Monday, 4 April 2016

Crown King Scramble 50km

The Crown King Scramble 50km was everything I expected it to be, and more. With great organisation, a tough course, outstanding scenery and lots of jolly good fun - and the fact that I finished soaking wet with sweat with salt stains across my face and all over my clothes, covered in dust and dirt from head to toe, absolutely starving and in desperate need of an ice cold beer, with tired, heavy legs but a big smile on my face - they were all sure signs of a damn good race.

The race started at 6am alongside the shores of Lake Pleasant just as the sun was about to pop its head above the nearby mountains. The air was still quite cool although it was certain to warm up as the morning went along, with temperatures well in to the mid 80's expected later on in the day. The atmosphere at the start was a mixture of nervous excitement and anticipation as we all knew what lay ahead - 50km or 31 miles of uphill running, climbing from around 1500 ft at Lake Pleasant to nearly 6000 ft in the old mining town of Crown King, and with very little downhill and inclines of 12% or more in the latter stages, it was sure to be one tough race.

Start of the race at Lake Pleasant
This year, the race celebrated it's 25th anniversary and it turned out to be an amazing day for the organisers and the runners. For the first time in 25 years, a new course record was set in the men's field, with 2 of them running under the 4 hour mark for the first time in the history of the race. Meanwhile, the winning lady had an outstanding run to finish 5th overall and just a mere 14 seconds off the old course record of 4 hours 34 minutes set by Ann Trason some 15 years ago - an amazing time given how technical the course is and how much climbing is involved.

For me personally, I couldn't have wished for a better result. Going in to the race, I really had no expectations - I wanted to run between 5 and 6 hours, but not knowing the course and having absolutely no idea what I would have to confront, I didn't know whether that was a realistic target or not. I knew that the first half of the race was the most runnable with plenty of ups and a few gentle downs, whereas the second half was pure uphill except for the final 2 miles when we made our decent in to Crown King. The second half was also extremely steep, and with people talking about using poles and hiking rather than running this section, I was a little apprehensive as to how tough I would actually find it.

In recent years I guess I've become a bit of a lazy runner and I haven't ran hills quite as much as I should have done - whilst running extremely technical downhill is still lots of fun to me these days, the strength and power I used to have on the ups is now a distant memory - not what you need when you are racing an entirely uphill 50km race!

With that in mind, my plan was to start steady and to just keep running for as long as possible. I didn't want to burn myself out too early on the hills so I'd been practicing my power hiking and had every intention of hiking the really steep sections, particularly as my hiking is sometimes faster than my running when it comes to the steeper climbs - it uses far less energy and at least I move forwards rather than attempting to run and going backwards!

The first few miles were good. I got into a steady rhythm and was feeling relaxed and strong. The lead lady - Alicia Shay - went off like a rocket at the start and I never saw her again as she went on to have an outstanding run. Just ahead of me, I saw another 2 ladies - there was Kelly who is still new to ultra running and was running only her second 50k - she too appeared to be running comfortably and biding her time ready for the more challenging stuff later on, whilst the other lady seemed to be picking up the pace and already making good ground over both of us as she picked up the pace a notch over us. I decided to settle in behind them, reluctant to push on at this stage with not knowing what lay ahead., but not wanting them to get too far ahead as I knew I would never catch them when the real climbing started.

As the sun came up, everything came alight with a beautiful golden glow, and I so desperately wanted to stop and admire the amazing views that were unfolding as we ran along the track. It was so difficult trying to stay focused on the task in hand, yet wanting to absorb the wonderful scenery as the hills gradually turned to mountains, and Lake Pleasant grew smaller and faded into the distance as we continued our climb.

The first aid station was at around 8 miles and I made sure to take on board some fluids depsite carring my own backpack. Things were already starting to warm up and I was already sweating - I really didn't want to suffer with dehydration or muscle cramps later on and knew it was important to keep on top of things early on. I spent a couple of minutes here which meant that the other ladies had now moved quite a way ahead of me, but still I was reluctant to chase after them too quickly as I wanted to finish strongly and not fade mid-race.

Between the first and second aid station, we started to catch the early starters - those folks that wanted to finish the race but were realistic in thinking that they wouldn't meet the cutoffs if they started with the main race at 6am. It was great to have some company and they offered lots of encouragement as I ran past. Although the steep climbs hadn't yet started, there was certainly far more uphill now,and the scenery was already beginning to change. The gravel road that we had been following was starting to become a little more sandy and rather than open desert scenery with cacti dotted across the landscape, things were getting a little more rocky, with shrubs and leafy trees instead. There was very little shade on the course and the sun was already beating down on us, reflecting back off the sandy trails and making things extremely bright so it felt as though I was suffering with "sand blindness" as I ran along.

I was still lying in 4th place in the ladies race as I made the climb up to the second aid station at around 15 miles but whilst Kelly had by now disappeared into the distance, I saw that I was catching the 3rd placed lady. We arrived at aid station 2 within about a minute of each other, but rather than rushing off to try and get ahead, I once again took my time to ensure I refuelled properly, refilled my water bladder, and drank some Gatorade. By the time I set off, she had gained some ground over me, but I noticed that she had started to walk the hills and every time she walked, I edged that little bit closer. By now, I too was walking some of the steeper sections but my powerhike was strong and I was able to pass lots of people. 

I've learnt over the years that it isn't always the people ahead of you that you're racing - you always have to look what's coming behind! As I resorted to walking on a steep, rocky, sandy section of the trail, another lady came up behind me and it was pretty clear that she was just about to move ahead of me in the race positions. She appeared to be running all the hills, and whilst she did look tired from the effort, she was still looking good and said a cheery hello as she came up alongside me. Thankfully at that stage, we reached the brow of the hill and there followed a short, steep downhill, which I used it to my advantage to open a gap again and pull away from her. In the process, I overtook 3rd place and that was when - for me at least - the real race started.

It's so easy to sit back and relax too much when you aren't in a podium position, but as soon as I knew I was within the chance of winning one of the amazing, unique Aravaipa Running trophies again, I was determined not to let any ladies past me if I could help it. I still made sure to refuel at the aid stations but in between, I worked hard, pushed myself to my limits, and when my legs were protesting on the climbs and my breathing sounded like I was suffocating, I gritted my teeth and had a few stern words with myself.

The route meandered through the hillsides, and as we climbed higher and higher, the sun seemed to get stronger and I really didn't notice any drop in temperature. I was drinking much more water now and sweat was starting to trickle off me everywhere but I knew I had to keep going. We passed through some private land where there was a stream running through, and it was so nice to have that cool water soaking the feet which felt extremely refreshing. The next aid station was pretty amazing - plenty of alcohol available for those that wanted to party, but with my legs already wobbly and with a fuzzy head from the climbs, I politely declined the offer of a shot of tequila or a whisky.

By now, the field had thinned out a bit and there were very few people around me. The trail had narrowed quite considerably compared to earlier, the vegetation hugging the hillsides had become more dense, and with the trail becoming more like switchbacks as it followed the the contours of the mountains, it really felt like I was the only one out there, with nobody else around for miles. At some point, I caught up with a chap called George and we ran together for a mile or two before I somehow managed to pull away as we started the really steep climb up the jeep road (he later overtook me again and finished ahead of me after a strong run up that final climb!)

I'd heard so much about this jeep road - about how steep it was, how rocky, dusty and technical it was, and how you needed to be prepared for ATVs using the road and kicking up lots of dust. I hadn't seen any vehicles up until that point, but when they did come along the road, boy did you know it! The cloud of dust they kicked up was crazy and it caught the back of my throat causing me to go in to a coughing fit, and it was so dry that I was now drinking to wash away the dust in my mouth as well as attempting to quench an every increasing thirst!

That final climb really was a toughie. I tried to run sections but I could only manage something like 20 metres at a time, so I hiked the vast majority of the way. I was still convinced that I would be passed again by the other 2 ladies who I thought were still just behind, but as we wound our way up the road and I took a sneaky peak behind, I couldn't see any of them anywhere near me. But until I got to the top, and I started that 2 mile decent, I wasn't about to let myself rest on my laurels and so kept persevering up the hill.

I overtook about 5 guys heading up that hill despite me walking. I was still feeling strong although I really had nothing else in my legs to give, and my stomach was now swelling pretty badly as I was getting extremely hungry and in desperate need of some proper food. I'd been using gels and had only eaten a couple of pieces of banana - not really enough for somebody with an appetite like mine! That final climb just seemed to go on and on and on, it was steep, it was long, and it was tough, and when we reached the final aid station and I discovered there was still over a mile of climbing to do, my heart sank. It would've have been so easy to go into a negative frame of mind, but I now knew the end was in sight and so I pushed on.

As I neared the summit of the jeep road at around 6000ft, I got a whiff of pine trees which reminded me of the beautiful forests back in Canada, and it gave me a spring in my step as I thought about those cool, shaded trails we used to run back in the Rockies only last year. It took my mind off the climb and before I knew it, I had finally reached the highest point and the road started to head down. It was then that my quads started to cramp. I had been sweating so much but whilst I had been drinking Gatorade to ensure I was getting electrolytes, I hadn't taken salt tablets or eaten anything to curb the onset of cramps and it was now that my legs were starting to protest. I had visions of being overtaken with just 2 miles to go and losing my 3rd place - knowing how disappointed and frustrated I would be should that happen, I slapped my legs a few times  and forced them forward.

The downhill seemed to go on forever as it took us through more pine forest and it felt much harder than it should have done, but as we encountered more cars and woodbuilt houses, I knew that we would shortly be reaching the finish line. Sure enough as we round a bend, we were suddenly greeted by a couple of hundred people lining the main street to the saloon in Crown King, where the finish line awaited us. 

Finish Line in Crown King
I finsihed in 5 hours 40 mins and some seconds, but more importantly, I had held on to third place and was over the moon. OK, I was a good hour behind the winning lady, but given that hills really aren't my strength, I was so pleased. With a post race BBQ provided, a live band playing country and western music, a saloon with plenty of ice cold beer and a true party atmosphere, it really was the perfect end to a jolly good race! 

Live Music at the finish line
The Crown King Scramble 50km is definitely a race I would do again. I loved everything about it and even the challenging course isn't enough to put me off giving it another go. The organisation ran like clockwork, everybody was so friendly no matter their ability, everybody got a t-shirt, a finisher's jacket and a pint jug, the food was amazing, and the old gold mining town of Crown King is certainly not to be missed with the local residents (of which there are only around about 100!) coming out to support the race and making visitors feel very welcome. It really was an awesome day and I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that if you can do the Crown King Scramble, then you must!

Top 3 ladies at the Crown King Scramble 50km 

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