As I drove down the road at 5:30 in the morning, on my way to meet a couple of friends for the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50K race, I reflected on how not nervous I was. I’d even slept great that night! I felt at peace inside, and was excited to see some different sections of trail that I’d never been on. I was just looking forward to the run and viewing it as any other long run. I was going out to have a blast, no pressure at all. In fact, I’d signed up for this race at the last minute to celebrate my friend Becky’s birthday, which was the day of the race. So this was a have-fun run all the way.
In the past I would always have some kind of caffeinated foo-foo Starbucks drink (one of my favorite things to drink!) before a run. I have noticed, however, an odd feeling of… not right, when I do that, and sometimes a messed up run. So on this day I had a non-caffeinated foo-foo drink, plus a breakfast sandwich, plus a scone (a girl’s gotta eat). My buddies, Matt and Kathi, rolled in. We had this picture taken with our rockin’ socks, while we were still clean.
We arrived at the start line just after the 50 mile racers took off. Going to check in, I was happy to see my friend Michelle volunteering at registration! She handed us our bibs, and then we just hung out with friends until it was race time. The morning was chilly (for me and my hot-weather self), but I decided to go sans sleeves. I figured the running would warm me up, plus the day might get warm, and I didn’t want to be carrying them. A few minutes before the gun (horn), Jamil, the RD, announced it was time to line up.
So here’s where the story really starts. I started out WAY too far forward in the chute. I knew this, but decided, “Eh.” Countdown… Go! And I was running WAY too fast. I knew this, but again decided, “Eh.” I knew I was going to blow up, and, you guessed it, “Eh.” Running at a 9:30-ish per mile pace for the first 5.5 miles, I felt great. I was having fun, the course was easy, and I just rolled with it. Since I was out to have fun, I really didn’t care about blowing up later, I knew I’d finish somehow, it just might not be pretty. Oh! I never saw my friend Kathi after the horn went off (Matt and I stuck together for a while though). She was GONE. TOTAL ROCKSTAR. I found out later that she took third for the women, and this was her very first 50K!
I started to slow myself down a little about a mile outside of the Escondido aid station, the first aid station. I think I grabbed something really quickly to snarf down, but it was too soon to really need much of anything at that point. Walking out of the aid station, Matt and I stayed to the side so people could pass us. We were now on the Pemberton Trail. I do not like this trail. It’s wide and fairly uninteresting, and the direction we were going was a constant, steady climb, but not steep. However, I’ve run this trail enough that I am familiar with it and knew where I was and how much climbing there was, so I held a fairly steady pace up, stopping to walk once in a while. I felt great and was having fun!
We hit the Granite aid station, aid station number two, with little fanfare. I knew the next aid station was about 11 miles away, so a volunteer was kind enough to refill my pack for me. We ran into our friend Ila at this aid station and talked for a little bit. It was nice to see her friendly face. At this aid station I ate a little more. I walked out of the station carrying fistfuls of food: bean burrito bites, a potato with salt, and Pringles potato chips (I told you, a girls got to eat, don’t judge). While I stuffed my face, Matt and I walked some new trail. As I stepped over knobby sections of plant, I wondered if Jamil had just bushwhacked a trail through the desert. However, after about a quarter of mile, we actually came to a signed intersection, showing we had been on an actual trail. Jamil told us later that he thought that section of the trail was maybe just a few months old.
This next section of trail? Priceless. Having completed putting food in my stomach, I was ready to run again, and this part of the trail was GREAT. It was single track, with cool scenery, and rollers (rollers are gentle rolling mounds, not hills) and twists for fun. The rock formations dotting the landscape were epic; some were covered with moss, or with lichen. They stacked up and around each other like giants had been playing dodgeball. Unfortunately, Matt wasn’t really able to enjoy this section because he started to have a really hard time with his ankle (he has suggested, on numerous times, that he should just chop it off). In fact, he hadn’t run the entire week leading up to the race because of his ankle. He told me he needed to stretch for a bit and that I should just go, so I did.
I laughed quite a few times at the sheer joy of running through here, especially as I rounded corners to then tear down a hill! Eventually, the trail hit Pemberton Trail, and then I was about half way done with the race.
The town of Fountain Hills, which is just south of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park where this race was held, has a huge fountain, spraying about 560 feet up, that goes off every hour for about fifteen minutes. This fountain can be seen for miles around, and is easily viewed from the park. The first time I saw it during the race I went to turn around to point it out to Matt, forgetting he wasn’t with me. That sucked.
I don’t mind running the backside of the Pemberton Trail too much. It’s at the base of the McDowell Mountains, and relatively flat with just a few rollers, so I picked up the pace a little. It was here that I started to catch a few people. I think I caught one or two on Pemberton itself. After a few miles, we turned off of Pemberton again onto Coachwhip Trail, and I caught a few more people who slowed down on some climbs. I was once again in new territory. On Coachwhip and onto Windmill towards Windgate Pass we rolled along on some slightly rougher terrain as we made our way towards the mountains. I caught my friend Brad here, and we chatted for a bit.
The course elevation profile showed that we had one big climb. I wasn’t quite sure where it was, but figured I’d know it when I hit it, which I did! I practiced my “ultra-walk” up Bell Pass. I kept looking out behind me because the view out over the valley was beautiful. It’s interesting to me how soft the landscape can look from up high. We know the desert is covered with things that want to poke, scratch, bite, or otherwise maim us, but from up above it is like a painting.
At the top of Bell Pass I began to feel my blow up from going too fast at the start. Coming down Bell Pass would normally have been my “jam”: my thing. It’s a steep, fun downhill section with all kinds of rocks to hop over. Unfortunately, this is where my dear friend Schnebly (my side stitch) decided to make his presence known, and I began to feel fatigue running down my legs. So I went down the hill like a normal person instead of crazy person with an apparent death wish (for clarification, I don’t have a death wish, I just really, really like running really, really fast down hills). Also through here, I began to feel… off. I had now been running with a solid effort for a little over 4 hours and knew that I had better eat something at the next aid station if I expected to finish this race.
At the Dixie Mine aid station, a volunteer once again refilled my pack. I don’t remember what all I ate there, a bunch of things. They had little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and of course, the requisite potatoes and salt. I know I ate those things because I walked out of the aid station with them. I desperately did not want to eat. Both foods were just “blech” in my mouth, but I forced myself to swallow them. I was glad I did because after a few minutes, I felt immensely better. I allowed the food to settle as I walked to the top of the hill out of Dixie Mine, where I started running again. The blow up was becoming, well, more. Thankfully Schnebly had bid me adieu, but now the fatigue in my legs was quite defined, and every now and again, I had to walk as one leg would attempt a bit of a buckle underneath me. But somehow, I was still in great spirits! I was seriously having such a good time, even with all the fatigue and cramping, and whatever it was going on in my legs. I just slowed my pace and kept a running motion as much as I could. Through here, I chatted with a nice man who was from Calgary, Alberta. He told me he’d been warm that day, which amused me. I knew instantly that he wasn’t from Arizona, since most Arizonans would have been cool! He told me about past times he’d run this race, and one of those times getting lost in the desert. It was nice talking with him.
I continued my running motion to the Gate aid station, which was the fourth and final aid station. I grabbed a bite, probably a potato, and left. Just out of there, my friend Brett caught me. He was running the 50 mile race and looking strong! By now my running motion had many hitches in it, but that was okay. I knew I had only about a 5K (just over 3 miles) left to finish. The trailed rolled and I rolled with it. Crossing through a giant culvert, I knew I was getting close because I’d gone through that culvert in races past. I climbed up one last steep hill and at the crest I could see the finish line about half a mile down below me. I did my best to run, crossing that last half mile as fast as I could. I crossed the finish line in 6 hours, 22 minutes, and 44 seconds and had gone just over 31 miles. This was not my fastest 50K time, but I felt really good about it.
Throughout the race I compared how I was feeling then with how I felt on my first 50K, the Pemberton 50K, from two years earlier. It was incredible how different everything was. At that first race, I wanted to die for the entire second half of the race. My legs felt like lead, and the only thing that kept me going was watching the feet of my friend Dawn in front of me. What a difference 2 years and countless mountains and trails has made. I actually had FUN at this race! This difference is exciting, and has me incredibly excited for my next 50K at Black Canyon.
After the race, I changed out of my stank clothes, ate an amazingly delicious pizza that absolutely hit the spot from Freak Brothers Pizza, and hung out with friends. We discussed our race and how it went, what we thought, how we felt, what we saw. As I mentioned earlier, Kathi placed in this, her first 50K! Matt finished strong on his bum ankle. Brad finished strong after getting through stomach issues. This was my new friend Jon’s first 50K and he absolutely killed it! Ila finished strong, ready for her next race, (which was the next day). Brett got second place in the 50 mile! Erin had a solid, good race. Miguel set an incredibly epic PR! He later had a brilliant idea to start a campfire, so we collected wood. I was informed that my wood-gathering skills are “legit”. It’s nice to have your skills be recognized.
At the end of the day, Matt and I started tearing down. I’m afraid I was useless. I don’t know why Jamil keeps allowing me back to volunteer. By the time it was dark, I was down to a turtle-paced hobble. I had no strength left in my upper arms to lift anything. My back and shoulders were done. However, I still had a great time tearing down- I’d never done that before and it’s amazing to see how much work goes into putting on a race! I give serious props to all RD’s everywhere. I also had the joy of watching the last 50 mile racers come across the finish line, all going strong, all with big smiles on tired faces.
I can’t wait to run this race again. It was a great day, with great views, and great friends!
* As usual, the pictures aren’t mine.
On the McDowell Mountain Frenzy Course