ilanarama: me in Escalante (yatta!)
[personal profile] ilanarama
I'd been toying with the idea of running an ultramarathon for some time, but it wasn't until this autumn that the stars finally aligned. I had signed up for this year's Durango Double because I really liked the new format and courses - not to mention that I had friends coming in from the midwest to run it, and it seemed awfully rude not to run it with them! But that would be the week before my usual fall half marathon, The Other Half (where I set my half PR last year). Then I discovered that the organization that puts on several well-regarded ultras in the Moab area was doing a new 50K/25K, the Dead Horse, on the day before The Other Half. In a burst of what probably seems like insane troll logic to anybody who isn't a competitive runner, I decided it would be easier to fun-run an ultra on the weekend after the two-day trail half/road half combo, than it would be to race a half, and signed up for the 50K.

race logo: Mexican-style skeleton rider on skeleton horse.

I drove out to Moab on Friday afternoon. After picking up my packet (which included a women's fitted black cotton T-shirt with the awesome Day-of-the-Dead style race logo on it, which I am going to wear ALL THE TIME now, because I LOVE IT), I crossed the street and had a really great dinner (sage cocktail, beet salad with steak, and a glass of wine) at the Peace Tree Cafe. Then I found my hotel (my usual place was booked up for The Other Half), laid out my gear, and went to bed early.

I never sleep well these days, so I easily woke before the alarm. I had some coffee and a breakfast cookie, got dressed, braided my hair, and covered myself with BodyGlide and sunscreen. At 6:25 am I headed north into the pre-dawn pitch-blackness for the short drive to the trailhead. The race course would be on the mountain bike trails in the Gemini Bridges area beneath Dead Horse Point State Park, thus the race name. The few cars on the road were heading for the same place I was, so I followed them into the parking lot where a few generator-driven lights illuminated the modest start/finish area. There would be only about fifty runners total for the 50K and 25K - a pretty low-key event.

The first thing I noticed was that I was literally the only person out there not wearing a headlamp. The second thing I noticed (by the lights of everybody else's headlamp) was that I was literally the only person out there wearing gaiters. I felt like I had a big ULTRA NEWBIE! sign across my forehead (and ankles). Otherwise, there were about equal numbers of hydration packs and handheld water bottles, short sleeves and long sleeves. I wore shorts and a thin Icebreaker wool tank top (I'd opted not to wear my arm warmers as it was 50F even before the sun rose). I had a half-eaten pack of gummy candies in my pocket - leftovers from the Double - and one tube of lip balm and one of ibuprofen (against pain) and Tylenol (in case of migraine) in the pocket of my handheld, along with a small wad of toilet paper. I had my phone in an armband so I could take photos, and my Garmin and heart rate monitor on my wrist. Bring it on!

I lined up more or less in the second-to-last row of the tiny pack. It was still pretty dark when the race director announced, "When you start you'll turn right and then left again, straight to the next intersection where you'll turn right, cross the tracks - oh, just follow Bryon Powell, he knows where to go." One of the guys up front turned and waved at everyone. (Since those of you following along at home can't follow Bryon, here is a map.) "Okay, you know what to do. Ten! Nine!" Everyone picked up the chant. "Three! Two! One! GO!" And we were off.

Most of the runners had put their headlamps away before the start, but a couple still had them on and illuminating the rough dirt road as we headed up the gentle incline. I had no idea what pace I was running as I couldn't see my Garmin, but I hung toward the back and just tried to stay loose and comfortable. Which was actually a problem, because my legs hurt.

Needless to say, this is not a good sign during the first mile of an ultramarathon! Before the Double, I'd had a bit of pain in my left hip; it had mostly subsided during the races but cropped up again in the days following. I also noticed a bit of pain in my right hamstring following the Double. During the few short runs I'd done during the past week, both of these bothered me, but they weren't that bad - maybe a 1-2 on the scale of 10, and I figured I could ignore them. But now I had a totally new pain in my left thigh, on the inside front part of the quad/groin area, and it hurt worse than either of the other two. I crossed mental fingers and hoped it would, like the other pains, subside as my muscles warmed up.

After a mile, the road began to climb more steeply as it contoured around a looming red rock cliff, and I (and the group of people around me) began walking the steep bits. A guy in front of me stopped to take a picture, though the sun had just barely made it over the horizon and was not doing a very good job of piercing through the veil of overcast. A little while later I decided there was enough light, so I did the same:

Gemini Bridges Road at dawn

One mile and 320 vertical feet later, we hit the high point and headed down the even steeper backside. This would be, unsurprisingly, my fastest mile, but all I could think was that it was going to be seriously miserable walking back up at the end of the run. As the road flattened out it became sandier and less rocky, and the sun at our backs lit up the canyon beautifully.

Entering the canyons

Now I could see my Garmin. I was running about 10:30 pace on the flat road. I had estimated that I could probably hold under 14 minute pace on the uphill and under 12 minute on the downhill, which is how I'd come up with my sub-6:30 goal time. I was sure I would lose time going back over the hill we'd just done, so I figured these few relatively fast miles would just counter those slow ones. (Spoiler alert: pretty much all of my assumptions in this paragraph proved completely wrong.)

After about 4.75 miles we came to the first aid station, and the sandy dirt road cranked right and uphill. I had only drunk about a quarter of my water, but I decided to top it off even though this meant I had to wait for the guy ahead of me to fill his own bottle. As it turned out this was a good decision, and yes, this is more foreshadowing. :-) Then I walked up the hill, stopping halfway up to take a photo back toward where we'd come from. Yay, I was not the last runner!

Looking back

The guy who'd filled his water bottle was only a little ahead of me, and I followed him along the road and then to where the course turned off to the right onto the "Arth's Corner" singletrack. Even without someone to follow, though, the route was obvious as the pink-and-black ribbons used to mark the course dangled from the trees and the route sign. The trail squiggled among the boulders and scrubby vegetation, occasionally bumping over rock slabs, but in general it was an easy packed-dirt and slickrock trail, marked with paint blazes on the rocks, with ribbons in the spots where it crossed jeep roads. I passed the guy in front of me, and another who had stopped to tie his shoe on a rock slab. Behind me I could hear two women talking. Talking constantly. I mentally dubbed them the Chatterbox Twins, and wondered if it would be worth it to speed up just so I could get away from them. The thing was, I was already going a lot faster than I'd anticipated. (And by 'faster' I mean I was averaging around 12 minute miles, rather than 14. But the uphills were pretty subtle, and the footing was good, and my HR was where I expected it would be, so I wasn't worried.)

I kept feeling like someone was going to pass me - either the Chatterbox Twins, or the guys I'd passed - but every time I looked around, nobody was in sight. The trail did a lot of zigging and zagging around, so that other runners might be straight-line close but not trail-distance close, so I'd hear them but not see them. Also, when the trail was on slickrock slabs, it transmitted footsteps in such a way that people seemed closer than they really were. As a result, nobody was ahead of me when I caught sight of the second aid station around mile 8. Or rather, I saw a truck and some coolers through the scrub to my left, and on the trail-side of them was a man in a Dead Horse T-shirt who pointed in the direction I was going and said, "Fifty that way, twenty-five that way," and jerked his finger back to the left. "Next aid six miles."

I said thanks, and ran in the direction he'd pointed, thinking, hmm, fifty what? Fifty yards this way, then turn left and go twenty-five, and that's how I get to his aid station? Blame it on ultra brain. When I didn't see a turn-off to the left I slowed and started looking for marker ribbons. I heard the Chatterbox Twins coming up about the time I spotted a ribbon, so I sped up again...and then I realized, duh, 50K runners this way, 25K runners the other - and I had missed the aid station.

Oh, well. I had a pocket full of gummy candies, which I dug into. I also had plenty of water (hooray for foresight!), and I used some of it to wash down an ibuprofen tablet. The hip and hamstring aches had definitely dulled down, but the new inner thigh issue was continuing to hurt. It was worst when I lifted my left leg to climb a rock step, and so I deliberately tried to step up with my right foot as much as I could. I had visions of my leg deciding to entirely stop working, and having to finish the race like a zombie, dragging my useless left leg behind me.

The Chatterbox Twins were really starting to irritate me, and worse yet, they were catching me, so I stopped to take some photos and let them go by.

Sagebrush flats

The mostly-dirt trail gave way to large stretches of slickrock, which made for fast, easy running, and as it was relatively level my leg didn't hurt as much. Two more people passed me: a guy in a white shirt who I'd traded position with a few times, and another man in dark blue. And then I was all by myself, and it was...kind of nice. I ate more gummies, I took more pictures, I enjoyed the glorious experience of running through Utah sandstone country on a cool, overcast day.

Slickrock trail

Then the trail abruptly ended, dumping me onto a dirt road. Course marker ribbons fluttered off to the right, uphill, so I turned that way. Ahead of me I could see five runners: the two men who had passed me had also passed the Chatterboxes, who had evidently slowed, and were gaining on a third man farther up the hill.

I looked behind me. Nobody.

I kept on running, and walking when it got steep. The three men in the distance disappeared around the corner. I got to the point where they had been when I stepped out onto the road, and looked back. Still nobody.

I had passed a few people I hadn't seen again, but maybe they had peeled off at the last aid station to run the 25K. Maybe I was DFL. I decided I was, surprisingly, okay with that. After all, this was my first 50K. I ran two half marathons last weekend! It was okay to be last!

The road got steep again, and I slowed to a walk, as did the women ahead of me, and huh, they were a lot closer now. Then the grade eased, so I started running again, but they didn't. All right, then, I thought, and passed them. No longer maybe-DFL!

I saw ribbons on the left on either side of a singletrack, and had a moment of panic. From the course description and map, I had expected that aid station #3 would be on this road, and then we'd turn off onto Bull Run trail to begin heading back to the start/finish. Had I missed another aid station?

But the sign by the trail named it as "7-up", so I followed the ribbons onto the singletrack. After a couple of minutes, the trail angled up toward a road and there was the aid station. The three guys who'd been ahead of me were there, and they took off while I refilled my water bottle, put a gel in my pocket to eat on the run, and ate a few handfuls of potato chips washed down with a cup of Coke. As I was finishing my snack, the Chatterbox Twins appeared on the road - they must have missed the turn to the trail - and that was my cue to leave. I headed off down the "Bull Run" singletrack, passing a man in an orange shirt who was throwing up by the side of the trail. Okay, three people behind me, at least!

Aid station #3 was at the far end of our course, mile 15 by map and just under 14 by my Garmin, so I thought of it as being the highest point, too, with nothing but fast, easy downhill from there on. Ha ha ha. Bull Run wobbled up and down, dipping and squiggling its way across the slickrock, and I found it very tricky going. At least it was scenic:

Canyon edge

The impressive drop-offs had me thankful I was running the trail rather than mountain biking it. And as if I needed any more incentive to stay on the trail, a little farther on I saw this:

Shooting Range, yikes!

A couple miles into Bull Run, I heard footsteps behind me; it was the guy who had been throwing up by the aid station. I asked him if he was okay. "Oh, I always throw up on runs," he assured me. He then ran ahead, but I caught sight of his orange shirt from time to time.

My left inner thigh still hurt a lot, and I took my second (and last) ibuprofen. The trail was rather technical, and all the steps down onto hard rock sent tremors through my legs. The next aid station (actually, the other side of the second one, which I had missed) would be at mile 21 by the course description, but once we'd gotten onto the singletrack my watch had gotten ahead of the map, and I figured the aid would be around 19 by my Garmin.

Halfway through mile 18 I could hear voices behind me, and I thought, "Oh, no, the Chatterboxes!" But then the singletrack dumped onto a jeep road - I could see the ribbons leading me downward - and shortly thereafter, a couple of mountain bikers passed me. Whew!

I passed a young guy (I see by the results he is 15!) who was walking; he must have been really in pain, because the jeep road was a fairly gentle downhill, easy for running (and he ended up finishing over an hour after I did). I was feeling pretty good on this surface, but I was running only around 12-minute pace; my average pace for the mile 15-19 stretch was 12:40 - despite being mostly downhill, it was slightly slower than my average pace for the mostly uphill 5-13 stretch. So much for my assumptions!

Two more mountain bikers passed me, and I passed a jeep posing for a picture; it was in a moderately impressive spot on a rock shelf, but clearly the guy had just driven it there for the photo-op, because there was a nice easy wide spot to go around it. Then I hit the aid station. Barfy was there, as well as a couple of other runners who took off just after I got there. The guy manning the station asked if I wanted anything. "Ibuprofen?" I asked. He went to his truck and pulled out a bottle, and Barfy and I each took a couple.

Barfy: "Did you just give me Viagra?"

Me: "If your run lasts more than six hours, call a doctor!"

We both busted out laughing. Ultra humor, okay? It's funny when you've been running since daybreak!

I washed my pills down with Coke (I never drink it at home, but I like it for a fueling beverage!) and some potato chips and M&Ms. I tossed my empty gel packet and got a new one, refilled my water bottle, and hit the trail.

Almost immediately after turning onto the Great Escape singletrack, there was a sign for "Bridge View", so I took the short detour:

Natural bridge!

The trail continued to lose altitude, and I continued to lose steam. My legs were starting to get that late-in-a-marathon heaviness, turning into blocks of wood that transmitted the jarring vibrations of every downhill step into the spots that hurt the most. I had been hoping to lightly run down the descent, but there were a lot of technical rocky drops, and I slowed to a walk for each one.

Mile 21 was at 12:14 pace. Mile 22 was at 14 minute pace. Mile 23 was at 15 minute pace. Barfy caught up and then passed me. One of the Chatterbox Twins - they'd apparently separated some time back - zoomed by on a technical descent, and disappeared.


Ribbons fluttered on the side of the trail, marking a steep exit from the slickrock bench. I walked down the rock steps to a ridiculous jumble of big boulders that was masquerading as a jeep road. And then I went around the corner, and there was a jeep with its front wheels on a big boulder as it slowly crept uphill at a crazy steep angle. All I could think was: man, that is the stupidest thing ever to do for fun.

And then my eyes met those of the driver, and I knew with absolute certainty that he was looking at me as I ran cautiously around his jeep...and he was thinking the EXACT SAME THING.

The rocky jumble gave way to a flat sandy track. More jeeps drove by, sending up clouds of sand and dust. The sand got deeper and I trudged through it. I could feel my shoes getting heavier with every step, filling with sand despite the gaiters. Finally I approached the first/last aid station to close the lollipop loop. (The 'looking back' picture above is taken from the curving hill in the background, and the road on the right leads back to the start/finish.)

Closing the loop

The first/last aid station was nominally at mile 25.5, but I hit it at just short of 24 on my Garmin. The Chatterbox had already continued on, but Barfy and the other guys I'd been seeing at the aid stations were there. One of them was sitting on a cooler emptying his shoes of sand, and after I dumped my empty gel packet and ate a few snacks, I did the same, dumping a good cup of sand out of each shoe.

As I was desandifying, two very fit and skinny runners, a man and a woman, approached from the sandy road. It turned out that they had each (independently) got lost, realizing it only after running an extra 3-4 miles without seeing the expected aid station. They'd run into each other as they were puzzling out where they went wrong and how to get back on course.

"How many women ahead of you?" asked the woman.

I shrugged. "A lot. I'm slow."

"Damn, I was in second place," she said, and took off running.

I tied my shoes back on, added a bit to my water bottle, and left the aid station. Now I was on familiar ground, just under five miles to the start/finish area. I just had to make it over that big-ass hill. I checked my Garmin as it buzzed the 24 mile mark. I'd been running for 5:05; no way, I thought, could I possibly make it under six hours, but at least I ought to beat my nominal 6:30 goal time, even if I had to walk over the stupid hill.

But something really weird happened. I started running, felt good! Even though the road slanted slightly uphill, and I'd been running for something over 24 miles, I felt really strong. I zoomed past one of the guys who had been at the aid station; okay, not zoomed, exactly, but he had slowed to a walk and I was running at about 11:20 pace.

The guy who had got lost came up next to me and we chatted a little bit. Unlike the woman, who I could see chugging up the hill ahead of us, he was sanguine about his off-course adventure. "So I ran a few extra miles, so what? It's a gorgeous place to run."

"And a perfect day for it," I said.

"Yep, perfect." Grinning at me, he took off and loped ahead.

I kept running. The road was broad and relatively smooth, and there was soft packed sand under my feet rather than hard sandstone, and it felt kind of nice. The road tipped upward to begin the steep climb, but I had plenty of energy, so I kept running. I ran past the guy in the dark shirt who had passed me back around mile 8. Mile 26 ticked off on my Garmin at 12:48. I walked a steep switchback, then slipped back into an easy jog. I passed Barfy, who yelled, "You go, girl!" at my back. I crested the top of the hill and started down. Mile 27, 12:39. The past two uphill miles had been faster than some of my downhill miles!

Even though the road was rocky, it was a lot easier than the singletrack had been. A bunch of mountain bikes whizzed by. I passed another man, who was carefully picking his way down the hill. The grade eased and the surface improved; the road cranked right, flattened some more, and then cranked left. Mile 28, 10:53. I blew by a guy who was walking really slowly, with hiking poles. (He was 75 years old, and was doing the 25K, which he finished second to last.)

My last fractional mile came in at a blazing 9:44 pace. I turned the corner, got into the chute, and crossed the line to the wild applause of the dozen or so people who were sitting around the finish area. After trading my shoes for sandals, I grabbed a Rolling Rock from the beer cooler and got someone to take my picture:

Well-earned beer!

My final time was 5:57:56 by chip, 5:58:35 by gun, 5:59:39 by my Garmin, which also said I spent 7:48 total time stopped at aid stations, taking pictures, and during my one pee break. My Garmin recorded the distance as 28.4 miles, though the mapped distance adds up to just under 30 - I think the real distance might be somewhere between the two. I came in 20th out of 30 finishers (and ahead of two 25K finishers) and 6th out of 10 women, though only 7-8 minutes behind the two in front of me. Not exactly competitive, but I knew that going in.

Amazingly I had no chafing (I'd put a bit of moleskin under my bra band, worked like a charm!) and no blisters other than one small blood blister on top of a toe, where a rock or grain of sand had gotten into my shoe and rubbed the skin. (Also a bruise where my phone must have bounced against my bicep as I swung my arms, wtf?) I do feel my shoes (Pearl Izumi N1) were not cushy enough for that many slickrock miles, because slickrock is HARD. My legs were, predictably, sore, but I was walking comfortably the next day except when I had to step up with my left leg; today I took a long walk and really, I feel pretty good.

So, what's next? My husband admitted that he secretly hoped I would hate ultrarunning; he's not a fan of the amount of time I spend running, which certainly can add up. (He'd rather I got more into mountain biking, which we can do together - his knees are too worn out for running.) I am a better road runner than a trail runner, and I would like to keep chipping away at my half and full marathon PRs for as long as I can. But - I really enjoyed this run. I kind of want to train hard and run it next year as a goal race, and see if I could come in under 5:30. I am also contemplating the other area ultras, of which there are quite a few, 50K and 50 milers; I have promised Britt I don't aspire to a 100-miler. (Which, I really don't, because sleep deprivation.)

But, as Ned Stark said, Winter Is Coming. I might run our local 5-mile Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving, but other than that, I'm looking forward to ski season - I just bought new skis! Except...the Boston Marathon Is Coming, too, in mid-April. I guess I'd better start training...

(PS: No horses were harmed in the writing of this report.)
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ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)

August 2017

131415 16171819
20212223 242526

My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @


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