Okay, we still ran most of it, miraculously. Leading up to it I had done a single 19 miler (but much of that was walking), and I don’t think my father had run more than like 8 miles in two years. So there was a lot of walking involved, and some scrambling, and some “arm rappels” or whatever you want to call those. And some cramps and muscle spasms, and some whining, and some “shut up so I can count my steps” (which is code for “I’m dying”) and luckily a real life voice doppleganger of Charlie Day from Always Sunny who carried us through mile 23. Oh, and a rogue cactus that nearly did me in at mile 24.
It’s easy to forget that I originally moved to Washington for trail running, especially with all of the climbing/mountaineering/pretending like I know how to ski. But once upon a time I was a runner. Now I’m a lazy person with a boring desk job who happens to climb mountains and occasionally goes for slow jogs, primarily motivated by upcoming marathons and Pokemon Go. And one morning back in September, I woke up and realized I had a marathon coming up in five weeks. Shit!
My dad was anxious. His question wasn’t “how much of these 26 miles will I walk vs run” or “will I finish” it was “do I bail at mile 9 and walk 4 miles to the start, or bail at mile 17 and walk 6 miles to the start and hopefully get there before she finishes the last 3?” But there we were at the starting line, laughing at how unprepared we were, surrounded by insanely good runners, wondering just how much pain we’d be in after a few hours. I forgot my camelback, so I stuffed plastic water bottles in my pack. My father carried a plastic bottle in his hands. I left the salt tabs at home. I had strongly caffeinated Gu in preparation for the unavoidable bonk. First tip: start slow. So slow. We were in the fourth wave, the Wave of the Plebeians (okay, the second to last wave). And off we were!
Oh, did I mention that the one day I fly to the desert is the one day it’s cloudy/drizzly in the entire second half of 2016? Yeah, it was rainy. In Moab. The desert. But that packed down some of the dust, and made the sandy parts easier to run. I had popped aspirin which is my only hope of easing my calf issues, and it kept them at bay, like a 5/10 on the swollen scale instead of 9/10 like a few of the past runs. And of course, mentality has a huge impact on any race. Everyone was jogging, we were darting to the sides of the trail to take photos and marvel at views and for once I did not bitch when there were bottlenecks in front of us, which is an unfortunate reality with any single track trail race, especially one that has a few scramble sections. Second tip: Take all of the photos. It’s a break without admitting you’re taking a break.
We came around the first bend in the trail and I laughed. We had been complaining that red rock canyons look way better in sun, and this year might be boring with the clouds. False. They’re still pretty damn awesome. The first few miles climb, and then you come out near the top of the canyon and follow a single track trail which is glorious. There are rest stops every 5 ish miles, stocked with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, oreos (rip off oreos this year, come on!!) more salt tabs, gatorade, soda, and lots of peppy volunteers. Some of the stations were accessible by mountain bike, some by car, and some by huge ridiculous ATV. It’s amazing seeing how far this race has come in the past few years. Third tip: EAT EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. There’s a joke that ultramarathons are more eating competitions than running. Treat long trail races like that too.
At mile 8 was the infamous bottleneck, which wasn’t awful this year, probably due to all of the shorter bottlenecks leading up to it. It’s basically two third class scramble moves, and you can pick your poison. Small chimney with great jugs, or slabby exposed shit, perfect for the “butt scoot” technique. I went with the slabby exposed shit, because no one else was, and I’m impatient. They have volunteers standing at the base of each to spot people, but not everyone is comfortable on a spicy 3rd class downclimb after running 8 miles. And if you slip, you’ll just take the volunteer with you. One woman got stuck in the chimney, so my father helped spot her while I waited, my slabby shortcut now a moot victory. Past that, it’s down to the canyon floor, where the half marathon splits off at mile 9 and you are left likely by yourself to continue the marathon.
There’s an out-and-back right after the half marathon splits off, and once you’ve finished that (~2 miles) you’re back on track for the rest of the marathon. It’s amazing how many people just do the half. You go from being in a line of people along a single track to maybe having 3 people in your field of vision at any moment. Suddenly the scale of the canyons is real, and you can tell how enormous everything is.
The first year, we tried to run the whole thing. I died. The second year, we hiked it. My dad had cramps and bailed at the top. This year, we hiked it again. And groaned about it. And complained at every corner even though we already knew there were false corners and top outs. And chatted with those around us (my dad picked out a guy’s South African accent after three words, amazing) as they trudged up the same death climb. Between his weight lifting and my mountaineering, we were actually pretty damn prepared for this section. As usual we snapped our picture at the top, for once both looking happy instead of me dead (first time) or dad dead (second time). And from there, your’e on top of the world, cruising across desert with towers and huge drops in the background and an expanse of slick rock mountain biking trails ahead of you. Hope your shoes have good tread!
This is the best part of the race. The beginning is cool, the climb at mile 15 is amazing because you watch the close landmarks shrink as mountains and canyons grow in the distance, but miles 16-23 are just phenomenal. So keep your mental game strong, because this is where you want to be alert. Rolling slick rock, awesome rock formations, a windy trail that occasionally disappears (it gets more and more well marked every year, we definitely lost it the first year), and the runners are so spread out you really only have to deal with one or two other people at a time. It’s just you, cruising through unbelievable terrain, and that’s why I trail run.
It got tough around mile 18. We saw the sign for mile 18 and my dad said “oh thank god that’s a mental boost.” I made some joke about feeling pretty good, and he responded “yeah well I’d like to lie down and vomit.” A mile or so after, I started to feel it. The rolling slick rock goes from super easy to run (slabby, mellow downhill) to difficult (slabby sidehilling or uphill or quick pivoting turns) to nearly un-runnable (some low class scramble moves). Eventually, I am interrupted while blabbing away about something, and I head “I am going to count my steps. Don’t talk to me for a few minutes.” So I shut up, and let my dad count his steps while I trailed along behind him. Bring on the caffeinated gu! (Tip Six: Caffeine) Luckily, around mile 21 or 22, you pop onto a smooth trail that runs downhill along the river, and that’s where we found Charlie Kelly. (Tip Seven: Find Charlie Kelly)
Anyone who watches Always Sunny immediately knows who I’m talking about. Through our mile 22 tunnel vision comes Charlie’s voice, floating up from behind us, talking about how miserable it is that you have to run past the finish line and do a 5k loop to actually finish the marathon. How he tried so hard through mile 23 last year and then crashed when he realized there were still three miles left past the finish line. Setting everyone’s expectations as low as possible. And I remember those last three miles, because it sucks running past the finish line and listening to the top runners finish while you’re slogging up a sand dune. And a waist deep river to cross, which my father had been praying for. IT’s like a short ice bath for sore legs. Except this year, it was a dry puddle of mud. Damn you, global warming. Okay, tip Eight: Coca Cola. Just chug some coke at this rest stop and you’ll basically be in heaven.
The last three miles are a mini obstacle course, with ladders and hand lines and pipes to run through and neat caves that I always forget to photograph. Oh, and a nice prickly pear cactus that I did not notice until it was sticking through my foot. I couldn’t even tell what had happened besides feeling like flames were shooting up my foot until my dad yelled “You stepped on a cactus!” and my brain worked it out. The spines had gone straight through the bottom of my shoe and into my foot. Painful and quite surprising. I hobbled to the side of the trail in a cactus free zone to start plucking the spines out.
Shortly after, my adducter seized, which is an interesting feeling. I don’t usually get muscle spasms, but they’re a pretty well noted side effect of Accutane, not to mention I was probably dehydrated or low on salt despite my best efforts. Whatever, it was the cactus leg, and who needs an adductor or a foot? We only had like a mile left, and it was the mile through the parking lot, which means shut up and count your steps (tip Nine: Learn to enjoy rote tedious activities while in mild amounts of pain) and then make sure you look good crossing the finish line (rule #1 is always look good, right? #2 is don’t die, and #3 is if you do die, look good doing it). We didn’t quite nail the looking good part, but who cares! We had finished, and despite zero training, we had done almost the exact same time as the previous two marathons. We may not have been as in shape, or as well trained, but we ran a smart race.