APRIL 17, 2010, FRUITA, COLORADO—Every spring I procrastinate about picking a race to kick off the racing season, rationalizing that more early season mileage is sure to reduce the pain of that first all-out effort. But by mid-April, due to a series of late-season snow squalls that pummeled our corner of the Colorado Rockies, I had yet to set foot on the trails. So when my training partner, Joy, suggested we go to the Spring Desert Ultra 25-miler in Fruita, Colorado, on April 17, I hummed and hawed until a week out before giving in.
The night before the race, I grabbed my pre-packed running kit, a sleeping bag, pad, pillow and a tent from Trail Runner’s gear room and tossed it all into my Ford station wagon and headed west.
Standing at the start line at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, I savored the cool air on my untanned arms and legs, which had been hidden under tights and long sleeves since last summer. Upon the start signal, the field of about 200 runners zoomed down a mile-long dirt road before scrambling up and over ridge. Away from the interstate’s din, I am struck by the desert’s eerie silence as we run over sandpapery slickrock. Hearing panting and footsteps directly behind me, I push the pace on the technical trail section, carefully watching the rocky ground ahead without getting too distracted by glowing red canyon below.
Reaching the first aid station (around mile 6), I’m surprised to see Western States 100-mile Endurance Champion, Anita Ortiz, of Eagle, Colorado, smiling and helping runners refill their water bottles.
Immediately after the aid station I started up a gradual climb that led to a flat, smooth section of trail paralleling the red canyon’s jagged lip. Below, the Colorado River cut a serpentine path through the canyon’s lush, green floor. Grateful for the trail’s smooth surface, I pick up the pace, catching up to Joy, who, as always, is smiling and exuding her usual positive vibe. “Isn’t this great?” she says.
“You were right, Joy,” I reply. “This course is amazing!” Further down the canyon, the sun, still low in the sky behind us, casts long shadows of runners on the canyon’s smooth walls, conjuring visions of the 10,000-year-old stick figures drawn by ancient peoples on stone walls and boulders all over this part of Colorado and Utah.
As the sun climbs higher, so do we, and my pace slows considerably as the once-smooth trail becomes rough and rocky. The trail steepens as we turn away from the river valley and climb back up a narrow ridge. Arriving at the final aid station, six miles from the finish, I feel good, but am all-to aware of what lies ahead. “Even when you think you’re at the top of the climb, you’re not!” my friend Todd, who’s finished this race three times, had warned me. And he wasn’t joking.
Hiking up the dusty dirt road, sweat streamed off my brow and salt caked my cheeks. As a “Canuck” I don’t typically do well in heat, so I forced myself to sip water more frequently. Topping the ridge, my breathing steadied and I took a deep inhalation as a cool breeze hit my too-hot face. I passed a male runner standing beside the trail and gazing out over the valley below. I wondered if he was savoring the view or about to hurl, but didn’t look back and find out.
With only about three miles remaining, I was relaxed and confident about finishing strong when I looked up to see a parade of 50-mile racers approaching, starting their second lap in the reverse direction. I glanced at each one and recognized faces that have graced the pages of Trail Runner magazine, such as Leadville 100-winner Duncan Callahan of Gunnison, Colorado, and Grand Slam finisher (and Trail Runner cover girl) Darcy Africa.
After descending a series of switchbacks, the singletrack abruptly ended andI lengthened my stride during the final mile-long stretch of road. As soon as my longest run of the year was complete, I promptly found a small triangle of shade and sat on the ground.
Reunited with Joy and our friends, Trail Runner’s retail sales manager Ashley Arnold and her trail-marathon national champion sister, Lauren (Cynthia) Arnold, at the finish line, we congratulated one another on a solid performance all around. The Carbondale gals finished 1-2-3-4!
The Spring Desert Ultra 50-mile and 25-mile events are part of the weekend-long Desert RATS Trail Running Festival, held mid-April in Fruita, Colorado. Festival organizer Gemini Adventures also organizes the six-day Desert RATS stage race and Mountain RATS four-day stage race. For full race results, information and event dates, visit www.geminiadventures.com