The Ultra Adventures Capitol Reef 50 Mile…Speechless!

Alright, so I might not be speechless now that I have had some time to reflect back on the race this past Saturday, but that is the right word to describe the constant awe I was in during this race.  Capitol Reef was a newly added race this year and number six out of seven in the Ultra Adventures Grand Circle Trail Series.  I have always promoted the races that Matt Gunn, the Race Director for Ultra Adventures, puts on.  Mainly because of the beautifully diverse venues that he chooses, the amount of care he puts into each race, the emphasis he puts on appreciating the surrounding environment, and his overall emphasis on the total experience.  Each one of his events is truly unique and Capitol Reef is no exception.  As if taking place on the doorstep of one of the most diverse National Parks in the United States wasn’t quite enough, the race takes runners up and across the Aquarius Plateau, the highest plateau in North America.  With over 20 miles (in the 50 mile course) taking place above 11,000 ft, this course was a lung burner.  Add to that constant technical trails covered with boulders, water crossings, and uneven terrain and it provided quite the adventure.  So how did I do?

My family and I got there on Friday afternoon and setup camp about 2.5 miles away from the Start/Finish area.  I must say, having our new popup camper has made a world of difference.  Look at this view!

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The 50 mile race was slated for a 6:00am start on Saturday.  It began at the 100 mile turnaround point at Chriss Lake and ran back to the Start/Finish area, which meant we had to catch an early bus shuttle to the start line.  Thanks to a rather timid bus driver that was obviously not comfortable driving a rickety bus up a mountain, we didn’t get started until 6:30.

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Photo Credit: Davy Crockett

The trail started on some nice single track at about 8,500 ft. and immediately began a steady climb up toward the plateau.  Nearly half of the gain of this course was in the first 10 miles as we worked our way up to the plateau.  I settled in with a group of fellow Wasatch Mountain Wranglers on the way up (thanks for the company Kendall, Steve, and Jerrod!) and we were rewarded with some pretty great views right from the beginning (even though some early morning storms clouded the sky):

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I felt pretty good heading up to the first aid station at 8.5 miles, although it was a bit chilly (I was thankful that I chose to bring arm sleeves at the last minute).  Shortly after leaving the aid station, we were greeted with a climb up this cattle trail.  Now I don’t know how, cattle do it, but apparently this route is used to get the free range cattle up and down the plateau.

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PC: Sam Jewkes

This was the most technical section of the entire course, but I can honestly say (which most of us did not expect) that the rest of the course was nearly as technical, particularly on top of the plateau where rocks and roots were a common theme.  After making our way up this for about a mile and a half, we reached the plateau.  Still felt good physically, but the altitude was definitely getting to me early (curse me for not getting enough high elevation training in) and I would end up fighting it for all but the last five miles.  I hung with Kendall, Steve, and Jerrod for a while longer until Kendall took off ahead after about 15 or so miles.  Before he took off though, he managed to capture this epic shot!

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PC: Kendall Wimmer

The plateau was simply amazing.  When not greeted with great ridge overlook views of Capitol Reef, we were running by numerous lakes and through mountain meadows.  I honestly wish I could put this in to words.  It was sensory overload in the truest sense of the word that almost made me forget about the fact that my body was over 11,000 ft in the sky and starving for oxygen.  Perhaps a few more pictures can help describe it although they still don’t do it justice.

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Photo Credit: Steve Frogley
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Photo Credit: Steve Frogley
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Photo Credit: Kendall Wimmer

Now I will say, if I had one complaint about the race, of which they were hard to come by, it would be that the course flaggings up on the plateau were not frequent enough.  This section of the Great Western trail up on the plateau is not very frequently traveled.  As a result, the trail was difficult to pick up at times, even with cairns, blazes, and flagging leading the way.  With the many twists and turns worked in, I think the runners would have benefited from double the flags on the plateau.  I know many people got lost up there…feedback that Matt will definitely consider for next year.  Even so, it was generally easy to tell if you got off course (at least during the daylight hours) and pretty easy to get back on track.  Moving on, as I continued to run with Steve and Jerrod, I started to have feelings of dropping at about mile 18.  The lack of oxygen must have been impairing my judgement.  🙂  Luckily, I cruised in to the Chokecherry aid station at mile 21, which Kelly and Jo Agnew were running.  I admit that seeing them lifted me up a bit.  Considering Kelly, being the badass that he is, it is hard to justify any non-injury reasons for dropping.  They fed me bacon and I decided pretty quickly to keep moving on.  It probably also helped that the remote nature of the course made it a pain to drop…not to mention I was dying to see the rest of the plateau.  Just in case I had any further spells of the doldrums, I decided to stick with Steve and Jerrod and did so until the next aid station at Fish Creek, which was the 50K point.  The company was nice and helped to take my mind off of my constant heavy breathing.  They actually stopped at Fish Creek to do some fly rod fishing (in my opinion, this is the most bad ass approach to running a mountain ultra there is) while I continued on.  The 50K point is always a major milestone for me…I knew that if I could move on from there that I would be over the hump and would be able to push through.  This held true as I didn’t have a feeling of dropping once after leaving there.  After departing Fish Creek, I moved past more lakes along some rolling ups and downs before beginning a steady downhill for the last six miles to the finish.  The transition of the surrounding was stunning as we moved from the forests and meadows of the plateau back down to the red cliffs that surround the finish area.  I got my legs back under me as the technical terrain started to disappear and was able to pick up the pace considerably for the last 2-3 miles.  It helps when you have this to run toward:

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I crossed the finish line in 12:33, which was good for 18th overall.  That should tell you how difficult this race was.  With a more positive spin, the difficulty of the terrain did give me extra time to enjoy this gorgeous corner of Utah for which I am grateful for.

So to summarize…this race physically destroyed me.  I came in a bit more run down than typical on race day, which was definitely a factor, but my primary issue was most certainly the altitude.  I have never been great with it and it is something I continue to try and solve.  Simply put, it was the toughest 50 mile race I have ever done.  All of that aside though, it was also the most gorgeous, visually diverse and stunning race I have ever run.  There is not one part of the course that I did not swoon over.  I cannot emphasis enough to those of you reading this that you should either run this race in the future or find some time to travel to the area on your own and visit…it is amazing!  I have been on most of the Ultra Adventures courses and this one was my favorite by a considerable amount.  The Capitol Reef area seems to be overshadowed by its neighboring parks, but I hope more people find the time to experience it…or wait, maybe I don’t!  😉

Thanks to Matt, the UA crew, the volunteers, and my fellow racers for such a wonderful, memorable experience.  Thanks to my family for once again coming down and supporting me…my #1 fans!  Thanks to all of my sponsors for embracing my journey and supporting me along the way.

What I Used:

  • Shoes: Salomon Sense Mantra / Scarpa Tru (switched at mile 31)
  • Injinji Trail 2.0 Socks
  • Orange Mud Vest Pack 2
  • Gargoyles Breakaway sunglasses
  • Headsweats Go Hat
  • Garmin Fenix 3
  • Honey Stinger Energy Chews

Ultra Adventures Capitol Reef Trifecta Update:

One of Ultra Adventures’ main objectives is to take every event and turn it into an experience.  One of the ways they promote that is with their Trifecta Challenge.  Each race has 3 additional routes that you can do, in addition to the race itself, that highlights key aspects of the surrounding area.  For those that do it and take a picture with their bib at a certain spot, Matt will even reward you with a discount on future races.  As a UA Race Ambassador, I make it a point to hit as many as I can in the time that my trip affords.  This time, I attempted to head out to Cassidy Arch inside Capitol Reef National Park, but the access road was closed due to the rain throughout the week so my family and I hit both Hickman Bridge and Chimney Rock as an alternative!

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If you like this post and would like to stay up to date when future gear reviews, race reports, and other related posts are released, please follow my Facebook page at Ultrarunner Joe!

The 2015 Grand Circle Trail Series: Beauty That Only Your Own Eyes Can Appreciate!

Overview

I have been all across the country (39 states and counting) and can honestly say that there is no place quite like the Southwest in terms of natural beauty.  Within the Southwest is an area known as the Grand Circle.  Encompassing portions of five states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada), the Grand Circle contains America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments.  There is no shortage of beautiful vistas, break-taking canvases, and zen-like feeling in the Grand Circle.

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The mission of Ultra Adventures is to give runners a chance to immerse themselves in their passion on one-of-a-kind courses throughout this area. As you will come to understand, Ultra Adventures is about much more than just organizing races, but let’s look at the event line-up first.

The Races

For 2015, the lineup consists of seven events, all giving you its own unique taste of the Grand Circle.  I have provided a description of each event, a link to its detail page, and a link to sign up.

Antelope Canyon – February 21 (Sign up here)
This race is located near the Arizona-Utah border, near the town of Page.  It allows you the opportunity to experience two of the most photographed land features in the United States: Antelope Canyon and the Colorado River’s Horseshoe Bend.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 55K, 20K.
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Monument Valley – March 13/14 (Sign up here)
Situated within the Navajo Nation on the Arizona-Utah border, Monument Valley features amazing formations that reach over 1,000 feet into the sky.  You will likely recognize these formations or “monuments” from the hundreds of movies that have been filmed in this desert backdrop over the years. Vibrant colors and dramatic shadows cast along the valley floor as you move along the course.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 50K, 25K.
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Zion – April 10/11 (Sign up here)
Located in Utah adjacent to Zion National Park, this course gives you fantastic views of Southern Utah’s desert landscape.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 50K, 25K.
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Grand Canyon – May 15/16 (Sign up here)
This race is run in Northern Arizona within the Kaibab National Forest near the entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The route traverses the famous Kaibab Plateau and links into the scenic Rainbow Rim trail, which takes you along several spectacular lookout points.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 50K, 25K.
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Bryce Canyon – June 5/6 (Sign up here)
Located in Southwest Utah, this scenic, mountain course runs along the western edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, offering spectacular views above and below the hoodoos. The race is run at high elevation, with most of the miles on this course situated between 8,000 and 9,000 ft.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 50K, and half marathon.
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Capitol Reef – July 10/11 (Sign up here)
Located in Southcentral Utah, near the city of Torrey, this race begins at the red cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park. Soon after, you will be cruising singletrack through the pines and aspens along more than a dozen high mountain lakes, topping out on the tallest plateau in North America at over 11,000 ft.  It offers four distances – 100M, 50M, 50K, and half marathon.
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Tushars – July 31/August 1 (Sign up here)
Located at Eagle Point Ski Resort, just East of Beaver, Utah, Tushars is the highest, most challenging course in the Ultra Adventures line up.  Runners will summit 12,000 ft. peaks and run ridgelines among a thriving mountain goat herd then drop down singletrack into vast, glaciated valleys spattered with abandoned mining ruins from the wild west.  It offers four distances – 100M, 93K, sky marathon, and half marathon.
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Here is a great video overview of the Grand Circle Trail Series from UA:

The Experience

Ultra Adventures events preach “the experience”.  They don’t want you to come to the area, race, and leave like you do with so many other events out there.  They want you to experience everything that the area has to offer.  For this reason, they created the Trifecta Challenge.  This is a collection of three routes that you can take, in addition to the race itself, that highlight some of the beauty of the surrounding area.  These challenges are unique to each course and are meant to encourage you to turn your race weekend into an extended stay vacation.  This is especially beneficial for out-of-town racers that may not have another opportunity to visit the area in the near future.  As an added bonus, your participation will earn you discounts on future Ultra Adventures events.  The discount is based on whether you complete the criteria for one, two, or three of the routes.

A big part of the experience also involves protecting these areas so that future generations can enjoy them as much as you undoubtedly will.  For this reason, UA events also promote environment and social responsibility.  Here are some highlights of how they accomplish this:

  • All events are zero waste, with less than 1% of event trash making it to a landfill.
  • Solar polar is used for all aid stations and race operations.
  • 80%+ of all aid station food is organic.
  • Extensive support of local businesses, organizations and artisans (including the awesome handmade finishers awards (each is unique)

The Challenges/Series

As further encouragement to experience everything about the Grand Circle, Ultra Adventures offers a number of mileage challenges and combo-course series.

Runners that sign up for the Spring Slam Series or the Run Elevated Series will receive a 20% discount off of their total race entry fees when registering for all four at the same time and a special hand made award for completing it.

Those that complete a mileage challenge will receive a special hand made award.  The great thing about the mileage challenge is that it can be completed over multiple years, allowing you to spread your races out#

Conclusion

What Matt Gunn and his team are doing at Ultra Adventures is truly unique and amazing.  He has created this opportunity for runners to see, experience, appreciate, and respect some of the most naturally beautiful places on our planet.  As an Ultra Adventures Ambassador, I fully embrace the idea that we should not just enjoy these treasures, but protect them.  I think this is a mindset that many trail runners embrace in some form or another.  As such, I think you would be missing out if you didn’t experience at least one Ultra Adventures race in your lifetime.  Until you do, you truly won’t realize what you have been missing.

If you like this post and would like to stay up to date when future gear reviews, race reports, and other related posts are released, or you have questions on any of the Ultra Adventures races, please contact me and/or follow my Facebook page at Ultrarunner Joe!

Race Report: Squaw Peak 50 Mile

The Squaw Peak 50 is considered to be the hardest 50-mile trail race in Utah and is rated as the third hardest in the United States (based on average finishing time of its racers); even finishing it is quite an accomplishment!  Last year was my first time running it and it ate me alive!  I finished last year in 13:44 and I was beat to hell afterwards.  I poorly trained for altitude leading up to the race and had bad blister problems during. But I am not about complaining or making excuses; this year was about personal redemption! There was no way I was NOT signing up again for this years race. So instead of whining, I learned from 2013 and went in this year aiming for HUGE improvement. Squaw Peak 50M Course     Such a beautiful loop courseSquaw Peak 50M Elevation Profile Crazy elevation!

The race starts at Vivian Park, about 6 miles up Provo Canyon.  After a surprisingly good night of sleep and a cool, but not overly cold morning, I was feeling ready to go.  The course starts with a 2.1 mile stretch on a wide, paved trail before it turns up onto the trail and heads up the canyon.  This section is used to spread out the crowd before hitting the single track.  I felt really good in this section and got out to a quick start, settling in somewhere around the top 25-35.  I wanted to get out early because it is hard to pass on the climb up, which definitely worked out well because it was a lot less crowded on the first 8 miles.  Despite jumping out early, I had to stop and take in the view at times because as the sun is coming up around mile 5-6, the views are absolutely breathtaking! SQ50M2014-1  The City of Orem and Utah LakeSQ50M2014-2I think this might be the City of Provo

I was definitely in cruise control and feeling great.  I ran into a former co-worker at about mile 13 who was in the early start group.  He said I was probably in the top 20 at that point.  I knew that wouldn’t hold as I didn’t think I could sustain my fast start, but was glad to hear I had a bit of a cushion to work with.  I continued on my way for the first 26 miles or so and was just taking in the beautiful scenery…it was largely uneventful at this point.

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Shortly after jumping off of the pavement around Hobble Creek I was still cruising and hit the 27 mile mark in about 5 hours, which I was ecstatic about.  Even though the course difficulty is backloaded, I was feeling good at hitting my goal of 11-12 hour finish at this point.  Like every good plan in a race of this distance though, you are likely to hit a snag.  Somewhere around mile 29-30, I felt a slight tweak in my left glute, which felt like a minor pull.  This forced me to shorten my stride a bit, but I was still able to power through it and continue on.  My climbing was still strong through this point, but I was slowing down a bit on the flats and downhill since the shortened stride was limiting my speed a bit.  I continued to chat with people as I encountered them.  Had a couple people pass me at this stage, but was still feeling in great spirits – enter the second snag!

Right around mile 36-37, we start making the climb to the highest point on the course, which ends with a 1600 ft. climb in about a mile and a half between mile 39 and 40.5.  This is also the longest stretch between aid stations on the course, so I was being cautious with my water by holding off on drinking so I didn’t run out on the big climb.  As it turns out, I was a little overly cautious (my only misstep strategically on the course) and, when combined with the rapid altitude gain and fatigue of already running 40 miles, I started to get a really bad side stitch that reduced me to speed hiking until I could get rid of it.  I ended up hiking the flats/downs from mile 40.5 to the Windy Pass aide station, chugged a bunch of water, then hiked the next 1.5 miles downhill until I dropped below about 8000 ft.  I got passed by about 10 or so more runners in this section, including my boys and fellow Wasatch Mountain Wranglers Tim Shupe and Nate Younger.  Despite the issues, they were relatively minor.  Constrast this with last year, where I had to stop and sit for nearly 40 minutes due to altitude sickness.  At least this year I was always able to keep moving!

SQ50M2014-4 Some avalanche carnage!

More water and hiking to lower elevation ended up being just what the doctor ordered as I was able to run again once dropping below 8000.  I am a notoriously bad downhill runner that is susceptible to rolling my ankles, but despite this, I was still able to throw down some sub-7:00 segments.  I did hike through some of the more technical sessions just to be careful since fatigue was making me a little sloppy, but tried to run every section where I was comfortable with the terrain.

After hitting aid station 10, the final stretch is a rolling descent down the canyon road back to Vivian Park.  I LOATHE this section of the course.  There are few things that suck more than nearly 4 miles of pavement after already running over 46 miles.  I left the aid station with Ironman Triathlete Brian, who was running his first ultra (on his 40th birthday).  I asked him what was harder, and he quickly replied “with this course profile, this was harder than both of the the Ironmans that I finished”.  I will take his word for it.  We ran together for this whole stretch to the finish.  He was grateful for pacing him that last 4 miles…anything for a fellow runner!

SQ50M2014-5 About to hit the pavement for the last 3.5 miles

The best part of finishing (besides being done) is seeing my wife and two daughters cheering me on.  They are so supportive of what I do and I am glad I have them.  As is tradition, Ellie and Kate took me across the finish line.  Watch the video here!  My finish time was 11:32:05 for about 50.9 miles, which is right in the middle of my goal for the day and a crazy 2 hours and 13 minutes off of my time from last year.  To top it off, I felt infinitely better than last year.  I truly love that I get to do this stuff!

Now time for thanks.  Of course, thanks to my family for being so supportive during my training and racing.  Thanks to Josh and the team at Orange Mud for supporting me and letting me run in the new HydraQuiver VP2 (available for sale soon).  See my gear review coming shortly and swing by their site, OrangeMud.com, to view and buy their products! (Use discount code THEMANJOE for 10% off) Thanks to all of my Wasatch Mountain Wrangler friends.  Your support on and off the course helped me immensely!

What I used:

  • Orange Mud HydraQuiver VP2 hydration pack
  • Salomon Sense Mantra
  • Garmin Fenix 2 GPS watch
  • Tailwind Endurance Nutrition mixed with water
  • Honey Stinger waffles
  • Headsweats race hat
  • CEP compression calf sleeves