Gnar Runners’ Quad Rock 50. Northern Colorado’s premier spring ultramarathon, with 50 miles of challenging climbs and descents that total 11,000’ vertical gain and take runners up and around Fort Collins’s two iconic peaks — Horsetooth Rock and Arthur’s Rock — not just once, but twice each, with another twice-around effort to the top of the challenging Towers Trail in Horsetooth Mountain Open Space. To add a mental spin to this race, QR50 runs a 25-mile loop (so, three climbs and descents: up and down Horsetooth, then Towers, then Arthur’s), a loop that comprises the concurrent Quad Rock 25-mile race. Then, QR50 participants reach the halfway point — where you smell the finish line barbecue, and see your friends and family (and getaway vehicle) — only to turn around, and run the entire first 25-mile loop, but in reverse. Back up and down Arthur’s, back up and down Towers, and back up and down Horsetooth. No wonder most QR50 drops occur at the 25-mile aid station, especially as QR50 participants can drop at the 25-mile point (or anytime after) and be counted as a full finisher of Quad Rock 25.
But before thinking of dropping, you have to get to the early/mid-May starting line, and 2019 marked the third year I have tried to do so. In 2017, I registered for QR25, but family health issues led me to withdraw weeks before the race. In 2018, I registered for QR50, was following the (awesome) Gnar Runners QR Training Plan, and was doing well until the mileage started to peak in March, when I got a serious case of pneumonia that left me unable to climb a flight of stairs, out sick from work for two weeks — and my first absence from work in a decade, and unable to run for almost a month. So, again I withdrew, registered instead for the Dirty 30 (50K) in June, and worked as a finish line timer for QR50 — such an inspiring experience.
After another year of trail running experience and working also on the timing crew for the Never Summer 100K in July, I knew I wanted to — needed to — run QR50. As soon as registration opened in mid-December 2018, I signed up. Maybe — definitely? definitely! — 2019 is the year.
1) Gnar Runners Quad Rock Training Plan — and Group Runs
As in 2018, I started planning my QR50 training via the free downloadable Gnar Runners’ Quad Rock Training Plan, making sure my plan, especially weekend mileage, at least matched their plan, and I, like the plan recommended, had a speed-on-hills and a rolling-tempo-run weekday.
Unlike 2018, though, I started participating in the Saturday QR Training Runs in January, which were also free and open to all runners of all levels, and were largely held on sections of the QR course, building up to the big Quad Rock Preview Weekend training run and potluck barbecue in April, with a 30-mile option for QR50-ers — the full first 25-mile loop, plus the first climb and descent of the second loop. These training runs were an incredible boost and motivation. It is so much easier to wake at 4am on Saturday when you know there is a group assembling to run with you on some of Northern Colorado’s most beautiful trails. And while I often was a bit dismayed at how slow I was compared to most other QR trainees, I met several awesome runners working at about my pace, developed some lasting friendships, and was every time humbled by the kind generosity of the community. Running in a group also helped me de-stress about pace and leading/following; and running on the race course helped me gain a strong sense of my pace on different segments and in different conditions. (Our group runs ranged from hot days in the high 80s to post-holing during snowfall in the low 20s, to many days of snow/ice/mud mix that, with my training partners, helped me get braver in slip-&-slide conditions and shed my pride about scooting down particularly treacherous passages.)
2) Treadmill Running (what?!) for Vertical Gain
As the Dirty 30 in 2018 proved, and as was reinforced by ultrarunning books and blogs, mileage is only one key number to mind when designing a training plan. Vertical gain per mile is also key. Gnar Runners’ QR Training Plan noted when, in the training schedule, one should make sure their Saturday long run was at least equal in gain/mile to the QR50 course — 220’ gain/mile — and their plan encouraged as much of one’s weekly mileage to be at that rate.
However, I was in my first year of my PhD program at the University of Denver, where there are no trails with anything approaching 220’ gain/mile to be had accessible within any of my school-day blocks, and up in Fort Collins, while I could reach that rate on trails west of Horsetooth Reservoir, I did not always have the time for the 90-minute (one-way) bike ride to get there, nor would winter always permit pedaling on narrow, steep, and winding roads. What could I do?
Enter the hamster machine. After doing research on best treadmill programs / routines for trail runners, I modified a 20-minute “ladder” program by ultra coach David Roche to as follows:
- Keeping the same speed throughout, run: 5 min x 4% incline, then 4 min at 6%, then 3 min at 8%, then 2 min at 10%, then 1 min at 12%, followed by 5 min at 4%.
I would do the 20-minute version of this ladder program on recovery-week Tuesdays, generally 3x, but most Tuesdays, I would do 2x of either of these 40-minute versions:
- 1) “Straight 40-minute Ladder”: 10 min x 4% incline, then 8 min at 6%, then 6 min at 8%, then 4 min at 10%, then 2 min at 12%, followed by 10 min at 4%.
- 2) “40-min Ladder with Half-Steps” (my favorite): 5 min x 4% incline then 5 min at 5%, then 4 min at 6% then 4 min at 7%, then 3 min at 8% then 3 min at 9%, then 2 min at 10% then 2 min at 11%, then 1 min at 12% then 1 min at 13%, followed by 5 min at 4% then 5 min at 5%.
Not only did this generate high vertical gain per mile, but this was a wonderful way to practice steady pace and positive attitude even as the hill got steeper and steeper, which I’d need for QR.
3) Self-Care for Cold Times
I’m still not sure why I contracted such fierce pneumonia. I had not been ill in over a decade, but there I was, with a resting heart rate over double my usual, yet still with dangerously low blood oxygen, unable to climb a flight of stairs. But winter can be fierce for any body in Colorado, and the week before my decline, I had run outside in both 75 degrees and in 5 degrees. During training, my hydration system had frozen several times, and I had pedaled home and found my hands unable to work the key to unlock our door. And more besides.
So, I made key changes to my training program for 2019 to be more gentle — and sustainable. I always ran on-treadmill on Tuesdays, which was great hill climbing and a reprieve from winter weather running. I also opted for the treadmill on Sundays, after long-run Saturdays, if it was particularly cold or treacherous. And, when trails were closed due to muddy or snowy conditions, so I would have to go road-running if I ran outside, I chose treadmill — unless it was Saturday, because the treadmill could work until about 15 miles. But I have my limits.
And, while the Gnar plan had one running Tu/W/Th/Sa/Su, with rest on M/Fr, I combined W/Th mileage to just run Tu/Th/Sa/Su, with cross-training on M/W and rest on Fr (and on any M I felt particularly tuckered). On recovery weeks, I combined Sa/Su mileage to just run Sa and have Su as a rest day, which was a wonderful treat (and appreciated by my partner). Last, I made sure to have hot tea on pedaling home from a cold run, as well as before leaving home, especially for those early-morning weekend runs — and that warmth was a physical and mental boost.
Thanks to the group training runs, which had me on-course for the full first loop, the full second loop, and, the biggest run, the first four full climbs and descents, I had a good sense of how long it would take me from point to point. I figured the full course would take me 12:30-13:45 (and knew there was a 14:00 finish line cutoff to be somewhat aware of, especially if things got hard). My goal was to finish within the 14:00 cutoff, ideally within that projected 12:30-13:45 window, but more importantly, to be conservative and run happy and strong as throughout as possible.
Loop 1 (Mile 0-25)
For the full first loop, I focused on running easy without letting my heartrate get high. Whenever I felt I might be pushing too hard, I’d give a test — could I breathe in for 3-4 steps then breathe out for 3-4 steps? If so, I could keep it up. If not (and, if I was wondering, the answer was generally not), I slowed down. Folks running at my pace downshifted to hiking in some sections I had not planned to hike, but as it was singletrack and I didn’t want to push hard to pass and there were plenty of miles and hours still to go, I tended to hike too.
My fueling went exactly as planned for the full first loop. I tend to fuel about 100-150 calories per hour, on the hour, with hour (1) fruit disc, (2) half-sandwich, (3) half-clif bar, (4) half-sandwich, (5) half-clif bar. I added a 100-calorie bobo bar at hour 2 because it looked good and there is wisdom in banking calories early in a long race — because it’s not generally a question of if you will get nauseous, but when.
It was such a boost to see so many familiar faces from the training runs out on course, especially with many of these (speedy) folks, because of the loop nature of QR50, heading out from the halfway point as I was was heading in. We’d greet each other by name and share a smile and encouragement, and throughout, whether familiar or no, an encouraging “nice job” or “looking strong” would be shared by every runner on passing, whether going the same or opposite direction. This community feel is one of the reasons I love trail running.
I rolled in to the halfway mark, where my partner was waiting with my drop bag, hugs, and loop 2 fuel at a bit under 6 hours, putting me on track for a 13hr finish, which was right in the mid-point of my projected window. (For QR50, a general rule of thumb for projecting finish time is you take your loop 1 time, then double it and add an hour to get your 50-mile time).
Loop 2 (Mile 25-50)
After the 25-mile mark, my stomach turned quickly — surprising, as it had done fine for training runs up to 30 miles on this course and in much hotter (and colder) weather than we had for race day. But, no point in getting troubled, so I kept on, and broke out more gingerade goo over more complicated-feeling real food. So, gingerade goo for hour (6) and at (7), switching to vanilla for (8) then back to gingerade for (9) — and by this point, the race was starting to feel real.
My fellow runners were talking less, and more runners were sitting at aid stations looking pale. At the same time, though, I felt I entered into a kind of unreal alternate dimension, at least as far as distance and its correlation to energy level. At mile 15, 25, even 30, I felt I had gone that many miles (albeit at easy pace). But as the aid stations started climbing higher, to mile 35, 40, then 43, I felt I had entered a kind of holding pattern with fatigue — mile 40 did not feel any more tiring, really, than mile 30, and passing mile 43 aid, I just felt like I was coming toward the end of a marathon-distance run — that my feet had taken me farther than they ever had in a single day didn’t feel quite real, and, besides the fairly intense nausea, I was feeling good.
I was surprised to find myself leading a group on two separate downhills — descent #4 and #5 — because downhills are my weakest area, but the girl following me down descent #4 thanked me heartily and praised my ‘steady’ pace, and the guys following me down descent #5 also thanked me and praised my leading and footing — which was an unexpected confidence boost. Overall, the course-specific/on-course training was so valuable. I knew the trails. I knew Mill Creek’s first, second, even fourth seeming-summit were all false but we would indeed get there if we just kept moving. I knew Westridge did not last forever, I could run Timber up to the bridge then walk the rest and still be within my target times, there were some tricky footing spots on rocks coming down Horsetooth to be alert for and take my time on, and, in several stretches, the singletrack would widen to doubletrack or dirt road to allow some breathing and mental room.
At about 9:30 on-course time, at the mile 40 aid before the last major climb, I took ginger goos from my drop bag, put on my gloves because it was getting chilly. For the last aid stations (mile 35, 40, and 43), I got into a rhythm of coming into the aid, drinking 8 ounces of ginger ale, getting a couple ginger candies, refilling water if I had half-full or less, and moving on.
Then I was at the top of the final climb! Mile 43! All downhill and easy running from here, right? Well, no. Because we had several days of rain and snow from about M-Th of race week, the organizers had to reroute some of the race course to preserve trail health, and this reroute affected the first climb and the final descent of the race. So, “descent” #6 — the last one — was really a descend – climb climb climb – descend – climb – descend descend descend, adding, as it turned out, about a mile and a few hundred feet to the day’s total. I was glad I banked energy and breath earlier in the race, because compared to my breathe in 4 steps, breathe out 4 steps for loop one, this last climb—I mean descent…—had me breathing in for 1-2 steps and out for 1 step. Oh, I wondered if that last stretch would ever end. But it did.
I reached the last aid station at mile 48 without stopping, got some wonderful encouragement from the aid volunteers as I trot by, and clocked my fastest miles of the day in those final two to the finish, where I crossed the line at 12:06! Over 20 minutes faster than expected, almost an hour faster than I was tracking at the halfway mark, and well, well within the race cutoff! Yes!
I really thought I would weep crossing the finish, because I did at Dirty 30 and I started to on several training runs when I would be headed toward Soldier and imagining hearing my partner drumming and crossing the finish line. I got a bit choked up at a couple points during the race — when I turned to leave Horsetooth Aid to start climb 6 and realized I was, barring anything incredibly unforeseen, going to really complete this and it was really happening today; when, at the top of climb 6, a volunteer asked me, looking into my eyes, ‘how are you doing?’ and she cared so much it touched me; or when we finally broke out of the up-and-down final “descent” and I got to Mill Creek Link and I knew it well and it was a simple half-mile downhill to Arthur’s then just 2 miles of dirt road to the end — but I was completely dry-eyed, though grinning like the proverbial fool, all through the final stretch and over the finish line into my love’s arms.
I changed into warm clothes, sat with my partner and some ginger ale for the never-expected-but-always-happens post-long-race nausea, then came home, ate soup, and went to bed early. (Did I mention we had to get up at 2am for this? Whew.) What a day.
Keeping my pace easy with that breathing test (can I breathe in for 3-4 steps and then out for 3-4 steps? if not, I need to slow down), for the entire first lap — and first 4 climbs and descents, really — made the first half of the race comfortable, gave me confidence, and helped me finish strong throughout the challenge of the last 15 miles. I will use this breathing test in future races. It is so tempting to start out fast, with At Last being able to run after the frustration of taper-time, but I am always happiest when I hold back for the first long while. I remember reaching half-way in the Dirty 30 and feeling I wanted to sit down and rest, but knowing I still had half the race, including the steepest climb, to go, and feeling a flash of hopelessness. QR50 proves staying conservative for the first half or two-thirds is the way to go.
2) Segmenting the Course
On that note, it was a great help to keep thinking of QR50 as “6 hills” rather than “50 miles,” and even as “2 loops,” at least for the first half. I appreciated the straightforward course profile, and planning to go easy for the first 3-4 hills, then start working harder for hills 4-5, before giving it my all for hill 6, just felt more manageable and useful than breaking down the segments by miles. I also thought of the course more in time blocks between aid stations, again rather than miles — for fueling, and more, it is much more helpful to know you will take one hour for this segment and two hours for that, rather than figure out how many miles you’ll travel.
3) Pace Card
Similarly, I found it much more useful, on the little card I make and carry during the race with key information, to have and refer to Time of Day rather than Race Time. (On this card, the columns from left-to-right are aid stations, including the finish line; segment distance; total distance; time of day; race time.) It was simply a great mental boost to know I would reach an aid station at, say, 1:30pm, which is just an early lunch time for me and so the day is young, rather than at 8:00 hours of running, which sounds daunting and like time for a sit-down.
4) Planning for Nausea
With never experiencing nausea before/during/after the long and various group training runs, I was surprised my stomach turned at mile 25 and had strong nausea from miles 30-47. I was prepared with ginger goo, and I developed a plan that minimized aid time and helped me keep up the pace — stop at each aid station for 8-ounces of ginger ale and 1-2 ginger hard candies. But psychologically, I was shaken by the nausea. Given that I got nauseous soon after mile 25 of both the Dirty 30 and QR50 (though I run 35 miles in training with no problem…), I should plan that I may well feel nauseous at/after that point, and bring appropriate supplies. Yet, I was happy the nausea was fading for the final miles, and as my races get longer, I should also trust that I might well work through the nausea — that it, like anything, will pass as long as I keep going.
5) Power Walking/Hiking
Thinking of keeping going, I have room for improvement on my power walking/hiking. I’d like to think I can hike at a sprightly pace, but there were a number of times where I would be doing so, and then passed like I was standing still by other power hikers. Since power hiking is a crucial tool for ultramarathons, I need to work on increasing my potential hiking pace here.
6) Downhill Training
And, last, I was a bit surprised at how much the final 1-2 downhill segments hurt — the higher impact, the quadriceps strain, and so on — enough to increase my nausea. I know I am a stronger uphill runner than downhill, especially on technical or non-dry terrain, and my training for QR50 focused more on uphill work, as did my Treadmill Tuesdays. So, for future races, I need to remember to incorporate deliberate and even extended downhill training at a brisk pace, both to strengthen those muscles and to increase my confidence on what could be a fun element.
What a race, and what great months leading up to it. I already can’t wait for next year.
Next race: Never Summer 100K, 26-27 July 2019, State Forest State Park, Gould, Colorado!