There isn’t one image that sums up the Speedgoat Mountain Races held at Snowbird in Alta, Utah this past weekend. I’ve got nearly 2,000 images to sort, and not enough time. The event is the creation of Race Director, Karl Meltzer, Jr. He is one of the top ultrarunners of all time and a very good Race Director too. He is well-known for his 100 mile race victories, his Appalachian Trail FKT attempts, and his commentary on the sports of trail running and ultrarunning. He has carved out a career as an athlete, coach, journalist, gear designer, and race director. Only a handful of trail running/ultrarunning personalities have developed a brand, and he is one of them. He is the Speedgoat and this race weekend had his stamp al over it, starting with the brutal difficulty and unique nature of the courses. The Speedgoat 50K, in its 8th year, was the main event, but he added two new events to create a trail running festival.
Vertical Mile, 3:00 P.M. Friday 25 July
The Speedgoat Mountain Races kicked off on Friday with the Vertical Mile. Along with the Speedgoat 50K on Saturday, and the Quadbanger on Sunday, it made up a trio of trail running races. The uphill only race attracted a handful of runners doing all three Speedgoat races and other runners choosing only to do this appetizer (namely family members of 50K runners, like me, and other local runners). I don’t know how many runners finished all three events, but I think it was less than 10.
With 5,500 feet of climbing, the race is named for what it is, a vertical mile. To get in that much elevation, two trips up Hidden Peak were required. The first 3.6 mile ascent was timed from the Creekside venue up to the top of the Peruvian Chairlift and climbed 2,600 feet. The timing was paused when you stepped on the lift deck. Runners rode the lift down, and then the timing started again when they stepped off the lift. The second ascent was 2.4 miles and 2,900 feet of gain, finishing just below the 11,000 foot summit of Hidden Peak, and near the Snowbird Tram station.
Despite the uphill pain Debbie and I both enjoyed the race. For my efforts, I earned a new Black Diamond headlamp. All the runners got a Patagonia Capilene t-shirt and a stainless steel pint glass. Debbie finished in 1:57:48, good for 5th place amongst the women, but first of the women doing the 50K. Timmy Parr won the race in 1:20:24. He was followed by Nathan Peters and Michael Wardian. The first three women were Bethany Lewis in 1:46:35, followed by Rachel Cieslewicz, and Holly Hagerman.
I had a lot of fun running with Paul Terranova, who I met for the first time. We are connected through many other friends, but had never formally met in person. He wasn’t far behind me after the first ascent, and along with Holly, and Matthew Van Horn, we rode the quad lift down together. The second trip up the mountain was even harder. Karl had us go straight up a 45% grade. It was hand over fist for nearly a mile and was more of a bushwhack than a trail run. The best part was the glorious smell that came from the abundant wildflowers.
Paul and I stuck together for most of the second ascent, even stopping at one point on the ridge, to take pictures of one another with my iPhone. I was wishing I brought a little food because I ran out of gas in the last 400 meters. One gel would have helped, but I had to make do with the little water left in my bottle.
I waited for Debbie to finish and we hung around the top of the mountain for a little while and then rode the tram back to the Snowbird Center. We walked back to the Creekside venue where we stashed a bag with recovery drink and other gear. We eventually returned to the hotel where we washed up and had an early dinner. We loved the two climb format and riding the chairlift was a lot of fun.
50K, 6:30 A.M., Saturday 25 July
When Debbie planned her 2015 season, Speedgoat was on the short list of candidate races to compete in. She lost out in the Western States Endurance Run lottery, and decided to wait until fall for a 100 mile race. That left the summer open for a travel race. Since we spent 10 days in Marin County and San Francisco for the Miwok 100K in early May, we decided to choose a shorter race that would allow for a shorter trip with just the two of us. Speedgoat was the perfect candidate because it has been a goal for many years. The addition of the Vertical Mile the day before the 50K; and the Quadbanger, the day after, gave her even more opportunity to run in the mountains.
The race is billed as the toughest 50K in the country, and I don’t doubt that. With 11,000 feet of elevation gain and 11,000 feet of elevation loss over 32+/- miles in the Wasatch Range of northern Utah, it has the credentials to be one of the toughest races in the world. Mile-for-mile, there isn’t much that compares.
The work that Karl did with the Snowbird resort, staff, and his army of volunteers was remarkable. As a Hoka sponsored athlete, he was able to bring in strong production support and sponsorship from his title sponsor, Ultraspire, Drymax, Black Diamond, and several other notable brands, to complement the support that he got from Snowbird. As trail races go, Speedgoat was quite a production. Countering that high level of sponsorship, Karl got a lot of help from his family, which gave this large event a grassroots feel. That is quite an accomplishment considering it is very hard to balance a high production event with sponsors and the feel of a small community oriented trail race. Karl has been an advocate for prize money and he was very generous with his support for the top men and women runners.
This was the first time he added two events to create a full weekend of adventure called the Speedgoat Mountain Races. These “trail running festivals” have grown in popularity as runners travel to destination races and desire to pack in as much running fun as they can. Adding events is good for race directors. It brings in more revenue, more runners, and more attention. A resort like Snowbird can benefit from all the summer activity as runners travel with crews and families.
Speedgoat has garnered a reputation as a top-notch event and always attracts a strong field of runners. The prize money has always been a draw, considering that many races offer nothing. This year was no exception, though competition with the U.S. Mountain Running Championships in Bend, Oregon, did draw away some top talent. I also think that the difficulty of Speedgoat is a deterrent for some runners. That is interesting, because it is the rugged nature of the course that appealed to Debbie.
She is a strong hiker, but not a super-hiker, and that showed with her 20th place finish. She was aiming for top 10, but prior to the race, she had no way to gauge herself against the mostly mountain region and west coast women that she was up against. Very few east coast and flatland runners came to Utah for this high altitude run. The entire race was above 8,000 feet. It’s really hard to compete if you don’t live and train in that kind of Alpine environment.
We are fortunate to have a Hypoxico Altitude tent, but it is not a replacement for living at elevation. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been fur us if we hadn’t prepared by using the tent over the past three months. Debbie was more diligent (as she needed to be) about getting the necessary time. I’ve had a fair amount of travel and often slept in the bunk bed above our son, rather than join her in the hot and oxygen thin confines of the Hypoxico. Still, I’m sure I benefitted a little from the nights I was able to sleep in the tent.
A little more than 400 people were registered for the 50K, but 100 didn’t show up, which was startling to Karl and his team. 25% attrition is high for a race like this. 304 people did finish the race. There were many DNF’s, but not as many as you would think. I don’t know how that compares to past years. The temperature was warm, but not uncomfortable, with mid-day highs in the low 80’s. The sun was very strong, though a little mid-afternoon cloud cover and a light breeze helped make things more bearable.
The start/finish is at the Creekside venue near Snowbird’s entrance #1. Runners amassed for the 6:30 A.M. start and then promptly headed uphill. Sage Canaday, winner of the past two editions, took the hole-shot and literally launched himself up the trail. He surged into the lead and never looked back.
I hustled over to the famous Snowbird Tram, and rode the second car to the summit of 11,000 foot Hidden Peak where there was a large aid station. It was cool and breezy on the top. I wished I had a bit more insulation. I packed my Clik-Elite backpack full for a day of hiking, running, spectating, crewing, and photographing, but neglected to carry enough clothing. Thankfully, by mid-morning, the rising sun had warmed us. By noon, I was complaining about the sun and looking for any shade available. I also wished I had a bucket hat to keep the sun off my face, neck, and ears. Alas, I made it through the day with only a little sunburn.
Sage was way out front when he hammered up the final pitch to the Hidden Peak aid station. He was running even the steepest sections of trail. Debbie reported that many of the service roads and fire roads had gradients of more than 25% and some of the singletrack trails were 45% requiring use of your hands. Some runners chose to use poles.
I knew that Sage would be the favorite and had a chance to chat with him this past Thursday afternoon. Debbie and I stopped at Sage’s café (no relation!) in Salt Lake City for a late lunch. While we were there, Sage and his girlfriend, Sandi Nypaver, pulled in the parking lot after driving from their home in Colorado. We last saw them at the 2013 Cayuga Trails 50 Miler. We were last at Sage’s Café (different location), in 2008. The food was good and we had a chance to get insight on the race from the course record holder. Speedgoat has gotten harder in recent years as Karl has added more climbing.
I saw Debbie come through Hidden Peak the first time and she was easing her way into the race. I counted 25 or 30 women in front of her when she came by. Given her slower start and struggles on that first big climb, I knew that she would have to work really hard to move up to the top-10, but was pleased that she didn’t fade, held her pace for most of the day, and then steadily moved up by the finish. Her main goal for the weekend was to finish and win the “general classification” category by completing the Vertical Mile, 50K, and Quadbanger with the lowest cumulative time. Just finishing was going to be a huge challenge, so she need to conserve a bit. Having done the Vertical Mile the day before, she wasn’t running the 50K on fresh legs.
During the course of the weekend, I got a lot of guidance from Bryce and Melanie Thatcher, their family, and colleagues from Ultraspire. Debbie has been an Ultraspire “Elite Immortal” for several years and has valued the support from this small company. They specialize in hydration products, particularly for trail runners and ultrarunners. I enjoyed learning more about the business and Bryce’s role in developing hydration pack technology. He had five family members running the 50K and knows the course well. He helped me pick out some good spots to take photographs.
The images speak for themselves, but the scenery is as stunning as any I’ve ever photographed in. The granite walls, wildflower, and vast wilderness, especially on the back side of Snowbird, were awesome. We staked out a spot towards the base of Mt. Baldy and waited for Sage to arrive. One of the amazing things about Speedgoat is that you can see much of the race course from vantage points high on Hidden Peak. You can see the runners nearly an hour before they reach you, as trails switchback all over the mountain. We were able to spot Sage miles down the mountain. When he did arrive after scorching the Baldy descent, he was on pace with his time from last year on a similar course.
I snapped some pictures of him, and then did a little run of my own, about 2.5 miles down the trail to the Mineral Basin Aid Station. They didn’t want crews and spectators tramping down here, but I was able to go there and take photographs. The aid station volunteers were fantastic. The runners pass through Mineral Basin twice, and I was catching them on their return trip from the lowest and farthest point on the course, Pacific Mines.
The sun was blazing down in that spot. When I got there, 20 or so runners, had passed through, so I got a chance to see the next 100 or so until Debbie arrived. She was in good spirits and didn’t stay long. I walked a little ways up the trail with her. The fields were full of flower and more amazing smells. I left her at the base of the big climb up to Mt. Baldy. She said there was a lot of scree and that they trail was very technical on the subsequent descent.
I was fortunate to ride a chairlift back up to the summit of Hidden Peak. Once again, I walked down to the spot where I previously photographed Sage, and caught Debbie coming down Baldy. After that, she descended to the tunnel and crossed back to the Little Cottonwood Canyon side of the mountain. From there, she descended further before turning back up the ridge. I waited a long time at the top of the knife-like edge and cheered for the runners as they walked one by one back up to the Hidden Peak aid station for the final time.
Debbie was low on energy when she crested Hidden Peak for the last time, but she knew that only a mostly downhill six miles remained. Throughout the day, she was self-sufficient. I only handed off a handful of gels and a flask of concentrated energy drink. She carried what she needed in her Ultraspire Surge pack.
When I left her again, I headed for the tram and caught a ride back to the Snowbird Center. I stopped at our hotel room at the Lodge and grabbed some food for myself and all of her post-race recovery stuff. She took care to recover from Friday’s Vertical Mile, using her compression socks, tights, and a smart refueling strategy. She planned the same after the 50K in advance of Sunday’s Quadbanger.
Sage won the race in 5:13:02, just missing his time from last year. He was followed by Alex Nichols, Daniel Kraft, Alex Docta, and Vertical Mile winner, Timmy Parr. The first woman was Hillary Allen in a blazing fast 6:37:35. She was followed by Emily Richards, Abby Rideout, Amanda Basham, and Becky Wheeler.
I made it back to Creekside, which was a little under a mile from the Lodge, in time to see Debbie finish. I waited 30 minutes at the line, cheering the runners who preceded her. I knew she was very happy to finish. She immediately told me how hard it was. I could tell. Unfortunately, as soon as she finished, her stomach went sour. Thankfully, she didn’t get ill during the race, but afterwards, she wasn’t able to eat or drink for several hours. It wasn’t until 7:30 P.M. when she ate a few crackers. She suspects that a combination of gels and caffeinated salt tablets contributed to her gastrointestinal distress. We walked back to the hotel and she rested until she could eat a little. Late in the evening, she recovered a bit and we went to dinner, which helped her fuel back up. Speedgoat was fantastically entertaining. What a race!
Quadbanger, 11:00 A.M., Sunday 26 July
The third and final Speedgoat Mountain Races event was the Quadbanger. Aptly named, the unique format was not for the faint of heart or weak of leg. The race was four timed descents of Hidden Peak. Like in the Vertical Mile, timing was paused while runners were on the chair lift. 37 people signed up for the race, but only 20 showed up. Many of the no shows were probably trashed from Saturday’s 50K.
We were able to figure out that Debbie was the only female who finished the Vertical Mile and the 50K that showed up for the Quadbanger, so she only had to finish to lock up “first place” for the general classification. Even still, her secondary goal was to have a strong showing in this downhill race. Since descending is her specialty, she was excited despite having really sore legs at the start after running for almost nine hours at the 50K.
As a group, the runners, volunteers, and family members rode the Snowbird Tram to the 11,000 foot summit. After Karl gave instructions, we hung out for 15 minutes until the start with the other brave souls who were readying themselves for the first plunge. That was some of the most fun we had all weekend. It was a beautiful morning. Once again, we were flooded with bright sunlight and a deep blue sky.
The first descent went from the top of the peak, past the top of the Peruvian Chairlift, and then down a service road for two miles, switching back across the Peruvian Cirque multiple times. The course then left the road for singletrack. In the singletrack, it switched back multiple times across crazy steep and rocky ground. The dry soil created a dust storm as the runners went by. The trail entered the woods and then emerged just above the Snowbird Center before finishing at the base of the Peruvian Chairlift. Runners rode the lift back up and then descended three more times. On the final descent, rather than heading for the lift, they ran .6 mile on a service road back to Creekside. The total distance was about 10.5 miles and the total descent was 10,000+ feet.
After watching the start, I ran down to the top of the lift. From there, I photographed the runners as they wound their way down the cirque. I waited for them to come back up the first time, and then ran the course all the way to Creekside, shooting from various spots on the way. Despite the pounding on the legs, the runners were having a blast. No one was letting up. Timmy Parr, who also won the Vertical Mile, was hammering. He won the Quadbanger in 1:10:28, completing an amazing weekend of results with a first, fifth, and first. He handily won the general classification for doing all three. He was followed by Dan Campbell and Anatoliy Zharkikh. Kudos to fellow flatlanders Michael Wardian and Paul Terranova, who both completed the trilogy of races. Michael was 4th in the Quadbanger and Paul was 7th.
Debbie had a lot of fun. She ran the whole race with Meredith Terranova, Paul’s wife. Meredith is someone who Debbie knew of, but hadn’t spoken with. They met during the tram ride, and bonded on four descents of the mountain, and three rides on the chairlift. Again, Karl got great support from volunteers, staff, and family. I had a chance to stop at the dirt road/singletrack junction and chat with Cheryl, Karl’s wife. I hadn’t seen her in many years. We got to know each other when we crewed at the 2007 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc. We were together at many of the aid stations in the middle of the night during that crazy race. She remembered that Debbie, our son, and I went to cheer and support Karl during his 2008 Appalachian Trail FKT attempt. Just last month, Debbie and both of our kids cheered for Scott Jurek during his record run, and Karl was there too. At the junction near the lift, Karl Meltzer, Sr. was directing traffic.
After chatting with each of them, I made my way to the finish in time to catch all the finishers. Debbie’s legs were really giving out at the end. She had a couple of hard falls on the first and second descents. Both times she bloodied her knees and hands on the slippery singletrack switchback section. She and Meredith stuck together. Meredith told me afterwards that she was chiding Debbie, stressing that she needed to finish, and shouldn’t take too many chances. That made me laugh.
I think her legs were just pummeled after all the running and her muscles weren’t firing correctly. I’m truly amazed at Debbie’s strength. She and her coach, Al Lyman from Pursuit Athletic Performance, put a lot of time and effort preparing for Speedgoat. They knew that running three races in three days was going to take its toll. In addition to the emphasis on recovery, the preparation was built around overall strength. It was the first time that she did a stage race like this, and these were intense races with serious elevation.
She came screaming through the finish. Meredith was not far behind. Third woman was Jennifer Collins. Debbie was thrilled to be done. I’ve only seen her this happy at a handful of races. Nothing will top the 2012 Laurel Highlands Ultra, but she was pumped. I asked her if this race was up there with some of her other past super-tough ultras (with lots of climbing) including the Zane Grey, Jay Mountain Marathon, Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run, Wapack and Back, Six Foot Track, etc. Speedgoat was one of the hardest mile for mile ever. She had no idea that she was going to earn prize money, so she was even happier when
Karl presented her with a nice reward. Even more special is the unique trophy she earned for winning the Quadbanger. It was handmade by Karl Meltzer, Sr. We hung out for a while, soaking up the last bit of trail running friendship from the assembled crowd. Then, we once again, returned to the Lodge for rest and recovery.
I wasn’t as tired as Debbie, but I had enough running around to fill a weekend. We cleaned up and then explored the Snowbird Center before joining the Terranova’s for a wonderful “victory” dinner at the Aerie, a restaurant with amazing views of the mountain.
Debbie said of Speedgoat, “Once is enough.” We likely won’t return in 2016, but never say never. The allure of Utah’s mountains is strong. I could never run a race like Speedgoat and be able to walk again, but somehow, I think that when Debbie finally recovers, she will look back and realize that this race was truly special.