Every year since becoming a runner back in 2007, I've finished out the year with a cool 10K in Moab, Utah called the Winter Sun. For many years, this was a smallish affair, mostly comprised of runners from Moab and Grand Junction's running clubs with maybe a few dozen runners showing up. Over the past several years, though, this race has grown exponentially, in part because the first 100 entrants get a guaranteed entry into the Canyonlands Half Marathon, but just as much because it gives runners the chance to run a fast net downhill course. It's also the third race in the Moab Triple Crown (the Canyonlands Half and The Other Half are the other two races), and again, Triple Crown runners also earn a coveted guaranteed entry into Canyonlands.
The first time I ran the Winter Sun, I ran 48:59, finished 11th in my age group, and couldn't believe I could go that fast despite being pretty sick going into race weekend. I'd wanted to make the top-10, and finishing just off it hooked me, and lit my competitive fire. Over the next three Decembers, I worked hard to move up the ranks, finishing 5th in age group the next year, and then onto the age group podium the next two years. I was 3rd in my age group in 2009, and ended a really special fall/winter 2010 running season with an age group win, PR, and 3rd woman overall in the race. After an up-and-down 2011, I came into this race weekend as ready and well-prepared as I'd been for any race this year. I didn't know who might show up, but I did plan on racing to win in my fifth time at this race.
The week leading into the race was busy, but I got in some workouts that were good tuneups for the Winter Sun, including some hill work with a focus on downhill running, and a track night workout with a focus for our growing group on the race, which a number of us were scheduled to run. I'd already been to yoga twice during the week, and had planned on laying low Thursday and Friday with all physical activity. As it turned out, I felt the need for some serious stress relief on Thursday, and hit up another yoga class. It was good for me but afterward I did find myself kind of wishing I'd sat on my butt as planned. I was good on Friday, though, resting, and heading down to Moab in the early evening for dinner with Ilana, Kevin and Kevin's wife Nora. Kevin was injured and would not be running, but he and Nora came to Moab to cheer on the many friends they've met via running in our area. This was super cool of them, and Ilana and I were pretty excited to know we'd have friends waiting at the finish. After dinner at Eddie McStiff's, Ilana and I headed back for the rest of the Patented Karah And Ilana Pre-Race Hang®, which consists of a soak in the very hot outdoor hottub at the Gonzo Inn. It has magical pre-race mojo, I'm convinced....or is just really relaxing with the hot water and cold air. We laid out our gear, turned in for the night to rest and prepare our bodies and minds for fast running the next day.
My night of sleep was pretty decent-good enough that I woke up around 5am and couldn't fall back asleep. Ilana must've been doing about the same, because close to 6am she said "Well, I'm up!" We got dressed and I checked the weather for the first time. The temperature was great-cold, not freezing. It was kind of breezy, though, and seemed to be of the headwind variety as it related to our race route. Heading over to breakfast at the Moab Diner, I received the first of several texts from Grand Junction friends requesting point weather forecasts on the drive down. This was amusing, and I really thought my friends shouldn't trust a weather forecast from a woman who said "hey, it's not snowing after all" just seconds before the 2009 Rim Rock Marathon snow squall. I was getting excited that so many local were here or en route. After breakfast, we headed over to the high school, mingled for awhile, checked out the entry lists, and got on the first round of buses to the start.
Stepping off the bus (or, large passenger van in our case), the wind had picked up noticeably. Really? C'mon. I was not excited about this. I don't ever remember Moab being particularly windy, and I thought we'd met our wind quota for the year at Canyonlands back in March. This was going to be somewhat of a factor today. The temperature was still perfect, though. We hung out near fire barrels, chatting with other runners. Some time while we were here, I got a text from a friend informing me that Olympic Trials runner Megan Lund was entered. I kind of laughed to myself knowing that running to win this race was off the table now, texting back that I'd have to see how long I could run fast enough to keep her in my sights.
As race time drew near, Ilana and I got in some warmup time. I wasn't quite as springy as I'd felt in the prior year when I ran my 10K PR, but wasn't feeling crappy either. I wasn't too worried about it; I have never tended to be someone who feels great in warmup. We stripped off our outer layers about 15 minutes pre-race, lined up about 5 minutes pre-race, and saw that other than Megan Lund, it looked like what I call Hardworking Midpackers Delight in the womens race. There was Keith (she's a lady), a great Masters runner from GJ, Annie, a petite 20-something speedster who also teaches at the yoga studio where I've been practicing, and another woman I didn't recognize lined up near the front. The the front of the pack in the mens race was clearly going to be very fast, with no easy pick for the winner like Megan on the ladies side. Race director Ranna gave her traditional greeting to all of us, and then the countdown was on. The starting gun sounded, and off we shot.
Right away, I had a problem. I was using a newer model Garmin Forerunner with the bezel, and I am NOT a fan of it at all. I'm a simple person and liked my old-school, 1970's calculator watch Garmin 205. Sure, it's big and ugly, but I never had issues with basic functions before it decided to fry itself. Somehow, I'd touched something funny on the bezel and brought up a graph of some sort. Oh well. Guess I wouldn't have splits or time during the race today. It was just going to be one big surprise at the finish with regard to my time. After two 5K's now without a watch, it didn't throw me off one bit, and was almost a relief to know that I'd be focusing entirely on how I felt, and on racing my competitors.
Running away from the golf course start, there was already a medium sized pack of men ahead and beginning to string out, and I could see Megan up there too. I immediately charged ahead, running second woman from the start. This felt realllllly fast but I went with it. There were several men from our track group in the lead group, and they were looking strong as they forged ahead.
Coming into the second mile, I was starting to pay for that too-fast start. I was kind of nauseous, could feel my heart rate out-of-control, and naturally slowed down. If anything, I wish I had Garmin data to see my split on that first mile because I know it was much faster than I had any business going. Soon, the masters-age-looking woman I didn't recognize passed me. Next, Annie passed me. Then, Keith passed me, saying something encouraging, but I can't quite remember what it was now. I knew I had to find my reset button, settle my body back down, and find a pace I could sustain all the way through.
As we hit the one big hill on the course, Ilana was now creeping past, and looking good. Dropping four slots within a mile was not part of my plan but it was still pretty early. I kept my cool, relaxed, and shortened my stride. After getting up the big hill, I felt like I was getting myself together again. No one else had passed me, and I seemed to be pacing pretty evenly with a couple of guys. Megan was long gone, but I could see the other four ladies. I was still in this.
Hitting the halfway point on the course, I was-dare I say it-starting to feel stronger, more competitive, and less nauseous. The headwind, though, was quite noticeable. I was not digging it at all. It helped to employ a strategy I'd been taught to use recently, though, and brought my gaze down to just a few feet in front of me, focusing on running in the now, and not on down the road, or putting my face up in that wind. I saw Keith move past Annie up ahead, and I was now making up some ground on Annie. Ilana had moved past Keith and Annie but was behind the unfamiliar masters woman.
As I reached the four mile point, I felt like I was in a good rhythm, and dialing in to that sweet spot on pace where I was slightly nauseous but still able to breathe well and turn the legs over quickly. I was really close to Annie now, and eventually caught up with her, running side by side for a bit. I said "let's hold off the other ladies back there!" and a minute or two later, I started inching ahead. I was getting pretty close to Keith now. Turning off the main road and into a residential neighborhood, I flew ahead, trying to catch her, and any other runners I could pass. We ran the road for a bit, and then made the awkward zig-zag around this funny gate at the beginning of the bike path portion of the course. I'd always felt clumsy here, but I think the track workouts and running into turns helped a bit this time, as I didn't feel as if I was going to hit the gate or stumble.
This last section of the course is not so much physical to me as it is an exercise in mental fortitude and stick-to-it-ness. For some reason, there are always people who start dropping like flies on the bike path and in the final stretch before the infamous track lap. It's slightly downhill, so it can be a great opportunity to pour it on and get some help from gravity near the finish. I reached the Taiko drummers, and got a real bump out of the festive atmosphere there. The drummers are a staple at The Other Half and Canyonlands, but had not appeared on the residential neighborhood course until about two years ago when we were pleasantly surprised by three or four drummers. This year, it seemed to be the entire Taiko Dan with a ton of kids and families there as well. I flew threw the party scene, determined to do as much passing as possible in the home stretch. I could see Ilana ahead, crossing the bridge, and saw her look to see who else was coming. Keith was just ahead of me, and when she turned on the bridge too, it was clear she didn't know I was back there. She started pushing harder, and I started pushing harder to stay with her.
The bike path made its final turn underneath a bridge/through a little tunnel, and then climbed up to the sidewalk. Soon, we were on the final stretch, coming down the road to enter the track for our final lap. I'd never turned around to see where Annie was, and wasn't about to now. I also didn't know if any other runners were sneaking up on me, and just laid it all out there. Keith was flying now and I wasn't going to get her today. I entered the track and saw Nora, who hollered and cheered for me. Tucking the head, I rounded the corner and pushed as hard as I thought I could go. I saw another friend from track group/track night at half a lap to go, and he yelled "Push, push, PUSH!" at me. Somehow I found one more gear and cranked it up some more. I wanted to hurl but I was SO close, and kept going at this pace.
Turning the last corner for home, I got my first look at the time clock. It was not going to be a PR at all, but I was cruising to what would be my second fastest of five runs at the Winter Sun. I could also see that I was not going to be caught by anyone at the finish, and had held on to that fifth female slot for more than four miles after that too-fast start, and brief fade in the second mile. I didn't let up and hammered through the finish, crossing with a finish time of 43:33. Yes, A PR or something close to it would have felt best, but the rebound after the shaky second mile and momentum build for the rest of the race felt great.
When results came out, I learned that I had indeed finished 1st out of 78 runners the 30-39 women, and 5th out of 342 women overall, marking my second age group win at this race. It wound up being an awesome day on the podium for Grand Junction runners, and runners from our track group in particular. The 30-39 women's podium was a track night sweep, with my friend and Dirty Girl relay teammate Shannon coming in second (I embarrassed her by yelling "Dirty Girl" loudly as she was collecting her medal), and group runner Michelle just behind her. The overall title went to another one of our group newcomers, Jake, and our head cat wrangler at track night and two-time Winter Sun winner Marty took the male Masters title. Shannon's husband Kevin, a Leadville 100 finisher, was fourth man overall and winner of his age group. Keith, Annie, and Ilana (the "Durango Interloper") all won their age groups, and local runner/track grouper Ben also nabbed hardware in the 20-something men. There were also strong finishes and PR efforts from many other locals, and it was just very cool to see all the smiling faces and camaradie in the finish area. Keith joked with me about how "Yeah, you went out way too fast" and how she didn't know she had anyone behind her until that last turnaround. Then there was runner friend Ray declaring that next year, we'd all have to show up at the finish area wearing Snuggies. I'm not too sure about that last idea; at least I've got a year to think about it.
Clockwise from center: Keith (in lime jacket), Me, Shannon, Julie (who placed in women 40-49), Ilana, and Loralie (my frequent high altitude training partner over the summer)
Lastly, this is a fun little video clip shot by Kevin. I really can't thank him and Nora enough for coming out just to cheer on and support the rest of us who were running. His attitude in injury recovery has been great, and having cheering friends at the finish was all the more appreciated in knowing that he would have much rather been running. Oh, and I didn't mention it earlier but Megan Lund did kill the women's field, finishing in 36:xx despite a pit stop halfway through. Watching this video clip, it was cool to see how strong and fast we ladies can be, and admire the speed of one of the best ones around these parts. I don't know who will show up next year, but I'm going to work hard and come back next year aiming for the top of the leader board again.