Last year I had my eye on this race but I thought it was just a little to close to the Wasatch 100 and decided to hold off. That was a mistake, I should have done it.
Erik joined my family and I at our campsite just outside of Afton Wyoming, located a stone's throw from the start/finish line, the night before the race. We had decided to turn the race into a two night camping trip in the Cottonwood Lake campground. A storm had blown through in the early evening and left a chill in the air in it's wake, with temperatures dipping down to 45 degs by the time I went to bed. When I woke up at 5am it was 35 degs and dark. I didn't want to bother with cooking anything that early so I had a clif bar for breakfast and got ready. Erik and I walked down to the start with two minutes to spare before the official start.
Ty sent us on our way down a dirt road for a few hundred meters before we funneled down to an ATV double track trail and I was surprised at how fast everyone was clipping along, it made me wonder if they knew how tough the rest of the course was. The initial climb is about 4 miles long and very runnable, especially with fresh legs, but I just couldn't get going early on. I felt as though I was breathing a lot harder than I should have been and took that as a sign to ease up and relax, there's still 27 miles to go after this climb I thought to myself. I was in 6th place as I was approaching the top of the climb, with one more runner coming up to me, Leland Barker. Leland won the last two editions of this race so I knew if I could stick with him I wouldn't be that far from the front of the race. So I followed Leland over the top and down the first technical descent. We quickly caught up to one of the fast starters then opened a gap once we hit some of the flat sections. I was finally feeling good having no problem matching Leland's pace, I suppose I just needed time to warm up. I found myself getting distracted through this section because the views are simply incredible. Then, after climbing up past a waterfall we reached the lake I recognized from the pictures on the website. I actually stopped for few moments and took in the view, it was stunning.
I caught up to Leland at the aid station next to the lake and I started up the "wall" of a climb leading up to another lake basin higher up. Once we hit the ridge at the top I caught up to another one of the fast starters and started down the long 6 mile descent to the next aid station and turnaround point. Now I was feeling like I was in the groove and put some time on the guys behind me as I caught a glimpse of the 3rd place runner in front of me, which got me even more motivated.
I finally caught up to Chris as we hit the rolling section that led to the turnaround. Once he knew I was behind him he upped the pace and I was content to just follow for the next mile or so. Then as I rounded a corner I saw him standing on the bank of a river, obviously looking for a way to get to the other side without getting his feet wet. I just ran through and kept my pace up to the turnaround point aid station. The turnaround was also the start line for the 25k competitors and I started to see a few of them heading our way, plus I was able to see where 1st and 2nd place were. Soon enough I saw Luke in 1st and a few minutes back was Erik, the lead was about 5 mins for Luke and 3 for Erik. At the turnaround Ty and his crew took care of me, filling my Nathan pack and grabbing my gels before I was off again. Just then Chris popped out of the trail in to the aid station. I started up the trail with a brisk hike so I could get everything in place when I heard Chris coming up fast behind me. I stepped aside and watched him run out of view. I was content to keep to my pace as I thought about what was ahead; a 6 mile climb that gained close to 3000' feet.
Slowly I started to reel in some of the 25k runners, keeping an eye out for Chris up in front and Leland behind. Finally, about a third of way up I spotted Chris and almost at the same time I saw Leland behind me. This was starting to feel like real race. So I started to run some of the stuff I would have normally walked up and as I got closer Chris he increased his pace. Once I caught him I stuck behind him for a mile or so and glanced back again at Leland, he was still closing on us. Right then, with about a mile to go to the top, I jumped around Chris and put in a hard effort. At the top I had opened about a 1 minute gap back to Chris, but I had a hard time telling how far back Leland was and I noticed a 25k runner in a white shirt that I had passed earlier. I guessed that the white shirt guy had just been experiencing a low point when I passed him earlier and now he was making up ground.
I was happy to have the serious climb over with and I was rewarded with a spectacular view from the ridge. I hiked a section I could have run just so I could take it in for a minute. I made it down both of the steep little descents without ever seeing anyone behind me and figured I was putting more time on them. I asked the guy at the second to last aid station how far back I was from the guy in front and he replied 8 or 9 minutes. At that point I resolved to try and hang on to my 3rd place over one more climb and stumble down the last descent to the finish.
This next section felt almost effortless earlier in the day but now I was feeling the effects of the pace I had been keeping. I glanced back periodically and the only runner I could see was the white shirt guy. I wasn't worried, but I didn't understand how he was still making up ground on me. Then, as I started up a short steep climb I got a better look at him, it was Erik! I was really surprised since I hadn't passed him, I yelled his name just to be sure I wasn't seeing things. Apparently he wants to change his middle name to Wrong Way, as he told me about going off course by about 10 minutes. Erik was still motivated and moving faster than me, but I hung on for as long as possible before yielding a little over a minute to him by the time we hit the last climb.
Now it was just four miles of dusty atv double track that dropped about 2,500' to the finish. I gamely tried to keep Erik in sight, mostly to help me stay in front of Chris and Leland who were only 2 to 3 minutes back when I crested the final climb. Erik finally disappeared after a mile or so and I was left to my own devices for motivation, which turned out to be time. I really wanted to finish under 6 hours so I kept pushing, knowing that it was going to be close. I finally started to recognize some of the trail features from the morning and knew I was getting close. Then I saw our campground and kicked it up a notch to cross the line in 5:57:57, good enough for 3rd place. Luke crushed the course record, in his first ultra, with a time of 5:40, Erik wrapped up 2nd in 5:54, Leland followed me in for 4th and Chris came across in 5th. What a great race! See all the results on the website.
At the finish line we were treated to some fine Huckleberry soda and one of the best burgers I could have asked for. If you like spectacular scenery, miles and miles of winding singletrack, and friendly folks then you should definitely put this one on your calendar. Thanks to Ty Draney, his family, and all of the friendly volunteers for making the race so great.