What the Heck Was I Thinking? My Desert R.A.T.S. Race Report

24 04 2008

By F4 Athlete Della Nelson

Find more DRATS stories here

Unfortunately I was not blessed with fast twitch muscle fibers, so I’ve never been a fast runner. But fortunately, I was born with the endurance gene. Since I started running, I’ve loved it. And the longer I ran, the bigger the runner’s high I got. So when my husband Tom forwarded me Scott’s e-mail saying that there were a few more spots available for the F4 Trail/Ultra Running Program (I found out later Tom forwarded it to me as a joke), I immediately reacted. I read about the Desert R.A.T.S. (Race Across The Sand) 25 mile goal trail race in Fruita, CO, and found out that, since there was also a 50 mile option, the cut-off time for the race was geared towards the 50 miler – 13 hrs. No question. Anyone could finish 25 miles in that time. Even me. When I started running a few years ago, I ran with a trail group from Lakeshore Athletic Club (we were all slow), and I actually missed the scenic beauty of trail running. I also hated running hills, and I thought this was the sort of “tough love training” I needed to face that fear. I e-mailed Lea, one of the coaches in the program, asking her if she thought it was something I could do. She responded, “Absolutely.” So I e-mailed Scott that the check was in the mail and that, was that.

Training for this race this season has been, at best, frustrating. The program started on January 5th, before I even ran the Goofy Challenge on January 12-13 (you know, 39.3 miles in 2 days at the Happiest Place on Earth). I went to the first training run around the Boulder Res and realized that everyone in the group was MUCH faster than me. I came home after the run telling Tom, “Big mistake. I’m in the wrong group.” I wondered if I could get my money back from Scott.

I didn’t run with the group again until 2 weeks after Goofy – on my birthday, Jan. 26. I didn’t recover as well as I thought I would after Goofy, and the 1:20 run at Teller Farms was exhausting. Not to mention that I was so far behind everyone, that I only saw them briefly at the start, and then again at the finish. I was definitely in the wrong group.

The group runs never got any better. As we hit the trails with the bigger elevations, I got more and more discouraged. Then, about February 21, I got an e-mail from Wendy Drake letting me know it had finally been 39 days since Goofy, so if you go by the recovery rate of 1 day per mile, it was only then that my body had fully recovered from the previous race. That was the spark I needed to lift my spirits. I continued my training with the group being “back-of-the-pack Della” never seeing anyone else during the runs, because I was too slow. But I at least had some glimmer of hope that I would make it through and maybe not be the last 25 miler to finish the race. I took our coach Seth’s advice and started doing my Sunday hikes on Mt. Sanitas. Each Sunday, I felt stronger and stronger on those hikes, and almost began to look forward to them. In a nutshell, on the rest of the group trail runs before the race, I got lost several times, fell a couple times, nearly slid off an icy cliff, swore like a sailor, and told my family I quit the %&# group a few times. In other words, I was ready for race day.

It wasn’t too cool before the race started at 6:30 am, and as soon as the sun came out, it got hot quickly, ending up in the low 80’s. Quite a change from all our training this season in snow and ice. The race was small. About 200 entrants combined for the 25 and 50 mile options. With 4 port-a-potties, I missed the group warm-up because I was in the long line. When they announced that the race started, I was actually in the port-a-potty, so I started the race at the very back of the pack (where I had intended to anyway).

I quickly met the other 2 back-of-the-packers. Two sisters from Salt Lake City. I asked them what they thought their finish time would be, and they said they were hoping for 7 hrs. I told them that I could hang out with them for awhile. My only race strategy for this race was slow, steady, and sustainable. But when we finished the first mile and one of the women announced that we had done that mile in 16:50, I thought I better step it up a bit. There was quite a big climb those first few miles in the race. I passed an elderly gentleman before mile 2, and wondered whether I could pass any more along the way. My competitive urge hit, and I could hear Scott’s voice in my head talking about picking off the racers one by one. I ended up passing 8 people the first 8 miles (not counting the first two sisters), meeting and chatting with each one of them before I eventually passed them. I wondered if I could hit double digits before the race ended.

Almost the whole race was on a single track dirt, rock, and sandy trail. But I especially remember one area called Mary’s Loop, where the trail hung close to the rim of the mountain from which the views were simply incredible. It wasn’t until later in the race, along Steve’s Loop, I think, that the trail ran right along the cliff’s edge when I stopped looking up at the views. (No one warned me about the heights in this race!) At mile 10, I was greeted by the first of several little lizards who ran across my path. That was the first time I smiled during the race. The third aid station at somewhere around mile 12, I was still feeling pretty good. The volunteers quickly grabbed my 2 bottles and filled them up with water and Heed (yuck, gag) respectively. I used my usual fueling strategy of consuming 2 Clif gel bloks every ½ hr, alternating between margarita (with added salt) and black cherry (with added caffeine) flavors. However, I did take advantage of the orange slices and pretzels at the aid stations too. I added electrolyte caplets throughout the race too whenever I started feeling like I was dehydrated or overheating, and within minutes, felt better.

The stretch between the third and fourth aid stations seemed long, and I actually ran out of fluids during that time. I was able to run, as opposed to walk, quite a bit. And I kept thinking to myself, “This race isn’t so bad. This is easier than our Mesa/Dowdy Draw run. What the heck were Seth and Lea training us for?” Well, the trail gods got me for that thought, because at the fourth aid station at about mile 19, I looked up and saw it. The Hill. I knew it was coming up, and I heard even more about it from one of the runners in a yellow shirt that kept trading places with me from about mile 13 until close to the end of the race. He said he had paced a 50 miler up that hill a few years back. It was a dirt, corrugated road hill that went on for over 3 miles. Here’s the elevation chart that I downloaded from my Garmin.

desert-rats-elevation1

I left the aid station, telling them that I believed that if I had counted right, there were 13 runners behind me. I thanked the volunteers and started my trek. With the steep incline, the best I could do was a slow steady hike, trying not to twist my ankles in the ruts throughout the road, and now starting to see the 50 milers (who turned around and ran the 2nd 25 mile loop in the opposite direction) beginning to run swiftly past me downhill. It was during this stretch that I noticed that my fingers had swollen to twice their size, and my knees were quite swollen too and difficult to bend. I was able to glom an Advil from the yellow shirt guy, and actually smiled for the second time in the race anticipating some relief.

I had heard that with “ultra” runs like this, you would feel pain, and that you needed to welcome the pain and embrace it. You know, that actually, sort of, worked. My movements almost became robotic as I just kept moving on. The eventually single track descent at about mile 22.5 didn’t seem to provide much relief. Though I really enjoy running downhill, it was difficult to keep running, and I took many walk breaks. Somewhere along the way, I saw some cows and one of them walked along side me for a couple of minutes. (Another race smile.) As last the descent ended, we ended up on the ¾ mile stretch of dirt roadway where we started the race. I could see about 2-3 runners in front of me, and soon I could see the finish area. About 200 yards or so before the finish, my daughter Liz ran up to me, which made me start crying uncontrollably, and she ran with me to the finish where my tears turned into my last, big race smile.

I was disappointed with my time of 6:47, but I heard that a few other runners from our group had also run over 6 hrs, and that several of the 50 milers came in and said that they were done after the first 25 because of the heat. I think it ended up that I had passed a total of 13 or 14 runners from my start at the back of the pack, but I lost the exact count as I played tag with a few runners in the last 5 miles or so, and I was somewhat delirious towards the finish. F4 sure had the most festive (and beer-filled) group at the finish line, as well as at the awards ceremony – way to go Marianne! – even though no one would agree to do the 5 miler with me the next day. Maybe next year. Well, I guess I may be an “ultra” runner at heart, whatever that may mean. My next goal race is the JFK 50 miler in November, which doesn’t have near the same elevation gain and is at sea level. Until training starting in June, some rest and “playing not training” runs and duathlons. Big thanks to Seth, Lea, Torin, and Scott. And to all the other DRATS runners, you are a special breed, and I was honored to be able to be part of your group.

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