I ran the Tommyknocker 50k in Woodland Park, CO over the weekend. It was my first mountain race, and as a person who lives at sea level, it was pretty epic to finish so I thought a report would be appropriate.
The race started at ~7800 ft and would top out just over 9100 ft, with ~4000 ft of elevation change. I estimate 80% of the race was above 8500 ft. Although a larger elevation change than most 50k’s I run, I wasn’t worried about the elevation change but rather the altitude since I’ve never run that high.I normally get anxious, but I was actually really worried about this race, probably more so than any other race I’d run. Even on Friday I briefly thought about backing out of the trip. At least it would be scenic, with views of forested mountains and Pike’s Peak in the distance and a sweet relief from the summertime temperatures of Houston with a starting temperature around 50 degrees.
In the race briefing/race document, we were told we needed to wear orange, so we could stand out in the event of any bow hunters on the trail. Additionally, we were warned of potential wildlife on the trail: snakes, beavers, mountain lions, moose, elk, maybe bears. In other words, just like a normal Saturday run in Houston. Thankfully there were no bear attacks and I didn’t get shot with a bow in my @$$.
It was a ‘low key’ start, with the RD throwing a pick axe against a rock to signal the start, and the ~40 of us starting were off. It was a very slight hill, mostly flat, so ‘flat’ that I felt like running since it was the beginning of the race. What I should be able to run at an easy 9 min pace at sea level, was taxing to run at 12-13 min pace up here, whoa. That didn’t last too long before the grade increased to where it would be foolish for me to run, and it was full on hiking mode. The terrain was nice jeep/ATV road with crushed granite (the whole course was very non-technical) and up the mountain we went. This area was mostly shaded, which made a big difference compared to being exposed in later portions of the course, but I was still sweating like crazy. I thought the lower humidity would mean less but here on this first climb my shirt was already soaked. I definitely could feel the effect of the altitude on my breathing, but after the climb topped out, I felt much better.
The first climb topped out at 8500 ft and we were treated with the first view of Pike’s Peak to the left on a beautiful partly-cloudy morning. That view alone was practically worth the run. More gently rolling hills and soon we were at the first aid station and I didn’t feel too bad. Got a few snacks and headed off on the next section. Whoops, me and another runner Jeff briefly went the wrong direction and got turned around by the volunteers.
The next section dropped down to below 8100 ft, and the downhill was great. Beautiful ATV/double track trails with forests, brooks, trees, everywhere. I felt really good this section and it was no coincidence since the altitude was lower (and wouldn’t get down this low until the very end of the race). We kept hiking and back up the mountains we went. It was probably only a ~6% grade or so, but was way too steep for me to run, especially up this high. Still, I felt good going uphill, and we continued on through the forests until we saw the next aid station in the distance, and another clearing with another fantastic view of Pike’s Peak up at 8800 ft now. This aid station had beautiful, unforgettable panoramic views, and I felt jealous of the volunteers there to enjoy it all day long. I grabbed more chips and PB&J, coke and then headed back on down the trail.
The next section was 5 miles long and rose to over 9100 feet and was probably the toughest stretch for me. None of the climbs were very big, but I just couldn’t move very fast. I could run, and by ‘run’ I mean like a 12-13 min/mile jog, for only a minute or two, before it was just too taxing and feeling light headed. Legs felt like they weighed 200 lbs and my breathing couldn’t recover. On the positive side, I felt like my hiking speed was pretty good, and I didn’t feel nearly as wasted when I was hiking. It wasn’t like I was moving that much faster when I was running anyway, lol. I also started feeling really low energy and more light headed so I didn’t want to push the pace too much. I was worried that it was due to the altitude and I didn’t want any kind of disaster up here. However, it was very mentally challenging to think if it was due to the altitude and I feel like this the rest of the day, it’s going to be real hard for me to finish and be an extremely long day. Anyway, I staggered on into the next aid station at mile 13 feeling pretty awful. I told them I didn’t feel great, and worked on getting refueled with 2 shots of ginger ale, 1 shot of coke, PB&J sandwich, several hand fulls of chips, and half a homemade cookie. The cookie seemed real good so I took an extra and stuck it in a Ziploc inside my camelbak to enjoy later in the race. I also was advised to drink ALOT more water up here, so at this point I picked up a handheld from my drop bag, so now I was carrying almost 100 oz of water for the rest of the race. The next aid station was 8 miles away, and the one after that as well, so those would be some real long stretches.
I felt a bit better heading out of that A/S, and continued on with my jog/walk pattern, especially trying to run all the little downhills. Miles 13-21 were net downhill, before a sharp downhill and steep uphill. I started to feel better, and my energy level recovered. I must have been in a big calorie deficit but felt like I was eating more than enough. Guess I need more up this high. With alot of time up here alone to think, it reminded me a lot of how these ultras are a lot like life. Lots of ups and downs, and sometimes things really really suck, but you just have to keep moving on and eventually things will improve. You meet people along the way and need help from others to finish…
The miles rolled on and then I ran into probably a dozen runners headed at me coming up the trail, saying that was the wrong way. I saw the sign 50 yards back, but apparently a disgruntled homeowner had vandalized the course markings, with some runners running up to 4 miles extra and supposedly a few of them even dropping. I’m really glad I didn’t go extra because this is more than enough for this flatlander…. I guess sometimes it pays to be slow because it didn’t add any significant distance for me. We found the right trail, and then headed down. Yes, I love the downhills. Down, down we went, finally a nice steep one to really speed up. These guys were much faster with me, but I could actually keep up with some of them on the downs. Then we bottomed out and headed right back up a steep incline, where I then set back into my own flatlander uphill hiking pace. This climb was the steepest one of the day, but I felt like I still had a good pace. At this point, I didn’t have any altitude headache, and actually felt well overall. It was still really hard, though.
The climb mercifully ended and we got to the mile 21 aid station. I was pretty spent, but not too bad all things considered. Gorged myself on coke, half a PB&J sandwich, stuck the other half in my ziplock, more ginerale, coke, handfulls of chips, refilled my camelbak and handheld, and then it was time to go. Was a nice break, and then we got a lovely downhill to run. It seemed like it was a net uphill this far so it was nice to finally make up some of the ascent.
The descent continued with some awesome switchbacks, and I came upon another runner who seemed to be struggling a bit. He said he had some IT band problem, so I hung with him for a minute, before I noticed the temperature started to drop. Then a pellet fell on the ground, and another, and then it was full on hailing, with them landing on my head, body, brim of my visor, everywhere. I attempted, uselessly, to find shelter under a tree as I retrieved my rain jacket from my pack and put it on. Dang, this is pretty crazy. If this wasn’t good enough motivation to keep you running, I don’t know what is. This guy did ’14’ers every weekend’ so his thought was this wouldn’t last long. This kind of craziness doesn’t happen in Houston, but I couldn’t really afford to worry about it too much. The hail turned to light rain, and down the switchbacks we went. The hail/rainstorm indeed ended soon, maybe after 15-20 minutes; I guess the weather in Colorado changes quickly. Eventually he fell back and I came on another guy. We bottomed out and were in this absolutely stunning stretch between the hills/mountains, surrounded by beautiful green trees and rocks on the mountains everywhere. The whole course was so breathtaking.
Back to the running, I was actually feeling pretty good here. That changed as we got to the steepest climb, the last big one. The worst of it was only like 300 feet or so, but we were up at like 8800 – 9000 ft. I kept up with this guy the first 100 feet, then I needed a break to take my jacket off as the rain had already stopped, which gave me a good opportunity for a breather. Got to the top of that pitch, and felt i felt totally gassed as my heart-rate was over 180 or 190, damn my heart is beating like crazy!! I decided I shouldn’t push it anymore so I was walking probably like a 20 min pace to recover, but my heart rate didn’t seem to drop very quickly. No oxygen up here!
These miles rolled on with more gently rolling hills that were just steep enough to think you could run them. On and on it went, with few runners passing by. The rain had stopped, but it was thundering all around, and I was a bit worried being up here in the mountains, it all seemed so crazy. I knew it was downhill to the next aid station, so that was a bit of relief; however, the temperature dropped again and it started raining and haling again so I had to get my jacket out again. This time the rain was much heavier and I got pretty cold. I just hoped it wouldn’t last too long because I was getting real cold and not moving that fast up here (still around 8800 ft), and getting too cold would be real hard to recover from. With the heavy rain, I decided it would be wise to put my iphone in a ziploc. This ziploc was the one previously occupied by the PB&J, so now my phone was coated in that. Oh well, a first-world problem I can deal with later, it’s probably safer than getting soaked. It was such a surreal feeling, way up here in the mountains, in the pouring rain, somehow making my way along this race.
The rain storm let up, and eventually I descended to the last aid station to cheering volunteers, but I felt pretty wasted at this point (understatement of the century), 31 miles into the race. I felt pretty calorie-deficient and knew I needed to sit down, so I did, and the wonderful volunteers helped me refuel once again. I was sick of eating all the dang gel things, so I had 3 cups of chicken broth, 1 with noodles, a few cups of coke, and more and more chips, maybe a PB&J too. I can never have too many chips or coke in an ultra, lol. They had moonshine at this aid station, which seemed like a real great idea the day before. I still should have had one, but felt way too off to experiment with just 3.5 miles to go.
After a solid 10 minute break, I left the final aid station and knew the last section wasn’t that bad (this was the same route back as the first 3.5 miles). A few little gently rolling hills up, then all downhill the last ~ 2 miles. Took it easy up, got my last glimpse of Pike’s Peak, and then ran pretty much all the way down the hill at a real good pace. Finished in 9:06. A normal 50k here in TX takes me 6 – 6.5 hrs. This was in the mountains, and actually 3 miles longer (garmin showed 34 miles).
The RD and other finishers/volunteers clapped and handed me my finisher award. I told him it was ‘nothing like running in Houston’ and that ‘back home, we have 70 foot bridge we run.’ That generated a lot of laughter, but I think most were impressed I was able to finish that beast living down at sea level with no hills. It was very mentally challenging to finish this race (definitely one of the toughest for me ever), the altitude up that high really slows you down. I learned I can’t really run above 8800 ft. Below that, it felt almost instantly better, but above it, I couldn’t run any flat sections longer than 1-2 min. Overall, a great experience for my first mountain race and glad I didn’t generate any embarrassing carnage. If I do another one, I definitely don’t want to do one that has any prolonged sections above that high because it is just too hard to move. Otherwise, I’d need to get there early to acclimate to the altitude.
The next day, went sightseeing and pubcrawling in Golden, CO with friends. I got carded every place we went, which doesn’t seem to happen down here. Anyway, a nice weekend running/walking in the mountains, sightseeing, and drinking mircobrews.
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