, crossing this ridge got us out of the smokey air and my throat got a bit of a reprieve.

I managed to stumble my way down to aid station four, about mile 12.2, and only a bit over a mile from the finish line.

Before I left though, I made sure to get cooled off again. That cold water is a shock, but wow does it make you feel better and energized (at least for a little bit).

These two runners were interesting. It was their first trail race and they had been ahead of me up to about mile 8.5. When I passed them I realized they were both running without water bottles - I would NEVER try to run this without two bottles, and here they were getting through this relying only on the aid stations.

When I passed them, I was able to talk them into drinking from my spare bottle, but I was not so sure they would make it to the finish. Hence my surprise at seeing them only a little bit behind me, and looking strong! I was going to have to work a bit to beat them, which I did, but not by much.

The Bear Creek Trail, which takes you to the finish, is a lot of fun when it's not crowded with other runners, as it had been earlier when the shorter distance sprinters were on it. It's biggest issue is that parts of it is lined with poison oak. Another issue is that you can hear the finish line almost the whole time you are on it, and even more cruelly, you go PAST the finish line before hitting a switchback and coming back to it.

The first few years I ran this race, Bear Creek always had water in it, and I always looked forward to standing in it to cool off my feet. The last two drought years though have sadly eliminated that creek.

I promised you a bear. Sort of.

In a cruel twist, it's not trivial to get from that creek bed up to the finish line. It's SO CLOSE!!!

If you stick with it though, the finish line will actually appear. Eventually.

Notthat enjoying an It's-It ice cream at the finish.

This was tough, but that wasn't a surprise. I had hopes of a sub-four hour finish, but failed, which wasn't a surprise either, especially given the surprise smokey air.

But it was a great tuneup for Colorado and it got me my fifth race in the Ultra Half Series (I'm dead last in the standings, but the important bit is that I'm in the standings!).

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Nice job, Allen. That smoke was pretty bad, and it was hot, tough race day conditions. It was fun to see run past!