Around this time last year, I started a new job. In an office. I’d spent most of the previous five years working mostly outside: as a backpacking instructor, conducting field research in grad school, a brief stint as a whitewater raft guide. The closest thing I’d had to an office job still allowed me to ski, on the clock, a few times a month. This was a big shift.
It became clear right away that I’d need a goal to keep me from becoming totally sedentary—though my office is in a public park, you’d be amazed how easy it is to get busy and let a whole day slip by without getting outside at all.
And so, as I so often do, I bit off more than I could chew. Bix had been talking about signing up for an ultramarathon as long as I’d known him, and I got it in my craw that I’d train with him and run one myself—nevermind that I’d never run farther than a half-marathon, or that I found the idea of spending most of my free time running terribly daunting. That was, somehow, beside the point.
We signed up for Moab’s Red Hot, which offers two race distances: a 55k (just over 34 miles) and a 33k (right around 21 miles). Bix regularly runs marathon-length distances “just for fun,” which I’ve always found sort of appalling but which made it a no-brainer for him to sign on for the longer distance. In my stubbornness, I signed up for the 55k, too, rationalizing that 21 miles—shorter than a marathon—wasn’t really an “ultra.” For some reason, that distinction seemed really important to me.
We had about 12 weeks to train. I would have been content to Google “ultramarathon training plans” while eating ice cream directly from the carton, then haphazardly bump up my mileage to justify my caloric intake, but Bix immediately set to work concocting a multi-faceted training schedule that included, on top of all the running, consuming less beer and more vegetables. There were weekly hill repeats.
I went along with the plan, lacing up my shoes to jog around the park most days and reminding myself, on four-hour-long weekend trail runs, of how much fun it would be to have completed an ultra. Not to do it, mind you—to have done it.
About a month out from the race, we finished a 20-mile run—the farthest I’d ever run—and I spent the rest of the day wondering if I could complete an additional half-marathon on top of the run we’d just done. I should mention here that the Red Hot has a reputation for being a tough trail race: both distances cover a veritable shit-ton of vertical gain and loss, not to mention that a solid chunk of each is over slickrock, which is perhaps the least-friendly surface I can imagine to run on.
As I continued to blindly follow Bix’s direction—so much quinoa; so many core strengthening exercises—that feeling began to weigh on me. It was almost a relief when the old tightness in my right IT band (you know, right behind the knee) returned with a vengeance, often leaving me hobbled for hours after a run.
“You just need to stretch more,” Bix assured me. It was nice to know he was confident I could finish the 55k, but I wasn’t so sure. Two weeks out from the race, I staggered the last three miles of a long training run, looking more like a teenager in a slasher movie than a fit, athletic ultrarunner. It was time for a come-to-Jesus talk.
I got home and typed out an email to the race director, deleted it, typed it again. I wanted to run the shorter distance, I said. I conjured a vague explanation, something about my IT band, though this was probably more in my head than in my legs. He emailed back an hour later: I could switch, no problem.
I felt a wave of relief when I read his message. Okay, great. I knew I could run 21 miles. I’d done it before. I tried not to think about how much harder this race would be than the loop we’d been running, or that, after all that suffering, I still wouldn’t be able to say I’d finished an ultra.
The Friday before the race, we cut out of work a little early to make the five-hour drive to Moab. Still, we rolled into town after dark, and as I stressed over finding a campsite, Bix reminded me of the perks of working full-time, year-round jobs that paid a living wage: for the first time in our history together, we could afford to shack up in a motel on the outskirts of town. This, he pointed out, guaranteed a good (okay, better) night’s sleep than trolling around our usual campgrounds, looking for a site in the dark. This was a boon.
It was still dark when we pulled into the Gemini Bridges Trailhead, just north of Moab. The morning dawned cold and clear as we jogged the half-mile to the start to pick up our packets, back to the car, back to the start. My stomach was, predictably, in knots. I’d made the mistake of reading, the night before, the cutoff times on the race website, and now I couldn’t stop picturing myself stumbling to the finish hours after all the other runners had arrived, my time recorded as DNF for “did not finish.”
The 55k runners started first, so I snapped a photo of Bix as he started and then had half an hour to pace nervously.
Soon enough, the loudspeakers crackled to life. The race director went over the course, which I knew backwards and forwards from weeks of obsessively studying the maps.
“Parts of the course are pretty remote,” he reminded us, “If you get hurt out there, you’re probably looking at a helicopter rescue. Have fun and be safe!” A few people chuckled. I nervously rubbed my IT band.
The course was, indeed, tough. It starts up a steep jeep track, which on this morning was covered in a fresh coat of snow, rendered nearly un-runnable by the tracks of the 55k runners. I was glad I’d done all those hill workouts. I felt pretty solid as I chugged up the hill. I checked my watch as I rounded the corner before the first aid station: I was averaging ten-minute miles, just as I’d planned. I felt good.
That feeling didn’t last, of course. The slickrock began in earnest a half-mile past the aid station. The grade was approximately steep-as-shit, and I was relieved to see most of the other runners around me walking it. Okay, I thought. Okay.
I made a friend just before the second aid station. There had been a fairly technical section, requiring runners to leap across a crack in the rocks. I jumped gracelessly, relieved not to feel my IT band snap in half, and noticed her eyeing the obstacle. I waited, casually, and we jogged the next little section together. It was nice to have some company.
Side note: ultrarunners have the right idea about race nutrition. Aid stations typically have some gels and other weird goop, but they also have potato chips and Coke.
Finally, I thought as I shoveled a third handful of chips into my face, I’m really in my element.
My race-friend and I had almost the same pace. I lost her for awhile when she ducked off the course to pee—I was envious, here, and reminded myself that I should really be drinking more water. I took a long break at the last aid station, four miles from the finish. Members of a local Jeep club had somehow defied the laws of physics to get here and supply runners with much-needed fuel, and I plunked down under a pinyon pine to give myself a pep talk.
She caught me just as I was leaving. This is a nice thing about long runs: you get to meet—and, in the midst of your suffering, actually sort of get to know—people you ordinarily wouldn’t.
It felt like a long four miles. Much of the race had been across angled slickrock, so by now, my right IT band and the top of my left foot felt like they might just give out altogether. As we crested the last cliffs and got our first glimpse of the Colorado River, hundreds of feet below, my eyes welled up a little: it was all downhill from here. Buoyed by pleasant company and the cheeseburger I couldn’t wait to wolf down at Milt’s, I finished the race long before the cutoff time.
I had some time to hobble around deliriously before I expected Bix. I’d holed up along the last stretch of the course and was just feeling, to my relief, the urge to pee, when I recognized his gait and willed my tired legs to stand. I snapped another photo, cheered feebly, and met him at the finish.
We pitched a tent that night at our favorite campsite. I’d finished the race in something like four and a half hours, which isn’t very fast. I had expected to feel some let-down after the race: I hadn’t really run an ultra, like I’d set out to do; it took me longer to run 21 miles than lots of marathoners take to do 26. (In fact, the winning time for the 55k that year was forty minutes faster than my 33k finish.)
But, to my surprise, I didn’t feel any of that. I was too tired to feel anything like elation, but as we watched the desert stars spring to life that night, I was content. I’d run a hell of a long way, on a notoriously difficult course, and I’d finished. I was even a little proud of my time.
The next morning—Valentine’s Day—everything was covered in frost. The Fisher Towers and surrounding red cliffs, dusted in snow, looked like so many gigantic ginger snaps. It was a good morning for strong coffee around a campfire.
I don’t know if I’ll sign up for another long race. I still like the idea of having done (again, not the actual doing of) an ultra, and now that the hard parts have faded a little from memory, I’m more open to the idea.
I know I need to get outside every day, even if it’s just for a little while. I know my brain works better. I know things don’t seem as overwhelming with some fresh air in my lungs. But it’s easier to motivate with a tangible goal—whether it’s to run an ultra or climb Mt. Rainier or, when short days and long nights send me into the darkest recesses of my mind, just survive a long winter.
I don’t know what that’ll be for me this winter, but as the solstice approaches, I’m struck with a sense of urgency. I’m not ready to commit to anything yet—at the moment, weekend mornings are still warm enough to enjoy my first cup of coffee on the back porch—but lately, I find myself researching trail marathons and daydreaming about the desert. And, of course, a trip to Milt’s. Whatever works, right?