Arrived to “tent city” at the Big Elk Creek YMCA campground Friday night at 5:30 with my wife and two kids in tow! Set up the tent in a nice shaded spot, unloaded my gear while the kids ran crazy (warmups for the Critter Kids 1 Mile), and headed over to packet pickup. I grabbed my packet and settled in for the pre-race briefing. I didn’t hear anything much to freak me out but the Race Director did say they have intentionally not been putting out any photos, videos, or much description of the section between Garden Gnome aid station to the Dry Canyon station. He eluded to the beauty of the section as the reason why it was being kept so covert. More on that later.
After listening to the brief and eating a plate of pasta it was time for the Critter Kids race! Mckenzie, age 4, and Aidan, age 2, have been excited about this race for a couple weeks and even trained with me a couple of weeks (mostly by riding in the running stroller)! My wife helped me pin their bibs and we lined up towards the back of the start to avoid the older kids. Ready. Set. Go! And we were off…and a short time later so was Aidan’s shorts! They fell down to his ankles, and this struggle occurred two more times during the race, so I ended up carrying him for half the race! Mckenzie ran well on the out-and-back course, but once we got to a bottleneck of the trail and larger kids were sprinting down, we made our turnaround with the other littles to head back to the finish! The kids finished strong up the stairs and received medals the size of plates! They were super excited for “winning the race!”
After their race, Crystal packed up the kids and left me to sleep for a few hours before the early wakeup call. I walked around tent city for a bit, watched the sunset, laid out my gear, and laid down to try to get a few hours of sleep. I was too warm and also excited for the race so I slept terribly. Oh well.
I woke up at 12:50 AM! Felt a little sick to my stomach; I think from not much sleep and being hot. I got ready and headed to 1:30 check-in (mandatory to account for each racer on the course). I milled around with the other racers and waited for the start. There was a quiet energy radiating from the group of racers! Everyone anticipating the 50 mile journey ahead and ready to release it as the gun went off. The race director said some things, I was out of it worrying about my upset stomach, he sang the national anthem (quietly as to not wake up anyone possibly sleeping at 2 AM), and then we were off!
Right out of the gate the first mile was a killer heading straight up the mountain! It was no joke, 800+ feet of climb for mile 1. I honestly thought of turning back after mile 1 due to feeling sick. Nearing mile 2 and 900 more feet of climb the brain started telling me that puking was on the horizon. I tried to turn off the puke demons but they got louder, and I abruptly got off the trail into the brush and threw up! Walked a couple of steps; puked again…and again! After finishing, I apologized to the other racers for the grizzly bear noises I just made as they offered me water.
I thought about quitting at this point, but I thought about all the people that I’d disappoint, and more importantly I’d be disappointed in myself if I quit. So I walked for a bit while replenishing my fluids and nutrition with jerky, a gel, and some gummies. Then I started to feel better and picked up the pace again while being cautious. After a while I even forgot that I had been feeling sick and felt normal! The first climb was finally over after 5ish miles and dropping down to North Indian Creek where aid station #1 was located. Before getting there I’d got to experience the first 4 or 5 creek crossings, and they were very cold prior to sunrise! So the wet feet began around mile 4 and the wet feet remained until the finish!
Nine miles I reached North Indian Creek aid station and it was like heaven! All the aid station crews and volunteers I deemed human angels! They would grab my bottles and refill them, take my trash, and make sure there was plenty of food to gobble up! I quickly refilled my bottles, grabbed a couple cheese quesadillas, a fun size Snickers and I was out of there! It was still dark so I still had my headlamp and spare batteries in tow. The next section was 4.5 miles up to Garden Gnome station, and I struggled with frustration most of the way. The trail wasn’t super steep or anything, but I just couldn’t get a good flow going. I had sticks trying to trip me and rocks trying to roll my ankles. So the pace slowed with it still be dark and only having a small window of light from my headlamp guiding me. I wondered how tough this would be on the second time through during the day and hoping it would be easier (it was).
I made it up to Garden Gnome at 13.5 miles in and only took a few items for aid. I had a few pickles, another fun size Snickers, a cube of PB&Jelly sandwich with my bottles refilled and I was off for another 9 miles heading on the Paradise Loop! Paradise Loop was both beautiful and hard for the first 5 miles! It just kept climbing and climbing with no end in sight!
There were waterfalls in view, landslides that took out parts of the trail, snowfields, plenty of water crossings, and false summit after false summit to climb! After all the climbing I finally threw myself over the high point of the course at 9500+ feet and just after 18 miles in! It was a huge relief to have this summit over with and to be coasting down!
By this time the sun had risen, yet I was thankful to still be running in the shadows of the mountains as I knew it was going to get very hot later in the day. I coasted down to the Paradise Loop station 24 miles in where the wonderful volunteers that packed everything into the mountains refilled my bottles as I ate 4 or 5 pieces of bacon, a few pickles, and grabbed a very hot cheese quesadilla that I threw in my pocket to cool. I ran out of there and got into a great flow for the next 6 miles back down to North Indian Creek aid station.
The trail was smoother downhill with less rocks, and the beauty of the canyon in the new daylight was spectacular! The 6 miles followed the creek sounds of mini waterfalls and I even got to cross through it a few times with the trail! North Indian Creek aid station round 2 and 30 miles into the race! Side note- it took me around 6 and a half hours to run the first 26.2 miles of this race! More than double what it takes me to run a road marathon. Palisades isn’t for the faint of heart, but worth the challenge for the scenery and people that put it together! At the aid station I was finally able to discard my headlamp, spare batteries, garbage, and extra body lubes that I’d been packing around for 30 freaking miles! Yes!!! The aid station fare was extra wonderful as I stood in the shade and ate 4 or 5 pieces of watermelon and a few pickles. I found a great combination of alternating the bites of watermelon with bites of pickles that tasted like manna in my mouth! Salts and sugars! My goal was to be in and out of the stations as quick as possible, so I left with both hands full of the manna to climb back up to Garden Gnome.
The 4.5 miles to Gnome this time was much better than when I ran it in the dark earlier in the day. I laughed as I realized the trail wasn’t that bad, I just was hitting every single rock, root, and stick on my way the first time. However, it was getting very hot, and the trail had a lot of exposure. So I took caution and ran only the flats and downhills while walking the ups. By the time I made it to Gnome, I was surrounded by 50k racers that had started at 7AM. They were 14 miles into their race, I was 34 miles into mine!
At Garden Gnome station round 2 and 34.5 miles in, I refilled my two 16.9 ounce bottles, had some pickles, Snickers, and another cube of PB&Jelly sandwich. Then I was off. This is the section the Race Director said they intentionally left out from photos and videos on social media or have much description between Garden Gnome station to the Dry Canyon station. I thought it was because of the breathtaking beauty of the section (which it had plenty of beauty in the scenery), but it was more a secret of how difficult this section would be for the racers!
The 50k racers and I stayed in a decent group for the first 4 miles of this section as we all struggled/death-marched up the mountain pass! It was hot, exposed to the sun, and very rocky! There were a few snow fields that saved me as I scooped up snow to put in my hat and rub on my burning thighs. I made sure to stop at each one (3) to follow this routine! The first 4 miles climbing out from Garden Gnome took me 90 minutes and 2000+ feet of climb! 33 minutes on just one of those miles! Dry Canyon aid station was only 8 miles away from Garden Gnome, so I thought I had enough supplies to make it. However, after I finally made it over the top of the climb and was making my way down to Dry Canyon, I ran out of water. I was 2 miles away when I took my last sip, and I needed more at that moment. This is also when I took my one and only trip and fall. I had just passed a guy, was coming into a clearing with a bunch of amazing flowers, and I looked up at them. I lost that concentration and caught a rock! I luckily was able to catch myself with both hands while sustaining no cuts or bruises. A short time after this I had to stop and walk for a bit hoping to make it to the aid station. The guy I just passed 10 minutes before had caught me. I asked him if he had any spare water I could have and he had a 70 ounce bladder full that I took a long swig of. He told me we were less than a mile out from the station and asked if I could follow him in. We ran it in, chatted, and made it to the major creek crossing just before the station! It was great to finally have another water crossing after going 9 miles of dryness. The crossing had a rope to hold onto since it was swift and went up mid-thigh! I hung out in the water for at least a minute cooling off, drenching myself, and smiling ear to ear!
At mile 43, I made it to Dry Canyon aid station! It was glorious to refill my bottles, and sit for a minute to replenish from being a bit depleted from the exposed and mountainous 8 mile section. While there I enjoyed 2 cups of Dr. Pepper, some Snickers, and cold water in my bottles. And once again the volunteers where above and beyond 5-star rating helping me out with not only the food and fluids but with their energy! I left Dry Canyon heading up Big Elk to the 2.6 miles to the last aid station, Cabin Creek! This was a tough section, because of the sun exposure, the reflective white rocks and cliffs, and the racers coming down from Cabin Creek. It wasn’t that much incline up the canyon, but at this point any incline felt like a mountain! As I navigated up the canyon, and stepped off the trail numerous times to let people heading down go by, I just kept focusing on nutrition and how my body was feeling. I’ve come too far to make an error now! The puking episode 10+ hours earlier is far removed, and now its focus and maintain to the finish!
I got to Cabin Creek finally! An out-and-back always seems to take forever getting to the turnaround point, and this one was no exception. Possibly even the worst one for me based on the mileage I’d already covered to get there. At Cabin Creek, I was less than 5 miles from the finish and I could sense it! I still had plenty of fluids, so I grabbed a Snickers and was on my way down the canyon! I still had to walk the uphills and super rocky technical sections, but for the most part I was able to run a steady pace. As the creek grew wider, I kept anticipating the finish line area to come into view. But of course, I had to come around numerous bends before I finally saw the buildings and end of the trail to appear! I dropped off the trail into the parking area with one final turn onto the bridge to go! I crossed the bridge and headed toward the lodge with the best sprint I could muster! The last stretch involved some railroad tie steps to climb (which was just a weird sensation to climb stairs at this point), that I somehow ran up! The Race Director was there to greet me and make sure that I laid my hands on the bell to signal completion of my first 50 miler!
The race was finished! I came in at 13:32:57! Wow, 13+ hours on the trails, and every muscle in my body felt it! My neck, back, shoulders, arms, LEGS, and feet were all sore! And it was a good sore! An accomplished sore!
My wife, Crystal and the kids were there to greet me along with my mother-in-law! When I say they were there to greet me, I mean they were in the vicinity! Crystal has a talent of arriving at the finish line of a race, being within earshot of the race announcer, and hearing my name called as I cross the finish line. This race was no exception. She was just walking up from tent city as she heard them call my name as a finisher!
We laughed, hugged, and rested before calling it a day! And thankfully she drove while I rested in the back with the kids!