I headed out to Colorado to visit family and run the Quad Rock 50 in the foothills of the Rockies, just outside of Fort Collins. Put on by ultrarunner Nick Clark, the race is a 25 mile loop run twice, the second time in reverse, mostly on singletrack, with 11,000 feet of elevation gain (and the same amount of downhill). This would be the race’s second year.
I hadn’t been to Colorado in 30 years, and didn’t know what to expect. I was startled by how flat it was. I didn’t remember that this is the Great Plains butting up against the Rocky Mountains. There are no hills – it just goes from flat prairie to straight up, with next to no transition.
The Great Plains are known for their storms, and after a relatively dry winter the weather had been stormy, snowing just a few weeks before, and thunderstorms all through the week I arrived. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up at the starting line at 4:45am, after an hour’s drive up from Denver, and a wake-up that was close to 1:30am California time. I was tired, nervous, and just a little bit cold. I realized I’d forgotten to stash trash bags in my drop-bags in case of rain. There were a lot of runners. The Race Directors gave us a short course briefing as the sun rose, and then we were off.
A few miles on road were enough for the runners to start sorting themselves out and getting in position. By the time we hit singletrack – a runnable, easy grade up through a meadow, with lots of passing room – positions and paces had been largely established and we all fell into place. All except Karl Meltzer, who was having a rough time, I guess. Karl and I played leap-frog until the first aid station. I passed him once as he was stretching against a tree or a fence. He sprinted ran past me a few minutes later and settled into a spot just in front, only to drop back, run forward again, drop back again…
Playing leapfrog with Karl Meltzer got me worried. I really should’ve been well behind him, even though we were only in the first few miles. As far as I could tell, I was positioned about right – towards the rear of the pack, with the 25 milers and the speedsters up ahead, but it was hard to tell for sure with such a large field of runners. My pace was a bit aggressive, but we were on an easy incline in a race that promised some long hard climbs. These were the stretches in which to pick up time lost elsewhere. My strategy was simple: take it easy for the first 25 miles, let anyone pass me who feels a need, and kick it into gear at the mid point and into high gear towards the end, not letting anyone pass me in the last 15 miles.
After a few miles of mostly non-technical singletrack we started the climb up to Towers, the first aid station. The trail turned into rocky truck trail, and the grade got much steeper. Towers aid station, mile 7-ish, was the last I saw of Karl Meltzer. My guess is he dropped there.
From Towers to Horsetooth Rock and back down was the most beautiful part of the course. It began with a long technical downhill on singletrack, with all the big rocks, roots, and, occasionally, “stairs” that give me such trouble because at 6’1″ my stride has to become unnaturally short to navigate some of these sections. The downhill bottomed out into aid station #2: Horsetooth Reservoir, and drop bags. There was no energy drinks being served at aid stations – just water – and so I’d mixed up my own little baggies of EFS and maltodextrin as refills.
Next came a long climb back up to Horsetooth Rock. On this climb, things started to slowly fall apart. My shoulders were aching, and my legs were starting to cramp. I wondered if it might be related to food. I’d not been able to convince my host/sister that it was important to eat what I normally eat and to load up on carbs. The discussions went like this: Sister: “Do you eat meat?” “Not so much, but yes, on occasion” Sister: “How about sushi?” Me: “Yes, but I really should eat what I normally eat before a race” Sister: “What is that?” Me: “I always eat pasta.” “Sister: “How about roast beef?” And so I went into the race low on sugars and fueled by protein. Could that be the problem?
I’d noticed a sore throat and a runny nose. They were both very apparent at the start of the race. I was tired. The stiff neck and aching shoulders were especially puzzling.
As the climb continued, the cramps got worse. My calf muscles were spasming, and the cramps moved down into my feet. I stopped to stretch and massage my legs a bit, and made a note to drink more and load up on bananas at aid stations. At the top of the climb I looked around and took in the beauty. This was really a stunning course. I also felt awful and started to realize I was done.
Colorado is more liberal with their permits than here in Southern California, and as a result there were close to 300 runners on the course. This meant we were more bunched up on the singletrack than I am used to in a race. I often had someone drafting behind me, which usually pushes me a little. I tried to get something going on the downhill but I had nothing. The cramps were getting worse, and this technical downhill run was going to be a technical uphill climb on the return. I remembered the Mt. Disappointment sufferfest of 2 years ago and knew I did not want to go through that ever again, especially on a training run.
And then it started to rain.
Unaware that my sisters were waiting at the Arthur’s Trailhead aid station, I blew through it without stopping. One sister called my name, but it was the one who’d lost her voice to the same flu I’d caught, most likely from her, and I didn’t hear her. I had 7 miles left to the 25 mile point, my body was not cooperating at all, my legs were cramping, my shoulders in knots, my throat sore, and my main goal in those miles was going to be to calm myself down enough so that I would not take out my frustration on anyone at the finish.
From Arthurs the trail headed back up, followed by some rollers, and then down. The downhill was one of the most runnable sections of the course, but as far as I was concerned I’d DNF’ed about 5 miles back, and was only on the course in order to get back to the start, so I took it extra slow. It was in this stretch that I began to encounter runners coming back on the second (washing-machine) loop. I was surprised that it was this far into the race. Towards the bottom of the downhill there started to be many more. If I hadn’t quit and had kept running, my position would not have been that far behind.
I often read race reports as reconnaissance. In that spirit, I’d like to describe the course as best I can. Unfortunately, I became so preoccupied with my cramps, soreness and weakness that I really didn’t take it in nearly was well as I usually do. Here’s the nutshell version: the course is probably 85% singletrack, with a few sections of rocky fireroad and, at the beginning/turnaround/end, smooth dirt road. Some of the singletrack is well groomed, very runnable stuff at a slight incline through meadows. Some is rather technical, rocky, and steep, surrounded by trees and, at the top of Horsetooth, spectacular views. It’s a tough course, but more runnable than the elevation profile suggests. The climbs, while long, are far from relentless because they switch directions, trails, and terrain, and for me those change-ups break up the monotony of a 3 – 4 mile climb. They keep me mentally engaged in the way that the long, tedious fireroad climbs of some Southern California races do not.
Weather can be a factor. Last year, runners dealt with thick fog, drizzle and snow. This year we had a beautiful, sunny-but-cool first half punctuated by a single brief thunderstorm, and a second half (for those who ran it) that included shower after shower, and a brief hail storm. California folk like me are used to long mild rain showers, but Colorado is still a Great Plains State, and the Great Plains are known in part for their short, sudden and violent thunderstorms. I’m told the course was very slick after the hail storm, and this slowed runners down, especially on the technical descents.
Race directors Nick Clark and Pete Stevenson put on a great race. The course was rugged, tough, and beautiful. It was also by far the best marked course I’ve run. This is important given my past propensity for meandering off course. I imagine I’ll take another shot at it next year.