Monday, March 12, 2007

Trail Adventure in Utah

After two trail marathons on northern Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail it was time to seek out new dirt. That and knowing I would need to escape the mid-west's sub-zero temperatures led me to check out spring races in warmers climates a few months back. I found myself with a long list of marathons, 50k's and a few more ambitious events in the western and south western states but it didn't take long to decide on the Moab Red Hot 50k+. Utah, challenging and fifty degree weather all in the one paragraph… the check was in the mail before I finished reading the race description! It wasn't until a week before the race that I realized what they meant by challenging when Kami (who didn't take much convincing to join me) pointed out the 4500/3500ft elevation gain/loss. And it wasn't until we landed in Moab that I realized the entire state of Utah is at least 4000ft above sea level. Oh well, it's not like altitude training would have been an option around here. 50k+ translates into 55k (34mi) for those of you wondering. At least this was one piece of info we did know in advance!

But the fun started way before we reached Utah. We decided to fly to Denver (cheap flights) and hire a car for the 6 hour drive (according to mapquest) to Moab. I knew Colorado had mountains but I guess it didn't register that we would be driving through, and across, them until a week before the trip. So we watched the weather every day and it was looking good right up until the moment the lady at the car rental desk asked where we were traveling to (in our little red Chevy Cobalt) and then proceeded to tell us about the storm watch up in the mountains. Oh well, no turning back now. We were on the road at 8:30am and by 12:30pm, when we were eventually forced off the road, we had traveled all of 100 miles, the last hour stop and go through snow and whiteouts somehow managing to stay on the road and not end up in the ditch like so many others. So when they finally closed the road ahead of us (just east of Vail), along with all the other roads we could potentially have taken, we found ourselves sat in a Starbucks for the afternoon. I guess it could have been worse (Caribou) but as the hours ticked by we were beginning to wonder if we'd even make the race which started at 8am the next morning. We agreed that so long as we got there we would run - sleep was not a requirement at this stage. Gallons of coffee, lots of text messages, a few chapters of my book, and 4 hours later we heard those glorious words… "road is open". Despite having just struck up a conversation with three very cute Italians we were out that door faster than we planned on moving our legs the next day. And back on the road… Woo hoo! It wasn't all plain sailing though. After a quick food stop in Grand Junction around 7pm we were headed for the Utah border. Checked the gas level and figured we'd fill up at the next exit. And then we crossed the border and suddenly there were no exits every 10 miles with gas/Starbucks/McDonalds. After driving for 40 miles with the gas light on, at 45mph and with the heat off, and with higher heart rates than we'd experience the next day, we finally rolled into a lonely gas station in the middle of nowhere. That Shell sign was more welcome that the Citgo sign on the Boston marathon course ever could be! Finally made it to Moab at 10pm and fell into bed shortly thereafter, though not before ringing Kami's hubby Chris to have him check the race website to find out where it started… so much for my organization skills.

Saturday morning we were up bright and early and at the Gemini Bridges trailhead a little before 7am. We signed in and got our numbers (I was number 4 – guess I was pretty enthusiastic with that entry form!). We had drop-bags for three of the aid stations, which included everything from gu to socks to sunscreen, so we dropped them off and then back to our warm car. It was just around freezing at that time in the morning but we knew it would warm up before long so we dressed pretty light with long pants over our shorts which we left at the first aid station. There was a race briefing at 7.30am during which the race director confirmed our suspicions - the high rims we could see all around us… oh yes, we would be on top of them several times during the race. There were about 100 runners, probably a 3:1 ratio of guys to girls. 8am and off we went. There was a climb to start with and it sort of winded us a little – probably the altitude though once we settled in we really weren't affected by it at all. Which surprised just about everyone we met as most people were from Utah or Colorado and the surrounding high in the sky states – with just us two lowly sea level residents. Perhaps the 8 hours above 8,000 feet on Friday got us acclimatized. After the initial climb the next few miles were mostly flat. The terrain was a mix of sand, rock and scrub and made for pretty easy running at this stage. Sand, I was later to learn is a tired runner's no. 1 enemy! We got chatting to Kristen from Boulder, CO, a few miles into it and ended up running together for most of the race. I had overheard her talking about her journey which was pretty similar to ours – turns out many of our fellow runners had got held up along I-70 and a few people didn't make it to Moab until after midnight so I guess we didn't do so badly after all. Kristen's friend Larry, a pretty serious mountain biker, rode alongside us for the early part of the race. I have to say as hard as some of the running was I was happier keeping my 2 feet on the ground. We were pretty relaxed through the first and second aid station, at approximately miles 6 and 13, chatting to these guys and a few others including Wayne who we also ran with for a lot of the race. Wayne is training for his first 100 mile event so we chatted about training plans for the summer and the different events we are doing… our planned Ironman in September pales in comparison to 100 miles through the Utah desert! Somehow Wayne managed to carry a digital camera/camcorder the entire way so we will have evidence of the amazing beauty all around us. It really was very scenic and several times throughout the race, mostly while climbing bare rock inclines at a moderate walking pace, we stopped to take it all in. You could see for miles with huge canyons in every direction, views across to Arches National Park and farther away the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal range. We had arrived at the first aid station in about 55 minutes and as planned took off our outer layer so we just had shorts and a short and long sleeve top. It got pretty warm at times and I could probably have taken off the long sleeve but every so often there were gusts of cold wind when we rounded corners and were exposed on the upper rims. The aid stations were very well stocked as is the case at all trail races – gu, chips, trail mix, bananas, chocolate, nuts, pretzels and flat coke – which we both loved even though we wouldn't normally drink it! From aid station 1 we completed a loop that started with a climb up to the first rim at around mile 10. The view from here across to Arches NP was spectacular but with a couple hundred meter drop off we didn't get too close to the edge. This was followed by a quick descent towards aid station 2 which was manned by a few guys from the Moab 4x4 Jeep club (the course was a mix of Jeep, ATV and mountain bike trails) who clearly thought we were nuts to be traversing these trails on 2 legs. But they happily served us up flat coke and salty chips and we were on our way again. After a mile of up and down the next part of the course was the flattest we would encounter and we picked up the pace a few times along here to stretch out our legs. The surface was a mix of scrub and sand but the sand was only an inch or two in depth and made for a nice soft running surface without feeling like we were sinking with every step. We completed the loop and arrived back at aid station 1 which also served as number 3 (mile 17) at exactly 3 hours which was well under our planned pace. Although we really had no idea what to expect we had figured about 8 hours would get us home. So while we knew the second half of the course had much tougher climbs we were very pleased with progress so far. After filling up on snacks we took a few more goodies from our drop-bag and put on sunscreen. This turned out to be a great idea (thanks Kami!) except that I missed the line along the top of my forehead which resulted in a lot of funny looks the following week at work. Must remember the mirror next time. Or not.

From aid station 3 we retraced about a mile of trail and then crossed to the southern part of the course. A lot of descent here and we encountered our first ATVs. Being a holiday weekend we expected some traffic but for the most part it didn't bother us at all. Most of the Jeeps and ATVs pulled over or drove very slowly to avoid blowing up the dust. It wasn't long before we were climbing again. Kristen was familiar with the trails from mountain biking trips so she was able tell us about the remaining 15 miles. This was both good and bad – good because we could pace ourselves accordingly but bad because we knew how much climbing we had yet to do! It was around noon by now and the sun was shining straight down on us from a bright blue sky. So even though it was probably still in the 40's it got pretty hot running across the huge expanses of rock that covered most of this section of the course. There was 4-7 miles between the aid stations but because we were drinking more than usual, as people had advised us it would counter some of the altitude effects, our water bottles were empty every time. We arrived at aid station 4, which was at mile 21 and perched atop a rim with a clear view across to Arches NP, happy to replenish and even happier that the worst of the climbing was behind us. As usual we took our time devouring all manner of goodies and chatting to the aid station crew while taking in the view.

By now there were five of us running together and we left the aid station taking turns leading the way through the next section of the course. We started out with some fun downhill which called for quick footwork and intense concentration while trying not to go all out since we would need our quads for whatever climbing was left. The next few miles were pretty relaxed, a mix of up and down, mostly over rock. And then we hit what I found to be the hardest section of the course. We were at about mile 25 now and even though my legs felt much stronger than they typically would at this stage of a road marathon we encountered a lot of sand for a few miles and all I can say is I will never be entering any of those crazy treks across the Sahara! As soon as we came to a section of rock my legs felt instantly refreshed even if it was at a 45 degree angle. But I can't deny the surroundings made it worthwhile, we were running through a canyon with walls a few hundred feet high and it felt like a million miles from civilization. Then came a section of pretty steep climbs followed by similarly steep descents over rock to get to the final aid station. Lots of walking here but it just felt good to be out of the sand. It seemed longer than 7 miles by the time we reached the aid station at mile 28. I would guess it was closer to mile 29 as the final section of the course seemed shorter than 6 miles. We were long out of water and it had gotten warmer. Kami had felt a twinge in her calf so she opted for the electrolyte drink mixed with water. Salt tablets was the one thing I forgot for this race but they did have little sachets of table salt at the aid stations so I got in the habit of pouring one over a few chips. I think this helped keep things balanced – it's easy to forget how much salt you're losing when not actually sweating intensely.

We left the aid station at just under 6 hours and had some uphill initially but Kristen assured us we would soon be going down. I ran part of the next section with a guy from Utah who runs a trail marathon or ultra every month and has tried a few hundred milers but not yet completed one. He made it to 87 miles the last time - how painful to get to within 13 miles of the finish and have to drop out after all that work. We talked a little about the Bighorn Trail 50 in Wyoming which he has ran a few times and is on my to do list for next year as well as a few others which might have to wait a while longer. I guess I won't be going back to Ireland any time soon! I was feeling much stronger than expected at this stage and decided I would continue to push along this nice flat stretch with soft but not sandy trail underfoot. I guess I picked up the pace fairly well as I was soon on my own and passing a few people I had seen leave the last aid station as we were arriving. This section of the course was definitely the least technical and allowed me to look around and enjoy the scenery while not having to worry about my footing. And it was beautiful. Not to sound too soppy but I felt truly privileged to be fit and healthy enough to take part in something like this, running through as scenic a landscape you're likely to find anywhere. And then my thoughts were broken by a friendly cheer. Larry had taken a different route and was biking back up to meet Kristen for the final section. It was such a boost to have someone call my name and cheer me on out here in the middle of nowhere when I least expected it.

The real downhill soon started and I was flying around the switchbacks trying my best to pick what looked like a solid footing and avoid a twisted ankle. I passed a few more people and then I hit a flat section of sand which caused a barrage of swear words. But at this stage I knew it had to be less than 3 miles to go so I continued crashing down the trail not really knowing how much longer I could keep going at this pace. And then all of a sudden around a few more turns and there was the river. I knew the finish had to be very near now and sure enough another half mile, around a turn and there it was! I raced down the final fifty meters with a big smile on my face and across the finish line in 6:37. The race director was on hand to greet all the finishers and I thanked him for an amazing experience. I felt on top of the world. Every trail is different and there's always some quirky twist that makes comparing races difficult (like when a 50k race becomes 55k!) but I won't pretend I'm not competitive so finishing 7th female and in the top half overall felt pretty good. Most of all finishing strong is a real buzz and those last five miles running downhill to the finish were intense - I have never felt so alive in all my life. Kristen, Kami and Wayne finished a few minutes later with smiles all around. Although Kristen was not quite finished. A popular idea among thirty something and above runners is to "run your age" so at 37 Kristen actually kept going and ran 3 more miles. And you thought I was crazy.