Storm Fest – Old Pueblo
by Joe Dana
Every ultra website has a disclaimer about weather, acts of nature, etc. As is the case, a race is scheduled and weather happens. And did it happen on March 1st for the running of the Old Pueblo 50-Mile in Southern Arizona.
Many desert dwellers have never seen a forecast for 100% rain, but that was the forecast, and rain it did. The day began with an overcast sky and winds beginning to stir. Mile seven saw runners heading out with dry clothing. That would be the last time all runners were dry.
By the time runners came into mile 19, they were pelted by blowing sand, driving rain, and punishing hail. Could it get any worse? Yes, the “new” front-runners entering into mile 19 had missed a turn due to vandalism of flagging markers. They had unknowingly cut the course and were out of the race. Additionally, many runners were not prepared for the journey that was beginning, as they were in short sleeves, dripping wet, with no rain gear. Many arrived in some state of wetness and shivering, yet continued onwards as this station did not have drop bags or crew access. The aid station got the runners going, many with trash bags now acting as rain gear. It would be another six miles before runners could meet up with crews or drop bags.
At mile 25 and 29, the aid station volunteers gave their own clothing to runners and offered their cars to any runner needing a place to change or a place to sit. Aid station volunteers undressed and dressed runners, getting them out of wet clothing and into somewhat dry clothing from their drop bags. Here, chattering teeth began to be seen. Runners were cleared before going on. Some went on, only to return to the aid station for a ride back to the finish. This was the same case at Mile 33. From here, many runners saw their day end as they were only three miles to their parked cars at the start/finish at Kentucky Camp. Getting passenger cars out on the forest service roads became a concern as the day and rain wore on.
Runners arriving at Mile 40 had been through several water crossings. From Mile 33 to Mile 40, the red clay that sucks shoes off of feet was ever present and took its toll on runners. The last creek crossing before arriving at Mile 40 became deeper and deeper and deeper. Here runners had the Sports Mobile van of a volunteer that saw many go in, get undressed, and wrapped in blankets, dry clothes, etc., then shuttled back to Kentucky Camp. Their day was over. This aid station had even set up a tent changing area with drop bags. It was probably the only semi-dry spot available by that time of the day. Runners who continued were met at Mile 46 by Joe and Connie standing in mud/water up inside the tent. From there, runners had one last water crossing. This is where the road that allows cars access to Mile 40 and 46 narrows into a wash area where the runners cross before heading up the hill to Kentucky Camp. As the day grew older, the water grew taller. The last runners leaving Mile 46 were met with water up their waist, cold running water, and moving rocks from the current.
In Arizona, there is a dumb motorist law – don’t enter washes with running water. We reached that point. The wash back to Kentucky Camp was no longer drive-able, even by high clearance vehicles. Aid station volunteers and communication crews at Miles 40 and 46 were stuck, declined rescue and settled in for the night. Nose counts were done and reported in – 12 aid station volunteers and one runner at Mile 40 and 46 and 10 missing. Search and rescue was contacted, and tracking down the runners began. By 10 p.m., only two runners were unaccounted. One, the only truly lost runner, was located shortly afterwards sitting on the road. The other runner was accounted for by 6 a.m. on Sunday morning sleeping in her own bed. The race course saw anywhere from two to three inches – a significant portion of the yearly total rainfall for the area.
There will be many arguments, comments, criticisms, and hopefully, praise for the outcome. All decisions were made with the best information known at that time. Thanks to Sonoita-Elgin Fire District, Pima County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office (yes, a runner was missing in each county), and the US Border Patrol as well as Search and Rescue and the Communication Crew. Many others helped as well – the five people who changed a flat tire in the mud, the men who pulled a car out of a muddy ditch, and the runners who carried a fellow runner to an aid station. Their efforts, as well as the race director and aid station volunteers, made sure all runners were safe and accounted for.
The women’s race saw Jane Larkindale finish first, again. She took the lead early and kept it. Pam Reed came in second with Kathryn Nealey of Tucson taking third. For the men, the leaders were essentially operating as a group-run all day. Sion Lupowitz finished first, with Sean Meissner and Nick Coury coming in with him. With a 149 starters, only 60 finished – a 40% finishing rate.