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6/9/2022 Lessons From Speedgoat

By Jeremy Leonhardt, Skyrun Staffer and Donut Fiend.

Last year, as I was working on my running fitness with an eye on some local objectives, my coach thought it would be a good idea to partake in the Speedgoat 50k to cap off a training block. For those unfamiliar, the Speedgoat 50k was created by legendary Karl Meltzer and features a notoriously difficult course with endless vert on rough and rocky terrain that was built to batter bodies and shatter souls. It starts and ends at Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Historically, my track record hasn’t been great with organized races but I did see the value in it and agreed to give it a shot.

The back half of the Speedgoat 50k course.

Given my proximity to the event, and to better prepare myself, I had decided that beating myself up on the route was a good way to familiarize myself with the terrain. By about six weeks out from the race, I’d spent many hours running it solo and had gotten somewhere in the range of 70-85 miles on the course. On one of those outings, however, my running partner joined in. He wanted to see if he was fit enough to do the race before signing up. A wise approach but it made me chuckle as he’s many years my junior and a solid athlete. It wasn’t a matter of finishing for him but how fast.

As for me? I’d hit a wall, mentally and physically, and this run was to suss out whether or not I even wanted to participate in the Speedgoat anymore.

Early that morning, we headed out from Tibble Fork Reservoir and made our way up five miles of dirt road before we turned north and uphill to “run” the latter half of the course. A few miles up the road, an extremely loud 4-wheeler went by us several times at an impressive speed and finally came to a halt just in front of us, surrounded by a Pig-Pen-esque cloud of moon dust. The seemingly drunk man asked us if we’d seen a cell phone as he’d lost his the night before. We told him we hadn’t, but if we did, we’d hold onto it and be sure to get it back to him somehow.

It was 6:15 in the morning.

As we ran up the road, I was feeling generally overextended and tired from overtraining the last couple of weeks… and we were just beginning the day. I was over “the hardest 50k in the USA.” I’d spent those weeks training on the course and each time I went it seemed to get more difficult. I’d skimmed over the “this race is hard” information and paid no attention to it as I read through the course description on the website. It’s Speedgoat! I had heard of the race, needed something big for a training block, and was fairly confident I was up to the task. In hindsight, perhaps I should have heeded the warnings because now that I had run probably 90% of the course, I discovered that there is very little smooth single track on the whole thing. But there are rocks, big rocks, everywhere. The climbs are brutal and the descents are worse. If there is a flat portion on course I wasn’t blessed enough to run on it.

A partial view of Speedgoat's torment.

Arriving at the first climb of the day I was bewildered. People haul campers up that atrocious road?

The trail from American Fork Canyon isn’t too steep but at 3.5 miles it was long enough to know I should probably be taking a rest day. Finishing the climb, we popped out into the alpine and also a beautiful view. Komorebi, as the Japanese would say.

A short descent down to Mineral Basin, into the Snowbird ski area, and right back to a steep climb to a shoulder that borders with Alta. Another short descent back into Snowbird had me getting a second wind, though I’m not sure I ever got the first. Feeling anxious about the miles ahead I put in headphones and split from my faster running partner who followed the race course to the summit of Baldy and I up the service roads to the shoulder between Baldy and Hidden Peak. My much more direct route had me at the meeting place only a minute or two before Calum and then off we went. Feeling slightly rejuvenated we dropped into Gad Valley at a fast pace where I soon lost my partner and the course, but I knew we had to head back up Hidden Peak so I started to make my way up the ridge trail toward some much needed calories. Here is where my partner caught me, silently handed me his trekking poles, and quickly disappeared over the next rise.

At least the views are enjoyable.

My second wind abandoned me, and the biggest bonk I’ve ever experienced started to ruin my morning. This was the longest, most humbling ~1,500ft climb I’d been on in some time. I was seemingly passed by every old, young, unfit, and fast person on the hill and we were only 15 miles into the day. As I painfully made it to the lodge, well behind Calum, I was keenly aware that the tram was running and the lodge would have power. The last time I came through, thanks to a power outage, I was relegated to filling my water bottles and leaving without calories. To not fuel at the lodge wasn’t an option today, unless I wanted to ride down in the tram. Although, a ride down the tram was feeling like an excellent and free choice. See, you pay one way or another to get to the top and the ride down is on Snowbird’s dime.

Limping into the lodge I pulled a Mountain Dew out of the cold case and took several deep swigs. Then I spied a 0-calories logo on the side of the bottle and promptly chucked that $7 mistake in the garbage and snagged a sugary Pepsi and sat down to the most wonderful slice of cheese pizza that Calum had waiting for me.

Sugar-free drinks are useless to runners.

Feeling rejuvenated we ran down the Mark Malu trail past tourists possibly touching snow for the first time and struggling with their own climbs back to the lodge. Arriving at the switchbacks we had to navigate snow and finally made it to the bottom of that descent. Here my overtraining and poor nutrition had me parting ways with Calum, him to run the remainder of the course, and me to find the path of least resistance back to the car. I worked on my calorie intake but started to feel nauseous and couldn’t muster more than a fast walk and a few sips of water. I trudged down 3.5 more miles of single track and service roads and finally arrived back at the parking lot.

I was super relieved to crawl into the back of my car and lay down for a minute when my mouth began to water and I started to sweat. A few minutes passed and just when I thought I had it under control I bolted out of my hatch, made eye contact with three beautiful women, and unleashed the fury of my upset belly. This is when I knew I’d never date again and 5,000ft of gain and 12 more miles weren’t in the cards for me. Calum returned to the car a few minutes after my incident, super pumped and ready for the remainder of the race. I didn’t have it in me to let him know that I’d made the decision that I didn’t want to suffer that much and he’d be going it alone.

The following week I stuck to only what was on my training doc but come tempo day, I literally couldn’t muster up the energy, not only to complete it, but to do it at all. I emailed my running coach to let him know how things were going, or not going as it were. I have to presume he knew this was coming as he’d watched me pack many more minutes into my doc than was even logical and he let me know.

Stern but candidly he wrote, “...it’s not because I think you can’t run for 6-7 hours every weekend. I know you can. I also know there is a point of diminishing return for long runs unless your name rhymes with Tim Crawlmsley, the amount gained vs lost after 4 hours starts to go down real quick.”

After the hard, but true, words from my coach I had come to the realization that races, in general, weren’t what I wanted in my life. I do love an aid station but prefer to take a more personal and solo approach to the mountains. In light of all this, I decided to switch gears and run a route in the PNW that I’d dabbled with for over a decade. A route I’d done several times and taken a handful of people on but never taken the opportunity to try and run fast.

That's more like it. The start of a wilderness route in the PNW.

A few weeks later I found myself volunteering at the finish line aid station for Speedgoat. At the starting line I enjoyed the contagious energy that fills the air before a race. As we waited for runners to finish, I was able to get out on a solo run and contemplate having signed up for a race and then disregarding my training plan.

Part of me wished I’d followed through for the wrong reasons, such as bragging rights - and finishers of Speedgoat very much deserve to brag. It’s hard! The other, and more important, part of me also recognized that Speedgoat isn’t the terrain or location I would normally choose to suffer. I was able to cement that I prefer wild and hard-to-get-to places over trudging around in a ski area mainly in sight of a lodge or a ski lift.

If I had to do it all over methinks I’d have slowed down and chosen something more meaningful to me and not an arbitrary race that I ended up not knowing much about. As I spent more time on the course I started to second guess my training to the detriment of my fitness. I had this feeling of being held back when in reality I was indeed getting super fit. I realized that I’d put my fitness in more capable hands for a very good reason. I also needed to trust the process, which I didn’t for a time there, and it definitely affected the way I saw and approached my upcoming race. I do wonder what would have happened if I’d followed my training plan as Speedgoat approached but I have no regrets. My overtraining and failure to run that race allowed me to get on a route that I had a history with, and it had meaning to me, much sooner than I’d been able to otherwise.

Not long after I returned from my run, the finishers started to trickle in and, a few hours later so did Calum, tired but happy to be a goat. The finish line had the normal buzz with all the snacks and drinks and I saw more people puking in one place than I had ever seen in my life. I may not have run the event, but I had gotten to experience that part.

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