Friday, February 22, 2008

Race Report: Moab Red Hot 50K/33K

My first trail race for 2008 was the Moab Red Hot 50K/33K. I chose the 33K because I’m still not up to the ultra distances, and the race was to serve as a bit of a testing ground for longer events on the horizon. The race conveniently coincided with Valentine’s Day, so I booked a couple nights at Moab’s Cali Cochitta Bed and Breakfast, to the delight of my lovely wife. As a contestant in the first Western states trail ultra in 2008, I was excited to see names like Karl Meltzer and Anita Ortiz on the 50K entrants list, and I would later discover a few last-minute elite entries at race time. We hit the road on Friday afternoon, minus unGuy (staying with Grandma and Grandpa) and the dogs (with our neighbors, Gary and Kim).

Upon reaching Utah, I couldn’t believe the amount of snow on the ground, easily the most I’ve ever seen in this desert-like environment. It also lent to some spectacular views as the sun set beyond the Colorado Plateau. We pulled into Moab around 6:45 and proceeded immediately to the Musical Festival office to pick up the race packet. Before heading to the B&B, I wanted to check out the race start to see how much snow remained after a mild winter day. We drove about 10 miles north of Moab to the Gemini Bridges trailhead and picked our way up the slope through about three inches of slush, which would guarantee to freeze into a crunchy shell by morning. We also popped over to the race finish, where the south-facing terrain slightly eased my apprehensions about finishing on a downhill section. Finally returning to the Cali Cochitta, we settled into our room, where I performed my pre-race ritual of organizing my gear for the next day. I also set the alarm for 4:30 to stir me out of sleepytime long enough to eat a small breakfast. I slept well on each side of that first alarm.

The next morning was crispy and clear as we motored to the race start. The parking was scarce, and it appeared that we were one of the last to arrive, even though it was an hour before start time. I slipped out of the car to stretch, then made my way toward the masses, subtly assessing the competition and their apparel. Some were bundled up for a Yukon expedition, carrying backpacks and handhelds, while others were down to tank tops and shorts. I was somewhere in the middle, with a tech tee and shorts, handheld and Nathan hydration vest (minus the bladder). I had also rigged up the iPod to spin Podrunner podcasts in increasing BPM and carried my Blackberry to snap photos along the way. The 50K event was to start at 8:00, and the 33K at 8:30, and I stood with the 50K-ers as the course directions were broadcast by Race Director Chris Martinez. Kurt appeared next to me and we chatted briefly. He was still getting over a cold and planned on a subdued effort. Once the announcements concluded, the runners began to collect near the starting line. It was then I recognized Karl, along with 2007 Leadville Trail 100 winner Tony Krupicka and his pacer (and trail demon in his own right) Kyle Skaggs. I smiled in amusement as these faster runners stood at the line, separated from the rest of the group by an invisible 20-foot buffer. A fan asked them to pose for a picture, alerting others who weren’t in the know that these guys were trail celebrities. Soon the countdown began, and the runners were off; Tony and the gang taking quick possession of the lead. I returned to the car, ate a Powerbar and talked to Jim Sparks, who was parked next to me. He was very affable (although he reminded me a bit of Charlie Manson). We talked about injuries and races in common (Pikes Peak, Imogene), and wished each other luck in the 33K. By now, Aspen had left the confines of a warm vehicle, and we proceeded back to the starting line. Again, the RD barked out race directions, stating that the course was well-flagged, with pink ribbon showing where to go and red indicating off-course conditions. As I turned toward the direction of go, I felt the essence of speed surrounding the insanely skinny Anna Pichrtova, as she took her place in front of the rest of the runners along with Venezuelan runner Ramiro Paris (now a Boulder resident). The countdown ensued, and we were on our way. I hung in the middle of the pack for the first couple hundred yards or so, then began overtaking runners on a short climb, tiptoeing through the icy areas, and feeling quite strong. The climb was followed by a long descent, almost three miles on a two-track dirt road. At the peak I figured I was in about 7th or 8th place, but I got caught up in the moment and stuck to a pace I knew I couldn’t sustain for long. A runner I had passed on the uphill overtook me during this time, but I was able to otherwise maintain my position for the next several miles. At the 4.4-Mile aid station, we turned left to climb up to the ridgeline overlooking the entrance to Arches National Park. The 50K runners had turned right to complete an out-and-back to pick up an extra 17K then would return to this point to join the remainder of the 33K course.

The climbs were mostly slickrock, and I walked only the steepest sections. I was passed quite easily by another runner who appeared to be out for a morning stroll. I would later overtake him as he couldn’t maintain such a brisk pace. The course flirted briefly with the ridgeline, then descended, only to repeatedly return to the cliffs as runners traveled south. A female runner caught up to me, and for a while we helped each other through some sections that were poorly marked. Once the course pointed downhill after the Mile 8 aid station, I had to drop back, as my knees couldn’t handle that kind of punishment.

Tom's catching up!

Another runner, Tom Conner, caught me, and we spent the next 6 or 7 miles together, taking turns in the lead, while the other spotted the course markers. At one point around Mile 11, Tom stopped in his tracks with painful calf cramps, and I offered him an S-Cap. That seemed to temporarily keep the cramps at bay, as Tom pulled ahead for the rest of the race. I caught him briefly at the Mile 15 aid station, but by then I knew I wouldn’t be able to overtake him.

The remaining 5 miles consisted of dirt two-track road comprising the Golden Spike, briefly interrupted by steep slickrock benches. I occasionally looked behind me to make sure I wouldn’t be caught by any second-wind runners on this last stretch. Soon I began to pass hikers and other tourists, cheering me on as the last few miles came to a close. I was cruising at this point. My heart rate had dropped considerably, and I focused on my breathing and staying in sync with the iPod. The last half mile or so consisted of a precipitous drop full of doll’s head-sized cobbles strewn across red dirt. I was cutting a tangent on one of the switchbacks when suddenly I tripped and hit the ground hard, sending my calves into excruciating spasms. I screamed out loud as the cramps slowly released their hold long enough for me to stand and continue, and the pain subsided once I started moving again. The finish line came into view, as did Aspen, who was trying to get some action shots amidst the spectators and hikers. I crossed the line at 3:06:55, fast enough for 9th place overall and 3rd Masters. Tom was there with his wife and family, and we exchanged congrats and stood for a photo (Tom was 8th overall, 2nd Masters).

The post race food consisted of corn soup in a bread bowl, and at any other time this would have been a treat, but the only thing I could stomach was good ol’ H2O. I offered Aspen my share, and she wantonly accepted. We hung around for the 33K awards ceremony, which netted me a plaque and a 4.5-lb keg of Cytomax. The plaque was like nothing I had ever seen before, and difficult to describe with words. Picture a piece of sheet metal folded over and then the front of it etched out with a laser to create the silhouette of a runner and some text. I was grateful to receive such a unique award.

We returned to the B&B, where I showered while Aspen relaxed in a hammock in the backyard. The temps were in the 50s, just enough to taste of summer on this clear day. We drove back out toward the race finish, but continued on to a town called Potash, which was actually just a huge salt processing plant. The road circled expansive settling ponds until finally dumping us at the edge of Canyonlands National Park. We chose to return at this point, taking several pictures of a balancing boulder that begged to be dislodged from its tenuous perch.

Back at the Cali Cochitta, we rested briefly, then walked to Eddie McStiff’s for dinner and subsequent after-hours party. Dinner left me with a pleasantly-satiated feeling, ready to absorb whatever alcohol was being dispensed at the party. We entered a room reserved for the race entrants, and I quickly made my way to the tap, filling my red party cup with a nice amber micro. We asked to share a table with Mark Muehlethaler, not knowing he was with Anita Ortiz and Katie Mazzia, whom I had met the week before. Soon we were sinking beers and margs, snickering at the unusual Utah liquor laws and gabbing about races upcoming and past. At the table next to us were Tony, Kyle and Karl and their mates, enjoying the subtle air of exclusivity. I had hoped to introduce myself, but the opportunity just never came about. Kurt joined us after a while, and I was happy to see that Tom also made an appearance.

9:30 rolled around, and both Aspen and I were halfway to bed. We said our farewells and walked back to the B&B, crawled under the blankets, and quickly succumbed to a restful sleep. The next morning we devoured our home-cooked breakfast and hit the road, hoping to take a short scenic detour around the nearby La Sal Mountains. However, the scenic byway was not meant to be. We didn’t have a map and were going by the directions provided by one of our hosts, resulting in a detour completely devoid of any mountain or snow cover. The route slipped us into Colorado about 120 miles south of Grand Junction, placing us at the Eisenhower Tunnel at, you guessed it, 3PM, where we sat in gridlock in almost the same location as a week before.

Fortunately, traffic on the other end of the tunnel was light, and we got to see unGuy sooner than expected.

To summarize the experience in a few words, the Masters’ placement was a nice surprise. Sometimes it’s good to be an ‘old’ guy.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Screw Them Shoes!

I’ll be getting to my Moab Red Hot 33K performance shortly, but I first wanted to bring up the concept of screw shoes. These are a pair of ordinary-looking running shoes fitted with a series of sheet metal screws. The screws help runners through the late winter season when the snow melts during the day and turns to ice on cold nights. The most thorough description of this process can be found on Matt Carpenter’s informative site. I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks and keep forgetting until I’m dressed for a run and don’t want to take the time to mess with my shoes. However, I’ve paid dearly with increasingly painful falls. I was doing a recovery run last night at a mellow pace on my usual dirt road route. About four inches of powder had fallen throughout the day, obscuring any hazards underneath. I was almost at the end of the out-and-back when I saw the dogs start to lose their traction. By the time I saw the underlying ice it was too late, and both feet flew out from under me. The fall resulted in two throbbing elbows and a busted headlamp, and I lay there cussing at myself, writhing in pain before gathering my composure and continuing on. One of my dogs, Pickle, showed some innate concern and came over to see if I was OK, not used to viewing her master in this horizontal display. Once I returned to the house, I was horrified to discover that my overshirt was soaked in blood from the right elbow down, and Aspen quickly ushered me over to the kitchen sink, where I hesitantly removed the garment. Fortunately, it was a puncture wound, and my elbow didn’t need stitches, but the sheer amount of blood was a bit disconcerting. Nevertheless, today, as I sit here bumping said elbow on various things in my office, I humbly accept the ‘I Told You Sos’ from my good buddy, Dave, who’s been bugging me to screw my shoes for weeks. I finally get the picture, man.