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Wonderful Wahsatch Steeplechase

June 25, 2012

Each June, about 300 trail runners meet at 6am in the morning at Memory Grove in Salt Lake City. This is perhaps one of my favorite local trail races in Utah. In addition, Butch Adams, the current race director, is amazingly kind and accessible. This is in stark contrast to the road races in the valley, a true testimony of the spirit of trail running.

This year, the course returned to the modernized Steeplechase route. In its 33 year, the race has taken on various forms and distances. Last year, due to amazing snow conditions, the Steeplechase, along with numerous other trail races, was rerouted to Dude Peak. It was refreshing to return to the modernized route.  For those unfamiliar with the route, go here.

With unpleasantly warm temperatures in June, the 6am start had no unsettling chill.  As we stretched, discussed our training and waited for the lovely defecation portals, Butch and his crew of excellent volunteers generously prepared for the gun to go off.  I greatly appreciate the natural way in which the course up the Memory Grove road permits runners to settle into the appropriate and natural paced positions. As with any good trail race, the road portion succumbs to the eventual dirt and ascends via single track up to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. With small and brief sections of respite, the route climbs for more then 4,500′ in 7.5 miles. Those who can run the uphill are superhuman in capability and even those who finish in under 3 hours are often found hiking portions of the climb.   At Five Points, a common hangout for those about to descend onto Bobsled, the race jumps to the ridge line in route of the Black Mtn Summit. This is no small undertaking and should not be underestimated. Many of these sections including the final assault on the false summit can bring any strong runner into an anaerobic level. This year, my training showed immediately on the climb. Not only did I ‘run’ much more of the climb, but I maintained a steady aerobic heart rate. Despite this, I had intended on reaching the summit by 7:30 am and was slightly off of this pace. As described on the site, there is a section of the ridge line that is considered 5.4 scrambling and often acompanied by one of the larger rattlesnakes in the SLC vicinity. Unlike the past 4 years, I did not get the pleasure of seeing this friendly face. Fortunately, numerous volunteers and spectactors had ventured out to make this comparable to a Tour de France summit experience. One can only hope that in the upcoming years, Butch can encourage more eccentrics and streakers on the ridgeline.

I am always amazed by the aid at Smugglers Notch. Preceded by the symbol banging monkey, a plethora, at least in contrast to its location, of water and aid are hoisted up the preceding week. With friendly faces and great spirits, they quickly resupply runners in preparation of very rapid and potentially dangerous descent into City Creek. Over the course of the past 4 years, I have seen and been a part of the significant trail improvements on this portion of the race. Thanks to all of this hard work, the route has become less eventful and much faster. Not to my surprise, due to hot temperatures and low snow conditions the trail was very dusty. Choking on the dust was an impetus for passing runners more quickly on descent.

I have come to learn that my youthful legs and bravado incline me to be very quick on descents. This was no exception today. Passing about 6 runners, I began feeling the hints of rocks, dirt or a blister on my right foot. Not thinking much of it, I decided to wait until Rotary Park, a mere 2 or so miles from the summit, to assess the situation. Just barely back on pace for a sub 3 hour finish, I wanted nothing to do with a stop to assess foot conditions. Upon inspection, I was surprised to find that I had a 2 inch diameter blister on my right heel. With little options, other then expending a lot of time managing this, I consciously choose, due to the brevity of the race, to finish the remaining descent along the road and trails of City Creek and Memory Grove as fast as possible.

Exclaiming a few expletives, I put my sock and shoe back on and picked my pace up. The three miles of the road flew by as expected. Picking up a few more runners kept my spirits high and I even began contemplating a 2:30 to 2:45 finish. Despite these delusions, my foot and the heat started to take a toll on me as I began the small climbs on the trail paralleling the City Creek road.

Ever year I have run this race a gentleman by the name of Jay has been like an angel on the return. Perhaps, it was his amiable presence, genuine smile, or the cold wash clothe on a hot day, but I almost always looked forward to Jay and his station as much as the finish line. Fortunately, despite his recent passing his aid station has continued in his honor.  While I did not stop, I had a great burst of energy, along with the runner who passed me, and made a conscious effort to increase my stride noticing I was on pace for a 2:45 finish.

Here is a very rough sketch of the route!

The jaunt down Memory Grove is exhilarating and I always hope to pass another runner on the last mile of this race. While this was not to be done, it was rewarding to be greeted as I crossed the line more then 18 minutes faster then in any of my previous years.

I was ecstatic about the 2:45 finish and knew that the now 3 inch diameter blister could wait momentarily while I enjoyed the personal victory. Later, I asked reflected on why or how I had improved my time so significantly. I am not sure if this can be attributed to the increased mileage, more familiarity with the course or general wisdom with age, but I was happy nonetheless. For me, this self improvement is a primary reason for the annual return to the Wahsatch Steeplechase. With a great race route, improved trails, fantastic organization of volunteers, an awesome race director and a friendly race community, the Wahsatch Steeplechase should be part of every trail runners repertoire in Utah.

Photo Courtesy of Greg Norrander

Hope to see you out there next year.

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