Monday, September 8, 2014

2014 Tommyknocker Ultras 50K - All This To Win a Bottle of Whiskey

I wanted to win the bottle of whiskey. That's what I decided 30 seconds into this race. More on that in a second.
A happy day in the mountains!
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

I had chosen Tommyknocker Ultras 50K in Woodland Park, Colorado as a fun end-of-summer race with some challenge to it. I then trained very little (relatively) in August for this level of challenge.
Race shirt

Tommyknocker Ultras 50K and 100K was an inaugural race up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains sorta near Pike's Peak. It was rolling hills, nothing too big, but totaling up to 5100 ft of gain and loss in about 34 miles (a "long 50K"). The race starts at about 7700 feet, quickly rises to about 9000 ft and then stays around there the whole race. The course was fairly nontechnical - ATV dirt roads through and around Pike National Forest.

Because the 100K started at 2 am (we started at 8 am), it was nice to know that even on my slowest day I was going to make the 12 hour cutoff. Race week I learned how small the event would be - ultimately 35 starters in the 50K and another 6 in the 100K.

Friday night was the race eve dinner (included in the entry fee) and trail briefing by the race director, Sherpa John. I just happened to be standing next to someone in a Bandera shirt, I struck up a conversation, and I had found another Texan - Michael from Houston!

In the race briefing, we were warned that the grade of the road would be rough - too steep to run comfortably but not steep enough that walking would seem incredibly slow. We also learned about the DFL awards and the special orange rock on course.
The "Dead F*cking Last" award was a little plaque if you were the last to finish in your distance, and it came with a comp entry for any of their races in the next year. Also, there was a bottle of 100% corn moonshine whiskey at the last aid station 3.5 miles out for everyone to enjoy if they wanted out there. The very last overall finisher would not only earn the DFL award but would get to take home whatever remained of the whiskey. 
What a fun idea and an awesome souvenir. I started to think maybe that was worth aspiring too (especially as these small races tend to come with a pretty fast field of competitors).
The bottle of whiskey in question.
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

The special orange rock was a rock spray painted orange that would be placed on the course. If you carried the rock with you to the finish line, you received a check for $250. Later we would find out the rock was about 3.5 miles from the finish and weighed about 25 pounds!! Someone had taken it to earn the money by the time I got there so I was able to see it at the finish. Another fun idea!
The Special Orange Money Rock -
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

35 minute drive back to my hotel in Manitou Springs where I was sure it must be beautiful but all I had seen so far was clouds covering the mountains and rain!

Race Start - Miles 0 to 3.5

An 8 AM start with a small casual race meant that I felt like I had a TON of time in the morning. I parked in the tiny parking lot and stood around in my jacket in mid-40s temps chatting with other runners and volunteers. It was a beautiful clear sky but there were strong chances for thunderstorms midday. The problem with a race at altitude with clear skies when it's in the 40s and you'll wear a jacket until right before the start? I was braindead and forgot to put on any sunscreen!! Last minute someone had a bottle of it to pass around and I put a little on my face quickly.

We start the race with Sherpa John hitting a rock with a pickaxe. Pretty fun way to do a "gun start".
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

Within 30 seconds I found myself firmly in last place. Yes! The DFL award WOULD. BE. MINE! I knew I was undertrained, I knew the course would climb about 1300 ft in the first 3 miles. So let everyone else go out too fast; I was here to enjoy the whole day!

The first 0.78 miles was on the main dirt road before turning into a campground to move to ATV trail road. A race vehicle trailed behind me since I was the last runner, but I was actually getting really annoyed as I felt they were sticking way too close. Back of the packers know more than others what it feels like to have a sweeper or pace vehicle breathing down their neck! I was happy when we hit the campground, and the vehicle ceased its chase.

The woman in front of me (later learning her name was Nicholette) was always just about to cross over the next ridge every time I caught a glimpse of her in her bright orange shirt. Her shirt matched the buff I wore around my wrist. We had been warned that we needed to wear something bright, preferably blaze orange, because of the bow hunters that would be in the woods. We were also warned about gunshots we would hear, and I did hear them all day long, but they weren't hunters, they were people doing target shooting.
Nicholette at the top of one of a bazillion hills on this course

We shared the trail with the occasional vehicle heading to or from a camping area, infrequent race vehicles, and lots of ATVers and dirt bikers. Everyone was super courteous.
Lots of cambered road the whole way

I passed a cute little grove of aspen trees amid all the pine ones and snapped a picture.

3 miles in I finally came to a clearing high enough where I had a 360 degree view of the beautiful day.
Climbing up to the clearing

I took a picture of the mountain to the south, not even realizing at that point that it was Pike's Peak.

At mile 3.5, I came in to the whoops and hollers from the volunteers and added my own, "DFL, baby!" I saw the bottle of whiskey I hoped to take home, grabbed a stack of 8 Pringles, and was immediately out of the aid station. With carrying a full pack of water, I was able to only have to fill it TWICE in 34 miles - at miles 13 and 21.

Miles 3.5 to 8

You could tell we had a lot of rain the last week because there were huge puddles in the road.

I was surrounded by lots of pine trees and aspens, along with a whiff of honeysuckle I think I caught once. Everything was green, and the sky was so blue. I passed a couple creeks and could hear water often in the early miles.

I ran things that were downhill or slight uphill, and I walked everything with a discernible uphill grade. I knew this constant up and down was going to wear down my glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves over the day, so I stayed conservative. My goal wasn't to run fast and hurt a ton; my goal was to enjoy the experience. Especially after two 100 mile attempts this year, I'm still needing some happy trail time to offset those hours invested.

The climb into the next aid station was a doozy. Play spot-the-aid-station in the pictures (hint: red canopy tent).

The area all around this aid station had been the location of a big wildfire about 15 years ago.

Miles 8 to 13

At mile 8 (Haymans), I saw my friend Steve who was volunteering at the aid station. In my goal for DFL and ultimately the final finisher to take home the whiskey, I asked how many 100Kers remained. I felt like an elite: "*huff huff* how many ahead of me? How far behind am I?" Except the COMPLETE OPPOSITE. Steve told me another had just dropped and 3 were out there. The way the course worked they were doing 2 extra loops from his aid station before completing the last 24 miles with the 50Kers, so my goal was to be passed by 3 100Kers now.

Pre-race Sherpa John had told us two runners in the 100K had turned wrong and added a bunch of miles, resulting in one upset runner heading home and the other who called it quits but was starting the 50K with us that morning!

Steve told me at the aid station that now I could finally see Pike's Peak with the clear day. I said, "But I don't know which one it is!!" The locals laughed. He pointed out the big mountain to the south. The view from his aid station was one of the best of the day.

I wanted to stay on top of calories so I pulled out a snack size ziploc from my pack, and we filled it with potato chips. I posed with a picture with Steve, who by the way I hadn't seen since we ran Gorge Waterfalls in March 2012, and headed out.

An uneventful next 5 miles of more curvy rolling dirt road to bring me into the Phantom Creek aid station at mile 13.
I think someone said this was called Signal Butte. Our trail went to the left. Not up it, thankfully.

I caught Nicholette here and informed her she needed to hurry up because I wanted the DFL award. A man who was just out in the park came up and asked if there was "like a 10K race or something going on?" Nicholette and I burst out laughing as the volunteers explained the mileage of the races that day. The next stretch to come would be the longest of the day at 8.7 miles so I pulled out another Ziploc from my pack and stashed two Snackwells devils food cookies (delicious when I snacked on them later!)

Miles 13 to 22

From here, Nicholette and I began to leapfrog a lot this next segment. She was always ahead, and then I'd catch up, and she'd head off again. We chatted a little, but I explained it wasn't easy to chat on uphills for me if I expected to breathe at all! A mile out from the next aid station, and we were run/walking together at this point, pretty even. It was her first 50K. Actually her first race over a half marathon distance!

A guy named Ricky I had met that morning suddenly comes up on us. He tells us that 6 of the 50Kers had gotten lost and gone an extra 8 or so miles. 4 of them had dropped out. Well, that was alarming and would take Nicholette and me into a state of hyper vigilance for searching for markers.

We had a big steep descent followed by a big steep ascent in the middle of this section. My plans to equalize the total average time with a faster downhill were completely squashed when it was all loose gravel going down. And then we had our first creek crossing, where I mostly avoided wet feet, before ascending. The second of the lost 50Kers who continued passed us here along with a guy who was just being a safety runner out checking on everyone on course. We'd see him again later at the last aid station.
Bottom of the valley
Tromped through a little grass to the left and mostly avoided wet feet.

The altitude really didn't bother or affect me, except on the climbs. I would just get winded a little too easily, and the steeper ones I would get the slightest bit of a headache. I took that as a good sign that the 4 weeks in the altitude tent sleeping at 10,000 feet had worked well!
Pike's Peak again

About a mile or two out from the aid station, a volunteer came out on his mountain bike to greet us and chat as we made our way in. I remembered John from pre-race when we were all standing around chatting. We had laughed as he had worked to figure out how to use his Jetboil to make coffee. Super nice guy.
My bike escort
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)
First a little rain, then suddenly one of the loudest thunder claps I've ever heard. We all jumped! Then the hail started, and I was happy I had my shell rain jacket tied around my waist and my hat on. I put on the shell - regardless of any other actions that day, a big goal was to keep my core warm as the rain would chill me and the temperature would drop.
Dark clouds rolling in

The hail wasn't too painful unless it came at an angle and hit my legs. It only lasted about 20-30 minutes and was fairly small pieces. It finished just as we pulled into the Magnum aid station at mile 21.7. I happened to recognize a guy I knew through Twitter, Jerry, here. That was a fun out-of-the-blue introduction. Nicholette seemed to be spending a little longer at this aid station so I headed out alone. While the previous section had been the longest, this next section wouldn't be short at 8.25 miles (which I swear was actually almost 9 miles).
Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

Photo credit: Human Potential Running Series (From Their Facebook Page)

Miles 22 to 30

It continued to rain on and off for the entire rest of the race. Just a short bit after the aid station, the race moved to a more isolated section of trail. No ATVs or other vehicles seemed to be allowed here and there weren't camping spots so it became very quiet. I was descending into a valley on twisty narrower dirt road. I stopped for a quick potty break which is definitely the opposite of quick when you're a girl ... With compression shorts on.... And am soaking wet from rain.
Sky cleared up for a few minutes

The flagging started to get more infrequent, and I started seeing yellow CAUTION tape rather than the orange flagging tape we were supposed to be watching for. Was this for something else? Isn't Caution a warning to maybe not go that way? These were the out loud conversations going on. Then I spotted another orange flag and let out a strong descriptive phrase of relief.... And then back to yellow Caution tape! Maybe this was last minute reflagging from moose eating flagging or vandals! I was desperate for something definitive and knew I had about 5 miles in the right direction before the aid station would provide it.

It was here, between my potty stop and slowed pace in determining what route to take at each intersection that Nicholette came around a corner and see me ahead in the valley and yelled to me. I waited back a bit. I did a water crossing that soaked my feet (with 10 miles left in the race). I then yelled back to tell her about a hard to see single yellow ribbon at the next intersection. I then made another water crossing. Nicholette yells up to me "We were only supposed to have two water crossings TOTAL. That was our third. Are we on the right path?" She echoed the negative thoughts in my head. My anxiety level was high. I really wasn't in the mood for bonus miles.

I waited back, and she caught up. We went on together playing "spot the orange (or probably yellow, and we hope they're for us) flags" as we went. Oh look, a yellow flag in the middle of an intersection. Left or right? Ugh? At the top of the ridge we see both paths came back together. Wasting time for no reason deciphering flags, but how could we know that? We discussed staying together because two sets of eyes were better than one.

Nicholette pulled out her phone to see if it had enough signal for a compass reading. We were going due north. I knew the map and general route and knew we were supposed to be heading north and would eventually intersect the course again.

A mile since our last orange ribbon, and we pass a camping site. Nicholette yells hello to the people sitting outside. One guy yells back, "you're on the right path." He said several had come through as lost and concerned as we were. He yelled something about in a mile but we couldn't catch what he said.

A mile later of playing "spot the infrequent yellow flags", we reached another dirt road intersection with a spray-painted orange arrow. THIS is what we were looking for. Something definitive to say we were in the right place.

A mile from the aid station, we started the panic again. Around every turn, no aid station. But it was supposed to be 8.2 miles, maybe even less by GPS on the Gamin! Finally at 8.7 we came upon the last aid station, Manchester Creek.

We chatted with the two guys. We talked about who was left out on the course still. Supposedly the two 100Kers were still behind us. Especially now that I knew I would not be taking the whiskey home, Nicholette and I both decided to do a swig of it.

According to the aid station, we had 3.7 miles to the finish. Funny how tenths of a mile become important when you're tired. I insisted as we moved forward that it could only be 3.25 miles by GPS because this was an out-and-back in the race, and I measured it at the start to that aid station.

Miles 30 to 33

Mostly downhill on this out-and-back section of the course. Nicholette didn't remember any of it from when we came through at the beginning of the race.

My friend Steve drove out and happened to meet us 0.25 miles to the finish. After the last aid station, Nicholette and I had decided neither of us would make a final sprint for it and would stick together at this point and cross holding hands. Two DFLs.

We crossed the finish line as we planned right about at 11 hours. Nicholette had completed her first ultramarathon. Once Sherpa John confirmed we were the last 50Kers, he agreed to make another DFL award. As the non-local, I took the one that already existed home. Nicholette would get delivered the new one. And he was cool with letting us each have 50% off a race next year, versus one comp entry. Very very cool.
The finisher item at top is glass and a magnet.
And then the DFL Award Plaque (view from around Mile 8 on the course).

Final Stats?

  • 100K – 5 Starters and 3 Finishers (60% Finishers Rate)
  • 50K – 37 Starters and 26 Finishers (70% Finishers Rate)
  • Finish Time: 11:04:00

And the whiskey? Ultimately, there were two 100K finishers after us. So no whiskey bottle souvenir for this adventure. But it was a fun distraction on what I set out to make a fun race.

My legs were so completely tired from the up and downhill, my feet felt pulverized by the hard surface, and my toes and toenails ached from my feet moving around in my shoes on all the hills. And I had the sunburn too. But I had so much fun, enjoyed the full day, and spent the day in some of the prettiest scenery I could choose for that weekend!


  1. I like the idea of the orange rock and the whiskey bottle. Sounds like a cool race.

  2. Sounds like a really cool race and fun day. I can't wrap my head around 34 miles on trails in one day spanning over a full workday, but your race reports kinda make me want to!