Yesterday morning found me lining up with 200 or so other runners for the annual Desert R.A.T.S. Trailrunning Festival outside Fruita, Colorado. Technically this is a trail "race," but I'd reconciled myself a few weeks ago to taking this one as easy as possible: months of recurring colds had meant my mileage bank was nowhere up to par for a race like this one. The longest training run I'd managed this spring was an 18-miler, two months before, and it hadn't even been all that hilly. So I resolved to stick to an easy pace and enjoy the gorgeous red-rock scenery along the Colorado River.
And we're off! I try to stick to the back of the pack, to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of the race start. On our left, Interstate 70 and the town of Mack; on our right, a hint of the climbing yet to come. The first part of the race is on a wide dirt road, allowing all the runners to disperse at their own paces before the real climbing starts.
Around mile 15, climbing a steep ridge, I stopped taking photos. I was getting really hot, and while I did my best to stay hydrated, the Gatorade in my hydration pack was warm. Yuck! I pulled off the trail, reapplied sunscreen, put the camera away, and ate another GU.
I hit my low point in the race between miles 17 and 19. The heat was really getting to me, and I was feeling my lack of proper training keenly. I'd also taken a fall at mile 8, and by mile 16 my knee was swelling a lot. I started to feel a little woozy around mile 19 and considered sitting down to cool off, but kept going -- albeit slowly -- knowing an aid station was coming up around mile 19.5.
I hobbled into the aid station with three or four other runners who also looked to be ailing. I crouched in the shade offered by the aid-station canopy as a volunteer added some cold water to my hydration pack. Another volunteer handed me a small paper cup of cola, saying it might help settle my stomach. I drank the cola slowly, savoring its taste and the shade. I overheard other runners talking about dropping, and felt my resolve to finish harden as the cola started to refresh me.
At the start line, hours earlier, another runner who'd done this race before had cautioned "Save yourself for the hill after the 19-mile aid station: it's a killer!" But interestingly, as I left the aid station and headed up the hill, I felt so much better than I'd felt earlier, that the hill, while steep, didn't seem so bad. I had a new spring in my step -- tiny uphill steps -- and although my knee was still bothering me I was mostly able to put it out of my mind. O the miracle of a cold Coca-Cola!
The climb kept going and going, with a number of false summits: I'd see the runner ahead of me reach what looked like the top, but then realize when I made it there that it was just the beginning of the next climb further ahead. During miles 21 to 23, I tried to just relax and take it one step at a time, alternating running and walking. The terrain here was rolling, with no extreme ups or downs. Along the trail I saw two people on horseback, looking for all the world as if they'd stepped out of an old western -- or perhaps I'd stepped into one!
Finally, at mile 23, the descent began back to the start line. Running downhill, I started to get cramps on my right side. I'd stop and walk, and take deep breaths, and it would feel better... and after running for a while the cramps would start again.
Finally the finish line came into view, and with it... my dad! He'd jogged perhaps 1/2 mile out to watch my approach. At this point my GPS read 25.8 miles, and I was definitely ready to be done. I jogged to the finish, tired but happy.
Going into the race, I knew I was not prepared for it, and I got exactly what I deserved: a tough day, baking in the heat and hobbling toward the finish line. Had the scenery not been so spectacular, this might have been a very unpleasant experience!
Every race experience, good and bad, offers useful lessons if you're paying attention.
So, here are some lessons I learned today from Desert R.A.T.S. :
- Log plenty of long runs, ideally approximating the terrain you'll be covering on the course. This one is a no-brainer, and I know better. But having spent so much of the early spring being sick, I was so eager to get out on a beautiful trail that I tried to rely on mental toughness to help me go the distance. I did finish, but the experience would certainly have been more fun if my conditioning had been better.
- Find a way to keep your water (or whatever you're drinking) cold. When I started to overheat, I kept drinking but it stopped tasting good, and didn't help me stay cool.
- Core strengthening is so important! I think the right-side cramps that came on toward the end of the race may have been due to my form getting sloppy as I became tired. Had my core been stronger, I might have been able to hold better posture later into the race.
- This one is hard to avoid sometimes in a trail race, but I'll offer this lesson anyway: Don't fall! And more specifically, don't fall at mile 8 if you've got another 17 or 18 miles to go! Initially it didn't bother me, but starting at mile 16, my knee really swelled a lot, and it got harder to put my full weight on it (this unbalanced gait may well have led to my right-side cramps toward the end, too).
Despite my challenges, I thoroughly enjoyed this race. The scenery is spectacular, the camaraderie of other runners very supportive, and the volunteers wonderful. I highly recommend this scenic and well-organized race.
See you on the trail!