The DC Peaks 50 Mile in Utah is not a high profile race in the ultramarathon world – in fact, it is brand new for 2021. However, this start-up event gained national attention on Saturday, October 9, 2021, when snow and high winds engulfed the upper reaches of the race course, which sits close to 10,000 feet, and forced its cancelation, requiring its 87 starters to descend back to safety at lower altitudes.
Since much of the attention the event has received has been brief and at times inaccurate, this article intends to share a more accurate, balanced, and detailed version of what took place, so that the trail running and ultrarunning communities can learn and prepare best for future races in inclement weather.
A Beautiful Course but a Bad Weather Forecast
Prior to the start of the race, race directors Jake Kilgore and Mick Garrison filmed a video in which they virtually walked runners through each section of the course, describing the trail, distance between aid stations, and estimated time to complete each section, giving runners a good picture of what they’d be facing out on the trail. The course they described was difficult – 50 miles, 12,000 feet of elevation gain, and on trails and service roads – but also extremely beautiful in the fall, with changing leaves, cool temperatures, and views of the valley below.
As race day approached, a poor weather forecast developed, predicting significant precipitation via rain and/or snow depending on the altitude. The National Weather Service, for example, instructed hunters and outdoor recreationists to be prepared for winter conditions in the Utah mountains. This type of storm is not unusual for the month of October — and even the second half of September — in this geography, the tops of mountains.
On Saturday, October 9, at 5:30 a.m., the race started off as planned in Kaysville, Utah. This town is just north of Salt Lake City in Davis County, the namesake of DC in the race name. Runners were excited for this autumn ultra, to run a rugged course that traversed the mountain range above the northern Salt Lake City suburbs, including Francis Peak and Bountiful Peak. The more prepared runners had seen the weather forecast and knew the event’s high passages, and packed their running vests accordingly with jackets and gloves, some even bringing pants as a precaution.
Canceling the Race and Getting Runners to Safety
However about two hours after the start, the weather was worse than anyone expected. Tara Warren, a volunteer for Francis Peak aid station, 13.5 miles in and the race’s high point at around 9,000 feet, was headed up to the top with her team. With the trail already becoming engulfed in snow, Warren called the race directors and showed them video of the dangerously short visibility, quickly deepening snow, and high winds. Kilgore was already headed up the mountain, and decided to call off the race at 8:30 a.m., three hours after it started.
“By 7:30 a.m. we were really focused on one thing, getting everyone to the next aid station…. After an hour of trekking [I realized] runners were moving very slowly. At 9:30 a.m. I made the call to get [Davis County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue (SAR)] up here and to bring anything and everything they had,” said Kilgore.
At the time runners began to stream into the Francis Peak aid station, saying the weather was poor was an understatement. While a few inches of snow would have impeded runners’ progress, the combination of getting wet at lower elevations in the rain and high winds dropping the temperature up high, left some of the lesser-prepared runners unable to feel their hands as they trudged forward.
Warren and the rest of her team focused on bringing runners in, making sure they were cognizant enough to keep going, and ensuring they would move in the safest direction, which was five miles downhill to the next aid station, called Farmington Canyon aid station.
“Over 70 runners made it off the mountain that day on their own two feet…. Some runners were very ill-prepared,” said Warren, as she described how she and her crew cared for the runners on top of the mountain. “You think you’re there [at an aid station] to give out bananas and gels, not to make sure people feel their hands and rub their legs…. A storm was predicted and you’ve gotta’ check the weather, you have to know what to bring.” Warren went on to describe the poor state some runners were in after climbing for hours in below-freezing weather.
Along with Warren and her crew assisting runners at the top were two hunters who said they “heard the call,” and walked down with some runners, wrapping one in a tent to warm him up.
Meanwhile, Garrison, the second race director, was at lower elevations liaising with SAR personnel, and gathering a number of volunteers’ personal vehicles to drive as high as possible on the course to pick up and warm up runners en route.
One runner who was seemingly well prepared was Bryan Brady. Brady stated that he wanted to run this course because it was right in his backyard, and the trails are usually beautiful this time of year. However, his winter Utah mountain exploits left him better prepared for weather than some others.
“Sometimes weather forecasts are overhyped, but I kept watching and the precipitation chance kept going up and up…. So I thought, I better bring [warm clothes]. Lots of people I run with ski in the winter, so they know how to be warm, but in a race, you think, Oh I’ll be a bit cold up top, but I want to be as light as possible because it’s warmer at lower elevations. I wore running pants, brought two pairs of gloves, a long sleeve, a jacket, a beanie, and some hand warmers. As I was running up, just firing up my hand warmers, one of the race directors came running by saying they were canceling the race…. I was with the group on Francis Peak and talked to Tara [Warren] a bit, and while I was cold, I wasn’t too bad. There were some runners who looked pretty miserable, one lady who didn’t have gloves at all.”
By early afternoon Saturday, a local media organization published an initial news article. By Saturday evening, other regional news sources published articles. And on, Sunday and Monday following the race, national news organizations picked up on the story, as well.
Some news organizations stated that 87 runners were lost and/or needed to be physically evacuated off the course. This, however, is not completely accurate. Some of the runners were prepared for this kind of weather, aware that running an ultra high in the mountains carries some inherent risk, but many others were not. A number of them recapped their race experience on Instagram, showing how they stayed together in groups, descending from the course back to lower elevations. The majority of runners were able to descend at least part of the way to the next aid station, Farmington Canyon aid station, by their own power.
SAR was a key player in sweeping the course, going out during the worst part of the storm and ensuring that every runner was off the course. According to Kilgore and Garrison, there was a group of five runners that SAR located further back on the course, whom they were able to shuttle back down.
In the end, all runners were accounted for before 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon with a few requiring on-site treatment for minor hypothermia. At least one runner sought additional treatment after the event for cold-related issues, according to their personal social media.
Kelly Sparks, the Davis County Sheriff, spoke about the shock it was to get a call of this magnitude.
“It’s pretty rare, in our part of the country, to get a call that so many people are in need of assistance. We usually deal with groups of twos and threes. We got the call at about 9:30 a.m. that there were runners out on this high altitude course that needed assistance. We sent some SAR people on foot, some on snowmobile, and some on four-wheelers. Some went from the front of the course going forward, and others went from the midpoint backtracking. We needed to ensure everyone could get off safely.”
When asked about the characterization in the initial media reports of runners being lost, Sheriff Sparks stated, “I don’t think anyone was lost at that time, but the [race directors] realized that it could become a real situation, with the blowing snow and visibility. We needed to get people to a warm environment as fast as possible.”
The Aftermath and Lessons Learned
While even starting a race with potential bad weather garnered criticism from the general public, who aren’t experienced in the ultra world, the DC Peaks 50 Instagram page addressed those concerns in their Monday morning post after the race, showing the excitement of runners at the starting line in the rain.
Garrison talked about further precautions they will have in place for future races, “We spent time with the Sheriff’s office, talking about what we can do for future races. We plan to have a few SAR personnel out on the race course, they like it, and they want to be a part of [the race]. In the future, we are going to have a contingency plan, we will have a course that doesn’t go as high in elevation, so it will be just as beautiful and just as awesome, just not to 9,000 feet.”
Brady, for his part, stated that he will likely do the race again next year.
“I feel like I need to finish it, out of principle…. I think they made the right call to cancel it…. But the only thing that could have been done a bit better was more awareness on everyone’s part.”
We’ll leave you with a video by runner Jordan Stuart that shows quite well the conditions as well as the efforts made by runners, the race organization and its volunteers, and SAR to safely end the event.
Call for Comments
- Were you at the DC Peaks 50 Mile race last weekend as a runner, crew, volunteer, SAR member, or otherwise?
- If so, can you comment to share additional insight on the event, its aftermath, and lessons you’ve learned?