Dead Horse 50K: Before the startline
The mantra I came up with by mile 16 was simple, yet unfortunate: “sustainable suffering”.
My legs shuffled over ragged slick rock, the texture of ground making it impossible to find even footing. Had I been able to stay with Don, he would have reminded me to look around at the views: red rock spires, snow-capped La Sal’s. Instead, I was stuck in a shortened stride, contained in the silence of running alone. The tart, dusty earth remained still, watching me slowly (very slowly) chip away at each mile.
Before we go through the race, let’s back up. It’s been awhile.
Last year around this time I ran the Moab Trail Marathon, my first-go at long distance racing on trails. It was a ton of fun and also a ridiculous course. About 70% of it was runnable; the rest consisted of butt-sliding, class 2.5 climbing, trudging through deep sand and rivers, and a few ladders and rope climbs. It was a desert’s natural obstacle course and for 26 or so miles I ran and hiked myself through it, a smile on my face more or less the entire time.
After that race, I took some time off from running. At first I thought it would simply be a week or two, but when I started to run again my body felt off. So I started going to yoga instead, and soon found myself in the heated studio 5-6 days a week. I spent the cold winter in hot yoga rooms and barely touched my Altra Lone Peaks. My body felt great and for once, I didn’t feel this pulling nag to run or guilt around my non-existence miles.
I think it was late March when I started running again. Those first few weeks of getting back into running shape are always a drag. My lungs were pissed and my legs wanted to be slow. Soon enough, somehow, my three mile shuffles turned into six-mile runs. I found my stride and felt good. I felt fast. I was convinced my time off was a really good thing for my body.
As the weather warmed and the days got longer, I ran more. I plugged in a few races and long runs this summer: I did the 25K at Copper Mountain, paced my friend Jasmine 15 miles through the Leadville 100, and went on some long mountain runs with friends. I wasn’t following any training plan, but I was probably was running around 30 miles a week without thinking about it. (For someone who likes to run often but not that far, 30 is a good number for me.)
I had a good base, but I wasn’t close to feeling like I was in shape to run something long. So when Jasmine, said friend who runs 100 milers, floated the idea of running a 50K in Moab (my first ultra) I panicked — a mix of excitement, fear, and more fear. The race she was referring to was in six weeks.
I signed up.
Per usual, I knew I wouldn’t be following a traditional training plan. I actually remember interviewing a running coach for a piece I was writing for work, and casually told him I was doing an ultra in six weeks and had just registered. There was a long, awkward pause. However, I figured my base was a good enough foundation, and now I just had to run long.
The day I signed up, the weather started to turn in Colorado. The entire week was full of freezing rain and sleet. I told myself I just had to push for a little while longer, and then I could return to my winter sabbatical. I started running 40-50 mile weeks, getting in a bunch of double-digit runs and peaking at a 20-miler.
I wasn’t sure if this was “good enough” for 50K training. Yet for whatever reason, while I love running, it’s hard to motivate myself to stick to any sort of plan. I pretty much picked mileage numbers out of a hypothetical hat and did some mental math to make sure I was running enough each week. I still did yoga, and finally began foam rolling again. I thought I was ready … enough.
The plan for the 50K was to think of it as a “fun, long run.” (Haha, more on that soon.) I wanted to stay with Jasmine and prove to myself I could travel the distance in relatively good shape. I wanted to have a race that would make me hungry for more; it was my first ultra and the last thing I wanted was to have it scare me away from the thing I love doing most.
The course is in Moab, Utah, the same place I ran the marathon last year, yet through a different section of rock. I’m pretty much obsessed with desert landscape, and there’s something so alluring and pure about Moab specifically. Going in late November meant it wouldn’t be that crowded, too; there indeed was a stillness, a coldness, and calmness in town.
Alfredo, Luna, and I arrived around dinner time on Friday night. We got a classic Airbnb (700 sq. feet…yet sleeps six!) and made dinner while four other friends made their way up from Boulder. I was asleep by the time they arrived, so it wasn’t until morning that I talked to Jasmine and had her calm my nerves of doubt. The other folks were running the 30K (oh how that sounds so lovely sometimes) and Alfredo was spectating and saving his legs for mountain biking.
I woke up at 5am, made coffee, ate half a bagel with peanut butter, and filled my pack with water and Skratch Labs. I stuffed other pockets with gels, chews, and Larabars, and then put on my clothes. Desert running is tricky; it was 22 degrees out, but would probably hit the high 40’s by the time I finished. If the sun is on you, it’s warm. If you’re shaded by a wall of red rock, it’s cold. I opted for shorts, a tank top, and a light long sleeve that I could stuff in my pack if need be. Gloves, buff, long socks.
Alfredo took Jasmine and me to the startline, where we huddled in blankets around a fire pit. Before we knew it, the announcer told us all to head to the corral. The sunrise was a gorgeous muted pink; just moments ago as we drove in, it was dark and we could see the 50-mile racers off into the distance with their headlamps, bobbing like lit-up buoys in the sea.
I handed my blanket to Alfredo. Immediately, my day-old shaven legs filled with tiny goosebumps. I hugged him and told him I loved him. In the corral, I met Don — a runner Jasmine knew from Boulder. He seemed to know what was up. Don is 54 and a seasoned ultra runner. He had even done this course last year. Jasmine said we’d all stick together … we’d go out slow and conserve energy for the downhill second half. Don felt like an older uncle figure who you wanted to be like when you’re older, given he was filling his days with ultras, having already retired after running a successful printing business.
The gun went off, almost anticlimactically, and we were off, and up, into the wild desert rock.