Distance: 32.4 miles
Weather: Sunny and cool
The Moab Red Hot 50K had it all...snow, mud, slickrock, trails, jeep roads, ATV tracks and cross-country stretches. And, it had a fair bit of ups and downs, and not just as it relates to the terrain.
The race start was at the Gemini Bridges trailhead across Highway 191 from Arches National Park, on a snowy, cold jeep road. John S., Scooter and I arrived about an hour early, picked up our race packets and quickly retreated to the warmth of the car. As I wandered around later trying to decide what to wear for the race, I managed to miss the pre-race briefing. Fortunately, John S. picked up the most salient point: pink good; blue bad. Pink ribbons meant "go this way." Blue ribbons meant "don't go this way." Got it.
Just a bit before the 50K race start (50K started at 8 a.m.; 33K at 8:30 a.m.), the sun finally peeked over the distant La Sal Mountains and began its steady march down the mesa wall above us. It was shaping up to be a beautiful sunny winter day in the desert. Trouble was, at the start, it was butt cold. So, despite John S.' best counsel, I overdressed.
Right at 8 a.m., with Bananarama blaring on the PA system (really...it was almost surreal), the 50K crowd suddenly started running. It was a rather uneventful start. No gun. No guy with a megaphone yelling, "Go!" Or, maybe there was and I missed that too. Nonetheless, we set off running up a well-packed, snow-covered jeep road that climbed gently up through the mesa wall above.
Since this was my first-ever race of this length, my plan was to run conservatively and just let things unfold. Run steady. Walk the steep stuff. Stay on top of nutrition. Finish strong. Even with the aforementioned ups and downs, that's pretty much the way things happened.
After the initial climb, the road descended a bit into a valley before climbing again to the top of the mesa. Here we continued following a relatively flat, snow-covered road, but now the road had few tracks on it. The snow was frozen on top with fine, dry power beneath. Following the fluttering pink ribbons, we soon hung a right onto a completely untracked (save for the 20 or so sets of footprints from the runners ahead of me) ATV path. The snow now became a factor. In some places, the snow was firm enough to run on, in others it gave way and you were up to your ankles in crusty snow. Every now and then, a few patches of red dirt or rocks appeared as islands of running sanctuary.
Before too long, the race route left the ATV path and began to circle around toward the northeast, giving us views down toward Highway 191. Here the snow got deep, calf-deep. I was running and trading positions at this point with a group of four guys. One of us would stop to walk through the deep snow to conserve energy (or ease frustration) and someone would pass. We continued like this for 3-4 miles. This was not fun running. Sure, the scenery was beautiful, especially with the snow against all the red rocks, but in places it was a slog. Thankfully, the front runners had broken trail (and the crust) and we were able to follow in their footsteps.
Finally, the race route dumped us back onto the jeep trail we'd turned off of and we ran south for a good bit on a nice flat two-track, which alternated between dry dirt, mud and snow. Before too long, and after an aid station, the road descended a bit and led us through a beautiful area with some gentle climbs and descents. Here I met up with a guy from Denver. We ran together for a bit and he shared a bit of beta on the San Juan Solstice 50. As the course climbed toward slickrock, I slowed down to conserve some energy and to stop and quickly slap some moleskin a couple of hot spots on my left foot and let the guy go.
I think in this part of the course, we were following the Golden Spike jeep trail, which was marked using white dashes painted right on the rock. Here the running was tough, given all the rock and off-camber slopes. Route finding in here was a bit challenging. Several times I had to stop to look around for the next pink ribbon. Still, I held a fairly steady pace and made it through this long stretch in decent shape and with the four guys generally in sight.
After the slickrock section, the course turned flat again and we raced across a wide-open scrubby area with views in every direction. There was some mud through this part, but not bad. I set a steady pace and focused on reeling in the runners ahead of me I could see. Over the next three miles or so, I picked off three runners, including the Denver guy.
I knew from reading others' race reports that this stretch of road took runners to the edge of the Poison Spider Mesa, where we would begin our descent down to the Colorado River and the race's finish at the Poison Spider trailhead. So, I knew downhill awaited. That was the good news.
The bad news was that just where the trail was to begin its descent, I went off course. I followed the last two runners I had in my sights during the preceding road run. They hung a right, following a few footprints and I followed suit. I remember starting to get a feeling that this wasn't right. Not enough footprints, no pink ribbons. Sure enough, after three minutes or so, I saw the two guys coming back toward me. Off course.
I was pissed. I'd been in a groove...making up time...steadily reeling in guys. I quickly turned around and returned to the last pink ribbon. I ran into the Denver guy again here and asked him which way (he'd run the race a couple of times). We were joined by the other two guys right as the Denver guy spotted pink ribbons over and below the small rise in front of us.
I took off first, fighting the frustration of time lost. I now had that same feeling I'd heard others articulate feeling after they went off course. It knocks you off your game...sends your head somewhere not-so-nice...not-so-productive. And, to top it off, I felt lousy about passing those two guys just because they'd gone a bit further off-course than I did. Not the way I wanted it to go...like I didn't earn it.
What can one do, though? I just kept running. The terrain quickly got more interesting as the course dropped down through some narrow washes. I was running at a good clip, determined to put some distance between me and the other guys. A couple of them looked to be about my age, and I wanted to do as well as possible age group-wise. Then, I did it again. I lost the course.
The race course went right down one wash, I went left down another. After a minute or two, I realized my mistake and turned around and ran back uphill and found the proper course just as a runner went by. The Denver guy and the other two runners now were again ahead of me.
At the bottom of a particularly steep little descent in this area was an aid station. Since I was running with a Nathan hydration pack, I blew through this aid station -- as I had done at all but one of the others -- leaving the three guys behind. Being ahead of them now felt a little more legit.
Now back running on slickrock, I could see two more people ahead, one woman and one guy that clearly was in my age group. After a bit, I passed the woman, then the guy. The guy asked me "how much further?" That question lifted my spirits. He appeared done. There were still six or seven miles to go.
Somewhere in here we started passing the tail-end of the 33K runners. I don't know where they joined up, but the other runners were a welcome sight, since they provided mini-objectives as they appeared ahead. Ahhh...another runner to catch. Everyone was in great spirits, calling out "good job" and "keep it up" as I went by.
I was now determined to make damn sure I didn't get caught from behind. I just kept a focus on moving as quick as possible.
At long last, I heard cheering...a voice from below. It was JP, CP and John S. shouting from about 100 feet and several long serpentine switchbacks below. Seeing them lifted my spirits and put some badly needed energy into my increasingly sore and tired legs.
I ran by them with a big smile (almost finished!) on my face, crested a small rise and saw the finish ahead. I cruised in alone in 5:16.
After fueling up on race-provided potato-leek soup and bread and Coke, we headed back to town to clean up.
Eager to know who won and where I placed, I left the crew in town and headed back to the race finish for the award ceremony. I saw several folks and award winners whose names I recognized...i.e. Keri Nelson, Karl Meltzer. I ended up in 18th place (at least according to my count...the race results are not provided in an overall list. It's broken down by male/female and non-masters/masters). And, to my great surprise I ended up in third place in the men's masters division. For that I got a trophy, a $35 gift certificate to wildernessrunning.com and a La Sportiva running hat. Made my night...hell, it made my year.
Overall, I really liked this race. Yeah, it's a tough course to follow (especially for the front runners) in spots since some of it is run across rocks and doesn't always follow a clearly-defined trail. Still, the aid stations were well-stocked, the volunteers were really supportive, the race food was fine and the vibe was positive, fun and low-key. I'd definitely run it again. My one criticism, other than a gentle nudge to keep improving course marking, is to get results posted on the race Web site more quickly. I only found the results (below) via a link on Karl M.'s site.
Final results here.
We spent the rest of the long weekend hanging in Moab with a great set of friends (complete with 13 kids between us), hiking in Arches National Park and Slickrock, eating great home-cooked food and drinking Colorado beer. A perfect weekend.
Thanks to Scooter for the first three pics!