One month ago on April 20 I had my first trail race of the year. It was the Fruita Trail Marathon on Colorado’s Western Slope, in slickrock canyon country above the Colorado River. On paper it was a single 25-mile loop, with 3,400 vertical feet of elevation gain and 6,800 feet of elevation change total, primarily on singletrack trails. In other words, it was my kind of race.
As usual with the first race of the season, my goal here was mostly to test my fitness and gauge the progress I’d need to make to get ready for bigger races later in the season. Based on the stats for this race, my target was to flirt with breaking four hours.
It was decently chilly the night before and morning of the race; as I recall, in the low 40s. But the day would warm quickly and remained mercifully overcast—the route is relentless exposed to the sun, with zero tree cover to speak of in the desert, and blazing sunshine and hot temps could really cook you out there.
The bombing at the Boston Marathon had happened just five days earlier, and the race began with a particularly somber moment of silence. One racer wore a commemorative sign on the back of his shirt and carried a large American flag the entire race, just one of many signs of solidarity and support runners nationwide showed in the wake of the tragedy.
The race began with a mile and a half or so of dirt road, which gave us all a little time to sort out our paces and positions before hitting the singletrack. I came into the first aid station—where Kelli and the girls were waiting—running strong. Although it took a few miles to shake some cobwebs out of my legs, once warmed up they were feeling good and I was on or slightly ahead of target pace.
Before I ever came in to that aid station, it was clear that I’d overdressed for the temps. I left my long-sleeve shirt with Kelli, and if I could have stripped off my running tights I would have, but left my shorts in the car.
The course scenery was nothing short of spectacular. We ran on the edges of various mesas and canyons, with the Colorado River far below. I’d like to think that it was this distracting scenery that caused me to trip and fall somewhere around mile 8 or 9. I didn’t fully hit the deck; I put my hands down to catch myself, but the rocks cut my palms up pretty well.
My gluten-free race nutrition plan for this shorter event was pretty low key: start with First Endurance EFS in my bottle, but then refill with the race’s sports drink, plus fuel up with the fresh fruit, chocolate, and soda available at aid stations.
When I came into the next aid station, there were large bulk bags of M&Ms. I kindly asked one of the volunteers to pour some into my hands, holding out my bloody palms. “What, you don’t want to reach into the bag?” he said. I told him with a smile that I didn’t mind, but that other racers might not appreciate that.
Then it was off for more canyon country trail running.
Despite the fact that my main goals were to a) test my fitness, and b) if things were feeling good, push to break 4 hours, it’s sometimes hard to resist racing more aggressively. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to the idea that if I ran well, I could contend for a top 20 finish.
My strategy was to maintain a solid pace and “reel in” other runners as they faded later in the race. There were just two problems with that strategy: 1) the front-running racers didn’t fade, and 2) I did. As the miles ticked by in the later stages of the race, I could feel myself slipping off my own target pace. Argh!
At the final aid station, the girls were there—smiling and cheering as loudly as ever, offering high fives as I came through—which offered a great motivational boost. There was one final substantial climb to immediately come, then a traverse of a ridge, long descent, and a flat on the gravel road back to the finish line.
I crossed the finish line in 4:20:10, good for 27th out of 131 finishers.
That’s when Kelli clued me in to a little fact I’d somehow completely overlooked. Although in previous years the race was 25 miles, some course re-routes for this year resulted in an honest 26.2-mile marathon. I wasn’t off pace quite as much as I’d thought I was. If you backed out that extra 1.2 miles, my finish time would have been just under 4:10, only 20 seconds or so per mile slower than I’d hoped to run.
The sun eventually broke through the clouds, and we made our way back to our campsite at a state park along the Colorado River a short drive away. On the way, we stopped to pick up some refreshing New Planet Raspberry Ale (gluten-free beer is always a good post-race nutrition plan!) and kick back for the afternoon.
It was a good start to the season.
All photos by Kelli except 3rd image, by Glen Delman Photography.