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A veteran marathoner takes on 50 miles for the first time and comes home a winner.
Photo: Lily Johnston (all)
Among the thousands of miles I have run during the last five years, many have been on technical trails, gravel grades, rural byways, and city streets scattered around the Silver State. As the oft-traveling associate editor of Nevada Magazine and a competitive marathon runner, I am frequently found running in every conceivable corner of Nevada while on assignment hunting down stories and photo ops.
From early mornings spent dodging taxis and street sweepers on the Las Vegas Strip to speed workouts back-and-forth on West Wendover’s mini-Strip, and winding down pleasantly un-crowded switchbacks in the Jarbidge Wilderness to sharing remote dirt roads with cattle, mule deer, and the occasional coyote, there’s hardly a landscape in Nevada that has not played the part of my personal treadmill.
So, when the New Year found me searching for a fresh challenge for my wandering feet, it seemed only fitting that Nevada should be the arena. Enter Calico Racing. The brainchild of ultrarunner and Ironman triathlete Joyce Forier, Calico Racing organizes and hosts running events throughout Southern Nevada. Taking advantage of some of the desert’s most unique landscapes and Forier’s impressive knowledge of and experience with endurance endeavors, Calico events in places such as Lake Mead and Spring Mountains National Recreation Areas and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area combine breathtaking scenery with small, well-organized races. What’s more, Calico’s races offer distances to correspond with any runner’s fitness level and goals, from 5Ks to grueling 100-mile ultramarathons.
As luck would have it, one such event, Running from an Angel on Saturday, January 12, offered 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, and 50-mile ultramarathon distance options and fit my schedule perfectly. Having already proven my mettle more than 40 times over at 26.2 miles in the marathon, I signed up for the 50-mile race with just a few days to spare and little time for even the slightest ultramarathon-specific training. A week from race day, I ran 30 miles from downtown Reno to the California border at Gold Ranch Casino and back to get an idea for the pace I could hold and the shoes I should wear. Despite my hydration pack freezing, the run was great and left me excited to take on 50 miles the following weekend.
The 50-mile ultramarathon at Running from an Angel follows a rolling course from Lake Mead’s Boulder Beach to a turnaround in the hills above Calville Bay by way of Shoreline and Northshore Roads, then back to Boulder Beach along the same route. The lake remains in view for most of the course, which follows the ribbon of road through dry washes, beneath stunning red rock bluffs, and past the Technicolor shoreline and hillsides for which the region is famous.
The race’s unique name is actually courtesy of another of Calico’s races, Running with the Devil. Though the races employ the exact same course, the Devil variety does so near the end of June every year, when daytime highs routinely climb above 100 degrees, hence the heaven-and-hell monikers. To preemptively lay to rest any curiosity: No, I have no desire or plans to run with the devil—extreme heat is where I draw the line.
An ill-timed cold front brought the temperature from the region’s typically mild mid-to-high-40s into the 30-degree range for the race’s pre-dawn 6 a.m. start, and a biting north gale brought the wind chill into the low 20s. The fact that about 40 other shivering, intrepid souls endeavored to run the same distance did little to lift my spirits as I considered the decision-making process that had landed me on the frigid patch of dark desert. Though a little nervous at the prospect of running a distance vastly longer than anything I’d attempted in a single day up to that point, I was relieved when the starting gun sounded because it meant I could start running and warming my shivering body.
After a couple of miles adjusting to the right pace, I found myself at the front of the small pack alongside Rudy Montoya, a police detective from Fresno, California and an accomplished ultramarathon runner. We made the requisite introductions, rattled off some incomprehensible sets of numbers that only runners recognize as holding any valuable meaning, and shared our mutual hope that the sun would soon grace us with its presence.
With minor exception, Rudy and I would remain in lockstep for about the next four hours, sharing running stories and jokes, reminding each other when to take water, energy gels, and snacks, and keeping our eyes peeled for my mother and sister, who had traveled with me—as they always do—to watch and cheer in what is probably the least entertaining spectator sport on earth. Being used to shorter races, I was pleased at the chance to run at a more relaxed pace, taking in the scenery and chatting with my new friend and running companion. And while watching me run slower and longer than ever before was undoubtedly mostly boring for mom and sis, they too were pleased since the extra time provided them the chance to enjoy breakfast at The Coffee Cup in Boulder City, bar-none one of the best diners in Nevada.
Through the first 30 miles, I convinced myself that Rudy, with his impressive experience and list of ultramarathon wins, would leave me in his dust by the time we reached mile 40. Though typically very competitive, I was okay with Rudy taking first place; after all, it was my first race at such a long distance. Win or lose, I just wanted to finish, and was glad to have some company to help while away the long hours.
At mile 31, Rudy mentioned some stomach problems and excused himself to a fortuitously located aid station and its port-a-potty. Sure that he would make up for lost time over the next few miles, I offered a fist bump and some some words of encouragement as we parted ways. Settling in for what I assumed would be at least a few lonely miles, I took a sip from my hydration pack, fished my iPod Shuffle from one of the pack’s maze of confusing, tiny pockets, and looked longingly in the direction of the finish line, despite knowing full well that it was still far out of view. Glancing at my watch, I muttered aloud, “Only two and half hours to go,” and immediately chuckled at how anyone could be relieved at having only 150 minutes of running ahead of them. What can I say? Runners are a strange bunch.
Over the next few miles I took advantage of the course’s rolling topography and looked back from hilltops to see if I could spot Rudy making up time to rejoin me at the front, but he was nowhere in sight. By the time the 50-mile course rejoined the marathon course (36.9 miles for the ultramarathon, 13.1 miles for the marathon), I realized that I would likely be running the rest of the race alone and to an uncontested win. Energized by the impending victory, I began to chip away at what had been a relaxed pace up to that point. Since the closing miles of the race were shared with the marathon, half, and shorter distances the closer I got to the finish, I found myself in the company of some of the back-of-the-pack runners of the marathon, which had started an hour after the 50-miler. Most of these runners seemed to know that I was leading the ultramarathon and offered encouragement through their strained breath as I passed.
By mile 45, the energy boost from the encouragement of fellow runners and the promise of a finish line to myself had all but disappeared, and it had been many miles since any part of me took a moment to find inspiration in the beautiful-as-ever desert surrounds. When the clump of trees that marks Boulder Beach and the finish line came into view atop a hill at mile 47, it looked much, much farther than three miles away. More mentally exhausted than physically, I focused, dug deep, and made the line in six hours, 23 minutes, and 59 seconds. A race volunteer later told me it was one of the fastest times ever achieved on the course.
The no-frills finish line festivity provided a welcome calm, and, best of all, hot stew and chili to battle the still-chilly air. After my requisite shower of hugs and praise from mom and sis, and high-fives from race volunteers and spectators, I quietly waited in a camp chair at the finish line for Rudy, who would arrive about 40 minutes later. Not feeling well and grateful to be done for the day, Rudy confessed that he never imagined I’d be able to hold our early pace through to the finish, let alone speed up like I did. I must confess…I didn’t either.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
224 Devotion Ct., Henderson, NV 89052
2013 CALICO RACING SCHEDULE
Red Rock Canyon Marathon & Half Marathon
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Labor of Love 100 Miler, 50 Miler, 50K, Marathon, Half Marathon, & 10K
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area
Running with the Devil 50 Miler, Marathon, Half Marathon, 10K, & 5K
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
E.T. Full Moon Midnight 51K, Marathon, Half Marathon, and 10K
Rachel and State Route 375
(the Extraterrestrial Highway)
Twilight Red Rock Half Marathon & Overlook Ascent
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Hoover Dam Marathon, Half Marathon, & 10K
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
WORTH A VISIT
The Coffee Cup
512 Nevada Wy., Boulder City, NV 89005