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Photo: Josemaria Toscano

Photo: Josemaria Toscano


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Climber Cedar Wright shared his story of ultrarunning the Moab Red Hot 55k as a member of the The North Face athlete team.

As a climber on The North Face athlete team, I’ve had the unique opportunity to get to know fellow ultrarunner and skier team members who I would never otherwise have met. To me, the skiers always seemed kind of super human. But as far as the ultrarunners were concerned, I just wasn’t that impressed. I mean… it was “just running.”

I’ll remorsefully admit that I possessed the attitude that ultrarunning was kind of lame; that really anyone could run a long ways if they were good at suffering. In my mind, I could do an ultra, no problem. While running an ultra distance of 50 kilometers, 50 miles or even a hundred miles certainly sounded terrible and hard, watching someone run was at best boring, and I just didn’t think it was all that rad.

Recently the universe conspired to drastically change my opinion of ultrarunning. Several months ago, I started dabbling in a bit of running to improve my cardio for climbing. While climbing will always be my first love, I do really love trying new things, and being a beginner. My initial attempts at running were about as beginner as it gets. I, begrudgingly, realized that this is a bit tougher than I thought it would be.

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After a couple of three-milers that left my legs surprisingly sore, I went out for an ambitious twelve-mile trail run, and by the last couple miles, my legs felt like tingly bricks. I bonked. I was dizzy, out of breath and running so slow by the last mile that I was nearly standing still. For me, there is nothing like getting my ass kicked and being humbled to make me want to try again. In my quest to prove that running was not that big a deal, I ended up getting a bit obsessed.

For me the turning point from dabbling to feeling like a real runner was on the Mesa Trail, a famous 13-mile out and back in my hometown, Boulder, Colorado. It was a gorgeous run, and I had a truly transcendental “runner’s high” experience.

Somewhere along the way, running had gone from being a kind of torturous form of training, for which I had less than the proper amount of respect, into something that I really enjoyed. I fell in love with the primal simplicity of running, and found it to be a refreshing change from the gear and logistic intensive world of adventure climbing. In a couple months I had gone from rolling my eyes at ultrarunners, to wanting to be one.

I finally made the wonderful/terrible decision to sign up for the Moab Red Hot 55k, a popular early season Ultra for elite runners. At this point, my longest run was the mesa trail, but I reasoned that if I committed to this race, I would be forced to step up my running to the next level. I went all in, got a hand held running bottle, some short shorts, a pair of The North Face running shoes, and started hitting the trails with intensity and intent.

It was about two weeks out from the race, when I realized that I might be destined for failure. As my final long run training day, I decided I wanted to run a trail marathon distance of 26 miles. 22 miles of rough trail, and 3000 feet of elevation gain into my run, I reached a new level of exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration. Teetering on the brink of hallucinations, and approaching the realm of permanent damage, I stumbled back to my car with my tail firmly implanted between my legs. I had failed to run my 26-mile goal. There was little time for more training, and on the drive back to my house I accepted that I was completely screwed.

 

Photo: Dean Fikar

Photo: Dean Fikar

The Moab Red Hot 55k now loomed over my head like a dark and ominous cloud. I had however learned some valuable lessons from my big day. I knew that if I was going to go from 22 to 34 miles, that I was going to have to be diligent about hydration and calorie intake. I accepted that even if I had to crawl in on bloody knees, my main goal was to finish. Secretly, I wished that I never had entered the race.

Before I knew it, I was driving with foreboding dread down to Moab with a couple of friends. They were doing the shorter 33k, and I really wanted to trade places with them. That afternoon we went to pick up our numbers for the race, and I recognized fellow TNF athlete Rob Krar, who happened to have the course record on the Red Hot at a blisteringly, inconceivable 3 hours and 44 minutes. I had to laugh, three months ago I would have looked at Rob as lesser than the skiers and climbers, but now I was looking at him like a verified God. I knew I was going to be lucky to come in under seven hours, in this race, I wanted to bow down and kiss Rob’s feet… I was a total fan boy.

I slept fitfully that night, complete with an anxiety induced dream that I couldn’t find the starting line of the race, and was lost somewhere in the desert. At eight the next morning, I lined up with the hundreds of other runners, and before I knew it the starting gun went off, and I started my slow, surreal, methodical jog of doom.

For the first six miles I chatted with my buddy Joe Mills who was the one who suggested I enter the race. Rob Krar had recommended going out slow, as the hardest part of the course didn’t start until mile twenty. Joe had ran his first hundred last year, and told me that the Red Hot 55k was an easy first ultra, with only a thousand feet of elevation gain. It turns out that Joe completely sandbagged me. In reality the Red Hot is around four thousand feet of elevation gain, mostly on technical knee pounding slick rock, and is considered to be an incredibly demanding race.

As I reached the first aid station at six miles, I was happy to be feeling strong and healthy, and quickly realized that being able to drink water every 6 to 8 miles was a big advantage. During my training days I had subsisted on a single 16oz water bottle and a couple bars. The aid stations had chips, chocolate and soda – this was awesome.

As I cruised along trying to play the long game, I chatted with various runners, and marveled at all the shapes, sizes and ages of the ultra-running community. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, that I was passed by a guy at about mile 17, who looked like he could be my grand father. “How you feeling?” he asked me, as I picked up my pace for a bit to chat with him. “Surprisingly good,” I responded. He seemed legitimately impressed that this was my first ultra, and left me with these words of wisdom. “The thing about ultrarunning, is that it always never gets better.”

I crossed over the 20 mile mark and entered the beginning of a notoriously long and difficult climb on slick rock. I’m a much better hiker than a runner, and managed to pass a lot of people, and kept the gray-haired ultra guru just in sight. After the long hill climb came a long agonizing descent on slick rock, and the low point of the race for me. Suddenly 11 more miles seemed like it might as well have been on the other side of the earth. My pace slowed and I entered the realm of type-two fun: when fun isn’t fun anymore. I went into my pain cave.

 

Screenshot: Cedar Wright

Screenshot: Cedar Wright

In the last year and a half I have climbed all of California’s 14,000 peaks by bike and 45 desert towers by bike. The reality is, if there is one thing I am good at it, it is suffering. As far as I can tell, ultrarunning is 1/3 running and 2/3 suffering. The end of the race was a blur, but miraculously in the last five miles I got a second wind, and I drastically increased my pace. I was determined to leave it all on the trail. In the last few miles I passed about fifteen runners, and crossed the finish line at a full sprint.

While my time of 6:24 is respectable, it’s a far cry from Rob’s second place time of 3:50 that day (Rob still holds the course record). I might not be an ultrarunner quite yet, but I’ve run an ultra, and I’m pretty proud of that. I saw it through, and best of all, I have a new found love and respect for ultrarunning. However, I still believe running is… pretty boring to watch.

For more from Cedar Wright, head on over to his website. Also, don’t forget to Like him on Facebook, as well as follow him on Instagram. And keep up with his adventures for North Face on his athlete page.

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