Monday, February 20, 2012

Soul Meets Body: The 2012 Moab RedHot 55K

Moab RedHot 33K and 55K Finish Area by Eric Hubbs

I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me
And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
And feel, feel what its like to be new

(apropos theme music, since the lead singer from Death Cab for Cutie has since switched his energies from partying and drinking to running, as he explained in this cool interview in the Runners World regular feature "I'm A Runner.")

Moab RedHot week arrived in a big hurry this year. I had grand plans for back-to-back long runs every weekend in preparation, and a general bump-up in mileage to prepare for this race. Training didn't go exactly as planned, but I came into the weekend knowing I'd been smart and backed off at times when it was necessary. I'd logged a long trail run every weekend, and spent nearly all running time on hilly trails, with the exception of weekly track workouts and short distance races. Though I didn't hit them every weekend, there were several back-to-back hard run weekends, and a steady bump-up in time on feet for each week's long run, peaking with a 28 mile run with seven hours on feet and about six hours of actual running time. Heated power yoga/vinyasa yoga 2-3 times a week since last August has been the x factor that's strengthened me physically, and tremendously with the mental aspects of running and racing. On lower mileage and louder background noise in life this year, I carried more calm confidence than I'd ever felt before a goal race.

The week prior brought some worry and uncertainty, with an ankle that was strangely tweaky to the point that it hurt to bear weight at times.After last weekend's race and short trail run, I took two days completely off, and by happenstance wound up doing my only two runs of race week on the same day; an easy, sunny midday run, and the standard Wednesday evening track workout, which was geared toward many of us racing a few days later. Not a conventional or recommended approach, but both workouts felt good and reminded me what decent running felt like without taxing the body.

I swore I'd take the next two days completely off from exercise, but was kind of climbing the walls with excess energy. I'm sure there were more than a few people who wanted me to shut up and calm down at track night....I was in a troublemaking mood. So, I did make one more yoga class on Thursday, conscious that it wasn't the night to incorporate new, more challenging variations to my practice. When Friday came, things just started to flow. The Moab forecast was too amazing to be believed for Saturday, and ride/condo sharing came together pretty seamlessly. There was some pre-race mojo building on the drive over...

(Marty's first attempt...wound up looking like crumpled black tinfoil glued to toenails, resulting in a do-over)

Our crew did packet pickup, dinner, headed back to the condo, juiced (no, not the illegal kind...we fired up the juicer that Elizabeth brought down, and made yummy stuff with fruits and veggies), and turned in for a good night of sleep. Or so we thought; those of us in bedroom two spent an hour or so giggling and commenting about how weird the row of twin beds was, like a college dorm suite or military barracks. We did fall asleep at some point, though, because soon the 5:15 a.m. alarm sounded. Time to get moving.

Sandra's husband Eric was our support crew, and drove us to the starting area at the Gemini Bridges trailhead just north of Moab, grabbing Jen from her hotel en route. Sandra made a race day song mix, which included "Sexy And I Know It," the last song on the running club video year in review for 2011. It's such a silly song but was the right mood and swagger for the day. I'd missed the drop bag dropoff last year, with the truck leaving promptly at 7:15. This time, we were there with plenty of time, and I easily found the pile for aid station #4 at 21 miles, where I would send my bag. I'd added a few items, including socks, sunscreen, an extra shirt, and a visor. After a short warmup with a stop on the red rocks to watch the spectacular sunrise, I knew I was in the zone to run this. As a runner, I am by nature very type-A....goal and pace driven. Over the past two years, I've been exposed to different ways of running, training, and racing, though, and have learned to be better at feeling my pace, and effort. It's been a good shift. I did have some goal times in my head initially, but Marty made the good reminder to run without expectation at the pace I felt I could sustain for some time and see how it felt, rather than running as a slave to my watch which would't help me run faster or slower anyway. I have a hard time going totally zen runner with no watch, but any shift away from constantly checking my pace or doing math to figure out if I am going to make a goal time has yielded positive results and more energy for racing.

As starting time approached, more runners started to file in, lots of familiar faces started to appear for the 55K, including Mike who started the "Ultra Dogs" Facebook group for mostly Western Slope ultra runners, John, who gave me the excellent "smile and have fun" advice at this race last year, Kevin, who had run this every year and finished highly each time, and Victoria AKA Toto, a Fort Collins runner I "knew" from the RWOL forums, but got to meet in person for the first time today. Some of the 33K runners were arriving as well, including Bernie, Kevin's wife Shannon, John's wife Julie, Kathaleen, my oh-dark-thirty running partner Laura, and Elissa, who also teaches at the yoga studio. As the sun rose, the positive energy with the crowd seemed to rise as well. The temperature was perfect, and air quite still. My first experience with this course involved snow, ice, and mud bogs; the second experience had rain and wind. The third time was the charm on the dream forecast. Soon, Chris Martinez, the race director, was giving us the final instructions, holding up the trail flags ("Pink...YES! Blue...NO!"), and we were off to the races.

The RedHot 55K course has about 4100 feet of elevation gain and 4700 feet of loss, starting with an immediate climb. This was very challenging each of the past two years, but today, I could feel right off the bat that I'd done something right in training. I got into a zone where I found a high cadence and relaxed body, and didn't feel like I was clobbering myself from the get-go. I'd been warned to take it easy and relax at first but just felt the urge to push a bit because I felt good, so I did. Cresting the hill after the first mile, I smiled and soaked up the rays from the sun, relaxing and letting the legs turn over at a natural, unforced pace down the hill into the first valley.

The first five miles came and went without me being aware at all of my pace or distance. While I did run with a Garmin, I was ignoring it for the most part, occasionally making sure I was running in a zone that would get me to the 18 mile cutoff prior to 12:30 in the afternoon. The first big turn up to the 55K mile cutoff (33K runners just go straight through, while we take the cutoff for a 14 mile loop) had been rocky and scrabbly the year prior; this year, it had taken the form of smoothed out road. Though there was some pretty steady climbing, it was a fun and varying route, with some scampers and climbs, and some more even and flat-ish sections. Ten miles arrived without any fanfare. Ignoring the watch really kept me running in the now, and accidentally behind the iPod I was going to use to take a few videos freed me up even more to just savor the views and store them up in my mind. Lest anyone believe I was getting too zen and tree-huggy out there, I also had "Sexy And I Know It" running on a continuously repeating loop in my brain. Redfoo with the Big Afro, Animal Print Pants Outta Control.

Somewhere around this point, I picked up with a woman who would be with me for much of the next 18 miles. I never got her name, but she was probably slightly older than me, and a very experienced ultra runner with several 100-mile finishes, including the Leadville Trail 100. I was pretty relaxed, but dialing in to her uber-chill, casual, workmanlike approach to running was great. I mentioned that I was soon running my first 50-miler and thinking about the 2013 LT100, saying it was the same week as my 40th birthday, but that it really wasn't that far off. She said "Oh, you've got PLENTY of time!" It was a chance conversation, but these are the little things that have a big impact when it comes to saying "no, that's silly, I can't do that," and "oh, okay. Take my time, do the work, put in the training. I can do this."

She plugged away at a steady pace, moving with a nice, natural flow and rhythm. I started playing with my own rhythm and flow, and was helped by a frequent reminder by the instructors at our yoga studio to move and flow with intention. I looked for the most natural route across the terrain rather than flattest or most straight line. It allowed me to run in a way that used my whole body evenly, and, dare I say, with a shred of gracefulness rather than trademark on trails for so long.

Cause in my head there’s a greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations

With the 14 mile loop nearing an end, I felt warmed by that glorious sun. The trail started to pitch downward as I headed back toward that 18 mile cutoff, running me toward a spectacular "Red White and Blue" view of the red rocks, the LaSals capped with snow, and the clear blue skies. I did remember that I'd taken about 3:45 to reach the 18 mile cutoff last year, making it easily with a full 45 minutes to spare. Today, I appeared to be on track to be twenty minutes ahead of that mark. Coming back down the steep hill off the loop, I turned right toward the last 16 miles of course, ran through some sand and hit the cutoff point at 3:23. The finish was still a long way off, and I was entering the toughest part of the course. This was also what I consider to be the most beautiful part of the course, and I felt great. I just knew deep down today that I could, and would keep up this pace. I've said it many times, but I am fortunate to live here and have the good health to get to run this stuff. I wanted to make my mark today, knew I'd PR, and was beginning to think about what I'd need to do to finish in under seven hours. I started talking to another runner, and we realized we met each other and ran together for much of last year's race; it was Mindy from Fort Collins. It was pretty cool to see a familiar race face, and that we were pacing faster than we'd run in the previous year.

Climbing straight up for several miles, I eventually hit that aid station #4 where my drop bag was located. The visor had been a random "oh, I guess I will throw that in there too," item, but the sun was so intense that it had been a very fortuitous random pitch into the bag. I'd remembered to slather myself in sunscreen, but this would be great to keep my face cool and protected even more. I had my once-a-year Coca Cola at this aid station, along with a sliver of peanut butter sandwich. I'd been hydrating well, alternating water and Heed, and taking a GU Roctane every hour, and was ready for my little "entering late stages" treat. I didn't hurry myself, but went on my way as soon as the sandwich was gone. The Coke was delicious; I trotted off with a little extra kick in my step, not too far behind the 100-mile lady and another guy.

And I cannot guess what we'll discover
When we turn the dirt with our palms cupped like shovels

We entered a section of the course that had a lot of off-camber slick rock, meandering up and down over and over. There was also a lot more dirt and soft sand this year than I remembered in either of the previous two runs at this race; it wasn't surprising, though, because it's been mild without any massive snow dumps. It was pretty warm and I was really sweating. It felt good, though. That expression about sweat cleansing from the inside is so spot-on, and it kind of feels like a spa treatment when you combine it with the trail dirt.

Around mile 22, things started to change and get a bit rough for me. I had IT band issues as a new runner due to a mileage increase that came too quickly, and running in just one pair of shoes, only on pavement, that were well past their usable life span. It was a distinctive kind of pain that just locked things up from the outside of my knee upward, and I was starting to feel that again on the outside of my right knee. Nooooooo! If this got worse, it was going to be all over; I'd be hiking it in, and painfully. 100-miler lady was a few hundred feet ahead, flowing along, gently criss-crossing in a kind of skiing motion down the slick rock. It made sense for me to try this to avoid pounding on my downhill (right) leg at the same angle. Amazingly, this seemed to help decrease that IT band twinge. I was feeling a little mentally off my game here, though. I just kept moving along, one leg in front of the other, and tried to flow with purpose. I was reminded of another thing we hear at yoga pretty frequently: "Play Your Edge." My edge between not challenging myself enough, and pushing too hard/hurting myself was the criss-crossing skitter downhill, and giving a little push on the uphills, which were feeling surprisingly good.

Finally, around mile 25, I reached a point where the IT band twinginess subsided, and focus came back. I was sort of all alone at this point in the race last year, but this time around, there were always a few people in front of, or behind me. Hitting the marathon point, 26.2 miles, I did check my watch, and noted that I was 22 minutes ahead of my pace in the same spot a year ago. I'd lost a little bit of the cushion from my time ahead at the 18 mile cutoff but not much...and this had been over the steepest part of the course.

Moving toward the final aid station, I talked with 100-mile Woman and Other Guy, eagerly anticipating my last stop for Coca Cola before the finish at aid station #5. Other Guy was very excited about the Coke too, and it became the "Run To the Coke" section before the "Run to the Beer" section before the finish. We hit the 28 mile aid station, and I looked around...Other Guy could see me looking too and we realized before I even asked that they were out of Coke. Egads. Okay, not crucial physically, but I'd SO been looking forward to it. Oh well. I thanked the aid station workers and headed out, on a mission now to get through the last six miles with a good push. There were a few climbs remaining, and then I hit a nice flat section just before the descent. Here's where all that track time for the past few months kicked in and did its thing. I started cruising relaxed through here, thinking 100 Mile Lady and Other Guy would be coming along. To my surprise, I dropped them and never saw them again during the race. I saw one other runner here and passed him pretty easily before starting to drop down sandy, rocky trails toward the finish along the river.

At 32 miles, I could see that I might be on track for a sub-7 hour finish until I realized, no, this borrowed Garmin has autopause set. I probably wasn't going to make it, but I'd tricked myself into thinking I could for the past hour or so. This was a case where it was definitely very good to have that thing on my wrist. Still, I knew I'd had very short stoppage times at the aid stations, eating and drinking what I'd needed without lollygagging. Who knows. I might be close...I need to push for it, I told myself.

And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too

I got another amazing "Red White and Blue" view again here that nearly made me cry for joy. It was the Canyonlands off in the distance, the snowcapped mountains, and blue skies. was something else.

I was getting tired but felt different than last year when I couldn't have gone a step further after 34 miles. If you'd surprised me here and said "you have to run 40 miles today," I think I could have done it. It would have been ugly, but do-able. I channeled it all into making the most of the last two miles, increasing my cadence as the jeep road switched back down the hill toward the river. With less than a mile to go, I was smiling but putting out every last bit of "umph" I had in me. I passed someone who yelled "looking good! Love your shorts (My rainbow striped Ocean Pacific shorts over tights)! You're almost there!" In the midst of all this beauty, I still had Sexy And I Know It playing over and over in the head. Sometimes, you get a song stuck in the brain and it's best to just let it keep playing instead of fighting it. It kept me distracted at times when I was able to use it to block out pain and fatigue, and made me giggle at the absurdity of that song as my race day mantra.

I thought I had more ground to cover, but turning the curve I saw that I WAS there...just a few more hundred yards. I heard a few "Go Karah!"'s and realized my friends had spotted me, and skittered through the rocks and down the road as quickly as I could. I was there, I was in, and done. I was grinning and filled with joy. I wasn't sure what my official time looked like, but it would be a solid PR for sure.

The first person I saw at the finish was Toto, and I talked to her for a few minutes.

Although she said she'd "blown up," she'd run a rock solid 5:50. The next thing I did was grab my soup in a bread bowl and beer, and then checked out the results. I wanted to see how our fast local guys had done. My eyes popped and my smile got bigger when I saw that Kevin, not a sponsored athlete but definitely a dark-horse possibility to win, had won the whole thing, and in hammer dropping fashion with five minutes separating him from the second place runner. He's one of those guys who loves to train and work hard, is somewhat introverted when you first meet him, and not one to talk about his awesome, so this was super cool to see his name atop the results page. I talked briefly with several other friends who raced or came down that day to watch the finishes and celebrate, and pulled up some chair by Julie, John and Kevin to finish my soup and beer. Everyone had a great run, but Kevin obviously had the best of all. When I asked about his race, I learned that he had not been in the lead to start, but executed well throughout and drew on stuff like his experience on this course, track background and weekly track to log the win. A sweet victory for a deserving guy.

Bernie, Masters Winner/New Course Recordholder in the 33K, and Kevin, 55K Winner

I was starting to shiver a little, and headed down to Eric's car to change into dry clothes. I was worried I might miss Sandra's finish but she wasn't in yet, and trotted up the trail a bit with Ben who had come down following 5K and 10K races in Fruita that morning. We staked out a spot where they'd apparently been watching for each of us earlier, where there was a clear view up the switchbacks. We thought we saw her coming but we weren't sure. I knew she'd planned to change into a lucky shirt when she reached her drop bag but unfortunately I didn't think to ask ahead of time which shirt it was. Then, we did see her make her way around a curve at around the eight hour mark. Leila ran up to greet her excitedly.

We chased down after her, and after never slipping, stumbling or falling on the race course, I nearly took myself out trying to run in Crocs with a camera in one hand and a beer in the other. Classy. Good times. I made a total recovery, though, and we made it to the finish area to celebrate Sandra losing her ultra running virginity.

Getting some love from the soup in a bread bowl and beer table guy

Chatting it up with Ben, who was one of several friends who came down to catch the finishes and join the postrace celebration after racing in Fruita that morning

Getting to enjoy the finish with her hubby and our crew guy Eric

The rest of the day was just about hanging out and celebrating everybody's efforts on the course. We all made it to the Eddie McStiff's afterparty (my first time attending), and it appeared that anyone still in town after the race was there. Our entire Grand Junction group was there, and it was a neat opportunity to mingle with other runners. The free beer and snacks were pretty sweet as well.

All in all, the race was a great success for me. My final time wound up being a few minutes over seven hours at 7:06, but it was a 32 minute PR with a strong finish. I think that knowing better how to train for these things, and with next year being my potential third run at this race, another half-hour PR is entirely in the cards. The outside of my right knee is definitely a little whispery, so I am staying off of it for any running this week. I have, however, logged two yoga classes and two short and easy hikes to keep the active recovery moving along. Next up? Local stuff, and, not surprisingly, another trip to Moab. I will just enjoy this week off from running now, though, and will get crack-a-lackin' on resuming training for my spring season's big race, 50 miles in my own backyard in April with a bunch of dirty Desert Rats.

1 comment:

L.A. Runner said...

Excellent job! This RR made me excited a for my 2nd 50K in just a few weeks. :) Hope your ITB feels better soon!