Saturday, March 07, 2020

RUFA Squaw Peak

On the summit of Squaw Peak with RUFA-founder Jared Campbell and photo bombed by Seth Myer

Ever since my best friend Mark Oveson moved away to Provo, Utah, we’ve been making an effort to get together regular, mostly for weekend adventures. These have mostly been climbing adventures, but the last year and this year I came out for an event called Running Up For Air (RUFA). This is a series of events (Ogden, Salt Lake City, Colorado, and now Provo) that raises money and awareness about the brown cloud that claims mountain cities at the base of mountains. RUFA was founded and still largely driven by outdoor super-athlete Jared Campbell. I met Jared a couple of years ago. Mark recruited him to drag me up the 22-pitch Squawstruck sport climb. He’s a super nice, extremely modest guy. I was mostly motivated by him to enter RUFA.

The RUFA format is unique for a trail running race. The events always involve doing laps up and down a specific peak. The race has different time durations, ranging from 3 hours to 24 hours, across all the RUFA races. The winner is the person that does the most laps in the least amount of time. Partial laps don’t count, so part of the calculations one must make is asking whether they have time to complete another lap. If not, there is no point (at least in the race results) in going for another lap.

Mark used to be a very accomplished ultra runner, but a horrible infection in his ankle destroyed that joint. He an still move pretty well with a special carbon-fiber brace that transfers the load from his foot up to the top of his lower leg. This braced saved him from amputation, but he hasn’t returned to ultra running…yet. Despite this, he’s still very involved in the ultra running community mostly through his passion for the sport, but also through his great website and phone app, This awesome site/app is an incredible tool for tracking results in real time and also for planning your effort. Mark’s software is used at the RUFA events and he was on hand for the both of the events I did.

It’s definitely a bit strange for me to be running these things without Mark. He was always way more talented at going long. While he does get tired, I didn’t see much of it, because I’m poop out first and he’d have to shepherd me to the finish (these are for ultra adventures we did together). We’ve never raced an ultra together, though I’ve paced him at Hard Rock a couple of times. It isn’t that strange, because I’ve only done three ultras in my life. Actually, counting the RUFAs, I’ve now done five official ultras, but Mark and I have done many an ultra adventure. But Mark is positive and upbeat and isn’t moping around the start/finish area lamenting the fact that he isn’t out there showing me how to do it

Last year I did the 24-hour version of the RUFA Grandeur Peak. It was really snowy and cold and I spent hours (all told) in the warming tent at the base, between laps. I’m pretty slow, but at that event I was the last man standing and I do take some pride in that. I finished after 23 hours. Granted, with lots of time sitting by the fire, but it wasn’t like I did one lap and then slept by the fire for 18 hours and then did a second lap.

The good news about this first version of RUFA Squaw Peak (Provo) as that the longest option offered was 12 hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m). There were also two separate 6-hour races (starting at 7 a.m. and noon). I’ve been lazy this winter and have only done two adventures of note (Top Ten Flatiron Climbs in a Day and an ascent of San Luis Peak). Other than that, I’ve just been doing Green Mountain (4-5 miles and 2400 vertical feet) two or three times a week. Last year I was doing the Skyline every month (16-17 miles, 6000 vertical feet) and even did a double Skyline to prepare for RUFA. But with RUFA you can quit after any number of laps, so I wasn’t going to be a liability out on the course, regardless of my fitness,
The amazing Jared Campbell

I’d been up Squaw Peak once before — when I climbed Squawstruck with Jared. So, I’d been down the trail, but not up it. Each lap on Squaw Peak was 7.5 miles long with 2800 feet of climbing. I figured that I should be able to do four laps (30 miles and 11,000 vertical feet). Those numbers are huge and I hadn’t done much to prepare for that, but 12 hours in a long time. My goal was five laps, because four laps really shouldn’t have been hard enough. My philosophy about races is that they should involve some serious suffering. Otherwise, you can just go do the same thing without entering a race.

I flew out Friday and took a couple of trains from the airport to Lehi, where Mark worked. He picked me up at the depot and then gave me a tour of the super cool office at MX. I met his entire team and everyone was super nice. They have tons of perks at this company and free drinks and snacks galore. We got some lunch and then headed to Mark’s climbing gym: The Quarry. This is nice gym. It was crowded, as it was late afternoon on Friday and one section of the gym is like a canyon and people were everywhere. We did a number of fun climbs, but I was already tired from the enduro session Derek and I had done at Movement that morning.

Mark’s family was busy with wedding preparations for their daughter Alice. While they were at the wedding shower, Mark and I went to the movies where I received a bit of an ego bash. I hang out with lots of young, fit people and I’m deluded enough to think I’m one of the gang. I rarely look in the mirror and while I sometimes feel pretty slow, stiff, and clumsy chasing after these guys, I don’t specifically feel old. When we went to buy our tickets, the guy selling them looks at us (okay, he looked at me) and then asks, “Any seniors?” Seniors?! But always interested in a bargain, I asked how old you had to be, saying I was just forty seventeen. Turns out I wasn’t old enough. So, not only did I look old, but I still didn’t get the discount.
I think this is lap four. Fading big time.
Mark was up early (4:30 a.m.) and off the start start by 5 a.m. The trailhead for Squaw Peak is only a mile from Mark’s house, so he let me sleep an extra 30 minutes and drive separately. I got there at 5:45 and was the last 12-hour racer to check in. This race was really small, with about 45 total runners in all events and just 16 in the 12-hour event. Any time the numbers are this small I feel I have a good chance of finishing DFL. But someone has to be last and when I am last my choices will be: finish last or stay home and sit on the couch. I think I’ll be okay with last in that situation.

We start in the dark and use headlamps for at least 30 minutes. One guy takes off like a rocket and is out of sight in less than a minute. He’d go on to win the race easily. A short, older dude with long hair goes off the front next and soon he’s out of sight too. I’m running along real easy. It’s uphill but very gradually for the first half mile. The road/trail is completely dry for this first half mile and then, at the upper gate, the trail immediately goes to 100% ice coverage. I should have stopped immediately and spiked up, but get going for a bit. I was in third place. Clearly the race wasn’t full of Kyle Richardsons. I didn’t think I was going too fast, but I was running. It was the only time I’d run this section. I walked 95% of the uphill terrain in this race.

When I stopped to spike up, an older guy came by me. We exchanged names and I recognized his: Seth Myer. I’d checked out the Squaw Peak segment on Strava and found him. He had done one workout where he’d done four laps. Damn. He said his goal was five laps and I said that was mine as well. We stayed together, pretty much, the entire first ascent. Two thirds of the way up Jason One (there will be another Jason) came by us with his dog — a pit bull mix. He was running, albeit slowly, while we were hiking. Seth topped out in fourth place and me right behind him in fifth. Jared was on top and he gave me a big hug and we took a photo together.

Seth quickly left me behind on the descent. I knew it was going to be a long day and was just trying to be smooth and get down as easily as possible. The trail was entirely snowpacked and generally quite good. There were a couple of very steep sections that were icy at first and then slushy, as the day was pretty warm. While the trail was packed nicely, it was extremely narrow — one person width — and if you stepped off this narrow path, you plunged up to your crotch. Passing people was an issue and I’m sure everyone plunged deep in the snow multiple times. Early on, it was an inconvenience. Later, when I was really tired, it was difficult to get out of these holes. On the descent, I caught and passed Jason One, mainly because his dog was lagging. And it was blocking the trail! :-)

In order to get in five laps, I had to average 2:24 per lap. Mark and I talked about this and decided that 2:10 laps was a good place to start, to bank a little time for the slower laps to come, but not too fast that I’d blowup. I was running down the road, thinking I was all alone, when Jason Two passed me. He was running well. I was doing my usual shuffle. Still, I finished my first lap around 1:50. I walked into the aid station and surveyed all the great food, including bacon, quesadillas, bars, cookies, etc. But one item caught my eye.

A week before the event the race director sent out an email to all participants, asking if anyone had an specific dietary restrictions or requests. This was very cool. I’d never heard of that being done before. I sure they were sensitive to vegans or gluten-free runners. I responded that I was a strict Hostess diet and would love Hohos or Ding Dongs. Sure enough, on the food table, was a container of Ding Dongs. I said, “Alright! I requested these.” All the aid station workers immediately responded, “Ah, you’re the Ding Dong Guy.” So, not only do I look like a senior citizen, but I have a totally bitchin’ nickname. Needless to say, I was attracting lots of long-legged ultra chicks.

After a quick bathroom stop, I was headed back up the trail at 1:55, well ahead of pace and back in fifth place. I walked the entire way, but I was moving well and climbing well. I’d seen Seth heading out on his second lap when I was still running down, so I was surprised to catch him about halfway up. I figured he’d just run by me on the descent. I then caught and passed Jason Two. I tagged the top and descended well, doing this lap in about 1:43. I was quick at the turn around and heading up for lap 3 at 3:45 into the day.

At the start of lap three I entertained the crazy thought of six laps. I was on pace for it and for a good 30 minutes or more I fantasized about being fit enough to pull it off. Then reality descended around me. I made it in pretty good shape, but it didn’t feel anything like the magic of lap 2. Dang. One good lap.

During the race, you get to know everyone by sight and one guy in a yellow jacket gave me encouragement, saying that the second place runner wasn’t that far ahead of me. When he descended by me, I knew he was still more than ten minutes ahead of me, but I clearly closing the gap, as I’d meet him higher on the hill. On the descent, I tried to get as low as possible before I ran into Jason Two and Seth. I was stretching out my gap over them. Cool. The top three finishers get a mug as an award and I was currently in third place and growing attached to this unseen mug. I was also noticing these two fit running chicks, but not as much as I should have.

I pushed just a bit on the descent, for a silly reason. Mark’s oldest daughter, Mallory, has the female record on this peak (which I didn’t approach), but she also had the record for three laps: 5:51. I wanted to beat her time. She was supposed to be in this race and while I would have loved running with her a bit, I was pretty sure she’d have dropped me. Alas, she got injured skiing and didn’t sign up for the race. I came down well and finished three laps around 5:35. Mark greeted me when I came in and said “Dude, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to have to do six laps.” But by then, I knew I couldn’t do it. I was hurting and knew I couldn’t make it. This was a nice mental release, as I had more than six hours to get in two more laps and make my goal. Except, now I had another goal.

When I came in at the end of my third lap, Mark told me that the guy in second place had dropped. So, I was now in second place. I told myself right from the start that I wouldn’t be racing anyone until the last lap and it was likely I wouldn’t be able to race anyone at that point. I certainly wasn’t going to start on lap four, but I was thinking about it and trying to keep moving efficiently. My feet were cold and soaked. Mark got my bag and I changed into fresh, neoprene-like socks. They felt so good. Dry feet lifted my spirits a bit, but I was starting to be bothered by pain to the top of my left foot.

Lap four was the toughest mentally, because it was very hard yet still a long way from the finish. Knowing I had another lap to go made the suffering of the fourth ascent difficult for me. The climb seemed to go on forever. I was moving slow and getting passed by 6-hour runners. I tagged the top and stumbled back down to the finish. My feet were cold and soaked again and the top of my left foot was really hurting. I had Mark get my bag again and I changed from my Mutant’s into my Neutron G’s. These shoes are Gortex and have a built-in gaitor. I wasn’t wearing them to begin with because the Mutants are more comfortable for me, but changing into a dry pair of socks and dry shoes was heaven. This is a huge difference between doing races with full-on support at regular intervals and real adventures, where you are on your own from the start to the finish.

I headed up on my last lap without hesitation. If I had taken a rest for any length of time, I might have dropped. I knew I had to do lap five, so the earlier I started the earlier I’d finish. Leaving the aid station went by Jason Two coming in. He said, “Going for five, huh?” I took that as a hint that he might drop after four. That would give me a cushion on my current place. I ran into Seth way up there. I knew he was no threat. But I was moving slow, slow, slow. I down shifted to tiny steps, as I didn’t have the power to take regular strides.

A big guy came by me halfway up. He was doing his second lap. Another guy was right behind him, but he wasn’t part of the race. His name was Tate and we hiked together clear to the summit. He’s a sophomore at BYU and chatting with him helped pass the time and keep my mind off how far I had to go. Eventually we topped out.

At the summit, no one was standing there ready to check me in. It was getting cold on top and everyone was in the tent pitched here. I got my water bottle filled, thinking I might be in danger of cramping. Each time I took on or off my spikes from the third lap on, I cramped up a bit. On the ascents, I was on the verge of cramping my lower shins, which I’ve never cramped before. Also, my feet nearly cramped a couple of times. I knew I was on edge. I also ate a donut up here. Props to the organizers for getting donuts to the summit.

I headed down, hoping to just shuffle easy and walk a lot of it. But then, just three minutes down from the top, I ran into Jason Two. Uh oh. He had closed on me. I figured it would take him six minutes to ascend what I had descended in three minutes, so I had maybe a 9-minute lead. Now, finally, I was racing, running scared. It turned out that the two women were above Jason and I didn’t realize they were my biggest threat. I don’t know why I didn’t put this together. I think it was because they were pretty far back on the first lap. They had been running very consistently, while I had three pretty fast laps and now two slow laps. But the fear of Jason Two was enough.

I ran as hard as I could, which was slow. Seriously. But it felt fast, as I didn’t have much control and I was so weak. I made three or four mistakes with my balance and got a foot off the packed trail. I plunged into mid-thigh and pitched forward onto my face. I was surprised each time that I didn’t cramp either in falling or extracting myself. Each time I felt my pursuers getting closer, knowing they weren’t burying themself in the snow. The bottoms of my feet got hot as I slide forward in them with each footfall. I got these shoes in a larger size to keep my feet warmer, but they require a very thick sock and I wasn’t wearing one. So pain resided every part of my body.

At the bottom of the steep section I caught the big guy and he stepped aside for me, but he needn’t have done that. I only caught him because I was in a controlled fall. Once on the less steep terrain I slowed, though still tried to maintain some cadence. He moved on by me. I looked back once, but there was no point. With 1.5 miles to go, if I had seen anyone, it was over. They would pass me by. I was going about as fast as I thought I could and still last to the finish. So, I just put my head down and went.

Three quarters of a mile before the finish, I ran into Mark, coming up the trail to finish with me. He gave me props, but I immediately told me about my chasers and my fear of being caught. I ran to the end of the ice and sat on the steps. I had Mark pull off my spikes, because I thought I’d cramp if I did it myself. I had just a half mile to go now and on dry ground. Now if we saw someone I would respond with everything I had. Later, when telling this story, someone said, “Ah, you didn’t want to get chick-ed, huh?” No, that wasn’t it at all. First, I wasn’t even thinking about the girls, wrongly assuming it was Jason Two that was my problem. Secondly, I get chick-ed all the time, by so many women that it isn’t a thing for me. Getting chick-ed is only a thing for guys that are very close to the speed of the fastest women. Now, granted, that was the situation here, but I didn’t know it.

In the final five minutes I had Mark check behind us three times. All clear. I finished in 10h35m, doing 37 miles and just under 14,000 vertical feet. I got second place, though that isn’t very meaningful to me. If all my current adventure partners were in this race, I’d have been last. By a good margin. So, placement wasn’t really meaningful to me. I was happy to make my goal of five laps and to get it done with a sizable time cushion. The winner of the race didn’t think he had time for a sixth lap, so he stopped after five laps as well.

The two women came in just four minutes after me. Four minutes in a race that lasted 10.5 hours. It certainly added an aspect to this event that I didn’t expect. Physically, I’m slower now than when I was younger, of course, but the burning competitive urge is still there, though mostly dormant, waiting for just the right time to reanimate.

Jason Two came in 20 minutes or more after me, but the fear of him allowed me to hold off the women. Seth was still out there when I left for a shower and a bed, but I knew he’d comfortable finish the fifth lap. The support at this race was great and all the runners seemed very nice. I enjoyed this experience, though the last couple of laps were Type 2-ish fun.

Mark was so supportive and so helpful to me. Just getting my bag twice probably saved me those four minutes. He showers me with genuine praise. No mention of his past glory, which far exceeds this effort. He’s just excited that I pushed myself towards a tough goal and I made it. This sort of thing is so curious. There isn’t the achievement of climbing a peak. Or breaking a specific time for a specific distance, like a 10K. This is just: go suffer for 12 hours. That’s just strange, isn’t it? I can see how most of the population, obviously not us trail runners, would think such a thing is just silly. And they’d be right.