All Day in the Desert: McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50K

If you want to read about how I trained for the race, you can find it here.

Race Day

I showed up early on race day to see the 50 mile runners start. Partly because one of my friends from San Tan was running it, and partly because I just wanted to cheer for them as they started. As I get closer to committing myself to doing a 50-miler, the more I appreciate how badass each and every one of those people are. You better believe I’m going to cheer for them.

It was cold and windy early. Thanks to a really cold night at Ragnar, I’ve just given up completely on light jackets when I think there’s a chance it’s gonna feel real cold and have dug out my bulky coat, and that was what I walked around in for about an hour, any time I was outside of the warmth of my car. Shortly before the 50K start, I shucked off the warm stuff and headed over to the chute. My friend and Ragnar teammate, Francisco, was running the 50K too, so I wished him luck and headed to the back of the group to get ready to start.

(Why the back? You can read my thoughts about it in my Javelina Jangover post. For now, it’s my permanent strategy, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If you’re going for a podium spot, then by all means start at the front. If not, in a chip-timed race it doesn’t matter whether you cross the start line first or ninety-first, because your timer doesn’t start until you go over it.)

We got the countdown and were off!

But first, Lisa

I have to say a few words about Lisa Pozzoni, Chi Running instructor extraordinaire. I initially got to know her through my wife Kris, who met her at work when she would come up to lead exercise groups as part of the company’s wellness program. They became friends, and Kris did one of Lisa’s Chi Running workshops, as well as taking countless classes at work from her.

Because Lisa is a fitness and running instructor (and is super nice on top of that), she’s always got a large group of people around her. We bumped into each other after the Adrenaline race in May, and she was surrounded as usual by her fellow runners and friends. I assumed that was how her races went as well—going out with a group that looked like that and trucking along together until done.

So it was a surprise that when I ran into her out on the trail at Javelina Jangover, running the 25K, she was out there on her own. We spent a number of miles on the way out leapfrogging each other, taking turns running past the other when they would take walk breaks, but didn’t realize it until we saw and greeted each other at the aid station. I got out of the station a little ahead of her, but she caught up to me a couple of miles further along, and that was when we made the most amazing discovery:

We run at pretty close to the same pace.

If you’re not a runner, you may not appreciate how rare this is, so I’ll tell you: it’s rare. So Lisa caught up to me during the back half of Jangover, and we ran several miles of it together, all the way up until just about the last mile. She came in around a minute behind me.

It turned out that several months later, we were both running the Frenzy 50K together and knew it going in this time. Having run together at Jangover, we knew we could be trail buddies during this race to help get each other through it, and we did. We ran well over half the race together, splitting up and separating a couple of times when she needed to stop and shooed me on, promising to catch up later. We regrouped each time at the next aid station and kept on together, right up until the last mile, where…

I’m getting ahead of myself.

What I really want to say about Lisa and this race is that a huge part of endurance running is the mental aspect, and I cannot overstate how much having her out there as my running buddy helped me with it.

The Race

It was still cold and breezy when we got the 50K start, but the sun was up by then (8 AM), and the combination of that and starting to move in earnest helped offset the chill. The first 6-7 miles on the Escondido trail went by fast. The trail was relatively easy, and most of it was new to me, it being my first time out in that part of the park. Lisa and I split up the first time here and I pulled ahead for a while, and when I hit the Escondido aid station I just had a cup of water. My pack still had plenty of Tailwind-enriched water, and I had eaten a Honey Stinger waffle on top of what I had drunk of that already, so I didn’t need any supplemental food yet.

I went on from the aid station, now traveling on the much-more-familiar Pemberton trail, and began the very gradual climb up to the Granite Tank aid station around mile 12. I still felt good and was still running on my own. I’d looked back a couple of times before the Escondido aid station to keep track of Lisa, but by this point I couldn’t see her anymore. I took some walk breaks as I went, just to take it easy and conserve energy for the scary stuff I knew was coming, and I put some targets on the backs of runners ahead of me that I was slowly gaining on.

Mile 8 felt like it came quickly, mile 9 a little less so, and mile 10 maybe a little less than that, and then I was telling myself that I was already almost 1/3 of the way done. I liked thinking of it that way more than saying what the actual number of miles remaining was.

I passed one of the runners that I’d been watching ahead of me, who was very nice, and we chatted a bit. She said she was tired and I tried to be encouraging. Shortly after I passed her, we got to what is probably my favorite part of Pemberton, a spot where the trail weaves around some standing boulders. I took some pictures, but I had to do it quickly because the runner I’d just passed kept closing the distance to me as I would stop, and I didn’t want to be that annoying guy being in the way and then running up from behind to pass again only to do it over and over. After a short stretch of that, I got back to the running again and went on to the Granite Tank aid station.

Granite Tank was my first time using a drop bag, something that I had been more than a little nervous about. You’re putting stuff you will need for the race, critically important stuff, into a bag and giving it to someone else to deliver to the aid station for you so you don’t have to carry it the whole way yourself. It’s an awesome system, but scary because it’s out of your hands.

It went off without a hitch (at both aid stations).

I refilled my pack there and reloaded it with Tailwind. I jammed the extra food I had packed (another couple of Waffles and a Bonk Breaker bar—way more stuff than I needed or was able to eat, as it turned out) into my pack and hit the aid station food. Ginger ale, orange slices, and boiled potatoes with salt (after this race, I am convinced that those potatoes are the greatest race food on Earth). Before I was done (I spent about 12 minutes there), Lisa arrived and stocked up, and we headed out together again.

I also saw my friend Brad, who was doing the 50 mile course, at the aid station. We have run together out at San Tan quite a few times, and it was good to see another familiar face. He got out of the aid station faster than I did, and for the next several miles we leapfrogged each other until eventually he pulled ahead and disappeared in the distance. I saw him once more at the Dixie Mine aid station quite a bit later.

The course from the aid station went out on Gooseneck trail, an area of the park I’d never seen before. It was awesome. Giant boulder hills and big cholla forests. We stopped a couple of times for more pictures and made our way through the miles. 14, 15, 16, and then we were back on Pemberton for a couple of miles of gradual descent. Then it was time to start climbing.

We took a right onto Coachwhip trail and started going up. It was gradual at first, and Lisa and I split up again at this point. As before, she told me to keep going, and she’d try to catch up, so I was on my own for this slog up the hill.

17. 18. 19. I took a couple of pictures of the course as it ascended, thinking that it was rough. Somewhere along the way, the course turned onto Windmill trail and eventually Bell Pass. I was jogging in very short stretches, but mostly it was hiking. By the time I got to what was really the hard part, I was just working on getting through it and didn’t take any more pictures.

When my watch beeped the mile 20 notification, I thought “only 11 miles to go,” and then laughed out loud about that for a while. Definitely longer than was reasonable. I was on my own and tired, and I could see that the Thompson Peak radio tower I’d be passing near(-ish) was still a long way from me.

Somewhere around 20 miles in. They say that if you run out to this point and tell yourself there are only 11 miles to go, you can still hear ghostly laughter echoing through the hills.

From there it was another mile and a half of grunting up the rest of the climb. My watch was telling me that I’d passed through the last aid station 9-10 miles back, and I hadn’t filled my pack completely because I’d thought 2/3 of it (about 40 oz.) would be plenty to get me through to the next station, but it was getting low. I thought about that a lot as I caught up to and passed a guy who appeared to be trying to tackle the course with a single 12 oz. handheld bottle, which of course was empty and had been for a while. Not a great plan. A runner ahead of me seemed to know him and gave him some water from her pack, but I was almost empty myself and still had at least a mile and a half to go before the next station, so I didn’t have anything to spare.

Finally the long climb was over, and a long stretch of scrabbly downhill led into the aid station with food, drinks, shade, and chairs. I sat and ate and refilled, and before I knew it (I had no idea until I looked at my log after I got home), I’d spent 25 minutes there. Whoops!

Lisa caught up there and came in with another girl she’d been running with for a while, Jen, and after they were topped off, we all headed out together. We ran that way for a couple of miles and then Jen dropped off the back and waved Lisa and I on, so we kept going.

26.2—piece of cake!

When we hit the marathon mark at 26.2, we stopped for another picture. Lisa posted it to her Facebook page, and we went on. I didn’t think anything more about it.

We hit the last aid station at mile 28-ish without incident. It had been a blissful gradual descent for several miles and was just beginning to cool off from the midafternoon peak temperature in the low 70s. We made it a short stop. We were closing in on the end and ready to be done with it. I had another couple of cups of ginger ale, more boiled potatoes, and we were off again.

The next few miles felt like the longest of the race. Not only were we tired from the hours we’d already put in, but we both were familiar with the trails around there and knew that as the crow flies, we were really, really close to the finish line. The course, unfortunately, took us in toward it and then hung a right that sent us moving further away from it again. We had a big flattened “S” to run through, and at the end of it was an ugly climb up a big hill. And to top it off, as the miles crawled by up through 29 and 30, we began to realize that we had more than a mile to go and were going to be running more than 31 miles before we were done. Agh!

(A side note: it probably really was only 31. GPS-tracked distance can have some variability depending on how your watch or device records and calculates your movements, and as the distance you’re traveling increases, the more that variability can add up. Knowing that fact doesn’t make it any easier to cope with, though, when you’re out on the trail hitting mile 31 and seeing that you still have farther to go. Okay, I checked with some other people who ran this, and their Strava recordings, and they all clocked it at 32+. The stuff about GPS variability is still true, but with a consensus of four or five other people, I’m calling this one 32.)

We got to the top of the last big hill, with my watch already reading 31+ miles (Lisa’s watch battery had died some time ago, so we were both using mine for distance at this point) and a low, low battery. I wanted to make it in before it died, and Lisa wasn’t feeling up to hurrying in there at the end, so she waved me on one last time, and I… well, I can’t call what I was doing at that point “sprinting” exactly, but it was faster than I’d been running in quite a while.

I went down that hill and discovered a last couple of trail surprises from a sadistic race director—two almost vertical scrabbles out of washes—and then I was up the last of it, running in toward the last turn into the finish line

Suddenly there was a small cheering section shouting my name. What? I took off my hat and waved it to them and kept waving it as I ran across the finish line.

It turned out that there were more than a few people following Lisa’s race progress on her Facebook page, and some of them had grouped up to cheer her in at the end. When she posted the picture of the two of us at the marathon mark, they said they “knew at that point that she was going to make it in okay since she was running with someone.” And they decided to watch and cheer for me coming in, too. It was a really fun, nice surprise there at the end of a long, long run.

I made it across the line in 8 hours, 18 minutes, with just over 32 miles showing on my watch. Two minutes later, it notified me that its GPS had been turned off because the battery level had gotten too low to continue. I’d made it.

“Get in the front,” they said. “You’re blocking us,” they said. “Crouch down,” they said. Sure! I haven’t been doing anything with these legs lately, they’ll be just fine crouching down here for a while…

Lisa came in just a few minutes later to the same cheers (okay, let’s not kid ourselves—they cheered more for her, and that’s just fine).

And that was my race. It was hard, hard, hard, and a long day in the desert, but I loved it. And a big part of what I loved about it was that I was able to spend the next hour tooling around the camp just talking to people that I’ve met trail running. Some I’d met earlier, some I met that day. All were friendly and sociable in exactly the way you always hear trail runners are. It’s so great, just the greatest thing in the world.

Also, I got free wood-fired pizza from Freak Brothers Pizza (a race perk for all 50K and 50 mile finishers), and that was pretty cool, too.


I nailed what I wanted to do out there in almost every way. When I weighed myself after I got home, I was almost exactly where I’d been the day before. Not dropping any weight meant that I had managed to eat and drink everything I needed to keep myself fueled and hydrated. I got tired, tired as heck, but I never bonked. I kept my heart rate right smack in the middle of the aerobic zone (averaged 139 BPM) which kept my fat burn high (averaged 52% of my caloric burn). At my lower pace, I was better able to keep putting food in me all day long to minimize my calorie burn deficit. It got real warm (70º+) that afternoon, but I was dressed for it and not carrying anything extra I didn’t need. I can’t begin to describe how great I feel about the way I thought through this plan and had it work as well as it did.

The one thing that I didn’t do right was account for time at the aid stations when I was estimating how long the race would take, and I didn’t have a good plan for getting in and out of them. I took way too long at the third one (I still can’t believe I was there for 25 minutes). I don’t feel bad about it, because man did I feel hammered after the Bell Pass climb, and I felt a lot better after the time resting, but I could have gotten out of there quicker. Next time I will.

Next up: Black Canyon 60K, The Phoenix Marathon (probably will be dropping to the half due to the timing of the other long trail races I want to do), and maybe Monument Valley, 50K or… 50 mile? Still deciding if I’m going to do that one and how much I want to commit to there. We’ll see!

Update: Wrong on most counts! I signed up for the Monument Valley 50 miler, which blew my race budget for pretty much everything else until summer. As a result, Black Canyon had to be dropped from the schedule (I hadn’t registered yet, so no loss). My plan to drop to the half for Phoenix Marathon went out the window, too, because my training plan has 26 miles on it for me that day anyway. Might as well do it on the road (ugh) and supported (yay)!