Flagstaff 50K Endurance Run

September 24, 2012 — 4 Comments

Finish line of Flagstaff 50K Endurance Run

On Saturday, I finished my first official ultra marathon. Despite the fact that I just started running again less than a year ago and definitely had an abbreviated training program, I was able to hack my way through the Flagstaff 50K Endurance Run. The course was just shy of 32 miles, nearly all technical single track, included 3 major climbs and several smaller ones, and roughly 8000 feet of vertical gain. I managed to achieve all of my goals (finish, not get hurt, and have fun). The run took me just shy of 8 hours, which put me in 14th place overall. I realized with about 2 hours of running to go that I had just run farther than I have since 2003. I had two stretches where I had a really hard time, and in general, my emotions ran the full spectrum. Overall, I am really proud of myself. As a side note, I was also the heaviest person out there by about 20 lbs. My body may not be built for running, but I love it.

Here are a few details.

Angie Hodge came out from the low elevation of mostly flat Nebraska to do the run with me. She arrived in Flagstaff on the Wednesday before the race and we managed to squeeze in one last run prior to the race with Steve Rhode on Thursday evening. Angie and I spent Friday evening preparing our drop bags and reviewing the course details. We both got to bed at a reasonable time and then woke up around 4:45AM on Saturday morning, so that we could eat and drop off our bags by 6:00AM at the start/finish area at Buffalo Park.


The racers doing the 50 mile course started at 6:00AM, but our race didn’t start until 7:00AM. While we waited, I did some light stretching and Angie went to the bathroom about ten times. I was loving the early morning temperature, but Angie thought it was a bit cold.


The race started right on time and off we went. I was grateful to see that most people had the sense to start at a mellow pace. The course began by running to the back of Buffalo Park and then dropping down onto the Lower Oldham Trail.


Steve Rhode and I found each other pretty quickly, but I lost sight of Angie once the single track started and I didn’t see her again until she crossed the finish line. Steve and I seemed to be going around the same pace, so we stuck together as we alternated running and power hiking up Lower Oldham and onto Upper Oldham.


The field spread out as we made our way up Mount Elden for the first of three passes. Steve and I made it to the first aid station at the top of Upper Oldham in around 1 hour and 10 minutes. This was roughly mile 5. At this point, I was feeling great and extremely optimistic. After a brief visit to the first aid station, we hung a left on the Sunset Trail, which was followed shortly by a right onto the Heart Trail. Steve and I flew down the Heart Trail, but the whole time I was thinking about having to run back up the trail a few hours later.


Both Steve and I had close calls as we bombed down the trail. I wiped out and did a butt spin at one point and Steve almost ran off the trail and down a steep drop. I don’t consider myself to be a very good descender, but I felt great coming down the steep and loose trail. At the bottom of the Heart Trail, we hung a left and started traversing our way around the backside of Mount Elden.

I was really looking forward to this section because I figured we’d cover a lot of miles in a short period of time. Unfortunately, my body had other ideas. Steve was clearly feeling great and I was starting to slow down. I went from feeling fresh to horrible in a matter of minutes. My stomach was bothering me, my right shin hurt, and I was exerting a lot more effort than I felt like I should have been. It took me longer than it should have to tell Steve that I had to slow down. We were only 10 miles into the race and I was starting to have serious doubts about whether I was going to make it. If I felt that bad that early, what was I going to feel like in a couple hours? Steve stayed with me to the second aid station at mile 13, but when we got there, I encouraged him to run his own race and leave me behind. I didn’t want to slow him down and I knew it would be more difficult for me if I was stressed out about moving too slowly. I left the aid station at Schultz Tank about a minute after Steve and decided to walk and eat as the course headed towards the Little Gnarly Trail.

Right around the time I started heading up Little Gnarly, I started to feel much better and my confidence about finishing was improving. I continued to feel better and better as I made my way up Little Gnarly, Upper Brookbank, and Sunset. This whole time I was stuffing my face with food and drinking as much water as I could. I kept pace with a dude named Adam that was just a ways in front of me, and from what I recall, I didn’t see any other racers until I reached the Sunset aid station for the second time. This was roughly mile 19. I tried not to be anxious as people were quickly leaving the aid station in front of me. Of course, the event was a race, but since this was my first official ultra marathon, I was more worried about finishing than what place I would be in at the end.

I spent probably 5 minutes at the aid station and then headed towards the summit of Mount Elden on the Sunset trail. As I hung a left on the Elden Lookout Trail, I was feeling pretty darn good and decided to have a go at catching a few people on the descent. Like I said earlier, I don’t consider myself to be a very good descender, but damn, I was flying down the trail and having a blast. I think I passed 4 people on my way down and two of them told me I was crazy. I tried to drink as much water as I could since I knew that in a short period of time I would be heading up the Heart Trail in the sun. After a short time on the Fatman’s Loop, the course turns left on the Christmas Tree Trail. I decided to recover on this section a bit and eat some food. I also thought it would be a good idea to let a couple of the people I passed to catch up to me in the hopes that we could pace each other up the Heart Trail. This plan didn’t work too well as Adam (the same one that I was chasing up Upper Brookbank and Sunset earlier) passed me like I was standing still just before the lefthand turn onto the Heart Trail. Two other people passed me shortly after I turned onto the Heart Trail. One of them flew up the trail, but the second one I tried to chase for a bit before realizing that I just couldn’t do it. I decided to settle into a comfortable power hiking pace all the way to the top. Despite the fact that I left the last aid station with 1.5 liters of water, I ran out about 3/4 of a mile up the 2 mile climb. I was already starting to suffer, but this just made it worse. I was moving so slowly.


The last mile up the Heart Trail was a struggle. My stomach was killing me, I was thirsty, my head was pounding, and I just didn’t have any “go” juice. My emotions were all over the place. I spent some time being angry. I was embarrassed. I felt sorry for myself. Sometimes I had no doubt that I would make it and other times I felt like I should just quit and lay down. I even spent some time thinking a black wolf was stalking me. I was completely shattered, but I didn’t stop and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I kept telling myself that I would eventually make it to the aid station where I could get water and rest for a bit.


Eventually, the Heart Trail ended and I turned left onto the Sunset Trail and headed towards the aid station. Along this section, I got passed by a few of the 50 mile runners, one of which was Jason Henrie. Jason and I exchanged a few brief words as he flew by. I wished him well, but I was also extremely jealous of how fresh he looked. Once I arrived at the Sunset aid station for the 3rd and final time, I sat down on a rock and let the amazing volunteers at the aid station look after me. After several pieces of watermelon, some Gatorade, and a Coke, I felt like a new man. I hung out for about 20 minutes as I watched runners come and go. Before heading off to do the last 5 miles of the race, I thanked the volunteers and asked them to take a picture of me. As you can see, I was feeling much better!


It wasn’t easy to get moving again, but eventually my walk turned into a slow jog, which turned into a run. Once again, I felt great flying downhill. Seriously, I suck at running downhill, but for some reason, it all fell into place on Saturday. I caught and passed two other runners on the way down Upper Oldham. As I was running, I was amazed at how great I felt and marveled at the fact that not 30 minutes earlier I was wishing the world would end. I wasn’t the only one flying downhill. With about 4 miles to go, the eventual winner of the 50 mile race went zooming by me. At the time, I didn’t even know that he was in the race. I didn’t see his bib number and he looked way too fresh and seemed to be moving way too fast to be doing the race I was doing, let alone the 50 miler! Towards the bottom of Lower Oldham, I was also passed by some dude that looked very tired, but clearly wanted to get the race over with. I thought I was moving fast on the rocky sections, but this guy bombed down sections faster than I would ever be willing to do even if I was fresh. I tried to chase him down for a bit, but decided to just maintain my pace and try to stay upright.

Just before you enter Buffalo Park again, you have to do a short climb. I run this section all of the time, but on Saturday, it felt like Mount Everest. I hiked up this section a lot slower than I was hoping I would. I knew I would make the finish, but I was so tired. I turned around a few times expecting to see the people I had passed a few miles earlier come flying by me. As I crested the climb and reached the finishing stretch, I settled into an easy jog. I knew that the finish line was just a few minutes away and I was overcome with emotion. What the hell did I just do? My elation was cut short as the first place female (whom I had passed a few miles earlier) sprinted passed. I didn’t even flinch and kept going at my pace. I’m pretty sure I could not have caught her even if I tried. I just wanted to take in the whole experience.

After 7 hours and 56 minutes, I completed my first ever 50K. I didn’t realize until later that I finished 14th. I’m content with the experience and I’m still trying to process the whole thing. Of course, I’ve already started researching the next adventure.

Early in the race, I was definitely holding back in the hopes that I would have energy for the rest of the race. Despite my low points, I think I paced myself well early on. Later in the race, I was convinced that I was going as fast as I could. But afterwards, you start to wonder if you could go faster and take shorter breaks. It turns out that the 7 people that placed immediately in front of me were all within about 20 minutes. That’s about how long I hung out at the last aid station. I made the right decision to hang out as long as I did, but knowing that I was so close gives me confidence that on a good day, I could probably finish in the top 10. Not bad for a guy that weighs 200 lbs and just started running.

Angie crossed the finish line in 22nd place and was all smiles. Early in the race, she teamed up with someone and they finished together. She’s also thinking about what event to do next.


Steve ended up in 7th place overall and seemed to be pretty happy. My neighbor, and occasional running buddy, Karl Jarvis finished in 2nd place with a time of 6 hours and 6 minutes. That’s almost 2 hours faster than my time! Way to go Karl!!!

Dana Ernst

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Father of two boys, husband, mathematician, cyclist, trail runner, rock climber, and coffee drinker. Columnist for MAA blog Math Ed Matters.

4 responses to Flagstaff 50K Endurance Run

  1. Love it! I just finished a Ragnar Ultra, if you are not familiar, it’s a relay, My share was 32.3 miles but we had 8-10 hours between legs (3 legs). I want to finish one of these eventually.

  2. The Ragnar Ultra looks like fun. Thanks for reading.

  3. Nice job and well written, I found it very entertaining and amusing at times. Good luck on your next adventure, I hope to do a 50k sometime :)

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