The adventure tourism town of Moab, UT is home to two national parks (Arches & Canyonlands) and countless outdoor recreations: whitewater rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and BASE jumping to name a few. This past President’s Day weekend, Moab saw a different breed of extreme athlete take part in Moab’s Red Hot 55K and 33K, hosted by GrassRoots Events.
Along with many other Denver/Boulder area runners, my wife and I made the approximately 6 hour drive in 7 hours due to the lovely mountain traffic on I-70. Once clear of Vail, west of Glenwood Springs, the mountains began to change shape and color, giving an amateur wild west traveler like myself the sense that I was driving through the Grand Canyon, perhaps skating on the Colorado River itself.
Packet pickup was at the jovially named Eddie McStiff’s. In line, I bumped into Brian Burkhardt from Denver whom I’d met several times at Boulder Trail Running Breakfast Club group runs; Brian would finish 16th in the 33K and heard a great recruiting pitch by yours truly about the excellence of the Rocky Mountain Runners. Young volunteers handed out bib numbers and drawstring bags featuring a heather gray tee and a stylish trucker hat that could be promptly seen around town by many flannel wearing athletes. By the time we left, the line stretched past the bar and into the parking lot; my wife and I took our time exiting, scanning the faces for ones seen in countless pictures and videos from other well-stacked ultras.
The drive up Rt191 to the Gemini Bridges Trailhead on race day was beautiful. It was our first taste of this stretch of land thanks to a chatty doctor’s assistant more interested in telling me about Moab than focusing on my upper respiratory infection. We worried about parking, as we were told it was limited, but our 7:10 arrival time was just right. It allowed me enough time to decide what to leave behind for good, what to take to the start line for further consideration and to watch the start of the 55K. The temperature was a cool 40 and with forecasts calling for temps in the 60’s, I knew I’d be removing a layer just before the start of the race.
We saw the start of the 55K and with it, the flock of elite runners set upon not only winning, but breaking Rob Krar’s 3:44:46 course record from the previous year, hoping for a great start to 2014 and for fate to take them down the same road as the reigning Ultra Runner of the Year.
The 55K course would take runners out on a 14ish mile loop before coming back onto the 33K course. With some careful mathematics and some realistic reflection on my current shape after three weeks of illness and minimal training, I succumbed to the prospects of finishing in time to see the winner of the big 55K; I had hoped to keep the number of passing 55K runners to a minimum.
Now, it was my turn to toe the line and see what I had. For three weeks, it had been agonizing not running and crossing day-after-day from my training plan without a single check mark to signify success. Seeing Geoff Roes running his first race in over 2 years gave me the inspiration to know that we always get another day to run, no matter how long we have to wait. Today was my day.
The first two miles went vertical and it was challenging not to bound upwards with all my effort. Even with swarms of people passing with every step that I walked, I had to pace myself for what could be a long and hot day. Once the land leveled out, I swiveled my head about in constant awe of my surroundings. It simply seemed like this day would never get here and that this place only existed for others in their pictures. Crushed turquoise-colored rocks (actual turquoise?) were scattered along the ground and high up along the rock formations.
My legs started feeling sluggish at the 5 mile mark. Then came a lot of climbing and descending on unforgiving rocks. I remember it all so vividly, but only as a blur. Pounding on left-to-right down sloping rock (is negative slope a more appropriate visual?). A long crevice hiding, only to be discovered upon instinctually leaping at the last second. Stones with pink and black ribbon appearing off in the distance. And red sand that swallows footsteps in one bite.
Those middle ten miles were challenging and could have been made more so if the temperature had hit its expected apex. Temperatures never reached above 47 degrees and everyone agree it was perfect weather. The final aid station marked 4 miles from the finish, and I was ready for a closing push. I had blown through the first aid station and quickly filled up on water for the second; this time, I wanted to make sure I was diligent with my selections. I ate one potato chip that didn’t go down well and chugged two cups of cola, which jostled and fizzed in my stomach for the next two miles. Poorly done.
I pushed through the stomach distress and could sense the finish line nearing. A little over the three hour mark, the faintly heard heavy breathing of the woman behind me became a tone deeper: here they come, I thought. I turned around to see Alex Nichols and his straight, blonde noodles bounce past. A few minutes later, a tall, fluorescent he-beast came through, hoping to make up Nichols’ three minute lead. (Thanks to a nature guide, I later identified the beast as Paul Hamilton.)
I was given a charge of excitement for the final miles at seeing the effort and push of these awesome athletes. Then, to round out the men’s podium, I witnessed an even greater push by Mike Foote, who grunted so loudly that I thought he broke his ankle and would careen down the rocks into the Colorado River. The grunting continued all the way down the final switchback, but after the race, Mike assured me his ankles were fine and that this was simply the sound of a man pushing himself past his limit, “the only way to get better.”
There were many folks along the final 5 miles pointing out how much further I had to go, but one can never be too sure of their accuracy. When I heard, “just around the corner,” I knew that couldn’t be misstated. I spotted my wife and happily exclaimed that I was under 4 hours, a mark that could have easily been 5 hours on a different day. I did my best to sprint the last .1 mile, thinking I could fool someone into believing I had just finished 4th. In preparation for my first 100 miler this year, I completed the first race of the season in 3:38:35, loving every minute – including the slick rock portions – in Moab!