My First Ultramarathon

Moab’s Redhot 50k

Feb 16, 2008

mapSomeone wise once said, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing to excess and in large groups.” This philosophy has definitely been adopted by the Special Idiots, the local group of adventure-folk recently obsessed by trail running. All told, we had around a dozen folks head down to Moab to run the Red Hot 50k race. For many of us, this was our first foray into 30+ mile distances, but for all of us, it was a welcome respite from running ice, snow, and mud that have been holding Colorado hostage this winter, usually with high winds and usually in the dark. Desert sand, sun, and slickrock would be a welcome change.

Saturday morning was startlingly cold, but it promised to warm up later in the day. There was a lot of chilly milling about at the Gemini Bridges trailhead north of Moab as everyone made last-minute logistical changes and scrambled around to be ready. At the stroke of 8, we were off on the frozen dirt road headed for the imposing cliffs on the east side of the Moab Fault. My intention was to walk much of the first mile to let my legs warm up and shift into endurance mode. With 34 miles to go and 4500′ of climbing and descending, I wasn’t trying to set any speed records in the first mile. My conservative estimate of a seven hour finish seemed pretty doable, but I was optimistically hoping for a 6:30 finish. Plus, by starting at the back of the pack, I would get the psychological boost of passing people who started out too fast.

The first mile climbed up the Gemini Bridges Road, slabbing across the cliff face aiming for the mouth of the hanging valley above. Reportedly, this was the only part of the course still under the grip of ice and snow, so walking was a good idea. It’s startling how many people show up for such a specialized, local race and, even though 200 people is very small compared to bigger races, the first half mile were quite crowded. Once I reached the crest, the snow vanished and I started running in the beautiful morning light really enjoying the rythm and feeling great. This winter has been tough for mountain recreation, and consequently I did very little besides run. January was my second highest mileage month ever and only by a few miles at that.

At four miles, the road split and became a bit rougher. I rolled through Aid Station #1 (of 5), grabbed some refreshments, dropped my long sleeve shirt, and kept going. The gravel road became narrow single track which became more and more technical. Twenty minutes out of Aid #1, I caught up with Chris and Kari. I’ve logged many hundred miles with these two Idiots and running with them is extremely comfortable. We have a similar pace and can recognize each other at a great distance from running gate alone. Needless to say, I was glad to reach them. Kari, like me, was running her first Ultra and, despite her sandbagging, I was expecting her to finish quite well. Chris is a veteran of several 50k and 50 mile races and tends to train about twice as hard as me. Ever since I narrowly beat him in the Pikes Peak Marathon last year, he’s been gunning for me. It was good to keep him in sight. So far, we were running at our usual short-run pace of 10 minutes per mile or less. We both agreed that it was probably faster than was sustainable over another 25 miles.

We soon encountered our first slickrock and followed the painted dots and bits of pink flagging up toward the Rim and the high point of the route. The going got a lot steeper and more technical with meter-high steps to negotiate and deep holes to avoid. The star feature of the trail is a narrow, steep slot called the Metal Masher which is a local 4×4 test-piece. They must have to bring in the narrow jeeps, because I can’t see how a full-sized vehicle could fit through that.

After a long climb, we abruptly reached the Rim and the highest point of the run where we looked straight down at the starting line and the snowy road we’d run 90 minutes before. The breeze up here was pretty chilly and I regretted dropping my warm shirt at Aid #1. Relishing the slightly-descending trail, we pounded along the rim on a thin layer of snow taking in the spectacular view on all sides.

The second aid station came into view after descending a bit on moderately technical trail. Like the others, this one was staffed by the fine members of the Friends of Moab 4×4 Club who had driven their jeeps and dune crawlers out loaded with water and other essentials. Aid #2 was stocked with a good supply of peanut butter cups which may not have been the best idea from a race nutrition standpoint, but boy were they tasty! Thus refreshed, we sped onward on easy trail and back onto dirt roads across the flat plateau of Arth’s Pasture.

The day was warming up nicely and the views were spectacular. However, I was really starting to feel it in the legs and was becoming worried that I’d blow up in the second half of the race. I rolled into Aid #1/3 again at just shy of three hours and paused for a break. I’d spent only two or three minutes at the previous two stops, but this time I sat down, applied sunscreen, changed socks, restocked on Hammergels from my drop bag, stretched, and grabbed a number of goodies from the table. Total elapsed time was six or seven minutes.

The Second Half

The fresh socks probably weren’t really necessary and putting them on cost me a minute or so. Still, the psychological boost was probably worth the time penalty. I headed off to start the second half of the run, worried that I’d gone out too fast and wasn’t running smart enough. The second half is technically harder and features a lot more climbing. Chris hadn’t bothered with such niceties as fresh socks and had blown out of Aid #3 several minutes before I finally got underway. Kari, as usual, had also pulled out early. No problem; I usually catch up with them after a half mile or so, but there was no sign of them in the mile back to the junction with the Gold Bar Trail.

18 miles in, I was really starting to feel tired now and hit the emotional low point of the race. It was lonely; occasionally I’d see someone ahead or behind me, but mostly I was alone and not terribly good company. And it was beginning to get hard! After a few miles of dusty trail winding half-heartedly uphill, it turned and began to ascend slickrock slabs and dirt ledges with a vengeance. I’d been trying to down a Hammergel every 40 minutes throughout the race and stay hydrated. Leg cramps suggested I was low on electrolytes, so I downed a number of Endurolytes which helped a bit. Up ahead, I spied Kari, but no Chris; he had apparently gotten a substantial second (or third, or fifth) wind. It used to be that climbing was my specialty, but that is clearly no longer the case. Kari and I headed up the steep slickrock and began to encounter more people.

Once again, the top came suddenly and was extremely spectacular with a sheer drop 1000′ down to the road and Arches NP visitor center below. Aid #4 was perched up here and, as advertised, was a very classy establishment with water, Cytomax, Heed, Hammergels, chips, pretzels, and all manner of goodies on the menu. It’s hard to believe that they can drive their jeeps up what we just ran, but they scoffed and said, “That? You should see the hard stuff we drive!”. Clearly the jeepers were having as much fun out here as we were.

Time time to move on. “Only another 13.5 miles to go!” they cheered. Crap, that seems like a long way. If it’s 7 to Aid 5, that leaves another 6.5 from there to the finish. It’s been 4 hours. Can I run 13 hard miles in another three? I know the last stretch is mostly downhill, but my legs are pretty chipped.. I set off onto the Golden Spike trail across the tilted slickrock. Out there by myself with no one in sight for much of the time and it became extremely difficult to follow the course. At one point, I found myself standing in the middle of an acre of light gray sandstone without any flags or blazes in sight. I could see a blue-shirted runner in the distance on the other side of a gully, but had no idea how he’d gotten there. Then three runners came by a hundred feet up-slope of me and I realized I’d been pretty far off-trail for some time. I would team up with one group of runners or another for a little while but usually find their pace to be a little slower than what I wanted, so I’d strike off on my own again and get lost again. Finally, I fell in with a group of half a dozen runners including Kari, two guys I’d met in the Metal Masher, and a woman named Eve from Salt Lake City. Trail finding became a collaborative effort and we cruised along at a great pace. Eve had run the race before and had some rough idea of where to go. Still, she admitted to being a bit lost then as well. It wasn’t easy and we took more than one wrong turn, but at least the funk was gone.

The Golden Spike section is a lot longer than it looks on paper. We alternated between running directly on the Rim and traversing across brutal, tilted gray slickrock. Eventually, the gray stone gave way to red-blonde sandstone canyons with many domes and fins. This is fabulous terrain, full of mysterious nooks and fanciful spires. Having gotten into a groove, literally or figuratively, we cruised along at a good pace over a series of slickrock fins. Finally, we saw the fifth aid station two dunes away and pulled in for our last refueling before the final push. Aid #5 was staffed by Holly and her Mad Cow Jeep as well as all the usual fixings. Still no sign of Chris. Is he shooting for a sub-six hour race? The clock stands at 5:25. Can I do the remaining 6.5 miles in an hour to meet my 6:30 goal? Maybe, but it’s going to hurt. Wait, you say it’s only five miles to the end? Awesome!

Kari descends some Poison Spider technicalities (mile 32). Fun!

Kari descends some Poison Spider technicalities (mile 32). Fun!

The first few miles of the Poison Spider trail were along a level dirt road with great views down the Colorado River. But my legs felt like wood and I was lurching around like a drunk. Keeping moving even on level ground was tough. After two miles of this, we reached a drop off and started a more technical descent. Somehow this was easier. Sure, it was hard to avoid the rocks and roots, but somehow the mental effort required helped propel the physical exertion. Non-runners were becoming more common which was nice because spectators are my favorite kind of taters. Dang, I must be tired…

Gorgeous views, but wooden legs! (mile 33, photo by Eric Lee).

Gorgeous views, but wooden legs! (mile 33, photo by Eric Lee).

We dropped down a short, rocky chute and into a short canyon, then commenced some more dirt road running with the attendant lethargy. I could see the river below, but it looked a long ways down there. Yikes, do I still need to lose all that altitude? The trail got rocky again with lots of loose cobbles, perfect for kicking and tripping and breaking me in multiple ways. There were runners ahead as well and I resolved to catch them before the end with a well-timed, all-out burst of super-speed. With half a mile to go, I rounded a corner… and the finish line was only a hundred yards ahead! In the tunnel vision, I heard Amy yell my name and let out some tremendous oaths of my own. Why I didn’t get tangled up in a rock and kill myself in some spectacular fasion in the sprint to the finish, I have no idea. 6:18:35. Done!

Section Miles Elapsed Dist. Split Pace
#1 5.5 0:54 5.5 0:54 9:51
#2 12.8 2:10 7.3 1:16 10:26
#3 17.0 2:51 4.2 0:41 9:51
#4 22.6 3:58 5.6 1:07 11:54
#5 29.0 5:22 6.4 1:24 13:10
Finish 34.0 6:18:35 5.0 0:56 11:08
Finished! (photo by Eric Lee).

Finished! (photo by Eric Lee).

Chris, it turned out, had not been fifteen minutes ahead of me as we’d thought, it was more like two minutes and he’d worked very hard to keep out of my sight (6:16). Good thing, too, because if I’d seen him up there… game on! Kari finished hot on my heels in tremendous form (6:21). Others in our group had also finished extremely well. Fritjof beat all of us with a stunning 5:12 finish. Eric and Matt turned in 5:22 and 5:28 performances. Tressa and Peter finished within seconds of each other at 5:42. Meanwhile, the old course record of 4:25 went down in flames with Kyle Skaggs and Tony Krupica finishing in an amazing 4:03.

It was a great race and a much-needed break from the daily grind in Colorado. Plus, I’m glad we had such a big and convivial crowd both in training and during the race itself. I trained hard this winter, but it paid off in a big way. The course is fantastic, varied, and almost never dull and I’m glad I was trained to the level that it wasn’t just a death-march. Thanks to my running partners and coaches (you know who you are) for getting me up to speed and keeping me motivated in a season when it would be just as easy to sink into a cryonic torpor.

Next up is the big San Juan Solstice 50 miler race in June. I suspect it will be a very different style of race with a lot more walking and a much, much slower pace. Still, I’ve got to work on a couple things including nutrition, climbing, and pacing. But that’s still months away. In the meantime, I’ll take a little time off.

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