This past week has been a bit nerve wracking to wait anxiously for the 2nd running of the Wilson Creek Frozen 50k. I'd been anxiously watching the weather, hoping for some kind of a break in the nasty inversion we've been dealing with in southwest Idaho. With no end to the inversion happening, it was sure to be a very cold and tough race, with temperatures more normal for Canada than Idaho. With the seriously cold temperatures hanging around for multiple weeks around here, I had plenty of time to test and retest my cold weather running gear, and come race day, I felt as ready as I could be to tackle the course at Wilson Creek.
On race day morning, I met my friend Ben Blessing at the Nampa Rec Center and we rode down to the trail together in his X-Terra. "Ultra Ben" has run 41 ultra marathons despite being only 28 years old; one year younger than myself. About halfway there we ran into some thick fog and the temperature dropped to -1 Fahrenheit. Shortly after hitting the fog, Ben's vehicle started making an ear piercing noise that sounded like feedback from a speaker but only happened when we drove over 40 mph. We finally got to the trails, ears ringing, and my toes were already getting really cold.
Check in was quick, and bunches of runners were waiting for the bathrooms. The temps outside quickly pushed my toes over the edge into the painful freezing category, so I decided to forgo the potty and just stay inside the check in tent by the wood stove. I made the right choice, because I made it through then entire race without having to stop for a pit stop. Race directors Emily and Davina began herding the huddled bunches of freezing runners to the start line shortly before the 7 a.m. start time, and the mass of shivering bodies reluctantly filed towards the road where an informal starting line was setup. A bunch of people already looked frozen, and my feet were getting really cold, though the rest of my body was just mildly chilled. I had dressed to be warm, if not maybe too warm during the assault on the mountain. I've ran enough through the winters to know that I run best when my body is warm and I tend to shut down when I get overly cold.
A few weeks prior, Ultra Ben and I had taken on the 20 mile loop of the course in very similar conditions. I was a bit under dressed, more like most of the runners that now surrounded me at the starting line, and I had a very difficult time running on the long sustained climb of the Wilson Creek Road between miles 7.5 and 11. To stay warm for the 7 hour race, I had a base layer from my former Hammer Nutrition "sponsored" days; a Hammer performance wicking t-shirt and Race-Ready Long Distance shorts. The shorts sport some nice pockets for storing gels or my camera if things got too cold in my jacket pockets. On top I ran with a Polarfleece cycling jersey that fit snug, but not tight and my old reliable Cannondale cycling jacket. I choose both of these items because I knew they would perform well in the extreme cold and because they have plenty of pockets to put food and some extra necessities. I used my Canari winter cycling/running pants that feature a windproof/water resistant front and lower calf area and a breathable yet cozy fabric on the back. Perfect pants for the temperature and the snow we were going to be running through. For my head I used a balaclava with a neoprene face mask built in and a Bula Polarfleece hat. My hands had two pairs of lighter weight gloves, for extra warmth and versatility in case I needed to vent heat at the top of the mountain which was above the inversion and warmer than the valley where we would start and run the majority of the race. I also threw on my fleece scarf that were the finisher awards from last year's race (complete with skulls!) to give me an extra barrier and options for heat venting as the race went on. I used this coming off the back of Wilson Peak where it was too warm for the face mask anymore but cold enough to want something covering my neck and chin.
For my footwear in the cold, I simply went with my Brooks Cascadia 6 running shoes, Swiftwick Aspire socks, and Outdoor Research Ultra Trail Gaiters. The gaiters were the bomb, keeping my ankles and feet somewhat warmer while allowing full range of motion and protection from the snow, ice, and grime that I would be running through. Taking off the gloves to empty a shoe would have been a really big bummer in the cold. The only downside to the gaiters was that I had to make sure my shoe was tied tight and right the first time, because once the gaiters were on, they are a bit tricky to get off, especially if one is on the verge of cramping in the later parts of the race. I also had a pair of Yaktrax Pro traction devices for the race, but I decided that I would keep them in my drop bag and not mess with them for the big loop. I suspected, accurately that I wouldn't need them until reaching the 10 mile loop where the trail was more packed down and icy. I don't think I missed them at all on the big loop. I had absolutely no foot issues at all (other than tired sore feet) during the race. Not a single blister or anything. I was absolutely thrilled with my footwear choices.
My goal was to minimize the amount of stuff I carried, so I left the Nathan HPL # 020 race vest in my drop bag and ran with only a 20 ounce handheld bottle. I put my food and first aid kit in my back pockets of my fleece. My camera went into my front handwarmer pocket so I could grab it quickly. I noticed later that it was banging into my hip, albeit ever so slightly, but it was beginning to hurt by mile 16 so I moved to the back jersey pockets as well. The fleece cycling jersey was perfect for going light and warm. The Cannondale jacket also had a back pocket so I could temporarily store my bottle if I got tired of carrying it (only once) or it got frozen (multiple times).
At the start, Ultra Ben played the National Anthem on his trombone, even as the below zero temps tried to freeze his slide in place and Emily gave us some last minute instructions. Anxious runners began growing impatient as Emily repeated the basics of not getting lost and making sure you grab the proof at the summit, but soon the shotgun was fired and the mass of ultra-fit crazies took off up the hill. I was content to start very slow, but the cold was really getting to my feet, and I decided to run hard for about 5-8 minutes to just get the blood flowing. I felt like I was running easy, but I knew I had started a bit fast so I eased up considerably at the first steep section near mile 2. I power hiked the steep climb through the first canyon, and trotted across the flats that make up the 3rd mile of the course.
After a short descent down a snowy off-camber side hill, complete with a short glissade down into a ravine, I settled into my hiking mode as I began the first real testing section of the course. From about mile 4 to mile 6 the course follows a tough jeep road up to a rough single-track descent. I kept leapfrogging a couple of other runners, but ended up passing at least one of them while being passed by several of the slow starting, more experienced ultra runners for good. I wondered if the people passing me were just running the 20 mile race or if I really started that fast? The descent carries you through yet another canyon with the rugged and beautiful Wilson Butte on the left and views of Wilson Peak straight ahead. I made good time through this section, feeling very much in control on the downhills even with lots of snow and some more off-camber sections. I caught up with a few of the more timid descenders and came into the 7.5 mile aid station feeling happy and right on schedule with what I hoped to consume liquid and calorie wise.
Last year, the arrival at this aid station marked the beginning of the slog through endless mud and misery, this year, it was a little more pleasant. The road surface was packed snow and frozen with good traction and little to slow you down. I realized that I needed to run this section conservatively due to my relatively fast start, so I was content to let a few people pass me without much thought. I didn't really gain much on anyone in front, and for the most part, I covered this ground efficiently but relatively quick. I hit the 10 mile mark for the race in just under 2 hours, a pace I knew was a little fast given my estimated finish time of 7 hours. The middle 15 miles of this race are the hardest. They involve a trip to the summit of Wilson Peak, a nasty steep downhill with numerous steep uphill grunts before you drop (quite literally this year) right off the mountain proper and into the high desert plateau. To finish off the middle section you climb up the Wilson Creek itself and up to the high point of the 10 mile loop. If there is an "easy" section of this race it is the relatively mild downhill and almost transcendent run through the lower Reynold's Creek canyon. This comes only after 23 miles of suffering so needless to say, the legs are shot by this point.
Back into the moment of the race, I continued maintaining a casual pace up to the summit of Wilson Peak near the 13 mile mark of the race. Overjoyed to be on top and out of the inversion, I stayed on the summit for a few moments, taking some pictures and chatting with a couple racers as they came up and grabbed the requisite "proof" of taking the full out and back on the course. Emily is always top secret about this, and this year she made us grab a little green army man out of a bag taped to the tower at the summit. I searched the bag for one with a flame thrower, but couldn't find one quickly enough so I reluctantly took a standard infantry man and stuck him in my pocket for safe keeping. Shortly after I arrived on top, Ben joined me on top and stopped just long enough to say hey and pose for a picture before taking off to smoke the second half of the course. It was now time to take on the challenge of descending Wilson Peak, which is tough enough in ideal conditions, but brutal with a layer of snow and ice covering the rocks and erosion channels that line the trail like land mines.
|(A good view of the inversion socking in the Treasure Valley)|
|(Closing in on the summit)|
|(The weather on top of Wilson can be extreme, this weather station was cemented to the ground...)|
|(Dennis Ahern running strong)|
|(Ultra Ben Blessing)|
|(Self portrait on the summit, I'm very happy...)|
I managed to run well down the first pitch of the descent, but after hitting the first "up grunt" on the downhill I was quickly thrown into the pain cave. I was going through my water fairly fast, and as soon as I got back into the inversion, the last few ounces in my bottle froze solid, rendering it useless. I could see Ben descending off in the distance and I knew that I had to move along if I was going to keep myself from getting cold and dehydrated. I think that the cold dry air was causing me to drink more than normal, which would explain why I went through so much fluid in 10 miles. At one point I was fiddling with the frozen bottle and I stepped on a snow covered rock enough to roll my left ankle and drop me to the ground. It wasn't really a fall, more of a drop as I momentarily thought the race for me was over. Fortunately, I got up, and after a few hundred yards, worked the soreness out. I never felt any more pain in the ankle during the rest of the race, so I guess I lucked out and dodged a bullet. However, my water situation was getting worse, as I started to really feel thirsty and dry. A few handfuls of very dry and icy snow helped a bit, but in reality, it did little more than wet my mouth. I knew that I was sweating quite a bit, but wasn't really soaked because all the moisture being pushed out through my fleece mid-layer was freezing in contact with the shell of my jacket and turning to snow. Every hour or so I'd pull my sleeves down over my hands and shake my arms to remove the ice from the arms of my jacket. Getting off the mountain and to the 2nd aid station was my priority and I was elated when I finally got there.
Getting to the aid station and off the mountain was a big lift and the food and fluid I was able to take in really helped me get going again. The high from being down the mountain quickly dissolved as I set off across the false flat that makes up the last 2 miles of the 20 mile loop and the final miles of the 10 mile loop and 50k course. I passed several 10 mile racers during this section and ran strong down to the finish/aid station/drop bag location. The Pulse Running and Fitness had a great aid station set up here ("Paradise") , and the owner of the Pulse, Holly, filled my bottles and offered some good encouragement. I haven't bought a lot at her store, but I certainly will now. I was grateful for her and her crew's assistance. It wasn't until trolling the Facebook pages later on that I even noticed the whole gang at her station was sporting beach body costumes over their winter clothing. Weird. How do you not notice that? Transitioning through this aid station took me slightly longer than the other stations did, as I wanted to grab a dry hat, neck gaiter, and my Yaktrax Pro's for the more packed and icy 10 mile loop. Ironically, I pulled into this aid station in the exact time I did last year and took care of the clothing, fuel, liquid, and footwear needs in less than 5 minutes. Last year I spent 10 or more minutes at this station, so I was happy to move relatively quickly through this major station. Unlike the big 20 mile loop, this section would be entirely in the inversion, so it was going to be very cold the whole way. The aid stations are closer together on this loop, so I was able to ditch some of my extra food and go as light as possible.
Leaving the finish area and starting the 10 mile loop is always tough and almost immediately after I left I hit a new low for the race. You start right away with a 3/4 mile climb and you have to face the daunting task of climbing the trail through Wilson Creek itself before you get to the high point of the loop. I was trailing a gal wearing an Air Force or Army Reserve jacket at this time and she kept me behind her for quite a while until I got myself together and started running again. I trotted along, fighting a bit of cramping, until I gained the last major high point of the race and the second to last aid station called "Rocky Road." I got hot water in my bottle and some Heed (awesome!) and started down the "Bingo!" trail, my personal favorite. The thing about Emily and Davina's races are that if there is an easy route and a hard route, you can always count on taking the hard route. However, to my surprise and delight, apparently the planned split off of trail w500 (Bingo!) onto w501 was too dangerous or not possible with all the snow, so we continued down the much smoother, although steeper, main trail. My ankles rejoiced at this awesome news and I was grateful to enjoy my favorite trail in the Wilson area with my legs feeling ok and my energy coming up after getting some Heed and Hammer Gel's at the last station. I came through the marathon mark of this course faster than last year, and was quite happy to get back to Stinson Station for the second and final time of the day.