I decided in early October that I wanted to run a race in December, but I couldn’t find any marathons or half marathons that looked particularly appealing in Colorado. However, there were two 50ks to choose from in early December, and one of them was trail race. So I decided I would sign up for the Sawmill 50k in Stauton State Park for my first trail race, as well as my first ultramarathon.


I didn’t have a defined training program for this race, as I was motivated more by the experience than a target time. I worked my way up from 30 miles per week (mpw) in earlier September to 50 mpw, focusing on getting on trails as often as I could. Usually four of my five runs each week were on the trails, and I tried to target at least 1k ft of vertical ascent for each run as well. Because the race would have over 5k ft of vert, I wanted to be sure I was ready for the elevation change.

I tried to build in a couple checkpoints in my training to convince myself I was on track for a 50k. The first was an 11 mile run in late October, where I got in around 2k ft of vert, seeing if I was be comfortable with that average grade for a longer run. It felt great, especially after doing so much running on steeper terrain.

In late November, I ran up Mt. Baldy in Bozeman, MT, for 4.5k ft of vert, which was a personal record for me at the time. Two days later, I ran 16 miles on much flatter terrain, trying to stay on trails as much as I could. The combination of these two runs made me feel like I was prepared for both the distance and the elevation the race would entail.

Race day preparation

Up until the day of the race, it wasn’t clear whether it was going to snow or not, so I packed everything I needed for colder weather and snow on the trails. It turned out to be a pretty dry day, so I didn’t end up using half of what I brought. Here’s what I carried with me during the race, knowing that we’d get to come back to the start twice before the end of the race:

  • Clothing:
    • Trail running shoes
    • Running tights
    • Micro-grid base layer
    • Light windbreaker
    • 8-liter trail running vest
    • Sunglasses, hat, gloves
  • Fuel:
    • Two 500ml soft flasks (one with Tailwind Endurance mix, the other with water)
    • Baggie of fun-sized Snickers
    • Two GU energy gels
  • Extras:
    • Instant hand-warmers
    • Extra gloves
    • Space-blanket, just in case
    • Yak-trax (just for the section that was icy)

My stroke of genius for this race was to buy fun-sized snickers bars, take all the wrappers off the night before, and portion them into bags of about 500 calories each. This made them easier to eat and keep track of my calories, and I didn’t have to worry about littering accidentally on the trail.

Race day


The race started at 7, so I didn’t need a headlamp. There were three laps, the first being about 15 miles, and the other two around 8 miles. It was a small crowd, with only 30-40 people racing the 50k. When we started, my goal was to hang on to the lead pack for as long as I could, just to see what kind of pace they set. So after the first mile, there were about 5 of us out in front, and we settled into the first hill.

This first ascent showed me that it really is okay to walk during an ultra. Everyone walked up this first incline, many taking the opportunity to shed some layers. By the time we reached the top, I was running with a bearded guy named Dave. I asked him about his ultra experience, and it turned out he had an incredible resume. He had run six 100-milers, and had just run the Moab 240 a few months earlier. He was kind enough to give me some tips on pacing, and I learned that we lived not too far from each other in Boulder.

Around mile 9, I was feeling really good, and we were beginning a descent. So I decided I would set my own pace, and left Dave to go a little faster. It felt really good to go downhill, and soon enough I was back at the start, having run about half the race. However, I had known before that this would be the easiest part by far, so I was careful to make sure I was fueling the appropriate amount. With the help of my parents, who were kind enough to come out and support me, I got in and out of the aid station in just a couple minutes, ready to start lap 2 and another big climb.

Stauton State Park was beautiful! A great place for a trail race.
Lap 2

This second lap was challenging, but still felt good. I was running alone, but managed to maintain a good pace, especially on the downhill sections. During this lap, I passed three records: my longest run that year (16 miles), my longest run ever (26.2 miles), and the most vert I had ever ascended in a run (~4.5k ft). These accomplishments gave me a lot of confidence going into the third lap, along with the fact that I was still in the lead.

Final lap

Heading out of aid station for a third time, my parents had warned me that it was going to get a lot windier, so I put my hat and gloves back on. A mile in, I had to ask a very nice couple on the trails if they would open my handwarmers for me, because I had lost all my finger dexterity with the windchill. I was really glad I brought those, because they kept my fingers functional for the last 10km of the race.

I walked nearly all of that final uphill, something around 1k ft of vert. I was really tired at this point, but knew I could finish out the race if I could get to the top. It was also a struggle to keep eating and drinking, but I managed to get down another few snickers bars in this lap, as well as plenty of water.

By the time I crested the last hill, I had about four miles to go. I set a good pace on the downhill, walking every now and then to eat and rest my quads. In the last two miles, I realized I could break six hours if I really went for it, so I gave it a good effort. When I crossed the finish line, I had a time just over six hours, which the timekeeper recorded as 6:00:00 (yay!).

At the end of the race, I was really craving anything savory, so I had a quesadilla and some avocado. I waited around to see the people I had chatted with during the race finish, then my parents took me out for some pizza at a place down the road. It was a pretty great day.

Managed to finish still smiling!

What I learned

Being new at this sport, there was a lot that could have gone wrong. But because the weather was great, my fitness was decent, and the race was very well put-together, it all went fairly seamlessly! Here are some of the things I would change next time:

  1. Bring some savory food: I was really struggling to eat by the end of the race because I had only brought sugary stuff. Next time, I’m bringing a sandwhich, preferably with some bacon.
  2. Better pacing: My first lap was likely way too fast, especially when compared to the third lap. It felt good, but it would have been better to leave more in reserve for the second half.
  3. Stop and enjoy it! I think being out front had me running in fear a bit, especially later in the race. It would’ve been nice to stop now and then and enjoy the view.

Overall, it was a great experience! First trail race, first ultra, and first time I’ve ever won a race. Thanks to Human Potential Running for putting on a fun race. I definitely plan to do another ultra sometime soon, along with other trail races.