With COVID-19 still wreaking havoc on the US, there was part of me that worried that Last Call 50 wouldn't even happen at all. But race director (and friend) John LaCroix made sure that there was a detailed protocol in place that would keep runners and volunteers safe and healthy. Part of that was implementing a wave start, with groups of about 20 people each starting the race at 11:40pm, 11:50pm, and then midnight. I was in the 11:50pm grouping.
As we lined up to depart from the South Park School track, I told myself one last time, "You've got this." So many questions had been swirling around in my head leading up to the race. It had been over a year since my last ultra, and I'd been battling some ankle and foot injuries during that time that have never quite fully disappeared. I'd found a terrific coach in elite ultrarunner Matt Daniels, who had helped quiet a lot of my doubts and get me into arguably the best shape of my life, but there was still that little voice in the back of my head that kept whispering, "Are you sure?"
And then, as if he knew I needed a moment of levity, John called out, "Where's Joe?"
"Uh, I'm here," I peeped out from the back of the starting line.
"Everyone, Joe is your spirit animal out there today. Don't let 'em quit, Joe."
Unsure what to say to that, I chuckled, "Hey, what did I do!?"
The race began, and we set off into a pitch black night and an open sky full of stars. I stole so many glances at that huge twinkling sky in the first few miles that I'm surprised I didn't trip and fall flat on my face! Underneath that blanket, I settled into the back of the pack of runners and put one foot in front of the other. Those first few miles of the race are a gradual climb up a dirt road, and I knew I'd be toast if I let the early race adrenaline get the best of me. The headlamps of the runners in front of me gradually faded away, and I silently gave myself a pat on the back for an easy, intelligent start to the event.
On that first gentle ascent, I also realized that I made the right choice in sticking with running shorts and a t-shirt and leaving my longer layer stashed away in my pack. The temperatures all week had been very hot and dry, and the start of the race was no exception. At midnight it was in the 50s, which is crazy warm for the high country at night. But you never know what to expect in the mountains, and the weather up there can change in seconds, so I made sure that I had options just in case.
And speaking of not knowing what to expect, this was only my second taste of trail running at night (the first being a couple hours at Black Canyon 100k last year). I was reminded just how different...and just how HARD.... it can be! The contours of the trail just sorta wash out under a headlamp, and my clumsy ass was tripping over every rock and stumbling through every divot.
At Last Call, the first aid station, Poor Man's, comes pretty quickly at mile 3.2. My water was still pretty full at that point, so I sorta zipped through, stopping long enough to thank the volunteers. From there, the race leaves the washboard dirt roads and dances through a densely wooded single track trail. This is where the neon pink trail markers became absolute life-savers, and I relied heavily on them just to navigate through the woods. John marks his races well, but he doesn't over-do it, so you really need to stay alert and vigilant for those important trail markers! A lesson I would learn the hard way, as fate would have it.
For instance, at the first water crossing at Beaver Creek, I missed the fact that there was a line of pink ribbons leading to a log bridge in the darkness, so I just trampled right through the creek. Wet feet have yet to really bother me during a run, so I wasn't too concerned about it at the time. My shoes and socks dried out during the gradual climb up to the Jungle Hill aid station. The trail was still pretty smooth at this point, so I was able to comfortably trot along for most of it. I took stock of my water at Jungle Hill and decided that I still had enough to get me the remaining 4 miles to Trout Creek aid, so I had a quick piece of quesadilla from the amazing volunteers there and continued on my way.
It wasn't until after filling up my soft flasks at the Trout Creek aid station at mile 11.6 that the trail became a bit rockier and harder to navigate in the darkness. That was also the point at which the night's first significant climb up Little Baldy began, so I narrowed my focus and buckled down for the effort. Looking at the elevation chart in my mind, I knew that this climb was gonna get real steep just before mile 14. And sure enough, we turned a corner and I saw headlamps twinkling way above me as the trail veered pretty much straight up! It messed with my head a little bit, my climbing muscles were burning, and I may have muttered some gentle expletives.
Descending down the other side of Little Baldy is where I made my first and most critical mistake of the day.
I was so happy to be running downhill and so eager to see Alex at the Tarryall aid station that I wasn't paying close enough attention to those life-saving pink trail markers in the darkness and I blew right past a crucial turn. There had been a huge sign with an arrow and everything. It probably read, "50 Milers Go This Way. Joe, That Means You, Dumbass!"
I got half a mile in the wrong direction before it dawned on me... Have I seen another runner in a while? It's a little too dark. The pink ribbons are still here, but this doesn't feel right. I got out my phone, where I had saved the interactive race map on the Human Potential Running Series app. Sure enough, my little dot was about half a mile away from the correct trail. There was even a little marker on the map that said "50-Milers, DON'T go this direction!" Well, guess what direction I had gone?
Now, if I had been smart, I would've shrugged it off, turned around, and easily paced my way back to the proper junction. But it was dark, I was lost in the woods, and I had worked myself up into a panic. So I ran much too quickly back to the trail junction where I had missed the turn. Like...10k pace. Big mistake. By the time I reached the Tarryall aid station, my legs were starting to really ache. Suddenly my head was swimming. I was angry with myself for missing a very clearly marked turn. Instead of pausing for a bit to eat some real calories and clear my head, I just kicked myself for a few minutes, refilled my bottles, grabbed a couple gels, and left. I was starting to get a little cold, and needed to find a positive head space, so I thought it best to just keep moving.
The sun finally began to come up on the climb back out of Tarryall and over Little Baldy. I thought to myself, "How many times have you heard stories about how sunrise can turn things around? It's about to get much better, just be patient." And it took some work and some positive self-assurance, but by the time I reached Jungle Hill aid station again, I was feeling like a million bucks. I had some potato chips and began the climb up Crooked Creek, full of renewed optimism and energy. During that climb, as I was giving praise to other runners I encountered, they all commented about how strong I looked, which made me feel even better about reclaiming my can-do attitude. At the top of the ravine, we turned around and got to enjoy a nice rolling descent into Poor Man's aid station. I ticked off some relatively quick miles on this descent, and was able to encourage a few runners along the way, which is always a nice little boost. Things were going just perfectly, and I was feeling like an absolute machine!
The return to Poor Man's aid station was my second opportunity to check in with Alex again. By now, the afternoon sun was in full effect, and things were heating up quickly, so I changed into a tank top and applied a healthy dose of sunblock. I knew from studying the course ahead of time that the I still had a big climb up to the Silverheels Mine ahead of me, but my confidence was soaring at this point. Alex later told me that I seemed more focused going in and out of that aid station than she had ever seen me. I was out to
Boy, how quickly things can change in an ultra.
The heat of the day became a factor and really slowed me down on the climb up to High Park aid station. The sun at 11,000+ feet is just relentless. At every creek crossing on that climb, I used my buff as a sponge and got my head and face as cold as I could before continuing on. My water bottles were drained pretty quickly, and I was starting to regret not having consumed more calories throughout the event. The trail continued straight up, until it finally broke treeline and flattened out a bit into High Park aid. I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated, so I switched from plain water to an electrolyte drink in my bottles to try to counteract the sweating that I was doing in the heat of the day. The gentle climb up from the aid station to Silverheels mine was mostly hiking for me at that point. I was 44+ miles deep into the event, and worried that my energy had just been too sapped to do any more running. But I also knew that the last 9 miles of the race were mostly downhill. So I agreed to let myself hike for now and took in the stunning views of the majestic mountains that surrounded us up there.
On the way back down, I topped off the bottles with more electrolyte drink (which had really helped me get my legs working again), thanked the volunteers at High Park, and began the descent to the finish. I looked at my watch. It would be a super close shave, but my halfway decent runner's math told me that my sub-14 hour goal was still within reach if I really pushed hard on the final descent back into town.
As I had hoped, my spirits were lifted by the downhill running. My legs were suddenly feeling great again, and I was determined to finish strong. The trail had a few really rocky sections that slowed me down, but otherwise it was smooth sailing. Time to hit the gas and leave it all out there!
My final 4 miles were the fastest of my race. At one point, John pulled up next to me on his ATV and shouted, "Damn, Joe, you're looking great!" I had to chuckle, thinking back on all the adversity I had faced during the event. Whether he meant it or was just being encouraging, hearing him say that so emphatically helped me find the rocket boosters for the final kick. He rode alongside me and we chatted for a while about life and work and stuff. I count myself lucky to call him a friend.
I made the final turn back onto the South Park School track, did the victory lap, and crossed the finish line in 13:50:04. My missed turns had added almost 3 full extra miles to my day, so the fact that I still managed to hit my time goal was a huge surprise. I can't help but wonder if I could've broken 13 hrs without the mistakes...
But at the end of the day, I wasn't out there for the time goal. I was running to silence those voices of doubt in my head. To do some good solid work on my mind. To be a spirit animal to others who needed help getting through the low points. To face the literal darkness and watch the sun rise. To face the darkness within and learn some hard fought lessons.
There really is nothing quite like it.
Enormous thanks to Sherpa John and all the volunteers who put on a tremendous race in these crazy times and made everything so perfect and so special all weekend long. Thanks to my coach Matt Daniels for bringing me back from the dead and getting me into form with his enthusiastic guidance. And of course, thanks to my lovely Alex for being just the most incredible partner and crew that a guy could ever wish for.
Now...onto Javelina this Fall!