By Deborah Sexton
Santa Rita Mountains
S. of Tucson, AZ
March 4, 2006
The first half of this report will focus on things you’d be interested in knowing if you are considering this race. The second half will talk about my personal experience.
Old Pueblo 50 miler is held in the very small town of Sonoita, Ariz. You land in Tucson, rent a car, and drive about 45-60 minutes to get there. This is not a town with fast food restaurants and cheap motels. It’s horse and cattle country so there are some country store/convenience type stores and the hotels are mostly bed and breakfasts. I stayed in the Sonoita Inn, which is a converted barn. Very cozy and homey with bare wood floors and Navajo rugs. A big fireplace in the lobby and a big dining room table for guests to enjoy breakfast in the morning. Breakfast doesn’t start until 8 a.m. but there is a sideboard where you could help yourself to coffee or hot water and muffins, sweet rolls, hot chocolate, oatmeal, etc. There is also a horse endurance race this same weekend so it’s advisable to book a book six to nine months before the race. Otherwise, you will probably have to find a place farther away.
The race itself is headquartered in an old mining camp called Kentucky Camp. There is a pretty nice outdoor no flush potty, but no sink with water to wash your hands. There is a small house there that serves as race headquarters. You have to park in a designated area and then walk about a quarter mile down a steep path to the headquarters. This is fine on Friday but on Saturday night after the race, this is an effort.
When we got there to check in, which is from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, the race awards were display. Wow. These were unusual and really nice. The overall men’s and women’s silver buckles were huge affairs studded with turquoise. The finisher’s bucket also is very nice. A little smaller silver buckle with gold inlay with the race logo. There were awards for the first three men’s and first three women’s winners and these were hand-carved wooden statues of a cactus. Really nice.
In the race bag, you got a Kentucky Camp coffee mug, a white organic cotton race T-shirt with Old Pueblo on the front and some local artwork on the back, and your race bib was made of white fabric edged with a floral fabric border. Very unique. I had never seen this. The nice thing about the fabric was it draped better. It didn’t crunch up like the Tyvek ones do. Very cool. You also get a travel size packet of Kleenex stored in a ziplock bag. You are requested to use this as toilet paper and pack it out with you.
There is no race dinner but runners were invited to come to The Velvet Elvis in Patagonia, a small town very nearby between 5 and 8 p.m. You sat down and ordered and paid for your own dinner but could socialize with other runners. The food was mostly unusual pizzas as well as the traditional choose your own toppings, a list of salads, and a page of entrees such as chicken, meatballs, and pork chops. It was good. You could get a salad and a huge slice of pizza for under $10 or you could buy this very unique pizza that had to be ordered a day ahead that cost $35.
The race starts at 6 a.m. The temp was about 40 at the top of the parking area but after walking down to Kentucky Camp it dropped to the 30s. In the valleys, it was significantly colder. However, there is a drop bag aid station at 7 miles that make it convenient to drop off jackets or extra shirts that you put on at the start that now made you too warm. During the day it got up to high 60s and overcast so it was perfect weather. The year before was much colder with rain and even some hail according to past participants so you come prepared for anything.
The area is experiencing a drought so all the overruns were completely dry. A native Arizona runner explained to me that there are no “rivers.” Just overruns that have water when it’s rained. Most of the time, they are dried up. You cross about 7 places where you might have to get your shoes wet if it’s rained recently. We escaped all of those. The course itself has a number of significant climbs and with equally challenging descents, some of which are annoying steep with lots of the super fun loose rock and scree that try to make you land on your butt. There is a nice long stretch of very sandy road that also sucks the life out of your legs. There’s also lots of single track trail, some of which is very rocky, some smooth and very runnable. You also run a lot of dirt service roads that vary in rockiness. Some have an annoying washboard pattern with rocks, others are very smooth. So you have a lot of variety that makes it easy to mix up walking and running. At the top of each climb you are rewarded with unbelievably beautiful views of mountains and desert landscape. Really worth it.
The race info suggests bringing two water bottles. I did not, but I will say that there were two stretches during the race where I ran out of water and regretted that. The other stations were close enough together so it was sufficient. Several aid stations were 4 miles apart, a few six miles, and one was 7 miles. Not having run in a desert climate before, you may not realize that the lack of humidity sucks moisture out of you so you will need to drink more than usual. The Gatorade was tangerine, which I really liked. All workers at the aid stations were very friendly and attentive to runners. I never had to fill my own bottles and was pressed at each stop to eat. It seems to be mostly staffed by experienced ultra runners and I recognized runners from other races.
There are two short climbs in the last four miles but most of it is pretty runnable which was nice. A few single track trails with rocks, but you have a good stretch through a grassy field that is nice flat trail. So you can kick it in at the end if you have anything left. All finishers were treated to clapping, shouts of encouragement, and general celebration at the end. Even the back of the packers. Duane Arter was there personally to hand you your buckle and there was a post race feast of hamburgers, chili, cookies, etc. It was getting cold again by 8 and 9 p.m. but you could go into the nice warm house to eat your food. My drop bags were waiting for me when I finished and Julie Arter repeatedly was checking and asking runners if they had received their drop bags.
If you decide you want to run this, it fills up in a week. You will need to e-mail the race director to request an application and probably have to mail it back the same day. I thought it was an awesome race and everyone raved about it also.
My personal race
I flew out with Jay Freeman, Letha Cruthirds, and Tom Crull. Tom rented a car and we drove to Sonoita. Tom and Jay were at the Sonoita Inn (highly recommended but pricey at $119 a night). Letha had booked in Sept, but the Sonoita Inn was full so she got a room around the block at the Rainbow Bed and Breakfast. We could not figure out where the check-in was. We finally went into a house we thought might be it but no one was there. So we decided to check in later. As were pulled out to the road, we saw a pick-up truck with Rainbow Bed and Breakfast on the door so we pulled back in. The very nice lady embarrassing told us that she had Letha’s deposit but she had forgotten to reserve a room for her and there were no rooms left.
There also was a horse endurance run that weekend so there were no other rooms in town. Letha walked out to the car to talk to Tom and Jay and we ended up rooming with Jay Freeman. Tom was rooming with Tyler Curiel. So I would not recommend the Rainbow Bed and Breakfast.
There was a nice country store next door to the Sonoita Inn so we were over there to grab a snack since we’d missed lunch. We checked in our rooms. They put out wine and cheese at four in the common area in the lobby and close to five we drove to the Velvet Elvis to eat. We were one of the first to arrive and later Kelly Ridgeway and her boyfriend Matt Smith joined us as well as Melody and her boyfriend Steve. (Friends of Tom) Letha also had two non-running friends who joined us along with one husband. So it was a nice dinner.
Jay Freeman told a funny story about how every time someone would ask him where he was from and he said Texas, that person would ask if he knew Tom Crull. His running partner Cindy had run in a race with Jay and the person asked Cindy where she was from and when she said Texas, this person asked if she knew Tom Crull. So Jay was validated. This proved to be very true at this race. Tom could barely eat as he was talking to all of his friends coming in.
We got back to the hotel and Tyler had arrived so we all visited with him for awhile and then headed to bed. Race morning, I was up at 3 a.m., Jay got up at 3:45, and Letha got up around 4. It was cold. We parked and did final preparations to start the race.
I went into this race a little apprehensive about whether I could make the cutoff. Some runners who were slightly faster than me had just barely made it last year and since Bandera 100K in January, I had not trained as much as I would have liked and really did not feel prepared for the climbs I knew I would have to do. I really considered this race a training run for Western States but I knew if I couldn’t make this cutoff, I’d never make the cutoffs at Western. So the pressure was on.
My game plan was to stick with Tom Crull, who was running it for his fifth time. After trouncing me at Tyler 25K by about 30 minutes about two weeks before, I had concerns about keeping up with him also. You start off with a mild climb, but I was immediately huffing and puffing. There is some altitude in this race, although it is not extreme. I didn’t feel it affected me in terms of sickness but I’m sure it affected me in terms of speed. So I immediately started to panic a little bit. My breathing was loud and labored and we were not going fast at all. Sammy Voltaggio (this is the guy who cooks all that fantastic food at Rocky Raccoon 100 and Bandera) caught up to us. We had missed seeing him at the Velvet Elvis the night before. He gave me a hug as he explained that he had a senior moment when he booked his flight. He thought he had booked a flight for 7 a.m. but when he got to the airport, he found out he had booked a flight for 7 p.m. Ooops. So he didn’t land until 11 p.m.
We passed the first aid station at mile 3 (Granite Mountain. This is also the aid station at 33 miles as you do a loop and come back in this way. Nobody stopped. It was still pretty crowded at this point and Tom was busy saying hellos and chatting with people. I didn’t have enough air to spare for talking so I just listened and focused on keeping up with him. We got to the mile 7 aid station (California Gulch) and I shed my jacket and pants. Kurt Coonrad was working this aid station. He had been the aid station captain at Hardrock’s Cunningham station where I had worked this past summer. He said he got in this year.
Shortly after leaving California Gulch, you have this really long stretch of sandy road. I can’t remember if it’s before or after Wasp Canyon at 13 miles. Ugh. I labored through it and really couldn’t keep up with Tom. I also was talking with Matt Smith, who was doing his first 50, so when Tom made a pit stop, I ran on with Matt knowing Tom would catch up. Tom apparently made several stops because he finally caught up with me descending down Gunshot Pass which was the steepest, longest climb with the steepest most difficult descent. I saw him below me on the switch backs and then he caught and passed me going back down. I could not negotiate the slippery steep rocky terrain as fast. I also lost Matt.
From Helvetia (19 miles) to Box Canyon (25 miles) I ran alone. I felt good. Actually I felt much better than earlier because I was now running my own pace and had warmed up. But I was disappointed that I couldn’t keep up with Tom. I had several people pass me so I knew I was slowing down. There was a 7 hour cutoff at Box Canyon so I was pushing to make that. About halfway to Box Canyon, two guys caught up with me. Mike and Joe. I ran with them for a bit but then had another pit stop and lost them. When I got back on the road, they were still in sight but pretty far off. By running up the hills when they walked, I was able to catch them. I was trashed but I was happy to have someone to run with.
Mike and I finished the race together. He was a law professor at the University at Tucson and also was the director of the law library. So he was very interesting to talk to and thank goodness, he was talkative. He had three kids, a boy and two girls and his son, the middle child, was the same age as my Shea and they turned out to be somewhat alike. So we enjoyed each other’s company talking about family and running, and etc. He was primarily a road runner, but this race was in his backyard, he lived in Tucson, so he decided to try his first 50 miler.
We were very close in pace so I was comfortable running with him. We made it to Box Canyon in six hours exactly so I was very happy that I was ahead of the cutoff and in good shape to finish under 15 hours. Most of the rest of race was uneventful. From Box Canyon we ran to Granite Mountain (33 miles), then Cave Canyon at 40 miles. This was the longest stretch. It was mostly road and very runnable but I ran out of water. I finally accepted Mike’s offer to drain some of him Camelback water into my bottle.
When we reached Cave Canyon, I was trashed. The climbs were making me feel sick and I was seeing stars at one point. I did not feel good at all. Altitude may have had something to do with this or my lack of hill training. About this time, I also started to have some cramping in my groin area which was making it hard to run. As I came into the aid station, I asked the workers if they had received the rock removal machine I had requested and cleared the rest of the course of rocks. They were very kind and laughed. Celtic music was playing and a point person was standing about 100 yards ahead of the station and calling in your race number so workers could grab your drop bag. I chatted with him asking his name and it turns out Bob had been at Hardrock the year before which is why I recognized him. He told me he got something I can’t pronounce during the race and ended up in the emergency room. But he got in again this year so he was very happy about getting a second chance to kill himself.
I sat down and drank a Red Bull for the first time. I was sick of eating food and not hungry but I knew I had to refuel. I contemplated a Boost but then the aid station worker said she had turkey and cheese rollups, which no one had earlier so I ate a couple of those. A nice change. We spent between 5-7 minutes at that station, which was too long, but I needed the time to regroup.
Shortly after coming out of there, the Red Bull kicked in and I felt much better. Mike was in the lead and was keeping a strong steady pace. I could keep up with him but was making an effort. So it was a good thing because he kept me moving faster that I would have alone. Plus, just knowing we had hit 40 miles was wonderful psychologically. I knew I only had 10 miles to go and I would definitely finish. We did the math and knew we had plenty of time to make the cutoff. At Cave Canyon we also put on some extra clothes and made sure we had our flashlights.
It was six miles to the last aid station Gardner Canyon. I was determined to make this one before dark and we did. So that was great. So only 4 miles in the dark. Woo Hoo. The cramping was happening more often and I was dragging. Mike was stronger and could have run it in, but very graciously stayed with me. I ran and walked until the cramping made it impossible. Walked until the cramp subsided and ran again. This section had two climbs in it which were not bad except for how trashed we were. It also had a few rocky single trail areas but the rest was very runnable. I felt able to run except for the darn cramping and I was frustrated at not being able to run more. We had a chance at breaking 14 hours and I pushed as hard as I could, but we missed it. My time was 14 hours 4 minutes.
There were all kinds of people shouting and congratulating us as we came in. I told Mike to go and run it in, I was walking. Someone yelled, “You have to run into the finish (it was uphill) and I said ‘I am running!’” When I reached the top I ran in the rest of the way. Duane Arter handed me my hard-earned buckle in a little velvet bag. And I thought, well, you’ll need to get a little faster on those hills, but maybe I can make the 30 hour cut off at Western.