Race Recap: 2015 USATF Trail Marathon Championship

Warning: This race report is long. But, so was the race. It takes more than a few minutes to tell the story of a race that took me almost 5 hours. I apologize.

When Alex and I jumped on I-70 toward Moab, the plan was to enjoy a nice camping trip and to do some mountain biking. Sure, I had all my race gear in the car just in case, but I really didn't intend to run the Moab Trail Marathon. After how wiped out I felt during/after the Lake Padden trail half, I was ready for some downtime before starting my build-up for next year. Then, around Grand Junction, CO, Alex turned to me and said "You know you want to run, so maybe you should just do it!" Conveniently, if I was off running a race for a few hours, it would give Alex an opportunity to go for a harder mountain bike ride than I would be comfortable with. Knowing it was probably a monumentally stupid idea, I decided maybe he was right.

We got into town and set about finding a camp site on the race course, in a cute side canyon with a creek. Now, some of you know I haven't had the best experiences with camping in the past, but I felt less threatened by the idea of car camping and, though it would be chilly at night, it helped that we wouldn't have any rain this time. When we had everything set up, we went to pick up my race number, even though I wasn't 100% convinced I would be racing (at that point, I was around 80%, and I assumed that if I started the race, I would turn off to finish the half marathon instead of the full...)

Number in hand, we drove back down the canyon to our tent and got everything organized for the next morning. I usually obsess about every little detail before a race. I don't deviate too far from my traditional pre-race menu, I need the right amount of sleep, and so on... This time, because I wasn't sure I was running, and I WAS sure that I wasn't racing, I took a much more relaxed approach. I rehydrated some freeze-dried camping food for dinner, slept on the ground, and made it to the starting line with barely a second to spare before we were off and running. In a way, I think that was good because it didn't give me a chance to get nervous.

For once in my running life, I didn't go out stupidly hard. The first several miles are on sand and are rather crowded as the half marathoners and full marathoners were running together, so I started out pretty conservatively. I figured that if I was going to be out there for a long time, it would probably be a bad idea to waste all my energy in the first hour. Because of the approach I took and the combined race course, I had no idea what place I was in. And, honestly, for once it didn't really matter to me. I was out there to learn and grow and to play in the dirt. I intended to push my limits and let the results fall where they may. On a course like that one, the race is just as much (if not more) about competing against your mind and the course as it is about racing the other athletes.

I had a few hiccups on some of the longer climbs just because I hadn't been training for that at all. (Remember: I was originally training to run a fast time at California International  Marathon, a course FAR flatter than Moab!) But, I still felt like I was moving fairly well... until I hit a wall. Scorched Earth Wall, to be specific. This was a long climb that started around 14 miles. To paint a little picture: to your left is a beautiful panorama of the wide-open desert and the red rocks of Moab, along with a huge drop-off. So, if you have even a slight phobia of heights, looking down would be a very bad idea. But, with how rocky the footing is, you probably shouldn't take your eyes off the ground directly in front of you anyway. 

From the beginning of the race, I had been religiously consuming a gel every 30 minutes. Unfortunately, I hadn't been so meticulous about my hydration / refilling my bottles at aid stations, so I soon found myself without water and growing more dizzy and nauseous by the minute. About halfway up Scorched Earth Wall, I found a big rock to sit on to ponder my predicament. In that moment, I figured I had two options. 1. I could walk back down the hill to the previous aid station to drop out. Or 2. I could drag myself up the rest of the climb to the next aid station and then drop out. I really didn't see any chance of me finishing the race. I was done. 

As I sat there, questioning what I had done so wrong in my life to end up in this bind, a few of my fellow runners encouraged me to get up and move with them for at least 60 seconds. They promised me that, if I needed to, I could stop after those 60 seconds. So, I did. I either had to make forward or backward movement anyway. I was dehydrated, and sitting there wouldn't get me any closer to water... I did this probably about 5 times. I would move with a group of runners for about a minute, and then sit down again, questioning my own stupidity in deciding to run and pretty sure I was going to die out there.

Then, something marvelous happened: we reached the top of Hurrah Pass! There was still a little while until the next aid (at Mile 17.5), but it was mostly downhill. I still fully planned on dropping out when I got there. I couldn't see myself getting through to 26 miles. But, when we arrived, I discovered that this aid was incredibly remote - the volunteers had come in on some kind of crazy, rugged Jeep, and if I dropped they wouldn't be able to get me out until the race was over several hours later. Those wonderful volunteers helped me refill my bottles and got me to drink a couple tiny cups of soda and it turned my day around. Now, I have to say that I never understood when ultrarunners have told me about drinking soda at aid stations, but in that moment it was some sort of miracle elixir. While it did make me burp constantly for about a mile, my stomach started to calm almost instantly and I was able to run again. Who knew Coke was magic?

By then, I had sort of settled into a nice little group of runners. Sometimes a few would move ahead if they were feeling good or drop back during a rough patch, but we all seemed to regroup pretty frequently over the next few miles. I was having a hard time around mile 21 and it just so happened that some mountain bikers were coming down the hill we were running up. I turned to warn the runners behind me to be alert, and when I looked back there was Alex! He had met up with some bikers whose significant others were racing, so they set out to find us! I could have stopped to chat with Alex because I was so happy to see him, but he reminded me that I still had some running to do. The struggles I  had been experiencing just moments before were completely forgotten. I felt like a new runner and definitely didn't feel like I had been running for 21 miles already. 

I felt strong and ready to take on the last part of the course, which would turn out to be the most interesting stretch of running I have encountered so far... In the final 3 miles, we had to complete the "adventure 5k" course. That was a race of its own, but we, the crazy ones running the marathon, had to run it after we were already quite tired and delirious. Before the race, I had heard about the "rock climbing" portion but, as a former rock climber, I thought it would be a piece of cake. However, when I actually reached this section, I just had to stop and laugh for a moment. We were really going to climb up a rock face, with 24 miles already in our legs and with only a thin handline to help us up. I was really glad they had stationed a volunteer on this section to help with advice on hand/foot placement as well as a few words of encouragement, because my mind wasn't quite about to process what I was asking it to do.

After a little jaunt around the mesa, over some slickrock, and down another steep rock face, we had a (seemingly never-ending) section of flat, dirt parking lot. From a way off we could see the finish line and I found myself flying past several men, pulled by a magnetic attraction toward those banners. Finally, I clawed my way up the last steep, sandy hill and threw myself across the finish line of my second marathon and most definitely the hardest race I have attempted (so far). While I was certainly tired, I was ecstatic and more proud of myself than I have ever been. I took on something that seemed absolutely crazy - and still does, 3 weeks later - and faced some seriously dark moments, but I pushed through and I DID IT!
USATF Top 10 women.
Yes, I'm wearing a bear hat. I was cold.

While I said earlier that I didn't really care about place during the race, as soon as it was over, I just HAD to know... Already this year I had run two USATF championship races and narrowly missed my goal of a Top 10 finish each time with 11th at the Mountain Running Championship and 12th at the Trail Half Marathon Championship. Alex and I hung around the finish for a little bit, but the results were unclear, and we were starving... We went back into town to grab some lunch. While there, we were able to get on some wi-fi to try to find results. Here's where I have some mixed feelings. While I was the 13th female finisher in the Moab Trail Marathon, several of the women ahead of me didn't have current USATF memberships, so I ended up 5th in the Championship field. While I'm very excited to have my first national championship medal, it feels a little... I don't know... off. But, I will take it and I feel a lot more motivated to work hard in 2016 so I can race harder and smarter. This race was a tremendous learning and growing experience for me, and I'm so glad Alex is such an enabler!

Arches National Park

Since he let me have my little adventure, the rest of the trip was about having fun together. We did a little mountain biking near town and spent a few hours exploring Arches National Park. We're both really excited to go back to Moab at some point in the future and I'm really excited to exact vengeance on Scorched Earth Wall next year!

Gear I used:
  • Shoes: HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat - Good amount of cushion for a lot of time on my feet and great traction on the aptly-named slickrock.
  • Hydration: Ultimate Direction UltraVesta pack with water in both bottles. The pockets were great for the excessive number of gels I took with me, and the interior pockets gave me room to stash my jacket and gloves after I took them off, plus extra "just in case" supplies. This pack is also so comfortable and light that I forgot I was wearing it!
  • Impressive new gear: RocketPure Friction Therapy Balm --- I've never used any blister prevention products before I met the RocketPure folks up in Bellingham, WA, but I've been blown away by how well this stuff works! I'll definitely be doing some gear features on their products because y'all need to know about them! As I said, a lot of this course was on sand (most of which seemed to make its way into my shoes!), but since I used Friction Therapy
    With my super strong friend Ashley after I finished
    (Both wearing RecoFit gear!)
    Balm, I finished the race with only two small blisters. I know it sounds like if I got blisters, the product didn't work, but I saw some nasty blisters in the med tent after the race, so I know that RocketPure's magic protected my feet from some brutal destruction.
  • Compression: I've been wearing compression socks for several years, but I recently got connected with RecoFit at the Trail Running Conference and I decided to give their calf sleeves a try. Look for a review sometime in the near future but, for now, just know that they're great!
  • Most important: every volunteer who gave up their Saturday to help a bunch of weirdos running around the desert and every single one of my fellow weirdos... The trail running community is just amazing and I'm so grateful to have shared this experience with such wonderful people!
Thank you Flatirons Running, HOKA ONE ONE, Racxers, RocketPure (and, of course, my Alex) for getting me to the start and finish line of this race! I'm taking some time to cross train and rehab a funky hip flexor thing I got from sitting too much at my desk at work, but my tentative plan is to start back to racing at the USATF Cross Country Championship in Bend, OR in February. As soon as I've made a decision on my coaching situation and get this hip healthy, I'll start to put together a racing schedule for 2016. But, I definitely have to go back to Bend. Hooray! If anyone has any "must do" races I should look at, let me know in the comments section!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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