Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Age of Aquarius, or the Capitol Reef 50 mile


Capitol Reef is a national park located in central Utah.  The race was not run in the park, but rather on the Aquarius Plateau/Boulder Mountain.  This plateau is west of the park and the views from the rim allow you to see down into the park some 7,000’ below.  Capitol Reef is a bit more recognizable than Aquarius Plateau.
There are worse race HQ's
The Aquarius Plateau is the highest plateau in the country, with much of it being above 11,000’.  We would be running along the Great Western Trail for much of the race, as well as some ATV roads.
Not sure where to start with this report.  A lot has already been written and talked about regarding this race, so anything I add will be largely a repeat of what others have said.  Here's a short video I found.
This was a tough race for reasons that one normally doesn’t associate with a tough race.  There weren’t huge steep climbs, no quad crushing descents, at least not long ones.  Much of the course was essentially flat.  What made this course difficult were two factors, the terrain and the altitude.  Try “running” for 20 miles at, or above, 10,000’.  Spend 18 of those miles above 10,500’.  Now factor in some other items.  All of the rocks that we dealt with, route finding, overgrown brush, widely spaced trail markings made for a slower than anticipated run.  Most of the time, my “running” wasn’t much more than to shuffle a bit faster than a walk.  Keep in mind that all of these difficulties are pluses in my book.  I may not think so at the time, but they really are.
I had originally signed up for the 100 mile distance, but the week before the race rethought that idea.  I figured that if I ran the 100 mile, it would take at least three weeks to recover and get back into some serious training for Wasatch.  Since Wasatch is my key race for the year, I didn’t want to lose those three weeks.  A 50 mile race would mean that I could take a few days off and go easy before hitting the training hard again.  Looking back, it was a wise decision.  Keeping my eye on the prize.
I knew that this race would be hard.  I tend to not do too well at high altitude.  I don’t get altitude sickness or anything like that, I just slow down a lot and occasionally get some slight exercise induced asthma going.  I also knew that if I could do reasonably well here, that running at altitude during Wasatch wouldn’t be an issue at all.

Race Time

The race started about 30 minutes late due to a slow bus ride to the start.  Gorgeous morning, temps in the upper 40’s, some clouds, but generally sunshine.  We started climbing right out of the gate, but for the most part, the initial miles to the first aid station were runnable, even uphill. 
The initial miles
The course was amazing from the start.  We would be running through trees, then all of the sudden be running in a huge green meadow.  I loved it.  Huge aspens, fir, pine.
The first aid station was at around 8.5 miles.  By then we had climbed roughly 1500’, not too bad over 8+ miles.  However, shortly after leaving that aid station we had the one monster climb of the race.  A “road” had been cut into the side of the plateau.  We gained 1000’ in a mile.  Not huge, but enough to make you wish it was done as soon as possible.  I found out later that this is a “road” used to drive cattle up and down the plateau for grazing.
Cattle "road", yep that's me.  Photo: Dee McLaughlin
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Once up on the plateau we followed along the east rim for the next 10 miles.  In a word, the views were stunning.  We could see into the national park some 20 miles away and 6000’ lower.  We could see the Henry Mountains.  One of the most remote mountain ranges in the country (at least the lower 48).  This was “big” empty country.
Pretty high up for a long time
The second aid station was at 16.5 miles.  This aid station was in the middle of nowhere.  Smack in the middle of a meadow at 11,000’.  It took them two hours to get there from the start.  After the second aid, we kept along the rim for a bit more, then headed for the interior of the plateau.  This meant a bit of climbing.  Not much, but going from 10,800’ to 11,100’ can be significant.  Lots of high alpine meadows, small lakes, streams.  Who knew something like this was in southern Utah?
The third aid station came around at about 21 miles and some familiar faces were present.  Kelly and Jo Agnew were running the show there.  It was nice to chat for a few minutes with them then head on out and across yet another meadow.
Aid #2 in the middle of nowhere
The next aid station came at about 31 miles.  This was the longest section between aid.  By this time we had dropped down to 10,000’, running down through a canyon off the side of the plateau.  What a difference 1000’ can make.  Coming down the canyon the trail became more technical.  This was to be the story for the next 15 miles or so.  Lots of rocks on the trail interspersed with small sections of ATV road.
Miles 31 to 37 were reasonably nice trail.  Still very rocky, but easy to follow, well traveled.  The last bit into Donkey reservoir was on some dirt road.  After all of the technical trail, it was kind of nice to hit some easy running.
The section from Donkey to Government Creek took runners through a section of forest that had seen a forest fire.  Not the most scenic section, but interesting.  With the forest canopy now non-existent, the underbrush went wild.  This section was way overgrown.  At times you really had to push through the undergrowth and could barely see the trail.  Made for some slow going through here.  Oh, and the mosquitos were horrendous.  I was so glad that I had put bug spray in my drop bags, and used it.
The Government Creek aid was the last aid before the finish.  Only six miles to go.  It was in this section that I caught up to a couple of the last 50K runners.  When I finally got to Government Creek, I knew that we had significant downhill the last six miles.  I didn’t know that the remaining miles were all on dirt road or ATV trail.  Nice if you have any legs left to open it up.
It was interesting running those last six miles, descending through various climate and geologic zones, starting out in an alpine setting and volcanic rock and within a few miles dropping into a red rock/desert sandstone landscape.
At long last, I came to the highway, crossed it and ran the last couple hundred yards to the finish.  I was pretty glad to be done, it had been a very long hard day.


So, after 13 hours and 40 minutes, I finished.  I met Christian Johnson at the finish and asked if he had another one of those beers he was holding.  As he went off to get one, Jo Agnew came up and handed me a PBR.  Yep, two fisted it and they tasted really good.
So what did I think of this first year event?  I really enjoyed it.  It was much more difficult than I had imagined.  It was also way more scenic than I had thought it would be.  The scenery at this race ranks right up there with Matt’s Bryce race.  I took about 60 pictures and could have taken many more.  We ran past numerous lakes, crossed a bunch of creeks, saw some cool waterfalls.  I was surprised at how much water was up there.
Waterfall off the rim in the distance
The race was different in many ways from other races I have run.  First, much of this race was on a section of the Great Western Trail.  Given the condition of the trail, my guess is that that trail saw more use Saturday than it typically does in a couple of years.  Much of the time the trail was not a well defined path.  Rather, we had to look for the ribbons that were put out, rock cairns, and tree blazes.  I found myself always looking ahead for the next blaze/cairn/ribbon.  There were a few times when I had to stop and scan left and right as well as ahead in order to locate the next marker.  I never got off trail, but there were a few that did.  You definitely had to be aware of your surroundings.  That’s one of the things I liked about the race, having to really pay attention to where you’re going.
Any personal revelations from this race?  I didn’t “find” myself out there because I was never “lost”.  Nope, it was just another good time beating myself up for 50 miles.  Mentally I was good all day, never really had any down spots.  The short little climbs towards the end of the race got kind of old after a while, but you just do them knowing they won’t last long.
One of the other things I really liked about this race is the small entry field.  With the exception of the couple of 50K runners on the trail and the last two aid stations, I ran over 20 miles by myself, no other person was even close.  No one caught up to me, I didn’t catch up to anyone.  I like that.  I like to run with people during training, but on race day I typically like to run by myself.  Running with someone during a race means that either they are running your pace or you are running theirs.  I want to run my own race. 
Were there any downsides to this race?  Only one that I could think of, and it was minor.  The course marking could have been better.  I never had any problem following, but getting off trail and lost on that plateau could be serious.
So, would I go run this race again?  Yep, I’m already thinking about next year.  I want to see if I can drop my time significantly.  Would I recommend this race?  Absolutely, Matt does a great job with any event he puts on and this one was no different.  Go sign up and run it next year.

Restaurant review

Well, this really isn’t a restaurant review, but Matt had a “build your own” pizza bar at the finish.  It was pretty good, plenty of fixings from cheese to pepperoni to mushrooms to various veggies.  Good stuff.

More Pretty Pictures

The obligatory selfie 

The next aid station is down by that lake