by Ryan Lauck
July 21, 2007
The inaugural Get High 50k started and ended at the bottom of the tram (8,100′) at the Snowbird ski resort near Salt Lake City, Utah – and according to the race organizers the net elevation gain is zero and therefore the course was flat (although estimates put it at 21,000′ total elevation change). I decided to run this race as a warm up for my first 100 mile race attempt this September at the Wasatch Front Endurance Run. Since this was supposed to be a training run, I wanted to start it tired and had a blast the two days before the race rock climbing, hiking and wielding a pickaxe while doing trail work. To add to the adventure I opted to not acclimatize to the altitude and catch a head cold with bonus sinus infection.
Waiting in line on the tram deck for my race packet was wild. I was surrounded by insanely fit people wearing t-shirts from other mountain ultramarathons they had run. At the table in front of me was Karl Meltzer, the masochist that designed the course and also one of the top ultrarunners in the world (he was looking pretty fresh after his 2nd place finish at the Hardrock 100 miler in Silverton Colorado – said to be the toughest 100 in the world). I was out of my league and feeling intimidated, but also ready to step into the unknown of my first mountain ultra.
Before sending us off, Karl held up two $100 bills that he offered to the first man and woman to get to the aid station at the top of the tram. I knew that wouldn’t be me that day, but I can daydream…
The race started casually with a countdown followed by a short, mostly flat 2 mile loop that allowed everyone to spread out before the real climbing started. It was probably the only truly runnable terrain the entire race.
We then immediately hit the single track and things turned steep. I’m not sure who built the first set of switchbacks, but I don’t think they were meant for humans. The trail then opened up onto a dusty, rocky fire road that wound its way up through the Gad Valley to the top of the Gad 2 lift.
During all of the climbing I experienced what would be the pattern for the rest of the day. The longer I climbed, the more the altitude affected me.
I would go from a quick power-walk to a slow-but-steady hiking pace to a step-breathe-step-breathe plod. It was like my heart was completely red-lined and it felt like it was about to pound out of my chest. By the time I reached the top of the first long climb, I was ready to drop out of the race, cancel my Wasatch 100 bid and get a refund and quit running forever. The only way I kept myself going through the day was to remind myself that if I can’t finish this race, I don’t stand a chance at Wasatch.
I also tried to remember one of my new favorite running quotes:
You can never run a hill too hard, you will collapse before hurting it
The first (too) short downhill of the day went straight down a very steep ski run from the top of the Gad 2 lift to the bottom of the Little Cloud lift. They didn’t even bother with a trail here, I don’t think any sane hikers would use it. Instead they just placed flags every so often so you have something to steer toward as you stumble and slide down the hill.
We then climbed up to the top of the tram (Hidden Peak: 11,000) dropped down a few hundred feet to the Peruvian Gulch tunnel and through Mineral Basin back up to the top of Hidden Peak to our first aid station stop (they said this was about mile 9). The tunnel is a newer addition to Snowbird and was pretty cool. It has a conveyor belt (not turned on, just my luck) that runs uphill about 500 feet and drops you off on the back side of the mountain – allowing novice skiers to bypass the advanced terrain above the tunnel.
The next section was very cool and made up for the painful climb: we ran down a ridge from the top of Hidden Peak into a saddle and then climbed to the peak of Mt. Baldy (11,068′). I’ve always eyed this peak while skiing at Alta and Snowbird and wanted to stand up here, but the ski patrol keeps it closed off for the majority of the winter due to avalanche danger. I eyed the skiable lines down the rocky chutes with envy. We then dropped 500′
down the other side of the ridge to Sugarloaf Pass on what was by far the most exciting decent I have ever run. There were volunteers from Black Diamond with climbing ropes rigged as hand lines because some sections were so steep and rocky that you had to down-climb them on all fours and on to either side there were sheer 1000′ cliffs. Definitely not a good place to take a spill.
We next did a 5 mile loop down to the bottom of Mineral Basin (9500′) and back up and through the tunnel to our second aid station. We went through fields of wildflowers, which were in full bloom for the race and were literally stunning – I had to just stop and look around at all the brilliant red, blue and yellow flowers that surrounded me.
The section that followed was my favorite part. We dropped down from the tunnel into Peruvian Gulch almost to the bottom, then turned onto the ridgeline trail. This trail was just spectacular (and ridiculously steep!) The trail went directly up the looming, rocky Peruvian ridge line that divides the Peruvian Gulch side of Snowbird from the Gad Valley side. The trail scrambled up boulders with cliffs and steep drops off either side and a few occasional scraggly looking pine trees to give you some shade. I probably had to stop and sit down 10 times on this section to catch my breathe, it felt like someone had turned all the oxygen off. I was so dizzy that I had to focus all my attention on each and every painful step to keep from going over the edge into the void. Despite my sluggish pace on the ridge, I am proud that I still managed to catch and pass a few day hikers :-). As you near the top of the climb, just a few hundred feet shy of the summit of Hidden Peak (and it’s fully stocked aid station) the course takes a cruel turn and sends you back down into Gad Valley under the Little Cloud lift and then up a long slog through a huge talus field and on to the third aid station. There were a lot of runners coming the opposite direction in this section and it was discouraging because it meant that they were on their final decent of the day only 3 miles from the finish line (and about 6 miles ahead of me). I reached the 3rd aid station and stocked up on delicious boiled potato chunks dipped in salt (an ultra delicacy), gummy bears and grabbed some gu for the road. The odd thing about the aid station was that it was only about a hundred yard downhill from the top of the tram and the aid station that doubled as #1 and #4.
The last loop reversed the previous trip down through Mineral Basin and up to Sugarloaf Pass, then took a dip back into Mineral Basin and finally climbed a long series of switchbacks up a fire road to the top of Hidden Peak and the final aid station #4. Up to this point I was playing leap frog with a few other runners – they would pass me like I was standing still (and I usually was) on the climbs, then I would rocket past them on the downhills – and on this final climb we all stuck together and chatted. Well, chatted as much as you can while sucking wind. It was nice because I had been running by myself for a long time. One guy told me that the climbs on this race were harder than most of Wasatch and more on par with Hardrock, which was very reassuring. Near the top I starting feeling better than I had all day, picked up the pace and didn’t see any more runners till the finish line.
The last 4 mile descent to the start/finish line was either thankfully/unfortunately all downhill, depending on the state of your quads. Mine were in ok shape at this point and I flew down the trail. It was great to see my dad about a ½ mile from the finish line (there to alert my aunts and my mom who came out to see me that I was almost to the finish) and I bombed down the hill past him to the finish at what felt like a blistering 6 minute mile pace.
It took me a full day before I could stand up again without crippling nausea, but now two days later I’m really glad that I pushed myself through all the difficulties and finished this race. I highly recommend checking the Get High 50k out, it is worth flying to Utah for. The course was excellently marked: there were ribbons and pie plates with arrows and volunteers there to direct runners at the more confusing intersections.
Besides the views, the volunteers were the best part of this race – they took great care of me and were very friendly. I’m already thinking about how much better I’ll do at next years race.