Squaw Peak 50 was my very first ultra distance race back in 2014 so it holds a special place in my running history. Most people thought I was crazy for jumping straight from half marathons to 50 milers, but jumping to a Marathon just didn’t seem like a big enough challenge. I’ve always thought you could run a race that was twice as long as your longest training run, and I had already done multiple half marathons. I ended up finishing the 2014 race in 16.5 hours, which made for a long day, and while I was happy I finished, I knew in the back of my mind I could do better. The 2015 running of Squaw Peak 50 (the 19th annual) was a perfect chance for redemption.
In 2014, Squaw Peak was my very first ultra distance race, and while I was able to finish it, it was a struggle to say the least, for lots of reasons. In retrospect, the main reason I struggled so badly was due to poor training and preparation. I had every intention to train, but between a nagging foot injury (I wasn’t wearing zero drop shoes yet), a heavy travel schedule for work, and over estimating my fitness and abilities, it was a miracle I even finished the race!
When I decided to sign up for Squaw Peak this year, I decided that I was going to commit to my training plan and do much better than last year. A quick Google search, and I found an online 50k/50m training plan generator from Santa Clarita Runners which looked promising. After putting in race date and distance, it generated the following plan for me:
Unfortunately, I generated this the week of March 23, which was already the 8th week of the training plan and since I don’t own a time machine, I couldn’t go back to the beginning and start from there! Fortunately, my base training over the winter months was actually better than what the first 7 weeks of training had me running despite an unseasonably cold winter in Salt Lake City, so I was confident I could jump right in, follow the plan and be successful.
Looking back on my training, which I tracked meticulously courtesy of my Garmin fenix 2 and Garmin Connect, it’s obvious that my training was MUCH better than in 2014. In total (not counting the first 7 weeks), I only missed 5 training runs for a total of 60 miles mainly due to being on an airplane to/from Taiwan and letting a heel blister heal. On top of that, I did make up some of those miles by going long on some other runs. I also managed to squeeze in 3 last minute unplanned races, er training runs in May leading up to Squaw Peak, including two half marathons and running my first official marathon.
In case you’ve ever wondered what it really takes to train for a 50 mile race, here is a breakdown of my training for this race. This data is from Feb 2, 2015 through June 3, 2015 (which are the start/end dates for the training plan).
By the numbers: (metric values added for my international friends)
Total # of miles since Feb 2: 716.75 miles (1,153.5 km)
Total # of unique runs: 79
Total elevation: 62,422 feet (19,026.2 meters)
Total calories burned: 97,331 calories
Total time spent running: 128 hours, 22 minutes, 37 seconds
Average speed: 5.6 mph (9.01 kmh)
Average heart rate: 142bpm
Lowest # of monthly miles during training: 140.06 miles (225.4 km)
Highest # of monthly miles during training: 237.57 miles (382.3 km)
Lowest # of weekly miles during training: 21.63 miles (34.8 km)
Highest # of weekly miles during training: 72.19 miles (116.2 km)
And if that’s not enough data nerdiness for you, here is a histogram I put together of all my training runs (sorry, no metric version for this one). This shows the total number of runs within the defined distance ranges, to give you a visual representation of what ultra training looks like! As you can see, the majority of the runs (50 of them) were shorter than 10 miles, but it’s the back to back weekend long runs that have the biggest training impact.
The week of the race, when my training was all complete and I had a few days to rest and reflect on my training, I was extremely happy about how well my training went. I managed to do almost all the miles called for by my plan, I was able to do almost every single long run, and I was injury free going in to the race. Most importantly, my feet and body felt up to the task. What has always hampered me in ultra racing is my feet getting fatigued about 2/3 of the way through the race, and once your feet get tired, it’s hard to continue racing even if your cardio can handle it!
Ultra training, and running in general, is primarily a solitary sport and while I certainly spent hundreds of miles and dozens of hours alone training for this race, there were many friends new and old who joined me along my journey for which I am extremely appreciative of. They may not have known it at the time, or may not have thought much of it, but having someone join me for the last 10 miles of an otherwise solitary 50k training run or going on a wild adventure searching for cairns and running through sand in central Utah, pushing me to a half marathon PR, running with me briefly in my first marathon, or just joining me on a casual Tuesday night run made all the difference in the world and I can never thank those people enough.
Packet Pick Up
Packet pick-up for Squaw Peak was at the Hampton Inn in Orem, UT and since I was on vacation, I was able to make it on time this year and there was still some food left, unlike last year when there was nothing left by the time I got there! My daughter decided to join me, and we headed down. Upon arrival, we proceeded out to the courtyard, picked up my goodie bag which consisted mainly of ads from sponsors, my race number (#69), stickers, socks, and shirt; and then I signed up for the early start option. Typically the early start is reserved for anyone who has taken or may take more than 15 hours to finish the race. Since I finished in 16 and a half hours last year, I was eligible, even though my goal this year was significantly less.
Once my packet was in order, we headed over to dinner. Dinner was pretty basic and consisted of spaghetti, mushroom sauce, salad, rolls and some blueberry and apple pies from Costco. Nothing fancy, but it hit the spot. The dining room was full of 10-top round tables so we grabbed one and we were later joined by a myriad of other racers. The first two ladies who joined us had flown out from Denver just for the race and since it was their first time, they had a lot of questions which I was more than happy to answer. We were also joined by a few others folks and the typical pre-race banter continued for about 30 minutes while we ate.
Shortly after dinner, the race director, John Bozung, spoke for 10-15 minutes about the race including logistics, course markings, weather update, trail condition update (he wasn’t expecting any snow on the course, and he was right) and then he proceeded to do a raffle. Naturally, I didn’t win anything, but there were some good items given away from the sponsors including a number of hand bottles, hydration packs, trekking poles, sunglasses, and other items.
Once the raffle was over, a guest speaker was brought up to speak to us for about 10 minutes. The guest speaker was a man by the name of David Clark, who gave a brief synopsis of his personal journey from 320 pound coach potato to ultra runner which he documented in a book titled Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery, which I found fascinating. David was in Utah speaking to a group closely affiliated with the race called Addict To Athlete, which is a local support group for addicts focused on replacing drugs, alcohol, etc. with exercise and he found time to come speak to us as well. I made a mental note to say hi to him if we crossed paths during the race, since it turned out he would be racing as well.
Prepping for an ultra is similar to any shorter race, with the exception that you are typically allowed to use drop bags during the race, and you are out on the course significantly longer than a half or full marathon so there are a few extra considerations.
Last year, I relied on 3 drop bags at aid stations 4 (mile 15), 6 (mile 25), and 8 (mile 33) and I felt like this worked really well for me, even though I probably over-packed a little last year! What makes drop bags preparation challenging is factoring in the weather for the day and trying to anticipate what you may need at certain points in the race, such as nutrition, replacement shoes and socks, etc. This year, the weather forecast was for cool weather with possible thunderstorms.
As I thought about the day, my logic was that since the forecast was high 40’s at the start, I would start in long sleeves (Under Armour and long sleeve race shirt) with plans to shed those at the first drop bag which loosely lined up with sunrise and increasing temperatures. Anticipating rain, I put spare shirts in every drop bag so I could change out of wet clothes. Lastly, I put my most cushioned shoes in the last drop bag so I could give my feet a much needed break after 33 miles. I also put Tailwind in every drop bag so I wouldn’t have to rely on whatever drink was provided at the aid stations, and so I didn’t have to carry 8 packs of it with me! In the end, here is what my drop bags looked like:
Drop Bag #1 (Aid Station 4 – 15 miles)
- Short sleeve shirt
Drop Bag #2 (Aid Station 6 – 25 miles)
- Short sleeve shirt
- Body Glide
- Band aids
Drop Bag #3 (Aid Station 8 – 33 miles)
- Short sleeve shirt
- Shoes (Altra Olympus)
Once everything was packed up and laid out, a quick picture of Flat Ryan, and it was off to bed. Since I opted for the early start, I set my alarm at 2:15am. I probably didn’t get to sleep until after 11pm, so it was really more of a nap.
If you’ve read any of my previous race reports, or you know me, you’ll know I really hate getting up early. This race in particular was rough because I chose to do the early start, and I chose to sleep at home unlike last year where I stayed at the event hotel to be a little closer. That meant a 2:15am alarm. Out of habit, I always set 3 alarms in 5 minute increments because I am a pretty solid sleeper, and I would hate to have spent all those hours training and miss the race because I didn’t hear my alarm!
Fortunately, my alarm must have went off in between REM sleep cycles because I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go. After a quick shower, a generous application of Body Glide, and getting dressed; I grabbed a granola bar and I was out the door at 2:45am. One nice thing about being on the roads that early is that you are basically alone. Vivian Park, where the race starts and ends, is about 35 minutes from my house, but we were warned that the parking lot was about a 10 minute walk to the starting line and I had to place my drop bags in the appropriate place and check-in, so I was happy to have a few extra minutes. Unfortunately, I missed my exit on the freeway (probably because it was 3am and no normal human should be driving at that time), so I ended up arriving about 10 minute later than I expected. Fortunately, I had enough buffer that it turned out not to be an issue.
One thing I love about this race, and trail races in general, is that they typically start and end at the same place which means no bussing, and no wasted time at the start line freezing. In this case, I really only had about 10 minutes of time which was enough to go to the bathroom one more time, make sure my Garmin found all it’s satellites, and with very little fan fare, the Race Director gave us our 2 minute warning, our 1 minute warning, and we were off!
The Squaw Peak 50 course starts in Provo Canyon at Vivian Park, and the first two miles are actually on a paved walking/biking/skateboarding path which makes for a nice warm-up, and more importantly, lets the field thin out a little bit before hitting the single track trails. Last year, I cruised down this section at about a 10 min/mile pace, and when we hit the trail, I was stuck in the dreaded conga line that is typical of single track trail racing. I went at what I thought was a comfortable pace last year, but I was stuck going whatever speed the conga line was going. I didn’t have a specific game plan this year, although I was hoping to avoid the conga line as much as possible. About 3 minutes in to the race, I found myself cruising comfortably at the very front of the group with two other guys at about a 8:30 min/mile pace thanks to the slight downhill and my months of training. As luck would have it, when we reached the trail, I was the first person to hit the dirt. I would never see those two guys again, and in fact, I didn’t see anyone again, except aid station workers, for 2.5 hours!
At 4am, the course is pitch black and winds through some fairly dense forest in the miles leading up to the aid station. Fortunately, the course is well marked with glow sticks in addition to the normal orange and blue flags so navigation was not an issue. I also happen to love trail running in the dark, so I felt right at home. The first 5 miles or so were fairly uneventful, although I did keep turning around to look for headlamps that never appeared.
Much to my surprise, I hit the second aid station at Hope Campground (approximately mile 5.5) first. The best part about this aid station is that a group of boy scouts goes up the night before and wakes up really early to cook pancakes, sausages, etc. I checked in, threw a sausage in a pancake, put some syrup on it, filled my water bottles, checked out and hit the trail. I’ve never led a race before and I was really enjoying the feeling and wanted to keep it going! One important side note, even though the course map lists the first aid station at mile 2.2 (where you turn off from the paved path to the trail), that aid station doesn’t actually exist, so the second aid station is really the first aid station.
Somewhere around mile 8 or 9, it started to get light enough to turn off my headlamp and right around this time I passed either a hiker or someone who started at 2am. One interesting component of this particular race is that the race director has a few friends that he lets start early including a few that start at 2am and a few that start at midnight. These people mainly walk, which sounds easier, but I don’t think it is considering the amount of time it takes them to walk 50 miles! After a few pleasantries, I was at the third aid station at mile 11. This aid station didn’t have the pancakes or sausage of the first aid station, but did have all the typical aid station fare including water, Heed, PB&J sandwiches, pretzel biggest, gummy bears, swedish fish (yum), potato chips, watermelon, grapes, apple slices, etc. Still in the lead, and enjoying it, I filled my bottles, poured in some Tailwind, grabbed a few sugary treats, and hit the trail.
Last year, the people who started the race at 5am caught me around mile 8 so I was determined to make it further this year before the front of the pack caught up to me. I ended up making it about 13 miles before an overly cheerful fellow (the eventual winner I presume) caught up to me. It was about 6:30am and probably 50 degrees out, and this guy was shirtless and carrying a hand bottle, plus he was probably 15-20 years younger than me! I was really excited I made it this far before being caught, and I pressed on knowing some of my fast friends were quickly approaching. My glory moment of leading the race had come to an end, but I always knew it was coming so I enjoyed it while I could! I believe I only got passed by 2 or 3 other people (and passed a few more of the 2am starters) before I got to the fourth aid station at mile 15. As I arrived at this aid station, it started drizzling so I made the decision to keep my long sleeve shirt on, knowing I had another shirt at aid station 6 I could change in to if the rain stopped or it warmed up. I learned at the Ogden Marathon that I’m better off keeping my layers on in the rain to keep my core temperature up and prevent freezing! Another first for me, I had actually gotten to the aid station so fast, they hadn’t unpacked the drop bags. Fortunately, I used a bright orange bag so I found it instantly in the back of the truck, grabbed my Tailwind, refilled my bottles, and I was off. A couple of the faster guys came through and were noticeably pissed off about the drop bag situation, but I’m sure that extra minute searching for it didn’t make much difference in the end!
The fourth aid station is also notable for being the end of the first major climb in the race. Up until this point, I had been running uphill for about 15 miles and now I had a 7 mile downhill section in front of me which was a nice change of pace (literally and figuratively). For the most part, the trail is a fire road at this point, with a few short cut single track sections that cut down through some switchbacks in the road. It’s a very fun part of the course, and a nice break from the climbing. This was the section where some of my friends I had been expecting came to pass me including Heath Thurston and Cameron Kasteler. These two guys are shockingly fast and ended up finishing around 9 and 10 hours respectively. It was nice to see them for a second, and more importantly I was excited it took them 16 and 18 miles to catch me! This was also the section where I saved a runner who had just passed me from missing a turn. Fortunately it wouldn’t have been critical if he missed it since the road we were on circled back on itself, but he would have ended up running some extra miles, so you are welcome unknown runner!
I arrived at the fifth aid station (around 22 miles) feeling great, refilled my bottles, topped one off with Tailwind, grabbed a random assortment of calories (potatoes dipped in salt, swedish fish, etc.) and headed out. One regret I do have is that they had these yummy gummy sharks there, and I was too impatient to wait for the aid station volunteer to open up the pack and pour them in to a bowl. I figured I’d grab some at the next aid station, but alas, no other aid station had them. Next time, I won’t skip the gummy sharks! A few minutes after I left this aid station, a pack of 3 people caught up to me, including my friend (and friend’s Dad), Tom Perry along with the lead female (and eventual female winner). The fire road eventually ends at Hobble Creek road, which is paved and even worse, is the beginning of a long uphill section. Last year, it was significantly warmer at this point in the race, and the heat, pavement, and uphill took it’s toll on me. This year, I promised myself to run more and walk less so after a quick stop at one of 3 port-a-potties in the whole race, conveniently placed at the first real spot for spectators to watch for their friends and family, it was time to pound the pavement. While I did have to walk a few short sections, I was proud of myself for running almost the entire length of Hobble Creek Road right up to the sixth aid station at approximately mile 25.5.
This aid station is popular because it’s one of only two aid stations accessible by paved road, it’s the half way point of the race, and it’s a common spot for racers to pick up pacers. Having spent the last 5+ hours mostly alone, the energy of this aid station was a nice change. I was also really happy about my time since it had been about 5 and a half hours, and I was on track for my 12 hour goal with some time to spare. Figuring I was still in the lead relative to all the other people who started at 4am, this was another quick aid station visit. While a nice volunteer refilled my water bottles, I changed out of my long sleeve shirts since the sun had come up, topped off my Tailwind, mowed down a few calories at the buffet. While I was refueling, another friend, Michael Moody, showed up. A quick hello, and I was back on the trail after checking out. A few minutes later, Michael and two ladies he was running with passed me, never to be seen again! It was at this point I also discovered I had accidentally stopped my Garmin when I was putting my Orange Mud Hydraquiver Double Barrel pack back on, so I restarted it and quickly figured out it had been stopped for about 4 minutes.
After leaving the Hobble Creek aid station, we were once again back on a fire road, and once again gaining elevation. The road meanders through a forest, past a boy scout camp, and eventually up to one of the most welcoming parts of the course. As I approached the seventh aid station at approximately mile 30, there are a couple kids with a cooler full of Otter Pops which I don’t normally care for, but when you are 30 miles deep in to a race and it’s warm out, there’s nothing better! Just like the other aid stations, I refilled, topped off Tailwind, grabbed some calories, and hit the trail. This aid station had more food variety than any other which was nice, including those little cinnamon rolls from Costco and some brownies but no gummy sharks. They even had a massage table and someone was getting worked on as I passed through.
When you leave this aid station, the course goes straight up what is probably a waterfall in wetter years as you are literally just running/walking up rocks with a trickle of water. This year was dry which was nice, but I can only imagine it on a wetter year. Shortly after leaving I also hit the 50k mark and made a note that it had taken me 7 hours (with 5,000ft of elevation change) and I was happy about that. The only other 50k I’ve done was a training run that was flat and that took me 6 hours. From this point on, the trail gets pretty steep so there was more walking than running going on, but I tried to run when I could. Eventually the trail tops out and dips back down to the eighth aid station in Little Valley (approximately 33 miles).
This aid station was the location of my last drop bag where I had strategically placed a pair of shoes, my Altra Olympus along with a change of socks, another shirt, some Tailwind, and a charger for my watch (which ended up being dead so it was of no use to me). While a volunteer filled up my bottles, I changed out my shoes, tried to charge my watch for a few minutes to no avail, topped off my Tailwind, more calories, and I was on the road. As I was refueling, David Clark, the guest speaker from the night before, rolled in. I wasn’t in a position to say hi to him, but we did run/walk together for a few minutes a mile or two down the road. Turns out he had tripped and fallen about 8 miles in to the race (his shirt was all dirty) and hurt his arm a bit. I wouldn’t have known if he didn’t say anything, and even with a hurt arm he managed to pass me and finish before me! Somewhere around mile 35 the fire road we were on veered off and the trail continued straight and wasn’t marked very clearly. Fortunately, I had raced here before and remembered this, so for the second time in the race I saved another runner from some extra miles.
For anyone who hasn’t run this race before, the next 5-6 miles are the most brutal part of the course and include the infamous Bozung Hill (named after the Race Director) which is effectively a 1 mile long trail that goes straight up a mountain with an elevation gain of about 1,500ft and topping out at 9,100ft of elevation. So not only is it steep, loose, rocky, and sandy but you are at an altitude high enough to notice the oxygen deprivation, and totally exposed to the elements. It’s not uncommon for people to take 1 hour to climb this section (I may or may not have taken that long last year…) and curse a lot while doing it. I managed to shave quite a bit of time this year, but it still wore me out. Last year, this was the only section of the course that still had snow on it which required climbing up and over a 40-50 foot long snow bank, but this year it was completely dry. I kept going though knowing that my friends Dave Earnshaw and Brian Passey were working at the ninth aid station at Windy Pass.
I don’t think I was happier to arrive at any aid station more than I was at Windy Pass. It was a mental boost to see my friends for a few minutes and exchange some high fives and more importantly, this signified the highest point in the course so it was all downhill from here. I also appreciate the volunteers here a little bit more than all the rest of the aid stations because the only way to get here is a 4 mile uphill hike. The volunteers literally haul everything on their backs for the benefit of the runners which is a lot to ask of anyone. Fortunately they don’t have to haul water up because there is a natural spring, but they do haul up empty collapsible water bottles and fill them a couple hundred yards away from the aid station. As you can imagine, the food selection here wasn’t quite as extensive as the rest (since they had to mule it all up) but they had gummy fruit slices and watermelon so I was all set. I grabbed a couple handfuls of calories, filled up my water bottles, topped off with Tailwind, said good bye and thanks to my friends, and hit the trail en route to the tenth and final aid station.
I’ve learned in ultra running that while downhill sounds good in theory, it never seems to be the case, and this course is a perfect example of that. As you leave the Windy Pass aid station, the trail is littered with rocks and scree making it almost impossible to run without rolling an ankle or falling. Last year, this 5 mile stretch was probably one of my slower sections because of the trail conditions and the soreness in my feet. This year, my feet felt much better, but the rocks still slowed me down. Fortunately, there wasn’t any mud or snow like last year so I wasn’t slipping and sliding all over the place, but I did have to carefully pick my way down the rockier sections. I managed to make up time in the flatter and less rocky sections, but it was a lot more mentally and physically exhausting than a downhill run should be! One thing I do like about this section of the trail is that it is relatively close to civilization again, and the traffic seems to pick up the closer you get to the bottom which is encouraging. Around mile 45, another friend, Darrell Phippen passed me. The trail eventually dumps you out on to a fire road which takes you to a field. At this point in the race, I never wanted to see another mountain or rock again (and never would) and just wanted to run on flat ground for a while!
After crossing the field, which felt like it was about a mile long, and getting my picture taken by some on-course photographers (I have no idea where those pictures ended up), I arrived at the tenth, and final aid station. This aid station is the other aid station accessible by road so it was full of cheering spectators, and like a gift sent from heaven, ice cold towels. I don’t think I’ve ever truly appreciated an ice cold towel as much as I did this towel on this day. Cooling off and wiping off 48 miles of sweat and grime made me a new man. Since this was the last aid station, I dumped out my remaining Tailwind and filled both bottles with ice water since I wasn’t going to need the calories anymore for the 3 mile road back to the finish line. That’s right, in a cruel twist, the race is actually longer than 50 miles and while you might be thinking “what’s another mile after you’ve run 50?”, I personally challenge you to go run 50 miles, then run 1 more and get back to me.
The final 3 miles to the finish line is a paved, rolling road that passes South Fork Park and ends at Vivian Park. Last year, I walked a significant portion of this due to fatigue but this year, sticking to my promise to myself, I was going to run it, and run it all I did. At the aid station I texted my wife, who I didn’t know was going to be at the finish line, to let her know I would be done in approximately 35 minutes (I figured 12 min/miles were the best I could muster). I ended up hitting 11 min/miles, never walked, and only got passed by one guy (who randomly disappeared around a corner making me question if he scrambled off in to the bushes to use the bathroom or if he got in to a passing car!). As I approached civilization, I could hear the crowds at the finish line and as I rounded the last corner my wife, daughter, brother-in-law, and 2 nieces were waiting for me and cheering me on. It was an unexpected surprise and helped give me one last surge to the finish line. Compared to last year, the crowds were much bigger and I heard a few people calling out my name (friends who had finished earlier and were hanging out). I guess that’s the advantage of finishing earlier in the day! And just like that, I crossed the finish line and the running was over. I finished in 13 hours, 37 minutes, and 12 seconds which was roughly 3 hours faster than last year. A nice overview of my race times including stops at aid stations:
Even though I was initially aiming for a 12 hour finish going in to the race, I could not have been happier with the way my race turned out. Thanks to a light travel schedule for work, decent weather conditions, a healthy body, and the support of my family while I spent hours and hours out on training runs, I was able to stick to my training plan which seemed to make all the difference in the world.
In the end, my watch logged about 53 miles with a total elevation gain of approximately 10,000ft. This race is listed at 50 miles and 13,000ft of elevation gain, but two years in a row, on two different watches (Garmin Forerunner 910XT and Garmin fenix 2) the distance has been different and the elevation was 10,000ft both years.
When I completed this race last year in 16.5 hours, I swore to myself I would never run it again but I’m glad I broke that promise! It was very rewarding to cross that finish line this year 3 hours faster than last year and appreciate all the hard work that went in to it. I’d love to say this is it for me, and that I won’t be racing Squaw Peak again, but we all see how that worked out for me last time I said that!
What I Wore
Socks: Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Mini Crew
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 2.0 (First 33 miles) and Altra Olympus (Last 17 miles)
Shorts: Nike Dri-fit
Shirt: Nike Dri-fit Long Sleeve (First 26 miles) and Nike Dri-Fit Short Sleeve (Last 24 miles)
Hat: Orange Mud visor by Headsweats
Jacket: Salomon S-Lab Light Jacket (Brought it but didn’t need it)
Underwear: Under Armour
Gloves: Smartwool PhD HyFi Training Glove
Gaiters: Outdoor Research Spark Plug Gaiters
Accessories: Fuel Belt, Orange Mud HydraQuiver Double Barrel, Body Glide
Headlamp: Petzl Tikka RXP
Watch: Garmin fenix 2
Nutrition: Honey Stinger chews, Tailwind