Moab 240-Race recap
October 11-14, 2019
Don’t Have Expectations!
(This recap is pretty boring which is a good thing if you’re an ultramarathoner!)
It’s long too so go get yourself a cold one!
P.S. I'll give you a finisher's buckle if you read the whole blog post.
Once again, all systems were go. I had prepared perfectly. My logbook showed lots of quality miles including two 115 mile Los Angeles to San Diego training runs within three weeks. Tons of high-quality high intensity, gut-busting strength workouts out in my garage. Running with the 40 lb weighted vest. Running to work and back (12 miles each way.) Heat training. Hypoxic Altitude training with AltoLab. Most importantly, I met with my mental skills coach, Brian Alexander. The sword had been sharpened for battle! The time had come to attack the Moab 240 Mile Endurance Run in Moab, Utah. I. WAS. READY. I couldn’t wait for the race to start. Let’s get it on, baby. Time to execute.
I had my drop bags packed before I left my house in San Diego, not like last year when I was futzing with them at 8 pm the night before the race. My good friend from Florida, Byron made a huge suggestion that I have a second pair of hiking poles for a very technical section of the course. So, I borrowed a pair of poles from the Leki and rep who was at the pre-race expo. They would end up working awesomely, allowing me to be aggressive during many treacherous miles.
I really wanted to have a good race as this was my lead-up to the “Big Daddy” in January, the 300 Mile Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. That race broke me last year. I don’t want that to happen again. It is essential that I go to Yukon with a strong and positive experience at Moab.
As usual, I slept like crap the night before, because of already being well-rested and because of my desire to get racing.
I noticed that at the race start, I wasn’t nervous. In fact, I had to contain and channel my confidence. I felt invincible. I told myself that nothing would break me over the next three and half days. At least that was one of my main goals. I really had put myself in a position to have ”the perfect race.”
As usual, I settled into a nice pace through the first two aid stations. At the first one, I changed out of my cool weather clothes. I hate being cold, so I had bundled up quite a bit. I hated watching people blow through the aid station passing me while I was futzing with my pack. Shortly after the first aid station (AS), I powered through a steep climb re-passing those who had just done so to me at the AS. I noticed that even though the grade was ridiculous, it truly felt effortless. I then rolled through some flat miles periodically passing someone. Though I focus almost exclusively on competing against myself, it’s empowering to overtake others.
Sure enough, I would end up going off trail a little bit over a sparse slick rock section searching for the ribbons that marked the course. This allowed the people that I had recently passed to pass me yet again. So frustrating! I told myself not to worry about them at all. And I didn’t.
Running along the Colorado River through campgrounds, I felt like I was out on an easy training run. I rolled into the second aid station called Amasa Back. I took in about 1000 Cal and topped off my water bottles with the electrolyte drink, Tailwind. The next section would take us several hundred feet up above the river giving us absolutely amazing scenic views off in the distance. I made it a point to enjoy these shots as much as possible.
I kept at very respectable clip during these early miles. The week before the race when I met with Brian, my mental skills coach, he suggested that I “just go with it”, regarding how I should approach my running pace. I told him I wanted to keep my foot on the gas pedal. He said not to worry about it. I liked that. It unburdened me. As silly as it sounds, the pace would be what the pace would be.
Heading down Jackson’s Ladder, a very steep, treacherous, rocky downhill of several hundred feet, I felt like a mountain goat perfectly at home.
Around 6:30, the sun dropped below the horizon taking the moderate temperatures with it. I put on my nighttime clothes and exchanged my sunglasses for a headlamp. The previous section had been 25 easy miles taking me into the mile 74 AS, called Breaking Bad. For some reason, I was exceedingly hungry here and put in about 1500 Cal including one absolutely delicious high-fat breakfast burrito. I shoveled in an additional eight strips of greasy bacon licking the juices off my lips. With no pressing issues, I charged out as quickly as I could.
Next up was The Island AS, mile 86. The only thing I remember about this AS is feeling as if I had gone the wrong way about a mile out. I saw a bunch of what appeared to be headlamps off to my right, but the course markers were leading me leftward away from them. I finally realized the lights I was seeing were those of runners coming up from miles behind me. My mind was starting to play tricks on me.
When dawn broke on the second day, I ran in the shadow of a mountain till around 9 AM, keeping the temperature quite cool. I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise in the sky. Finally, I rolled into the Bridger Jack AS, mile 102. Though not a designated sleep station, I decided to try to get some shut eye for the first time. Still chilly and breezy, I wrapped myself with a wool blanket like a baked potato. I jammed my earplugs as deep in my ear as I could and pulled on my eye shade. I slept for about 45 delicious minutes, periodically interrupted by an annoying cool draft sneaking under the blanket.
Refreshed and energized, I challenged myself to attack the next 19-mile section, knowing it was the toughest of the race. With 4200 feet of climbing and 2400 feet of descent, the section would be a “suck fest.” Most of the descent was in the early miles. With each step down, my mind kept telling me how hard it would be later and later in the section. I cursed the trail. I wanted to be going up not down. When the climbing began, it was horrible. Every time I went a few hundred feet up, I ended up giving the elevation right back, going down an equivalent amount. Up then down, up then down, up then down, up then down, up then down… I was burning valuable energy and it wasn’t even halfway through the race. I had fallen into a negative mindset. Brian told me to snap the rubber band he gave me to put on my wrist so that I could snap into a positive mindset. I snapped that stupid thing so many times it left a mark on my wrist. Laughably, then the pain of snapping on my wrist made me even more negative. I pulled off the trail and sat on a rock for a few minutes. I had no choice but to dig deep, suck it up, and press onward and upward. I told myself just to get the work done and quit being a bitch.
After a few hours of self-imposed misery, the climbing was over, and I reached a gravel road. It was an absolutely amazing relief. Through sheer mental toughness, I had achieved a big moral victory. I put the hammer down and ran like I was escaping from prison. I knew my friends Brittany and Megan, who came out from Salt Lake City, would meet me at the next aid station, Shay Mountain, mile 121. The girls work for CompHealth, a physician staffing company with which I have a part-time job. Seeing them would be a huge “pick me up.” I was so grateful for them coming out.
As the sun went down, I started to get bitterly cold, exacerbated by the fact that I had not eaten enough to match how much energy I had expended on this last sucky section. Entering the AS, I met up with the Brittany and Megan. The back of their car drew me in like a powerful magnet. I collapsed into a bed of warm blankets. I changed into fresh socks and put on some warm clothes for the second nighttime section. I think I slept around 20 minutes here, despite being in their car for about an hour and a half. I hated to leave because it felt like paradise. But I kicked myself in the butt to get moving. I knew the next section was mostly very runnable and that I should make good time. I hated leaving but soon I was on my way. All in the dark, I wouldn’t see another runner the entire next 18.5 miles. Expecting this segment to be all flat, it certainly WAS NOT. For about five miles, it was up then down, up then down, up then down… So frustrating. Press on Russ. Just press on.
Next up was the Dry Valley aid station mile 140. I met up with Brittany and Megan again here. Stopping briefly to rest in their car, I ate some more but was soon on my way. I really looked forward to this 14 mile completely flat fast section. Here again, I would not see a single runner this entire section except for two sets of headlamps far behind me. The moonlight was so brilliant that I didn’t need mine. This had to be the most pleasurable section for me. I was thriving. So far, my race had been near perfect. Except for being a little crybaby about 25 miles ago, I had remained very positive. I told myself to continue focusing on the moment and the corresponding task at hand and not to worry about the future or how many miles I had left. Win the moment, just win the moment I repeated. That strategy would work out well. Thanks Brian!
I arrived at the mile 153 AS, Wind Whistle. I knew I was several hours ahead of last year’s pace. I sat by the fire and ate more strips of bacon and some pancakes and hash browns smothered in syrup. Over the last 12 hours I noticed my tongue was hurting and that I had developed many large canker sores. They were horrible. It made it hard to talk, swallow, spit and cough. I get canker sores when overstressed whether it be from sleep deprivation or physical exertion and here, I had subjected myself to both.
I then had the sleep tent to myself for 45 minutes. Still chilly, I headed out for another fairly flat and very runnable 18-mile section to the next AS, where I would meet up with the girls for the last time before they had to head back to Salt Lake City for work the next day.
Unfortunately, despite really solid A+ effort, I was passed by a few guys, including a very high-profile runner who apparently had gone off course and was now having to make up hours and hours of time.
At the Road 46 AS, mile 167, I was once more treated like a rock star by Brittany and Megan. After a change into clean socks and with a new coat of sunscreen, I headed out for the 18 mile climb up to Pole Canyon, around elevation 8500 feet. Once again, I wouldn’t see a single other runner this entire section. I remember really suffering in the dark during the late miles along here last year. This time I was really enjoying the sun low in the horizon. I kept charging and charging, remaining as positive as possible.
Once there, I huddled around a campfire eating some delicious thickened rice soup. Now at mile 185, in my mind I had nearly entered the “home stretch”. I had 17 miles, 24 then roughly 16 left. I remember freezing my ass up here last year. This time I had plenty of warm clothes. However, I was wearing everything I had. I didn’t have any backup. So, I borrowed a puffy jacket from one of the race officials who said he had extra stuff. Knowing I had that as a backup should the temperature plummet anymore gave me great peace of mind. It got down to 6° last year. It’s one thing to be cold. It’s another thing to be completely exhausted. But combining the two is a recipe for disaster and absolute misery.
This next section would make or break my race I told myself. Stay positive and keep charging. On paper, that sounds easy. Practically, it’s a bitch. We all were required to download the course map into a GPX phone app. This way we would never be off course. Also, it allowed me to see how much further I had to go to the various checkpoints. It was fun watching the silly little triangle that corresponded to me on the phone move closer and closer to mark my progress. But it was crushing when I thought I had covered a good chunk of miles only to see on my phone that I had not. After innumerable times of disappointment, I decided to stop looking at my damn phone. Giving myself false expectations just set me up for disappointment. That’s yet another life lesson that I’ve learned in ultramarathons. Don’t have expectations. Just deal with reality as it is dealt. Another life lesson is to JUST BE PATIENT. I would recite the mantra “patience and persistence” over and over again throughout the Moab 240.
Now in the thick of my third night, I reached a real low. The lack of sufficient sleep really caught up to me. More up-and-down running/hiking but mostly up really pissed me off. And, I had become altered. Interestingly, I didn’t have any visual hallucinations. But I was having really strange pervasive thoughts. One of which was of me being escorted along the trail by one of my ER nurse friends who was telling me that every time I passed a course marker, one of her friends would get free dental insurance. Of all things! I thought that was a cool thing so I enjoyed looking for and passing the reflective ribbons. I told myself “Hey, another person’s gonna have nice teeth now!”
Also because of the dusty conditions, I had developed a horrible hacking cough, producing dusty green phlegm-balls every few minutes. It made my breathing squeaky sounding which my mind periodically interpreted as women’s voices singing short verses to me. Often, it sounded like a man’s voice calling out my name. Innumerable times I would look behind me but there was no one there. My mind was definitely playing tricks on me but fortunately I was aware enough to realize it. Oh what fun it is to do an extreme ultramarathon!
I needed sleep and I needed it bad. Again, I kept my foot on the gas as much as I could. I was hell-bent on getting to the next aid station, Geyser Lake, mile 205. The climbing to this point seemed like it would never end. In the wee hours of the night, a few other runners and their pacers caught up with me. We suffered in silence. Eventually we get off the rocky, single-track trail and came out onto a wide graded gravel road. This now had become the lowest point of my race. I had become really negative while being 75% asleep. The incessant climbing had taken its mental toll. Again, I had fallen into the trap of the expectation of the top of the climb being completed around the next switchback. I was walking like a zombie using my hiking poles to keep me upright. That’s certainly no exaggeration. I needed food as much as I needed sleep. But I was too tired to dig out some calories from my pack. Every quarter mile, I would lean over my poles and balance precariously, reaching a brief but true sleep state. Losing my balance would awake me.
I turned on my motivational podcast playlist hoping it would fuel me forward. It worked. Yet again I set myself up for disappointment by seeing a lighted area around a bend in the road only to find that it was simply bright moonlight coming through the trees, not the coveted aid station. Simply by looking straight down and powering one foot in front of the other, I reached it.
I collapsed into a chair. The best race volunteer in the world waited on me hand and foot. She even cleaned off the dirt from my feet and helped me change into clean socks. She was an absolute angel. She brought me food and filled up my water bottles. She handed me over to another guy as her “shift” had ended. I chuckled when I heard her say “This guy is now yours.”
I waddled over to the sleep ten telling the AS captain that I wanted to sleep for exactly one hour. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was awakened exactly one hour later. It took me about a full minute to orient myself and realize the task at hand. I had roughly 40 miles to go. At dawn of the fourth day, I knew the arriving sunlight would warm me. I took 600 more milligrams of ibuprofen and half a Five Hour Energy, which fairly invigorated me. Three miles down the trail, I reached last year’s roughly 200-mile aid station. With only one marker, I burned 20 minutes looking for the right direction to go despite the unhelpful aid of the GPX file on my phone. This frustrated me tremendously. I wanted to get the damn race over with and here I was futzing around trying to find where to go. There were several paths leading away from an open area. I didn’t want to head down the wrong one which would cost me even more valuable time.
Finally, I figured it out. I was on my way toward the finish. After a few miles of climbing through muddy trail, I reached a flat section where the temperature had warmed. I spent about 15 minutes changing out of my nighttime clothes. I had an Ensure and a ProBar. I then began powering downhill, running around 10-minute miles. In an ultra, that’s a pretty fast pace especially when wearing a 20-pound pack. I made good time rejoining civilization and seeing an occasional car on a paved road.
I knew I was several hours ahead of last year’s pace and this made me very, very happy. I pushed on to the final aid station, Porcupine Rim, mile 227 or so. My spirits were sky high. I was a chatty Cathy with the volunteers. I had 16 miles of mostly downhill but rocky fairly technical terrain.
I reached the point from last year where I ran out of lighting sources, leaving me stranded for five hours. Without light, I couldn’t see the reflective course markers. I had no choice but to dig a foxhole and shelter in place where I planned on waiting til morning for daylight. By the grace of God, a runner saw the reflective strips on my vest and “saved” me. I followed him and a race official who came up to meet me out to the road. What a relief it was to get past this point.
Again, I fell victim to the temptation of expecting only about five more miles to go to the end of the trail section of the race. By now, I was becoming kind of chippy with myself. I so much wanted to get to the last three miles which would be on road taking us into the finish. I pushed on any pretty brisk pace but still ended up being passed by a few guys. I reached the road just as darkness set in. What a tremendous relief. With nighttime came plunging temperatures. I didn’t want to hassle with putting on cold-weather clothes so I just pushed as hard as I could to generate body heat. The moon had not yet risen so it was virtually pitch black now. Though only a few miles from the finish, there were no signs of civilization. This messed with my mind thinking perhaps I had gone the wrong way but truly I knew I was not. I was now running nine or 10 minute per mile pace interspersed with walking periods. I surprised myself by being able to run at that fast of the clip after 241 miles of tough going and less than three hours of sleep total.
Suddenly, I saw the lights of the city! I didn’t remember coming in this way last year. I was a little disoriented. I didn’t care! With only a half mile to go, I put the hammer down and rolled towards the Moab Valley Resort. I savored the last few moments then cruised under the finish banner. Absolute relief and euphoria. Surprisingly, Stephanie, the front desk manager of the resort who I became good friends with last year, came out to watch me finish. Feeling kind of sappy, I became emotional. We shared a nice embrace and I might have shed a tear. Or… It might’ve been some dust that got in my eye! I thought it was really cool that she came out for me.
I finished in just under 85 hours about an hour or two slower than my goal and in 20th place. But, I’m still very satisfied. This was an exceedingly difficult race. I was ecstatic to have gone many hours faster than last year and to have avoided any major problems. I had a fantastic race going for a long time. I handled the lows fairly well but certainly have lots of room for improvement.
At the finish line, my old buddy Todd Evans, who was running the food tent, made me the most delicious custom pizza I’ve ever had. An accomplished ultra-distance runner himself, he volunteers a lot a lot at these races.
After some engaging postrace conversation by the campfire with the race volunteers, I shuffled over to my cabin, huddled in a warm wool blanket. I popped open a Michelob Ultra Pure Gold that Brittany and Megan had left for me in the fridge. It went down way too easy. I collapsed on the bed and looked up at the ceiling in a state of utter and complete bliss.
After about an hour of self-reflection, I took a long, warm shower cleaning myself of 3 ½ days of grime, salt and sunscreen. I retired to bed but didn’t sleep well because of being overtired. I went back out to the finish line in the morning to share war stories with others. It was great being around so many like-minded people. One of the best parts of the entire experience was that not a single person told me “You’re Crazy!” like I hear in my real life at least once a day.
What I do is not crazy but extreme. And extreme is good!
NOW ON TO YUKON, BABY!!