Moab’s Red Hot 50+ 55k, A Beautiful February Weekend in the Desert.

Written by Jack Daly

As a new ultrarunner fresh out of high school, getting accustomed to racing long distances was the first goal. Once I had some minor success, I figured it was time to sign up for some higher profile races and see if I could hold my own. After moving to Boulder last fall for school, the racing scene in Colorado surprised me compared to what I was used to back home in the South. I have made several friends my age through these races, including fellow Rocky Mountain Runner Ashley Erba at the Uber 50k, and another training partner Kory Skattum at the Blue Sky Trail Marathon in Fort Collins. The fact I wasn’t the only kid my age doing this stuff was very encouraging to me. Training with them and talking about races got us excited to show the ultrarunning world that young kids can run long too.

So the 55k in Moab caught my eye because of the early season competition and its proximity to Boulder. After a few weeks back at sea level for Christmas and a marathon p.r. at a small hometown race, I was excited to get to the desert.  The weather for the trip over was spectacular, and my first experience of Southern Utah was a stroll down Moab’s main drag and a carb-loaded dinner at Pasta Jay’s. The next morning came fast as it was time to line up at the starting line. The temperature in the morning was in the mid 30’s, but would soon warm up. As Rob Krar stepped up to the line, I realized this was for real. This would be the most competitive race I had entered so I was excited to see how everything would play out.

Go! The race started as Krar and Alex Nichols along with a few others humbled me on the first climb up a gorgeous road climbing up the side of a cliff. They were such strong runners so it was back to running my own race very early on. The first ten miles were relatively flat, and I was trying to take in the views as much as possible. The backup plan if I was feeling bad was to slow way down and enjoy the beauty, because Moab and the surrounding desert offers a very landscape from anything I have seen in Colorado. Fortunately, I didn’t have to slow down too much, but managed to look around as much as possible.

My first exposure to running slickrock came soon after as the first climb of the day began. Navigation was a challenge as there seemed to be many routes in the rock that appeared to be a trail. I was struggling to find a rhythm on the rock, but was hanging with a group of folks as we helped each other out finding the next pink ribbon marking the trail. Being from Boulder though, no climb seems too long, and the trail quickly topped out on the edge of the cliff at the foot of which the race started, about a thousand feet up looking out upon tens of miles of gorgeous desert. A quick descent on to a dirt road had me racing through much more remote territory than I had ever raced in. The sun was shining and the shade was scarce as I cruised along right around tenth place through the halfway mark. The leaders had brought the race out fast, so being halfway at just over 2 hours felt really easy for my legs. Little did I know that would soon change.

I have only been racing ultras for two years, so 50k’s have been standard for me, so I didn’t think 55k would be that much harder. This distance is very manageable for me, so the way I was feeling at mile 17 was a good thing. I surged on through the aid station knowing that the “Golden Spike” was ahead, but the problem was I did not know what this would bring.

The low six minute miles quickly transitioned to mid eight’s at best as the short climbs and descents over the real slickrock began. For the next ten miles or so, the trail proved very challenging to find and the rock very unforgiving. I still held my place, I heard as high as eighth place at some aid stations, but felt like I was slowing way down.  The temperature was creeping into the 60’s, and the trail was unrelenting. Mile after mile of slickrock, running on slanted rock and dirt started to wear on my hip flexors, something that had never happened to me before.

At this point in my ultra career I am really focusing on being a stronger mental racer and accepting the pain I am in at a given time, so I continued to think positively as I was coming closer and closer to mile 30. My body was definitely getting tired and the inevitable mental math of distance left began to take over my thoughts. RMR’s Ryan Smith, Silke Koester, and Jon Davis were out on the course in a spot that helped me most, offering encouragement and a jolt of adrenaline hearing Ryan telling me in his awesome accent that I was kicking ass.  Drawing some energy from them, I was able to finally after what felt like forever get off the slickrock and start the final descent to the finish.

It feels like the last thirty minutes of an ultramarathon is where I learn the most. As the miles got easier and I was running way slower than what I thought my effort heralded, the experiences and beauty I took in during the past few hours became more important than any top ten finish. I had seen a beautiful part of Southern Utah, struggled through the heat, and raced as well as I could, so I had nothing to complain about . The rewards of the finish line are always so great; the first switchback descending down to the Colorado River was so fulfilling knowing that the finish was in my grasp. Each ultra experience seems to be more profound than the last; the lessons I learn about myself and the people I meet continue to amaze me. These musing in the last few miles brought the finish line to me very painlessly.

When I was finally able to sit down under a tent and grab some shade after 4:27 of racing and a ninth place finish, the mental grind was over and the awesome atmosphere at the finish filled me up. There was great music and several tents with people hanging out cheering on finishers. Being rewarded with this kind of post-race atmosphere was a treat. Props to Ashley Erba, who finished just under four and a half hours and was first female, and all the other RMRs who were out there giving their best. Boulder had a great crew representing, and the Moab experience was not one to forget. The longest run of my life brought much more than just sore quads, the experience of sharing an effort with others is much more satisfying.

Moab was an awesome weekend and hopefully will become a yearly outing for me, but it is always good to get back home to Boulder, it just can’t be beat.

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