By Sean Meissner
When I moved to Arizona last August, I made a decision to try to run as many Arizona races as possible, as this is a state I hadn’t explored much. One of the races I definitely wanted to run was the Old Pueblo 50 mile in the Santa Rita Mountains near Sonoita. Known as a classic, old-school ultra, Old Pueblo is one of the older ultras in the US, with its first running in 1985. It has taken a few breaks in that time, thus, this year was the 25th running.
Kristina and I loaded up V (our popup camper), put the dogs in the truck, and headed south on Friday afternoon. It was a bit longer drive to get there than I anticipated, first stopping in Tucson to pick up our numbers at Fleet Feet, then arriving at Kentucky Camp (start/finish) well after dark. We found a flattish place to park the truck, raised the roof on V, and cooked up some dinner. It was sometime around then that the wind really started to pick up.
The wind would become a theme for the entire night, and most of the race. It violently shook V throughout the night, making for a very restless night, thus, making the 4:30 wake-up call not too horrible, as I wasn’t sleeping soundly, anyway.
We eventually made our way from the parking area the ¼ mile down to the start line only about 10 minutes before the start (no reason to hang out in the cold when we had the heater cranking in V), dropping off our finish line drop bags. At the time, I thought the finish line drop bags were a bit silly, as we were parked only ¼ mile away, but it definitely proved to be a smart move.
Right at 6 a.m., we were off running into the wind. By the parking lot ¼ mile up the road, two guys had already made quite a move, while the rest of us were content warming up more gradually. I fell into a groove in the first road section with Nick Coury, Michael Carson, and Sion Lupowitz, and we got to witness a spectacular sunrise.
We passed the first a.s. at mile 3 without stopping, then started up a short, steep climb on the Arizona Trail, followed by a really fun downhill to the second a.s. at mile 7. As I stopped to swap my bottle for my race vest, our group split apart a bit here. I got out fairly fast, following a few guys who had been in front of me, but still staying a bit behind them as we wound our way up a nice, runnable climb. Michael joined me shortly after, and within a minute, I heard a faint yell coming from behind. It didn’t really register until I heard a second yell. I looked at Michael, we had a brief chat about the lack of flagging, and we decided to turn back. My yelling at those ahead of us proved futile. A few minutes later, we saw the turn we missed (flagging was on the backside of the bushes), and then about 5 minutes later, we caught up to Sion, Nick, Garrett Smith, and another guy who I didn’t know. Thanks for literal the shout out, Sion!
We all cruised along for a while, chatting about the day and how maybe the rainy forecast wasn’t going to come. Then I saw the clouds overhead… About a mile later, Nick stated that we were going the wrong way. What? We were clearly following flagging. So we all stopped, as Nick had downloaded the course map onto his phone, and I had brought my turn-by-turn course directions (something I very rarely do). We concluded Nick was right, and the flagging we were following wasn’t, so the 6 of us made a left and cautiously continued along the non-marked course to a.s. 3 at mile 13. We were happy to see the volunteers and were told that a group of 6 had arrived there from a different way, cutting off about 3 miles (that’s the way I had been going before Sion yelled to me). It was clear that the course markers had been vandalized, so the 6 of us stayed together, using Nick’s map, my directions, and memory of those who had run OP before.
While the wind started slowly picking up again, we ascended a pretty big climb, making some key, unmarked turns that I would have blown by without our group. We then ran down, down, down a fairly rocky, technical jeep road until we saw a volunteer who had driven up from the next a.s. to make sure we were finding our way okay, as he knew the markers had been removed. After the a.s. at mile 19, our group wasn’t much of a group anymore, but more just a runner or two a couple minutes ahead of the next one or two. The wind really started whipping up and the rain started falling. I was by myself, battling the headwind solo, a minute behind Sion and Michael, wishing that I would have stayed with them.
I eventually rolled into the a.s. 5 at mile 25 as the weather was getting bad. I was happy to see Sion and Michael still there, as I would then try to latch onto them. However, Michael decided to call it a day (he had won the Black Canyon 100km just two weeks prior), but Sion was still fired up, getting a much needed waterproof jacket from a friend (mine more weatherproof jacket was 4 miles up the road in my drop bag). As we started up the long climb together, I noticed the return of course markings! The jerks who had vandalized the markings up to this point hadn’t vandalized the whole course, just the first half. I was excited for the climb as it was the kind that I love – 1000’ of climbing in 4 miles up a dirt road, i.e., very runnable. Apparently Sion likes climbs like that too because, despite me feeling and running strong, he was dropping me. Crap! It was in these 4 miles that we started passing some of the guys who had inadvertently shortened the course earlier, passing 4 of the 6 ahead of us.
I felt good when I got up to the a.s. at mile 29, despite the weather now becoming downright nasty with steady rain, high wind, and cold temperature – a perfect recipe for hypothermia. As I switched jackets to my more waterproof one and wished that I had put a heavier pair of gloves in my drop bag, a volunteer filled my hydration bladder for what proved to be the final time of the day. I started off after Sion up the Arizona Trail onto a cold, exposed, windy, and slippery ridge with about a 3 minute deficit. The temperature dropped the higher I got, and I knew I had to keep moving well in order to generate enough body heat so I wouldn’t get hypothermic. When I got to the next a.s. at mile 33, I was a bit surprised to see Sion there. He was on the verge of stopping, as his hands were frozen (as were mine). As we were talking, one of the runners we passed going up the road, Justin Peschka, came in and out of the a.s. before we could even think. Despite us not really racing him due to the course being vandalized, that lit a fire in both of us and we took off after him.
The three of us ran mostly together up a long dirt road to the next a.s. Not a lot was said as we continued to get pummeled by the weather, and I lingered back a bit at times, but would quickly kick my butt to get back to them so I wouldn’t suffer alone. Little creeks were no longer little, but rather had turned into raging creeks, and the footing became slicker as I got colder and started to lose a bit of coordination. We got to the mile 40 a.s., I had a few cups of Coke, then we were out of there quickly so as not to get hypothermic. Within a few hundred yards of the a.s., Justin stopped to adjust his jacket, and another minute later, we realized we had inadvertently dropped him.
Now it was just Sion and me. After a couple miles up the road, we turned onto the Arizona Trail again, which lead us up to another high ridge. With the torrential downpour and high winds that we were getting on the lower roads, I knew it was going to be horrible on the ridge. I braced myself for the gusts when we reached the top, then screamed to Sion that we had to run hard and get off of there ASAP! So we did, but conditions continued to deteriorate as we ran through trail-creeks with water up to a foot deep. Despite most of my body either freezing or being numb, I was relieved to be suffering with Sion. We were pushing each other to stay strong and tough to the finish. Thus, it was at this point that I thought out loud that we should just finish together. We’re both competitive and under normal circumstances, would love to beat the heck out of each other to the finish, but to me, this day seemed more like an epic survival adventure that we were in together rather than a race to see who could beat who. It’s days like this where lasting friendships are forged.
We finally got to the last a.s. at mile 46, again stopping just long enough for a Coke, then trudged on to the finish. Sion told me we had one more good climb, followed by a nice downhill and finishing with a short up. We turned up the intensity a bit in the last section, as we both clearly smelled the barn and just wanted to put this crazy day behind us. We continued splashing through the deep, freezing water on the trail, while getting pounded by the downpour and high winds, and I think we were both kind of having fun. At least it seemed so to me.
Then all of a sudden, Kentucky Camp came into view and a few minutes later, we were done. We finished in a tie for first, but giving the day’s unfortunate circumstances, it was a very anticlimactic win. Absolutely freezing and soaked to the bone, we shared a hug before getting our finish line drop bags and changing into our nice, dry, warm clothes.
From there, the day continued to get worse for runners still on course and race organizers. Dozens of runners got very lost due to the course markers being vandalized, and in those weather conditions, became extremely hypothermic. Search and rescue, including a helicopter, was called. It was a very dangerous situation all afternoon and night. Finally, by 6 a.m. the next morning, everyone had been accounted for. This is one of the dangers that can happen when holier-than-though jerks decide to vandalize a well-marked race course.
Aside from that nonsense, Old Pueblo lived up to its non-hype hype as an old school race. Not a lot of frills, just a nice, honest course with sufficient aid and a great post-race spread. It’s the kind of race that I can understand why it’s been around so long.