This weekend Kyle, Jocelyn, and I drove out to stunning southeastern Utah to enjoy the desert weather and do some running amidst the surreal red rock landscape. Simply put, no matter the time of year, it's hard to resist the allure of Moab's canyon country.
I had missed the Rocky Raccoon 100 because of needing to take three weeks completely off from running to heal a shin injury, but with a week of incredibly helpful treatment from the folks at Champion Health and two solid weeks of running under my belt I felt ready enough to go put in a sub-maximal 34 mile effort with Kyle. Much to race director Chris Martinez's credit, he allowed me entry less than a week before the race. I was number 295 at the packet pick-up, so I'm guessing that approximately that number of people started the race. That shows astonishing popularity for a race that is only in its second year.
The entrants list revealed a solid field on both the men's and women's side. Karl was back to defend last year's win, as was a much more fit version of last year's runner-up, Torrid Torrence. Additionally, Steamboat 50 mile champion (and former CU All-American) Zeke Tiernan and Leadville 100 top-10 finishers Charles Corfield and Duncan Callahan rounded out the field.
For the women, 8th place finisher in the 2004 women's Olympic Marathon Trials Susanna Beck probably sported the quickest marathon PR in the entire 50K field with a 2:34. Such road talent was backed by considerable trail experience in savvy mountain runner Anita Ortiz, defending champion Darcy Africa, veteran trail racers Emily Baer and Helen Cospolich, Wasatch 100 champ Liz Irvine, Leadville 100 champ Tammy Stone, and Leadville 100 runner-up Michele Jensen. Wow. That's quite the depth for such an early-season race.
The Red Hot course is quite unique. It consists of a run through a gorgeous canyon wash, a rolling lollipop loop on top of a mesa, some challenging climbing and descending on pure slickrock on Poison Spider Mesa, and then finally a screaming descent to the Poison Spider Trailhead on Potash Road on the Colorado River. All in all, it climbs ~4500', almost all of that in the first 25 miles or so. Throw in some moderate altitude (between 4000' and 5000'), the two dominant surfaces of loose sand and cement-like slickrock, and you have a challenging bit of trail racing.
Just as the desert sun rose, we all took off from the Gemini Bridges Road starting line and attacked the initial icy climb part way up the mesa. Kyle and I set a quick pace right from the start. We were most concerned about Zeke Tiernan's short distance speed because he was largely an untested unknown in trail ultras. Karl stayed close through the first couple of miles of climb and then descent, but once the track flattened out in the bottom of the canyon our quick pace soon whittled away everyone but Zeke.
At this point, the pace definitely felt quick and certainly not maintainable but I think pride got the better of Kyle and I. I'm sure Zeke would've followed whatever pace we set, but I think we both mostly wanted to be rid of any company as soon as possible. With that in mind we attacked the shortish, very steep climb up out of the wash and onto the Metal Masher trail. We hit the first aid station at 5.5 miles in 35 minutes and both shed our arm warmers as we were now fully in the sun on top of the mesa. At this point, Zeke was only 100 yards or so back.
Here the course continued into a lolli-pop loop on jeep trail that was largely rolling over a mixture of soft sand and slickrock. Eventually, we climbed up to the rim of the mesa and then enjoyed a nice downhill to the 12.8 mile aid station, which we reached in 1:28. Kyle and I both grabbed a gel here. I'd taken my first gel an hour in and took the second one on the down/flat back half of he lolli-pop loop. Kyle and I kept a solid pace through this section. The effort was mostly comfortable, but we were definitely still moving.
We hit the 17 mile aid in 1:56, so were still on sub-7 pace, grabbed another gel and were on our way. At this point we decided to mellow out the pace a little because a sub-4 hr finish time seemed a little unlikely. My legs were still feeling pretty good through here, but we had a lot of climbing to do once we hopped on the Gold Bar Trail and got up on Poison Spider Mesa.
The trail here quickly turned into pure slickrock with pink flagging to show us the way. I spaced out the need to get a gel down before we tackled the technical slickrock climbing, and by time Kyle and I had crawled our way to the 22.6 mile aid in 2:36 I was at a definite low point.
However, I sucked down a gel on the descent and pretty soon things were all fun and games again. The sun was brilliant, the view across the valley to the snow-covered La Sals was magnificent, and the toughest thing was not running too close to Kyle so that we wouldn't step on each other as we picked the best line on the technical descending.
There were a few times in this section that we came to a complete stop as we searched for the next pink flag and I commented to Kyle how this race was necessarily "Euro-style" in that you basically ran the straightest line across the slickrock from flag to flag. It also got pretty warm the last hour of the race and I ended up taking two S-caps in the last hour and a half or so of the race.
We were happy to finally spot the last aid station (mile 29) from about a half mile out because we'd both drained our bottles. However, the last little bit into the station was really sandy and I started whining a bit about how vile a surface sand is to run on. After a quick fill of the bottles we departed the station at 3:28 and decided to just chill it out to the finish because it didn't seem like we had much chance of breaking 4 hours. Sub 4:10 would be fine with us today.
The next two to three miles were pretty boring, sandy, muddy, and flat jeep track running across the top of the mesa. Finally, at about 3:45 or so the road started the descent down to the Colorado River with switchbacks and a lot of those big 3-4ft rock drops that plenty of misguided folks in the Moab area think are perfect for crawling up in a Jeep. Neat.
Just after Kyle and I were commenting that "Geez, I sure wish Chris had found a way to make this race a true 50K and not 34 miles because we'd be cracking a brewski now instead of bonking and trying to decide if I want to take the trouble to suck down one last gel", when some dude in road flats came blowing by us on one of the more technical downhills.
After ascertaining that yes, indeed, this fellow was running the 50K (and not the 33K; we'd been passing dozens of 33K runners for the past 10 miles or so) Kyle and I immediately shifted gears from the dawdling, complacent eight minute pace we'd been running to a (much more painful) low five minute pace. Within a quarter mile or so we'd gapped the runner (Justin Ricks) and spent a frantic 10 minutes or so blazing down the final switchbacks to the finish line to tie in 4:03:02. We were 22 minutes under Karl's inaugural course record run from last year.
Because we'd had to run so hard to the finish, Kyle and I put in a 10 minute cool down with Jocelyn and Anna Pichrtova (relaxing after her easy 33K win) and then spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the sun, chatting, and drinking milkshakes. A pretty great day.