Crown King Scramble 50k – April 2, 2016 – Lake Pleasant to Crown King, AZ
It’s rare these days that I get truly excited to run a race anymore. Part of the let-down of frequent racing is that the feeling I used to get on race day just isn’t there anymore…I can’t say this was the case with the Crown King Scramble. I wouldn’t normally chose to run a race with 6,500′ of vert and 4,000′ net gain…but what the hell…work was sending me to Arizona, and this race just happened to be the weekend I was going. So yeah, I ran it…and I’m damn glad. I was so excited because this race was so vastly different than anything else I had ever attempted. I had never done a race with a major net gain (or any real vert). I had never run a race in the desert. I had never run a race where the views were promised to be so awesome. I had good reason to be excited…this was something new and outside the comfort zone…and that’s how we grow as people and as runners!
This was the most challenging race I ever ran by far (yes…50k can feel longer than 50M), but it was the most rewarding an beautiful. With pretty much zero hill training, I went out and put on a strong performance with a decent time/place…the flatlander from Houston made some noise in the mountains of Arizona. So here is the story of Crown King.
The Crown King Scramble 50k is one of the oldest running foot races in the state of Arizona. This year was the 25th official running of the event (although there is rumor that it was actually 26th – but year one was more of a fat ass). A 25 year old race in Arizona is kind of incredible considering Arizona has only been a state for about 30 years (source: Dan’s east coast bias…original 13 baby!). But all joking aside (Arizona was made a state in 1912, the last one in the lower 48), this race has been on the scene for a long time and has a long legacy. Many of the country’s best ultra runners have taken on this race (Ann Transon is the current women’s course record holder). It is now under the control of Aravaipa running – which is basically the sh*t of Arizona trail racing. They are the biggest and the best…and do an A+ job with it all. I see a lot of similarities between Aravaipa and Trail Racing Over Texas and think TROT has done an awesome job building a similarly awesome trail racing company in Texas. The race drew just over 200 participants this year, which is pretty decent for a 50k only race.
The biggest attraction to the race is the course. You start along the shores of Lake Pleasant – a beautiful lake about 30 miles NW of Phoenix. You spend the first 10 or so miles rolling through the Sonoran Desert with small cactus covered mountains all around you. Please note – you have really not started climbing at this point…
The first 5 miles roll, and then some minor climbing starts up to mile 15. The whole time you are simply astounded by the desert views. Cactus are everywhere, the sky is deep blue. The mountains are rising in the distance.
The fun really gets rolling in the 2nd half of the race. You hit Aid Station #2 at just about the halfway point. Shortly after this you are greeted by a steep 1 mile climb at Mile 16 and another shortly after at Mile 17. These are the first real climbs of the course and people start dropping like flies. Around mile 17 you look back to the south and see Lake Pleasant in the distance. You are now about 2,000′ above the lake and you can tell. As you look forward, the Bradshaw Mountains tower above you…this is where you are going…
As you climb, the landscape begins to change. No longer do you see the desert cacti, but now are starting to see some different vegetation. The trail also grows more rugged, going from a decently groomed jeep road to something with a lot more rocks (both fixed and loose). By Mile 21, the climbing slows a bit and you enter a period of relatively rolling terrain (although you are still net climbing, just at a lesser grade). This section is very runnable and has a bunch of stream crossings (with ice cold water that feels really good on tired legs). It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of accomplishment in these miles, as they ticked off relatively easy. Be warned though, the worst is about to come starting just before the marathon mark…
The true sadism of the course is that the largest, longest and most sustained climb begins just as your body is starting to hit the wall. As you run through Mile 25 you can see an aid station up high on the mountain…you just think to yourself…oh sh*t…I need to run up there? At this point you are around 5,000′ above sea level…the crest of the course is about 6,250′. Over the next 3 or so miles you will proceed to climb 1,250′. The one drop of comfort you draw from this is that as you run along the trail cut into the side of the mountain you get some of the most breathtaking views you will ever see. The world is laid out below you, and you get a true feel for how much climbing you have done. An aid station at mile 27 gives you a break and a chance to catch this view…but then you are on your way to another 2 miles of climbing.
Mercifully, the course peaks around mile 29 and you get 2 miles of screaming downhill to the finish in Crown King. As you crest the peak, the world instantly changes from desert to pine forest. At mile 30 you are nearing the small town of Crown King. The pines tower above as you make the final descent toward the tiny town, and the badass Crown King Saloon where this whole thing wraps up. Yes, you literally finish on the patio of the saloon.
So – what’s the overall assessment? This race is damn badass…and expertly run. Aid stations…perfect. Swag – great! No medal…but you get a finisher beer mug, a finisher jacket and a participant shirt! Course – just holy s*ht beautiful! Run it…yes…run it!
I won’t spend a lot of time talking about how things went for me…but it is worth a few words. To start – my training isn’t what it could have been. One downside of frequently racing (I had done 3 marathons in 3 weeks leading up to this) is that I’m in constant recovery mode during the week. I did almost no hill training for this race (Houston problems) as I had very little time to run hard during the weeks, and most of my races were pancake flat. Oh well…that’s my choice. I’m still overall happy with how I did given this fact.
What went well? So, I think I did a pretty good job of holding back in the 1st half of the race. It is very easy to go out too fast in the 1st 10 miles given it is a rolling easy course at this point. I focused on easy running and easy breathing, as looking at the course profile I knew there would be plenty of time for hard breathing later. My conservative pace led me to run the first 25k in around 2:15. It took me 3:03 to do the last half! In retrospect I still may have gone out a bit too hard. I had a lot of energy on the climbs from mile 16 – 20 and passed a lot of struggling runners here. I did however not have enough to keep running the major ascent from 26 – 29 and I ended up laying down some 16 minute miles while power hiking here (still not awful). But, overall, I passed more runners than passed me (only got passed by 3 people on the back half, so not bad). Nutrition and hydration also went well. I consumed 400 calories of Tailwind and supplemented with 6 Powergels over the course of the race. So I took in 1,000 calories which was enough. I never felt like I lacked energy and was able to run the last 2 downhill miles. Had gas in the tank. I made good gear choices too. I chose to not go with a hydration pack since I didn’t want all the extra weight. I simply carried two Nathan Speed Draw Plus Insulated flasks and refilled them at each aid station (one had water, the other Tailwind).
What didn’t go well? Mostly the final climb. Had I done more hill training I probably could have run this more. It wasn’t about my legs, they felt fine. I was struggling with the breathing and my heart rate was up (being at 6,000′ of elevation played into this too…damn sea level running). Climbing is very different than fast running on flat ground, and it is actually a lot harder/more exercise. So, had I did more hill work I probably could have done a bit better than 16 minute miles on the big climb and avoided getting passed. This would have been the difference between finishing 13th OA and cracking the top 10 (which I really wanted). Other than that, I think most things went well. I also wish I had just enjoyed the views a bit more, but heck it’s a race…sometimes you gotta run.
Bottom line was I finished 11th male (13th OA out of over 200) and ran a 5:18 flat. I think with better hill training I can crack 5:00 on this course.
So, with that ends the story of the coolest race I have run to date. The Crown King Scramble was amazing and I will definitely consider running this race again someday. Overall a great experience that pushed me out of the normal “flat and fast race” comfort zone. It was definitely a confidence builder to see that I can perform on a course with big climbs and lots of gain…and I think this race was an excellent preview of what I can expect to see at Franklin Mountain in September (although these trails are less technical than those will be, but similar types of elevation). So with that…here’s the stats!
Career Marathon/Ultra #49 (Ultra #8) – #9 of 2016 (Ultra #3)
Arizona was State #16
Time: 5:18:00 – 13th OA, 11th male (50k PW…but that was expected!)
Big Thanks to Nathan for keeping me hydrated with my awesome bottles, Julbo for keeping that strong desert sun out of my eyes with the cool shades, and Feetures for socks that keep my feet comfy and blister free for 31 miles! Best sponsors!
Until the next race!