50 Miles Through the Desert
It was cold, then hot, then cold.
A year of working from home has meant 2 hours less in the car each day so more time to get back to running! After races kept being cancelled, I decided to up the challenge … a 50 mile race through the desert of Arizona. Good news is that it was in December and not July.
I arrived in Arizona on Thursday before the Saturday McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 Mile race. This gave me time to continue Zoom work meetings and rest.
One good thing I learned that came in handy post-race was the choice of staying at a hotel casino (Talking Stick Resort). Reason for this? 24 hour access to food! More about that after the race …
The organizers of the day of events, Aravaipa Running, did a fantastic job of creating an environment to keep everyone safe! Spectators and crew were not allowed and fully stocked aid stations at had pre-packaged or to-go items. Only the amazing volunteers touched the food wearing gloves and masks to distribute.
The starting line was moved an hour earlier, 6am, to accommodate waves of 10-15 runners every 5 minutes. That means starting the day with a headlamp and finishing the day with a headlamp. Planning is critical in these adventures!
Views of the sunrising over the mountains was spectacular. The trail was rocky and had plenty of opportunity to trip. Cactuses look like people standing still and staring at you in the dark. Just thought you should know.
As the started to rise, the temperature did as well. Not a ton, but enough to fill it. As it was a race through the desert, Billy Crystal would chastise me if I didn’t take a selfie with a cactus.
About 11 miles in was the first aid station. I was good on fluids but grabbed a couple slices of pickles, Coke, and a bag of chips then back out onto the trail.
This is about when the sun started to become noticeable. As you can see in the photos, zero clouds. By this time, I have settled into the pack of runners I’ll be hanging out with most of the day. It is fun to travel to a place where you don’t know anyone and make friends. Part of it is due to common experiences and part of it for survival. You never know when you may fall and hit your head.
Finished loop and hit the same aid station again at mile 18. I refilled up the water to make sure was covered for the next 10 mile segment. My approach to aid stations is basically whatever my body wants. A consistent pattern today was around pickles. Grabbed a few more slices, pbj, Coke, and back out for 10 miles.
This section was the most brutal of the day. It was now mid-morning so sun in full effect with zero shade. Fortunately, started running with 2 others that were great to listen to. One was Army stationed in Albuquerque and the other a local. I wasn’t really up for chatting and pace was a little more than I was feeling. So I listened to the conversation, chimed in every once and awhile. Then the local fell. She got scraped up, but didn’t seem too bad with a little blood. I would call that a souveneir.
Mile 28 was the base of Thompson Peak. I had been staring at it for the past hour while moving forward. A couple miles before this aid station, a 50k runner ran past me.
He said “at least all the climbing is pretty much done for the race!”
I replied, “pretty sure we are not running the same race.”
He looked at my bib and replied “oh shit! sorry about that and good luck with Thompson Peak!”
I hit the aid station at the base knowing I needed salt and calories. Pickles and Coke continue to be my go-to. A surprise excitement was finding chicken salad pita sandwiches. Never in my life have I had one before a run let alone during a run! For some reason though, maybe normalcy of it being lunchtime, it sounded really good. I had 2 of them! Followed by Coke, small bag of chips, and grabbed some trail mix to go.
Now to go up. See those radio towers at the top? That’s the turnaround spot.
Running has definitely taught me patience. Eye on the goal and one step at a time. Patience. I have found in the corporate world that being patient and calm can be perceived as a negative. Like I am so calm that I don’t care. Yet there are others who appreciate the ability to stay calm under pressure, complexity, or in an emergency. Pretty sure you don’t want an Emergency Room doc acting frantic while you’re bleeding out of your leg.
On the way up, another runner was on all fours climbing up. Yes, it was that steep. My concern was that if I followed that strategy, I may lay down and not get back up. So I continued with hands on the top of my knees taking one step at a time. Also, my phone was about out of power and charging stick in drop bag back at the aid station. That meant no music or audio assistance. That led me to sing random songs from AJR to Blake Shelton to Megadeath. I do love music.
Once getting to the top, the view was worth it.
It was above the mountains and clouds. But needed to head back down because clock was ticking.
Coming down Thompson’s Peak might have sucked more than going up. It was steep. And for those that have done the Manitou Springs Incline, it’s that kind of steep without stairs. So needless to say it put some strain on the quads and knees. I was trying to slalom down, hop down, side to side, backwards … but halfway down my right knee tapped out. I could feel a big knot or something large just above my knee. My quick medical assumption was that I stretched and stressed out my quad or IT Band. So it didn’t want anything to do with this adventure any longer. Mile 31. 19 miles to go and have to get off this mountain side still.
At the aid station at the bottom of Thompson Peak, I grabbed a variety of food and sat next to my drop bag. This was my plan and what kept me moving down the mountain. I ate as much as I felt I had time for, grabbed some to go food and started up out of the aid station.
The next 10 miles were fairly flat so lots of jogging then walking. Making good time moving forward.
Around mile 40 it started to get dark. The last aid station was at the Start/Finish line. I could see the bright lights, but started to get disoriented on the trail. I didn’t feel like I had seen a course marker in awhile and trail didn’t seem as defined. At one point, I think I came to what looked like a ravine and had no idea how to backtrack or what direction I was to go.
Eventually, I found my way to the Start/Finish aid station. Nothing I wanted in my drop bag, so got more pickles, Coke, pbj, and maybe an Oreo or 6. I sat for a moment and chatted with people. I had an 8 mile loop remaining in the dark on a section I had not been on before. This was going to be interesting.
One of the fun parts was this event also included night races. That means fresh happy new runners out passing me. It also helped with some reassurance that I was not completely lost.
It was probably around mile 47 that my mind really started to go. For some reason up until this point, I never really thought of a concern for wildlife. Maybe it was because all day I could see quite far around me in the desert. Except now it was night and I had been out on my feet for over 12 hours. Thoughts of coyotes watching me started to consume my mind. Every cactus I ran by was a mass murderer standing by ready to attack.
At this point I didn’t care. The goal was so closely in sight. Like literally. I could see the lights of the finish line off in the distance.
Around mile 49, I did make sure to look up and enjoy all the stars in the desert night sky. I have missed seeing the Milky Way outline in the night sky with living closer to the city these days. So many stars. Reminder of how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
I trudged along and course popped out along the parking lot towards the finish line. A few runners that I had run with earlier in the day cheered me on with great enthusiasm. One step in front of the other until crossing the finish line.
It was a long day but rewarding. The lack of training made it hurt more than it should, but still covered the 50 miles. Now the goal was to drive back to the hotel. I didn’t stick around the finish area for long (also due to Covid restrictions), but to make sure I can start driving while still feeling good.
Once back to the casino hotel, I knew where I was going. Stopped at the 24 hour bakery and almost ordered one of everything. Very dangerous after being about negative 10,000 calories to stare at a display of pastries. I chose a large cherry danish and cappuccino, then headed to my room.
I was moving surprisingly well. Carrying all of my gear, drop-bags, and food. While I could have ordered room service, I thought it might be good to keep moving. I was tired, but not sleepy. So I made it down to the 24 hour restaurant to order a cheesburger, sushi roll, and large Coke. Seriously, stay at casino hotel for next ultra race as they have choices!
The finisher medal was all wood and very cool! I worried that it would break in my suitcase so made sure to wrap it really well. I also received a beer glass which I will use often. This was a great event that was put on safely in Covid restriction times. Course is challenging and technical so don’t expect to fall asleep at the feet. Great people and great community all around!