“You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.” ~Quentin Crisp
Friday night, Runners arrive at packet pick-up which starts at 3pm. At3pm, RD Aaron arrives and is immediately hurrying to set registration up. He looks exhausted, flustered and.. is scrambling. A few of us stepped right in to lend him and Jenna a hand. Things were VERY chaotic and unorganized.. and the pre-race meeting started late. This is when we found out why and what eventually started a maelstrom of frustration from the runners. (NOTE: At this moment… Aaron stepped forward and offered to refund anyone their money who no longer wished to start their race. That’s right.. before you jumped into what was about to take place.. you have a sweet offer to back out.. take your money and use it for a great weekend in Moab.)
Course Changes: The 100 milers were supposed to run a 50 mile loop to the north. Due to torrential rains in the days before the race, huge wash-outs had been reported in the area and during course marking, Aaron had his jeep swallowed up by quicksand. Yeah.. the guys jeep was up to it's windows in Moab red-clay sand. He had to walk 15 miles back to camp, in the dark, rainy cold night.. and figure out what to do with his race. This is why he looked so haggard.. he hadn't slept in awhile.
Because of this.. the chaos began. On the fly, Aaron had to change all three of his races (50K, 50m and 100m). Each course had a new course and we all ran pretty much on the same section to the South which was pretty much the second 50 miles of the 100. Aaron hadn't even had time to re-print out maps, or to write down aid station names, mileages etc. From what little notes he'd scratched on a piece of paper, he told us what the changes were, to the best he could. He told us the approx. mileages, drop bag stations, crew stops, etc... he did an amazing job for having to do this on the fly.. absolutely incredible.
After hearing all the changes, Sarah and I ran down into Moab to grab dinner and to also find a hotel. I walked into a hotel a pretended to be a guest so I could sit down in the hotel office center and print out the course maps from before. Then, I went to a local outfitter and bought a Moab trail map where I then transcribed the course onto that map, committed most of it to memory, marked aid stations for Sarah and then, stuffed a few map copies into my pack. I was prepared and hoped many of the other runners had as well.
We huddled around in the crisp damp morning air. It started to pour at about 4am. Who knew that it could rain so much in the desert. We certainly found out that there’s a rainy season and we’re in it. The rain still fell lightly around 6am as we waited for the starting orders. I looked around for Jason, a runner from Casper, WY who was still trying to finish his first 100 miler. We agreed to run together. Just before the race started I spotted him, we said high, heard the faint dying cry of a soaked air horn and we were off.
Jason started off running at a good clip. As we headed off down Dubinsky Wash Road, I found myself struggling to keep up. I guess over the last few years, as I’ve trained to run less, I’ve trained to walk faster more. I tried to keep up with Jay, he’s looking to be about 6′ something while I’m a paltry 5’6″. He’s got a longer stride and more zeal I think, for now anyway, and we stick together. I figure if I could talk I wasn’t running hard enough. Yet as we ran down the road and I tried to chat to get to know each other, I was too winded to let out a complete sentence.
The rain kept coming down early. I was thankful for this because as crew vehicles began to pass us, I was happy that the dust was non-existent. As we made our way to the end of the dirt road, Sarah pulled up in her car and told me that she doesn’t meet me at Wash Out. An aid station I thought sat at the 6 mile mark, where I had planned to get supplies. In all the confusion of the race changes, I must have missed where this was no longer a crew stop. We also had discussed how she wasn’t going to be able to get our car into the Gemini Bridges stop at mile 13. So she stopped the car and I grabbed what I needed to refuel myself and take care of myself up until mile 33. I thanked her and she was off. Normally I wouldn’t accept aid from my crew outside of an aid station, but in seeing how many other runners were doing this at this point, I hardly felt guilty or concerned about breaking any rules.
Jason ran ahead while I dropped trow and applied the Body Glide I forgot to smear on before the race start. I got every place i usually chafe and I’m glad I did considering the conditions this morning. I caught back up with Jay and we took a right, entered onto the trails and headed off into the desert. It really is strange how everything out here looks the same. Every rock, every tree, every hole.. everything. It’s all the same. I could see how getting lost wouldn’t be any fun, and the ability to find your way back once being lost virtually non-existent. Given all the changes to the course and the way things were shaping up with sporadic course markings, we agreed that the only way and the best way to survive this race was to stick together in groups.
Running With The Law
We slowly collected another runner named Dave, and then a group of runners who had gotten lost caught back up to us, we were now a group of 5. I was pretty tickled to find out that 4 out of the 5 runners in our little group were all lawyers or attorneys. It was pretty comical to listen to their discussions. I let them run ahead while I shot video and gave some commentary. Ten minutes later I had caught up to them and they were still discussing law topics. Gag me! “You must be enamored by our conversation Sherpa!” I couldn’t stop laughing when they said this as I was simply bored to tears.
As we made it into Gemini Aid station, the wind had picked up a bit, I’m guessing because we were a bit higher on the plateau now. Very few crews seem to have made the trek in with needing a high clearance 4wd vehicle to get here. It was still raining to beat the band but as you looked around the desert, you could see rays of hope peaking through cloud banks. The first aid station wasn’t all that great. Three volunteers cutting up food and preparing small sandwiches for over 200 runners. They were overwhelmed all ready and struggling to keep up. There was little to graze from and I’m glad I had taken extra food from Sarah when I saw her.
We left here and followed the jeep roads through god knows where. Simply trying to find the way and hoping to not get lost. We kept Dave close and we all continued to shoot the shit as we meandered down the trail. Soon the rain let up and the clouds began to lift. Still a bit gloomy but we were glad the sun hadn’t come out to beat down upon us. Somewhere down the road we ran into Jason’s wife who had driven their car about as far up the road as she was comfortable doing. After we left her, we saw the kind of terrain she drove over and were really quite impressed with her resiliency to get in as far as she could. I know Jason was happy as he got some extra aid. (Later we’d find out that many of the racer crews were given the wrong directions in getting to Gemini Bridges which is why crew attendance was low.. many couldn’t drive their cars up the jeep road.. when in fact an easier access road existed that even 2WDlow clearance vehicles could have managed).
Into the Hole
After leaving Jay’s wife we started running down hill. Soon we started seeing the 50K runners heading back. I knew a few of the runners heading in the other direction looked like 100 mile runners and had 100 miler bib numbers on. It was obvious a few folks had had enough of the wind, rain, limited aid and no access to crew and had decided to cut their loses early. We soldiered on, eventually arriving at what we called “Gold Bar Low.” As we ran into the aid station I heard someone yelling out my name and screaming for me to get my butt moving. It was Doug Newton and I was actually incredibly appreciate and jazzed up by his energy and support. While in the station he got me anything I needed while also helping other runners. It was the ultimate balancing act and he was large and in charge. I so appreciated his help and energy that it actually energized me. We took off running and headed off down a flat road at the base of a wide canyon.
Everything was covered in sand from the last aid stop. As I ate my PB&J I could taste every bit of gritty sand that was caught within the slices of bread. I had sad on my water bottles. I had sand on my hands. I felt like a windy day at the beach just happened and everything was covered. I found comedy in this though so we laughed as we ran along. Jay and I lost Dave. We thought he was behind us at the station, we walked for a bit before giving up and getting back up into a run. Soon we met up with a blonde girl from Denver. We had our introductions except hers was different. Part of her introduction was lifting her short legs enough to show us the scar on her left thigh.
So come to find out, last December this girl was hiking along in the Indian Peaks Wilderness outside of Denver. She stumbled and slide down a 1000′ snow slope, crashing into a boulder at the bottom and fracturing her femur. Her hiking partner rushed to her side while they waited for help. When Search and Rescue (SAR) had finally reached her, she had 3 minutes to get on the chopper or they were leaving without her because of a fast approaching winter storm. 3 minutes came and went and they left her and her friend there. This girl sat in the snow with a broken femur and endured an epic winter storm, blizzard conditions and 60mph winds for over a day and a half before they returned. She shouldn’t be alive. Her doctors later told her she’d never run again (you’ve heard this before) and now… 9 months later, she’s running in her first 100 miler.
So… Jay and I listened to her story and watch as she took off from us. We agreed that we instantly became the biggest wimps on the face of the earth and had nothing else to say. She left us speechless yet inspired. In Awe… mouths agape.. incredible. Around the corner we found Dave, all smiles. We gave him a ration of crap for leaving us behind, telling him that we waited for him not knowing it was he who was in front of us. Back together our group continued to climb to the next aid station which we referred to as “Gold Bar High.” We stumbled in and I thought we were at the top of our long climb. The aid workers had gotten here with souped up Jeeps with suspension systems worth more then everything I own. We grabbed what we could, joked around and listened to the warning of the aid workers… “When you leave here, follow the white dots. Someone has removed the course ribbons and we’re not sure how far in they’ve been removed.” Great…
It didn’t take long for us to be off course. This section was a series of switch backs. But not the normal switch backs that allow you to side hill an up or down section. The switch backs were the up and down section. We’d head down along the top of the slick rock, then turn and switch back and head back up the slick rock. We walked precariously along the tops of deep canyons and, we walked precariously along the top of a huge 2000+ foot cliff which dropped down the road which leads into Arches National Park. 4 of us struggled to find the route and at times, 8 of us struggled together. We were literally combing this area, trying to find white dots or pink ribbons. This is for certain where the team effort we talked about all morning was coming into play. And then we talked, about how at night, there is no way any of us, together or not, were going to find our way across the ridge without getting lost, hurt, or killed.
Soon we were sharing the trail with armies of dirt bikes and armies of custom jeeps. We kept following white dots until eventually, we once again found pink ribbon. Finally the sun had come out and the clouds were lifting. We all stopped to delayer and get more comfortable. I felt amazing as my soaked clothing finally started to dry out. I was hanging my rain jacket off of my pack in my attempt to dry that out. The terrain was ever changing now. Slick rock turned into rockier sections with desert sand mixed in for fun. We ran down into deep canyons where cacti and other pointy plants lived all the while glaring up at colorful red canyon walls. Then we were running across the tops of petrified sand dunes and in this section, we felt so incredibly on the moon given the resemblance to a moon scape. This entire course thus far, no matter how desolate and frustrating, was incredibly breath taking.
Back On Track
Soon we found ourselves running across the top of a large mesa. We enjoyed expansive views of the Moab valley to the South and West, with towering pillars, petrified sand dunes, and a collection of other sand and rock formations I couldn’t even try to find the names of. To the South and South East, where we were heading over the next 16 miles, was the canyon lands. An area that closely resembles the likes of the Grand Canyon. Dave seemed to gas out a bit and Jason and I were feeling strong. So we opted to stretch out our legs and run ahead. We attacked this long 3 mile downhill section as best we could. We ran with purpose and walked with purpose. Across rock, through sand, around jeeps, under brush.. we dodged a bit of everything. And then finally, we began a long, normal, section of switch backs which led us back and forth and down to Poison Spider, a trailhead along the banks of the mighty Colorado River where both of our crews were settled in.
Jay headed to his car to change his shoes while I worked with Sarah near the aid tent. I snacked on what little they had there. Half a PB & J, some fruit, a cup of chips, a cup of Fritos, chugged some soda. Whatever I could get my hands on. I sat down and munched while Sarah continued to attend to my pack and prepare me for the next 6 mile section of flat, paved road. While sitting there I saw Dave sitting with his crew, and there was chatter of more course changes. I walked over to hear what was up, “So now, you guys are going to climb Long Canyon, then head to the start/finish, then do the 50K out and back.” It was great to hear that they were no longer going to have us repeat this loop we were just on. It’s brutal and there is no way we could safely navigate the ribbon-less rim. I took the information and ran down to Jay, collected my new running buddy and we headed out.
As we ran along the Colorado River, we chatted about the changes. It didn’t make sense to me. As I counted up the milage I knew, the route that was just explained to me would come up 20 miles short of 100. I knew something was amiss yet, we kept running. I think I was driving Jason crazy. I talked his ear off. And every time he started to talk, I picked up the pace and ran. He was comfortable at a fast walk for awhile. He had changed his shoes and admitted it was a mistake. Yet I knew this road section was our chance to make up some time. Even still, we held back, engaged in great conversation, deepened a new friendship and admired the towering canyons walls that surrounded us.
After while we noticed that no one was gaining on us or even appeared to be coming. Then we spotted the Yugoslavian, whose name escapes me, up ahead. We decided reel him yet, yet slowly, over the course of the next 2 miles. Just as we began to approach the Long Canyon aid station at the end of this long, flat, torturous 6 miles of pavement, we caught him, and passed him and then entered the aid station.
Where we going now?
In the aid station we heard another version of where we were going to go. Top of the Canyon, to Dead Horse, then to Gemini Bridges then up to Gold Bar High.. then turn around and go to the start/finish. Then, we heard another version.. “No… it’s Dead Horse, then Gemini, then Gold Bar low.. then back to the S/F.” Whatever! We got what gear we needed for a long haul up to Dead Horse. We’d see our crew there but it was 12 miles away, 6 of which was all uphill and it was starting to get dark.. especially so in these canyons where the sun disappeared early. I ate some under cooked ramen soup, sandwich, then kissed Sarah farewell before Jay and I began our walk into the abyss.
The yugoslavian and left ahead of us and was a man on a mission. We weren’t going to catch him as he was all ready a quarter mile ahead, just within sight. Jason discovered that he had developed a bad blister on the ball of his foot. We took turns trying to find the least rocky section of trail as we headed up Long Canyon. And a long canyon it was. We walked along a long wash out/drainage that abutted this long dirt road up and up and up through this canyon of towering red rock walls. It was spectacular. I felt like I was on Mars, or in the middle of the actual Grand Canyon. The higher we climbed the more breath taking the views got. On one of the switch backs of the road, I had to stop. I walked to the top of a rock and just gazed out into the open expanse we were conquering. If I was alone I would have cried. Instead, I silently stood upon high and felt the wind brush across my face. My eyes welled up and I took a moment to say hi to Moe. This was my moment in this race.. this is where finish or not, I had my fill and knew that this was one of those special places in my life.. perhaps the coolest place I’ve ever been and a place perhaps my ashes would be spread (morbid I know but it was that friggin cool!).
Jason and I carried on. Talking, joking chatting. Talking about dropping out. Wondering where the course actually went after this. We soon came to a huge rock, what appeared to me the top of a pillar that had collapsed long ago, that was now leaning against the canyon wall and created a tiny arch way to walk under. On the other side, the canyon walls shrunk in and revealed to us, from the closing in of the world around us, why this was referred to as Alice and Wonderland Canyon.
As we round the final corners we ran into a few folks we’d been running into often on the course. They had driven down a road to find their runner, Carrie, and cheer her on. We thought maybe she was who was behind us. A runner we’d been watching creep up on us for the lat 2 miles and let me tell you, make some awesome ground/time heading uphill all that while like we were standing still. Maybe we were.. for some of it. Anyway.. We reached the top of the canyon and got some water. We then got a new version of the course. “Run to Dead Horse, then to the Start/Finish, then run the 50K out and back, then return for a 10 mile out and back.” SCREW THAT! “Then someone else chimed in with, last I heard they were going to the start/finish, then just doing out and backs.” Jason and I just started laughing. You know.. the madness laugh. Where you’ve heard enough and now you’re just going crazy?
Then I looked over and saw a sign on a fence post that someone, was getting married. What?! We are out in the middle of no where. I later found out that this particular place on the map is called Pucker Mesa or something and at any rate.. someone had just tied the knot. I’d seen it all now. A wedding, on the course, during an ultra. Jason and I took off climbing up the road, still moving at a good clip. As soon as we crested the hill I picked up into a run, and then.. Jason’s blister popped. He slowed to damn near a crawl for a bit while he straightened himself out, I kept running after he told me he’d catch up.
Down the road I ran into those folks again, the ones looking for Carrie. “Ok… so we heard from here you run down this road to Gemini Bridges.. then head to Gold Bar Low, then back to Gemini, all the way back to here.. then to the start finish.” If this was true, I wouldn’t see my crew again until the finish line. “Dead horse no longer exists… and.. the front runners have all ready gone the wrong way.” Now I’m hearing, no more crew, front runners on a different course.. our brains are fried. I’ve grown so tired of these changes that I start talking to other runners..
They encourage me not to quit.. and when I tell them that this is my 20th event of 100 miles or more.. they get it that I’ve go nothing to prove and no place to be. My brain is fried. Mentally exhausted. Every single time I heard a course change.. I was re-configuring my game plan in my head. As it grew dark, we kept getting passed by runners, and each one had a different story as to where we were going. The consensus was pretty dead on with them all though, “Run to Gemini Bridges, then Gold Bar Low, then the start/finish, then do an 11 mile out.. and an 11 mile back on the desert road.” What… the F.. ever. Jason an I continued to run and joke together. Making light of the situation and agreeing that we were dropping at the next stop, hoping our crews would be there. When we arrived.. we were at Dead Horse.. the place we were told no longer existed.. and far from Gemini.
As we entered the aid station, our wives cheered us in as did a few other folks. I called out my bib number and said, “Number 5… dropping.” And that was it.. Jason came in, said the same and our race was done. We had run 52 miles in 13:36. But in fact, we wondered if we actually were at 52 or perhaps 100K. We had no idea what the cut-offs for the race was anymore. No idea what the mileages were to the next aid stations, when we’d see our crew again or anything. We finally caught wind of the new official re-route.. Dead Horse to Gemini to Gold Bar Low, back all the way to Dead Horse then down to the Start/Finish then a 22 mile out and back on the road. They could have it.. we were done. I felt fresh, could have kept going.. but had nothing to prove to anyone. When I put my decision for October up on my blog, I prayed for the Grand Canyon to win. I had to choose.. Slickrock was hard to pass up, I was in the 100 but knew I was only ready for and wanting to run 50. I guess I got it all in this race. I ran my 52 miles, and I got to saw terrain very similar to the Grand Canyon. Lucky me.. and a great birthday expedition.
I’m not sure how many started each race or how many finished. For the most part, the majority of us runners were not at all upset with the race directors. We thanked them for their hard work, their ability to adjust on the fly and their dedication to giving us the distances and safety. Some folks were pretty pissed at the end of the race and regardless of the issues or how angry they rightfully were, the RD did offer anyone their money back prior to the race start with apologies. What a great weekend in Moab that would have been had they just taken the money. Instead.. their crews and themselves acted with a ferociousness that no volunteer RD should ever had to endure. I feel bad for them, and I feel bad for the RD’s.
I’ll return to the slick rock races, better prepared for anything, with the hopes of a more complete course. Moab is an amazing and breathtaking place. It’s magical and those walls have eyes. I’ll return, it’s an adventurers playground for sure.
Lastly.. for those runners out there who still have their undies in a bunch.. I created this for you:
*Hey.. this is a good time to remind my fellow runners of a few things:*