A Trail of Two Extremes

Preparation. That’s what marathon running is all about. Lining up on a chilly Saturday morning in the Moab desert, surrounded by a mob of slender, muscular, serious looking types I could tell I was in trouble. This was the USATF National Trail Marathon Championships. A fact I had only learned of two weeks prior.

We had chosen this race for two simple reasons. One, it was pretty much the only trail race left at this time of year and two, it was in a cool place. USATF Championship was an added bonus that I was not really interested in participating in for one reason in particular…my inability to pace myself according to my level of preparation. I had spent most of the summer running up mountains…lots of mountains. I had developed a pretty strong set of legs that I could count on for two things, endurance and climbing. Speed was not in my vocabulary. This would become painfully obvious 13 minutes from the start at the beginning of mile 3.

Silke had decided to sit this race out given she was suffering from a cold the last several days. So in a rare role reversal, I got to suffer the pains of the Moab desert while Silke got to suffer the pains of her first DNS.

[The start of the USATF National Trail Championships in Moab, Utah] 

[Sunrise in the canyon as the 800-ish Marathoners and Half-Marathoners gather for the start]

My first thought as the gun went off was, is this a road marathon or a trail marathon? It was fast. Stupidly fast. 2 miles in and we were averaging 6:30 per mile running on sandy and rocky technical trails. Ouch.

My second thought, after adjusting to the inevitability of the suffering that was in front of me, was WOW! And I mean WOW. This place was stunning. Like nowhere I had ever run before. Giant towers and huge canyons towering overhead all basked in gorgeous red and oranges from the sunrise. Trying to run fast and taking in the views while staying upright was no easy task.


[A few minutes from the start. The guy in yellows’ stride says it all. FAST! ]

[Trying to stay with the fast guys. The eventual winner was the guy in black just ahead.]

I did the best I could to manage the fast pace but I knew pretty quickly I was in no shape to go at this speed for a full marathon. The first 8 miles or so were pretty flat and gave me no respite in pace. In fact, in the top 10 or so runners, no half-marathoners had yet made an appearance!

My strengths wouldn’t help me today. The overall elevation gain was pretty low for this race, somewhere around 3500ft. Given my regular run of about 8 miles has over 2500ft of gain, I wasn’t going to be able to rely on my climbing skills to give me an edge. Adding further strife to my woes was my stomach. Possibly due to the pace I’m not sure, but I started to feel nauseous fairly soon into the race, especially on the technical downhills which felt like my stomach was doing somersaults. My only saving grace was once again the views. They just got better and better. I could hardly believe the terrain we were running in. ‘Stunning’ does not do it justice enough.


[Descending on some seriously technical stuff]

[Am pretty much in my element on terrain like this!]

It’s not often you can be in so much discomfort yet still laugh while running a trail race. Laugh, because the course was so incredible. The downhills tested the limits of liability in this country; I couldn’t honestly believe they were letting us run over/under some of this terrain. One slip or fall and it would be game over on some sections. I was absolutely loving it and laughing out loud whenever we tackled bizarre features like caves, fixed ropes, ladders, tunnels, arches, rock climbs, ledges and canyons so narrow I had to shimmy through sideways to fit! Forget Spartan or Tough Mudder races, compared to this race those seem to be about as dramatic as sitting down for a cup of tea.

DNF. I have never come so close to this before but as I shuffled into the mile 21 aid station right by to the finish area I was seriously close. My stomach was a mess, I felt nauseous and just didn’t have any fight left in me after struggling though the last 10 miles. The thought of heading back out into the canyons for another 5 miles was unbearable. I did as I always do at times like this though, I stuck one foot in front of the other and told myself I’d just run a little bit more. Once the temptation of an early exit at the finish area was behind me, I knew that I had no option but to just get it done.  And so with more ladders, ropes, climbing,  jumping, dodging and, of course, suffering, I slowly ticked off the next 5 miles and actually started to feel good again during the last mile.

[Coming up to the finish line chasing some half-marathoners]

[Job done]

I crossed the line in 3:34 for 14th place overall, pleased with myself for suffering through what was probably my worst trail race for some time. The race, however, is unique, challenging and beautiful. I can’t say I’ve run many races as fun or rewarding as this one was and will definitely be back next year.  It was certainly a day of extremes for me. Extremely hard and painful but extremely beautiful and rewarding. If these photos don’t sway you to sign up then check out our friend Matt’s race report for even more stunning on-course photos!

Overall, I was disheartened with my performance, but if there is one thing I can count on it’s that the pain and disappointment fade almost as fast as the post race beer. Cheers!

[Who wants a beer?!]

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