At the beginning of November I traveled to Moab Utah to run a half marathon on trails in the desert. This event was to be the culmination of my running season and was what I had been looking forward to all year. It was a four day jet setting trip that seemed totally rational and doable when I registered for the race on some crummy rainy night back in March. When November came around and we still didn’t have power from the seasons first snow storm, and hadn’t been able to confirm with our dog sitter because the phones were out, not to mention I was leaving work the week my students were running their independent research projects, it all seemed crazy and stupid.
Even the dumbest plans can yield some wisdom with enough introspection, and as it is now the end of December, I’ve clearly been introspecting for several weeks. With that in mind I share what I’ve learned from flying across the country to run in the desert.
10 things I learned in Utah
1. It’s never too late to send out that email that’s long overdue. My original plan was to fly directly to Salt Lake City by myself, rent a car and drive myself to Moab, stay by myself in a hotel, get myself to the race, drive myself back to Salt Lake City, and fly back to Boston. When the time came to actually buy the airline tickets this fall I started looking at what the possibilities really were. And I started communicating with an old friend who now lives in southwestern Colorado, a little over three hours from Moab. The friend, who was my first running mentor, who encouraged me to enter the Mt Washington Road race lottery (I got in), and who trained me for my first marathon. Suddenly a new plan took shape, and it was a no brainer. I booked a ticket to Durango (though it took all my courage to do so when I saw that the plane that would take me up and over the Rockies out of Denver was a propeller plane).
J would pick me up, I’d stay with her, and she would come with me to the race. In reality J looked after me and took care of my every need that weekend, from booking the hotel room in Moab and doing 100% of the driving to and from Utah to handing me a green juice and a bag of Fritos when I crossed the finish line (yes Fritos—favored food of trail runners everywhere). Though I have existential doubts as to whether or not this trip was the best use of the world’s limited resources, reconnecting with an old friend in her new life, seeing pictures of her young grand daughters, being with her in her new home with her new partner, hearing her get excited about the running and biking and skiing that is right outside their door was worth every penny, and every drop of jet fuel.
2. I still love Utah. I first traveled to southeastern Utah when I was in college. My father and sister and I flew to the intermountain west for a two week spring break trip. We skied at Alta and Snowbird and Telluride, staying at the nearest Motel 6 or La Quinta (which, in the case of Telluride in particular, I can assure you, was very far away indeed). We drove to Ouray and Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument and then we dropped down to Moab to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. (I don’t know exactly where we were or which direction we were going but driving through those Colorado Utah borderlands just after a rain shower listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree on the rental car radio has to be one of the most transcendent moments of my life). I fell in love with the Navajo and Windgate Sandstones of the Red Rock desert around Moab instantly and deeply and every few years I try to contrive a good reason to go back.
First I planned and co-led two spring break mountain biking trips in Moab for Maine Bound, the UMaine outdoor program that was the center of my universe in college. Then I dragged my husband across the country on the train just after Christmas, traveling to both Zion and Moab. We got snowed in at Canyonlands National Park, the sole occupied campsite in a wide open snow covered sparkling landscape. Even though I live in what could be characterized as a completely polar opposite landscape (wet, humid, coastal, post glacial) and I love the life that the northern forest provides for me, that desert mainlines right into the core of my being.
3. I’m a good technical descender, at least relative to the field in this race. I began to realize this at the Great Pond Mountain Race, and confirmed it in Moab. I fully credit this to spending the season running in Maine on our rocky and rooty trails. I run what I can here in Downeast Maine, and for the most part our trails aren’t manicured single track; even the trails in Acadia National Park are steep, boulder filled and tree root strewn. Up hill I suck wind and walk with the best of them (especially nursing a chest cold in the extremely dry desert air), but on the down hills I had to maneuver around runners trained on city parks or polished single track.
4. Flying sucks, now more than ever *. Consider the following exchange: Airline to passenger: “You bought your tickets on Orbitz? Oh, well f#$% you. You can head directly to the last row of the plane now. Middle seat, yes that’s you.”
Yes, although I booked specific seats when I purchased my tickets, when I checked in those reservations had evaporated, and I found my self in the BACK ROW of the plane on ALL FOUR of my flights. ALL FOUR. This was my first time flying on a reconfigured plane, one with more seats crammed in. I’m a relatively small person, and previously I had wondered what everyone was complaining about. Now I know. I’m 5’4”, and when I am uncomfortably folded into an airline seat, I can’t imagine the discomfort of the nearly 6 foot tall men seated on either side of me (one of whom, the one on the aisle, passed the entire flight with his tray table folded down and his ear buds in, watching hours of financial independence motivational e-course DVDs. Not only was I uncomfortable in the middle seat, I was trapped).
I’m a slow learner sometimes, and it wasn’t until the last flight, the one back to the east coast, that I figured out you could change your seat assignment at the self check in kiosk. The extra few minutes it took to print a new boarding pass for a mid plane aisle seat were well worth it.
*Note: crowded uncomfortable flights are a distinctly first world problem, as most people in the world won’t ever get to fly anywhere, so it is with privileged humility that I whine about it. Modern aviation is a friggin’ miracle as far as I am concerned, in the big scheme of things, so airlines, feel free to take my complaints with a grain of salt.
5. Flirt with the male flight attendants, they’ll give you free drinks. When my seat mate finally took a bathroom break and unplugged from his pyramid scheme DVDs, I literally leapt at the chance to get up and stretch my legs. After a couple of laps as far up the aisle as I could get, I returned to the back of the plane, thinking I might make a pitch for pity from the flight attendants, and score a second soda or some pretzels. When I poked my head around the flimsy fabric that served to separate the rear service area from the lavatories and Orbitz passenger seating area, I realized I had happened upon a little cocktail party. Crammed into the service area were the two male flight attendants who were clearly at the bottom of the totem pole (who else gets relegated to serving the cheap seats at the rear of the plane?), and several young attractive women clutching plastic airline cocktail cups. I quickly assessed the situation and recalculated my plea for pity. Screw the pretzels. I made my pitch, and they asked me what kind of booze I wanted. It was that easy. One of the young women proceeded to mix me a “vodka and tonic”, which was in fact actually a “vodka and warm seltzer water”, which is not at all the same thing as a vodka and tonic, but I drank it none the less because this was a genuinely interesting situation to have found myself in and I didn’t want to go back and squeeze in next to Bernie Madoff and Co. It was nearly impossible to chat due to the noise, but I smiled and nodded a lot, just like at any cocktail party, and they all kept talking like they could actually hear one another. The gathering finally ended when one flight attendant looked at the other and said sheepishly “We should probably go do waters now”.
I should say that this spontaneous show of humanness more than made up for the generally crummy experience that is 21rst century economy class flying. I’m sure it was a once in a life time kind of event, but I’ll be hopeful every time a step on to a plane from now on.
6. I’m faster than I thought (but who cares?). Note, this doesn’t say that I am fast, far from it. My brother in law likes to buy funny t-shirts as gifts and he showed me one that said “I can run an 11 minute mile”. I begged him to get it for me for Christmas. This lesson should really be called “Don’t believe the Hype” or “Don’t underestimate your abilities”. This race was run with about 1500 people, started in 5 successive waves. When you registered you were instructed to carefully consider which wave you should put yourself in, based on what part of the pack you typically finish in in other races. They also implied that the course is hard and technical and that you should expect your times to be much slower than a regular road half marathon. I registered in March and hadn’t been running much so I seeded my self very conservatively, I put myself in the 4th or next to last wave, just a step above the “recreational runners” (aren’t we all doing this for recreation?). You could change your wave on race day, but it didn’t occur to me to do that (again, that slow learner thing).
After watching the first 3 waves leave, I decided that I wanted to be at the FRONT of my wave, realizing that getting caught at the back or in the middle of the pack would annoy me. So I lined up with my toes on the starting line (if you watch this video, at 0:30 I am dancing at the starting line, and between 0:45 and 0:50 I am running away from the pack at the start of the race—black skirt, green long sleeve top). I told my friend J that I anticipated it taking me three hours, based on the hype (both online and in my head), forgetting of course that I’m from Maine, we already run on rough rocky trails, up steep hills and mountains, along ATV tracks, across streams and beaver dams, along boggy pond edges. Trail runners in Maine are used to rough conditions, and I came to realize the hype was really directed at people who’s trails are more civilized. As it turns out, I was on track to finish in less than 2 and a half hours, easily (J was right when she looked at me skeptically when I told her 3 hours). After the first several miles it became clear that I had made up the gap between the 4th and 3rd waves.
The only thing that got in my way was, well, the race itself. At mile 8 the trail narrowed to unpassable single track, yet the pack had not yet spread out. When the person in front of you stopped to step over a boulder, so did you. At mile 9 we came around a corner and headed down the steep side of a canyon and the race came to a stand still. Runners were lined up ahead of me as far as I could see.
It turns out that there was a very cautious race marshal overseeing a short technical scrambly descending section, and that combined with the high volume of racers still bunched up on the course created the bottle neck that forced us to stand around on the race course, inching slowly forward for probably half an hour (at least where I was in the pack, those behind me surely had to wait longer).
Had I been worried about my time, I would have freaked out (even not being worried about my time this slow down made me a little anxious). Luckily everyone was cool, we chatted and remarked on what a beautiful place we had gotten stuck in. Photo ops abounded. That being said, if you look up my time, you’ll see its 2:49, but now you know why. I actually am faster than I thought (and the clock said).
7. Going for a 15 mile bike ride the afternoon before my race sounds like a bad idea, particularly since I haven’t been riding my bike at all, but it wasn’t. Our bodies want to be used, they don’t want to be cooped up on planes (especially not back in the cheap seats) or even in nice big trucks driving across the high desert. Our bodies want to move, and the best way to rid yourself of the aches and pains and stiffness of inactivity is to move, even when you are supposed to be saving energy for the event tomorrow. J and I rode our bikes (her bikes) up the Colorado River Bike Path. It follows highway 128 north east out of town, up through the canyon of the Colorado River.
As you pedal up the river, Arches National park is to your left, BLM land to the right. The spinning was easy along the river, perfect for shedding the ache of travel, and when the bike path ended we kept going, all the way to Big Bend, where years ago I had spent the afternoon with friends climbing the rocks. That canyon is where I have camped every time I’ve been to Moab, and where I introduced many students to the wonder that is the desert when they emerged from their tents on the first morning. Sheer red rock walls rise all around, and I was happy to be paying them another visit.
8. It’s all love y’all. I woke up early the morning of the race, jittery with pre race and pre flight anxiety, even though I knew better. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid. I knew the way to settle back down, so in the pre dawn darkness of that Holiday Inn Express, I sat up on a pillow with my back straight, by hands folded, my legs crossed beneath me and started to breathe. I am at best a hack amateur meditator, but meditation serves me in all the best ways. I can wake in the morning all a quiver (when human stress hormones are measured throughout the day, physiologically the most stressful thing we do all day is wake up) and through meditation I have learned to wait with patience until all these quivers sync into a wave of calmness. What I came to on that particular morning was the realization, or the re-membering that all is love, its all about LOVE. Who do you run for? Who do you hold in your heart? Who do you live for? What to you fly across the country and run through the desert for? LOVE. Diving into that bliss set the tone for the day and I held my husband, my niece, my nephew, my mother in my heart as I ran. So many people passed through my heart that day, because I had taken the moments needed in the pre dawn darkness to open it up.
9. Elk tastes good, especially as recovery food. So does celeriac gratin, and Bananas Foster, and a locally brewed pale ale. I didn’t actually need that second pint of beer, nor the Bananas Foster, but the elk was fork tender and I ate it with deep gratitude.
10a. Water in the desert is cold. Much colder than you would expect, it’s the desert after all. People die of heat and dehydration there. When we headed down into the steep sided wash that made up the last couple of miles of the course, I heard a lot of screaming, but chalked it up to the family I saw sitting by the stream down there. A little bit further along the trail when I had to plunge thigh deep into the thick red icy cold stream, I screamed too. Loud.
10b. Running in the desert is a dream come true. It occurred to me that the trip was everything I hated about the running world, it was self indulgent and self centered. I had real doubts that what I was doing was worth it. There was no significant good cause (though there were some local non profits that were beneficiaries of something from the event), I wasn’t running to raise money to cure cancer or end war. I was just doing something I wanted to do, had dreamed of doing and realized I had an opportunity I could take. When I expressed these doubts to friends, they quickly corrected me. One friend talked about how inspired she was that I was doing this, others, all parents of young children cheered me on, making me feel like I have a responsibility to go out and have adventures that they aren’t able to. What I found is that I’m the only one who thinks I was a selfish bastard for doing this race. That line between living your dreams and focusing solely on your own desires to the detriment of those around you is a squirrely one, one my incredibly motivated and talented friends and I constantly negotiate and renegotiate as our lives move forward.
The truth is that I am a dreamer. I’ve been dreaming up schemes my whole life. Part of becoming an adult wasn’t giving up my dreams but instead having the tools and gumption to make them reality. Dreaming is what got me back to Moab in the first place along with a trailer full of bikes and a van full of friends. Dreaming got me to the top of Mount Adams and Mt. St. Helens with my girlfriends, dreaming started Friends Thanksgiving (13 years and going strong).
Dreaming put me on a surf board, dreaming got me a house. I’ve been caught in the slipstream of other people’s dreams and it’s taken me to South Africa, to the top of Ecuadorian volcanoes, across the state of New Hampshire to the top of Mt. Washington, to the San Juans of Colorado, and to San Juan Puerto Rico.
That’s the real lesson here, don’t stop dreaming. And don’t stop making your dreams come true.
Happy holidays everyone. Take this poem with you in your heart and let it guide your hand as you paint on the clean slate of a new year.
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Arthur O’Shaughnessy 1873