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The bottoms of my feet felt like the chupacabra had shredded them when Melanie jogged up to where I was walking.
“I am done with this crap!” she said. “Excuse my language.”
This is Mormon country and Melanie and I were two out of twenty people who’d opted to run 50 kilometers in the middle of desert wasteland for no reason that either of us could remember.
“Me too. I don’t even like running.”
“I’m never running again.”
You hear this kind of exchange during any long run when you rock up next to another runner and start chatting. I’m not much of a talker during runs because it’s already a big effort to put one foot in front of the other.
But this time, I was 53 kilometers into my own personal hell of what was supposed to be a 50-kilometer run. I was walking and glad to hear someone else’s voice.
Melanie and I were pulling up the rear of the Goblin Valley Ultra Marathon in southern Utah.
An “ultra marathon” is any run longer than a marathon, which is 42.195 km long. The Goblin Valley Ultra is purportedly 50 km long, making it a gateway run to longer-distance running. Ultras generally vary from 50-kilometer to 250-mile single- or multi-stage races through extreme terrain where participants often have to lug their own gear and water. This run had sand pits, boulders, and eroded sandstone that I walked across because it was so smooth I was afraid I’d slip.
Oh, and it was at an altitude of 5,100 feet. Let’s not forget that.
Background: I don’t like running, but it’s my favorite sport because I’m not coordinated. I was the kid on the soccer team who would miss kicking the ball – an immobile ball – in practice. So running is perfect for me because there’s one move that you do again and again. My “technique” is to try not to fall down, which happens at least once a year anyway.
I sign up for races because if I don’t have a reason to train, I will sit on my couch, watch YouTube videos, and eat pita chips. It works like this:
I don’t feel like running.
I have a race in ___ weeks.
If I don’t run, I’ll be out of shape and I’ll get an injury.
I better go for a run.
So I signed up for the Goblin Valley Ultra so I’d have a reason to go on a few long runs each week and because it sounded badass. It’d be my first ultra marathon. And how hard can an extra 8 kilometers be?
Famous last words.
This is how it went down, in approximate times:
6:50 am Arrive at check-in desk, where the running volunteers use headlamps to find our running bibs. It’s pitch BLACK outside. The runners and support teams talk water stops, compression socks, gels, how they’re layering, and how they’ve trained. I’m more like, “Derrr. . . can I have an extra sticker? Those look cool.” Everyone else is wearing little shorts and looks really FAST and I’m shivering and wondering what I’m doing here.
7:25 a.m. The race directors explain that if we see three pink stakes, we need to follow them. They also explain that sometimes there will be 5 or 7 kilometers between water stops. This I know. I read the website. I have finished a dozen marathons. I am a pro. Look at me. I have a bib on.
7:31 a.m. The race starts and half the runners immediately sprint past me. I’m wearing brand new shoes – a cardinal sin on Race Day – because I left my broken-in shoes in Shanghai, where I live half the time.
8:40 a.m. I pass the Half-Marathoners Turn Around Here sign and am stoked that I have a whole morning left of this scenery. Tumbleweed blows across the dirt trail and I’m half-expecting John Wayne himself to hand me water and a gel pack. Dirt trails are fun because you don’t get to run on them in the city. They slow you down, but I’m not trying to qualify for Boston or anything, so I don’t care. Wheee!
9:45 a.m. I pass the Marathoners Turn Around Here sign and am experiencing the full euphoria of the “runner’s high,” that feeling runners get when they feel like they could go forever. I can go forever. I am a unicorn. I AM FLYING!
10:00 a.m. I’m watching my feet while I run because it’s super rocky, so I miss the three pink stakes up from the road because I’m focused on not-falling.
You can run for half an hour and not see another runner or water stop.
After about 15 minutes, I hear someone calling, “Hey!” “Hey!” “HEY!!!” and I turn around. It’s a fellow runner, so I jog back, all annoyed, like, “Whaaa-aaat?” but only in my head because at this point, I still have manners. Out loud, I say, “hi?” and half-smile. He tells me I’m quite a bit off course and that he’s been following me. “I wasn’t going to leave you.” I thank him profusely and want to cry into a pillow.
11:00 a.m. I make the turn-around point for the Ultra and see a truck pass me, a grey-haired runner with knee braces sitting up in the back of the truck bed. I’m overwhelmed with love for this guy – overflowing and it comes in waves – and glad he stopped instead of pushing himself. I am completely emotional over nothing because that is part of the high. I love you, man. I love everyone in the world at this moment. We are one.
11:40 a.m. The Black Dog enters. The “Black Dog,” as it’s called, is what runners call the deep sadness that sets in during or after a long run. Hello, old friend.
The thing about distance running is that it’s you and maybe a set of headphones for hours and hours. You’ve got nowhere else to be and nothing else to do besides put one foot in front of the other. All you’ve got for entertainment is your head.
So I think about the baby shower I’m planning and how I’m anxious about seeing my ex there and how it makes me want to weep and stab someone at the same time. And I think about how I got off course and why isn’t there a water stop sooner and why am I doing this and what is wrong with me. And I think about five million awful things until I catch myself and remember that the sun is shining and holy smokes, I am still in motion and that is INCREDIBLE.
And then I cry a little and smile because this always comes and it’s such a relief to let it out. The Black Dog is my favorite part of any run.
1:00 p.m. At the turn-around for the Half, which means I have about 10 kilometers to go, a friend of mine pulls up in his car and asks the volunteers how to find the Finish Line. He’d injured himself last month, so opted to still go on the running trip and to hike while everyone else ran. I asked him to let the rest of our friends know that I’m walking the end, so I’ll be a while. It was a feat of strength not to get in his car. I’m no longer running – just limping and wishing I had a different pair of shoes.
1:40 p.m. My new friend Melanie walked alongside me for a kilometer, then took off. I did a light jog behind her for 2-3 km, using her as a pacer. I walked up a steep hill back to the Finish Line while the five of my friends cheered for me. The upside of being a slow runner is that there’s always a friend at the Finish Line by the time you get there.
2:15 p.m. The Finish Line is 200 meters to my right, but two rangers tell me to go left to the other end of the parking lot. “LEFT?!” Left towards my friends, who are tailgating and drinking beer. Left through Goblin Valley and the hoodoos. Left through one of Earth’s geological mysteries.
Two Boy Scout leaders pushed over a hoodoo with their troop last year. It was one of Utah’s big scandals.
None of which I appreciated because, like Melanie, I was so done with this race. I walked the last kilometer of the course: a meandering route through the hoodoos. My friend with the car was poised to take my picture when I crossed the Finish Line, but put his phone down when he saw my face.
I finished 50 kilometers after 6 hours and 43 minutes, according to the bib chip. According to my run tracker, I finished 56.9 kilometers after 6 hours and 20 minutes (it pauses when I stand or sit still, so during water stops and Port-A-Potty visits, both of which I take my sweet time for).
According to the race results, 26 or the 34 participants finished, so I felt lucky that I was able to make it. My body wasn’t into the last 10 kilometers, so finishing was all mental.
After the run, one of my running buddies handed me a beer and I pulled off my shoes and socks. Someone let out a low whistle. The bottoms of my feet were half-covered in white blisters and my ankles were raw and skin-free where the sneakers had rubbed against them.
That night, I soaked with my friends in the Super 8 hot tub, drank some more, and listened to them talk about 80s bands and their runs. Most of my friends went out for karaoke while I went back to the room, rubbed my calves with Tiger Balm, and fell asleep by 11:30.
I’m glad I finished, even if I had to walk more than I’d planned. I’m proud of myself for not getting into my friend’s car. I like that I’ve learned that Black Dog is there to help me deal with all the junk I push down. I’m glad I know more about my body’s limits and that I can push myself beyond what I thought was possible.
At the same time, I didn’t train as well as I would have liked because of work and a million other things. And the weekend-with-friends revelry I had in mind didn’t happen (or it did, but without me) because I was super busy sleeping.
So I’ve decided to stick with Half Marathons for the next year. I’m sure I’ll go out for an Ultra again, but for now, it’s too soon.