Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Moab RedHot 33K Race Report

(photo swiped from Jen-I'm sure she won't mind :P )

The Moab RedHot 33K is a race I hadn’t heard much about until a few months ago, but once it appeared on my radar, it turned into something that I really wanted to put on my spring race schedule. Moab is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the 33K (roughly 20.5 miles) and 50+K (actually 34 miles) would take a small field of runners literally off the beaten path, over red dirt and slick rock through a series of ascents and descents between the Gemini Bridges trailhead outside of town to the Poison Spider trailhead just on the edge of Moab. The 33K course has a total gain of 2,681 feet and descent of 3,326 feet, but follows a series of rises and falls rather than the straight up/straight down of the Imogene Pass Run.

I’ve been slow to master the basics of good technique for trail running but have been making incremental gains, and this seemed like the perfect challenge to start off a spring racing season to continue working on it. I also knew that when things got tough, all I had to do was stop, look around and remember where I was. The views above Moab will take your breath away and can get a fatigued runner through any tough spot.

After making plans to go up at o-dark-thirty on Saturday, I got a late Thursday call from my friend Jen, offering me a free place to crash in Moab the night before due to a last minute schedule switcheroo on her part. I jumped at that chance and hurried to get my things together to hit the road early Friday afternoon. After picking up my packet at Eddie McStiff's, I met up with Jen and Nick from my local running club, did dinner and talked about course conditions. It's been an unusually cold and snowy winter out here, and we knew there would be a lot of the white fluffy stuff out there. As far as what this might mean for the trails, we really weren't sure. The last minute email from the race directors, who had just marked the course, sounded pretty optimistic. They described it as having "some snow on the course" but also "very runnable." Nick had just been through Moab a few days prior, though, and taken some photos of the start area. White fluffy stuff all around. We were curious what "runnable" meant in their book, especially when snow angels were mentioned in the email. This didn't really matter, though. After the brutally cold December and January, the relatively warmer temperatures and sunshine had me itching to get out there and see what was possible in the weather.

The next morning, we headed out bright and early to the start area. It was cold, but of the pleasant variety. It also appeared that there were not any no-shows from the sold-out combined field of 350 runners between both races. I had no idea what to expect so my plan was run less technical sections as fast as I could, and take care with the more technical and steep stuff. I wasn't going to do it "just to finish" but honestly, it's not my goal race and and I didn't want to blow the season doing anything stupid. I had my CamelBak ready to go with a full flask of water and some assorted snacks and gels. Though there were three aid stations on the course, there would be a good gap between the second and third. Self-suffiency was going to be very important at this race. We watched the 34-mile start at 8:00 a.m. and then half an hour later it was our turn. We funneled onto the snowy trail and immediately started climbing.

The trail underfoot was slushy and slippery, but I just looked ahead and plotted my path, moving along with the rest of the 33K crowd. It felt not unlike the start at the Imogene Pass Run and I just used this time to get into a groove. After the first mile and a half or so, we started rolling gently but this was one of the more flat-ish parts of the course. I moved along as briskly as I could here, knowing that the time would come in the steep climbs when I would really fall off this pace. Every now and then, a runner would take a digger on the sloppy snow but it really WAS pretty runnable even if we weren't moving as fast as we might have on a totally bone dry course. I had to look around constantly at the red rock formations and 360 degree views, and wonder how I got so lucky to have the chance to be out here. The sun was shining, the crisp air was still, and here I was with a bunch of people who also wanted to run hard and enjoy the beauty around us.

I arrived at the first aid station, roughly 4.5 miles in, and stopped for a quick drink. Jen and Nick were pacing about the same at this point though I knew I was likely to drop off their pace as the day went on. I felt good and just planned to keep doing my thing-be safe and smart about following my own pace, but give it a push whenever possible. Soon after this aid station, we started climbing and I started power hiking any uphills. Some people were running these but on the step stuff, I found that my running pace wasn't any faster so conserving energy seemed like the thing for me to do. I'm a bit of a trail clutz, too. I'd slip and fall down here and there, but since I wasn't going at it like a bat out of hell and expending all my energy, I could get up easily, brush the dirt and snow off of me and keep moving.

After a steep climb I found myself at the fully stocked aid station at roughly 8 miles. Now, one of the first things I gave up in my fat days was soda and I don't drink it anymore with the exception of what seems to be a once-a-season trip to Sonic when I'm jonesing hard for a vanilla coke, hot salty tater tots and bacon cheddar toaster. Well, the Coke in little cups on the table sounded like THE best thing on the face of the planet-so I reached for one. Whoops-broke a cardinal rule of running and tried something new on race day. This was THE most delicious carbonated beverage I'd ever tasted in my life. No joke. One of the other runners stopped at the aid station said to me that "THIS was what we drank for sports drinks back in the day-no Gatorade-we drank Coke! Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon drinking Coke! Of course....I'm dating myself now." I chuckled, shoved a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my mouth, and trotted on along the course.

Nearing the halfway mark on the course, I heard the sound of the phone in my jacket pocket-the sound it makes when someone sends a text message. Who could that be? My husband knows I'm up here...maybe it's a good luck message? I'm at a decent spot for a photo-op with the disposable camera so I stop, take a picture or two, and pull out the phone, and laugh when I read the text. I've recently been getting random wrong-number texts, and though I keep meaning to, I haven't called the phone company to block the number. Messages from this person have included "I love you and I'm sorry" and "I'm awake-get over here!" Well, this message was simply "I'm here." This was probably hilarious to nobody but me, but I giggled knowing that mystery texter was "here" just as I was "here" in the middle of a trail race where I felt like I was touching the sky.

Hitting the halfway point in the race (or, halfway according to Garmin-which is notoriously inaccurate on routes with significant elevation changes and measures courses dramatically short), it looked like I might have a shot at finishing the race in under four hours. Kind of average for this course but pretty good for me. The legs were getting a little jello-like but I didn't feel terrible. In this section, I encountered MUD. We're not talking a little bit of moist dirt-we're talking monster truck mud bog. I had to try to clomp through snowbanks and really shake a leg to get all of it off my feet-it was REALLY heavy and I couldn't get any traction from my trail shoes unless I got rid of some of it. I kept on trucking along, not speedily but not gimping my way through in a death march either.

About two-thirds of the way in, I found myself moving along a plateau of slick rock that seemed like it should be easy, but it comes at a point in the course when the legs are really starting to get tired. The trail would meander up and down a bit through wet red dirt and snow, so it just wasn't possible to tune out and fall asleep even if you wanted to. Twice in this section, I had to stop and look for the little red flags marking the course, and I also had a fellow racer ahead of me stop at another point, asking if I could see the markers. This ain't a Rock n Roll corporate race-while it was VERY well supported and safe, it's up to the runners to be alert, watch for course markings and take care of themselves up there. As it should be, in my opinion-but it's a bit unnerving when you don't immediately see those markings that keep you moving in the right direction.

I knew we had to be about 3/4 of the way through, and a guy came trotting along in in the other direction saying that the last aid station was not far ahead. Oh, excellent. I was starting to get that third wind, and while I'd been lapped by EVERYBODY on the uphill, I started passing people and got into a good, loose rhythm on the way to that last aid station. This was my first encounter with front-running 50+K-ers, who yeah-were now lapping me. They started on the same route as the 33K, veered off for a longer loop out, and then reconverged on the same course for the home stretch. I was in awe of their gazelle-like movement over the rocks, fluidly scampering up and down without a hint of hesitation or lack of confidence. I looked at them and tried to mimic what they were doing-lifting those knees, running loose but with a definite sense of direction and focus.

My whole body was feeling that good hurt now-tired and turning to jello all over but no true pain or red flags. We were pitching downhill toward the finish area, the sun was shining and I was feeling that sense of satisfaction from knowing I would soon be finishing. And then-THUD. Down I go with a roll. Whoops. I got too loosey-goosey and in a zone, took a funny step and rolled to my right into the ground. Luckily, though, I learned how to fall the right way when I started skiing regularly upon arrival to Colorado thirteen years ago. I hadn't tensed up, and put out my right arm toward the ground when I was falling. My shoulder, elbow and hand absorbed the fall as I rolled and I think my head may have tapped the ground. Still, I was no worse for the wear. It must have looked bad, though-the woman running behind me shouted out "ARE YOU OKAY?" I shouted back thanks, yes, I'm okay but she must not have heard me, asking again if I was all right. I was running again now, swinging out that right arm with a wet red line down my right side. I let her know that I was okay, and tried to shake off any negative thoughts about my wipeout.

Coming into what I knew had to be the home stretch and series of jeep road switchbacks to the Poison Spider trailhead, I looked ahead and could see that there were actually multiple jeeps on the route-and there were a whole pack of them totally blocking off the trail which briefly split into two sections before merging again. I didn't know which way to go so just picked the right side and squeezed through the jeep wall.

Making my way down the next switchbacks, I saw a slowly moving jeep. A man running ahead was literally stuck behind it, and I though oh hell no. The jeep pulled to the side at the top of the next switchback and let him through, and then started following behind the runner. Now I was stuck behind the jeep with another runner but I wasn't fast enough for this to make a difference. The jeep stopped again at the top of the next switchback, and the guy who was driving it with one hand while drinking a Red Bull in the other let me by, along with the runner just ahead of me. Then he started driving down the trail immediately behind me.

Oh, great. So this is how I'm going to die. Sorry, officer, I didn't see her-I was distracted by the yummy goodness of my energy drink. No pressure here. The adrenaline kicked in-I was definitely terrified of two tons right behind me, not knowing a thing about the driver's skills. Even if he knew what he was doing-the whole one handed driving on an unstable surface was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Off I barreled down the jeep road, trying to put as much distance between myself and the jeep as possible.

I thought I probably had further to go at this point, but once I turned down the last switchback, ran a bit and rounded a corner, I could see it-THE FINISH! Yahoo! Well, the finish area, anyway. Again-we're talking nicely understated trail running and I looked around until I saw a very small chute and a guy waving his arms over his head to lead me home. Final official time-4:10:10. I'd been shooting for four hours, just guessing what I could do in the conditions based on the prior year's times of other runners I know-but this wasn't terribly far off that mark. In all honesty, I'd made no attempt to run the steep climbs so I think this was about the best I could expect to do with the way I'd chosen to complete the course.

I grabbed a bread bowl at the finish area that was promptly filled with with a homemade potato leek soup, and sipped on the New Belgium beer that was slipped into my hand after the soup. Oh yeah, this was the life. Sopping wet with sweat, tiny puncture mark on my right hand, slightly bruised elbow, mud up and down my legs including that line straight up and down the right side, 20+ mile trail run behind me, rehydrating and nourishing myself with a bunch of folks who covered that distance or more. I'm strangely drawn to runs like this-they're hard, I sometimes wonder what I'm doing out there, and I fall down with plenty of other near-misses. Somehow, though, these races where I'm just hoping to be consistent and maybe crack the midpack are the ones that I itch the most to run again, and run better the next time out. Oh, and that midpack goal? They posted results today, and I was THE midpack of the Open women, finishing 24th out of 47 with exactly 23 women ahead of and behind me. If you factor in the Masters women (33 in all), I get a bit of a bump into the upper half-so it's encouraging to know that I'm making a bit of progress since the first time I laced up a pair of trail shoes.

As I used a disposable camera (with good reason-our regular camera probably would've been in bits after that spill), I have no photos at this time. I'll get it developed soon, though, with the hopes that a few shots will be good enough to share and post. The course description is really useless without pictures, so be on the lookout for them next week.


Nanookie said...

Way to go! Sounds like it was an awesome race. I'm glad you weren't hurt after that spill!

Girl In Motion said...

What a great report, you are such a macho dudette!! Cracked up at "I'm here"...hilarious. I continue to be awed and inspired by the races you run with their extra difficulty. You rock.

Preston said...

I see SNOW!!!!

Great race report, I love Utah, one of the things I miss of home sometimes.

L.A. Runner said...

Hahaaha, that was cute. "I'm here!" is hilarious, btw. That was one heck of a long run! Many props to you for toughing out those conditions and recovering after that spill. You rock!

John said...

Impressive running and writing!