The mood on the foothills of White Tank Mountain Regional Park provided a stark contrast to the starting line at the Los Angeles Marathon.
Runners milled around the registration tent, where they pinned on their race bibs, chatted with friends and made last-minute adjustments for the upcoming 18.7-mile trek on single track trails through the White Tank Mountain Range and Mesquite Canyon.
The championship event for Aravaipa Running’s ultra and trail series offers a brutal mid-race climb up 2-plus miles of jagged rocks followed by miles of gradual downhill. My strategy, as had been the previous four years here, was simple: manage the climb without losing focus and energy, and push hard on the backside.
The first few miles passed quickly as the pack of runners stretched out along the trail. Excitement filled my senses as the line of runners ahead of me climbed the trail into the foothills. Making good time is important early, and there are several spots where runners can bank time before mile 7, the start of the toughest section.
At mile 7, the real work begins. In previous years, I cursed the jagged rocks. But a single-minded focus carried me over the trail, rock by rock, as a cool breeze whipped along the mountainside. Time passed quickly but so did my path.
Managing the first half of the race is vital for closing fast over the last several miles, where I passed dozens of runners who had gone out too hard or withered over the distance. With a marathon under my belt just four weeks earlier, and a few decent runs since, I crossed the finish line 10 minutes quicker than my previous course best.
About an hour later, I arrived at the ballpark in Surprise, Ariz., to enjoy a post-race beverage and meal while watching a spring training game.
These annual trips — highlighted by the Mesquite Canyon race and a few ballgames — have provided a jump start to my spring training. Daily runs in the desert give me a springboard to my training for the coming months, bridging the gap between the winter doldrums and the long summer buildup for my fall marathon.
And, like last year, I will find myself at the start of the Sandhills 25K trail race near Leonard, N.D., this weekend. The grueling race on the North Country Trail through the Sheyenne National Grasslands offers miles upon miles of loose and soft footing with constant undulations, a challenge which only strengthens the runner who wants to race on the roads.