This race takes place in the North Phoenix community of Cave Creek. Flagstaff has already cooled down to evening temps in the 40s, so the car’s outside temperature reading of 90 as we rolled into the area made me a bit nervous. I had also downed a yummy frozen custard treat about an hour before that was now making me a bit nauseated.
We arrived a bit early, so I took off to do a little pre race warm up. My goal race is now The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50 mile race in San Francisco in December. So while this is intended to be a good training run, it is not a race we prepared specifically for. Coach reminded me before the race, “you are not rested, so let's make this a good training run”, implying to me not to have big expectations. My heart rate this past week would indicate maybe a little fatigue as well, so it was much easier for me to run relaxed, without pressure to perform, and I think this was key. I tend to really pressure myself in races and can really undermine my own effort early on.
As I warmed up under the warm setting sun, I noticed my heart rate really responsive, and my legs feeling light. I wasn't sure that the higher heart rate wasn't related to heat, but was pleased that everything felt good. The sun was setting, with brilliant pinks and oranges,casting shadows through the saguaro cactus. I love the desert, the warmth, and critters, but did wonder if any rattlers would be out starting their evening hunt. They blend in nicely on the trail and the headlamp doesn't give quite enough sight ahead. With enough runners on the trail though, they would likely be avoidant of it…..I reassured myself.
I made my way back to the start, slipped my headlamp on and got ready to run. We took off on the single track, dusty, rocky trail making our way around and up the low mountain. My heart rate immediately spiked and I forced myself to back off, watching several guys gals go on ahead. I was a little disappointed, but had 2 main overriding goals for the evening. First, was to keep my heart rate down, out of zone 5. The second, more difficult challenge was my Coach’s goal for me on this 3 loop course (almost 7 miles each loop). He wanted to see if I could run patiently enough to run the 3rd loop faster than the second. A tall order for this impatient soul.
I cruised along twisting and winding up, brushing zone 5 heart rate, but feeling as though I were taking it maybe even easier than I should. I trusted my heart rate’s warning and did not go beyond. I kept thinking, “this is the easiest I have ever run this distance this early on”. Usually in a 25k-Marathon distance I am running at an upper moderate to hard effort the whole way. I enjoyed and savored the more relaxed, but strong effort. It never felt lazy, but I knew that first whole lap I had more to give, and as I went it built confidence for lap 2.
I started catching and passing girls midway through the first lap, catching the lead girl without increasing my effort around mi 3. We played hopscotch for a bit, she'd catch and pass me on the climbs and I'd return the favor on the descents. We chatted and enjoyed each other’s bits of conversation. I kept having to remind myself to keep my goals in mind and not just try to charge ahead.
The sun was now gone and temps were much more comfortable. I was going through a lot of water and taking in a swig of gel every 15-20min. We’d catch views of the lights of Phoenix as we climbed and even some fireworks in the distance. On the final descent toward the end of lap 1 I passed the lead female. I had to hit the Porta potty at the aid station and felt sure the lead female had regained her spot. I refilled my water bottle and took off.
As I started lap 2 I reminded myself of the goal...make lap 3 faster than lap 2. This really kept me in check, thinking can I run faster than this 7 miles down the trail? I made sure that answer would be yes. And then as I took a swig from my full and only water bottle, the cap popped off and rolled away….somewhere off the trail in the darkness, also emptying out half my water. I spent about 2-3 minutes in search until I remembered I had stashed another empty soft gel bottle in my pack...which I never do. I quickly pulled it out and poured my remaining water into the new bottle with a lid. Huge relief. I was not looking forward to no water in the warm desert for several miles.
Soon after I saw a headlamp ahead. I figured it was the lead female, but as I got closer I realized it was a racer in a different distance still on the course. There were quite a few runners on the course doing different distances. I reminded myself to settle down. I knew coach would be looking for that faster 3rd loop. I just kept asking myself…”can I run faster than this 7 more miles down the trail? As we came into the aid station located about mid lap I ran upon one of the male runners. The aid station crew congratulated me and told me I was 3rd. I was a little bummed, I didn't realize there were 2 girls now ahead….and then she said, you're the first female. SUHWEET!
Within about a half mile I caught the second place male,he was walking. He had run too hard and fizzled. I kept picking my way up the mountain and noticed another head lamp moving at about the same pace as me. I wondered if it could be the first male. I started plugging along with a little more effort to try and see. I also noticed as we started descending I had not minded my downhill stride up to this point, allowing myself to over-stride and trigger some pain behind my R hip/glut and IT band. I quickened my cadence and determined to keep my feet under me, which settled things down. I came in to the start/finish area and the last loop just behind the first male. I took my time to refill water and grab some salty chips and headed out.
Oooooook, now is where the real work began. Remembering my challenge by Coach, make that last loop faster. It took effort, I really just wanted to settle and maintain, but I took a deep breath, put my head down and grabbed some energy from the cool breeze that was now trickling into the night air. Within a half mile I caught the lead male. We exchanged greetings and congratulations on our efforts and good runs to this point and I moved ahead steadily up the mountain. As it would flatten a bit I would have to remind myself to keep up the effort. The miles stretched longer and my joints and tendons started aching, I knew this meant I was getting dry. I increased my water intake. I now knew I had several minutes on the lead male. Now it was a real challenge to run faster, with no one chasing and no one to chase, only the clock. The final climb was rough and I knew on those couple miles I was not moving as fast as I was climbing this section the last lap. I hit the last descent and really pushed myself, although still not as hard as I would've if he were right behind me. As I heard the finish line music I found another gear and ran hard through the finish.
I was 1 minutes slower on lap 3 than lap 2. All things considered, I was just fine with that. That goal kept me pretty smart and allowed me to have a great run and strong finish. Lessons learned that I can carry forward. Onward and upward!