It was the first big storm in a while, overnight it had dropped nearly a foot of powder and I broke away from my desk not to ski, but to run. Uphill on unbroken trail and then downhill knee deep in powder with frozen hands plunging to elbow’s depth, I had the giddy grin only a mountaineer could muster in conditions so ridiculous — training conditions. I was slightly scared things may be on the edge of possible as the afternoon drew darkly into evening, and seeing as this was the edge of my personal spectrum for reasonable “trail” running. But I had a goal in mind that got me out that day and I focused myself like any maniac would in an undisturbed wonderland, finding my way back to the town I live in, the end of another training run and one week from the day of my date with the desert in Moab, Utah, on the infamous Red Hot 55k race course. I figured surely this race would be a test of skills with all this snow scattering across our region as my Inbox met messages from the race director stating just that. This last run had me ready for the worst!
This was my third Ultra marathon race in the last five months and my life. You could say I’m out to have a big opening season or I’m just out to have fun and doing it — I like to aim high. After two 50-milers, I learned a lot this fall, finishing almost dead last in the first one, moving up in the ranks on the second one and then this time, setting and actually achieving a respectable time. Of course, I don’t win as a beginner, I just show up and run or hike or like this last weekend in Moab, greet a nasty course and finish it off despite a few moments of classic “WTF headspace,” an all too familiar spot for me, now just exhibiting itself in another arena. Despite a gigantic bruised foot that I suffered from in the first Ultra with 8300′ of vertical gain, unbeliveablable IT band pain that resulted in a 5 hour 4 mph power hike to successfully finish in the second and finally getting it dialed on training for this one, this was as close as I had come to a “good time.” No, there was no pain or injury this time, just a wimpering voice in my head that reminded me I am a mountaineer and a desert running novice when reduced to my own two feet and a time limit.
The day started right, I went to the start line, turned on my iPod and feigned a stretch before things got moving. Within the first hour, I had warmed up, held back on the pace and realized I was going to have a good day physically. The course had very little snow, it was in great conditions and fast underfoot so much so that after 21 miles and 2000 vertical in just over three hours, I was on to having the best day of my life and feeling good. I had already put 2/3 of the distance and the elevation behind me and the trail was mostly a flowing road with occasional slickrock benches and climbs. But alas, I resign myself detrimentally to being an adventurer on a constant basis so I had thought that I had a real shot at covering the next 13 miles in decent style and time. Then I saw it. I saw the slick rock and opened up to eat some humble pie… at least I had time on my side and an empty belly, I would need the next three hours to finish this 13 mile section — crazy, huh?
This section of the course was rumored to be very tough and for a first timer, it was for me. Jutting steeply from the plateau is a massive slick rock uplift tilted on its side and somehow I thought that this popular bike and off-road vehicle trail would be a cinch to navigate — even after 20 miles of my fastest running trail time this year. A little detail I was wrong about in a big way, I thought it would be easy to figure out, relatively flat with oil stains, tiremarks, white stripes all over the place, you know like a Moab off-road trail!
Well, it was beautiful in a different and revealing way. Although I will admit I heaved and sniveled the “F” word (no, not fun) more than a few times as I scaled another scrambly outcropping hoping to see another stop-and-go-sufferer groping about on this jagged, steppy and incredibly firm landscape where I was lost… in retrospect, I realize I should have concluded those “Fs” with a “yeah” as it was exceptionally breathtaking scenery. I was needlessly annoyed because I was looking at my watch and worried about my time — a factor that in hindsight should not have mattered and that compounded a hard time finding the trail. On top of that, I was hitting a wall and that forced me to lose some composure while in the complete solitude I should have reveled in. Walls are crazy though, so I’ve forgiven myself for taking the landscape for granted at that moment. This wall was just in my mind, a physical manifestation of caloric and energy deficits that erode rationality to the point of pain, distress and sometimes complete disconnect from reality and expectations — all in your head. Then they lift and you feel great or you’re done, whichever comes first. That is the “crux” as it were, to Ultra and marathon running — pushing through the wall to send your line, just like in rock climbing.
In the end, it was so incredibly hard on me, this section, but also so incredibly thoughtful of the race organizers to put something together so specatucular, so fantastic, so engaging and so enthralling that if this was your first time to the desert — it could also be your last and you would have a legitimate 34 mile adventure where if you hadn’t gotten lost at least once, you would’ve just been racing. It felt like a summit day. Except that unlike a summit day, when the route kicked back before a tough section, there would be aid stations with enthusiastic volunteers to encourage your success and support your nutritional needs — dreamy oasis’s like I often wished for on high alpine routes.
I really like this sport, Ultra running. It is nice to be in a compromising situation that involves serious personal challenge and “WTF” moments but not as severe as rescuing a buddy off a mountain, wondering how you’ll get off the mountain after the storm or running out of gear on a sew ’em up crack that ends a few thousand feet off the deck in a blank wall. Not to take anything away from those moments, I am grateful to count them in my bank of experience as well. Which leads me to a fact I can’t escape: Life is a little crazy, and should be. Like mountaineers, Ultra runners are crazy too, but I like them and am happy that in training for my summer goal of enchaining a massive amount of peaks, there is a fun community I can be part of; one that supports us as we hit walls, run through deep snow in the winter and continue to all look for ways to get outside for a day. I finished in six hours and 21 minutes on the faster half of the mid pack and couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to see so much desert, so many people having “fun” and another full day of pushing mental and physical boundaries to uncomfortable places and back.