2023 Colossal Vail 50 Mile Race

At the beginning of December, I ran the Colossal/Vail 50 miler. It’s the first ultra I’ve gone back to a second time, and kicked off my second attempt at the Southern Arizona Triple 50. Even though there have been a few races that I have really loved and thought about going back to revisit, I hadn’t yet done it. This changes that, and I’ll be doing it twice more in the next few months.

Here’s how it went.


Rather than staying at a hotel or Airbnb nearby, this time I decided to camp onsite at the La Posta Quemada campground inside Colossal Cave park. Normally $10/night, for runners that weekend camping was free. It was an attractive price point, but on top of that it meant being able to sleep in longer on race morning, and just a tiny short shuffle to warm blankets and bed after the race was done. I had gotten a big new car-camping tent for my birthday for exactly this sort of purpose (so rather than having to roll around inside a tiny backpacking tent like I usually do, I could stand up and move around easily inside the new one – it was so much nicer after I was tired and sore and stiff).

It was raining off and on in Tucson as I came into and through town. There was some light sprinkling that wrapped up as I made it to the park, so I drove into the camp area, got set up and everything loaded inside the tent, and then it was time for some more rain. Perfect timing!

I managed to dodge in and out of the rain for the rest of the evening to go to the restrooms and do a little night hike to get a little exercise in for the day – it’s always a challenge to do that on packing and traveling days. I saw a pair of skunks going through the campground on one of my excursions, and man I tell you what – they were so freaking cute. I don’t think people really appreciate that about them.

It was a chilly night (for me, anyway), but my bed was comfy and warm and I slept great.

Race Day

As mentioned above, this was where camping nearby was really great. I rolled out of bed a little before 6 AM in my warm clothes, went over to packet pickup and handed over my drop bags, and then was able to go back to the tent and warm up again before changing into my lighter and cooler running clothes.

In typical fashion for me, I took a little too much time getting ready and had to jog out to be there for the race briefing and start, but I still made it with a few minutes to spare. I found my niece, Robin, who was making this her first 50 miler en route to doing the full triple 50, met some of her friends, and we were off.

A New Friend

The race starts with a climb up away from the ranch that’s about a mile long. It’s not a tough climb, so when I did it in 2019, I jogged some stretches of it to hustle. This time I didn’t intent to hustle it, so I just hiked, and ended up toward the back with another runner named Shannon, who it turned out will also be doing the Triple 50, so we talked and ended up chatting for quite a while.

Cienega Creek was dry, but the trees in and around the wash were in full fall splendor and were very pretty.

We cruised along and made our way through the first aid station at the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead. After a while as we came up on the next aid station at Sahuarita Road, Shannon was ready to get moving and started pulling away from me, so I was on my own. She ended up with a really good showing for the day and came in under twelve hours.

Another New Friend

About a month and a half ago, Robin and I had gone out to run some of the north end of the race course as part of the annual AZT In a Day event, and when we arrived at our starting point on Pistol Hill Road, we met Bob, who is the trail steward of that part of the trail. We chatted with him for a bit as we were getting ready to start running and he was great. Seemed like a good guy and the fact that he volunteered his time to help maintain the trail and be part of the community spoke well for him too. We said goodbye as we started our run and he wished us luck getting ready for the race.

So there at the Sahuarita Road aid station was Bob, talking with the aid station volunteers. I said a quick hello to him and reminded him about that meeting out at Pistol Hill and he remembered me, so that was fun. 

I made my way through the aid station and got going on the way to the Peak View aid station. I was feeling good and felt like I was executing my “take it easy on this long gradual climb part of the course” race plan well. I eventually made it to the aid station, and there was Bob again! I said hi and joked with him a little bit, did my refilling, and got going.

At Peak View, runners reach the farthest south point of the course and turn around to head back north toward the starting line. Along the way, there are some dirt road crossings, and I was surprised to once again see Bob waiting there by the side of the road. 

I think that already by this point in the race (between 15-20 miles in) I must have been in the “straggler” group that needed to be monitored to make sure we were all still trucking along, and Bob was the guy in charge of that… at least for the south leg of the race.

So when I saw him again, I laughed and told him I wanted a picture, and he said that would be okay.

I continued to see him off and on throughout the remainder of the race, all the way to the finish line, and it really made it fun to have a familiar face to look forward to and joke with. We ended up talking for a while on Sunday morning, too, and I had a good time with him. Hope to see him again in the future.

How it Was Going

That stretch from Peak View to Sahuarita Road was an emotional highlight for me. The runners had thinned out and I wasn’t running with anyone anymore, and without anyone to chat with, I got very mindful about what I was doing and how I was feeling – which was great. It was genuinely just about a perfect day to be out and running: sunny but cool, with a light breeze. I thought about the hip twinge that had given me a scare a few weeks earlier and how worried I had been that it was going to be something that would derail my race, and it did not bother me a single bit during the race.

I had been really been having a good time so far – I was still feeling good and had been chatting with lots of people. It was pretty much all I could ask for a race, and I figured I might as well go ahead and say all that out loud. I did some little whoops and cheers about what a great day it was and how great it was to be out there and just had fun with it for a while.

I went through Sahuarita Road aid station and on to Gabe Zimmerman, and that was where I started feeling the race. The miles weren’t exactly flying by, but they were moving well enough for me. 

Coming out of Gabe Z, I ran for a while with a woman named Molly from Prescott, and as we talked we discovered that we had a great mutual friend (hi Chris!), so that was a hoot. Such a small world sometimes.

The Castle

I grew up in southeast Arizona, and my parents would bring us to Tucson sometimes. When my sisters and I were kids, one of the ways we could tell we were getting close to town was being able to see this white castle that was north of the freeway. We’d see it come into view and then watch it for a while as we got closer and closer, until eventually we’d leave it behind.

So imagine my surprise to find, decades later and in the literal middle of a 50-mile race, that childhood landmark looming over the race course. The direction of the trail as it heads south on the outbound leg faces away from it, so I didn’t even notice it on the way out. But heading north on the return leg, it feels like almost the only thing to look at, and it just made me happy. 

I think I might have to start putting “castle” in quotes now when I think about it, though. 

The Lip Balm Incident

Whenever possible, I like to wear a waist pack rather than a hydration vest to run in. It works great for this race, so that was what I was using. During longer races like this one, I can get some chafing on my hips from it, though, and as I closed in on the 55k mark (and the end of the race for the 55k runners) I could feel my right hip heating up. 

As part of my first aid kit, I wrap some leukotape around my lip balm for just this sort of thing. So I pulled off to the side of the trail, cut off a strip of it and taped the reddening hip, and got going again. Great.

Unfortunately, I set the lip balm down on the ground and forgot it when I picked everything else up. No more lip balm for the rest of the race, which was a bummer, but also I don’t like leaving trash laying around and that was the bigger bummer to me.

Fortunately and in a huge relief to me, it was still there the next morning when I went out for a recovery hike, laying right where I left it. Whew!

The Water Bottle Incident

From there, it was only a couple more miles to the La Sevilla aid station. Sunset was getting close by this point, and I had stashed some warmer layers in my drop bag waiting for me there. I did the usual aid station things, got some food, refilled my water bottles, and added Tailwind to one of them as I had been doing throughout the day. As I was finishing up, I started getting some flak from the volunteers there about how long I was taking.

Y’all, I love aid station volunteers and stand by my position that they’re the best people on earth, but… for whatever reason the La Sevilla volunteers seem to have a consistent thing about hassling runners if they think they’re taking too long. I was there for nine minutes (which I think is more than reasonable considering the additional clothes and food I was grabbing) on the northbound leg, and here they were doing it to me again. Feeling a mix of amusement and a tiny little bit of annoyance, I finished repacking my drop bag, took some bacon from the aid station table (because you can’t pass on bacon if it’s available), and headed out….

…and left one of my two water bottles on the ground where I had been sitting as I sorted through my drop bag. It had cooled off a lot as the sun set, so I was drinking less and didn’t even notice I was missing it until I got to the Pistol Hill aid station several miles later. 

It was still there waiting for me by the time I made it back around. 

Dealing With the Cold

I know that pretty much everyone living outside of southern Arizona will roll their eyes at this, but as you do I just ask that you remember that I spent five months of the hottest summer in recorded history with the most days of 110º+, the most days of 100º+, and that for me it only ended about a month before. My temperature calibration is different than yours. So when I say it got cold after sunset, and that “cold” meant temps in the 40s early on that came down into the 30s by the time I finished, please just recognize where I’m coming from.

I learned some stuff about being cold in a race during an earlier pacing gig, when I had only brought my windbreaker because I assumed we’d be moving fast enough to generate the heat we’d need to stay warm when it got cold in the early AM. I was wrong, and I was freezing cold (we both were).

So this time I still brought the windbreaker, but I also brought a light, breathable insulating hoodie to wear as a midlayer, and it was perfect.

I initially put on the hoodie coming right out of La Sevilla, but I got too warm fast, so it was too early for it. I pulled it back off and tied it around my neck like a cape. Great. I wore it like that for a mile or two as it cooled down, and then my arms started getting cold, but my core wasn’t yet. I was by myself at that point, so who cares what it looked like – I stuck my arms into the sleeves of the hoodie with the rest stretched across my chest. Went along like that for a while, looking and feeling awesome, until I had cooled enough to wear the whole thing normally. And then as the temperature kept going down, the windbreaker made its way onto me too. Arms warm in the jacket sleeves, but the chest almost fully unzipped to keep things from getting hot under there.

All in all, it worked very well and was perfect for the temperatures. I never overheated, I never got sweaty and clammy, and I didn’t get too cold either.

Finishing the Race with Robin

I mentioned above that my niece Robin was doing this race with me. She had pulled away from me fairly early in the race (like most people did) and was several miles ahead of me (at least) when we passed each other in the first leg of the race and she had hit the turnaround point already and was heading back. So from pretty much the time I left La Sevilla northbound, I was expecting to see her coming back toward the finish at any time, but it didn’t end up happening that way.

From La Sevilla, I continued north to the Pistol Hill aid station, and from there to the north-end turnaround point where, in a change from the last time I did this race in 2019, they had a small aid station set up. Nice! In 2019, there were just a couple of guys with a clipboard who marked that you’d made it to them and were cleared to turn around and head back.

I was almost to that turnaround point before I saw Robin again, which meant the gap between us had closed to less than a mile and was really probably closer to a half mile.

I hit the turnaround, thanked everyone for being out there, and headed back to Pistol Hill. When I got there, Robin was waiting for me by the fire and said she had thought we could finish together, which sounded fun and fine to me. (Bob from earlier was also there and I chatted with him again a bit.)

We got going, and Robin was not moving great. Whether it was the cold, or being tired, or (most likely) a combination of the two, we were going slower than I was comfortable with. We had six miles to go from Pistol Hill to the finish line, and about an hour and 45 minutes to cover them. 

Just for the record, I wasn’t in great shape either at this point. My knees were feeling very hammered, and even if I hadn’t been with Robin, there still wouldn’t bet have been much running. I could still hike at a decent clip, though, so that was what I had been doing. 

We made it to La Sevilla, the last aid station before the finish, and Robin went to their fire to try and warm up a bit. I retrieved my water bottle (see above) and pushed to get going as quickly as we could. It was now 9:00, leaving us an hour to cover the last 2.?? miles to the finish line, and I did not like those numbers.

We came out of the aid station and continued for another 20 minutes before I suggested to Robin that it was time to dig in and push if she was at all capable of it, and she was.

We came in at 9:47 PM, for a race duration of 14:47, and Robin got her first 50 mile finish. Congratulations, now you only have two more to go!

Wrapping Up

There was a small propane fire pit going in the finishing area, and we huddled around it trying to warm up. With temperatures now in the upper 30s, it wasn’t enough to do the job. We both started shivering pretty quickly, so Robin headed home and I headed to my tent.

Dirty and smelly and sore as I was, my first priority was to get warm, so I got into bed and laid there for something like an hour and a half while my body started working on functioning normally again. Around midnight I felt like I could handle being out of bed again, so I got up, had some food, and did some self care maintenance before going back to bed where I had what may have been the best post-race sleep I have ever had.

The next morning, I got up and ate and went for a hike to loosen up and retrieve the lip balm I had left on the ground the day before. It was a nice morning and I got to appreciate the fall trees a little more.

Eventually I packed up to go home, and it took me a long, long time to do it because I was sore and slow, but eventually I got it done and headed home. One 50 miler down, two to go.