Tag Archives: desert

50 Miles in the Desert: A Grand(master) Adventure

IT WAS A PHOTO FINISH.

If only there had been a camera at the finish line.

Chris and I descended a sandy slope onto the road and charged toward the finish straight ahead. After fifty miles on rugged, rocky desert trails, we found the strength to sprint, and over those last hundred yards we continued to accelerate. After running nearly the entire race together, the top two spots in the Grandmaster Ultra 50 were ours. We hit the line side by side.

As we caught our breath and bumped fists, a woman carrying a large velvet bag walked up to us. “Which of you finished first?” she asked.

My co-finisher and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d been looking straight ahead and only knew it had been close. He had no idea, either.

She looked equally puzzled. “The problem is, I only have one winner’s belt.”

So which one of us would get it?

** Okay, if you really need to know right now who won, you can skip to the end of this post. But I’m a writer and I’m trying to tell a story here. I hope you’ll humor me and stick it out. **

The Grandmaster Ultras take place in the northwest corner of Arizona about 100 miles northeast of Las Vegas. As its name implies, it’s open only to people 50 and older. The race window is 8 a.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday, and runners have their choice of 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, and 48-hour total distance.

The event is a UTMB qualifier, so that was one attraction. The venue was intriguing too. The Burning Man 50K, my only other desert ultra, is pancake flat on firm clay, never far from Black Rock City. The GM Ultra is in God knows where, with cacti, hills, rocks, and tricky terrain. If you fall and twist an ankle, help might take a while, though I suppose you could hitchhike on the occasional ATV rumbling along the trails.

I began my involvement in this race by freaking out the race staff.

I picked up my race bib at the race tent behind Beaver Dam Station Friday afternoon. My race didn’t start until Saturday, so I went up the road for a five-mile “dress rehearsal” run in full gear. This included testing my new snap-on bib attachments. They don’t put holes in your clothing like safety pins, but I needed to make sure they wouldn’t fall off.

Closeup of the snaps. They worked well! I will use them again.

The practice run went smoothly, and the back muscle I’d strained the week before gave me no trouble even with a full pack, so I cruised back to the station feeling good. Someone took a few pictures of me, even. Then one of the race organizers ran out of the timing tent. “Are you running today?” he called out.

“No, just warming up.”

“Well, then, thanks for wearing your bib,” he shot back, going back into the tent.

I’d come by at a bad time; they were trying to locate a runner they’d lost track of, and just then someone had called, “Runner coming!” It was too soon to be an actual 100K or 100 mile runner, so they were really confused. I finished my run and returned to the tent to apologize. Things had been straightened out by then, and I was quickly forgiven.

Temperature at race start Saturday morning was 35 degrees but warmed up quickly, so my jacket came off in about an hour. I lagged a bit the first mile to take a few photos and retie my shoes, so at the 50K and 50-miler course split I had no idea where I stood. I’d chatted with a few runners the first two miles or so, but now I was alone, with no other runners in sight ahead. The course was marked with orange flags every few hundred yards, so I wasn’t worried about being on the wrong trail.

Chris caught up with me around the four mile mark. He’s from southern California and works at a wastewater treatment plant. I’m not sure how interesting that is to others, but as the owner of a Zero Waste services company, I wanted to hear about it.

Chris striking a pose on the trail. It’s some kind of trail hand signal.

We ran together and talked until the second aid station, where we found out we were the 50-mile front runners. I needed some extra time there, so he went on ahead. For the next few hours I would catch a glimpse of him ahead, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. I thought about trying to catch up, but it was too early to push; there was a lot of race left.

And then, just before the halfway mark, the trail became very runnable dirt, and I did catch up. We reached the Three Corners monument (Arizona, Nevada, Utah) and took an extended break.

Mandatory tourist moment. Look, Mom! I’m in three states at once!

I dropped off my pack and hiking poles, and went from two water bottles to one. A tad risky, but the reduced bulk and weight was a big relief. Chris also introduced me to Gordy Ainsleigh, founding runner of the Western States 100, who was there qualifying for his own race!

Gordy (left), and Chris. Never would have known without him!

We ran together the rest of the way. Our goal was to “beat the sundown” at 6 p.m., which meant finishing under ten hours. We were right on the edge, so we helped each other keep the pace up. I also felt safer; it was pretty desolate out there, and I was now without poles. And the miles just seem to pass faster with company.

As with all ultrarunners, we had our highs and lows along the way. I had a low stretch from miles 30 to 35. The heat, the tedium, and seemingly endless stones were taking their toll, and my gut began to hurt like it had at the 2019 Potawatomi 50. I suspected it was lack of water to aid digestion, so I stepped up my hydration and the pain gradually faded away. After mile 40 I got a second wind and had a “high” all the way to the finish.

Me at a “high” moment early in the race. (Photo courtesy of the event’s Facebook page.)

Chris had lows from miles 35 to 44, and needed to stop now and then for 30-second “walk and water” breaks. I walked with him until he was ready to resume running. In return, when I took extra time at the aid stations, he’d walk until I caught up again.

And so we covered the remaining miles, and emerged onto the ridge above Beaver Dam Station with the sun still up. We checked our watches, saw we could beat ten hours, and took off down the slope and onto the road to the finish line.

** SPOILER: Here’s the result. If you’ve skipped ahead, this is your last chance to go back and read the thrilling narrative that leads up to this part. **

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** Okay, here we go. For reals now. **

We all stood there for a moment. Then, joking that she didn’t know how we could each wear the belt half the time, she walked off, presumably to check with other witnesses to the finish. We sat down in conveniently nearby camp chairs and just enjoyed being done.

Then she was back, and she handed the bag to me. “You finished first by one second,” she said. Nine hours and fifty-six minutes of running, and I was champion by one second.

Holy crap, talk about an overpowered award. Do I need a costume and theme song now?

Chris was fine with the outcome. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and we both posed for photos by the finish line. It was a real pleasure, my friend. Hope to see you at another race.

So there it is, my second ultramarathon win when I hadn’t expected to sniff the podium at either one. Life is funny, isn’t it.