Sunday, June 3, 2012

Dirty Thirty 50K Race Report

The Dirty Thirty took place in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, located about 15 miles west of Golden, Colorado on Saturday, June 2nd, 2012. Base elevation is 7800 ft. above sea level with rises to 9500 ft. The race reached its cap of 300 entrants.

Alex, my 21 year old son, and I arrived in pre-dawn light to a crisp but calm morning in the park. Megan, the race director made her announcements and sent us off to cover nearly every trail in 14,000 acre park. Alex and I were content to start near the rear of the pack as it ascended about 1/4 mile of dirt road before narrowing to single track and a steeper ascent where the runners backed up like grains of sand at the neck of an upside down hourglass. I live at about 5200 ft. above sea level in Boulder County and frequently run from that elevation to about 8000 ft. but I clearly noticed a difference in breathing effort starting out at the elevation.

This was the first 50K Alex and I had participated in; I suggested we pay attention to what other people do. I found myself hiking many inclines that I normally would have run on a shorter training run of 10-20 miles; I might have run them here too except for the increased effort to just breath and not knowing how conservative I was going to need to be to just finish. I found though, that after about 10 miles into the race I felt adjusted to the altitude. Alex and I ran most of the first five miles together, but he ended up dropping back a bit after the first aid station. I often found myself running in single file with four or five runners, but those groups would eventually disband, either because of the pace, someone having to make a pit stop, or people eventually sticking to their own pace. I often found myself pulling ahead eventually when I was in a group, but I was having a toe problem and would have to stop occasionally to adjust it and four or five runners would go by. I eventually removed the insole from shoe and the problem stopped.

The terrain for much of the course is brutal. Alex commented after the race that your hands shouldn't have to touch the ground on a run. He specifically referenced a boulder field at a summit of a climb around the 15 mile mark. A runner commented that he didn't realize a chalk bag would be necessary. I came to the realization as I hiked one steep grade after another that my legs were in shape for running up hills, not for hiking uphill. Clearly, it requires different muscles. I am also a bit spoiled with the surfaces I typically run on; I like the dirt to be packed, not sandy or gravelly; it can have as many rocks and roots as it wants to present, but to just run on sharp loose gravel, or just sand which was probably the most annoying, is less fun. Alex asked me after, "What was up with all the sandy trails!" He said he'd finally come to a flat area and he'd be slowed down by sloughing through sand, and not like at a beach but more like a children's playground.

I arrived at the drop bag aid station at 17 miles and could not think as to what to get from the bag. We had planned for any possibility. I figured that since nothing seemed pressing I would just grab a handful of random fuels and snacks. I enjoyed some of the fresh strawberries and watermelon and a turkey wrap thet offered at the aid station. I filled up my water bottle and continued on, but soon realized something was different; I seemed to be struggling. In hindsight, I may not have realized that it was a 1200 ft. climb up from the aid station. It was also starting to warm up. I drank my 24 ounces of water in the first 20 minutes. After reaching the top of the climb I felt that I was ready to run some downhill but I was soon jolted to a standstill by an incapacitating cramp in my right thigh. It cramped on one side, then the opposite, then a different muscle group, then its opposing muscles. Three or four runners went by, all asking if everything was OK. "Just a cramp," I answered. How could I say that this excrutiating pain was just anything? I figured it must have been low electrolytes so I started trying different snacks and fuels I in my pockets. I managed to go on and the same thing happened to the other thigh. Once I had worked through that my calves started to clench on occasion. I remembered reading blogs by ultra runners who spoke of rough periods in races and getting their composure and working through it; this helped, and I got through it. From this point on I hardly sense a runner ahead or behind.

All the aid station, check point, and road crossing people were great. At the fourth aid station around mile 25, I mentioned to a young and knowledgeable volunteer (clearly a runner) who asked how I was that I had had cramps earlier and he was sure it was from dehydration, not electrolytes and suggested I drink a full bottle of water before leaving the station and take another with me. I drank almost two bottles and headed out with a full bottle feeling that six more miles was easily doable. I began to run much more at ease. It seems the same aid station attendant loaned the jacket he was wearing to Alex when Alex mentioned being cold from running in the rain and he said to just leave it at the finish. I had asked how I was doing for the cut-off time. I had no idea what time it was. I had to be at a certain check-point by 2pm or they wouldn't let me run the loop up Windy Peak which was about five of the last 7 miles. They told me I had an hour and half to spare; it was only 12:30.

This part of Colorado is where many of the big thunderstorms that head out over the plains develop. By the time I had reached this aid station they had already been developing right overhead for about an hour. Much of the lightning didn't seem to be coming to the ground but it was still rather unsettling. I felt relatively comfortable in the lower areas but there were starting to be many more close ground strikes as I ascended the rock face of Windy Peak. During the loop around the backside of the peak the wind picked up and the storm moved off to grow and menace the plains. The check point at the peak had been moved a bit off the summit by the order of the Park Service. It wasn't by much, but maybe more protected in the trees.

I had barely made it back down from the peak to a narrow valley below and a bigger storm kicked up. I was worrying about Alex at this point. Would he be on Windy Peak dodging lightning bolts or would they have halted him from going up, maybe waiting out the storm? I headed up out of the gulch to an exposed ridge, now running soaked in a heavier rain and actually finding myself running with my head lowered, maybe thinking if I weren't the tallest thing on the sierra I wouldn't end up as a chicharrĂ³n. Finally I started the descent from the ridge; it was one of the few descents that I could comfortably run. I let my legs stretch out and I probably looked like I was running pretty good to Alex who was sitting on a cooler under a tent by the time I entered the finish gate at 8 hrs. 23 minutes. The last check point did eventually prohibit runners from climbing Windy Peak due to lightning. He had made the planned cut-off by about an hour but not the lightning cut-off. He ended up running 4.9 miles shy of the 50K.

I feel pretty good today, almost normal until I go down stairs. The lower thigh muscles above the knee are a bit tender. Alex says he felt like he was hit by a truck and that it's painful just shuffling around. In training for future ultras I will do more hiking where I typically run steeper inclines just to train those muscles. I also need to make some treks to run at higher elevation. Running at five to eight thousand feet above sea level would be good training for most of the planet, but I'm convince that for running at even higher altitude it is advisable to run at the given altitude.

No photos. No Garmin data.


  1. Big time congratulations, ultrarunner :D

  2. Sounds like a perfectly challenging and successful ultra! I wonder if you might experiment with S-caps on training runs to deal with the leg cramps and sodium/potassium issues?

  3. I did take an S-cap at mile 17, ate dried apricot (quite high in potassium) salted almonds, Nuun tablets, gels, sport beans, and bananas along the way. It's hard to imagine that was the issue. Having enough liquid to make it all accessible to the system seems plausible.

  4. Awesome job! Congrats! Way to go toughing it out on what sounds like a challenging course!