Trail Running, Bull Riding, and Props to Phoenix

Before I moved out west in 2010, I had run on trails but never done an official trail race (unless you count cross country in 8th and 9th grade). In Flagstaff, about all you can run is trail; they don’t much believe in running on road.

Doesn’t a trail race sound nice? A little leisurely jog under the Ponderosa pines, all while gazing upon the San Francisco peaks?

Well, I can’t speak for trail runs everywhere, but I can say that around here, the term “trail race” is, as Bob the Boyfriend puts it, a euphemism for the most sadistic path between two points. There’s nothing leisurely about it.

Here’s a story about how the Flagstaff Marathon came about that I found online:

Once upon a June summer day, after the very first Summer Woods Run at Flagstaff Nordic Center, there was an odd gentleman with an odd smile on his face. . . .The conversation went something like this:

Someone: “What’s so funny Rick?”
Rick: “This place is beautiful, we should run a marathon out here!”
Someone: “Rick, that’s crazy. A marathon would be hard.”
Rick: “Let’s do it this year!”

See?

Of course, it doesn’t help that in addition to running trail, you are, when in Flagstaff, also running at 7,000 feet and with some of the craziest runners I’ve ever known. Flagstaff runners routinely run across the Grand Canyon in what’s called a rim-to-rim. And sometimes they turn right around and run back again: hence, the rim-to-rim-to-rim. I’ve also heard of a hole-to-hump run: from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the summit of Mt. Humphrey’s, the highest peak in Arizona–a gain of 11,000 feet in elevation over 90 miles. And did I mention that Humphrey’s peaks at over 12,000 feet?

So, when I recently decided to do some trail races in Phoenix, I went into it oozing confidence. After all, Phoenix is about a mile lower in elevation; the winters are warm. What on earth would there be to fear except some hills and a few cacti?

Man, was I wrong.

Almost two weeks ago, I ran a 17k (about 10.5 mile) trail race called the San Tan Scramble put on by the amazing people at Aravaipa Running. (I should mention that this was the “mid” distance; there was also a 26k and a 50k. This should have been my first warning sign.)

Let me first point out that the desert only gets warm after the sun comes up and then it gets warm quickly. But these races start in the dark. Fifteen minutes before start time, I was huddled around a heat lamp with other runners, wearing five layers of clothing (not an exaggeration), wondering how in the hell I was going to force myself to strip down to a t-shirt and shorts.

But I did, and after about fifteen minutes, I actually felt pretty good. Slow, but good. Here’s me at about mile 5:

San Tan Scramble 17k

San Tan Scramble 17k

Don’t I look happy? Well, that’s because I didn’t review the elevation profile before I ran this race. Look what was waiting for me at mile 9.

Elevation Profile San Tan 17 k

Elevation Profile San Tan 17 k

That nasty red bit was a hill so steep that I could only walk it, and even then the walking was hard.

One of the coolest things about the race, though (at least before mile 9; nothing was cool after mile 9), was that around mile 6, I started crossing paths with the 50k-ers going the other direction. At this point, I was enjoying a gradual downhill on smooth trail and, feeling most benevolent, cheered each of them on.

“Good job,” I said to the lead runner, not expecting a reply; the dude was working the hill.

“Nice work, runner,” he said in return.

It was like Tina Fey had laughed at one of my jokes. This generous man finished the 50k in under four hours, even though he had to deal with the red bit three times, and he still found the energy to be polite.

After the race, I thought a lot about what makes trail runners return to such punishing courses. I think they’re like bull riders in one respect: they want a tough ride. I had a slight obsession with the rodeo when I was in my twenties (long story), and I was always fascinated by how the riders afterwards always thank the bull–you know, that pissed-off animal that was trying to buck them off and then gore them to death. But it’s the bull that allows the rider to prove his grit. And I suppose it is the trail that proves the runner.

I can’t say I feel the same . . . yet. I still really like leisurely jogs under the Ponderosa pines or in the shadow of saguaro for that matter. But I’ve got another race this weekend: a 20k at an event called the Coldwater Rumble.

Coldwater Rumble 20k

Coldwater Rumble 20k

Yeah, I’m a little worried about those red bits. But I only have to deal with them once. Others are running 20 miles, 52k, 52 miles, and–yes–100 miles. Look at how many times the 100 milers have to deal with the red bits:

Coldwater 100m

Coldwater 100m

What the what? Well, at least it will give them a good ride.

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