Winter in Utah’s high desert climate is really challenging for me. For years I used to hide away from all the cold, wind and snow and pass my days inside on the treadmill. Every year when summer faded and fall’s beauty swiftly left, I would struggle with seasonal depression. In 2016, I hit a tipping point and decided I needed to find a better way to endure the 7-8 months of cold and harsh Utah weather. My solution… a winter marathon. After all, just because I was cold and miserable at 5,000ft didn’t mean there weren’t other locations that handled the winter months much better.
I started with The Mesa Marathon in February 2017, with the goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. (Did I mention that this was my second marathon ever?? Or the fact that I’d only run 1 marathon before this race… 4 years earlier..) Looking back, that was a tad bit naïve, and a whole lot ambitious. I trained well, and it kept me moving outside all winter. (Just for fun, try to run for hours on a treadmill) The accountability of a winter deadline and the promise of shorts and a tank somewhere warm in February didn’t offset a Crohn’s flair 3 days before race day.
I didn’t Boston Qualify on that second marathon in 2017 in Phoenix; but I did earn a new 30 minute PR. Winter training left me hungry that year so I came back one year later and hit my Boston Qualifying goal, with my coach running the same race no less. More importantly, I learned how to run year round, despite the terrible Utah winter weather.
Every year since 2017, I have always selected a winter race. I need the motivation and deadline despite my conversion to year round outside running. In 2020, I opted for my first Ultra-Marathon with a dear friend who has helped navigate my transition from exclusively road, into trail running. Utah is a phenomenal state for an outdoor lifestyle. Trail running is not only accessible and very close to my home, (I live 3 miles from the mouth of a canton) there’s an abundance of running options. In 2020, I completed a 55k in Moab, Utah.
Looking for a new race and challenge, (and an event that would actually happen during the Covid-19 pandemic) I opted for the Red Mountain 55k in St. George, Utah, early March 2021.
Winter training went well, despite the challenges of a new job and the on-going pandemic. I went into the race feeling well prepared, as this was my 3rd ultra-marathon. I had a good friend with me, I’d run many, many times in the area, I was fit and excited for a new adventure. A few days before the race, I checked the forecast and was little worried… the weather in Southern Utah was looking a little warm for early March. With forecasted highs in the upper 60’s, or about 20-degrees above my usual training temperatures, I was excited to know I’d be running in shorts and a tank, with sunshine as well.
The cool desert morning quickly gave way to warm sunshine and temps. The race was run on a loop course, with 5 individual trail sections beginning and ending from a centralized aid-station that serviced all participating runners. It was a beautiful course with nearly 4,000ft in total vertical elevation gain.
About mile 27, during the longest loop of the race… an 11 mile stretch with the most vertical gain of the course, the heat and the sun began to break me down. I had been eating and drinking, but my body struggled to adjust to temperatures that reached the mid-70’s. I had been taking my salt tabs, and I did my best to stay hydrated, but I just felt like I was roasting. Mentally, I went through all the motions… positive self-talk, personal berating, crying, angering and walking… not running any more, just walking. I developed a side-stitch and offered a prayer for strength and realized that while I couldn’t change the weather, I could get back to the aide-station and get a cup of ice.
The cup of ice became my new goal. Squeezing my cramping side in a vice-grip; step after step, I made my way back to the aide station, doing my best to ignore my aching side, hot head and heavy legs. When I got to the aide station about mile 29, my good running friend Rachel gave me a cup of ice. I can’t remember ice ever tasting so good. Some Coca-Cola, more ice in my water bladder and a make-shift ice pack for my head and neck from my handy running buff, I made my way out of the last aide-station and the final 6 miles of the race.
I finally finished the race in a disappointing 8 hours and 27 minutes when I was trained for something much closer to 7 hours. After a full day in the sun, I was physically and mentally trashed. Looking back, I realized how many things actually went very well and demonstrate some of the progress I’ve made with ultra-running.
1- I didn’t quit. Now this might seem obvious, but let me tell you, when I was on the struggle bus, these thoughts kept coming. Was it worth it? Had I given my all? Those were the questions I really wrestled with while things weren’t going so well.
2- I kept my nutrition down. In my body, heat makes my heartrate rise which in turn gives me crazy gastric distress; either vomiting or diarrhea-sometimes both. When that happens, it’s only a matter of time before I dehydrate out. During my 50-mile race in 2019, I puked up every solid thing I tried to eat after mile 25. This race, I kept taking 2 salt pills every hour and drinking my fuel. (which is all liquid to help with easier digestion and absorption) The quick sugar from soda at the aide stations and a tiny bit of caffeine helped a lot. I kept going despite the heat.
3- I developed greater mental patience and fortitude. Yes, myself talk got a little rough on the course. When I hit mile 34 and the course went long, out came the tears…. again. I really know better than this. When I ran the Squaw Peak 50-miler, a missed turn meant nearly an extra 2 miles on the course, but I survived and by mile 34- I knew I would finish the race. Besides, trail races a notorious for being off in the finish distance, usually with the course running long. If I’m never brought to the breaking point, how can my threshold increase or grow?
I’ve been running a while now and I’ve lucky enough to enjoy a small level of “success” with road running. Yes, I’m not an Olympian or elite athlete, but I realized how important for my long-term running journey, a really hard race is. It keeps me humble, and teaches me what I need to learn in order to adapt and change for the better. My success on the road led me to over-estimate how quickly things can change on the trails. I absolutely love that my trash was handed to me this race. I needed it, especially to stay hungry and not take anything for granted. What a journey; I look forward to my next lesson.