Most of us can remember a day, whether a training run or race, where everything clicked. Not necessarily an effortless feeling, but more the feeling of being completely in control of oneself. Ready to attack the course and make things difficult because you are making the choice to do so. Free of fear that things might fail you.
At the Broken Arrow Skyrace 52k in Squaw Valley last Saturday, I had that day. I had no fear or hesitation that my gear, nutrition, mind, or body would fail me. Broken Arrow has turned quickly into one of the more anticipated events on the west coast, with its big mountains, potential snow (this year was a biggie for that!), and great competition. The race started promptly at 7am under crisp air, blue skies, and a roar of alpenhorn.
As with most races that have 400+ starters, the first 200 meters were a mad dash through the village with the falsified urgency that if you’re not in the place you hope to finish in by the time you hit the trail, the impending doom of bottlenecks and impassible singletrack will leave you stuck in a conga line of disappointment. I decided to go out at my pace and effort. Not anyone else’s. I made the decision to do what I thought would get me to the finish line in the least amount of time, and that meant to go out slower than I think I should.
The course was two 15 mile loops, each containing about 5k of vert. Needless to say, I didn’t want to make that second loop any harder than it had to be. About a mile in, I was probably in the 30s, place wise. I just kept reminding myself to not waste this opportunity and keep committing to the original race plan of calm and steady.
The next eight miles of the race are mainly uphill, with some sections being stupidly steep. This year with all the snow, instead of running the switchbacks on the climbs, the race organizers thought it would be a grand time to just go straight up the snow fields with fixed ropes in place. IT WAS AWESOME. I had a blast kicking my feet into the hillside and at times, crawling on all fours up the face of the mountain. To top out the climbing is the famous ladder that leads to the top of Squaw Peak at about 8900 feet. The wind was howling up the mountain this first lap and actually made it quite cold. I tucked my poles away because they kept blowing across my body and tripping me. I even had to hold onto my bib number for a bit, because I was afraid it would blow away and I’d lose my two Sierra Nevada beer vouchers! Fortunately I made it off the mountain and towards high camp.
The descent from Squaw Peak towards high camp also included a lollipop loop down towards Shirly Lake. This whole section was nearly all snow covered, and we even overlapped with skiers as the lifts were still open. Pretty awesome sight to see. Having done the 26k race two years ago, and the 52k three years ago, I was familiar with the mixture of singletrack and fire road that I would descend down to the valley. I was also familiar with the jello leg, oh shit I climbed too hard feeling that usually sets in on this descent. Today was different though. I still had a ton of pop and was feeling ready to attack the second loop.
I came through the halfway point in 20th place. I was greeted by Madi, who had spare gels, bottles and a Red Bull waiting for me. She did a great job of keeping the calm energy going, told me how the others ahead of me were doing me, and sent me on my way.
I was pretty sure I was still moving well, but wouldn’t know until I came into the next aid station, which took me 57 minutes to get to on the first loop. This second time around was 59 minutes. Just a little bit slower, but gave me a huge confidence boost, as I was now ready to attack the KT-22 and Squaw Peak climbs. Ascending the roped bits of KT-22, I was surprised to not be able to see anyone on the face above me. I guess being three and a half hours in, the race had gotten pretty spread out. Even though I couldn’t see anyone to try to catch, I kept telling myself that they could be right around the corner.
I’m glad I kept pushing up KT-22, because as I rounded the corner to approach the Squaw Peak climb, there was a line of maybe 10 guys making their way up. The hunt was on! I put my head down and hiked (ran a bit, but mostly hiked) as hard as I could. Slowly, I started to catch people. Each one gave me a little boost of energy to keep hammering to the top. By the top of Squaw Peak, I was just in full-on kick mode to get down the mountain as fast as I could. I caught one last person on the Shirley Lake lollipop, then proceeded to try to haul ass down the mountain as quick as my legs would allow. With about two miles to go, I glanced at the total time for the first time since completing the first lap, and saw that there was a chance at breaking five hours if I pushed all the way through. I just put my head down and hammered.
Coming down to the finish was incredible. My friends and family were screaming their heads off, I was going to break five hours, and for the first time in a while, I felt great about my performance. I was just friggin’ psyched that I stuck to my plan, executed, and gave myself the chance to race the second half. The end result was 6th place and a time of 4:58:56.
Huge thanks to the Broken Arrow race directors, volunteers, and sponsors for making this race happen. In just four short years, this event has erupted into a three day, four race, 1000+ runner Sky Running festival, and I hope its popularity only continues to grow.
Nathan VaporHowe WaistPak (fits me better and the color is badass)
Trails & Tarmac Crusher Hat (Coming Soon to the store!)
1x Red Bull