I figured I would dust off the ol' blog to write a little about my first ultramarathon. I ran the Moab Red Hot 55k in Utah on February 14, 2015.
I know I've written about them before, but I would be half the runner I am today without the help of the Attack Pack Running Group. They are always game for a run, no matter how long or hard. They push me to be better when I'm at a low point. They inspire me with their strength, determination, and physical accomplishments. There's no way I would have made it 34 miles through the desert without the encouragement and support of this group.
Wendy Stalnaker, one of the crazier members of the Pack, was the one who had this race on her radar. We had been talking about it off and on for a few months, so I had already started trying to increase my weekly mileage before finally pulling the trigger and signing up December 14. We were unable to persuade anyone else to take on the challenge with us, but we found out that Brianne Pierson, fellow ex-Purple-and-Gold-Marmot, was planning on racing, too.
Wendy and I spent a lot of time battling snow, ice, and mud on the trails around Colorado Springs as we increased the length and difficulty of our runs. Our training peaked with the CRUD Ponderous Posterior Fat Ass "race" around Mount Herman in mid-January. We spent more than 6 hours floundering about in the snow, ending up with a total of 22.5 and 24.5 miles, respectively (I tacked on a "bonus" 2-mile loop that Wendy wisely skipped). The photo above is us with a ribbon marking a turn that we almost missed.
I managed to run 55 miles on my heaviest week, which was about as much as my life and work schedule allows for. There were a lot of days where I would show up to Attack Pack runs an hour early to get in some "extra credit." I went from running four days a week to six. I devoured threads on the Trail and Ultra Running Facebook group. I ran at lunch and after work, sometimes in the same day. I read Hal Koerner's book cover to cover. I practiced fueling and hydrating. I crammed as much as I could into the winter weeks. It felt like before we knew it, taper time had arrived.
For my final "long" run, I chose a loop around Greenland Open Space: 8 miles with a few hundred feet of gain. Nice and mellow. About 5 miles in, I felt an uncomfortable twinge in my right Achilles tendon. Pretty soon it was a full-blown ache. I finished the loop. When I woke up the next morning and it still hurt, I began freaking out. I was due to leave for Moab in four days. Would I even be able to race now?
I iced, NSAIDed, stretched, and elevated the heck out of it and tried to be positive. How could this happen on race week?!
My physical therapist friend Aaron reassured me that I should still give it a try because I had trained so hard. He promised he would "put (me) back together again" afterward, if it came to that. Physical therapists who are also runners give out questionable advice.
My husband and I arrived in Moab, where they had been experiencing some unseasonably warm weather (and DRY trails!). He quickly threw himself at the new singletrack mountain bike playgrounds that have been built in the past five years, and I sat around a lot reading and trying not to worry. Wendy and her husband arrived, and we got in a 3-ish mile shakeout run on Friday morning to see how we were feeling. She was getting over a stomach bug from earlier in the week, so neither of us was running at 100%. My Achilles seemed not to mind the flat riverside trail too much.
Most beautiful shakeout run ever!
The Colorado Springs crew sporting our cool race trucker hats at packet pickup Friday night: Keeler North, Brianne Pierson, Katie Benzel, and Wendy Stalnaker.
And here we are the next morning, ready to run. Or at least, ready to try to run. The morning was chilly, but it was supposed to get up into the 70s by the time I expected to finish. I ditched my gloves and my headband with Lance right before the gun went off. I wore the long-sleeve shirt until the top of the first climb and then stowed it in my pack. I had taped up my Achilles as a precaution using KT tape. (Wendy's husband pointed out that it said "KT" on my leg so people would know who had just passed them. I joked that it was so people would know whose body they found.)
The race started, and the worry melted away. I was going to go as far as I was physically able to, and that was all I could do. I started slow and steady and kept my footsteps small and even. It was easy to do on the wide dirt road the course starts on. There were no singletrack bottlenecks all day because of the wide-open nature of these trails. (At one point, there were several jeeps blocking the trail, surrounded by their drivers, who were all smoking, but that's another story...) I just focused on making it from one aid station to the next.
I would love to write a detailed report about exactly how many calories I consumed and when, but I just don't have that kind of memory, especially a month later. I brought mostly Honey Stinger products with me (chews and waffles), along with pretzels, nuts, and some Tailwind packets. I mixed that with water I got from aid stations and carried it in the little yellow bottle in the front pocket of my Nathan pack. It was really nice to have something other than water to drink, plus it was a good way to bank some extra calories. I took the advice of the race personnel and pushed both fuel and hydration early and often. As a result, I felt great the whole time, at least from a fueling perspective. I have struggled with stomach issues in other races, but not this one. I took bananas and oranges at almost every aid station, which I loved. The one time I felt lightly nauseated was after taking a few sips of Sprite at the final aid station. It just didn't sit well, so I dumped it out and continued on with Tailwind and water.
I texted Lance from an overlook at about 11 miles that I was still in the race and doing fine. I was running happy -- my stomach was happy, I felt nothing from my Achilles, and I was enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever run through.
I met a delightful girl from Flagstaff named Emily at about this point. It was her first ultramarathon as well. We stuck together for about 15 miles total. She made those miles fly by!
Emily loves Utah!
The slickrock sections were the hardest. They began in earnest after I started kicking it with Emily. Most of the surface was off-camber, meaning you're running with one leg slightly lower than the other. It begins to take a toll after a while. This is also when the course markings became harder to spot as the trees got farther and farther apart. Sometimes a flag would be tied around a rock placed in the middle of the "trail." I was pretty good at spotting these flags after my experience running the local Fat Ass race and used to skills to my (and Emily's) advantage. I was able to send a text from the aid station at about mile 23 that I was still alive, which is when the course got especially gnarly.
I definitely lost speed on these long stretches of painful running. There were also some pretty large climbs to conquer. I just tried to stay focused and keep moving as best as I could. My joints and quads started to ache a bit because of the pounding on slickrock, but my Achilles stayed quiet, which is nothing short of a miracle. I felt fine in my choice of shoes (Brooks Cascadia 9) for this course, though road-running shoes wouldn't have been bad on this terrain. The Cascadias gripped the slickrock nicely.
I slowly pulled away from Emily, wishing her well as I went on ahead. She kept having to stop and stretch various body parts. I sent a final text to Lance from the final aid station. I wasn't sure exactly what mile marker I was at, but I thought I had about an hour of running left at that point. (It ended up being a little over an hour.) I was in no man's land having just run farther than a marathon for the first time in my life.
Eventually the slickrock petered out, and we were running on a dirt road again. I was happy to find that I could still run at a decent pace at this point. The sun kept beating down, and the clouds that provided a little relief in the morning burned away. It started getting hot, and I wanted nothing more than something cold to drink.
The Poison Spider section of the trail contained a few sandy parts, but those didn't faze me much from all the training in squishy snow and mud all winter. As the miles ticked by and the finish line (supposedly) grew closer, I kept seeing people walking up the trail toward the runners. "You're almost there!" they kept saying, but the finish line was nowhere to be found. Eventually one woman said, "You have 1.3 miles to go. I know because I tracked it on my watch." I passed some guys in that last mile who said, "Do NOT let us pass you." That gave me a little more gas in the tank to finish strong. It was disorienting, though, because I couldn't hear or see the finish line until it was, quite literally, right in front of my face.
This is the shot that Lance got of me finally coming in to the finish line.
And here we are, proud ultramarathoners! Wendy finished as the 12th woman overall. I finished ... much later, behind her and Brianne. My time was 7:38, which I am more than happy with -- an average pace of 13-ish minutes per mile, according to my watch data. For going into my first ultra with a possible injury, that is just fine by me. Here is the Strava track.
I would highly recommend this race to anyone, with a hefty warning about the slickrock and route-finding. A big group of people in front of me ended up missing a turn and getting lost for 15 minutes or so. With proper training, the slickrock is manageable.
It was pretty well organized (though the parking directions didn't mention that there was a mile-long walk from the parking lot to the start line), and the aid stations and volunteers were wonderful. The sense of camaraderie around me was palpable -- everyone was really friendly and seemed to truly want all the other runners to succeed.
My friend Scott Spillman, who now lives in Morrison, Colorado, ended up winning the 33k race. Alex Nichols of Colorado Springs notched another victory in the 55k, making it a good day to be a Front Range runner in Utah. This is one of my proudest running accomplishments to date, even bigger than the Pikes Peak Marathon from 2012.
You bet I'm going to be wearing that trucker hat.