Friday, December 27, 2019

Jeff Beck's McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 Mile Race Report: The Two Hardest Days of My Life

Article by Jeff Beck

What follows is my last year of race preparation and training leading up to the race. If you would just like to read about McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 Mile race, scroll down to the heading titled The Race

The Idea

In early 2018 I got back into running after taking roughly two years off to explore other endeavors. In 2015 I'd made the mistake of buying a mountain bike to cross train, and then found out that I really liked mountain biking and went down that rabbit hole. At the same time I published two novels and a non-fiction book, which is even more time consuming than mountain biking - and those two activities left me no time to log any running miles. But by March 2018 I'd gotten back into running, careful to slowly ramp up my miles rather than jumping right back to the 20-30 miles per week I'd been running previously.

 Closing half mile of Dam Good Run 26K - surprised to see my brother on course taking photos

I can't stop myself from jumping into nearly everything I get into. I don't dip the toe very well. I subscribe to the Ron Swanson "Don't half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing" philosophy, and previously in my running I'd completely two marathons, but now I wanted more. I was spending a lot of time on various trails around Phoenix, both for personal enjoyment and safety; too many inattentive or aggressive drivers on the roads. By fall of 2018 I'd come to the conclusion I should run an ultra marathon, and so I did what I always do - exhaustive research. Well, first I had a conversation with my wife, Stephanie, knowing that training would keep me away from the house for long stretches, leaving her alone with our then five-year-old daughter - but Steph gave me the green light enthusiastically.

All of my research told me your first ultra should be nearby home, taking travel costs and potential inconsistencies out the equation. So that brought me to a list of the best first ultra in each state, and the entry for Arizona said to check out the Javelina Jundred 100K/100 mile held at the end of October or really any Aravaipa Racing event. Aravaipa Racing is based out of Phoenix, owned by professional ultra runner Jamil Coury, they host anywhere from one to four events per month year round, and every event they put on is well marked, very well provided for via aid station, and has a great atmosphere. Perfect.

Start/finish/aid station/registration/beer garden village getting set up day before the race.

Now it was time for some first hand experience. Aravaipa offers race credit for volunteering at an aid station, and McDowell Mountain Frenzy seemed like my most likely goal race, so I poured over their volunteer listing, and found they had a wide variety of jobs you could sign up for. I ended up volunteering the day before the race, helping set up the main village they construct with massive 20'x20' tents for registration, aid station, first aid, beer garden, and t-shirt/swag shop. I also wanted to get a feel for the race itself, so I talked my brother, Greg, into volunteering with me at the Dixie Mine Aid Station on race day. I needed Greg because the aid station was incredibly remote and required a 4x4 with high clearance, which his truck had. Even though he isn't a runner, Greg was intrigued by the idea, and didn't take much convincing.

Dixie Mine Aid Station 2018 - our oasis in the desert at the base of Thompson (the peak with the antennas)

The set up the day before the race was your typical manual labor job. I helped erect several of those massive tents, helped set up generators and run extension cords for lighting, runner tracking, and the sound system. Then I filled what felt like a few million gallons into big water jugs that'd be delivered to the various remote aid stations, and called it a day to get some rest for aid station duty.

The 50K runners would visit us, and make a crucial turn toward home, having completed 22 of the 31 miles. The 50 Mile runners would hit our aid station 28 miles into their race (they had an extra loop they ran earlier), then turn around to summit Thompson Peak. Thompson is a beast. It's only a 2 mile climb, but it has 2,000 feet of climbing, and gets incredibly steep in a few areas. The path is actually a jeep trail, and there are a few spots that are paved, because if they were dirt odds are most people wouldn't make it up. The Trailforks app shows that there are several parts of the climb that have up to a 63% grade, which is no joke, especially 30 miles into a race. But after the summit, 50 mile runners would make their way down the steep path, back to us again (now at mile 33) refill and refuel again, before heading on their way.

Turns out, volunteering at an aid station is a lot of fun. It's especially fun when your aid station is only visited by the 50K and 50 mile runners (McDowell Mountain Frenzy offers 50 mile, 50K, 25K, 10 mile, and 5 mile distances) and they will have all run 10.5 miles since their last aid station. Most aid stations are 4-6 miles apart, so this was the massive gap. I've never felt so appreciated in my life. We were the oasis in the middle of the desert. 

Everyone got to us low on energy and/or supplies, and we did everything we could to help. Greg and I were joined by two strangers, Michael, who was traveling through Arizona in his motorhome with his wife, who was running in the event, and Mike, who was a seasoned ultra runner with multiple 100 mile races under his belt who'd moved to the Valley a few months earlier from his native Pennsylvania. We all assumed roles we excelled at. As the dad to a toddler, I'd made more PB&Js in the last two years than the other three combined, so I was on food detail. Michael was on constant water re-supply, and Mike and Greg were out front doing whatever needed to be done. Runners at our aid station didn't quite get the Four Seasons treatment, but it was close. I brought my Hypervolt massage gun, and offered it up to runners who clearly needed something. One 50 mile runner came in, looking like she was in shock. She'd trained, but not enough. Mike sat her down in a chair, grabbed a number of things from our smorgasbord of supplies, and spent 30 minutes talking her through it. We'd find out that night that she finished, just a little before cut off. It became clear that Mike was the best trail psychiatrist I’ve ever seen.

It was an amazing and tiring day, and it fully cemented that this was what I wanted to do. Not try. I wanted to finish - and not need an aid station counseling session.

Doesn’t happen often, but sometimes you get to run in the rain in Phoenix.

I proceeded to spend hours on Aravaipa’s website breaking down what my 2019 race calendar would look like. At the same time, I kept finding various training programs for 50K or 50 mile races, but none of them stood out as the right thing. I'd been reviewing shoes for for nearly six months, and one of my fellow reviewers, Dave Ames, is full-time running coach, though looking at his website it didn't make any mention of ultra training, only shorter distances up to the marathon. I reached out to him to see if he had any coaching suggestions, and it turned out he did coach ultra runners - complete novices like me up to elite runners. We set up a phone call, and five minutes in I realized we had very similar philosophies (avoid injury at all cost) and had a good rapport, so I'd found my coach. On January 1st, 2019, we'd begin.

The Training

Pre Coldwater Rumble 20K with Steph and Emma.

Training started on the first of  the year, and up to that point I was averaging 20 miles per week of easy miles. Pretty quickly we jumped into 30-35 miles, with Quality Runs of various speedwork on Wednesday. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday were usually easy runs of 4-6 miles. Friday was almost always rest, and Saturday was the designated long run day, with Sunday either being rest, or a medium-long run for a back-to-back weekend. 

 Black Canyon 100K Pacing duties. I received many bribes and begs to ditch Mike and pace other, less illuminated runners.

I'd kept in contact with Mike from the aid station. He was running Aravaipa's Black Canyon 100K in February, and looking forward to it. I looked at the website, there were a number of aid stations pacers could pick up their runners, and the last one was 10 miles from the finish line. He was much faster than me, but giving him a 52 mile head start I figured I could hang with him, and 10 miles was just a little shorter than my current long runs, so wouldn't be bad. Except massive storms turned dry creek beds into raging rivers, and they had to change up the course 90 minutes before the start. We knew this was a possibility, and I told Mike I'd pace him however long he needed me. I ended up pacing him for exactly 26.2 miles, and it wasn't pretty. He effectively dropped me in the last few miles, but later told me that the specter of me, behind him glowing super bright with my Kogalla Ra chest lamp, kept him moving forward and he beat his goal time.
Sunset during Black Canyon 100K

I'd thrown a number of goal races at Dave for his expertise. Aravaipa had eight races in the first four months of the year, and nearly all had ultra distance options, but I wasn't ready. I did sign up for the 20K at Coldwater Rumble, in the southwest part of Phoenix, in late January as my first trail race in nearly five years. It went well, and really showed just how great the community was. Every runner that I crossed paths with would exchange a "good job", including the leaders of the 100 mile, 52 mile, or 50K. After that, I was hooked. In March I ran the 22K at Aravaipa's Dam Good Run, and again, had nothing but amazing things to say. The course ran near the coastline of Lake Pleasant, just northwest of Phoenix, and this race was the only time you could actually run on top of the dam. So it wasn't just a clever name.

A few weeks before the Dam Good Run, we got clarity. I'd looked at the Javelina Jangover 50K (a nighttime multi-loop race in late September that serves as a major training run for October's Javelina Jundred 100K/100 mile), Cave Creek Thriller 50K (point-to-point race in early October that went through the desert north of Phoenix), Pass Mountain 50K (a race down in Mesa I knew little about other than it was in the middle of November), and of course December's McDowell Mountain Frenzy. I sent Dave an analysis of each race, with pros and cons, and we had a discussion. What if the ultimate goal was Frenzy's 50 mile, and I ran the other three 50K as just well supported training runs? Could I recover in time, especially with only two weeks between the Jangover and Cave Creek? Dave said absolutely, and that was that. Exactly 9 months before, I knew I'd be running the 50 mile at McDowell Mountain Frenzy. Now I just had to make it happen.

At temperatures started spiking, so did my mileage. Dave started giving me at least one back-to-back weekend per month, something like 20 miles on the trails on Saturday followed by 12 miles on the road Sunday morning. "You can fake the funk on a 50 miler" he told me, saying that the Sunday morning miles would be a great way to experience the final miles of an ultra. Everything was going to hurt, but you have to push through. 
Aftermath of late July 18 miles that started in the dark. Ran out of water 2 miles away from the car, temps were just under 100 at 9:00 am.

Looking at my training calendar, I think I blocked a lot of the pain from those days out, because I don't remember them, but the runs on Strava all have titles channeling strength from various sources (like from Game of Thrones Arya Stark "What do we say to the god of Death? Not Today.”) because clearly I was struggling. But I made it through summer only running out of water three or four times. Seriously. No matter how much water I'd take (usually my Nathan hydration pack with a 3 liter bladder and at least one soft flask - even at 4 am Phoenix is hot) I could rarely finish anything with 18+ miles with any water left. Each long run for the month of July by tracing through every single street, creating abstract artwork in the different neighborhoods around us in Phoenix, only to nearly collapse back at the car where I had water and electrolytes waiting for me.

High altitude training in Flagstaff on the fabled Lake Mary Road. 7,000 feet of elevation and rolling hills, but much less heat.

Even though I was training for a trail race, Dave wanted me to run at least one marathon in late summer. Unfortunately, those don't exist in Arizona, but he told me about the Santa Rosa Marathon, north of San Francisco in late August. It's right in the middle of wine country, and offers a half marathon distance, so my wife took literally zero convincing that we should go. Unfortunately, by then our daughter had started Kindergarten, so she'd be staying behind with my folks while we ran. And drank a little. 

Santa Rosa Marathon goes through a vineyard and barrel room. Note how heavy the fog was - and as you exit the winery they try to get you to take a shot of Chardonnay. At mile 11. 

Two weeks before Santa Rosa, Emma brought home some bug from kindergarten, and I got sick. The cold went into my lungs pretty quickly, and wasn't leaving. I was having flashbacks to my first marathon in 2014, where I ran the Phoenix Rock N Roll marathon right as I was getting sick - which turned the race into a death march at times and left me sick for two months afterward. So I knew I couldn't run it if I was sick, I couldn't lose two months of training. A week before the race I went to my doctor again, hoping she could do anything. She was convinced it was just a really bad cold, but she said in ~3% of those antibiotics would help, and what the hell, let's give it a shot. So I took the pills, we packed our bags, and flew to Santa Rosa a few days before.

Steph and I had an agreement that if I was sick I wasn't going to run. I had to feel good at least the day before, and low-and-behold, that's exactly what happened. Two days before the race I felt okay, the day before I felt good, and the morning of the race I felt great. I wasn't running for a time, just a well supported training run, and it was a nice break from the massive heat I'd been running in. There was lots of humidity, and fog so thick you couldn't much more than a quarter mile, but it wasn't so bad. I declined the shot of chardonnay volunteers tried to get me to take at mile 10, and just kept grinding out easy miles. Around mile 20 everything was fine. By mile 22 things didn't feel right. By mile 24 my stomach was killing me, and all I could say or think was "I need to be not doing this." Yeah, great grammar. And that's when I found myself in an ambulance, vomiting, on the way to the hospital. Turns out even though I drank 120+ ounces (I kept refilling my handheld bottle) it wasn't nearly enough, and I was severely dehydrated. Not my best day. But I had nearly a month until my first ultra marathon, so I got rest and recovered pretty quickly.

 “I need to be not doing this.” Not my finest day, but after the second IV I’m starting to look human again.

Javelina Jangover started as a group of folks getting together to run the Javelina Jundred loop about a month before the big race. Eventually Aravaipa just leaned into it, and turned it into its own event, offering a 25K (one loop) 50K (two loops) and 75K (three loops) of the course. The course was effectively just a trail called Pemberton, which is 15.5 mile loop that is 99% super tame buffed out trail. There was an aid station at the start/finish line, and a remote one halfway through the loop. 

Long exposure view of Start/Finish line at JJ50K. Photo credit Greg Beck.

Each loop would be run opposite the last one, but the first half of each loop was a constant and gradual uphill making the second half a smooth and flowy downhill. I've mountain biked it before, and heading down on Pemberton really meant not pedaling once for 20 to 30 minutes. I'd been out on the trail a number of times, and even did a solo night loop about two weeks earlier - which was a little spooky being all alone in the park, except for the dozens of massive tarantulas and bark scorpions. But on race night, there were hundreds of folks around, including my brother, who came out to crew me when I came in between loops and he'd be enjoying one of his main hobbies, astrophotography, during the rest of the time.

 Start line selfie from Javelina Jangover 50K. Check out the bandage on the ear from getting pre-skin cancer removed a week earlier.

The race went well. A number of little things didn't go quite right, and I had a weird stomach for the second loop, but we weren't ready to blow up my normal fluid/fuel plan - I likely thought my weird stomach was due to it being that I was running at midnight instead of being asleep. Lots of things hurt late, but that was to be expected, and within a few days I had recovered, and felt great. So much so, that my easy runs had gone from low 10 minute pace to mid 9 minute pace. Not sure if that was a mental barrier or a physical one, but after that first ultra I had much more in the tank.

 Closing out the first loop during JJ50K. I can’t say enough great things about the Kogalla Ra light kit.

Unfortunately, I also had a germ laden kindergartener at home, and I got sick again right before Cave Creek Thriller. I didn't bother picking up my shirt at bib pick up, it wasn't in the cards. But I was okay with that, I had one more 50K warm up race, and rest was more important. And I was able to watch Eluid Kipchoge break 2 hours in the marathon live, because I didn't have to wake up early the next morning. Silver linings all around, especially because October mornings in Phoenix are still really hot. I had a month until Pass Mountain 50K, at Usery Regional Park, which I'd never run before. Phoenix has a wide variety of parks with great trails, and there are literally a dozen that are much closer to Usery, so I'd never bothered making the hour plus drive. But with a few weeks to go to the race, I figured I'd check it out.

Pass Mountain 50K starting line selfie. Confidence high, time to go run an easy 50K and see what my legs felt like the following morning.

I was glad I did. Pass Mountain 50K is a two loop course, and the southern portion of each loop was smooth, flat, and non-technical, and the northern portion was the exact opposite. For nearly five miles of the northern part I didn't even consider running, and I put my hands on the ground at least a dozen times to help climb over something. Super technical. Which was good, because a few weeks earlier I'd finally attempted Thompson Peak, and learned firsthand just how soul crushing some of those climbs are, and just how quad shredding the descent is.

Emma bringing me home at the end of Pass Mountain 50K.

Dave had a plan for my Pass Mountain race. Go completely chill the whole time, force myself to keep it easy, because the following morning I had 15 miles on the road. This was the final test. And, I'm proud to say, I aced it. The race went super easy and super slow. One of the aid stations on the second loop told me I won the award for composure and I looked to be doing better than literally anyone out there. They even asked if I'd give a woman who'd just left in front of me a piggy-back ride because she was doing so badly. I kept everything relaxed the whole way, and when people would pass I wouldn't try to follow them. Steph and Emma came out with me, then left to visit family during my loop, and came back to crew me during the interloopal transition. My mom had been tracking my phone, and when I came in to change shirt, shoes, and refill everything, I got a text asking if everything was okay since I stopped moving. It then dawned on me my mom had been at home, watching the little blue dot move slowly through the desert. I told her just a quick pitstop, and I'd be out again. By the time it was over I'd be going for just under 8 hours, and I was spent.

 Solo night training.

And that's when the nerves started creeping in. It felt like I had nothing left at that point. How could I go another 19 miles? We didn't get home until almost 6 pm, and I still had 15 miles to run the next morning. Shockingly though, I did it. Lots of sleep later, I woke up, got my gear together, and started running loops around the neighborhood just south of us that was very flat with little traffic (our neighborhood is very hilly, I didn't need to stack the deck against myself), and before I knew it - it was over. 15 miles at a 9:39 pace. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't everything I had. Now I knew firsthand what I'd read about other ultra runners, that they knew their legs had more in them even if their brain was telling them to stop. I had no doubt I had enough to run the 50 mile. My legs were bullet proof. My head was in a good place. I had this. I just had to get to the starting line, and it'd be over.

Easy miles on the dirt in Flagstaff.

That feels like a lifetime ago.

Two weeks before the race my daughter got sick again, and then I got it. Just another cold, and it hadn't started yet, but I could feel it in my nose, in my throat, it was coming. A year of training, all down the tubes. I tried to keep perspective. This is just a hobby. This isn't my livelihood. There will be more races. Heck, there'd be a 52 mile race just a few weeks later, maybe I could run that instead. My mom tried to give me hope. Maybe it'll pass before then. So I slept whenever I could (Beck family philosophy - if you're sick, go sleep, you'll feel better), and by Thanksgiving, just nine days before the race, I was feeling pretty good. Maybe this was just allergies. We went over to my parent's house, had a great relaxing Thanksgiving with great food and fun times. Steph and Emma left the day after to spend a few days with my in-laws, and I'd planned on resting a bunch and then heading over to McDowell Mountain Park and check out the final 8 mile loop on Saturday afternoon. Steph was going to pace me for the final section, and I'd run it five years ago during a Ragnar Trail event, but that was in the middle of the night and I remembered nothing.

Then I got the phone call that changed my life. All of our lives.

Tragedy Strikes

"Hey, dad just called me, mom's not breathing, he's called 911,” my brother’s voice said.

8:30 am a week before the race, two days after Thanksgiving. I was fully in taper mode and slept in, but  I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and drove the 10 minutes to my parent's house. There was an ambulance and fire truck out front, as well as my brother's truck. I ran inside, found my dad and brother in the hallway next to my parent's room, with a handful of firefighters attending to my mom. On the drive I kept telling myself not to make anything out of anything, and we don't know what anything is yet. Keep hope. After about five minutes of standing there in shock, I realized that the faint solid beep I could hear in the background was my mom's heartbeat. It wasn't making any noise. My mom had died.

I'd like to tell you that I stayed strong. Maybe I had some words of wisdom for my dad and brother. But I didn't. I broke down probably fifty times that day. Maybe a hundred. Steph and Emma made a beeline home to be there for me. Mom wasn't in the best of health, and she'd been on crutches for years because of a bad ankle on one side and a bad knee on the other. She'd had this little cough she couldn't kick, but she wasn't sick sick. Except maybe she was. They said she had a heart attack in her sleep, and that was that.

Within a few hours I realized that there was no way I'd be able to run the race. Not a chance. 
Debra Wrigley Beck. The sweetest woman you probably never met. She would have liked you.

I was close with my mom. We all were. I worked with my parents helping run their property management and real estate company for the last decade. My wife has worked with them for more than seven years, and until Kindergarten started, my daughter Emma came with us to the office, located in their home, almost every day. My mom adored my daughter. As little kids, Greg and I were good, but Emma was her everything. Her knee and ankle injuries kept her from coming to any of my races, but she was going to go to McDowell Mountain Frenzy. She bought a special camp chair that was comfortable for her to sit in. She was going to be at the finish line, hanging out with Emma while Steph paced me, and Greg and Dad were working at the aid station Greg and I had done the year before. And now there was no way any of that was happening.

My dad told me to take a few days to think about it. Greg and Steph said the same. And after a couple days, they all doubled down on "you need to do this" and they weren't wrong. It would crush my mom if she was the reason I didn't run, after training literally all year for one event. They weren't wrong. I would run. I just had no idea how it would go. Physically, my legs were still bulletproof. Mentally, every minute was different from the next. Emotionally, I was destroyed. 

We had the funeral the day before the race. Lots of family came into town, and we had lots of support from friends. Mike from the aid station came, which was the first time I saw him in anything more than a t-shirt and shorts. He was running the 50 mile too the next morning, and told me he see me at the start line. Some old friends I hadn't spoken with in years sent messages of their favorite memory of my mom. She loved people, and kids especially, so much, and it showed to everyone who even met her briefly. We heard from a number of tenants, a number were sobbing. Many people might wish the worst upon their landlords, but my mom's death broke our tenants down. After the funeral we went back to my dad's house, and I found a pearl bracelet that my mom used to wear. It'd ride inside my pack the next day. Mom wouldn't be at the finish line, but some part of her would be with me the whole way. I tried to sneak out early, leave the rest of my family to spend the evening together, because I still had to pack my drop bags and get to bed, but didn't leave until almost 8 pm.

I was in bed around 10 pm, with a 4 am alarm set.

I wouldn't sleep at all that night.

The Race

I tossed and turned all night. Between the day that just was, and the day that was coming, my brain couldn't turn off. I purposely didn't look at the clock on the bedside table, because if I saw how late it was that might freak me out. Eventually I gave in and looked. 3:30 am. There’d be no sleep for me. So I got up with my mom always called "Slumber Party Stomachache" which comes from not getting enough sleep, took a shower, went over all my last minute prep, and started the nearly hour drive over. 

McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 Mile starting line selfie. Look how tired those eyes are.

Text messages started pouring in from family and friends wishing me luck and telling me they’d be following along. I'd sent the Aravaipa tracking link to everyone that said that they wanted to follow along, and I'd have people watching that page all over the country. I brought a banana with me for the drive, but my stomach didn't want it, but the cold brew coffee GU helped a little. I got my bib and t-shirt, and then went back to my car to warm up before the race. It wasn't really cold, only 48-49 degrees, but cold enough to not want to stand outside in shorts and t-shirt. I got a text from Mike that he was milling around by the start, and I got another text from a friend Michael from Missing Chins. 

Look at that smile. Mere minutes after the finish, it’s amazing what a shot of pickle juice and grilled cheese sandwich can do.

If you aren't familiar, the Missing Chins Run Club was started a few years ago by a guy from New Orleans named Josh LaJaunie. Josh had gone from 420 pounds down to about 200, largely attributed to a better diet and lots of exercise. Nothing special, nothing gimmicky, just eating healthy and exercising. He's been on the cover of Runner's World, and even was interviewed on Good Morning America with a number of other Chins. Collectively we've lost tens of thousands of pounds (seriously) though my contribution of 60 pounds lost is somewhat pedestrian by comparison. Anyway, Michael from Missing Chins is the only other guy in there from Arizona, and he lives in Scottsdale and was debating running the 25K. An injury kept him from signing up at the last second, but he wanted to come out, see me for a few minutes, and wish me well. He noticed I was cold, and refused to take no for an answer - literally giving me the jacket off his back. He wrapped it around me and my hydration vest, so I could stay warm until we started.
My friend Mike. One of the best people I have the pleasure of knowing.

A minute later I found Mike, introduced him to Michael, and that's when Mike told me he was planning on running with me the whole way. I asked what his goal was for the day, and all he wanted to do was to get me to the finish line. His own time be damned. He said I could tell him to go away if I really wanted to be alone, but otherwise, he'd do whatever I wanted.

He wasn't kidding.

My plan was to do exactly what I did at Pass Mountain. Super easy miles, one after another, until Thompson Peak. Make it up, make it down, then we'd have about 8 or 9 miles to get back to the finish line, pick up Steph for the final 8 mile loop - and that would be that.

Say one thing about Jeff Beck, say he sticks to a plan. Each mile would ding, we'd drop to a fast walk for about two minutes, then go back to an easy jog. Gotta save the legs.

We ran a lot of 12:xx miles, which is what I had to have if I was going to endure Thompson. The first aid station was about 7 miles in, quick refill of fluids, and we set off. The next aid station we would hit twice, doing an extra six mile loop that the 50K runners wouldn't run. I had my first drop bag there, and when we went through the aid station the second time right around mile 18, I resupplied my GU, and did a quick shirt/sock/shoe change. I started off in the Hoka Speedgoat 4, which is an amazing shoe (good for easy miles and some technical stuff), but my feet were starting to want a little extra room up front and a little extra squish underneath, so I switched to the Hoka Stinson 5, a half size up in 11. Fresh Squirrel's Nut Butter all over the feet to keep any blisters from happening, and we were off, for the final 10.5 miles until we'd get to Dixie Mine Aid Station where my dad and brother were.

I'd run every part of the trail (except for the final 8 mile loop) in the months leading up to the race, but I'd blocked out just how much climbing and rocky technical trail we'd be experiencing heading down to Dixie Mine. There were a few sections where we barely ran for miles on end, and pace dropped to 14-16 minutes per mile. We could have pushed it, but there was no point whatsoever. Hitting the first 18 miles in the pace we did meant we could likely walk the entire way in and still break the 15 hour cut off. I’d said all along I didn’t care about my time, just the finish, and I meant it. Mike just kept emulating me, whatever I did he did, and we had a number of good conversations. We also had a number of random ones too, discussing restaurants, movies, all kinds of stuff. I'd brought headphones with me because I was planning on running solo, and had hours and hours of podcasts ready, but with Mike's presence, I never even turned them on. Even when we'd got a few minutes without talking, just being in the moment made more sense than listening to the Giant Bombcast discuss video games.

My dad holding down Dixie Mine before any runners arrived. Photo credit Greg Beck.

Eventually we made it to Dixie Mine, about an hour later than I'd anticipated, but feeling really good. My dad and brother, however, were not doing as well. Aravaipa wanted five volunteers for the aid station, but they only had the two Beck boys, and they looked a little frazzled. It didn't help their aid station looked like a military triage unit. Five guys were laying on the ground in the dirt, and another three were sitting in folding camp chairs my brother had packed in his truck. Some of the guys laying down had been broken by Thompson. Two of them had gone out too hard, and the sheer sight of Thompson broke them. I grabbed trekking poles out of my drop bag, and did another quick shoe change. This time I swapped over to the Nike Wildhorse 5. They aren't nearly as padded as the Hokas, but they are much more form fitting. The two times I've climbed Thompson I had a lot of pain coming down as my foot slid forward in the shoe as my toes tried to meld with the toebox of the shoe. I thought if the entire shoe had a tighter lock on the foot that wouldn't happen as much. I was wrong. 
Coming back from Thompson Peak, just ~18 miles to go

Climbing Thompson I took my time, focusing on pole technique, and just steady progress. One guy passed us coming down, and he looked like a zombie. Apparently he was the leader at one point, took a wrong turn, didn't realize it for two miles, and tried to make it up by speeding up Thompson - only to discover that you really don't speed up Thompson (unless you're Jim Walmsley - there's a Strava segment where my PR is 34 minutes, his is 13:49), and he was paying for it. 
Not much in the way of technical obstacles, but the climb is rough ~30 miles into your day.

It took about an hour to get to the top from the aid station, and we turned around to head down. Major pain in the toes. The Wildhorse 5 has a really adequate width toebox, but its toebox height is lacking, and I felt that on every step. I probably should have gone with the Saucony Peregrine or Skechers TRL Speed Hyper, both have just a little more lockdown. Regardless, it was about another hour back down to the aid station, where I put the Stinsons back on, refilled water, and Mike and I said our farewells to my dad and brother. The nice thing about the slower pace was they'd be able to shut down the aid station at the cutoff points and make it to the finish line before we did.
Coachwhip trail near Windmill trail. Still conserving energy for Thompson.

Mike and I only had one big climb left out of Dixie Mine, and then it was largely runnable. By then my legs were painful in a dozen ways that weren't real. If you've run an ultra you know that your body will start hurting, but not because something is wrong, it is just your brain telling you that you shouldn't be doing what you're doing. Other than that my legs felt good, they weren't too beat up from the previous 34 miles, but my energy level was waning. I'd been doing my usual GU Roctane gel every 45 minutes and S-tab salt pill every hour on the hour. Most aid stations I'd grab a little bit of ginger to help the stomach, a handful of gummy worms (I'd reward myself with one when my watch would mark a mile - it's now almost a Pavlovian response to that ding), and little bits of real food. One of them I had part of a PB&J, another a refried bean and tortilla roll up, that type of finger food. But by mile 38 I was ravenously hungry. Mike offered me one of his Cliff Bars, and that turned out to be one of the tastiest things I've ever had. Just what I needed, and energy level came up, and we went back to running. 

However, around then the rain started - roughly 8 hours earlier than the meteorologists predicted. We kept pushing through as the sun went down. Luckily, I'd tucked my headlamp into the Dixie Mine drop bag, but Mike didn't think we'd be so slow, and his headlamp was waiting for him at the finish line for the final 8. All he had was his phone flashlight, so I kept close to him so my headlamp would light both of our way. Luckily, most of this section was back on Pemberton (where I'd run the first loop of Javelina Jangover in ASICS Glide Ride road shoes without much issue) so we didn't have much to avoid. Eventually we made it to the finish line at 42 miles and Steph. Mike had offered to leave us at that point, so we could have a moment together, but I told him absolutely not - he'd been with me for that long, if he'd like to stick around for the rest, we'd love to have him. 

That's how we set out for the final loop, Mike in the lead, Steph in the middle with her Kogalla Ra, and me in the rear with my Kogalla. 
Final loop with Steph, rain had stopped momentarily.

The rain would come and go, and then it came back and never left. We hit an aid station two miles into the loop, but I didn't bother with anything, I just wanted to push through, especially since there was only six miles to go. I'd swapped to another pair of Hoka Stinson 5 (this time a full size 11.5) to account for swelling feet and the Morton's Neuroma I'm fairly certain I developed in my left foot about three months ago. The rain was making relatively tame trail much nastier, as mud and rocks were getting very slick. Whenever I could run, I would, and Steph and Mike would press on. 

I was nervous my watch was going to die, but just after the aid station it said I had 10% left, and I felt good it'd make it the rest of the way. It wouldn't. With about two miles to go, my legs just let up, and we started running. Everything felt good. No more random phantom pain my brain was assigning to areas of the leg, jut the nagging hurt in the foot. My watch read 50 miles, but Steph's said 7, so I knew we were still about a mile away from the finish, and then my watch let me know it was shutting down. So much for that 10% Garmin, I bet if you were a Coros you would have made it (I kid. Kind of). We kept running, in the dark, through the rain, and Mike called out as we got closer to the finish line that there was no way he was crossing in front of me. 

He turned around with that look in his eye of "Challenge me on this. I dare you." Steph and I ran to the finish, Mike right behind us. I saw my brother and my dad, and more family. Ultimately there was about ten of them waiting at the finish line for us.

I lost it. I grabbed Steph, and just sobbed. My brother got an amazing picture of it. If you look closely, that’s Mike in the background. 
The end of the second hardest day of my life. Photo Greg Beck.

On March 7th, nine months before the race, I knew this would be an emotional finish. You can't train all year for one day and have it not be. But then we lost mom, and it became so much more. Even though her funeral was the day before, part of me couldn't say goodbye until that night. After I gained my composure, a volunteer from Aravaipa gave me the 50 mile finisher’s trophy, which is amazing and features what else - Thompson. I thanked Mike profusely, who said he was just repaying the favor from Black Canyon. Needless to say, I’m going to be pacing him again there this year, but hopefully it will only be for the final 10 miles or so. Nobody should do any rain dances.
Aravaipa doesn’t mess around with their swag.

We took a few more pictures, I helped myself to some quesadilla and grilled cheese from the aid station, and Steph drove us home in her car, my dad taking my car home. No way I'd be able to operate a clutch pedal with as trashed as my legs were. But as I rode home I realized that they really weren't that torn up. Dave’s coaching had allowed me to do exactly what we’d planned nine months earlier and my legs were there for all of it. And unlike the two 50K I'd completely months earlier, I never had any doubt. I never had any questioning of why I was out there, or why I was doing it. No existential crisis. From the moment I started the race, I knew as certain I know anything that I was going to cross the finish line. I just had to do the work. Official time, 14:24, 80th place.

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading this. I hope it was enjoyable. It's without a doubt the hardest thing I've ever written. If you have the ability to, please go tell your mother you love her, and same with your dad. Because I did it a lot, and it still wasn't enough. I didn't get to say goodbye, but there was nothing left unsaid, and that has helped a lot these last few weeks. But I can guarantee you if you still have your mom, or your dad, you'll never look back and think "You know, I told them I loved them too much."

Going forward I'm not sure what's next for me. This last year was hard. It was hard on me, my wife, my daughter, and everyone else. Working with a coach and having most days’ runs laid out ahead of me was great, but also, it was a lot. I'm planning on scaling back, probably only run 30-35 miles most weeks, with the main goal to keep putting enough miles on shoes to keep writing reviews and making videos. I'm not saying I'll never run any ultras again, but when I do it'll be once Emma is a little bit older, and is much better at washing her hands and not effectively wiping her nose on everything. But I like to think a part of my mom will always be out there on the trail, or road, with me.

Jeff Beck
Jeff is the token slow runner of the RTR lineup as such his viewpoints on shoe and gear can differ from those who routinely finish marathons in three hours or less. Jeff runs 40 miles per week, both roads and desert trails in Phoenix, Arizona. He has a PR's of 4:07 marathon and 5K at 23:39 both he is working to demolish with help from his coach Dave Ames and recently raced and finished his first 50 mile race.

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Jim said...

❤️ Ron Swanson.

Jeff said...

Absolutely Jim.

Employee: "Can I help you sir?"
Ron: "I know more than you."

Jeff Valliere said...

Man, that is really awesome, thanks for sharing Jeff!

So sorry about your mom.

Harold said...

Yep you done good, the story was empowering and the tears were there for your journey and loss. I lost my Dad this past October, my mom several years ago. Never take them for granted.


Brook282 said...

Amazing post, thanks for sharing this Jeff.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful read. Thanks for sharing. ♥️