There we stand; runners staring a long morning in the dusty, rocky, mountainous desert wilderness in the face. The damp soil beneath us already stained the edges of my previously spotless black and white Adidas Bostons. A slight drizzle of the morning gave a chill to the mild spring-like air. Overcast skies threatened our gorgeous views. There was a storm brewing.
“On your marks, get set— GO!!” we heard the race director’s voice boom through the megaphone. Two steps later the current was pushing me along with the sea of hundreds of runners (I’m in yellow/black coming around the turn in the top 10). Fortunately the slight rain was keeping most of the dust from kicking up. A ton of variables were at play with my decision to start out slow, the biggest being the altitude and the 350’ climb in the first mile. What’s the rush? Plenty of time to make up ground. I maintained a steady effort through the first climb and even walked a little to catch my breath. It’s all about maintaining effort, not necessarily pace. Nearing the top I looked over across from my ridge line and could see Arches National Park in the distance. It’s going to be a good day.
The following few miles were sandy ATV or Jeep trails leading down to the junction where the 33k distance (Mike’s race) would take a direct route to towards the finish, while we hung right and went to venture on a whole different loop. I’d been running alongside another young guy, Noah (went on to finish 2nd overall), who was decked out in Salomon gear. Often times the front portion the field is so spread out there isn’t anybody to work or chat with so the company was lovely. Until the first steep climb. In only about a quarter mile, we climbed another 250 feet and he dropped me rather quickly. Living at sea level in a flat-land area doesn’t help much for training hills! He steadily crept away while I hoped the next small pack of guys caught up to keep my company. Before they came into sight there was another long downhill section where I first thought I’d taken a wrong turn!
The course was marked wonderfully with pink/black ribbons. Anywhere you think you could have gone the wrong way, there was a green ribbon hung to direct you elsewhere. The only problem with that is when you’re all alone in the wilderness, you start reconsidering everything you’ve ever known about stoplights and hesitate at turns when there are green flags. The mental struggle was real. And then mile 6 rolls around and we have to start climbing a slick, rocky mountain. 4 miles worth of navigating open rocky areas with sparse trees to hang ribbons on makes for an interesting segment. Having not seen Noah in miles, I’m on my own to efficiently navigate this climb. I peered back from time to time, mostly to see if I had gone the wrong way, but also to see if anyone was coming up to help! It was slow-going and there were lots of almost wrong turns taken. The race advertises that you can really save time by swiftly navigating the course. No kidding! That was not me.
Just about mile 10, nearing the peak of the climb at 5600’, I happen to be sucking wind and look back to see a familiar grizzly man dancing among the rocks… Joe Grant!! (This guy) I’m being chased up a mountain by the guy on the cover of Trail Runner Magazine. There was a moment of terror followed by audible laughter. Thankfully the other side of the climb allowed for a few roadrunner friendly uptempo miles on the downhill, creating a gap in front of the trail giant. Back into 4th place No-man’s land we go.
My Nathan handheld was the perfect size to make it aid station to aid station while still having a little cool water to drop over my head. The light rain persisted making the rock faces slippery at times and the inches of rocky sand thick as oatmeal. From mile 16 until 19 it was a long stretch of slow, winding, sandy trails with a few mud puddles for fun. The gross conditions caused it to feel like molasses. For a few minutes it felt like I may lose my left quad to the extra strain in the soft sand, but the mild cramping turned to fatigue rather than locking up. The Adidas Bostons were performing wonderfully in making it easier on the body. Frustrated and lonely, I trudged on before beginning to climb, once again up a rocky mountain.
A few miles into the climb the pace had noticeably slowed, but it wasn’t associated with my fitness. The lungs and legs felt well under control and the Gu gels were sitting just fine. It was that dang navigating that was causing everything to be halted. It felt like every 100 meters or less I needed to reassess my current path. And on multiple instances needed to trace a few steps back. Momentum just wasn’t a thing. Frustration was nearly setting in as I started catching a few of the back-of-the-packers from the 33k race and was able to key off them a little for direction. As a couple girls were pointing out a flag that I’d run past, I glanced back to notice two guys running pretty hard up the hill towards me. “*EXPLETIVE* Are you serious?!” I hollered. I’d been caught. Two guys moving well, both rocking Altra trail shoes, came cruising up and cut the corner of which I’d taken the wrong direction to jump in front of me. All alone from mile 4 until 25 and this explosion of effort is how I get passed? I don’t think so. I took off after the pair up and down the trail readjusting to the new pace and method of navigation.
One of the guys, Giff, was pretty quiet just tuned into his headphones and pushing hard on the downhills. His flowing beard seemed to power the engine. The other gentleman, Jeason, was a bit more chatty and we started giving each other a hard time about having to race it in to the finish. He was clearly experienced on the course and even warned me before certain obstacles were coming. Jeason was a great guy to have around to relax my frustrated mind and allowed me to focus on running my race. It didn’t seem like he was going to let me run away with it however, nor was he going to be easy to out-navigate the rest of the way. With about 5 miles left Giff and I threw in a little surge to create separation and on the downhill we really started flying. Or that’s what it felt like. Thanks to a lot of the downhill run training this year I was ready to respond to whatever he was throwing my way as far as the speed was concerned.
What came to be the difference was the jumping between rocks. While we acted as projectiles down these rocky faces and series of 3-6’ jumps down and across, it seemed as though his experience in the mountains paid off. The terrain was a different kind of technical than the east coast provides and I watched him start to creep away and out of sight. Despite my best efforts, there was no way to push and catch onto his tail.
The final 2 miles were rugged switchbacks on the side of a cliff. No matter my effort, it always seemed that Giff remained 2 switchbacks ahead of me and Jeason 2 behind me. My quads and knees burned from the downhill pounding on hard surface and I had to keep reminding myself to stay smooth. Only in the final segment were there patches of mud that splashed up to dirty my calfs.
Around the final long turn I enjoyed the final moments in the desert, appreciating the opportunity to explore a new land in the best way I could imagine. My smile must have been shining because Scott Jurek(!!) pointed at me, hollering that it was 200 yards to the finish, and approached me after the race. He made a point to say that I was the only one that looked like they were having that much fun on the final bit of the course, especially of the 55k racers that far up! Apparently everybody else was in the pain cave and all of a sudden he saw this kid in a park coming down the trail.
The finishing arch was a sight for sore eyes. But if it were up to me, I would have opted to turn right around and head back out for more. This adventure was one well worth the 7 hours of travel 4 days straight. The Moab desert is truly one of the more beautiful, challenging areas I’ve had the pleasure of running. The Red Hot 55k is an a excellent event. This race will be one that stands out in my mind as a tremendous test and benchmark of fitness. It’s well organized, all things considered, and I’ll be back to take on the challenging terrain again in the future.
Now all that’s left to do was take the sweaty 7-hours drive back down to New Mexico, eat another burger, shower, sleep, and fly back to the east coast. All the while watching the mountains disappear in the distance from the window seat. Soon, Moab. Soon we will meet again.
Official results: https://results.chronotrack.com/event/results/event/event-25840
Strava race data here: https://www.strava.com/activities/871176514/overview