Flagstaff and the US Skyrunning Series

A few weeks ago I competed in the US Skyrunning series finale in Flagstaff. For me this was a return to the trails that made me the runner I am today. One of the trails we covered on the course was literally the first trail I ever ran. Unfortunately I didn't get any magic from the home course advantage and instead picked up my first ever DNF.
Enjoying time off in the Missions

I got into Flag late Thursday night/Friday morning and awoke early to fit in a short shakeout run with my former boss at Run Flagstaff and current friend, Vince. I enjoyed running through some of our old  workout stomping grounds and was relieved I didn't have to jump in the workout that morning with Vince. In fact, I didn't really feel like I had much pep in my step at all. I chalked this up to the late night and tried not to have doubts about the race the next day. 

That afternoon I enjoyed a quick trip down the lava tubes with Myke Hermsmeyer, JP, who had just won the vertical kilometer, and my brother. I continued to feel a bit sluggish but was at least able to take my mind off the race for an hour.

That evening Matt Shryock rolled into my parents house and the race got real. We packed our stuff for our respective races (39k for me, and 55k for Matt) and hit the sack. 
photo courtesy of Myke Hermsmeyer

My race started from East Flagstaff and quickly ascended Mount Elden. At first the pace started pretty controlled because JP took an early wrong turn so everyone played nice until he caught back up. As soon as he resumed the lead, however, the pace accelerated and I dropped back a ways. I started the steep part of the climb solo and gradually caught a few 55k racers who had started two hours earlier and had already climbed Elden once. Halfway up the climb Megan Kimmel and AJ Sobrilsky caught me and I latched on for the duration of the ascent.

At the top of Mount Elden I passed AJ and Megan and cruised over to the Sunset Trail. From there we traversed the ridge of Elden looking alternately down on Doney Park and back towards the golden aspens of the north side of the ridge. At the first aid station I briefly stopped to refill water and then kept going to catch back up to Megan. She and I pulled away from AJ a bit and ran down Elden towards Dry Lake Hills together. On the short climb up to the top of Dry Lake Hills I passed her again and then we descended the last few miles to Aid #2 together.

This whole stretch on Elden and Dry Lake Hills was glorious. These were my stomping grounds the last few years I was in Flag. I absolutely love these trails and felt very comfortable on them on race day. I also felt like I was running pretty easy throughout this stretch, but towards the bottom I noticed that I was starting to labor a little more than I should have.
Sara rocking cyclocross

I stopped again at Aid #2 to grab a few extra gels and dump some trash. Megan pulled away a bit here as we started the climb up Weatherford, but the gap didn't grow more than a few seconds for the next mile or so. Somewhere in here I stopped to water a tree, and at that point my race started to derail. I was in no man's land and not feeling great so I backed off a bit as I crested the climb and began the gradual descent down through Secret, Newham, and Rocky Moto Trails.

Somewhere along Newham I stopped enjoying racing. I still loved being out on that trail, but I didn't want to compete. Physically I was still hanging in there, but struggle-festing a bit mentally. I backed off a bit more and tried to keep telling myself that I would come back around.

Eventually I hit the next aid station and hung out there a few minutes munching on watermelon. AJ caught back up at this point and I left the station a few minutes in front of him. He joined me soon after and got me going. It was very nice having someone to run with again. I had pretty much run the previous 30-45 minutes without seeing anyone so company was great.

Just before the aid station at 17 miles we started climbing. AJ pulled away from me and I struggled to maintain any sort of running, despite the gradual grade. I pulled into the aid station unsure if I could continue. After a few minutes eating, drinking, and milling about, AJ asked if I was good to keep going. Once again he got me moving and I grabbed my poles and hydration pack from my brother and pressed on.
Off-season hike in the Swan Range

Initially I was able to fast hike and slow jog. The poles helped propel me forward and the grade was still gradual enough that I could handle it. But after a mile or so the running left me. From this point on there was to be no more running.

I resigned myself to hiking the rest of the course. I kept a decent walking pace for a bit and tried to enjoy being on a new trail section and take in the golden aspens. A few people started to pass me including Phil Slama and Matt Muchna, who both put together great races.

As the grade increased my ability to keep walking faltered. I started stopping for "leaning-on-my-poles" breaks, which turned into sitting in the shade breaks. Often when I'm in no-man's-land in races I count my breathing to help keep a steady pace, so I tried a similar tactic here by counting steps. I tried to get to 100 steps in between each break. Setting short goals like that seemed to help, but on the steep pitches I may have counted by fives.

Finally I reached Snowbowl property and emerged onto a ski run where another short climb took us to the top of the Sunset chair lift. I stumbled down the main run to the Agassiz Lodge and decided to call it a day.
So many mountains in Montana

This was the first time I have ever not finished a race. My energy reserves had all been tapped at Crystal Mountain, I think, and when I needed to summon that extra strength there was nothing there. Looking back at the race a few weeks later, I am still glad I went down, and still want to go back and finish. I feel like I need to redeem myself next year. The race was still fantastic and I got to spend a great weekend with my family and a friends (including an obligatory Flagstaff visit to Historic Brewing) so the trip was still worth it.

2015 was my first experience with big mountain running. Until the Rut I had never competed in races with multiple huge climbs. I've raced, and done well, at races with one climb and one descent, but the recovering in between climbs and descents, handling varied terrain, and figuring out nutrition for 3+ hour races was all new to me. And I loved it! All the courses were fantastic and very different. Being able to travel across such rugged and beautiful terrain was very refreshing. And watching others travel across the same terrain even faster was also very inspiring. I met other great athletes at each race that I have now seen multiple times, once again affirming that the trail running community is one of the best out there. I already have my eye on some Sky Series races for next year and ideas on how to come back and improve on my 5th place finish.

After three big races in a month (3 of my 5 longest ever) I took a couple weeks off to recovery physically and mentally. I climbed a couple peaks, watched some cyclocross, and read some books. Today, though, I started looking forward again and put in my first few miles for Snowshoe Nationals 2016. I don't plan on racing much between now and then, but am excited to get back into the rhythm of training (and still enjoying long runs in the mountains).

I am also wrapping up details for a multi-year Montana Mountain Project that will help me get out and continue to explore different areas of my new home state. Details coming soon. Until then,

Happy Trails!