This past weekend I completed my first ultramarathon and and am no longer a trail runner wannabe! This was the first time in a very long time that I’ve gone into a race with serious questions about whether I would even finish, but *spoiler alert* I made it! I will separately write a post about what I wore, carried, ate, drank, packed, etc. for this ultramarathon in the mountains, but here are the normal post-race deets…
Location: Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Golden, CO. Approximately 45 minutes from Boulder or Denver. The race occurs between 7,500 to 9,500 feet above sea level.
Time of Year: First Saturday in June at 7 am (6 am for early starters like me!)
Logistics: I did the Bayshore Marathon the weekend before this race and decided to fly straight to Denver from Michigan. I wanted to give myself some time to settle in, pick up my packet before race day (although race-day pickup is available), etc. I arrived on Monday night and stayed with friends in Denver until Thursday. Then I headed to an Airbnb in Boulder. I picked up my packet on Friday during the day at a running store in Golden. For race morning, early starters were instructed to carpool with two other early starters. I used the Ricky Rides tool on the race website to find some fellow runners. We met at 4:30 am in south Boulder and headed down to the race start. As early (6 am) starters, we were able to park at the race start. For others, there is a parking lot at the park with shuttles. I reluctantly shed my layers, dropped my drop bags in the designated areas, and strolled over to the start line. Easy enough…
Course: This is a 32-mile loop course with approximately 7,500 feet of elevation gain and 7,500 feet of elevation loss, all between 7,500 and 9,500 feet above sea level. The race is entirely on trail, mostly single-track, through aspen groves and pine forests, and up and down mountain ridges. The trail was more rocky and more technical than I expected for out west. There are a few sections in the middle of the race that require some very mild scrambling. Everything was well-marked, which I appreciated because I am the WORST navigator ever. There were also a surprising number of volunteers and spectators on course cheering us on and helping us navigate. There were five fairly evenly spaced aid stations with water, electrolyte drinks, soda, cookies, chips, potatoes, candy, pickles, popsicles, PBJ, pierogies, etc. etc.
Swag/Post-Race Party: As a first timer (or “sisu,” roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance), I was given a green bib, and if I finished in under 10 hours, I would be awarded a “sisu” hat at the finish line. The special green bib was great, and I found volunteers and fellow runners to be extra-supportive. It was encouraging to see so many other green bibs and to know I was in the company of other newbies, just trying to survive a day in the mountains. Lowlanders also receive a special bib and, if they finish in under 10 hours, a special hat. (Lowlander first timers can pick which hat they want.) All racers received a soft, short-sleeved commemorative t-shirt, snacks at the aid stations, and food/beer at the post-race party (BYO plate, fork, cup). There were also educational events leading up to the race and some other perks, such as discounted training plans. Awards were given for overall and age group winners, plus a few fun awards such as best blood.
How It Went: Let me back up for a minute. I signed up for this race because when I was in Colorado last year, several of the folks I ran with had mentioned that they were doing it. Just before I registered, I briefly checked the website, which advertised that the course was tough. I assumed this was standard ultrarunning marketing lingo. This is a sport where challenge is a selling point (I mean, just look at the names: Georgia Death Race, HURT, Mountain Masochist, etc.), so of course the race would be advertised as brutal — they all are! I also casually saw that the race had what I read to be about 7,500 feet of elevation change (up and down). I assumed that I would divide that by two to find out expected elevation gain… And those were my first two wrong assumptions about this race. Two months before the Dirty 30, I took a look at the detailed course info on the website and realized to my horror that the course had 7,500 feet of gain and 7,500 feet of loss. Then I read some other race reports and found out that the course was rocky and technical and almost all uphill or downhill. Oh, and at altitude of course. In a panic, I hopped onto the VHTRC website to try to find something ANYTHING to train on that would begin to mirror these conditions. Luckily, it turns out Maryland Heights has a pretty similar profile. My first run there, a mere 13 miles, felt like death. A couple of weeks later, I did one other run there, only 10 miles. I paced myself better, and settled on a strategy for race day — walk all the inclines! Although I would have loved to have logged more trail time, Dirty 30 waits for no one. Before I knew it, it was race-day-eve. BQ stresses aside, it’s been a while since I’ve been nervous about a marathon. But, boy, I was nervous for this! Ultras are totally different than road races, and I was nervous about potential digestive issues, blisters, cramping, bonking, etc. during my expected 10 hours on course. The night before the race, I checked the previous split times for folks that had run the race in 9 hours and little over, and planned to use that information to gauge my progress between aid stations. On race morning, I opted for the early start so that I had no pressure about the time limits. At 6 am, we were off! I loved the first several miles as the early starters fell into a common, conservative pace. I even found another 50 stater! At Aid 1 (mile 5.2; 1 hr, 12 minutes), the group I was with stopped to chat for a bit longer, and I decided to move on alone. I had a blast through some winding, runnable sections of trail, only rolling my ankle once, and took in the views. I kept walking all the uphills. I scrambled up to at Aid 2 right on schedule (mile 12.1; 2 hrs, 55 minutes). I was getting a few hotspots on my feet but kept on trucking. I had spare socks and a blister kit at Aid 3. I also knew once I got to Aid 3, I was more than halfway through the course. But the challenge was just beginning. As I neared Aid 3, my feet hurt more and more. When I arrived (17.5 miles; 4 hours, 36 minutes), the volunteers handed me my drop bag, and I took a seat to work on my feet. I put on some hydro-colloid second skin on my emerging blisters, covered it with adhesive moleskin, and hoped for the best. I felt immediate relief but unfortunately it didn’t last more than a few miles, probably because the adhesive wasn’t sticking to the lube I’d used on my feet that morning. After Aid 3, there was a long, hot, exposed climb. I reapplied sunscreen. I was getting a little worn out, with the excitement and exhilaration of the morning worn off. My stomach gurgled a little and I silently prayed to the Patron Saint of Not Barfing. I kept walking the uphills and trying to jog along the flat and downhill portions, even though my feet were tender and I was nervous about my stomach. Non-early starters continued to pass me through this section, always giving words of encouragement. (Seriously, like, every time.) I focused on getting to Aid 4 (same location as Aid 1), where I knew I would see one of my friends who was captaining the aid station. I used my split cheat-sheet to predict what time I’d get there, and when the trail looked familiar, I knew I was close. I was eager to be done, with my internal odometer carefully calibrated to 26.2 from my 23 previous marathons, but after Aid 4 (25.2 miles; 7 hours, 1 minute — still right on pace), I’d face the most challenging part of the course: after 28 grueling miles, I’d have to go up Windy Peak, a 1,000 foot exposed climb. It started to sprinkle as I trudged up the mountain. The light rain felt good, and I was grateful that there wasn’t any lightning. The trail leveled and I reached a junction with a volunteer. I figured I was at the top of the climb. Finally! My mind prepared to descend. Uh, nope. The volunteer optimistically told me that we had 0.7 miles to the top. UGH. That 0.7 miles felt like forever. The summit would never come. One foot in front of the other. “Nice work. Nice work” to the dozens of folks descending, who had already made it and were on their way back down. I kept myself from asking them how close we were. Instead we exchanged knowing smiles and eye rolls and groans. Finally, I was there. I didn’t even stop to enjoy the view. (By far my biggest regret of the race.) I got my bib scanned and turned around. I tried to keep pace with a few other women, gingerly picking through the rocky trail. Each step burned my tired, battered feet. Knowing it would cost me some time but that I was still likely to finish in under 10 hours, I decided to walk some of the rocky descents and the few remaining uphill sections (yes, there was still more uphill!). I stopped and took a few final photos. I jogged the spots where the trail was kinder and ran it in at the finish line. Final time: 9:23:58.
Overall Impression: This race will hurt. It will not be fast. You may puke. Or roll your ankle. Or fall on rocks. You may curse Windy Peak and even, for a few hours, you may desperately miss the roads. But if you’re OK with all that, this one is a LOVE IT. The race is well-organized (thanks to race director Megan!) with awesome support for first-time ultrarunners and lowlanders alike. If you are craving a new challenge, check it out.