Prior to Saturday, my last real running race, was 7 months ago. With some help from Dr. Jeff Matthews, the Achilles had been responding well and allowing me to increase my training provided that I spend just as much effort focused on recovery. With less than 70 days until Western States, my decision was this:
A) Try a 50 mile tune up now, with the risk of being undertrained, but having more time to recover before the big race
B) Jump into a 50 miler late, potentially better trained, but with less time to recover between races
After a lot of deliberation, I decided that I couldn't pass up the chance to run the Desert R.A.T.S Double Marathon in Fruita. The scouting report from friends was that the experience would promise a lot of scenic desert single track and an opportunity for some good heat training. It was the perfect tune up race for Western States. Plus, if anything went wrong, the race policy stated that a Double Marathoner could drop at the halfway mark and still get credit for the Marathon. Having a contingency plan is always necessary!
After a quick stop at the Pearl Izumi headquarters in Louisville to pick up some race gear, "Uncle" Dan, Melissa, and I headed west Friday afternoon in the Ultramobile.
"Uncle Dan" enjoying the back seat of his Ultramobile. By "back seat" I mean a memory foam mattress!
I ended up staying at the historic Melrose Hotel in Grand Junction along with Steve, Zach, and Taylor. The Melrose place was built in 1906 and came with extra character at no extra cost.
Steve posing with Mr. Melrose
Race temperatures were predicted to be unusually cool with a chance of rain and thunder. A short sleeve-o-phobic during races, I decided to go with the Fly In-R-Cool singlet and Sun Sleeves, Fly Ultra Shorts, Fly In-R-Cool Visor, and the E-Motion Trail N1's.
After a short but unusually restful pre-race sleep, we set off to the 6:30 start at the Mack Trailhead. I picked up my race number (a snazzy microfiber material) and said hello to fellow Pearl Izumi racers Gavin and Mike. Marathoners and Double Marathoners were intermingled which served to change up the pacing dynamic. And, as if that wasn't enough, $100 cash was held out for the first male and female to reach the 1.3ish mile mark. Talk about a game changer!
Right off the bat, Josh and Timmy duked it out for the cash. I had no horse in this "race within a race" but enjoyed watching the drama unfold. Josh was the eventual winner, though he had to earn it as he and Timmy approached 5 minute/mile pace sans warm up! The temps were cool and the first climb went by quickly. I found myself a bit surprised with the level of technicality on some parts of the trail though. Not enough to really slow your pace but after a couple of minor stumbles, I realized I'd better pay attention or I'd be going home with some slickrock scars.
"Uncle" Dan and I ended up running the first 15 or so miles together. We cruised along the desert trails and were offered amazing views of the Colorado River. Even saw a bald eagle! The pace was effortless and, a bit out of character for my typical strategy, I felt like I wanted to push things sooner rather than later. There were still 6-8 guys in front but I figured most were stopping at the marathon point. Though it involved no deliberate acceleration, I began playing the game of trying to catch the next guy ahead. My energy level was stable and I kept to a schedule of calorie intake using couple of flasks tucked into the pockets of the shorts.
I felt good, but in retrospect, ran sections that perhaps I should have hiked. Passing up fluids at the aid stations would later haunt me on the return trip. Nevertheless, in the moment, I was in control and arrived at the turnaround point (which also served as the start and finish of both races) leading the double marathon field. For the first time all day, I stopped to fill my bottles. But in this transition, I found myself dropping from first to fourth in a matter of minutes. Game on!
To be honest, this abrupt turn of events caused my optimism to suffer a bit. Timmy had apparently recovered from his anaerobic mile and was now looking strong. I ran with him for a bit but he soon dropped me on the 3rd of 4 big climbs and gave chase to the two guys in front of us. Accepting that I could not keep pace at the moment but trying to salvage my spirits, I focused on picking out the faces of friends as we doubled back on the course
Timmy and I just after the turnaround (photo: Z-Mart)
As the trail dropped steeply down, I came upon the next aid station and spotted Timmy just ahead. Neither of us were moving too well now. Apparently he was having some issues digesting fluids. My legs were getting tight and crampy from the dehydration I incurred on the first half. We would work together briefly before he waved me ahead. As the sun intensified, I found that the sleeves that provided some extra warmth at the start were now somehow offering a cooling effect (WORD OF CAUTION: still wear sunscreen over places the sleeves DO NOT cover or you'll end up sporting a reverse farmer's tan/burn).
The next 15 miles were largely spent alone and the fear of being caught was equally as motivating as the hope that someone ahead had blown up. My quads, adductors, and right calf began cramping and I found myself alternating between running, skipping, and walking as the situation dictated. At least the Achilles was holding up. During this return trip, I encountered a slew of mountain bikers. One of whom offered encouragement and informed me that 2nd place was only a couple minutes ahead. Good news! Though I was still fearful of who was lurking behind, I refused to look back. Just keep running.
At the last aid station, approximately 5 miles before the finish, I was able to finally spot the second place runner, Mike O. The last time I saw Mike, he was flying ahead after the turnaround point. I later heard that he had built a 2 mile lead on everyone prior to succumbing to some of his own demons. I tried hard to keep him in sight for the last climb. I wasn't moving well but he seemed to struggle a bit more on the steeper sections. It became a true snail's race and when I finally caught up to him, I knew I had to at least try to make the pass look convincing. The legs cooperated and I was able to make it to the top of the final climb at a slow but steady pace while creating some distance between us.
Playing it conservative on the last stretch of downhill single track before the gravel road, I thought I'd be able to hold Mike off as long as I didn't cramp again. Nope. He was now moving better than I was and as we hit the gravel road, he regained 2nd place. My legs were having trouble keeping the cramps at bay as we oscillated between the rolling climbs and descents. At the crest of one of the last hills though, I could see the finish about 300 yards away and decided to make one last push. I was sprinting for a while before Mike saw that I was making a move. Unbelievable how the two of us, who were in so much suffering just minutes before, were now going balls to the wall with over 50 miles on our legs. It was by far the closest ultra finish I've had. Mike ended up holding onto 2nd place by a mere 3 seconds, but after it was over, we both were smiling.
The showdown (photos: Z-Mart)
All in all, it was a great weekend. The Desert RATS course was perfectly marked, well supported, and more scenic than these pictures give it justice (I may have to go back to racing with a camera next time). The PI gear worked out incredibly well. I got to hang out with a bunch of friends, enjoy the desert in Spring, and put up a new personal best 50 mile time by over an hour with what I deemed as suboptimal training. A great confidence builder before heading to California!