Desert R.A.T.S. 2010 by Jeff Owsley

When one faces the epic challenge of Desert RATS, it helps to be prepared. The more unprepared one is, the greater the opportunity to learn. I felt like a kindergartener in the Ivy League. I benefited from RATS being so difficult that it attracts highly experienced and successful ultra running athletes. It was wonderful to be a grasshopper among master gurus.
One of the most basic lessons I learned is you just have to accept where you are and make the most of it. This is true on a macro level, such as your overall condition at the beginning of a stage, and on a micro level, in dealing with each moment in the race; for example, the current temperature, the difficulty of terrain every step of the way and your present physical condition.
I can be an encouragement to first time ultra runners, as this was my first – I had never run more than a marathon at one time and had only done three of those; the last of which was Boston 2 months prior, and the latest training I had done was for the BolderBoulder 10K two weeks before RATS. It was at that race that my childhood friend, David Clemmer, whom I had reconnected with on Facebook (in the process discovering that we both picked up a middle-aged passion for running), asked me if I’d like to take his wife’s place in the race since she had to drop due to injury. I readily agreed because I had wanted to try an ultra. Therefore, I only had 2 weeks to specifically prepare for the race. I had never run with a Camelbak type hydration pack, nor with the amount of weight we needed to carry due to the required safety items. Hailing from Colorado, I was not used to running in hot conditions, but I had trained extensively on hills and had an elevation advantage. There was nothing I could do to change my preparation at the start; I could only do the best I could with where I was at.
The first stage of 19 miles seemed easy enough, but the technical trails and elevation changes made it much more challenging than any run I had done at that distance. It was also an introduction to the heat we would face, and the beauty we would enjoy, during the week. As each person finished, other runners and the staff cheered – we all quickly became each other’s support group. I had the extra advantage of having my wife, Hallie, with me all week. Hallie provided tremendous support to me and quickly became a valuable volunteer at aid stations during the day and also at camp. It was a blast and very special to go through the whole experience together.
My focus on the second stage of 39 miles was on the distance, since I would need to run a half marathon distance past my longest run to date. I should have been more concerned with the heat. I ran most of it quite well, but was reduced to walking toward the end and threw up about a mile before the finish. The first question my newly found senseis asked back at camp was concerning my electrolyte replacement and hydration strategy. Though I was careful to take E-Caps and drink water in proportions I’ve learned in Colorado, they said it is a whole different ballgame in the desert – I should have taken about 4 times as many E-Caps, which likely would have saved my stomach from getting upset. That probably became my single biggest mistake of the week, since from then on it was a battle to eat even half of what I normally eat. But, that was just the way it was and I needed to cope with it.
It is funny looking back now at how I felt like I could perform well on stage 3, which is only 9 miles. It is humbling when 9 miles can kick your butt that badly. I realized it is no small matter that the miles had been mounting up and we had had precious little time to recover. Within 3 days, I had equaled the highest volume of miles I had ever done in one week of marathon training. You can imagine the mental battle I was having to constantly do with my brain, which was telling me I have more than extended my limits already. That is one of the beauties of training properly, letting your brain realize it is okay to push past barriers that would normally create danger signals and defensively start to shut the body down. My leg muscles felt totally shot and on fire. My stomach felt tied up in knots. It was a very difficult way to face the 52 mile monster in the morning, but I had to accept it and move on. The best I could do was to soak up the wisdom and encouragement from those around me. Also to pray and trust that my friends and family were doing the same. I was confident they were and could sense their desire to be present in spirit.
For the first 14 miles of the 52 mile stage, I felt strong and in good spirits. Then my stomach started to feel just like it did before I threw up on the second stage. The impact of running made it feel like for sure I would throw up, and I knew if I did, it was all over for me because I would lose the precious little food I had in me and send my hydration into a tailspin. I had to pull back from the group I had been hanging with and walk. I quickly went from thinking of a decent finishing time, to focusing on survival and finishing before the 20 hour cut off time. Soon I was joined by Grace Ann, who was celebrating her birthday that day by facing up to this extreme challenge. She told me she learned from her coach to continually move forward with purpose (both syllables accented in a cool Jamaican way) and you will not only finish, but finish well. With several miles to go before the 2nd aid station at about mile 28, I was feeling like death warmed over. Twice I started to throw up, stopped it just before the mouth area, and forced it back down. My mind was running through all the reasons I should quit and I was finally giving into it. I started hoping that my weight loss and condition would give cause for the race doctor, Jeremy, to pull me from the race, because I knew he would be at the aid station and they were going to weigh us to make sure we were hydrating properly.
Sure enough, I had lost more weight than anyone else, 18 lbs, but instead of a doctors excuse, Jeremy gently and gradually gave me a strategy for continuing. Hallie was at that aid station too and her presence and sweet disposition always lifts me up. Kurt and Mike came in cracking joke after joke after joke, which lifted my spirits. I was able to eat about a fourth of a sandwich, some other snacks and drank quite a bit of fluids. Finally, two girls, Susan and Lisa, who had been struggling mightily with blisters, came into the aid station, spent only a short time and continued. Their courage tipped me over the edge and I decided to go on.
That mental battle took a lot out of me and I started getting very emotional. Whenever a breeze or the slight shade of a small tree cooled me for a second or two, I was extremely thankful. That led to thoughts of what else I am thankful for in life and I figured I literally have all day and might as well start from childhood and move forward thinking of all I was thankful for. This made me even more emotional and I knew I had better not cry, because I’d lose water AND salt. So now I was forcing myself not to throw up or cry and spent hours with my palms raised upward thanking God for each stage of my life and the people in each one. It was a wonderful way to spend an extremely trying time. The last group of people I was thankful for were those most recently in my life, the RATS family. By that time, the coolness of twilight felt heavenly and we had climbed to a more familiar elevation into the La Plata Mountains. Reid, the Race Director and later Jeremy, the Race Doctor came up along side on mountain bikes and rode with me for a while. Somewhere in there I gradually realized that I had made a complete 180 and caught a second wind like I have never experienced before in running. My stomach felt great for the first time in several days. The muscle pain that had enveloped my legs was completely gone. On the other hand, I had developed blisters during the long day, but they developed while I was walking – I realized that if I ran it set me up on a different part of my feet and relieved the pain. So, run I did. After a very short stop at the last aid station, I power hiked the last steep climb and then ran at a pretty fast pace for the last 6 miles and all but sprinted to the finish line. It was such a dramatic turn around that it seemed like the closest thing I have experienced to a miracle. It was 11:30 at night and I had started at 7:30 in the morning. I ate a ton of Josh’s chili and forced myself to stay up and cheer each and every finisher – finally getting into my sleeping bag at about 2am. I was so very thankful.
We had the next day off and I spent most of it gleaning from the vast knowledge about blisters people in the camp had. I found that the more experienced people were in ultra running, the more of an expert they are with blisters – and some had a PHD in Blisterology. I had 10 or 11 blisters, depending on if you count a ‘blister in a blister’ as one or two. The largest was 2 ½” long by 1” wide and a dark yellow liquid made it very puffy. The worst blisters were on the pads of my feet, which made every step extremely painful. After Tom doctored up my blisters and they were bandaged, I napped under a tree, got up and poured cold water over my leg muscles from a stream and got a massage. I had extreme tightness in the soleus muscles of both calves. I was so happy to eat well, but I was still quite concerned for the last stage of a full marathon the next day.
When I woke up, the turn around I was hoping for with my blisters didn’t come. I could barely put my weight on my feet and walk to the next bush to pee, much less think about running a marathon. As I got ready, I realized the only way I could do it was to totally put the stinging pain out of my mind, be careful not to alter my running gait and run a normal race. The first six miles was a steep climb. It was nice to have the sense that it was finally over after this last day, so there was no reason to save energy for tomorrow. Training in Colorado Springs, I have learned to love attacking hills and I hit those first six miles hard. At the first aid station at the top of the climb, I was in 5th place – only behind the front runners and surprisingly within sight of them for the first time all week. Attacking the downhill was harder on my feet. Then I stood at a fork in the trail extremely frustrated for about 5 minutes trying to figure out which way to go. Tom and Kyle, two of the clearly good runners, caught me there, but they would have eventually anyway. On the out and back on Porcupine Ridge at about mile 18, I witnessed a great race by two of the top women, Caroline and Shelly. I didn’t witness it for too long, however, as they soon passed me. Although I wanted to finish strong, I started to realize nothing I could do would change the final standings and there was no one anywhere close behind me. The main thing was I was about to finish this monster of a race. After thinking the end should be around several bends, finally it was and I ran fast to the finish line tape with my hands in the air in triumph.
It was so hard to believe I could do it, especially when there were times when I thought for sure I was completely done. The joy of finishing such an epic challenge is humongous. Therefore, I am thankful for every difficulty and pain. But, mostly, I am thankful for the community effort it took, involving the whole RATS family, those around the country pulling for us, my sweet, personal crew member, Hallie, the generous friendship of David and Wendy, and the amazing grace of God.

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