Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Wilson Creek Frozen 50k+ Race Report

The Wilson Creek Frozen 50k is scenic and challenging run in the Owyhee mountains of southern Idaho.  I believe this year was the 6th annual running of this high desert event that takes part on the BLM-managed Wilson Creek trail system and includes 50k, 20 mile, 10 mile, and 5 mile distances.  With 7,100 feet of climbing and variable winter conditions including snow, ice, and plentiful mud, the 50k is not an easy course.  Having decided to run only a few days prior, I left for Boise after work, intending to stay with good friends Chris and Fabiola Helfer and their daughter Olivia overnight and then drive the 45 minutes to the race start in the AM.  It was an exciting journey to say the least with a late start and then significant weather as I neared Burley Idaho.  I was driving along at around 35 mph when a passing car on my left starting sliding across the road.  Missing my vehicle by a hair, it slid into the embankment.  Thankfully no one was harmed and I spent the next hour on the side of the road helping ensure road side assistance.  I arrived in Boise quite late.  Race morning was extremely foggy.  In my haste to pack and leave home I had forgotten a head lamp.

The 50k course is comprised of an approximate 20 mile loop and then a 10 mile loop, the former flagged with yellow and run first, the latter with green.  With my longest run since October being about 12 miles I didn't have too many expectations for the run other than a good long effort in some new terrain.  I settled in around 3rd or 4th place in the first mile, hoping to ease into the run.  Even though the first several guys were only 30 or so feet in front of me, because of the dense fog I couldn't see anything.  Thankfully at this point we were running mostly on smooth double track.  Right after the 2.5 mile mark you intersect the 10 mile loop.  When it is dark and foggy it is pretty hard to tell the difference between yellow flagging and green flagging.  As such I headed off in the wrong direction on the 10 mile loop without breaking stride.  I didn't see any lights but it was too foggy to interpret this as a bad sign.  However as the sun started coming up and the fog lifted I didn't see anyone in front or behind and things started to feel wrong.  A couple turns appeared to be inadequately marked (or rather, marked adequately if going in the opposite direction).  Luckily I had stuffed a course map into my tights and after some quick consultation realized my error.  It took me 18 minutes and change to get back to the intersection and this had involved the quicker running inevitably involved in getting back on course.  Back at the intersection I saw a completely obvious sign I had missed.  I estimated I had lost at least 35 to 40 minutes total- recoverable in, say, a 100 mile race but a game changer in anything shorter.  It took some time to catch up to the very back of the pack.

In a way this error was quite positive in that it ensured that I would keep to my intentions of just getting in a good long run and not get too caught up in competing.  It also is an interesting opportunity to see firsthand the whole field of runners in an event.   I bopped along, passing streams of runners climbing Wilson Peak as the sun rose to reveal an incredible and serene landscape.  It reminded me of Antelope Island.  The term Owyhee is derived from an early anglicization of the Hawaiian term 'Hawai'i'.  In the early 1800s three Hawaiian natives who had found employment through Donald McKenzie's expedition down the Snake River had left the main river to explore the surrounding terrain and were never found.  Trappers since took to calling the region 'Owyhee.' The natatory etymology was particularly apt on this morning as brilliantly illuminated islands of volcanic basalt emerged from an oceanic shroud of low lying clouds in the Snake River valley below.

The rocky terrain was covered with a slick layer of ice and frozen mud, making this ascent interesting.  As we descended off Wilson Peak and the temperatures rose this frozen mud gave way to thick, shoe-sucking, clay-like deposits.  With the amount of mud collecting on my feet I began to wish I wasn't wearing size 13 Hokas.

Gradually the pack seemed to be thinning out.  Around mile 15 I came up on Jeremy Smith- a fellow former Mount Blue H.S. track and cross-country runner.  We ran together for a couple miles catching up on life.  He informed me he was in about 5th or 6th place which surprised me.  I didn't know how far ahead the other runners were but for the first time felt a jolt of competitive ambition.  I picked up the pace a bit coming into the 20 mile aid station and headed out on the 10 mile loop fairly aggressively, passing another guy about 4 miles into the loop.  A tweak of my ankle and some incredibly deep mud slowed my last 5 miles however and I cruised it in to 4th place in 4:56.  Seeing the winning time to be 4:19 and 3rd place only 3 minutes in front of me I cringed a bit at my early directional mistake and what might have turned out to be an interesting race up front but hey, woulda-coulda-shoulda... In the end probably better to have run the race I did given the moderate effort involved and limited training to date.

It has been a while since I've raced a 50k that was an actual running event.  It is revelatory how much easier it was than 50mile and 100 mile technical mountain slogs.  I felt pretty unfazed following the run (contrary to most races where I'm destroyed and nonverbal) and have very little soreness or fatigue to speak of following, all of which is quite nice.

Inversion over SLC from Mt. Wire