On paper, this 50 miler through the desert didn’t seem so daunting: a smidge less than 7000′ of gain with the steepest sharpest climb being only about 500 ft high and then the longest uphill trend gaining 1500′ over 10 miles. In practice, however, it was infinitely harder than its mountain counterparts. Never underestimate the brutality of sand, sun and slickrock. Thankfully our squad of 15 Rocky Mountain Runners ensured that at least our misery had good company!
A 6 hour roadtrip from Boulder to Moab on Friday evening meant we pitched our tents at around 10pm in the middle of nowhere by the race start. Those in our gang who’d never been to Moab would be in for a treat with the sunrise! A quiet, crisp and peaceful night under a bright starry sky was followed by an equally quiet and peaceful race start and before I knew it we were off kicking up some dust. Within a few hundred meters I found myself leading the race! Thankfully I was joined by teammates and friends Alberto & Lassen a few moments later. We ran side by side forming a wall of RMR green and navigating the course in the dark. Our chatty conversation reminded me that I wasn’t running recklessly. So where was everyone?!
It wasn’t until a bit after the first aid station that we began stringing out and we settled into the day. Up until now we’d glimpsed the sun’s dramatic rising but hadn’t been touched by it yet. I enjoyed watching the bright orange glow illuminate the canyon walls and towers in the distance and I made every effort to soak up the cool early morning shade. It was probably in the 40-55F range up until this point but I knew that wouldn’t last much longer.
Coming into the second aid station the trail started getting a bit rockier and then a bit narrower as it led onto an amazing ledge and weaved around and over boulders until it threw you down into Hunter’s Canyon. I was familiar with this section yet it didn’t cease to get my heart racing and put a giant smile on my face.
4 miles of bumpy slickrock jumped back and forth between the Hymasa and Amasa Back trails until we reached the aptly named Cliffhanger section from where we could see miles 21-26 of the race down below and we could hear the aid station (RMRs Ryan, Adam, Rush and Seth) hootin’ and hollerin’ in the distance.
The Jacob’s Ladder descent was a nice relief on the legs which had been running relentless with only moderate ups and down until now.
I’d been looking forward to Kea’s wet-nosed welcome and getting to see Ryan and the other RMRs here at mile 21. I was feeling comfortable and the temperatures were only now starting the creep up. I only paused briefly to refuel and get an update on Alberto and Lassen knowing that I’d be back here again in 5 short miles. Ryan mentioned that Alberto was looking strong running up towards the front in 2nd or 3rd position. Lassen, on the otherhand, had dropped back a bit and was looking decidedly rough – I’d see for myself in less than a mile. Sure enough, I caught up to him soon and checked in with him. He mentioned that his stomach was off so he’d decided to ease off on the pace. A good strategy considering what’d happened here last year. He had enough to drink and salt pills so I gave him the 2 Tums that I had in my pocket and hoped that would do the trick to turn him around.
Ryan and Kea accompanied me part of the way back up Jacob’s ladder. The sun turned the steep canyon wall into an oven. Ryan mentioned that I was 1st female and probably in 9th place overall and that the next woman was about 30 minutes behind me. As long as I didn’t succumb to the heat, I should be able to hold her off comfortably and focus on gaining on some of the men ahead of me. I gave Kea a pat on butt and took off to tackle the second half of the course.
Things got really hot over the next 7 mile section to the aid station. The slickrock was slow – forcing you to constantly look for markers and be prepared for irrational turns left and right, up and down. There’s no sense to slickrock. There’s no obvious way or path or trail. It’s just a jumbly mess of hard sandstone, boulders and sage brush. I leap frogged with a couple of dudes ahead of me. Namely, I would drop back whenever I had to pop behind a rock to take care of business and then catch them again. My stomach wasn’t feeling off but for some reason my digestive track was feeling rather active that day. It was annoying more than anything. My energy levels were good – I was drinking a combination of Carbo Pro, Hydra C5 and water in my two Simple Hydration bottles. I had snacked on a few pieces of banana and taken a few swigs of my EFS gel flask. Not too many calories but enough keep my stomach from completely freaking out in the heat and a steady stream of simple carbs to keep my energy going.
We descended the other side of the cliff down towards the Colorado River exactly oppose the famous Poison Spider trail and the Red Hot 55K race finish. What I would have given to be able to dive into the cool and refreshing river! But the tiny little tributary creek at around mile 31 was good enough – I wallowed in it like a big fat happy pig.
The next 2 miles along the uphill Kane Springs Road were a mental reprieve from the relentless slickrock. I could finally turn my mind off, put my head down and just focus on running. The canyon side of the road was shady and I followed it like a dog back to the mouth of Hunters Canyon. I picked up a third Simple Hydration bottle at this aid station, knowing that there was only 1 more aid station between now and the finish 20 miles away.
And now the desert came out in all its ruthless glory. The route turned mostly to sand with a few bits of nice hard slickrock thrown in here and there. The sun showed no mercy. It was getting seriously hot. 95F-and-not-a-single-cloud-in-the-sky hot. I rationed my 3 bottles, scaled back the pace and focused on moving as efficiently as possible – there’s a fine line between feeling ok and feeling like death in the desert and it’s just as dangerous to run too fast as it is to move too slowly. I tried to find the right groove which kept me moving forwards reasonably quickly with as little effort as possible. I needed to stay calm and in control.
I had passed 3 guys in the 50 miler already who looked to be in much worse shape than me and I was catching and passing a bunch of back-of-the-pack 50Kers who seemed to be death-marching the second half of their race. I distracted myself from the heat with every person I passed as we exchanged words of encouragement. I’d learned in my training for WS100 last year that keeping a cool mindset is the next best thing you can do when you can’t actually keep cool.
About 2 miles later than expected I finally came to the glorious last aid station. I threw some ice into my hat, chugged, and filled my bottles up with water and a delicious combination of warm Coke and Ginger Ale. 8 hot miles to go in relentless soul sucking sand. Every ounce of effort was gobbled up greedly with no reward. I would find myself drifting from one side of the trail to the other in search of the least soft sand. Again, I focused on keeping my pace and body relaxed since all my energies were going towards the fight to stay cool.
The final 2 miles were endless but the snow peaked La Sals on the horizon were gorgeous. As much as I wanted to stop, find shade and lie down, I couldn’t deny that running here today was magical. Just a few more minutes to go.
“Thor!” I croaked as I recognized RMR teammate Jon walking in the distance ahead. My throat was so dry from the heat and dust that I could barely manage more than quiet raspy call. He was suffering. I caught up to him and together we ran the last half-mile or so to cross the finish line together.
I guzzled a pint of water and congratulated the Rocky Mountain Runners who’d finished already. Nicola had won the 50K and Yves had followed close behind in 3rd. Alberto ran strong all day in the 50M and out-sprinted another runner to secure 3rd. Miguel had finished 2nd in the 30K. I held my lead amongst the women in the 50M all day and finished in 1st. And everyone else had battled and survived the desert too. From our group, only Lassen and Neeraj were yet to finish. Or so I thought. Turns out the desert got the best of Lassen again and he withdrew from the course at around mile 31. Just like last year, he was curled up at the finish in his tent, bag of ice on his head, puking his guts out in desperate need for another trip to the ER. Misery.
Burgers, beers and a shower later, we all felt human again. The desert is an incredible place. It’s an absolute treat to get to jump in a car, pitch a tent and run for hours on end in this landscape. And to get to do so with wonderful friends and teammates makes it that much sweeter (or should I say… saltier).