Saturday, May 5, 2012

Salt Flats 100

Race morning looking out over the first leg of the course.

I had been looking forward to this race all year.  The idea of doing a 100 mile race on the famous salt flats of the Utah desert just sounded too cool.  And the race did not disappoint.  It was very cool running across the flats and it was nice to have some mountains to climb and some other scenery to break things up.  Doing the entire 100 miles all on the unrelenting flats would have been too much.

Like many (most? all?) races in Utah this race had a Friday start.  I don't know if this is just custom or the result of some blue law.  Liz and I had been in the nearby town of Wendover on the Utah/Nevada border for a few days after driving up from Las Vegas and the Labor of Love race.  We slept at the race start area on Wednesday and Thursday nights.  Like the Graveyard 100 earlier this year we missed a significant storm by just one day.  Thursday afternoon we were in town for the race briefing and to pick up last minute supplies and the wind was howling with 35+ mph gusts.  It was hard to even walk across the parking lot at the local Smith's food store.

The packet pickup was quick and easy as was the race briefing.  We got a chance to meet RD Vince Romney and his wife Chris.  Everything looked to be really well organized and thought out.  Vince is an ultrarunner and multiple 100 mile finisher so he really sounded like he knew from the inside what a 100 miler runner needed.  The aid wasn't terribly frequent but good enough that one water bottle would suffice.  After the briefing and braving the wind at the grocery we drove out to the start/finish area.  As we approached it we saw a massive dust storm but the dust was white and it was blowing directly across where we would be running in the morning.  I'm glad that the winds were forecast to slow down by morning.  I took this video of this blowing salt storm:

It was pretty amazing how the RV was buffeted around by the winds early in the evening.  There was even a little bit of rain as we drove in and in the morning it looked as if someone had splattered the rig with salty, muddy sludge.  By the time we were ready to sleep the wind had abated somewhat though there were still some very healthy gusts from time to time.  In the morning as the sky lightened, the activity outside increased and it was soon time to get dressed, make coffee and get the show on the road.

Vince had limited the field this year to 50 runners in order to be sure that he could provide a safe  and high quality run.  There were maybe 5 or so no shows and a good crowd milling around.  As 7am approached we all walked out to a piece of rebar pounded into the salt which served as the starting line.

The first leg of the race runs straight across the flats to what is called a floating island due to the mirage effect often seen on the flats.  Before the race Liz and I had talked about how this island sure didn't look like it was 16 miles away.  We were about to find out that looks can be deceiving!

Closeup of the "floating island"
On the right is floating island and the mountains in center we will run through after the island.
Like many ultras the start was anti-climactic but the reality of the run soon presented itself.  This vast plain of salt seemed much like an arctic snowfield though the feel of it underfoot was like no snow I had ever walked on.  I'm including a lot of photos and video here because they express the feel of this first leg of the run much better than I could with words.  The pics and short video below are from the first hour or so of the run.  Even more images can be found on my Picasa page here.

This is how the course was marked for the first 16 miles.  A simple piece of rebar driven into the salt with marking tape.
After 16 miles we finally reached the island though it never appeared to be floating to us.  I guess the angle of the sun wasn't right so early in the day.  Here's a pic of the lonely aid station #2:

After aid 2 we ran some more on the sometimes loose mud/dirt flat until we finally reached a gravel double track which took us through aid stations 3-5 as we wound our way through and over the mountains pictured above.  At aid 5, which was also aid 7 we did a bit of a backcountry loop that took us through about 19 miles with only one aid stop, a water stop and a long 6 mile stretch of dirt flats.  I have a short video of this dirt flay on the picasa page that I won't put in here but it merits a description.  This was at about 45 miles so it was getting late in the afternoon and we had come over onto the west side of the mountain. There was a strong NW wind blowing across this large flat.  I'm sure there was salt underneath but what we saw was almost all dust/dirt.

I was about 1/3 mile behind Liz at this point and with the intermittently blowing dust she would appear and disappear ahead of me.  The footing here was also a challenge with it being at times firm and at other times very soft which required either walking or a very shortened stride.  Either way this soft stuff was pretty tiring.  After this stretch we got back to aid 5/7 completing the backcountry loop.  It was quite beautiful as was the climb up from the salt flats to aid 5.  Much of this section and much of the rest of the course followed gravel roads and gravel double track which makes the course so runnable though running sub 15 hours as Jay Aldous nearly did seems tough.  But then running sub 15 is beyond me on the easiest course!

At aid 5 I picked up my Nathan racing vest, some food, and my headlamp.  Liz was here at the same time and found that she had failed to put a light at this aid stop.  I told her I'd run with her to the next spot she had a light packed which was about 10 miles away to share my light.  We ran our own paces passing back and forth but kept close and reached her light just at dark.  A worrisome stretch but it all worked out.  There was a short (200 yd) stretch just after dark where the double track went up a hill through the craziest dust I've ever seen.  It was seriously ankle deep dust, white colored, and as fine as talcum powder.  I could feel it running down inside my shoes and socks like liquid.  Luckily it was fine enough that it didn't even cause any friction issues with the feet though I did take the opportunity at the next spot I had shoes and socks to change out.

The night was long and it got extremely cold.  Liz and I ran together or close to each other as we reached the last long climb of the race.  We tend to run light with minimal clothing, water, and food but this time we did have warm clothes but even with everything on and moving strongly we were still quite chilled.  After aid station 12 there is an almost 1500 ft climb that, coming so late in the race, seemed to go on and on.  It didn't help either that there were numerous false summits and some meandering so you could never tell where you were going or how close you were to topping out.  We did this climb in the dark but I'd like to do it sometime in the daylight.  I'm sure it's very pretty. The descent from this climb brought us back down to roughly the elevation of the start and about mile 92.  From there we had a totally flat run to the finish with one more aid station at 95 miles.  The sky lightened and we were able to turn our lights off just as we reached the flat.  

For most of us running a steep, relatively technical, downhill at 90 plus miles is tough and I was really looking forward to the flats.  But after a few miles the flats were plenty tough on their own.  I tried shuffling but it was a bit too exhausting and we were not going to be able to break 24 hours so I settled into a power walk and walked it in with Liz except for our blazing 13 minute per mile sprint for the last 100 yards.  I think we were both feeling the effects of the hot Labor of Love run with only 5 days of rest before the start of this one.  I had blisters and bruising in the same spots on both feet as I had at Labor of Love.  I usually don't have blister issues so I hope this goes away with a weekend off before we head back out to Zion next weekend.

Several hours after finishing with RD Vince Romney 

This was a very excellent race experience!  It really felt like a journey compared to the paved out and back exercise of last week.  There's a lot of cool stuff out in this area that I'd love to explore in a non-race mode.  Vince, his lovely wife Chris, and all the volunteers did a fantastic job pulling this one off.  After the race they were asking everyone for comments about what was good and especially what could be done better.  They really want to grow this race and make it the best it can be.  You won't go wrong giving this one a try though in case of strong winds you might want to pack your sand goggles and gps for possible zero visibility conditions!  Thanks Vince and crew for the great ride!

After the race, on Sunday night, Liz and I got a $30 room in Wendover to shower and stretch out before the 6 hour drive back to Las Vegas where we parked the RV and caught a 7am flight on Tuesday back to GA for a week of work.  We'll fly back to Las Vegas next week for Zion and then back home for May.  In May we'll be flying out of GA for three races.  First the Keys, then Nanny Goat, and finally Old Dominion.  This will be a 4 weeks in a row stretch with the tough Old Dominion and it's heat and the 28 hour cutoff at the end of the stretch.  It won't be boring!

I need to mention two of the last finishers at Salt Flats.  Vince advertised that the event would be open to canine companions and even, it turns out, canine competitors.  Deeanna and Elvis both paid their entry fees, both got their numbers and both finished the race!  It was cool to see them both ambling in to the finish with only 11 minutes to spare.  Elvis the dog was still covering extra miles, perhaps because of all the people and commotion, right up to and after the finish line.  Congrats to you both!  And also to all the runners at this event including many first time 100 milers.  I believe the finishing rate was 85% or better with very few drops.

I'm really looking forward to running in southern Utah's canyon country next weekend.  I'll report on how it goes when we get back.  'Til then, cheers!

Race count: Liz (12)  Scott (7)

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, Liz and Scott....keep it up! I don't know how you're doing it, though ;-)