So, this is a really, really late race report. Here it is October, and this race was in July. But I've been thinking about it ever since. I wrote some parts of this post right afterwards, and some of it more recently. In some ways it was sort of difficult to write. But here goes.
On July 16, I ran the Angel Creek 50 mile race outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Some parts of it went really, really well. And some things just fell apart. Long story short, I scratched at mile 30. But I'll give you the long story.
The Angel Creek 50 miler was my first ultra, and it was a doozy. The website says it has over 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and it was right. I trained for it as much as I could, given work demands and family stuff. I had to squeeze training around real life. Luckily, my family seemed happy to ride their bikes alongside me when I ran occasionally, which let long training runs do double duty as family time. By the time of the race, I felt well prepared distance wise, but not so much as far as elevation goes. All of the mountain runs I had done had turned into mountain crawls. This race would be no exception.
I took off work the day before the race, and we all drove up to Fairbanks. We camped at Twin Bears Camp, which is at mile 30 of the Chena Hot Springs Road, and not coincidentally, where the race started. We figured (correctly) that staying at the same campground as the race start would make things much easier with an early start time. Twin Bears Camp has several rustic cabins and we were able to pick one that was about 20 feet from where the safety briefing, drop bag dropoff spot, and race start were located. The camp has a kitchen, where I was able to get everything sorted and my Camelbak filled. The only downside to staying at the camp is that all the beds were twin bunk beds, and sleeping in the same room as my husband but in a different bed was a little weird. Not that I slept much. It poured all night long, with great huge buckets of rain, thunder and lightening. I probably spent 3/4 of the night wondering if I would run if the weather was still that bad when I woke up. Luckily, it wasn't, so I didn't have to decide.
The first 15 miles or so was on dirt trails, with mostly rolling hills. Those miles went by pretty quickly, and I kept a good pace. I had figured out the average slowest possible pace to still make the cut off at mile 42, basically 18 minutes per mile. The first 15 miles, I averaged about 13 minutes per mile, and I felt pretty confident about making the cutoff. I knew there were some more difficult miles ahead, though, and kept pushing. I was pretty close to last, but through the first 15 miles, there were two other runners that I sort of leapfrogged with, Travis and Karen. When the terrain started getting steep, however, they pulled ahead for good.
After about mile 15, the trail quickly became steep and my pace slowed significantly. I really have trouble maintaining a decent pace going uphill. I knew this about myself already, though, which is why I worked hard early in the race to stay ahead of schedule. I climbed and climbed, and eventually the trail, such as it was, bounced along the tops of the domes (big round hills) for several miles. That was easier in the sense that I wasn't going up and up for long periods of time, but harder because of a couple of factors. One was that the trail essentially disappeared into a fairly barren landscape of unstable rocks and lichen. This made moving quickly difficult for an entirely different reason: uncertain footing. The other thing that made it difficult, and was decidedly the biggest factor in my DNF, was that up on top of the domes, it got FOGGY.
On top of the domes, where there was literally no trail, there were rock cairns meant to guide hikers/runners through the domes. In addition, the race crew placed little pink flags to mark the course:
I had a Garmin Vivosmart HR, but Travis had lent me his Garmin Fenix 2, which has GPS, and displays a map, with the race course already programmed in. However, we didn't meet up so that I could learn how to actually follow the little map. I was wearing it though, hoping that if I needed it, I could figure it out (this hope was in vain). I probably looked pretty silly though, with a Garmin on each arm:
I managed fairly well until halfway through mile 23. There was no trail, and the fog had gotten really bad. I had been inching my way along looking for cairns or pink flagging. I got to the top of one hill, found a pink flag, and could not see another flag no matter which way I looked. I walked as far as I could in several directions without losing sight of the flag at the top of the hill, with no luck. I finally decided that the course probably kept going down the opposite side of the hill that it had gone up, and headed down, hoping to find a flag at some point. I didn't. After walking downhill for some time and not seeing a flag, I decided to go back to the top of the hill where I knew there was a flag, and try again. I had gotten almost back up to the top of the hill, and saw a dog coming towards me out of the fog, from across the hill to my left. I sidehilled in the direction the dog had come from, and found his people. They were the course sweepers. They were also picking up all the flagging and were heading down the hill I was going back up. They had already picked up the flag I was looking for.
I had been doing fine as far keeping myself under control and focused on the job until that point. But when I realized all that, I was just overwhelmed. Not only was I happy to see them, I also realized that if their dog hadn't found me, they would now have been ahead of me, REMOVING THE FLAGS I NEEDED TO FOLLOW. I would then have been well and truly lost. At that point, my throat completely closed up, I had to fight to not cry, and that was it. My confidence was gone.
I followed them the rest of the way through the domes and the fog. There were times that it took all 3 of us to find the flags, with one person standing as far as they could from a flag while still being able to see it, and another person going far enough that they could just barely see the person that could see the flag. Even with that, it still sometimessed took several minutes to find the next flag. There was no way I could have found my way through the rest of the domes by myself. The fog was just too dense. In addition, by that time, I was exhausted mentally, and really struggled to keep going at all. As we came closer to the checkpoint at mile 30, and down off the domes, the fog dissipated and at one point, the sun even came out. I really wished it had been sunny for my trip across the domes. I think I would have done much better.
I got to the mile 30 checkpoint with about 2 hours to get to the mile 42 cutoff. If I had been running on a smooth surface, with fresh legs, I could have made it. On a rocky 4 wheeler track on tired legs, and a more tired brain, I knew I couldn't make it in time, so I decided to scratch. It turned out that Travis, who at the start of the domes was only a few minutes ahead of me, but got to the mile 30 aid station an hour ahead of me, wound up missing the cutoff at mile 42 by one minute, so i'm pretty sure I could not have made it. In total there were 8 people that DNF'd. I got a 4 wheeler ride down the trail to the road. Just the 4 wheeler ride took almost an hour. I got a ride to the finish, where my family was waiting. I was at the finish when Travis arrived. He reported that because of all the rain, the stretch of trail between the mile 40 and mile 42 checkpoints had standing water up to his chest that he had to swim across. That made me sort of glad I didn't attempt it.
Only two things that I think should have been managed differently. First, more flagging!! That fog can get really dense! Second, the aid station volunteers had radios. And I really think the sweepers should have waited till everyone had checked into the aid station ahead before removing the flagging. If I hadn't found the sweepers, I would have needed that flagging to find my way out of the soup.
There were also things that I could have managed differently. I needed more practice on hills. And I need to work on navigating difficult terrain in general. I go really slowly when the footing is uncertain. I think I'm just pretty risk adverse. I think I need to work on building confidence so I can move more quickly across difficult terrain. That will just take time and practice.
Overall, it was really a fun race, at least the parts that I did. I think I would have done much better if the weather had cooperated. I really hope the weather will be better next year. I'm determined to finish next year.