My training didn’t exactly go as planned this year. For the fourth (and last?) time I have learned the hard lesson that running exclusively in minimalist shoes leads to foot injuries. My right 2nd toe has been healing this month, and it still feels a little sore even though I didn’t run a single mile during the month of July until a week before the Tushars* Trail Half, which was the last Saturday of July. I took some nice bike rides and went on a few hikes this month, but life just isn’t as good when you’re not running.
The Tushars Ultras are widely regarded as the most challenging races in the whole Ultra Adventures series. Here is the course map and elevation profile for the race I did. Notice that it is an out-and-back course, and that the turnaround point is the summit of Delano Peak, the tallest mountain in Beaver and Paiute Counties (the summit is on the border between the two counties). Also notice that the last quarter mile is a steep uphill, so it is hard to make a strong finish. the entire course is over 10,000 feet in elevation, and the top of Delano is just over 12,000 feet.
I woke up at about 4:00 am to drive up to the race from my house. I stopped at a gas station in Beaver and bought a breakfast burrito before I drove up the canyon. When I reached the race headquarters at Eagle Point Ski Resort I checked in and got my race bib, then sat around at the start line to watch the 26.2 mile race begin 30 minutes before my race started.
For the race I wore an old pair of Altra Instinct 2.0 shoes which I bought on clearance a couple of years ago, and which I used to train for the Bryce 50K last summer. Compared to my Vivobarefoot Primus Trail they feel exceptionally cushioned, if a little heavy. They are quite comfortable shoes, and the mesh upper was holding together just well enough to get a bit more use out of them. My other gear included some compression sleeves, my 5-year-old New Balance bottle belt (held together with safety pins), my shade hat, sunglasses, my Fitbit on one wrist and my Garmin Forerunner on the other. I also tracked my run using the MapMyRun app on my phone, which proved to be useful because I accidentally paused the Garmin while I was at an aid station and ran a quarter mile before starting it again. I wore a long-sleeved shirt with a short-sleeved shirt over it because it was chilly, but I took off the outer shirt later on the course and tied it to my belt.
The sun was just about to poke over the mountains when the half marathon began. I felt pretty good, and the downhill start tempted me to start faster than I otherwise would. There would be plenty of time for slow uphill climbing, so I figured there was no harm in pulling ahead of the pack early in the race. As we traversed the foot of Mount Holly we came into sunshine for the first time. the sunrise in the mountain meadows was simply glorious, and I remember thinking that this was probably the most beautiful half marathon I have ever run. (Other contenders are the Zion Trail Half, Parowan Half, and Cedar Half.) The first 4 miles of the course are supposed to be the “easy” part, but they were not easy by any means. I stopped at the aid station to top off my bottle and pick up a couple of Honey Stingers, then set out again to tackle Delano Peak.
The main ascent started a mile or so up the road from the aid station. I climbed Delano Peak by this trail last summer, so I was not surprised at how steep and long the trail was. It basically goes straight up the ridge to the summit about 1.5 miles without any switchbacks, gaining about 500 feet per mile. This is about a 20% grade, and there is no running up a grade that steep. The air is so thin at that elevation that it is hard to vigorously hike up the mountain without stopping to catch your breath. On that regard I had an advantage over some of my competitors in the race, because I live at about 6,000 feet elevation and often run in the 7,000 foot range. It would have been nice to do more training at higher elevations, but my foot injury put a stop to those plans.
It is hard to see in these low resolution images, but the trail above and below me was littered with racers struggling their way up and running their way down. As the half marathoners struggled up the mountain the 100K and 26.2 runners were coming down from the peak. Memories of my childhood hiking experiences came to me as I pushed upward, and gave me added confidence in my ability despite my inadequate training.
At the summit I sat down to take a rock out of my shoe, then took a couple of pictures before I set off back down the ridge. One of the pictures was a failed selfie (not included) and the other one (below) was looking north towards Mount Belknap. Belknap and Baldy are still on my bucket list, but I don’t think I’ll get to them this summer. We’ll see.
On the way back down I felt like opening up and going fast down the hill. It’s a bit hard to run down a 20% grade without losing control, but at least there wasn’t much loose gravel on the trail.
I passed three runners on the way down, but two of them passed me when I stopped at the aid station again to use the port-a-john, top off my bottle, and get a couple more Honey Stingers. At this point I only had about 4 miles to go, and I knew that the hardest part of the course was behind me, but I also knew that this was the part of the race where I would run out of steam due to my poor training. Also, as I mentioned before, this “easy” part of the race was anything but easy, with about 1,000 feet or so left to climb. During these miles I hiked the uphills and ran the downhills, and with each passing mile my run looked more and more like a hobble. Two runners passed me during these miles, and I can’t help but think that I could have held my place through this last leg if I had been able to follow my training plan.
The last quarter mile uphill was a killer, because I knew I was close to the end and I could even hear the crowd cheering for people at the finish, but all I could do was hobble up the hill looking nervously behind me and hoping that no one came up behind and passed me. The last 100 yards or so were less steep, and I managed to kick myself into gear and run across the finish in 3:24:56. That is double my road half marathon personal record, which underscores how rough this course is. I finished two places behind the third place female finisher, and I commented to her how strange it is to run a half marathon in over 3 hours and still get a top 3 finish.
The finisher’s reward was a little ceramic cup handmade by some local Indian tribe. After changing out of my shoes and dropping off my bottle belt at the car, I spent a bit of time at the recovery area. About 20 minutes after I finished a 76 year old man crossed the finish line. He indicated that he had only been running for about 5 years, but he was planning to run 13 half marathons this year. I hope to be like that guy when I’m his age.
When I had recovered somewhat I hobbled over to the lodge to exchange my meal ticket for some food. It was after 11:00 at the time, but they hadn’t started serving lunch yet. All they had was some leftover breakfast, and the guy said I could have two things if I wanted. I took two breakfast burritos, because I guess that’s my main cuisine for the day. I ate one in the car as I drove home, and another one about 40 minutes down the road.
The Tushar Trail events definitely deserve their reputation for being tough courses. Even the “wimpy fun run” half marathon was exceptionally difficult. Maybe that’s why I liked the race so much. This is as much of a hiking race as a running race, and I think my upbringing as the son of a geologist was great preparation for it. Will I go back next year? I sure hope so! But next time my training will be better, and those last 4 miles will play to my strength instead of my weakness.
UPDATE 8/2/2017: The official race results were posted today, and I was surprised to find that I finished in 10th place overall, 7th place for male finishers. This is much better than I expected!
Alan Sanderson is a trail runner in Enoch, Utah.
*Note: As the locals pronounce it, “Tushar” rhymes with “flusher” or “crusher.”