Desert R&R

The desert has always been my retreat. Some of my earliest and fondest memories involve birding trips to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, six year old me tenderly skirting to avoid the innumerable species of giant spiky plants. I now find myself living in another, very different desert, the high sagebrush desert of the Gunnison Basin. While lacking in large cacti or quite the same amazing avian diversity, whenever the moment presents itself, I venture outside in search of some customary recovery and relaxation from the stresses of school.

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Weekend lead climbing at Hartman Rocks, near Gunnison

As the semester has progressed, and the stress of final projects and exams looms, these weekend outings have become all the more important to me. Even so, the R&R has turned largely from “recovery and relaxation” to “running and running.” The nearby canyon country of Utah provides yet another amazing avenue for weekend adventuring. One weekend found me racing a very technical half marathon in Moab, the course taking me so far out of my comfort zone and experience level as a track athlete that I was left bleeding and shaking at the finish line.

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Moab Marathon Finish Line Festivities

About three days after swearing off running for the season, I found myself training for yet another race. In just a handful of days, I would be competing in the Dead Horse Ultra 50k. This race would take place on a completely different trail system in Moab, the course thankfully featuring much less severe levels of technicality. Halfway through the 31 miles of spectacularly scenic singletrack and slickrock trails, I believe I have finally found something I was meant to do.

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Teammate Gordon Gianinny and I looking smooth through mile 7 of 31 – photo by Renée Haip

At mile 18, my teammate Gordon finds another gear that I did not know existed, and soon disappears down the twisting and meandering trail, leaving me to my own thoughts and pain. Having only downed a couple of energy gels and a handful of oreo cookies in the previous miles, I am finally starting to feel the toll of the miles on my legs…skipping through the slickrock now feels much more arduous and trecherous than it did earlier. This feeling of total fatigue continues to increase with every step, and by the time I roll through what I imagine must be about 26.2 miles, I know that if I stop I will not be able to get my stiff legs moving again. So I keep putting one foot in front of the other, knowing with a dead certainty that each step brings me closer to home. My R&R may not be what you would normally imagine it to be, but it brings life to my soul, and it is views and memories like this that I will be dreaming of through the upcoming trials of the semester.

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Photo by Renée Haip
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One Step at a Time

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” -J.R.R. Tolkein, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

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Descending from Star Pass, mile 17.5 – photo courtesy Crested Butte Nordic

I had just under twelve miles of trail left to cover, and had just finished running through the fourth roadside aid station in the 2016 Grand Traverse Mountain Race. My knees feel as though I had just stolen them from a 90 year old great-grandfather. With an incredible mental effort, I persuaded my body back into the steady loping rhythm I had adopted over the last 29 miles. The pain and stiffness of regaining this stride after a brief pause for food is incredible, and the resulting stream of swear words was fortunately muffled by the handfuls of pretzels and gummy worms I was stuffing into my mouth.

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Five hours earlier, in the darkness immediately before dawn, I was already running. Chatting light-heartedly with teammates, I had no clue of the ordeal I had just started. Thinking back on that moment now, it may as well have been years ago.

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The course map, 40.7 miles with 6,179 feet in elevation gain – courtesy thegrandtraverse.org

Just a few very long miles ago, I was running at over 12,000 feet in elevation, hunched over to brace against a biting wind and blinding snow, listening for the all too close cracks of thunder as I fought to get back below timber line. Having packed as lightly as possible, my only clothing consisted of super light trail shoes, shorts, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. At the point I thought I would not be able to continue, the sun broke through the clouds, the wind calmed, and I heard a ptarmigan go “chuck” somewhere on my stretch of the alpine. With that, my will to compete returned.

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“The road goes ever on and on.”

Over the next dozen miles, I discovered levels of pain and discomfort I did not believe existed previously. The slightest uphill grade in the trail completely humbled my ability as a runner, rendering me to a slow, painful shuffling walk. In the end, I found my way to the end of the road, crossing the finish line in Aspen, 40.7 miles and just under 7 hours after leaving Crested Butte that morning.

I stepped onto the road, kept my feet, and was swept into an adventure of the ages.