Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Race Report: Desert R.A.T.S. 50-Miler - My First Ultra

The Desert R.A.T.S (Race Across The Sand) Festival in Fruita, Colorado was started in 2003 (originally the Spring Desert Ultra, or SDU, as it's still affectionately named) with a 25-mile race (in almost a single loop) and a 50-mile race (in which one follows the 25-mile course, then its reverse). Dave had been encouraging me to forego Greenland Trail this year and try the SDU instead. It happened to fall somewhere on the uphill climb towards Kettle in June, and I figured it would let me know if I was worthy of such extended distances. I naively registered for the 50-miler and was confident my training would come together in kind. But in the closing days before the festival, I found myself approaching my first ultra with increasing apprehension and downright fear. After all, I had run my previous longest distance only five weeks earlier at the Salida Trail Marathon and had since logged a piddly 80 miles of training. Suffering terrible heat-related mishaps in previous warm-weather events left me skittish over the predicted temperature highs in Fruita, which increased incrementally on a daily, or even hourly basis into the high 70s the week before the race. Also, I had been noticing some pain in my left forefoot, most likely from the XT Wings, which have seemingly sacrificed some width to allow for a more beefy shoe. And mentally, I just couldn’t picture myself gutting out those extra 24 miles. Was I too optimistic when building this year’s race calendar, or would my ‘at-least-my-body-is-well-rested’ excuse prove to save my sorry butt once again? I would soon find out.

It was late Friday morning when Dave, Jamie Dawson and I met at the Wooly Mammoth parking lot off of I-70, near Morrison. They piled their gear, including an ample stock of chilly microbrews, into the back of my Outback for a 4-5-hour trip. The I-70 corridor was enjoying a rare cloudless sky as we sped towards Fruita, just a few miles northwest of Grand Junction. I was fortunate that Dave had booked a room at the La Quinta months ago, and he was more than willing to let me crash on its second bed. Jamie and the rest of Dave’s training group of fifteen were also staying at the hotel. Friday night we enjoyed a Mexican dinner with a portion of this group, all of whom were running the 25-miler the following day. I joked with them about beer IVs and leaving a pretty corpse. Finally, one asked me if I was nervous about running the 50, and I responded with a relieved ‘Yeah’, as if my demeanor could no longer keep up the upbeat fa├žade.

That night I tried to sleep with the notion of a DNF permeating my every thought. I forcibly banished those negative images and instead pictured myself pulling it off. Despite the paucity of mileage, I had made some preparations for the race: I started taking salt caps regularly a few days before the event; I looked up last year’s results, picked an upper-mid-pack finisher, and wrote his splits on my handheld as a reference; I prepared serving-size amounts of my favorite drink powder (Vitalyte) and fuel (Cran-Razz Shot Bloks); and, in addition to my usual playlist of Podrunner mixes, I set up a series of songs on my iPod that I knew would inspire me if I was having trouble.

I had also set some loosely-specific goals for myself. I’ve seen other runners do this, and thought it was a great way to stay positive in a race by mentally checking off each goal. These were (in order of increasing difficulty): 1) Complete the first loop, 2) Finish the race, 3) Finish in the top 20, 4) Finish in the top 15. That’s as far as I was willing to go.

The morning arrived quickly as the fuzzy 4:45 on the alarm clock came into focus. Dave was upbeat as usual, and we each performed our race day preparations with nervous excitement. I wisely decided to run in my Salomon XA Pro 3Ds instead of the XT Wings today.

The starting line was just outside the tiny berg of Mack, Colorado, short of the Utah border, and we appeared to be one of the later groups to arrive. I adjusted my gear and cued up my iPod to start off with the ‘Feelgood’ playlist, while throwing a stick for a fellow-runners dog. Dave came over to wish me luck, and he, Jamie and I lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack. The race timer counted off the seconds, and then we were shuffling southeast down a dirt road. The road began to climb, ending at a fenceline after about a mile, then reduced to singletrack (called the Moore Fun Trail) for the next five miles, until the first aid station at about six miles. I decided to take it easy on this first leg and even stopped a couple times to get some photos. However, something had caked up the lens on my BB, and the photos turned out cloudy. It would be the last time I used it (hence the lack of pics in this post). I walked most of the uphills in this section, patiently allowing runners to pass me as necessary. The remaining mile or so into the first aid station was mainly downhill, and I started passing runners who were putting on the brakes in the cobbly terrain. I looked ahead briefly to see Dave, a strong downhiller, stuck behind a block of tentative descenders. Seconds later he broke free and was pulling away quickly. I met up with him at the first aid station and we ran the next few miles together. Also at this time, I caught up to Chris Boyack, who had finished only a few seconds behind me at Salida. I knew we would be seeing more of each other as the day wore on. At Mile 7, we reached the start of about three miles of trail along the sandstone rim of Horsethief Canyon above the Colorado River. I felt great. The trail hugged the edge of the canyon, darting eastward into several slot canyons. These little offshoots were deceiving in that you were within a stone’s throw of a runner on the opposite side but may be a half-mile or more behind them. I remember smiling as I ran past the race photographer as Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’ blasted in my earbuds. Now I knew what Dave was talking about.

About midway through this ribbon-like section, I was faced with an entirely foreign dilemma – I had to pee. This was the first time ever in a race and I wasn’t sure where the appropriate spot should be - Behind that bush? Just off the trail? What are the rules here? Finally, I came across a re-entrant and scrambled up to a healthy juniper to unload. I could hear the muffled slapping of feet as at least five or six runners clipped by. I reemerged to join the traffic, just a few steps behind Dave. I had earlier assumed he was in front of me when in fact he had also been off answering nature’s call.

The rim portion of the trail would intersect two more aid stations (Pizza Overlook at 9.1 miles and Crossroads at 12.2) before the long haul through Salt Creek Valley. I began to push a little harder, testing my limits as the morning’s gentle breeze lofted cool air from the Colorado. I was downing three S-Caps an hour by now, and pounding the Shot Bloks. I was filling my handheld at every aid station and mixing in the Vitalyte servings each time. I also had a half-full hydration bladder in my HPL#020, which I alternated with the handheld. Water, salt, Shot Bloks, Vitalyte – this four-course meal seemed to be working well, for now.

Shortly before the Troybuilt aid station (Mile 19.2), I caught up to Jamie. By now I had emptied my hydration bladder and had the volunteer refill it halfway. I also started adding items from the buffet table to my regimen (another new frontier) – bananas, at first.

Jamie and I began the slog up Mack Ridge. This was a two-track, cobbly ‘road’ that appeared to have recently been crudely graded. It was a climb for about two miles with some brief downhill sections. At Mile 21 the trail began to descend, and I knew this was to be the final drop into the end of the first loop. At about Mile 23 I passed 50-miler frontrunners Allen Belshaw and Ryan Burch on their second pass through the course. Those guys were really hauling ass!

Finally, I was back on the dirt road within a mile of the start line and 50-mile turnaround. I passed a runner who appeared to be struggling to knock off those last few hundred yards. He looked familiar, and the instant I recalled who he was, I heard my name from behind, ‘Kirk!’ I turned around, ‘Jorge! How are you doin’, man?’ Jorge was in Dave’s training group, and I had just met him at dinner the night before. He was suffering from severe cramps (and I heard later he had been dealing with them for the last nine miles). I encouraged him to keep running and not to stop, as it appeared that he was in a great deal of pain, which would only intensify the longer he was on the course. I verbally poked him along and said that I wouldn’t leave him behind. Soon he was pulling ahead and then accelerating toward the finish line. ‘Jor-ge! Jor-ge!

I crossed a few seconds behind him and made my way over to my drop bag, restocking the ‘Bloks and scarfing down some items at the aid table. Wow, I had made it halfway! It would be so easy to call it a day and cheer on the 25-milers as they finished for the day. However, there was a niggling voice inside that said I was still running well and quitting now would be a cop out. Off I went. I crossed paths with Dave about a quarter mile out. He looked strong and fast (and would later PR in the 25-miler by 19 minutes!)

I could feel the temps starting to climb as I retraced the terrain I had just covered. I spotted one guy in front of me and one or two behind as I climbed Mack Ridge. For a while, no one seemed to be losing any ground or making gains. That is, until it was time to head back down the ridge. I threw caution to the wind and let myself ‘fall’ on the downhills, catching Sandy White just before the Troybuilt aid station (officially Mile 30.2, but more like Mile 32 according to my GPS). I spent a couple minutes here scarfing down banana fragments and even some potato chips. Sandy left a few seconds in front of me and I was able to catch up shortly thereafter, where we spent the next couple miles introducing ourselves and talking about upcoming races. At around 34 miles, Sandy motioned for me to go ahead because he was starting to ‘not feel that great’. I powered on, keeping an eye over my shoulder to ensure that I was continuing to pull away. I came upon two more runners shortly before Crossroads (38.7). One was limping badly and when asked if he needed anything, he said ‘Yeah, a helicopter!’ The other complained about being ‘chicked’ (passed by a girl) and also did not appear to be in any hurry. All of them joked about the layer of salt that was now encrusting my face (can you use the word ‘encrust’ without mentioning salt? Probably not). Despite my ghostly appearance, I was suffering no heat-related issues whatsoever. However, the gaiter had pulled off of my left shoe and some sand had collected in the shoe or sock. I had to empty it fast because another runner was approaching the station whom I assumed was Sandy. It was Chris. He had pushed the last five miles pretty hard which helped him pass a bunch of runners. He was in and out of the aid station quickly and said, ‘Come on, Kirk!’ motioning me to catch up. I pulled in behind him for a mile or so before the foot started to act up again. I stopped to take a closer look at it, only to discover that it was not sand in my sock, but a blister on the ball of my foot (probably caused by the sand, however). I pulled on the sock and shoe and decided to suck it up.

I caught Chris and then passed him, and we traded spots for a few miles including Pizza Overlook (40.2), where I stopped and once again gorged at the aid table (M&Ms, Coke) before dropping behind Chris again. We were now running the relatively flat section atop Horsethief Canyon. I stayed in Chris’ shadow for the first mile of this leg before pulling ahead yet another time, determined not to waste so much time at the next aid station. I started my descent to the Moore Fun station (Mile 44.1) with another runner in my sights, and when I arrived there the volunteers said that he was a bit incoherent and could be caught easily. With a handful of jellybeans and renewed spirit, I took off after the struggling runner. After a seemingly perfect race I was to make a mistake that would cost me precious time at the finish – I took a wrong turn, not only at a bearing opposite of the actual course, but in the direction of uphill. As I was climbing this offshoot I was searching for shoe prints while convincing myself, ‘This is not the trail. I know this is not the trail!’ I reached a switchback, and turned around to see Chris going the right way, with Sandy on his heels. A couple curse words later I was back on the correct route, realizing I had not only lost two places but a potential third as the runner I had been chasing was now painfully out of reach. Regardless, I shook off the rookie blunder and pressed on. I would later learn that the misturn cost me six minutes and about a half-mile of extra running.

The next couple miles comprised mostly of crawling back up the upturned sandstone slab cradling the Moore Fun trail, and I powerhiked a fair portion of this section, remembering that carefree descent almost 10 hours before. Reaching the top edge of the formation, I began my final descent, first along a short rim overlooking the Colorado before dropping down toward the finish. The wind was blasting over this saddle, and I staggered like a drunk along the brief stretch. Then it was a precipitous plunge to the Moore Fun trailhead. I didn’t want to spoil a stellar 50-miler with a last-minute digger, so I took this segment a bit more conservatively. At last, I was cruising on a dirt road, with the distant glimpse of support tents flapping in a gusty afternoon front. As I was closing in on the finish line, I picked up the faint cheers of the patient few bringing in the 50-milers. I could see Dave making his way to the front, and then Jorge, snapping photos. I had crossed the line in just over 10 hours with a respectable 9th place overall finish.

The next few minutes were a blur as I began to comprehend what I had just accomplished. I didn’t know what to do next. Eat? Drink? Mine the salt on my face? Not having much time to contemplate the process, I snapped out of my funk long enough to hear the name of the next runner to cross the line – Kirk Apt, the guy whose splits adorned my handheld. In mild disbelief, I made my way over to this previous Hardrock and Leadville winner to introduce myself. ‘Recognize these numbers?’ I asked as he relaxed in a lawn chair. ‘Yeah, those are my splits from last year!’ he exclaimed. We exchanged congrats and I returned to my own recovery under the shade of the support tent, dumbfounded by this incredible coincidence.

I asked Dave to drive back to the hotel as I called Aspen to let her know I was OK. She was well aware of my concern over completing the race and was grateful to hear that I didn’t end up in the ER. Returning to the room, I just wanted to take a shower, order a pizza and get a bit of shuteye. I had hoped to later celebrate with Dave and his friends at a local brewpub, but the short nap became a three hour affair, and I had slept through the awards ceremony. Fortunately, Dave was able to collect my medal (3rd, 35-49 age group), which was yet another surprise.

The next morning we ate a large breakfast and made our way back to Denver, and the four hours in the car gave me a few moments to contemplate my performance and look ahead to longer races. If anything, I was encouraged that an ultra isn’t all about speed – because I don’t consider myself a particularly fast runner – but rather about racing smart.....



....and salt!

Course map, complete with landmarks (Note: May take a bit to load)