by Sean Cook
Caution: Most of this was written sleep deprived and I am also part cavemen (i.e., my grammar is not on par with my running). Be warned!
As any good story goes, no kidding – there I was once again in July venturing off the beaten path to the small town of Fairplay, Colorado to run the Sheep Mountain 50, a Human Potential Race Series (HPRS) event. The Sheep Mountain race is arguably one of their better races and you could make a case for it being one of the better 50 milers. Well, I have only run this race and have now run it twice; it truly is a marvel and wonder to be part of, and hard to see it being replicated elsewhere. The Race Director, Sherpa John Paul Lacroix, is quite a thinker on and off the trail and comes up with lavish assortments of fun for you to enjoy, like vertical switchbacks. Here is how he describes Sheep Mountain: “The course starts and finishes at the town of Fairplay Beach. It is a lollipop-type loop consisting of 30% roads, 48% Forest Service/ATV roads, and 22% singletrack trail. The course both climbs and descends approximately 9,420 feet. The Sheep Mountain 50-Mile course is a classic HPRS offering with no shortage of ups and downs, and ample sections for runners to make time up on.”
That is a very technical and factual way to describe the course but the funniest thing I heard that I can use to describe the course was as we were headed inbound, with 41+ miles down and a half marathon left, we hit Sheep Mountain AGAIN. This time it was a series of vertical switchbacks and somewhere ahead of me I heard someone shout in joy “Mother F#&ker!” As I got up to about where the shout came from there was another climb straight up with little relief. That is your Sheep Mountain experience wrapped up in a quick blog. But I want to expand on it because there is something unique and really good that is going on here with HPRS, Sheep Mountain and the town of Fairplay that deserves more than a “Mother F#&ker” quote to be fair.
Fairplay, Colorado might be more (in)famous for their use in the syndicated comedy South Park television show, but if you visit the town you know why it is really famous. It is extremely picturesque and the beauty just completely surrounds the town. There is a large contingent of people who see it as no more than a passing through to Breckenridge, but if you stop and get off the main street you see there is a lot more to appreciate than the one stop light and a couple stores with limited major corporation presence in this small town (there is one Pizza Hut and one Subway). The town is a perfect setting for trail runners chasing that running dream of mountains, roads, single track, dirt trails and spectacular beauty. It sits high in the sky a couple hundred feet short of two-mile-city and race-renowned Leadville, but it still gives you that limited-oxygen feel. Just outside of town you have a truly iconic mountain, Sheep Mountain, that lent its name to this young race. Sheep Mountain is truly a climber’s, hiker’s and trail runner’s best and worst friend. It offers you panoramic views but challenges you with every step you make up or down. Two years ago Sherpa John brought this race into existence, providing a unique opportunity for all the die-hard trail runners out there.
In the first year of Sheep Mountain I finished DFL, but the three of us who finished together decided we would let Jerry get the DFL prize, a bottle of liquor. This would come into play later with my ootsun in 2016. It was my first ultra outside of any street race or trail half marathon. It was my first real challenge in running and my reality check to get me focused towards the Leadville 100. The first year the Sheep Mountain course was approximately 52 miles long with almost the same elements of 2016 (9420 feet elevation gain up and down) except for a dead drive right up Round Hill then dancing around the top. The weather in 2015 was perfect minus a 30 minute hail storm at the end. In all, 66 people signed up for the 2015 race, 56 showed up to run it and 45 finished the race, giving it a respectable 80% finish rate. However the cutoff was pushed to the right by one hour – 16 hours total – due to the difficulty, technicality, and pure toughness of this brutal course.
Looking back it seems like I suffered some of the same issues last year that I did this year. Especially with respect to my back locking up and getting sore like I was doing a hula hoop competition for 24 hours straight while balancing on a balance beam with one leg. After I sat back and looked at it I realized when you are hiking, running, and climbing all over this loose rock your core is gonna pay the price and thus your back hurts. So this year I knew it was coming, just not sure when it would impact me. My biggest takeaway and the greatest thing in my mind from the inaugural year was that it felt like the race was a small group of friends all coming together to tough it out on this hard course. The aid stations were lively, the camaraderie among the runners was unique, and the overall event feeling was a huge sense of accomplishment. It truly is what brought me back. I met some great people here including John, my two eventual pacers for Leadville 100, Becki and Steve, and so many others. So when I sat down this year and planned my running schedule this was on my must do list. From top to bottom the race is an unforgettable and rewarding experience.
The 2016 race started off a lot better than the 2015 race for me. First the race started over by the fairgrounds and the local Fairplay Fair. Fairplay had gone out of its way to bring the racers into the fold and even had a sign welcoming all the runners as you drove into town. With the shift in the start and finish location you knew you were going to get some bonus miles. According to the two Garmins I used for this race, the total race distance was 54.1 miles. So we gained two miles form last year. However, two miles is nothing once you hit 50, or so I tell myself.
The race had its normal fun start with John telling you to “get out of here,” and we all took off on our merry way. I filmed a good portion of the race using my GoPro. You can view that video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5otsG9bmWUE. But wait until the end of this report before watching!
The biggest thing for me this year was to keep my pace down to 10–11 minute miles up until Sheep Mountain. I tried to stay at the back and run a nice sound race and let that pace carry me through. I think when I got to Sheep Mountain and pulled out my poles I forgot that fact and just poled my way to the top. I tried to keep a decent pace but looking back now I think I sped up on the hill and that cost me in the long run. That mountain wore me out more than I expected, not with my legs but with my stomach and thirst. I spent the rest of the race trying to quench that thirst and I think my two bottles of caffeinated tailwind didn’t help me there. The aid stations along the way were well stocked and as friendly as I remembered last year, except this year I didn’t have Steve to give me an Ensure then a shot of Fireball (YUCK).
Last year the race was a little smaller so it was more spread out and I had brought a map with all my turns marked on it to make sure I didn’t get lost. The course marking this year was really good and I remembered the route but had my map in my bag just in case. I never needed to pull it out but it was comforting to have. Some other folks did venture off the course but I am not sure if that was not paying attention or just falling asleep at the wheel, which the heat could make you do. There is a tendency to “drone” like I did this year for five miles between miles 29–34. Last year my roommate and her best friend helped me out on the course. This year my buddy, Steve Knox, who I met at this race last year was there. It really helps to have someone help you out on these wild-crazy runs, to have another opinion and sanity check on your state of life at that time. The low point I hit at mile 34 was overcome. Steve saw it and made sure I ate some food (chips and watermelon), downed some water, and then we talked strategy. The little things help in the grand scheme of things. While in my head I knew I would overcome it, sometimes take someone outside my multiple personalities to tell me I can do this and remove any doubt from my head.
This year the race had 107 runners sign up, 75 runners showed up and 53 runners finished for a 71% completion rate. You can see there was a substantial rise in the number of runners from the previous year but I think a grassroots information campaign had started about how great a race it was and brought people out looking to challenge Sheep Mountain.
My race wasn’t about where I placed or how fast I went. I just wanted to put in a better performance than I did in 2015. I think I did that. From the start to the end I had a decent plan and tried to stick with it. When I hit a wall I knew what I needed to do to overcome it. When you watch the video you will see a lot of beautiful scenery and my highs and some lows. But what I always come back with is some witty comment about making it happen, not quitting, pushing through, or whatever. You have to believe in yourself first. If you can do that then all things are possible. I owe a lot of thanks to our Race Director Sherpa John for allowing me to become a better runner. Now who is this guy? Why have we heard so much but so little about him?
Sherpa John Paul Lacroix is famous for many things besides building this awesome race. He comes from the Northeast and is a devoted Patriots fan with a flair for speaking to runners like they need to be spoken to sometimes. He is very close and personal with people and shares with them his passions that revolve around HPRS and his races. Just look at the picture and this is the essence of Sherpa John: a tireless worker who, after working to set up the race, run the race, deal with numerous issues, pick up and pack after the race, ran up and down Sheep Mountain one more time. Not only is he motivated but he is dedicated and for that we appreciate him. So when I asked him about the Sheep Mountain 50 Miler he replied, “you mean the beautifully difficult one?” Yes, well said, it is beautiful and difficult all wrapped up in one! But we know it is more than just one race so I asked him about HPRS and running and he replied, “HPRS…it’s all about getting back to the root traditions of our sport. We focus on the community as a whole while providing runners with challenging-turned-meaningful experiences in the mountains.” He truly understands the core foundations of trail running and his efforts to share it with all us novice runners is appreciated.
I hope you did not get bored and go straight to the video. I hope you read through this. If you did, you will now know I didn’t finish last, even when I slowed down and walked and let what I thought were the last three runners pass me. In true form, Sherpa John rewarded some hard workers who got to the last aid station a little late by allowing them to continue. And you know what? They all made the cutoff and got their deserved chance. It is small things like this that will bring me back to this suckfest to push myself harder and get a little better, whether physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Thanks, John.
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