Akin to many runners before the first race of a new season, I didn’t entirely know what to expect when going into Moab’s Red Hot 55K. I knew I had put in a relatively solid winter of training, I knew I could physically handle the distance, and I knew I was mentally more-than-ready for the 2014 season to begin; I had unrestrained butterflies for weeks leading up to the race. I also knew that this was to be the toughest, deepest, most accomplished field of runners I would face yet. Some of the names on the list of entrants made me feel like a starry-eyed groupie. It’s funny how – in a niche sport such as ultrarunning – a “normal, everyday, down-to-earth person” who happens to have (or works very, very hard to have) exceptional talent in a comparably obscure activity, can almost (almost…) make a fan feel like they’re in the presence of a Lebron, Brady, or Jeter. I suppose it’s all relative, however; some of the names on the entrants list were, in fact, some of the oh-so-glamorous superstars of this small, unflashy, humble sport. But I digress…
After an uncharacteristically restful night before the race in a lovely little condo, courtesy of The Law Firm of Zachary Friedman (thanks Friedman, my wonderful accomplice… you saved me from my usual race morning “sleeping-in-the-front-seat-of-my-car” backache), I felt mentally alert and ready.
We headed to the course a half-hour prior to racetime, while I semi-frantically organized the last of my items for the day ahead. Knowing that there was an aid station every 5-6 miles on the course and that the high temp for the day was around 60 degrees, I decided to go light and carry a single hand-held water bottle, along with a small waist strap that contained my salt tablets and 2 race gels (I replaced the race gels at each aid station). I even decided to peel off my arm warmers right before the start of the race, figuring that I wouldn’t need them past the first mile or so. Finally, I checked in, stripped off my warm layers (again, thanks for hauling them Friedman), and wormed my way up to two rows back of the starting line. It was, at last, time to “rock n’ roll.”
As is oftentimes common while attempting to both adequately and eloquently recall and summarize the entirety of a race – or, at the very least, the parts worth sharing – I have discovered a mind blurred and conflicted and fleeting and untrustworthy. Although the race as a whole feels memorable and clear, the smaller fragments of the day seem to disappear the instant I begin to grasp them again. Nonetheless, I will do my best to sort out the noteworthy bits and extract the truth from them. I am certain that I will inadvertently leave out an array of “interesting” moments, and I’m even more certain that I will include a few inconsequential and irrelevant instances along the way. Alas, here goes…
Once the starting horn blew, I decided to go out a little harder than I’ve ever started in any of my previous ultras. This was, after all, part of my new strategy for the season ahead: Be smart, but Trust Yourself!! If I blow up in the later miles, I blow up. But I went out too modestly in all of my races last season (sans my 100 mile race), and as a result, I believe it encumbered me in reaching my full potential. I don’t want to make that mistake again this year. Unfortunately, I very (very) quickly realized that either my legs either weren’t “awake” yet, or that it was going to be “just one of those days” when the body and mind aren’t quite in sync. After an initial half-mile stretch on flat trail, we immediately began a one-mile climb to the top of the plateau. During this climb, I tried to remain calm, forget about the other women in front of me, and just let my legs “work out the lead” naturally. When I reached the top of the first plateau after what seemed to be a very laborious early ascent, I decided to give myself two or three more miles on a relatively flat stretch to keep the pace easy and relaxed. Once I hit mile 5, however, I cursed my heavy legs and started an internal monologue that went something like, “Suck it up, Britt. Your legs are not waking up today. This race is going to feel like shit. Get over it. Push through it. Today is now a complete mental game.” After accepting the words of my sometimes-bitchy-but-oftentimes-right “voice of reason,” I declined to stop at the first aid station (mile 5.5) and picked up my pace considerably. There was no getting around it: this race was going to hurt.
Shortly after passing the first aid station, we began to make our way into the slickrock (for those of you who don’t know what slickrock is like, the name is partially deceiving; although the rock as a whole looks like one large, smooth surface, the rock up close – say, for example, when you are trying to run on it – is bumpy and jagged and layered and hard and MEAN). Over the next ten miles, the course followed a pattern of up up up, down down down, inbetween a mix of slickrock and baby-headed jeep trails. During this stretch, I also gathered that I was running somewhere around 10th or 11th place for the women. I could see three or four women not far ahead of me, and I continued to close the gap on them and pick them off gradually, practicing patience. I did have a quick mental scare toward the end of this stretch, however. I was running aside two gentlemen, both of whom were wearing GPS watches. After inquiring to the first guy about what mile we were at, I expected an answer between 14 and 16 miles. So when he looked at his watch and responded with “just under 10 miles I think,” my stomach dropped. Had it really taken me that long and that much effort to go only 4 miles since the first aid station?? Fortunately, the second guy chimed in and told me that we were actually around mile 15. At this, I giggled awkwardly, and told the guys that I was relieved that I hadn’t “reeeeally f*cked something up.” For some reason, I’ve discovered that dudes find it really funny when a girl semi-jokingly swears out on the course, so we all had a good laugh and carried on. […Remember what I said earlier about being certain that I was going to inadvertently include a few uninteresting moments?.......insert deflated sigh here]
When I hit the 3rd aid station at mile 17 – the halfway point, I got in and out as quickly as possible and once again made a conscious effort to pick up my pace. Although my legs were still as heavy (if not heavier) than they were when I started, I was beginning to see more women up ahead, a few of whom I knew were pretty big ultrarunning studs – women I’ve admired since getting into this sport! It was quite a boost seeing them up the course, knowing that I was that close to some of my ultrarunning idols (even if we were only halfway through the race). I had also told Friedman to get to Aid Station 4 if possible (knowing aids 1-3 were in the middle of nowhere), and as much as I hate to admit it, having a fella you’re pretty interested in watch you compete for the first time is very motivating. Knowing that he could potentially be a few miles up the course, along with the motivation of the women ahead, I began to forget my tired legs and started to power up the long slickrock climb ahead.
Coming into the 4th aid station around mile 23, I was actually pretty relieved that there were no spectators (it also turned out to be inaccessible to everyone who didn’t drive a souped-up off-road vehicle); the last long stretch of power climbing had really worn me down, I looked noticeably haggard, and I was ready to hop on the caffeine train. I went into the aid station, refilled my water and gels, and quickly downed three cups of coke. Another funny thing about ultrarunning, I’ve found: as unappealing as coca cola sounds in everyday “real life,” there always comes a point during an ultra when there’s nothing in the world that sounds better. I don’t know if it’s the carbonation, the sweetness, or the fact that you know how much and how soon the caffeine will help, but it always eventually becomes a Liquid from God. Fun fact. Anyway, I had made up a lot of ground on two of the women ahead of me in the last stretch, and I knew there was only one more tough stretch before hitting the last aid station and a 5-mile descent to the finish. Keeping that in mind, I surged to the two women ahead of me (one of them being one of my all-time favorite female ultrarunners!) and gutted out the next tough and technical 5.5 mile stretch right behind them. It was tough to stick, but every time I started to lose them, I forced myself to surge back to their heels.
We finally arrived at the last aid station (mile 28.5) all looking beat up and worked. After chugging another 3 cups of coke, I opted out of filling my water bottle to save time and grabbed a small chunk of banana on the way out – the other women were quick at the aid station, and I didn’t want to lose them after all of the work I had done to stick with them! Despite what the course elevation map showed (a “complete downhill to the finish”), the first mile of the last stretch was all uphill. With legs burning and my mind finding it tough to focus, I started to put some good distance between one of the women. With a little over 3 miles until the finish, the other woman and I went back-and-forth a few times until we came up behind a male runner who was walking in pain with a terrible limp, punching an evident cramp in his leg. Remembering back to how grateful I was to a fellow racer last season who provided me with some much need salt/electrolyte tablets toward the end of the race, I knew I couldn’t simply ignore this racer’s struggle and run right by; plus, I never want to forget the unique above-and-beyond sportsmanship that happens in this sport, no matter how serious a race may be. So with that, I slowed to a walk, quickly opened up my waist strap, grabbed a small handful of tablets, and handed them to him with a friendly-but-bossy, “Take these.” He instantly thanked me with a sound of grateful desperation in his voice, and I took off again.
Now, I don’t know if it was because of the short “break” from running, or because of the instant high you get from helping someone else out, or if it was just good race karma in general, but my body began to fly. Although I could feel the fatigue, I had a very small, but very powerful rush of energy that allowed me to catch and pass the other woman. Once I passed her, there was no looking back. The next 2.5 miles were essentially an all-out animal-mode sufferfest. Thankfully, the last mile was all downhill, albeit pretty technical switchbacks. I’m pretty sure I was making some funny noises at that point, but I didn’t care – I was about to finish the race ahead of some women I never thought I’d even touch. It was one of the greatest highs I’ve experienced in any race yet. Finally…..finally…..I came around the last switchback corner and could see the finish line ahead. Even though I knew I had the other two women behind me beat, I flew through the finish line like I was in a footrace. I just wanted the race to be over! And at long last, it was.
Once I stopped running, I dropped to my knees with shaking legs and tried to catch my breath. Friedman came right over to me and knelt down next to me, supportive, but somewhat confused as to how I did. I realized during the race that the faster 55K runners would be finishing at the same time as a lot of the mid-to-back-of-the-pack 33K racers (both races were happening simultaneously). So apparently Friedman had been at the finish line for some time, watching the 33K women come in and thinking they had all finished ahead of me. He said he was getting worried when a few of the women exclaimed how happy they were to just have been able to finish the race! Don’t get me wrong – I admire these women greatly and this distance is difficult no matter how experienced one may be. But he knew I was hoping to finish around the top 10-15 women, so something wasn’t adding up. After I breathlessly explained to him that those were the 33K women finishing, it made more sense when I excitedly came to the realization and vocalized that I was somewhere near the top-5. I knew three of the women who had beat me and I assumed there were probably one or two others of whom I wasn’t aware. I figured I was either 5th or 6th, and I was ecstatic about either one!
When they posted the first set of results a half-hour later, it was confirmed: 5th place! And on top of that, I was much, much closer than I thought to the three women ahead of me who I knew. I won’t pretend that I’m yet a contender to these particular women, but on a day in which my body wasn’t all there, and with my lack of much experience in this sport, I am very, very satisfied with my progress from last season and the start of my 2014 season! Exciting year ahead, I hope…
55K (34 miles)
~ 4,000 feet elevation gain
5/100 Overall Female
2/23 Age Group (20-29)
30/293 (Male and Female Combined)
5 hours, 1 minute, 41 seconds