“Now did anyone shave their balls?” asked a tiny woman with short grey hair. “I’m serious. Don’t do it. Do not shave your balls!” She pointed accusingly at a blushing thin man beside me, “You didn’t do it, did you?” He nervously chuckled and shook his head. “Good. I’m the woman that sent the balls email, and I’m here to discuss the medical aid at these things.”
I had just checked in at the Moab 240 meeting and grabbed a seat at a picnic table for the race debriefing (pun intended). I listened carefully as this doctor, Christina, warned us of the various disasters and solutions (most of them as shocking and unpleasant as the balls scenario) we may encounter on the course over the next five days. New to 200s, I listened attentively and tried to imagine puking so much that I had to put pills up my butt. Apparently, it happens. Everything happens out there.
When you make a small mistake in 100 mile race, running another 20 miles exacerbates it. 50 miles more, or 70, and you’ve got a large problem. A rule of ultrarunning: don’t create demons to blame later. Trying to plan for 200 miles was unfathomable for me. I played it out in my mind, mapped, estimated, solved for x, and scrapped everything. It boiled down to: rounding all aid stations to “about 20 miles apart,” packing a billion calories and every pair of shoes I own, and telling myself that I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
My goal: complete the beast on the first attempt. The course is one giant kidney bean scribbled around two mountain ranges, desert mesas, canyons, and a city. As I got my t-shirt and beer glass and listened to the race director’s (Candice Burt) pre-race synopsis, one thing hit me in the chest: this is a graduate level race. There’s no faking a race of this caliber. A small voice asked if I thought that I was a graduate level runner, but I shushed it rudely.
The night before the race start, I felt suspiciously calm. With something this gargantuan, the race doesn’t start when the countdown hits zero and the herd starts to shuffle. I was already in race mode, already committed to the work in front of my feet. Besides, I had a great crew.
I hate the start of races, absolutely hate them. Nervous energy is the worst, least productive kind of energy. Pacers aren’t allowed for the first 73 miles and you have only one drop bag, at mile 12. I clipped on my weighty pack, picked up my GPS spot tracker, and hugged my team goodbye. We took a short trail runner’s oath (And if I get lost, it’s my own damn fault!) and the floodgates opened. Mile one.
There was a friendly face in the crowd – Susan Donnelly. Susan is a woman whose reputation precedes her in the best possible way. Her ultra career is decorated and unparalleled, and though I recognized her, I had very little personal contact with her at previous races. I felt shy. She’s a legend. Little did I know, she’s also approachable and genuine, and our paths would cross many times the next few days (until she warmed up after 150 miles and took off, probably finishing stronger than she started).
We hopped on single track leading out of the city toward a small pass. The swarm did not thin out, and soon I met several of the 144 people who started this adventure. At an easy pace, I listened to Chris talk about his cattle farm in Australia. Kurt, the avant-garde music teacher, lamented about the torment of moving classrooms of pianos. Seth, the housing engineer from Boston, who once visited New Zealand and never came home.
I hiked this stretch of Hidden Valley earlier last week, and up in the cliffs above the trail I found rock art depicting a stream of travelers traversing the valley, just like us.
On the fins above the valley stand two kivas, or maybe false kivas (I’m no kivalogist). We are only a blip in the legacy of these rocks. The trail wound deeper into the canyons through Spanish Valley and turned to slick rock. After the first aid station, I would barely see civilization outside of the race or have cell service. Within ten miles, we were alone in the desert.
Only 12 miles in, I shoved a veggie wrap and a few potato chips in my mouth and grabbed my headlamp and warm clothes for the next 61 miles alone out there. My head wasn’t in the race, not yet. I rode the push and pull of the runners around me, more bewitched by the immense history beneath my feet than where I was in the pack. The only mistake I knew I could make was too go out hard and burn out, or so I thought.
When I close my eyes, I can smell the sage and feel the sun on my face from the first day. Like the Grand Canyon, you can stand at the railing and stare, but you don’t process the expanse at your feet. As you piece it together, mile by mile, it becomes alive. The mesas and shadows, the bright yellow rabbitbrush and drying blossoms, every fossilized ripple and layer of sandstone bedrock resonated with me.
I expected to find myself alone, but instead I found myself in the company of a Brit named Stuart, who is witty, generous, and the treasurer of the UK MS Foundation. Stuart quickly became one of my favorite faces to find at an aid station or on the trail. We joined Beck the Aussie, a recovering-lawyer-turned-adventurista. I instantly connected with Barkley, a clinical scientist with a giant heart (at the time, I did not realize he and I would spend 70+ miles together and find each other again before the end). Together, our happy party traversed miles of rocky jeep road weaving along the green Colorado River and The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park.
Plenty of runners I’ve met want to rattle off their race resumes before they ask you what your name is, but not us. We discussed the teal manganese layer of the rock crumbling around us, told stories of our families, poked fun at differences in our countries and cultures, discovered similarities in our histories. Isolated in the back pocket of Utah, we felt like a small tribe.
The hours ticked past, but I didn’t keep track of them. Without really knowing my plan for sleep, I planned to go slow and manage the factors in my hands: calories, hydration, warmth, electrolytes. We came to Hurrah Pass, 50k completed, spirits soaring. More veggie wraps and water. The feeling of exercise settled into my legs, but I still had a 200-miler to start. I couldn’t wrap my head around what that meant, but it was a warm day so I took another salt pill and left with my friends. One worry at a time.
I didn’t make up Chicken Corners. Legend has it that only the bravest of heart (those “least chicken”) successfully make it to that point in Kane Springs Canyon without turning around. Hilarious.
We hoped to reach the Breaking Bad aid station, 50 miles in, around nightfall. It had been moved five miles further away, however, which put us on a 24 mile stretch. Nearly a marathon between aid stations, I realized. The first day was necessary legwork to get to my crew. The ultra part of the race had barely begun, and I’d run 100 miles before. This was not new territory yet. I would be smart today and dig into the meat of this monster tomorrow.
The colors faded to blues and purples and the daylight grew long and low over the rim above us. We would reach the next aid station in the dark and begin the night.
As the stars began twinkling above us, the milky way grew brighter and bigger across the sky. Not another soul besides us. No lights, cars, sounds. Not a cricket, not even a tumbleweed. Finally we saw a friendly beam in the distance, heard a generator, and smelled the beans and rice cooking.
The rumor was that there were grilled hamburgers at Hamburger rock, which we all started to drool over, so we pressed on quickly. I felt an unfamiliar hot, painful spot in my the ball of my foot. The first rule of ultramarathons is to fix problems immediately. I stopped on the side of the trail and Barkley helped me adhere moleskin to it (to stop the friction). When I looked to see what was hurting, I didn’t see a thing. I shrugged and planned to change socks as soon as possible.
“Has anyone seen a pink dragon recently?” Barkley asked. We all looked wildly around. “Shoot, we missed our turn.” We doubled back to find the missed marker (“dragon”). No dice. Following our map, we took a wash that paralleled the route and tried to get back on course. We helped each other under barbed wire, laughing the whole way, until we found our way again.
That night we collected a second Stuart, a Rob, a Ramon, and an Abby. Abby was on all fours, vomiting horrendously in the middle of the trail while Rob tried to encourage her, barely feeling better himself. She spoke no English, but we happily told her only four more miles, just four more, as well as all of the other things I could remember from high school Spanish (You’re an ugly banana, no I’m not pregnant, the stars are bright tonight, I like your grandmother’s hot chocolate, only four more, it’s really nice to meet you). Collectively, the mood was high.
My feet started to burn again. Barkley looked at the bottoms and leukotaped the pads behind my toes. They still looked normal underneath, but it hurt to run and I felt my gait starting to slow. A lot.
(It really is a giant hamburger-shaped formation.)
We arrived much later than I expected, nearly 4:00am. I went straight to the medic and shivered violently on a cot while I pulled off my steaming socks. This time, on of both feet a thick white quarter-sized blister had formed deep below the calluses. I don’t know if it was my lack of training on rocky roads, lack of pre-taping, lack of lube, lack of knowledge, but I had wrecked my feet. Not even 100 miles in., I chastised myself. You idiot. The gentle volunteer taped my feet back up and I changed into dry clothing before I napped for an hour.
First, I ate a big greasy hamburger.
At twilight, I picked up my first pacer, Rick, and we set off in the dark. I was relieved to be with my crew and to start delving into the nitty gritty. Today we would surpass 100 miles and get to the first set of mountains. Rick and I chatted happily; I told him about Chicken Corners and asked how their day volunteering had been. Everyone was anxious to get to the heart of this thing, but Rick has a way of making things easy and comfortable. We took off running down a straight road, waiting for the first hint of morning.
A few miles in, the blisters were seething. I had changed into fresh shoes, but somewhere on this road I took a step and felt a warm stinging gush. My toes were soaked, and I could swear a hot coal was stuck in my shoe. Be patient, I told myself, it will get better. Rick walked alongside me as I limped forward. Thankfully he has the gift of making things easier, because at the moment I was exceedingly angry at my left foot.
We evaluated the difference between happiness and fulfillment. Lots of things make us happy. Big, small, important, irrelevant things. Healthy things and unhealthy things make us feel happy (or unhappy). A smaller number of more valuable things fulfill us. In this moment, my fulfillment was the opposite of happiness. Even in the beauty of The Needles, I was hurting and I felt worried. I was wincing, not smiling. I felt stupid for making a huge mistake on the first day. I was working on something that would give me a sense of fulfillment; in fact, we were working on it together.
**I believe this marks the beginning of the great tally of aid station breakfast burritos, which certainly climbed into the double digits. And guacamole. Over the next four days, I very probably ate 9,661 calories of avocados.
Erin tapped in for Rick and we took off just as the day began to boil. 90 miles in, I felt my first low. Nothing was particularly wrong, but I was hot, hurt, and hungry. I walked. Every gigantic mesa we climbed around revealed another, even larger mesa to circumnavigate. We passed people sitting in the shade. The first pangs of exhaustion were setting in. I wasn’t in the rhythm of it. I was still running with head, not heart, and I still didn’t feel like I had my teeth into it.
Erin is a brilliant, upbeat friend with a heart of gold. We barely knew each other before the race, but it felt like we were old friends instantly (I had the best pacers of anyone in the race, I’m confident about that). Sensing my fatigue, she suggested we stop toiling over conversation and put some music in and try running. She soaked my buff with water and it cooled my body. Energy and enthusiasm pumped through my legs and we took off. 103 miles in, we were flying into the aid station.
Foot check and a breakfast burrito, please. That became the standard priorities for this race. The medic peeled back the wrinkled bandaged and re-taped in a different way – a way that felt great. At first. As he taped directly to my blisters; a red flag waived in my mind. Trust him, I told myself, you’re desperate. The next leg climbed 2,500 feet up Shay Mountain, partially in sharp switchbacks and partially up rocky single track. When you climb, you push off with the balls of your feet. I needed them.
Rick and I took off. The Abajos stood dark and low in the distance.They are known locally as The Blues. It’s a very strange feeling to gaze at mountains in the distance and know you’ll be standing on them, 30 miles later, that evening. Rick packs a powerful one-liner and is a great conversationalist, so despite coming through my first mental cave only a few miles previously, we took off excitedly. Part of the discipline of running, especially ultras, is learning to surf the highs and ride out the lows.
In fact, we left catch up so happily that we completely missed a sharp right turn downward, and we went several miles further, until a van (who’d past us earlier) turned around to tell us we’d gone the wrong way. Spoiler alert: the Moab 240 (originally officially 238.3 miles) quickly snowballs into the Moab 250-ish. However, because of our mistake we again crossed paths with Susan, and after navigating through a tricky wash together, we began the approach the the base of the mountain.
All day I had been yearning for the mountains. Even though the elevation gain for the entire race was just under 30,000 ft, I love climbing and I wanted to see the geography from above. Our summit fever began after sundown, however, so I have no idea what Shay Mountain looks like. But I can tell you what it feels like.
“Hey Rick!” I called from below, using my poles to move one foot after the other steadily upward. “How many Moose Mountains stacked on top of each other would you say this is?” I gasped a little harder for breath at 8,000 feet. I was trying to be funny, to keep moving. After the thousandth sharp, steep, short switchback seeing the exact same ten feet of trail over and over again in the spotlight of my headlamp, I was growing fatigued. There was no end in sight. I tried not to look up. Black. I tried to look out. Black. All I could see was down, and down was a minimum maintenance cow trail traipsing back and forth in some kind of woods where the trees kept getting bigger. I wanted to focus hard and do the entire climb without stopping. I started counting backward from 100 with every other step. I’d forget where I was and start at 80 again. After the fifth time to zero, I yelled, “I gotta lose a layer, one sec!” I stopped for a break and caught my breath. No more stops until the top. My stomach rumbled.
When we finally summited, we found ourselves at a road crossing that started heading back down into the pitch of night. We agreed that it was at least twelve Moose Mountains, and soon Susan was with us again and we sensed the aid station was close. It wasn’t. We descended and continued descending at a gradual anticline. My hips complained about it. Then the road went up again. For miles. Curve after curve, I could see a small man in red with yellow poles always above me, just turning at the next corner. I wish I had hallucinated him, but he was real and he kept climbing for hours. I was in a Sisyphean running nightmare. My stomach started complaining too. I knew I needed a break at the top, even if it was frigid at 9,000 feet. No lights glittered in the distance. Just the yellow poles.
Rick led me into the aid station and deserves full credit for doing so cheerfully and pragmatically. We did make it (eventually). I plopped by the fire and ate walnuts, the first thing I saw that wasn’t sugary. Comatose runners were strewn in a circle, swaddled in wool blankets around me like dead bodies propped up in chairs. The firelight reflected off tired faces but others were tucked away, completely hidden from the bite of night. A HAM radio said things I didn’t understand.
My crew set up a tent. I scheduled us to get moving again at 4am and set the alarm. I did not want to lose time, but I was very cold. I shivered into new clothes and curled up in my sleeping bag. I expected to pass out, but I continued to shiver while my hip flexors throbbed. I felt my heartbeat in the bottoms of my sore feet. I was hot and cold and sliding around on my sleeping pad and awake. Too focused on running to sleep, to tired to get going.
I lay there until the alarm went off. Ironically, I was relieved. It was finally time to get moving, even though all I wanted was rest. I ate a burned burrito and Erin and I turned our backs to the mountain. We began to head down a rocky rutted path well before first light.Only 17 miles to Dry Valley. The morning dawned cold and windy.
I can’t say if the Abajos are really even blue.
Cover photo by Scott Rokis Photography.
To be continued…