“The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy… It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.” — Jacqueline Gareau
Gobbling up chunks of real estate along the trail, my feet floated over rocks and dodged obstacles of all shapes and sizes — from proportions similar to hockey pucks, grapefruit and soccer balls. Some stones are smooth, while others have jagged edges jutting out of the hard packed dirt.
A single misstep could send a runner tumbling into a boulder or cactus along the ridgeline high above the western Valley of the Sun.
By now, the sun had beaten down on runners for more than 2 hours, slowing their pace after a massive 1,500-foot climb within a 2-mile stretch of the Mesquite Canyon trail race.
From the outset, this race would be a tough one. It serves as the championship race is the Aravaipa Running trail series and demands energy corralled from deep within each runner. The 18.6-mile event has been a staple in my training each spring.
On this Saturday, it would be even more challenging with a race start temperature of 72 degrees. By the time I reached the pinnacle, at about mile 10, the heat soared to more than 80 degrees.
My strategy was simple. For about 6 miles, my goal was to manage the pace and hit the massive rocky climb without burning out my quads and hamstrings. Survival would be the plan for the rocky ascent, and while the worst of the climb came over about a 2-mile stretch, runners scrambled up and down the trail for about another 2 miles. Any wasted energy on this stretch makes the final 8-mile push a punishing conclusion that doesn’t seem to end soon enough.
After about 10 miles, the dusty trail — with vistas over the expansive Phoenix metro — wraparound around the various peaks. The remaining gradual downhill serves as a counter to the strenuous push and pull needed to make the journey up this point.
At times, my head felt dizzy and light, and my stomach felt nauseous. Twice I had drained my water bottle, including a refill at an aid station prior to the ascent, to quench my thirst. Each drink seemed to settle my stomach, keeping me on task and marshaling my efforts to keep on the throttle.
Starting the downhill, I saw a few runners far ahead on the trail.
In previous races at White Tank Mountain Regional Park, my thoughts were singularly focused on catching those ahead of me. This year, though, my concentration focused on the trail and the experience, embracing the challenge and discovering truth about myself.
It is about this time when I noticed my feet floating over the trail and dancing through the canyon.
During the next several miles, without really noticing, I began reeling in the runners ahead of me. By the time I pull into the aid station at mile 14, I’ve caught several who had reached and climbed the mountain well before me. Graciously, the volunteers help me refill my water bottle and give a helpful reminder: there’s one more water stop, at mile 16, before the end.
One runner’s hand is bloodied. A couple others appear disoriented from exerting themselves in the heat. Without hesitation, I return to the trail, seemingly pulling closer to those in front of me with each step. At one point, I chop up my steps because a misstep on the descent could be disastrous.
Passing hikers and runners alike, I quickly reach the bottom of the mountain and pull into the final aid station, just more than 2 miles from the finish. A couple small cups of water and I push on.
It seems like I’m about to wilt.
Despite being a flatlander from a place with winters ranking among the coldest in the world, I’ve always considered myself a strong heat runner. For a few moments, I question this assessment. And I question my own belief that I’d do better than most at Badwater, the legendary run through Death Valley.
Somehow, on this day, I continued to push one foot in front of another. After reaching a dry riverbed, I allowed myself to walk up the other side and drink the last remaining drops of water in my bottle. It wouldn’t be long now.
Along the way, my steps carried me past other competitors, most of whom were competing in a shorter distance event. There would be no sprint to the finish for me. Just simple elation at crossing the timing mat, an anti-climatic end to the sufferfest.
Quickly, I downed a couple small cups of lemonade, wandered around like I had been wounded, and chatted for a few minutes with other runners beneath a picnic shelter. It was good to be done and hear their stories.
Ten minutes later, I excused myself and ran through the parking lot and along a road to my vehicle so I could the drive across the valley to catch a plane bound for Fargo. In blue numerals, the temperature reading displayed 85.