Desert RATS 2016
We sat exhausted on the finish line. Reid (the race director) asked us to stand up to film us. “Say your name, your favorite part of the race, and say ‘I’m a Desert Rat’”. I was caught off guard. I hadn’t thought about my “favorite” part. With my over analytical personality, it may be months before I decide on my favorite part. “Technically, I DNF’d. Can I say I’m a Desert Rat?”, I protested. “Say what you like”, he smiled. I mumbled something about the scenery on the last day.
Day 1 (20 miles)
We gathered at the Gonzo Inn in Moab, waited around a while, had a harrowing van ride to the start area in Fruita, and waited some more. I was a little worried about the waits causing us to run in the heat of the day. But we eventually got going. Some ran, some started walking, we (Theresa and I) settled into our own easy training pace we had practiced. We were soon, unusually, ahead of most of the group.
The course starts along a rim above the Colorado River. Great scenery and easy running. We came into the first aid station shortly after Ryan left, grabbed a snack and refilled our bottles. The trail continued generally along the bluff. There was a confusing spot that crossed a washout, then a split in the trail that stopped us to check the GPS. It wasn’t clear and we continued right. After a quarter mile, I rechecked the GPS and it was clear we went the wrong way. Damn. We doubled back and apparently hadn’t been passed. The trail went down, down and crossed a bridge at a creek. We turned away from the river and started a long, hot climb. Really long, really hot. I think a lot of people had problems here. We had to sit for a rest at one point, but eventually pulled into the next aid station for a longer rest and recovery. The trail leveled out to some easier running, but we had to alternate walking, just because of the heat. We came into camp in good shape. Our clothes were stiff, caked with salt.
Day 2 (39 miles)
Marathon training is all about planning and preparing so nothing goes wrong. Ultra-marathons are all about how you react when things go wrong.
Sometimes, things go really, really wrong.
We were told because we were some of the faster runners from day 1, we would start half an hour after the first group. I argued we weren’t that fast, especially on the longer runs. I was worried about running further into the heat of the day. Reid wasn’t budging. It’s all how you react… We started slow, 12 minute miles, and watched Ryan and Katie take off at 9 minute miles. We were soon alone at the back of the pack.
We ran along a dirt road that was criss-crossed by trails that surprisingly confused us. The GPS didn’t really help, and the touch screen was starting to act wonky in the heat. We did take one wrong turn and cut across a field to get back to the trail, breaking rule #1 (stay on the trail). Rules number 2 and 3 were also Stay On The Trail, so it’s probably pretty important. We came into Aid 1 and were told Katie just left, so we didn’t feel too bad. We ran through a box canyon area and passed Castle Rocks. There were a few views from the rim, and then the trail made a turn to a dry open area. We saw a Mesa in the distance. Is that where we’re headed? It looks far. Half an hour later, it still looks far. It’s hot. Eventually we started the climb we were promised. It felt long and very hot. It’s the first time I recall feeling annoyed. The aid station eventually found us and, was it my imagination, or was it a little cooler here? The trail leveled off, there were some trees and it was generally down to the next aid station. We passed 3 women running together; they didn’t seem to be going much slower than us.
The next aid station felt hotter. We were told they were extending the cutoff time by an hour because of the extreme heat. We rested quite a while and started off on a 4 mile section on a road. Even though it was down, we had trouble running in the heat. We stopped briefly in the shade of a railroad bridge at the bottom of the road and walked over to a water drop that was in the sun. I thought that if I had some tea bags, that water would be useful. We pondered it briefly and decided we didn’t need more hot water.
We started along a dirt road that paralled the railroad tracks. One of the support cars pulled up and mentioned their thermometer read 114 degrees. We couldn’t run without overheating, so we settled for walking as fast as we could. Relentless forward progress. The trail turned away from the tracks and entered an amazing desert scene where you can see telephone poles stretching to the horizon. It looks like it will never end. I always tell people not to worry about the finish line. It will come to you. You worry about the next step you can take. Did I mention it was hot?
A support car pulled up and offered us some water. We were getting low and I didn’t know how close the aid station was, so we took some. They told us the cutoff had been waived for today. “Just make it in and you will still be in the race”. Eventually the aid station found us and we spent some recovery time in the shade eating ice. We continued down the road and it started to cool a little as the sun got lower in the sky. If I moved too slow, I was starting to get cramps, so I tried to keep moving at a brisk walk. We came into the last aid station and I collapsed into a chair. My hamstrings started cramping right away, so I didn’t sit long. Theresa took a little detour to take a dip in the river and I started walking slowly. She caught up shortly (it was too far to the river for that dip) and we mostly walked the last 4 miles. We came into camp in the dark with our flashlights and they had dinner waiting for us.
I ate quite a bit, happy that I could hold food down. I didn’t feel too bad. I found our tent and laid down exhausted. But as I tried to sleep, my back started cramping, then my hamstrings (that is the worst!) Then my neck, and hamstrings again. Then my abs started to cramp and I tried to stand up to straighten out and get them to release. I started having trouble breathing and then started to get dizzy. I heard yelling around me. I was looking at the floor of the tent thinking I was going to fall. I felt a wave of panic.
I remember feeling really, really good. Blissful almost. I was dreaming, but I don’t remember what. Then I came crashing back into reality. I woke up with ice under my neck and legs raised. The doctor said, “Ok, let’s get him up into a chair. I thought, that’s silly, I can get up myself. But I had 3 or 4 people lift me up and drop me in a chair. “Drink 4 glasses of water and you can go back to bed”. I did and tried to lie back down. My hamstrings would still give me some trouble, but I did manage to get some sleep.
Day 3 My first DNF
I didn’t understand what happened to me last night. The doctors called it vaso vagle syncope. It’s a fancy way of saying I fainted. It seemed more violent to me, but they didn’t seem too concerned. I asked Dr. Riley what she would do if someone came into her office after an event like this. “Take it easy for a day and resume normal activities”. Hmmm. Does 9 miles count as “easy”? Is 41 miles tomorrow “normal activities”? Theresa was having her own problems (she couldn’t hold food down) We both decided we weren’t up to running.
We made a feeble attempt at helping to tear down the camp. The support crew was amazing. Very organized and they seemed to be having a great time. I knew it. While we were suffering, they were having fun! Everyone pitched in. The doctors, aid station folks, RDs. It was actually fun to watch. We hung out at the finish line where the trail crossed a road and tried to rest in the heat. It didn’t feel much easier than running. When everyone was in, we had a short car ride to camp and the chance to sit in the wonderfully cold Colorado river.
Day 4 Negotiating skill required
Since we were officially out of the race, my new goal became reconnaissance. I wanted to see as much of the course as possible. Neither of us felt up to 41 miles. I asked if we could start at the 17 mile aid station and run to the end. That would give us the biggest climb of the race, and the highest elevation. Reid was still pressing us to do the whole course. I suggested if we dropped out at 17 miles, they would have to get us out, but if they started us at 17, we would run the 24 miles to the end and they wouldn’t have to worry about us. We got a ride with the medical staff, and after a delay for a car problem (a critter had chewed through a wire bundle, but that’s a story for another time), we enjoyed a ride up a spectacular valley to mile 17. The leader Ryan came into the aid station just as we were starting out. He caught us a mile later and I paced behind him for a bit. 9 minute miles. Maybe he is human. Maybe.
Then it got weird.
In a couple miles, we came to a long down-hill. She wanted to walk, I wanted to run. “I’ll stop at the bottom to take out my poles and wait for you.” A little way down, I decided to stop for a bathroom break and left my pack at the side of the trail for her to see. I came back out and waited. And waited. I called up the trail. No answer. What if she passed me? I ran down to the bottom of the hill. No sign of her. About 10 minutes went by and I decided she must have passed me. There was a chance I wouldn’t catch her before the next aid station. We were warned about this being the most remote section of trail.
I ran like hell and blew my whistle, but the sound seemed muffled in the vastness. After a while, I heard a car coming up the road. Maybe they could verify Theresa was not behind me. I saw the dust cloud getting closer and the noise got louder. As it crested the rise behind me, I realized it wasn’t a car. It was a dust devil. It was big. I instinctively started running, all the while thinking it was silly, because… how fast does a dust devil go? It dissipated quickly and I started walking and laughing. I heard the noise again and turned to see it coming up the road. This time I thought, let’s see what happens. I started getting hit by marble sized rocks, and just like that it stopped. It was the craziest thing. No, really. It happened.
I tracked 2 sets of footprints on the trail. It’s interesting what you can figure out if you pay attention. Ryan was mostly running, Theresa was mostly walking. I found the spot she sat to rest under a tree. There were some amazing views. I heard some thunder and hoped the rain might shower me.
Theresa was sitting at the aid station when I arrived. She was just a few minutes ahead of me. I had left the last aid station with over 140 oz of water. More than a gallon. I arrived here with a sip left in one bottle. That was a long, hot, remote section! We compared stories of the separation and rested a little longer. Races are much more relaxed when you aren’t actually racing. Theresa hinted at stopping. We decided to “go to the next aid station”, a tactic that worked at each aid station to the end. (Eat the elephant one bite at a time). Somehow, we hung out at the next aid station long enough to figure out that John and I had both gone to the University of Rochester. Eventually we got moving. We had a 17 mile head start on the remaining racers and really didn’t want to get caught.
There were more great views on this section. I was very happy we decided to do this part and had regained the strength to have fun with it. We ran into camp with some daylight left and enjoyed dinner while we cheered the other racers in.
Day 5 was a rest day.
We hung out in a park near Moab on the Colorado River. It was wonderfully cold. In camp, we organized our gear and compared our terrible blisters. The med staff gave us and each other lessons on how to tape blisters. Somehow, they had kept everyone on their feet all week.
Day 6. It’s “just a marathon”
The marathon starts with a 5 mile mostly uphill run to the first aid station. We started in the first wave, with Katie 8 minutes back and the rest 30 minutes back. Katie and Vivian were sent out in a Rabbit Race start, so the first to cross the finish would be the women’s winner. Our first goal was to hold off Ryan to the first aid station with our 30 minute head start. (we did… but just barely!)
After that climb, the course continued along a ridge with great views of the valley. Spectacular. Ryan soon caught and passed us with a smile and encouraging words (as always). Another half hour and Katie caught us and ran with us for a while. The trail came out on a forest service road and started dropping altitude. As the terrain changed from trees to desert rock again, we came to the next aid station. This started a 4 mile out-and-back section where we would see some of the other runners. The “out” was uphill and surprisingly difficult. We mostly walked on the slick rock, not really sure if we were on the trail. We passed Ryan on his way out and came to some mountain bikers walking their bikes. They said they saw our turn-around and it was really, really far away. It couldn’t be more than a mile, we thought. These guys have a different definition of far. We caught up to Katie. She was frustrated because she couldn’t find the turn-around. We checked the GPS which was now useless because of the heat and the touch screen. We insisted we were on the right course and found the bucket of rocks about 100 yards up a short hill. (We had to return with the rock with our bib number on it to prove we made the turn-around). Running back down the slick rock was fast (well, relatively) and fun.
At the aid station, I ate what must have been half a watermelon. It was sooooo good. We took off at a steady pace toward the slick rock area of Moab. The large rock formations were a welcome distraction from the returning heat. We crossed the finish line and collapsed into chairs. The awesome support crew brought us whatever we wanted. (Pickles and ginger ale seemed to be the favorites). It felt strange to think we didn’t need to immediately start preparing for another run tomorrow.
So back to the question of my favorite part. Maybe a better question would be, what surprised you about this event? In Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, he writes about how westerners in the 1800’s would often leave ‘civilized’ society to live with the Indians, but the opposite was never true. Why would anyone give up an easy life in cities for the arguably more difficult life in the wilderness? I think we found a hint of that in the desert. We lived for a week in a mobile camp. Everyone had a job. Some were runners, some were cooks, others were in charge of shelter, medical, support. Surprisingly, there was very little talk of what we did in the ‘civilized’ world. It didn’t matter. Other things that didn’t matter were gender differences, class, politics…anything. All that mattered was the tribe and survival and the desert. It was wonderful and amazing.
People ask me why I’m going back. Why would anyone submit themselves to that kind of suffering? I love that I found something I can’t do. All the more reason to try again. And the scenery. Running takes me to places most people never get to see. But mostly, I want to find the tribe again. I want to understand why that happens. Or not, and just enjoy it.
So that, Reid, is my favorite part. And yes, emphatically, I am a Desert Rat.