Recapping the Sheep Mountain 50

by JAKE NORTON

August 2023
It was right about the 29 mile mark that things began to hurt. Thus far, the Sheep Mountain 50 had been pretty darn fun. But, as I had a hunch it would at some point, that was all about to change.

I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.

- Amelia Boone (be sure to read her full caption)

It was right about the 29 mile mark that things began to hurt.

View from near the top of Sheep Mountain looking south to the next 30 miles of the course through the valley on the right and back up Round Hill, the dark, forested lumps in the middle-left.

I had been going for about 6 or so hours, and feeling mostly good as I cruised through the remote beauty of western South Park. I had been all alone since around the top of Sheep Mountain, and that was miles of trail and thought behind me. Thus far, the Sheep Mountain 50 had been pretty darn fun.

But, as I had a hunch it would at some point, that was all about to change.

Round Hill didn’t look like much: a gentle roller of forest and meadow climbing about 1,400 feet over 3.6 miles.

Take it slow and it won’t be that bad, I told myself.

But as the sun beat on my back, inducing rivulets of sweat to pour down my face, my legs began to whimper as my pace dwindled to a waddle. The flies loved it - no wind and a slow hunk of flesh to flitter about and bite incessantly; I was not as much a fan.

This is the push. You knew miles 30-40 would be the worst. Suffer through it, and soon it’ll be done.

I trudged on, playing the mind games I’ve used myriad times in the high Himalaya: Continue to that boulder up there without stopping, and then take a quick pause. OK, now go to that aspen grove ahead by the switchback, no relenting until then.

Repeat ad nauseam, ad lassitudinem.

Somewhere around mile 22 in the beautiful singletrack of South Park.

Eventually the grade eased. Forest thickened, offering welcome break from the unrelenting sun. A breeze drifted in on the wings of a thunderhead, carrying in a few errant, welcome raindrops. Things were looking up.

Going into the race, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew of course it would be hard, a game of mind more than one of physicality or strength or skill per se. A challenge in which grit matters perhaps more than training and experience; where that twisted, recessive gene that promotes persistence - stubbornness even - discovers its calling and those dark parts of the psyche that find perverse joy in the art of suffering shine in unique light… In other words, I knew it would be a bonafide sufferfest of monumental proportions, and a strangely wonderful way to spend a day.

And, despite the suffering, the pain and the sweat, the stubbed toes and the bug bites, the vile amounts of gels and goos and other nefarious athletic “foods” consumed, sore knees and burning lungs, the endless internal, infernal arguments against the self and the desire to quit, it was wonderful. Or, more likely, not despite, but because of all the above it was wonderful.

At mile 47, I bumbled from the rubble of Limber Grove - home to a magnificent grouping of 1,000+ year old Bristlecone and Limber pines - and soon into an immensely welcome site: the Horseshoe aid station and my family waiting to greet me.

There’s nothing better in my book when you’re nearing the end of your mental and physical endurance rope than your family to reset and recharge. And, an aid station with bacon and quesadillas and some sugary soda doesn’t hurt, either. So, I took it all in, resting some and spending about 20 minutes with Wende, Lila, and Ryrie before suffering through the final 7 miles to the finish.

Morning on the 7 miles of pain that start and finish the race.

And those last 7 were suffering for sure, back on dirt roads in the ‘burbs of Fairplay, coursing over rollers I should have been able to run but simply had not the energy to, walking instead and still hurting.

The mental game persisted, however, and eventually - finally - the finish was in sight, and then it was over.

Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful, soberly astonished. Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No…and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction…fulfilled a destiny. To struggle and to understand — never this last without the other; such is the law.

- George Mallory

There were smiles for sure, hugs from family and bells and cheers from the race crew. But no festivities or celebration, nor should there have been. That’s not what this was, or should be, about, at least not for me.

I signed up for the Sheep Mountain 50 months back not to prove myself, but instead to prove something to myself: that I could do it. That at age 49, I could still push hard, beyond what I thought possible, and through the barriers imposed by nothing other than my brain. I sought not to run a race against other, but to run a race against myself and see if I could cross that distant finish line.

I had goals, of course, but soft ones. Not make-or-break, succeed-or-fail goals. I wanted to finish, first and foremost, knowing that would be the biggest accomplishment: simply pushing through the pain and the gnawing and nagging of my brain urging me to…just…stop. But, on top of that, I set a couple of completely arbitrary, ultimately meaningless goals, but goals I could use on the miles of trail to measure against and keep pushing on. Those were to (a) finish in under 12 hours, and (b) finish in the top ten. I was one-for-two, finishing in 13 hours 2 minutes, and in 7th place overall. Good enough for me.

Happiness...finish and family.

Looking back several days out, the Sheep Mountain 50 was all that I hoped it would be. Run by John Lacroix and the Human Potential Running Series, the course was a dream: high and rugged, lots of climbing but ample time to simply cruise, and absolutely beautiful throughout. (Well, maybe not that last 7 miles, but who’s counting…) The aid stations are stocked and well-placed, and loaded with amazing volunteers to meet every need.

But, most importantly, what drew me to this race and HPRS was their philosophy: their races are focused less on racing and more on experience, on finding our limits and pushing through them…and reveling in the transformations such a push can induce. They give no awards for first, but celebrate the fortitude and perseverance of the last to cross the finish line. They focus on community and connection over competition, and create a wonderful event that is open and welcoming to all to find their individual, human potential.

So, would I do it again? Well, the jury - and me knees - are still undecided. But one should never say never…

The northern flank of Sheep Mountain from near Horseshoe.

2 comments on “Recapping the Sheep Mountain 50”

  1. Jake way to go.I have finished 100 26er's over 50 ultra's,do another one.limit yourself to 1 ayear but don't bag after your 1'st.Proud of you.

    1. Hi Gilly,

      So great to hear from you! I've thought about you a ton while training for this beast, more often than not wondering how the hell you do it so well, so often, and so consistently! You're a rockstar, as always! And, good advice above: I think it's maybe like climbing Everest: you swear it off immediately after, but before long the pain subsides and the good memories remain, and then you're off doing it again...and again...

      Anyway, I won't write off another ultra, but am not quite ready to sign up again. We shall see! And, I need to get my butt back to Topsfield again one of these days - it's been way too long. Did I ever send you this pic from 2012 of Lila (age 6) and Ryrie (age 3) on the box out front of the grocery? Such great memories!

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