14 February 2015


I had first heard about the Dismal repeats of Dismal 50K a couple of years ago and I had never had any interest in actually attempting it, at least not more than one repeat. The route was actually devised by Rob Youngren while he was trying to create training routes that would allow him to accomplish serious elevation gain over as short a distance as possible in preparation for one of his Hardrock 100 finishes.

When I was selected in the UTMB lottery in January, I realized I would be presented with a similar dilemma as Rob in his Hardrock prep; how to get anywhere near the elevation gain necessary to successfully prepare for a race that has +30,000ft of climbing without having to travel to a mountain range somewhere. After all, our little mountain is an awesome training ground with miles of technical trails, but serious elevation gain is hard to come by. My approach was two fold. First, find every ultra with a distance of 50K-100K in the southeast between now and August that has more than 15,000ft of gain and sign up for it. Second, only train on trails and make sure that every training run contains at least 100ft of climb per mile, on average with more serious climbing on weekend runs. Since Rob had already come up with a ridiculous training route, I saw no reason to reinvent the wheel. Truth be told, I couldn't have come up with anything even close to this "sick" anyway.

Since Rob was training for Barkley and also had Hardrock on the horizon for this year, he was kind enough to let me tag along on his first Dismal 50K attempt of the year. I'd had to take a week off from running due to a sinus infection a week earlier and I hadn't really had a whole lot of sleep the night before, which caused me to be a few minutes late when I arrived at the Monte Sano State Park pavilion. The gate to the parking lot was still closed, but I noticed two cars pulled over to the side of the road, so I knew I wasn't the first one to arrive. Benj and Cary had also decided to give it a try and apparently, they and Rob were eager to get started, so left without me. Oh well, that's what you get rolling out of bed too late.

Since I didn't really know yet who was actually out on the trails (I didn't recognize all of the cars), I decided to just head on out after them and hopefully catch up to them before I'd reach the unknown section of the route. The Dismal 50K course is essentially 8x 4 mile repeats. Each repeat has +1,500ft of climb. It starts with a descend down "death trail", which is the first section of the McKay Hollow Trail that starts just behind the state park pavilion and descends for about a mile before connecting to the Natural Well Trail that climbs up for about a mile on the other side of the McKay Hollow. Once you pass the actual Natural Well, there is a short steep section leading up to a Bluff before you reach the turnaround point of the course at Panorama Drive. You now return the same way to complete the first of 8 repeats.

Rob has a fantastic write-up at his blog about one of his previous experiences here, in which he also does a much better job of describing the route along with his experience. Unfortunately, this was my first attempt at this route and since I didn't know how to proceed once I reached the Natural Well, I was stuck. I decided to wait it out and not 5 minutes later I heard voices approaching from the trail ahead. It was Rob and Benj coming down the trail with Cary out of sight but just behind them. Rather than get an explanation of the remaining section, I decided to head back with them and to tag on that final climb at the end of my run, should I decide to actually run or hike all 8 repeats.

I headed back with Rob and Benj feeling pretty good. After all, it was still very early in the day. The difficulty of this route became evident after just one repeat as Cary had had enough and opted for a nice breakfast instead of doing another repeat. I can't say I blame him. Benj had decided to go for 4 repeats or 25k, so he would still have some time to spend with his family that day. Rob had planned to do the full distance all along, but I had changed my tune just a little. While I had initially planned to do the whole thing for sure, I had now decided to just do one repeats at a time and to decide on another repeat every time I'd get back to my car for a water bottle refill and some cookies. After all, to date, only two people had ever finished the full 50K before, so there would be no shame to call it a day early. Then again, we had perfect weather and I really really wanted to add my name to the list of finishers:-) Once I had completed 6 repeats, I knew I was going to go the full distance.

Rob would leave me in the dust on the climbs, but I would catch him on the downhills, taking more risks than usual in trying to do so:-) Before the final repeat, I told him to just go for it. I knew I had to do the final climb twice on this repeat, so there really wasn't any reason for Rob to wait around for me to complete the extra climb. He did find time to chat with some hikers just as I was making my second and final climb up to Panorama Drive, but he was gone for good by the time I made my final descent.

I arrived back at my car in 9 hours and 4 minutes, pleased to have managed to cover 50K with +12,000ft of elevation gain on a training run and not having quit early. Rob was chilling out and having a chat with el presidente (HTC pres Eric Fritz), who was out for a little run himself. Rob and I did talk about the fact that 4 starters could have made this an actual FA, so, who knows, maybe this will be an actual thing some time in the near future. It definitely tests both your physical and your mental game and I plan to do it a couple more times before heading to France in August.

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