I came into Speedgoat this year feeling primed after spending all month exploring new (to me) routes and mountains in non-Sawatch mountain ranges in Colorado. I’d gotten my fill of the Sawatch in June. I also came in with an undue amount of competitive angst.

At my core, I’m a pretty competitive person (Joe might say, “The most competitive person I’ve ever met.”), and racing in the mountains is my primary outlet for that. There’s probably some easily-diagnosed, deep-seated psychological issue there (I would guess it has something to do with craving peer acceptance as an adolescent), but my ego likes lining up, running hard, and beating people. It’s the more base, lizard-brain side of my running.  And, for various reasons, I hadn’t been able to do that since the Cavalls del Vent 84K Skyrace in Spain last fall, so I was excited to hit the warpath at Snowbird. Luckily, despite the European Skyrunning Champs also being scheduled for this weekend—thereby leaving the men’s field devoid of any serious international contenders— Karl still assembled a very deep North American fleet of competitors.  I was especially excited to race Sage Canaday for the first time, and have a bit of a rematch with Max King (he nipped me by 20+ seconds last year after I passed him with 3mi to go).

The race started as I expected—with most everyone in the front of the pack running too quickly. After a minute or two I tried to settle into a rhythm and get my effort and breathing under control on the uphill service road. As we snaked through the initial miles of circuitous singletrack, I had slotted myself into 9th place—Max and Sage were charging hard off the front with Cam just behind, an unknown-to-me shirtless fellow with a hydration pack was close behind them, and then it was a train of Justin Yates, Jason Schlarb, Timmy Olson, Jason Louttit and myself. I eventually passed the group in front of me and then caught up to Cam and Hydration Pack at about 4mi when we charged past an impressive pair of big, black bull moose right on the course. As we finally started the sustained 4mi climb to the first summit of Hidden Peak I just tried to calm down and not run so frantically. People may think that I deliberately start these things conservatively…in reality, I mostly feel like I can’t reasonably go much faster that early in the race. I don’t really have that high-end climbing gear, I guess.

We hit a short stretch of steep off-trail-ish hiking and on this I was able to finally edge away from Cam and Hydration Pack and began catching sight of Max not too far ahead, tapping away with his wizard sticks (thanks to Clarkie for this fantastic addition to mountain running nomenclature) on the steeper terrain. I caught up to him in the talus field switchbacks just below Hidden Peak, but once we popped onto the service road to the summit he gradually pushed out another 20-30sec gap on me. No worries, I calmly hiked the steep bit leading to the top, filled my bottle, and commenced bombing down the backside of the mountain, quickly catching and gapping Max (who was trying to get his poles stowed), and entering the wildflower switchbacks that would take us down to Larry’s Hole at mile 10.

Max and I would run the next 10mi or so essentially together. We left Larry’s together and worked hard climbing over Sinner’s Pass for the descent down Mary Ellen Gulch Rd. I pushed out a bit of a gap here and focused on descending the techy footing as fast as I could, hoping that Sage was bumbling a bit up ahead and that I was gaining time on him. After all the rubble, I was fumbling with a gel on a smooth stretch of road and of course then caught a toe and went down hard, tagging both knees, my left elbow, and somehow shattering the face of my watch. I was a bit stunned and embarrassed, but nothing hurt and I was on my feet and running again before Max caught back up. It didn’t take him long, though, to pull even, and we ran into Rocho’s Pacific Mine aid station at the half-way point together. I had dropped a gel on the descent, so I took a minute in the aid to chug a cup or two of coke, looking to supplement my energy with a few more calories.

Max and I left the aid together, both intent on eating into Sage’s 4min lead that he’d held since the summit of Hidden Peak. I was happy to be able to stick with Max’s demanding flat-road tempo, and for a while we were right together heading up the rubbly road-climb back to Sinner’s Pass.  Then I hit a mild low-patch. I stopped to pee, jogged and hiked some more, stopped to tie a flapping shoelace, jogged and hiked some more, hiked some more while eating a gel, etc. I wasn’t feeling too bad–just some mild low-energy—and I was able to keep Max just in sight through the trees ahead, but I knew it was unlikely we were doing anything to catch Sage at this point.

Eventually, Karl gifted us a short, steep off-trail section on the climb back up to Sinners Pass, and Max and I were joined again, entering the mile 21 aid in tandem and with a reported 9min deficit to Sage. Bugger. He’d managed to double his lead. Lucky for me, though, the last 10mi of the course are my favorite of the whole route with a hands-on-the-ground grunt up to Baldy’s summit, a fast descent, and then an aesthetic march up Peruvian Ridge to Hidden Peak before the final 5mi screamer down to the finish.

Shortly out of Larry’s Hole I hiked away from Max and turned my focus toward catching Sage. After crawling up through the wildflowers and descending down to the Tunnel aid station I was informed that I’d snipped 3min off Sage’s lead in the past 2mi. This spurred me on the descent and then I charged the ridge back up to Hidden Peak as hard as I could, hoping that the steep terrain was playing to my advantage. When I arrived there I was told that I’d closed the gap down to 4min. With 5mi and 3000′ of drop left to the finish, I was determined to give it everything I had, thinking that it was still possible for me to win the race.

I pushed as hard as I could on techy trail and steep, smooth service road alike, but was only able to catch a single glimpse of Sage, about 1.5mi out from the finish. I think he probably caught a look at me as well as I was unable to get any closer and ultimately crossed under the finish arch 90sec in arrears, 5:09 to Sage’s 5:08. Both of us were under Rickey’s official 5:18 course record, but we’d also eclipsed Kilian’s disputed 5:14 run from last year, which was particularly satisfying.

Fifty kilometers is definitely on the short end of where I feel I’m able to be competitive, so I was fairly pleased with the result. Though I certainly lined up with the intent of winning, I was able to make it close enough to confirm that I’m as fit as I thought I was going in. It was also especially interesting to see how two athletes at opposite ends of the ultrarunning spectrum—most days I feel like more of a hiker and a scrambler than anything and, I mean, seriously, Sage’s marathon PR is 26min faster than mine—could end up being so close at the end of the day.

Furthermore, some seem to be under the impression that in order to race well, one must have raced recently. I guess my feelings on that are that most of my daily outings are teaching me how to suffer well in the mountains—I’m typically not out there just jogging around—and I don’t necessarily need a lot of races to learn that. Either way, I’m now feeling super excited and prepared for UTMB where hopefully I can successfully replicate the same tactic of a reasonable start and a frenetic finish.