Monday, May 26, 2014

Sage Burner 50K Race Report

Wow. Quad Rock certainly took its toll on my legs. Three days later I was still hobbling around the house in the morning, wincing with each step. Picking up my kids took considerable effort and was usually accompanied by a melodramatic groan or two. I biked for an easy 30 minutes on Sunday and Monday, and then went for a short 3 mile jog around the block on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I took Friday off. Each jog felt a little better than the last. I could feel the various aches and pains from Quad Rock diminishing. Thankfully, I had no major injuries. Just the typical soreness and tweakiness that follows an all-day effort.

Of all my three back-to-back-to-back races this May I gave Sage Burner the least amount of attention. Perhaps because it was the last race. Perhaps because I felt my PR there was soft. I glanced at the GPS tracks from my previous races on Thursday night. It still amazes me how badly I blew up last year. Truly epic. All I really had to do this year was stay properly hydrated. How hard could that be? Simple, right? Yet somehow I've managed to dig myself into a hole almost every time I've run Sage Burner. The weather at Quad Rock never really got that hot, so yet again Sage Burner would prove to be my first ~70 degree race of the year.

I drove down to Gunnison on Friday evening. It's a nice drive, which I joke can be briefly summarized as: mining, cows, mining, cows. I picked up my bib in town, ate a huge dinner at Garlic Mike's, and then drove to Hartman Rocks to camp. I slept in the Subaru just a few feet off the course. Even in the car, it was a bit chilly at night and I was glad to have a down jacket and sleeping bag to keep me warm. My alarm woke me at 4am, I ate a small breakfast, and then rolled over and went back to sleep until 6am or so.

My secret race strategy this year? Carry two water bottles. Yup, genius. The aid stations are generally not that far apart (4-6 miles), but I didn't want to ever be caught without water or energy drink. Throughout the race, I usually kept one bottle full of energy drink and the other bottle about half full of water. Any extra water I would dump on my head as I approached an aid station.

After a short speech from the RD, and a brief countdown, the race immediately began with a short climb straight up onto the mesa. Sage Burner doesn't really have that many long, sustained climbs, but it certainly undulates up and down almost continuously. You run up to the edge of the mesa, then off to a scenic high point with a juniper tree and a pile of rocks to negotiate, then back down off the mesa, then climb back up a gulch, then pick a different high point to visit, then down off the mesa again, repeat for 31 miles.

I took the first half of the race very easy. I just enjoyed the scenery, chatted briefly as I passed various racers, and kept a careful eye on my fueling. My legs felt fine. Not exactly springy, but nothing to complain about. I was very happy to be feeling as good as I was a mere week after Quad Rock.

The 25K and the 50K run more or less together for a while, making for a more social experience. But after the split, it's just the hardy 50K racers. There are generally only 50 or so of us every year, and you can get quite spread out across the starkly beautiful, sage-filled landscape.

I had been leap frogging with a few racers during the first half, but ended up passing them as the uphills kept coming. After the aid station at Skull Pass, around mile 16, I mentally flipped a switch. I had reached the 3 hour mark, I felt great, and I was ready to make my move. So I put on my ipod, cranked up the music, and went to work.

The second half of my race was one of the most satisfying experiences of my brief running career. I felt strong, totally in control, and unfazed by the distance. In some ways, having run a grueling 50 miler the week before was an advantage. Sixteen miles? It's nothing. A warmup. As I cruised across the desolate mesa top towards a distant high point, I could barely catch a glimpse of a red shirt more than a mile ahead of me. My first target. I passed him maybe three miles later, walking, depleted in the growing afternoon heat. That was me last year.

Where was everyone else? I bombed down a technical drainage and out onto a road, where I saw the next runner. I was running sub 8's at this point-- about my top speed. After a short flat stretch on the road, the course climbs up an incredibly steep jeep road back up onto the mesa again. Ah ha! I could see a pack of four runners ahead of me on the switch backs. I grinned at the contrast. A moment ago I was hauling ass on the flats, and now I was passing folks just as convincingly while dropping agonizingly slow 20 minute miles! Ultrarunning is certainly not about locking into a particular pace, but rather a particular level of effort. I was running everything, but my pace was all over the map.

And so the race went. I have rarely felt as confident as I did that afternoon. I was on fire. Everything felt effortless. It wasn't like I was running faster than I normally do on a typical training run, but the distance was having absolutely no effect on me. It was like I somehow managed to string together six 5-mile runs all run at my typical 5-mile training pace. It was glorious.

I finally charged across the finish line in 5:36 in 10th (?!) place. A whopping 45 minute PR. I negative split the race by about 25 minutes and passed about a quarter of the field in the final 10 miles. I had zero stomach issues and felt perfect the whole day. If anything, I probably took the first half of the race a little too easy. But, damn, I wouldn't trade anything for feeling like I did during the second half. Perhaps this was the race that my training this year has best suited me for-- not too fast, not too vertical, yet long enough that endurance matters.

A blurry picture of me near the start. (C) Gregg Morin.
Everyone was very friendly at the finish line, and I was touched by how many racers took the time to shake my hand and tell me how strong I looked as I passed them. I made sure to emphasize that it had taken me five years to finally get it right!

Sage Burner was my very first ultra (and my first marathon!) back in '10, so it holds a special significance for me. I've run it every year since and have accumulated quite a few memories on the course. ("Oh, look! I think that's where I threw up in '12!") I'm so happy to have finally beat the heat and had a successful race there. I've always felt that I hadn't yet reached my potential on the course, but feeling and doing are two very different things. I'm proud to have finally executed. That's all you can ever really ask for in any given race.

I'm so happy to have been able to end my streak of racing this May on a high note. I've got three more weeks of training left before tapering for Bighorn. I'm actually looking forward to taking things a bit easier next week-- especially on my long run. I think I've got enough quality long runs under my belt, and now it's time to focus on some shorter, mid-week quality sessions. Most of the regular trails I run around Leadville should melt out next week. I can't wait.

Next up: the Turquoise Lake Half Marathon. A very different beast. It's going to hurt; it's going to be fun. It's always a good workout. (Probably a better workout for me than yet another 20 miler at this point...)


  1. Revenge is so sweet! Congrats on conquering SB this year!!

    1. Thanks, Jill! It was definitely sweet!

  2. I almost came and ran SB this year. It was my first race ever, and nailing it has been in the back of my mind ever since. Well done!

    1. Thanks, Peter! Your own exploits on G&T this year have been very impressive! Amazing discipline to keep at it in such crazy conditions.

  3. Darren from Gunnison here. I bent your ear after CP 25 over sandwiches. I don't know what your plans are for the weekend coming, but the weather looks uncertain so if you'd like/need a place to stay our sofa is your palace.

    Just be warned I have two young and very friendly boys and wife who loves to feed guests. ;)

    If you're interested, even as a backup, just email me at or call/text me at 970-901-3014.

    Otherwise I'll see you on the trails this Saturday. :)