Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wilson Creek (not so) Frozen 50K Race Report

There are times in life where one knows the sensible thing to do but chooses to do the opposite and the consequences are painful and life changing. Competing in the 1st running of the Wilson Creek Frozen 50K was exactly that. Anybody with any sense would have stayed home when the weather report was issued, but ultra runners aren't really known for being very sensible...

If you've been following my blog you may recall some reports from training runs out on the Wilson Creek trails. Wilson Creek is an area in the foothills of the Owyhee Mountains of Southern Idaho and it is known for its great high desert scenery and usually dry and sandy trails. I can testify that running on said trails following the first real winter storm of the year with moderate temperatures preventing the freezing of the mud and in high winds is not advisable, but if you're so lucky as to survive, it becomes one of those memories that will likely last a lifetime.

The race itself is the first of what will surely be many events put on by a new and amazing pair of race directors running the Pickled Feet Ultras group. If you don't know what is meant by Pickled Feet then I will just point you to their webpage so you can see for yourself (such activity is another one of those ill-advised decisions).

As I watched the weather leading into the race week it became apparent that running in the WCF50K would be more of an act of determination than blissful running on perfect trails. Unfortunately, I was more than right... In fact, by my estimation, at least 8-10 miles of the course was completely unrunable mud, and I'm not just talking about, "oh darn, my shoes are dirty" kind of mud... I'm talking, foot sucking, packed up and heavy, slippery, gritty mud that doesn't let up but gets tougher and tougher to run in. In fact, several veteran ultra runners at the finish stated that the course was the most difficult 50k they have ever run. One even mentioned he felt the mud added about 10 miles worth of effort to the race. When you combine the mud with the weather, 15-30 mph gusts, rain, sleet, snow, and bursts of sunshine just long enough to get you sweating so you can then freeze when the clouds roll back in, you have a most epic course to be sure.

Forgive me if you tire of reading boring race accounts, but I'll try to describe the race from my perspective the best I can remember. I would like to thank my new found friend, Tony Huff for taking along his camera and sharing his shots with me. Feel free to scroll through the pictures if you get tired of reading about the nitty-"gritty" details.

The race started at 7:00 am and about 1 dozen runners took off into the darkness in front of the 65 or so participants in the 20 mile or 50K racers. I went out strong but not unreasonable so as to avoid the congestion of runners running up the 1st little single-track climb. After the climb I began to settle into a very comfortable pace and wound up right beside Tony Huff and Ryan Lund. The three of us ran together for awhile and were surprised when some strong runners flew past us. Apparantly they had taken a wrong turn and ran a mile or so off course. Who knows how many others did the same thing, but I was thankful at that moment to have known the trails so well. We eventually popped out onto the Wilson Creek road and that's where the fun really began.

Wilson Creek road is a clay based dirt road that turns to nearly impassible mud when the slightest moisture comes in. When you put 3 or 4 days of rain on the road it is a miserable trek for 4-5 miles until you reach the upper parts of Wilson Peak.

Below, you can see how Ryan's shoes looked after just a bit of the road.

After slogging through as much mud as I could stand, Tony, Ryan, and myself reached the saddle where we head up the out and back to the summit of Wilson Peak. Even on this rocky protrusion there were places where the mud continued to test our mettle. It was hard to see runners already descending when there still was a considerable climb ahead, but nonetheless, I continued pushing. By now, however, my stomach was not feeling great and I decided that I needed to head down as quickly as possible once I reached the top.

At the summit, there is a weather station where a hole punch was hanging with instructions to punch a hole in your race bib before descending. I punched mine and then told Tony and Ryan that I wasn't feeling great and just wanted to book it down. I think they lingered for a few moments but we basically ended up together for the major descent off Wilson. Ryan turned into an animal at this point, either that or I just hit a major low and had to back off because he was out of sight within minutes. Tony and I ran together for the main stretch off the peak, but only because he twisted his ankle and had to slow considerably.

One of the hardest parts about this course is that even though you are heading down the mountain, there are several pitches of steep climbing followed by even steeper downhill running. Tony seemed to be able to handle the ups better than me at this point, but I would catch back up on the downs and we came off the mountain and to the aid station at about the same time. I decided at this point to linger a minute at the station to try and get some nutrition and fluids going and Tony headed on to the end of the 20 mile loop. From this point on, I was running by myself and was facing a low that would last until around mile 26. As if to add insult to my injury, a massive gust of wind blowing sleet and rain blasted us as we made the last descent to get off the main mountain pitch.

After coming into the start/finish area and changing my socks, I decided to also put on dry shoes and a jacket. The jacket paid off but I think that changing my shoes caused my hip and knee to get out of alignment and I started to feel a lot of pain in the joints from the 22 mile mark until the brutal end. A section of trail between mile 21 and mile 24.5 was completely mud. At times I had to grab on to sage brush to move forward through the mess and I was really regretting my shoe change. Afterall, I had about 1 mile of dry shoes and then there was no difference from my original choice. Oh, well, that's an experience that will only help me in future ultras.

After reaching the mile 24.5 aid (Rocky Road) I finally got some stretches of trail that were dry and runnable. The only problem was that after wallowing in the mud for 25 miles I was really hurting and I was trotting downhill at 11 min/mile. This was particularly frustrating because I normally go somewhere around 6 min/mile in many places on this particular downhill. In my head, I was thinking: "run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, but just don't quit." (Dean Karnazes)

I limped into the mile 26.5 aid station in around 6 hours. At this point I knew I was going to make it to the finish ok, and had a little positive moment while I basked in the glow of just completing my first marathon length run. Now I had just 4.8 miles to go and they were the most scenic and runnable of the day. I was able to basically run the rest of the way, although I walked a few of the ups.

It seemed all my attention was focused on putting one foot in front of the other. There was no noticing the scenery, no euphoric moments of bliss, just the simple reality of left foot, right foot, repeat...

It was a huge sign of relief to cross the final stretch of flat terrain before coming within sight of the finish. My legs were dying and so was my watch. The screen flashed "battery low" and all of a sudden I had a spark to try and get to the end before it ran out of juice. I went as hard as possible from about a half-mile out and just barely made it through the chute before the screen on my Garmin went blank. 7 hours, 10 minutes, and 4 seconds was the official time. More importantly, I finished my first ultra and became a marathoner and ultra marathoner in the same day. Post-race there were some nifty prizes for the age-groupers and great food. Emily and Davina put on an amazing race. I couldn't have asked for better organization, volunteers, and course marking.

Props to the winners of some fine Wilson Creek awards. You can't get much more "Owyhee" than these prizes. Great job to everyone that even came out and attempted to run in these conditions. For all those that completed their mission, there are surely going to be some fond memories as soon as the pain wears off. For me, that may be awhile...


  1. I dig the blog Tony! You did exceptional on the run. It was a brutal day indeed.

  2. Congratulations, Tony! What a terrific accomplishment.

  3. Great job in such terrible conditions...Why do we do this??

  4. I have to say that I am sad I won't be taking on the 50k again this year. I'm just too far away from being ready. Maybe I can do it in a glorified day hike this year?

    1. Update: I'm putting in some good miles and I think I'm going to at lease sign up for the 50k. If I'm not confident going in or the trail conditions are similar to last year, I'll switch to a shorter race.