Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Athlete's Corner: The Rut 50K with Nick Elson

Race report – The Rut – Skyrunner World Series Ultra Final

When: Saturday September 13, 2014, 6am start
Where: Big Sky Resort, Montana US
Distance: 31 miles / 50K
Elevation: 10,000 ft / 3,040 meters of vertical climb and descent
Time limit: 12 1/2 hours
No. participants: 500 max

Race results (here)
Nick finished in 10th place overall in a time of 5h56

Chloé: You are well known in the ski mountaineering (skimo) and alpine community, though a relatively newcomer to the ultra-trail running scene. You're coming-in hot with much promise already. When did you get more into racing ultras, was there a defining moment?

Nick: Although I’d run for many years and even competed a bit at university, until recently climbing had always been my primary focus. In the spring of 2012 I started up a massive alpine ridge in Alaska with one friend and no rope. After only a few hundred feet of climbing I realized that I just wasn’t good enough or bold enough. It was a difficult failure (usually you can at least blame the weather or something out of your control) and it led me to take a bit of a step back from serious climbing. I realized that my own mortality had ceased to be quite as abstract a concept as it once was. However, I still enjoyed spending time in the alpine and I soon discovered that running in the mountains provided plenty of opportunity for challenge and adventure - some of the things that had always appealed to me about climbing.
While I’m generally a pretty laid-back (possibly even lazy) person, running appealed to my well-concealed competitive streak and before long I found myself entering some trail races. Initially I wasn’t particularly interested in running ultras; the thought of shuffling along for hours on end didn’t seem all that appealing.  Eventually, however, I succumbed to the hype that surrounds ultra-running these days and entered the 2013 Kneeknacker.
Prior to the race, I was very fortunate to get out running with guys like Gary Robbins and Adam Campbell from whom I learned (and continue to learn) a lot about running ultras. Unfortunately, there are some things you can only figure out by doing, and the Kneeknacker was quite educational for me. Three-quarters of the way through the race I was leading and thinking that maybe ultra running was not so hard after all when my legs suddenly decided they had pretty much had enough. As a result, the final miles of the race involved some significant physical and mental anguish. Turns out running ultras isn’t easy, but perhaps that’s why I’ve stuck with it.
Nick Elson acclimatizing for The Rut 50K on Grand Teton
Chloé: Well, you still managed 3rd place (in 4h44) behind Gary Robbins and Mike Murphy, so not too shabby a début. Coming off your recent win at this year's Squamish50 (mile), how were you feeling going into The Rut? Tell us about your preparation leading up to race day

Nick: This summer I raced three ultras, each one month after the other. In doing so, I gained lots of valuable experience. However, one month isn’t a long time to recover from one race and then prepare for the next one.
One of the things that I really like about ultra and trail running is that because each race is so different from the next, and each runner has such different strengths and skills, there can be no generic formulas for how best to train.
My training is loosely structured. I try to keep the demands of my goal race in mind and plan certain workouts and long runs each week that are specific to my goals. However, I give myself some flexibility to adjust my training based on how I’m feeling and also to take advantage of good weather and conditions in order to get out in the mountains.
After the Squamish50, my first priority was to recover well, which actually requires quite a bit of discipline when you have another race looming. Two weeks before The Rut, I travelled down to Wyoming with my girlfriend Karina. The plan (aside from having a fun road trip) was to spend some time at higher elevations in order to acclimatize for the race (which takes place between 2,300-3,400 meters). We had a great time checking out Yellowstone and climbing and running in the Tetons. However, I think the results were mixed. I certainly gained some acclimatization, yet the long stretches of driving, camping in the cold, hiking with a heavy pack, plus the running and the altitude, all contributed to wearing me out. Thankfully I came to my senses and we got a warm hotel room in Bozeman for a couple of nights which allowed me to bounce back a bit before the race.
"Grinding up one of the many non-technical ascents"
Chloé: Was The Rut a goal race? What were your key objectives and strategies for this run?
Nick: The Rut was definitely one of my key races this year. However, against such a strong field and without knowing the course, I didn’t have any firm goals with respect to time or place.
My strategy for the race was to stay relaxed and not push too hard through the first 20km which were relatively smooth and fast. I then hoped to be able to move up through the field in the middle of the race, where the running became technical - as this is usually where I’m strongest.
There were four aid stations on the course so I opted to carry a single hand-held bottle which I refilled with water. I also started with a half-dozen gels which I planned to supplement with gels from the aid stations so that I could eat approximately three per hour. It was below freezing at the start of the race so I wore tights and also a wind-shell, buff and gloves which I later took off.
"This trail was aptly named. It also managed to crush my spirit"
Chloé: How did it go?

Nick: It was cold and dark at the start but there was excitement amongst the runners and spectators. I tried not to get too carried away when the gun went off. I settled into a comfortable pace up the first climb at the back of a long line of guys. Before long, the sun rose and we descended to some rolling hard-packed trails. I caught up with Adam Campbell and we ran in a group with a few other runners.
Unfortunately, I began having stomach issues which was not something I’d experienced before.  I eventually decided I’d better make a quick stop, after which I felt considerably better. By this time, the trail was ascending steadily at a runnable grade and I pushed a bit in an effort to make up for lost time. This brought me to the open, scree-filled bowl which led to the Headwaters Ridge section of the course. For the first time, I could see all the runners ahead of me (actually I think Kilian and Sage were already out of sight) and although I was a bit dismayed by how many there were, I was feeling more confidant now that we were on more technical terrain.
Power-hiking up the loose scree was not especially pleasant but I was finally feeling strong and passed a few people. I felt even better on the ensuing descent despite all the dinner plate shaped rocks that were flying up and lacerating my ankles. I arrived at the out-and-back to the Tram Dock aid station having moved up to 8th place and feeling optimistic that I could continue to move through the field.
That feeling didn’t last long. The road up to the aid station seemed to be right at that awful grade where running is vastly more efficient than hiking but maintaining a run requires more effort than is perhaps wise at the halfway point of an ultra. This effort, combined with the altitude and the fact that my fueling had been a bit thrown off by my earlier stomach issues left me feeling very weak as I began the long climb up Lone Peak. Before the race, I’d hoped that this steep climb and technical descent would play to my strengths. Instead I found myself tripping amongst the loose rocks and trying to limit the number of people that passed me as we climbed to the 11,000 foot summit. My stomach was once again rebelling and I could no longer take in any calories. I clawed my way up and over the peak and stumbled deliriously down the other side where I was surprised to pass a few runners. This, combined with the ever-thickening air, managed to lift my spirits a little – that is until my legs started to cramp on the next uphill.
By this time I felt I’d been running for quite a ways and ready for the whole thing to be over. My GPS, however, was still showing a worryingly small number under “distance”. My fears were then confirmed by a volunteer who pointed at a distant massive mountain when I asked how far the next aid station was.
In shorter races, you can count on the fact that you’re only going to feel worse as the race progresses. In ultras there’s always hope you might actually start to feel better. Unfortunately, I’ve never personally experienced this “bouncing back” phenomenon though I did manage to keep moving steadily in the last 15km of the Rut.
I have rarely felt so happy as when I ran down the finishing straight. There were many spectators cheering and I was proud to have finished in the top ten of such a competitive race. Mostly, I was happy because I would soon be able to stop running.
Not quite the run I’d hoped for, though overall The Rut was a positive experience. The race was well-organized, the course had an interesting mix of terrain in a beautiful setting, and it was fun to line up against great athletes like Kilian and Sage. I went into the race hoping for a good learning experience and it certainly was.
Nick crossing the finish line in 10th place
Chloe: What’s next for you?
Nick: I’m taking a short break from structured training and racing. Then soon will start training more specifically for ski mountaineering with the 2015 World Championships in Switzerland as my main race goal for the season.

Other Links
The Rut (promo video)
The Rut men’s race preview from iRunfar (article)
Ellie Greenwood's The Rut 50k race report (

Montana Trail Crew, more on The Rut (website) 

Skimo Racing & Adventure Touring (website)
Read Nick's: Blog. Follow him on Twitter

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