First things first: Where is Antelope Island? It’s the largest island in the Great Salt Lake of Utah, so specifically it is about 46 miles from my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Salt Lake City. When B and I decided to go out to Utah for a fall visit, I noticed that this race happened to be right around the time we were going out and arranged our travel schedule to coincide. So I didn’t OFFICIALLY travel out there for the race, I just happened to be in the area and the race was happening. (I have a personal rule that I don’t travel more than an hour from home for a race unless it’s a super awesome race.)
We flew in Tuesday afternoon. I had originally planned to run Tuesday and Thursday this past week as the last bit of my taper, but then I was up in the night Monday night/Tuesday morning with. . . something. Was it food poisoning? A norovirus? Only her intestines know for sure. At any rate, things sure weren’t 100 percent when I got up Tuesday morning and I didn’t go for a run, and I even told B that if I still felt super crappy come Saturday I was going to cancel the race. My conditioned waxed and waned throughout the day (including a long stopover at O’Hare), and by the time we arrived I had a pretty intense migraine (complete with nausea, light sensitivity, and blurry vision). Bodes ill. But Wednesday morning when I got up I was fine. In fact I felt so much better than I had in twenty-four hours that I was positively jubilant. Daniel and I went for a run around SLC’s Liberty Park in the afternoon, and I felt pretty good. My foot gave me some trouble on the last part of the run, especially going up the hill from State to A on 1st Street, but the view is so rewarding I couldn’t complain. Then I had two full days of rest, which I knew would make both my foot and my PT happy.
Saturday morning, I woke up at 5:50, a full forty minutes before Daniel and Claire were coming to pick me up, so that I could eat and also reconsider my life choices. I was suddenly very nervous, in a way that I seldom am before races anymore. I felt a little crappy (too much wine the night before? Too little water?), I was nervous about the course and elevation, and I just kept thinking I should call Daniel and tell him not to come and crawl back into bed with B. I could go for a run later, maybe even go up to Sugar House Park and do twenty miles, and. . . but I didn’t follow through on any of this. I kissed B goodbye and went down and got in the car.
By the time we got to Antelope Island I was feeling better, physically anyway. When I got out of the car to check in, I heard gunshots in the distance. The women working assured me that it was just hunting and “not on the island, we hope.” They also said, “Don’t bother the buffalo and they won’t bother you.” Ok, good to know.
Daniel and Claire dropped me off at the starting line just as the sun was beginning to climb over the mountains and paint the sky pink. It was beautiful—and cold. I told them to come back in not less than five and a half hours and thanked them again for their tolerance of my weird hobby. Then I had to take off my sweatshirt and go wait around for the race to get started. The RD announced a last-minute course change owing to mud that took the course from 31 miles down to about 30. I stood in line to use the port-o-potty behind a guy who had his arm in a really complicated sling owing to some sort of surgery (he was still running, which made me feel possibly a bit better). Then a few minutes later, we were off.
Starting Line to the First Aid Station (Mile 5.8)
The race started with about half a mile or so of flat on a gravel access road of some sort. We went along a fence until we came to a break and turned onto a dirt trail that took us in slow switchbacks up the foothills of the mountain (I think the main mountain is Frary Peak, but I’m not totally sure that was the one we were running around, so you’ll have to just guess at the geography). We were at times running east, into the sunrise, which was very pretty but made it hard to see the trail. Luckily, the trail here wasn’t very technical, with only occasional rocks to dodge. There were a lot of false summits—I would look up the trail, thinking that just beyond the coming ridge things must flatten or even descend—only to find when I arrived that the trail continued up. Luckily the hill was quite gentle, so the continuous trekking didn’t bother me and I kept up a pretty steady pace between 10:30-12:00 min/mi. After mile three, the trail turned downward (and west) and suddenly I was skimming along, taking in all these breathtaking vistas I hadn’t had a chance to look at before. Oh, wait, the breathtaking part—that was the altitude. And sure enough, after two miles of lovely downhill, the path turned sharply upward and we hiked it in to the first aid station. I arrived right around the one hour mark.
I wasn’t too concerned about calories so early in the race, but I knew I couldn’t fall behind, especially with the comparatively long distances between aid stations (most were five to six miles apart). I think I had a Fig Newton and a couple of potato chips. Then I was off again. I actually made it through a bit faster than several women, some of whom I would leapfrog with for much of the rest of the race.
Mile 5.8 to the Second Aid Station (Mile 14)
As I left the first aid station, the staff said that there was a nice bit of downhill ahead, “About a mile of downhill.” And it was very nice, good enough to hit a 9:40 split. I started thinking about how fast I was going to finish—maybe I would hit a 5:15:xx and be lounging around when everyone came to get me. Then suddenly, in one of those weird moments you seem to encounter in the mountains where the ground tells you something your eyes/inner ear don’t necessarily get, I went around a corner and the trail turned sharply upward. The rest of this section was largely not nice; it included steep climbs (about 1,700 feet over seven miles, with over 600 feet of that in the last mile alone); downhills too rocky to run; sections of trail ankle-deep in sand or shifting, golf ball-sized gravel; sections covered with rocks the size of bricks I was not nimble enough to bound between; and of course absolutely no shade. I began to run low on water and at times felt a bit dizzy, but there was really nothing to do but keep going to get to the next aid station. Luckily, I was able to sort of tuck into my brain (I thought about a lot of rather silly things, like the book I have been editing) and keep going. Each time my watch buzzed, I felt a bit surprised that another mile had passed. My splits during this section ranged from 9:21 (the downhill) to 22:42 (the last 600 feet of climb and a stop at the aid station to pull a rock out of my shoe).
It was very nice to get to the aid station and eat some potato chips and potato dipped in salt and refill my water. I also got to blow my nose, which was nice. My nose always runs when I’m out, er, running, and I’d neglected to bring any tissues.
Mile 14 to the Third Aid Station (Mile 20ish)
At the mile 14 aid station, I heard one of the guys say that the next aid station was five miles away. I was excited to leave—both because I had told B I would try to text him around mile 15, and because mile 19 seemed very achievable and also very close to the finish (at the time I thought it was only ten miles out). Also, at this point the trail turned downward again, and we got to give back all that vertical gain. I ran for a while with a woman from Layton, UT, who mentioned that she had never done a 50K before and had trained only to sixteen miles as a long run! She left me behind when I once again couldn’t navigate the rocky descents fast enough. I also found that whenever I tried to accelerate a lot, I developed a stitch in my ribs (the altitude? Pushing too hard?) and I just couldn’t keep up. I had been gunning to finish strong, maybe even top three in my age group, but I realized at this point that I was going to have to just run my own race and finish when I finished.
That is the dao of the trail, I guess.
During this section, I came down around a bend and looked up to see two buffalo standing in a field. They were maybe a hundred and fifty feet from me, without any sort of protective fence between us. Wow. So I stopped and took a picture. They were unimpressed.
After the buffalo, the trail eventually narrowed and went into this area along the western side of the island where there were a lot of plants very close to the trail that were dry and kind of spikey, perfect for scraping the fuck out of my legs. Seriously, plants, what did I ever do to you? I was bleeding in half a dozen places by the end of the race, not fun. The best cut was right on my right ankle, perfect for accidentally kicking with my left foot (I am not graceful), and then good for a quarter mile of pain.
Eventually I reached the aid station and dumped some water over my head, which made me feel better. But I was tired after all the up and down of the first twenty miles, and pretty much ready to be done.
The Two Close-Together Aid Stations (Mile 20 to Mile 24ish)
This was the section where the bargaining began. I was feeling pretty woobly from the heat, so although the course was pretty flat, I started to walk. For a while, my right hip flexor was cramping up. But I knew I was so far from the finish line that I couldn’t just walk until I felt totally better, because I would never feel better until I could stop running and I would never get to the finish line walking. So I started to make deals with myself—run for half a mile, then you can walk for .05 miles. Repeat. Although my times were a pretty steady 11:30 min/mi during this section, and I felt really pretty terrible, I kept passing people, so either I wasn’t the only one having a bad time of it or I managed to out-strategize a lot of people.
The fourth aid station was over a ridge near mile 24. I had been planning to walk, but I crested the ridge and saw it, so I kept running. Yay, more water dumped over my head. (Sadly, none of the aid stations had ice.) Yay, more potato chips.
Mile 24 to the Finish
Leaving the mile 24 aid station, I was relatively sure I had five miles to go. The aid station personnel thought the distance was more like six to seven. They also thought that there was a water-only aid station between them and the finish, though this turned out not to be true. I continued my run/walk strategy for a while here, crossing the 26.2 mark in 5:21:43 (a personal not best) and picking off several more people. Despite my slow speed, I was making progress. The course at this point was very boring—lots of scrubland, the salt lake kind of in the distance, no real change in altitude from mile to mile, nothing to focus on but the passing of a few trees and rocks and the odd pile of ossified buffalo droppings.
Right around mile 27, and just before I was about to allow myself another walking break, I came up behind that woman from Layton again.
As I came up behind her, debating about whether to try to pass or to walk and let her get a lead again, she turned around and said the most magical words I could have heard: “I think I see it.” I was actually kind of unsure at this point what “it” was—the drink station? The finish line? Maitreya Buddha? But I actually did not care. She took off and I took off after her.
I was looking, but I could not for the longest time see whatever she had been referring to. Finally I saw a glint of light at the top of a hill—maybe light off a car’s windshield, but it could have been our destination. Layton and I had some discussion about how far we thought the race actually was. As she said she wasn’t sure if we were going twenty-nine or thirty miles, another woman came up behind us and remarked that she was still telling her friends she did a 50K. I said, “Of course!” We chatted for a brief bit, and then when the trail widened I sped up and passed both of them. For a while I thought we would stick together and finish the race, but they were slowing down, and I could smell the barn.
I reached the fence we’d run along at the very beginning and crossed though an open spot, only to face another climb. My watch suggests it was about 224 feet of elevation gain in a mile or so, I think about a 5.8 percent grade. I was kind of annoyed, but stumbled up it using a hike/run strategy. At the top, just by the turnoff for the half marathon course, was a herd of buffalo (on the other side of the fence this time). Wow! They seemed unimpressed to see yet another runner stumble past.
The road turned down for one final descent. There was a guy ahead of me in a yellow t-shirt, and I suddenly wanted to pick him off and add one last catch to my list, so I sped up as much as my incredibly tight quads would allow. Better yet, as I came within range of the finish, B, Daniel, and Claire were all standing there cheering me on! I crossed the finish line within a few seconds of the guy in yellow (I was so close to catching him!) and was awarded a coffee cup. I think I said something really intelligent to B, like, “They gave me a coffee cup!” Then I sat down for a while before I could fall over.
I finished 29.88 miles (according to my watch) in 6:04:24, a 12:12 min/mi pace. According to my watch, the course had just over 3,100 feet of elevation gain. The results at UltraSignUp.com are still somewhat preliminary as of this writing, but I am listed as 6th woman, 4th in my age group, and 22nd overall finisher. I learned that I should be careful of climate differences (WI had a cold snap, so it had been quite a long time since I’d run in warm weather), bring something to shade my head/neck from the sun (no trees), and give the elevation its due. I did a good job at staying on top of salt and calories all day, and I think my run/walk strategy was pretty successful, considering how many people I passed in the last ten miles.
My foot was actually totally fine though the race, giving me no more than passing discomfort. At some point my hip slipped out (my SI joint got stuck) and I finished with knee pain and lower back pain because of it, and I also totally blew up my quads, and my calves are hurting if I sit for too long, but other than that I feel remarkably good. My PT will be happy. The race was well-organized and enjoyable, the course a real challenge. I had a hell of a time.
A special thank you to Bryan, Daniel, and Claire, for not just making this madness possible but for supporting me through to the end. Having you guys there to cheer me on in the last moments was really amazing. Also special special thanks for helping me get a new Garmin last minute. It worked out really well and was super useful during the race.
Also I’m going to stick to half marathons for a while. Holy cow.
 When I was a kid, my parents used to stick me in the car and drive me out to Fermi Lab (the supercollider) to look at the buffalo (really, this was a method of making me fall asleep). The sign at Fermi Lab said, “Don’t try to cross this pasture unless you can do it in nine seconds, because the bull takes ten.” I have no recollection of how big the pasture was (though I do think I wanted to feed the buffalo Cheerios, as though they were ducks), but in my mind this means that buffalo are both fast and mean.
 Does that sound lame? It was an important psychological goal—during the last few miles of climb leading up to the mile 14 aid station, I was counting down—“Only three more miles before I get to text B.” The idea was to tell him my time at the halfway point to help better gauge the SLC crew’s departure to Antelope Island. Unfortunately I realized after the race that my text hadn’t gone through. Whomp whomp, sad tromboon.