Arches Ultra aka "How NOT to run an ultra"

Step two in the Triple Crown of Moab. Thanks to tightened down COVID restrictions, this race was tiny by Mad Moose standards. They'd had to limit the entire field to 250 runners - across all the distances! That didn't mean the competition was any less impressive though. An entire distance team from San Francisco had decided that Arches sounded like a great first ultra and about time for some live racing. I have to admit, they picked a good one!

We decided to just camp in the little campground near the start/finish this time. Nothing glamorous - just a place to park the van pretty much. Since this was a short trip, there was no sense in heading up to the top for just one day, then driving back down. Wasn't as quiet as we would have liked, but it was convenient for sure! All I would have to do would be roll out of bed and stroll to the start in the morning. If only running worked like that.... We watched the clouds drop lower and lower as we ate dinner, then crawled in to the van to go to sleep. Only to have rain begin to patter on the roof. Would this be another muddy day where Mad Moose had to change the course? We would find out in the morning. Nothing would change the weather, so why worry about it. I had all the warm clothes I needed for any conditions. 

When my alarm went off it was cold in the van. Colder then I'd anticipated, but it was the end of January so not unexpected. Other things to worry about - like eating, double checking my vest, deciding what clothes to wear and taking care of "business." The deciding what clothes to wear would prove to be the challenging part. When I got out of the van, there was snow low on the cliff walls around us. And the rain from last night had turned to ice. A thin layer of ice coated almost everything - especially the bike path that we would run on for the first two plus miles. Yikes! And with the air temperature, even the sunrise wouldn't help much with melting the ice. I was struggling with clothes - shorts and tall socks or capris and short socks? Which would I be more comfortable in for 30 miles? Every time I reached for the capris, I pondered the clear skies and the coming sunrise. A few miles of chilly wouldn't be too bad. I could wear a long sleeved shirt and my coat to start. And maybe gloves. 

At the starting line, in the first women's wave I felt really out of place. Not because I was wearing shorts - about a third of the ladies were in shorts. Not because I had a coat on - there were a few warm coats in the mix. No, all of a sudden I was getting flashbacks to the 2004 half marathon national championships. I was surrounded by nine tall and slender women, all legs and lungs. I've never had that feeling at a trail race. Sure, there's usually one or two classic runner builds, but trail running usually attracts a broader range of athletes. I didn't really have to much time to think about the implications of this observation before the start. The herd of younger ladies took off at the gun, all excitement and energy. Of course, I tucked into the group! I mean, why not?

Starting the 50k under sunlight and snow covered cliffs

The first few miles on the bike path were a skating rink of ice. With the men's wave ahead, it was pretty easy to see where the ice was bad and adjust path. Even so, we were still slipping and sliding quite a bit. The ladies were chattering away, oohing and ahhing over the snow, the sunrise and the La Sals. Me? I was just tucked in to group, trying to stay out of the wind and not paying attention to the pace. It felt fast. But of course it was fast - this was the start and we all had a lot of energy. It couldn't be that fast, right? They were all just chatting. And then I looked at my watch...  Oh crap... I haven't seen a mile that fast in a while! For a brief moment, I thought about slowing down and letting the group go. But just for a moment. After all, in listening to the conversation, this was the first ultra the ladies. Maybe they just didn't know the pacing and I would be able to kinda hang for a bit and then reel them in when they cracked in the last miles. Or I would be the one to blow up from running a stupid race. You never know what will happen so might as well take a risk or two!

One thing I noticed right away when we turned onto the singletrack of Moab Brands was the hesitancy on the rocks. They were definitely road runners. I was able to take the lead as we wound around the fun southern trails - not because I was faster, but I was more fluid on the rocks, especially the rocks with a titch of ice. I knew it wouldn't last. They were still chattering away and I was starting to figure out that I was really in over my head with this group. Maybe 20 years ago when I was"fast" but not now. Three of the eight were OTQ in the marathon. Two were shooting for 10k times. All of them were bloody fast. As we turned off the singletrack and onto the first of many jeep roads, I let the bulk of the group go. I'd done enough damage - I needed to run my own race and not try to keep up.

Running the first 6 miles under 9s was already too fast. But the next 6 were solid slick rock so the pace didn't drop much at all. I was still in sight of the leading group - but they were slowly pulling away. I was actually still under 9 minute miles for the first 15 miles of the race. Double yikes. I didn't know if I could hold it, but figured I would try. At this point, I was thinking more about the Triple Crown and getting a nice fast time for this 50k to have a good cushion going into Behind the Rocks. I also didn't really know what was coming up in the Sovereign loop. I kinda remembered Sovereign trail, but the route to get there was a mystery. I hit the main aid station for the 50k - at the start of the loop. I was alone in terms of the 50k. I couldn't see any of the other ladies or the men. The only runners around me were the 50 mile racers. That was a little disheartening at how quickly the group had dropped me on the jeep road. They were just gone. Time to try to turn my brain off and just run. I started focusing on the 50 mile runners, using them as targets to catch. We climbed up the jeep road, past some dinosaur prints and finally turned onto singletrack. The climbing wasn't done yet and I was watching my pace get slower with each mile it seemed. I couldn't remember where the aid station at the start of Sovereign Trail was and nothing around me looked familiar. Then finally, we climbed up out of the wash and there it was - an oasis in the desert.

The Sovereign Aid station

Of course, that meant there was still about 10 miles left to go. No slacking off! It also meant time for some singletrack. I lost all my targets as the 50 milers kept heading north. But I was starting to see some other runners as well. Including one of the ladies who had dropped me so many miles ago. Maybe there was a chance! And we are back on singletrack - my kind of rocky chunky running. Ever so slowly, she started coming back to me until finally I caught here. I was hoping for more trail time to actually get a gap, but no. Only a few minutes later, we popped out on the road leading back to the aid station. I didn't think I would be able to hold her off, but figured I would give it a go. As anticipated, she did catch and pass me back on the road heading back towards the finish. 

One thing about Arches. The start/finish is at the Gemini Bridges parking area - on the west side of the road. The race is primarily on the east side of the road. To get back to the finish, you have to run past the finish on the eastern frontage road, all the way down to the end of the Moab Brands parking area. Then you take the tunnel under the road and run back up to the finish. Hearing the announcer, the cheering families and seeing the finish, knowing you have more then a mile left to run is always brutal. This was no exception. In the end, I wasn't much slower then I'd anticipated, even with running a very stupid race. I also was one of two women in the top 10 not part of the SanFran group and the first "old lady" as I jokingly said to the volunteers. Yep - a solid four years older then the next oldest runner the top ten and 11 years older then the third oldest. Yikes. Where did the time go?


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