Fancy a run in the desert?
I’ve been running for a little over two years now having started with the Shamrock Shuffle and then the Chicago Marathon in 2011. Since then, I’ve found a passion for running – especially longer distances both on road and trail and have now finished 49 races of marathon (or longer) distances. I’m not anywhere near an elite runner with a 3:38 Marathon PR but I’ve found that I handle distance and recovery well. In December 2012, I attempted my first ultramarathon at the HUFF 50k and loved the distance and the trails. Since then, I’ve continued to run lots of marathons but have also started to focus on longer distances including over a dozen ultras of 50k and 50mi distances.
I traveled down to the Phoenix area a couple days before the race with my parents and daughter Grace to enjoy a couple extra days in shorts. We enjoyed the area and managed a great visit to the Desert Botanical Garden where they had a special Chihuly exhibit.
My big running goal for 2014 is to start…and finish my first 100 mile race. I picked my target race last year selecting the Zion 100 Mile Trail run. The Zion 100 runs adjacent to the Zion National Park in southwest Utah and features approximately 25,000 ft of elevation change with altitudes ranging from 3,500 ft to nearly 6,000 ft. While there are plenty of ultra races that feature less technical courses and flatter profiles, I’ve always been in love with the mesas and terrain of Utah and hoped that the beauty of the area would inspire me to carry on through what I expect will be one of my more difficult undertakings.
In putting together my training plan for Zion, I was faced with the daunting task of ramping up my weekly mileage to approximately 100 miles/week. Even more difficult was the need to replicate some of the terrain/conditions of the Utah high desert in the pancake flat metropolis of Chicago! To overcome that challenge, I signed up for a number of races outside of Chicago that would serve as supported training runs and an opportunity to train for Zion.
On Jan 24th, I traveled with my running buddy (and Zion pacer) Cathlin along with my daughter and parents to Phoenix Arizona to participate in the Coldwater Rumble 52 mile race. Coldwater fit my training schedule perfectly and offered distances of 4m, 20k, 20m, 52k, 52mi and 100mi through the Estrella Mountain Regional Park west of Phoenix. The course includes long sections of technical single track running, a couple miles of fire roads and most painfully – long sections of soul-sucking sand to run/hike through. The course also offered some significant hills.
Our goal in running this race was to test out our gear and pacing strategy while getting more desert running experience but the real aim was to feel good after running the race contemplating that I would need to essentially do the race back to back when I attempt 100 miles in Zion.
The Coldwater race was a 20 mile loop with a shortcut on the 3rd loop resulting in a shortened 12 mile “victory lap” to finish off the race. Aravaipa, the race organizers are absolute pros with well stocked “ultra” aid stations approximately every five miles with everything you could ever want including gluten free and vegan choices. While there were plenty of choices, the Nutella wraps, fresh Pineapple and Vegan Pizza were my favorite choices trying to stay fueled as we burned approximately 6,500 calories during our run.
We started off on our run at 7:30am just as the sun was starting to come out and settled in for a day playing in the sand. The first couple miles were great with some nice rolling hills getting us into the mountains and in no time, we were at the first aid station approximately 4.5 miles. The 7 mile section after the first aid station was challenging with nearly a three mile stretch of sand running and a 1.5 mile climb on a rock/boulder filled trail so the 11 mile aid station was a welcome sight with cold water and plenty of goodies to eat. The next 5 mile section was by far the most runnable of the course and we clicked off some of our fastest miles in the morning before the sun was completely up. With a quick stop at the 16.5 mile aid stop, we were in the home stretch of the loop which featured the two steepest/sharpest climbs including one that was hands on knees stair climbing tough. It was here that we hit the highlight of the race – seeing my daughter and parents as we hit the summit of the last climb. They had not only made the effort to drive to the race but had even hiked onto the course to see us in action! I was already feeling great and this topped it off. We finished off the first loop in 4 hours even and took a slightly long stop at our drop bags to reapply sunscreen, refuel and fill our water packs knowing that the next loop and the mid-day sun and temperatures would be challenging.
A couple miles into the 2nd loop, we came upon some running friends from Iowa who were running in the 100 mile race who had started at 7:00 AM – 30 minutes earlier than us. They were running the loop conservatively not wanting to burn-out (literally) in the mid-day heat which seemed absolutely reasonable considering the distance they had yet to run. We slowed and stayed with them through the 11 mile aid station which we hit in approximately three hours. They were running pretty conservatively and we were still feeling good so we picked up the pace and negative split the loop with a five hour time.
Getting ready for our last and shortened loop, we threw an additional layer in our packs and got our headlamps ready as the sun would soon be setting. With the sun coming down, the desert quickly started to cool and we found our third or fourth wind running some fast miles! Unfortunately, some of the other runners had not planned as well and we came upon some runners wandering the path without any lights clearly struggling to locate the course. We slowed to a hike so that they could fall in with us and got them to an aid station where some friendly volunteers loaned them an emergency flashlight so that they could get back to the start/stop and their drop bags. With our new friends safe and with working lights, we were free to move on and picked up the pace knowing that we only had four miles to our finish. With the exception of the major hills, we ran it in strong passing several runners along the way and cruised in with a 12:17:29 finish time. After crossing the line and taking the obligatory picture, we looked at each other and commented that we felt great and could easily go out and do another loop or two!
The race was a huge confidence builder for both of us. Our gear, pacing and nutrition strategy worked and we had the fitness level to keep going. Though we were not ‘racing’, we still finished tied for 13th out of 73 starters so it was a respectable outing as well. Nine weeks and counting until Zion – time to lace up the shoes and get back it.
- Shoes: Hoka One One Stinson Trail
- Light: Petzl NAO with reactive lighting
- Pack: Ultraspire Kinetic with 2 x 20oz bottles
- Sun: Outdoor Research UPF 50 Sun Sleeves, lots of Endurance Shield SPF 45 Sunblock and my trusty Chicago Marathon 2012 hat