Hustle and Flow at the North Fork 50 Mile
By Christopher Harrington
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FRXC on Strava

Low fog hung over Pine Valley Ranch Park on race morning, limiting visibility and causing some pre-race chills partially attributable to my nervousness. I chatted with Ryan Denison (50 mi) Blake Wageman (50k) and Alexis Hanks (50k) after picking up my bib, discussing the heavy hitters that would be out there and what we anticipated course conditions to be like. I ran into some patches of snow during a course preview run a couple of weeks prior, but fully expected things to be melted out.

Alexis, Chris, and Ryan Pre-Race
Chris, Alexis, and Ryan Pre-Race

I lined up at the front of the start line, eagerly listening to Janice O’Grady's instructions before we would get the go ahead to start running. One thing I have learned about racing this year that has helped me has been to stop being afraid of going out fast and lining up in front. If I can hang, I will. If not, I'll slow down, but lining up like that puts me in a true racing mindset where I can really try to run my best from the first steps. Lining up in the middle of the pack puts me in more of a leisurely mindset. 

3-2-1, go. Ryan slapped me on the ass, screamed "GO GET EM'!" and I was out the gate. 

The trails in Buffalo Creek are butter. The roll and flow of soft dirt with occasional rock features makes for great running. This is truly a runner's course, despite the 7,000 ft of ascent throughout the 50 miles. I trained for the grade of the trail during evening post work treadmill workouts and used this to my advantage, moving comfortably but quick and running with the lead 50k pack. I tried not to think too much about the fact that when these guys were finished that I'd still have 19 miles to go, or that experienced North Forkers Evan Kimber and Michael Hewitt were somewhere behind me.

Buffalo Creek features sweeping views and is the location of a forest burn area.
Buffalo Creek features sweeping views and is the location of a forest burn area.

Admittedly, my confidence was sky high as I led the 50 milers into Meadows Aid at mile 20. I filled up my handheld, ate a gel, and got out relatively fast, the FRXC crew (Nick, Lauren, and Logan Leuck, as well as Caitlin and Addy Denison) cheering me on (yes, even the babies) in arriving first. Michael came into the aid station not far behind me, but I pulled out ahead, confidence a little shaken, since he is the course record holder and had run this 50 miler a handful of times. He knew exactly what he was doing. If anyone was going to pass me today, it was going to be him.

Out of Meadows we climbed up Green Mountain and this was the first portion I hiked thus far, switching fluidly between a hike and run. I was nervous thinking I should be running the whole thing. At the top of the climb, I started getting side stitches. It may have been the heat at this point but my breathing felt off and I had to walk portions of the downhill while wincing. Sure enough at Mile 23 Michael passed me on the downhill, which I had banked on to be my bread and butter. I saw him look back to see how close I was chasing, but I kept stitching and had to switch between a run and walk on the downhill. Getting passed and trying to manage my side stitches was awful, but knowing who it was that passed me helped mitigate the damage to my confidence.

As I returned back to Meadows I also noticed that my nipples were bleeding which has been a more recent development. This tragically hilarious ailment hit me when I first started running years ago and wore cotton shirts in Southern California heat. This spring, the condition returned. I had meant to put on band aids before the race but forgot. Thankfully they were in my drop bag and Nick helped me apply them. Caitlin told me that first wasn't all that far ahead, so I got up and out after filling my bottle and spending more time in there than I had hoped. 

The climb up the Colorado Trail was slow, and this 10 mile out and back was the darkest patch of my day. I hiked a lot more than I wanted to and felt out of it. I saw Michael about 1 mile from the turn around which meant he had about 20+ minutes on me, but after tagging the turn around myself, I saw that 3rd through 7th were all within a few minutes behind me. Evan, Mike Tegar, and Ryan were all very close. My confidence sank. I felt like garbage, I was getting caught, and the self-pity sank in. I was hiking and part of my mind told me that I should just dial it back, let everyone pass me, and finish the race without trying to be a hero. It was terrible. The descent back into Meadows for the final time didn't help. I would fly down at my normal downhill pace but immediately cramp up enough to wince and have to walk, thinking I’d get passed at any second. Another section that I expected to crush went far slower than I wanted, but I somehow managed to return to Meadows in second, with third place Evan arriving right after me. 

Barrett Langton and Allison Dobbs had joined the FRXC crew at Meadows by now which certainly lifted my spirits, but I couldn't figure out what was going on. I was eating enough food, didn't want any sugar, so I just drank a lot of water and a handful of gummi bears and tried to maintain position into Shinglemill aid station. More hiking, running, and frustration was the theme of this leg and sure enough Mike passed me on a runnable grade climb and I dropped back into third place.

I arrived at Shinglemill in third not too far behind Mike and was treated to the FRXC crew and special guest aid station volunteers Peter Brennan and Tyler Clemens. Temperatures were rising and I asked Peter to drench me with a sponge of cold water he had, which was probably the biggest game changing moment of the day. The water shocked my system and I instantly felt a little bit better. Mike took off, and I left not too far behind him, seeing Ryan and Evan hit the aid station about 30 seconds after my departure. The race was tight but my self-pity phase seemed to have expired.

I started jogging the uphills again and could feel my body and brain take a positive turn. I didn’t know how far ahead Mike was or exactly how far Ryan and Evan were behind me, but I knew if I could get to Buffalo Creek Aid at Mile 42 within eyesight of other runners that I could beat them. I held that card with me until arriving at Buff Creek right behind Mike. I grabbed a handful of gummi bears, chugged more water and took off in second. Mike passed me shortly thereafter, but I hung with him on the last big climb of the day, never exerting myself too much which brought my confidence back. Near the top of the climb, Mike looked back to see how close I was and took a spill. I asked if he was “ok” and he said "yes", dusted himself off, and I pulled ahead on a low angle climb that I ran with some strength that I felt had been missing for the last 12 miles and feeling a little bit guilty about the circumstances of moving ahead. 

Back in second, I knew from a late race bonk at the Quad Rock 25 miler that I needed to keep eating and drinking despite how close to the finish I was. I ran 98% of the way to Homestretch along flats and gentle downhill grades. On the last very short hill to the aid station, I slowed to a hike, popped my last VFuel gel and finished my water as I arrived to Homestretch Aid Station with Mike coming in right behind me.

“How far to the finish?” I asked as the volunteer filled my handheld with ice water.

“About 5k!” 

I knew this descent and how fast I could run it with 17 miles on my legs, the question was could I run it that fast with 47 miles on my legs? I figured there was only one way to find out and took off.

For the first time since the first 20 miles, I completely forgot about all of the other runners and leaned into the beautifully scenic final downhill miles at about a 6:40 min/mi pace. If someone was going to pass me at this point running faster, so be it. My body felt good again and despite the tension in my legs I forced a fast turnover because I knew the clock was getting close to 8 hours and wanted this thing done.

Finish Line
Finish Line

When the lake at Pine Valley Ranch came into view and the trail became flat I tried to keep my downhill pace. Families visiting the park and people fishing starred at me as I passed by the lake, my breathing heavily labored, likely wondering what was wrong with me. I saw Caitlin right as I hit the pavement with about a tenth of a mile to go and she was psyched to see a goat shirt. I saw the rest of the crew as I turned a corner, the finish line, and got it done in 7:54:11, a 50 minute 50 mile PR from a similar course. Breaking 8 hours for 50 miles on trail was a huge personal goal and I was so happy to have been able to accomplish that.

Janice, having remembered me from our meeting during my preview run, congratulated me and handed me my race spoils. She is a wonderful race director and I don’t think I’ve seen someone laugh and smile so much. She puts on a terrific race in a gorgeous area that is both beginner friendly and fast for those looking to push pace. Janice, thanks again for everything.

Accepting the spoils of war from race director Janice O'Grady.
Accepting the spoils of war from race director Janice O'Grady.

I then learned that Michael had won in 7:17, beating his old course record by about 14 minutes in impressive style. I witnessed him win in 2015 when I volunteered at Meadows Aid Station myself, and he is impressively dialed on this course. His aid station stops, where he picks up his trekking poles, exactly which legs to run, hike, and push. I think I heard him say that he thinks it’s a sub 7 hour course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls that off in the near future.

Hugging it out with Race Winner and Course Record Holder Michael Hewitt
Hugging it out with Race Winner and Course Record Holder Michael Hewitt

Mike pulled in shortly thereafter, with Ryan taking 4th just over 8 hours and Evan taking 5th. Outside of Michael’s new course record, it was a tight front pack with some definite racing between us all. 

About the Race:

The North Fork Trail Races feature both 50 Mile and 50k distance. The race takes place out of Pine Valley Ranch Park near Pine, Colorado along the rolling trails of Buffalo Creek. 2017 was the 8th year of the race.

About the Brands:

Merrell is my first choice for trail running footwear and outdoor apparel. The Agility Peak Flex, in particular, is the best trail running shoe I have ever worn.

VFuel makes easily digestible, great tasting gels and beverages that help you get calories on the go. Their Vanilla Gel is life.