Though I was aware that the El Vaquero 50k trail race was happening the first week in August and based on all that I had heard indicated that it was a “great” race (what actually constitutes a “great” race?) I didn’t enter early because I thought I might be busy with either work or an adventure, but this past week it became clear that neither impediment was arising so I tried to enter. Of course, the exploding popularity of trail races means that procrastinators/uncommiters like me don’t typically get into races that fill quickly after registration opens and/or have lotteries, but as luck would have it El Vaquerio himself - successful ultra runner and Race Director Ty Draney – sent me an email on Wednesday and said he had just had a dropout that opened up a spot and if I was quick I could get in. I was quick, I got in, and suddenly my Saturday was planned.
The race traverses a section of the Salt River mountain range that looms high over the Star Valley of Wyoming. On every trip to Jackson we look up towards those peaks and say something to the effect of “those are good looking mountains; we should get up there sometime!” and then of course keep driving and never give it another thought. And with the more-notable Tetons, Bighorns, Absorkas, Wind Rivers, Sawtooths, etc not that far away, it’s understandable. But still they loom, hence the appeal to head up and check them out in the context of a supported big run.
Chris Adams was kind enough to drive his camper vanagon so the Friday evening thunderstorms that were rolling through were of no matter to us, and at 6am we were off. Luke Nelson – a Patagonia-sponsored athlete with a lot of wins and FKT’s to his name, and with whom we designed some nice new trail racing shoes this past winter - has won this race many times and was disappointed in a sluggish Speedgoat that happened too soon after a big Hardrock pacing effort, so I was guessing that he was going to be ready to charge. And indeed he did, right off the line. I chugged along behind a few other guys and periodically caught glimpses of Luke up the initial 4 mile climb, but it was clear that the “race” was going to be for the rest of the podium.
As we milled around at the starting line a guy asked my about my Kuhl cycling jersey (I was the only person geeky enough to wear a bike jersey in lieu of a regular shirt) and he turned out to be Brian Tolbert, the team manager for Kuhl’s bike race team (clearly I’m not a very active member, since we didn’t even know each other!). I guessed that as a strong bike racer he’d also be a strong runner, and sure enough there he was near the front and we started rolling together. One nice thing about ultras is that the pace generally is slow enough that talking is pretty viable, and chatting can make the time go by pretty fast, so we yapped quite a bit and marveled to each other how amazing both the incredible alpine vistas and the wildflowers were.
|I poached this from the El Vaquero website; didn't take any pics myself, though Irunfar.com's Bryon stopped and took a lot!|
And in the meantime passed the 2nd and 3rd place guys, which was nice.
The course is an out and back with the low point being the turnaround (here’s a course profile):
And I knew that the long climb back out of the turnaround was going to be the crux of the race, so I was very content to cruise the descent. However, we also knew that the 25k race - which began at the turnaround and went back to our start – was going to be going off right around the time when we would arrive there, so in order to avoid traffic on the singletrack it behooved us to get there sooner rather than later. There was a small loop in the turnaround zone and I happened to see Luke regaining the main trail, so he wanted to know if there was anyone between us in 2nd, and I assured him that there was not. Unfortunately, at that same moment I also saw the entire field of the 25k-ers……right behind Luke. So Brian and I were just a little late. But my spirits were buoyed by seeing a pumpkin pie at the aid station, which I quickly identified as a perfect mid-race fuel source! I was surprised to see Brian take a look at the table of typical aid station food, give sort of an exasperated wave because none of it apparently appealed to him, and then turn around and start running off up the trail, saying “I still have the mentality of a self-contained bike racer”. Oh my. We have a long way to go, and I aid stations exist for a reason, so I thought this decision might bite him pretty hard later. So because it was a race and not a friendly run, I decided to turn up the heat a bit on that long climb to make sure that he would feel the bonk! I’m such an asshole….
But as I picked up the pace I also had in the back of my mind that Luke might be thinking “Diegel’s in 2nd, he’s old and has never been close to me in skimo races, so I don’t need to worry about him” and could be just cruising towards the win without killing himself, and thus inadvertantly let me pull back some of the 11 minutes he had on me at that point –and I felt good – so the slightly higher effort seemed like a good idea. But weaving around the slower 25k runners who were going my direction and the 50k runners bombing down the descent towards me made focusing on a solid, steady pace pretty challenging, and I even plowed hard into a woman who not only had her tunes going, she had full headphones on!
About halfway up that climb that I decided to do a refuel from the gel that the aid station folks had squeezed into my flask. I took a huge hit of it before I realized that it was coffee-flavored. Now, there are many reasons why I’m not necessarily a good American, but one of the most salient is that I have a pretty strong aversion to the taste of coffee. So every time I remembered I had to go for some more calories I did so with dread, knowing it would almost make me gag. But I remembered that one of the silly reasons we do these events is because they are “hard”, and so I simply had to embrace this new difficulty! And surprisingly, not only did I stay fueled, I lived, despite having the coffee flavor linger in my mouth for three hours…..
The updates from people along the course indicated to me that my thought of Luke “cruising” was silly because it was clear that he was continuing to pull away, but with my increased effort it seemed that my 2nd place was fairly solid (Brian did indeed bonk pretty hard and got passed by a good handful of folks). So I kept chugging along back up to the two high passes and finally began the big plunge back to the finish line. With a mile to go I splashed across a creek and as I did so the inside of my thigh cramped hard. I felt like my descent was slow anyway and with memories of the video of Andy Dorais’ non-working legs at Leadville last year in my head I realized I had to do something to get me down that last mile or I’d get passed after all that effort. I was out of water and clearly needing some, so despite the fact that we had passsed a bunch of sheep a few miles further up the drainage, I quickly made the decision slug down the creek water. After getting that in and doing a bit of walking the cramp subsided and I was able to plug in the last mile. We’ll see if my previously-posted cavalier attitude towards backcountry water purity will still remain as various bugs/protozoas/cysts gather strength in my gut….or not; so far so good.
And with that I dundered across the line in 5:25, 30 minutes behind Luke’s new course record.
|Oy, I was tired.....|
Luke had the good fortune to run with the guy who won the 25k and was effectively paced by him; apparently the kid is a collegiate all-American, which says a lot about Luke’s strength that he could hang with him despite going twice the distance/vert.
|Luke and I discussing the fierce battle that didn't happen!|
Chris Adams used this race as a good trainer for next month’s Wasatch 100 and finished strong in 17th place:
|Chris - take it from someone who knows....your visor days are limited!|
and Fred Marmsater – in his first ultra – charged hard right along with Chris until the final descent where his stomach inexplicably detonated and increased the sufferage a bit.
|Happy to be done|
Thanks again to Ty for having the vision to come up with a great race in an unlikely area and for putting in the considerable work with very little reward to execute a logistically-challenging race, and of course to the volunteers who spent most of 2 days helping out.