The single track dropped away immediately from the parking lot. Sand alternated with rocks. Joshua trees, yucca, creosote, and rabbitbrush seemingly dust the gray sand and rocks…gray sand and rocks that occasionally give way to the iron rich reds. While the soils and flora and fauna of desert trails differ greatly from soft dirt of forest trails, I think the most noticeable distinction between them is the striking and far-reaching vistas of the desert. Horizons sweep away giving one both a sense of smallness and greatness…smallness in the enormity of a massively open landscape and greatness in the ability to see a vast creation from the crest of a rise.
Over the past few years most of my trail runs have been in the desert, Nevada and southern Utah. The wide open spaces provide an extra challenge to the run, at least for me. On a wooded trail, the trees and turns hide the distances ahead and behind. In the desert, distances are transparent; the runner cannot hide the distances from his thoughts or his thoughts from the distances. The grit of the desert makes its demand of payment in kind.
Since June of this year I have worked hard to lose weight and to get myself back into good physical shape. To date I have managed to lose over thirty pounds and run some solid distances again. Outside of a 5K this summer, the Trails of Glory race by Desert Dash was the first race I’ve ran this year, which is significant because I’ve averaged 5 or more races each year since 2010. As part of my current fitness program, I was challenged to set and accomplish a goal. My goal was to complete the 12K distance in this race. When I registered for the race online, I was required to input my expected finishing time. Going against my better judgment I entered a time of ninety minutes, a time faster than I thought I could handle on the desert hills.
The morning chill dissipated quickly following the gun start. After a quick loop around the asphalt parking lot, we hit the trail. We were a crowd on a single track, each a bit hyped on the adrenaline that courses through veins at the beginning of a race. The first two miles fell away quickly with runners pushing, trying to establish order. In quick order I passed the damaged Duck Tree, only catching a fleeting glance of some rubber ducks. (The branch that used to hang across the trail, forcing runners to duck, is now ripped away from the tree.) In the swiftness of the first two miles, I only see one runner go down, but she was up quickly. While I never slipped or stumbled, I realize the soles of my well-worn road shoes are thin, too thin to be running on rocky trails. A problem for another day.
Just after mile three, the climb begins with more turns and curves, with the occasional refreshing dips. Here the contest truly begins, the doubts enter the mind as pain enters the lungs and the legs. My performance through this phase surprises me. I manage to run more than I had expected, walking seldom. It’s not just my conditioning that allows me to push myself further than I anticipated, but it’s the psychological force coming from the knowledge that runners are behind me and ahead of me. Usually I prefer to run with minimal company, but the presence of other runners during a race is motivating. I want to stay ahead of those behind me. I want to pass those ahead of me. I don’t want to slow and be a hindrance to those behind me.
By the the time I reach the first aid station at mile four, I’m tired but still invigorated, thrilled to know that I have a reservoir of energy and strength with less than half of the race left to run. The run to the next aid station gave me the opportunity to push myself a little harder, even to pass a few more runners. Views of the mountains are amazing, with the clear blue sky overhead. By now I’m wondering if I should have gone without the long sleeve shirt or if I should peel off my short sleeve shirt. I’m sweating profusely and enjoying the heat. I enjoyed the steep drop and steep climb to the second aid station just past mile five.
The crowd builds at the aid station as runners from the different distance groups gather to get a drink. I’m thankful that I have carried my own water bottle, and I push on without stopping. At the next turn the 8K runners join us on the trail, a long, slim trail that climbs steadily for almost two miles, a long “slog” as the race director described it. Here I walked more than I wanted, but I wasn’t walking alone. Despite getting passed by a few, I manage to push my past a few other runners. One demands to know where the hill ends. I can see the final ridge and push, yearning for the last downhill portion.
After a hill, feeling the ground fall away in a decline is always rewarding. I feel obligated to run, to push myself. I do. Unfortunately, another runner goes down in front of me, on the rocks, rocks that are jagged. She is slow to rise and steps to the side of the trail so I can pass. Another runner makes sure she is not injured seriously. I pass a few others, and now I’m wondering if I can maintain the pace even as I quicken it. The cars parked along the highway come into view, compelling me to go faster, assuming that the finish line is imminent. There are more twists and turns than I expect. Another runner cries out that the finish line is straight ahead as a volunteer directs us to another turn. Around the last turn and I’m flying, trying to hold off the runner just behind me. I stay ahead as I pass my wife waiting for me and cross the finish line.
I finished in 1:27:37, almost a full two and a half minutes faster than I planned. Managed to place 40th overall for the 12k distance, which ironically matches my new and beautiful age. (I came in 8th for my age division.) As I expect at the end of a race of this distance, my legs and my lungs burn. Unexpectedly, however, my level of euphoria is higher than it has been in months of running, even since my last race, driven no doubt by my satisfactory performance and the majestic course.
My hunger for racing (and trail running) is restored. Already I’m looking for more races and reasons to run the desert trails. A few of the upcoming Desert Dash races have my attention; I’ll likely run one or two of them in 2016, perhaps pushing myself to the half marathon distance and maybe to a trail marathon.
Post Script on Desert Dash
This was my first Desert Dash event. Other than the longer than average wait for the official results, I think the race was organized and executed very well. The check in was set up and ready for runners to arrive and the trail was marked clearly with volunteers to direct us through any complex junctions. The price for the event seemed about right. Were I in better shape than I am right now, I would consider running their Black Mountain Friday event on November 27th...that and if the price wasn’t so high. Even for a late registration, a $70 fee seems too high for a seven-mile race, especially with no aid station at the top. Perhaps the permit fees are higher than normal. Either way, it look like a great race.