I probably should have drawn an easier route for my first attempt at a marathon distance run – but it is just too easy (and fun) to draw lines on maps, tracing trails and ridge-lines, etc… In any case, I drew it, so I ran it: The South Mountain Western Ridges Marathon+. In all, it ended up tracking to 29 miles – almost a 50k. Phoenix’s South Mountain Preserve is located on the southern edge of town – a series of parallel ridges and valleys, lots of exposed rock, lost of Saguaro, cholla, barrel, yucca, and other cactus varieties, brutally hot in the summer, but quite pleasant in the winter. The temperature topped out at around 70 degrees. That feels quite a bit warmer than it sounds though, when you’re out baking in it.
For the attempt, I wore my Altra Lone Peak 2.0s, new Altra trail gaiters, Injinji smartwool toe socks, a trusty red bandanna around my forehead, a new Nathan VaporWrap pack with its 2 liter bladder full, 2 Ultimate Direction 20 oz. bottles in the front two chest strap pockets – one with water, the other with 2 single serving packets of Hammer Perpetuem mixed with water, some Cliff Shotblocks, a CliffBar, a small first-aid kit and sunscreen, an extra pair of Injinji socks, Salt Stick tablets to balance my electrolytes, my iPhone and a little charger to recharge it mid-run, and a pair of Black Diamond FL Z Poles strapped on the back. Now that I list it all out – that seems like a LOT of stuff. The pack did seem a bit heavy, but this was all self-supported with no aid stations, so I wanted to be prepared. Wait, I lied. The night before I dropped off 2 liters of water in the desert (by bike) around the mid-way point of the route.
I started at about 7:15 AM when the sun was up and it was light enough to see. I could have started earlier, but then would have had to pack a headlamp around the whole time.
I started at the trail-head at the western terminus of Chandler boulevard, and headed NE towards my first ridge climb – up the Pyramid Trail.
This is one section I had done before, and I took an easy pace. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t doing this for speed – at all – I was doing it to finish. Slow and easy. At the top I strapped the trekking poles on the pack and followed the ridge line trail to the intersection with the National Trail at Telegraph Pass.
With 4 miles behind me, I descended the switchbacks to the paved road, and entered unfamiliar territory – the eastern stretch of the National Trail out to the Buena Vista trail-head and back. There were some great stretches of trail, but quite a bit of ups-and-downs, sometimes difficult to get into a good rhythm. At the turnaround, I applied some sunscreen. This is the desert, after all. Along the way I passed a number of fellow-hikers, all of whom gave me a queer look, likely wondering why I was so geared up. When I got back to Telegraph Pass and was passing a group of college students hiking back up to the Pyramid/National trail interesection, one of the girls asked – “Do you have enough stuff?!” “I’m on mile 10 of 30,” I said. What followed was a lot of “whoa’s” and “F#$# yeahs” from the group. Offering a few fist pumps in the air, I continued upward.
With the out-and-back finished, I turned NW on the National Trail to follow it along what would be the longest of the ridge traverses. This stretch of trail is gorgeous – both in scenery and trail conditions. I was feeling good, and about to settle into a nice pace when my right IT band started flaring and then my left calf muscle started cramping. NO! At only 11 miles, I was not pleased. I stopped to stretch the IT band, popped an extra Salt Stick tab and soldiered on. I was a bit bummed that the knee pain was slowing me down on what would otherwise have been the best part of the day. Great trail over 4+ miles of gradual descent. It could have been epic. Oh well.
I arrived at the water drop, mile 15, with a decision to make. My planned route no took me on a 10 mile loop with 1,200 ft. elevation climbing up the San Juan Rd. valley on the Bajada Trail, up the SE flank of a large ridge and back the full length of the ridge on the Alta Trail. Conversely, I could cut that loop off, turn left and do the final ~5 miles of the planned route and call it a day with 20 miles. Maybe I should have.
I chose the originally-planned, longer route. Right as I hit the Bajada Trail I came across a park ranger – also trail-running – and chatted for a few minutes. Very friendly and glad to see people out using the trail system. Assured that the Alta Trail was in great condition, I moved on excited. Soon, however…actually, almost immediatley, spirits dropped. The Bajada Trail was a constant up and down in and out of washes – impossible to get into a good groove. Plus, I was hot. As the trail name implies, I was feeling “low.” Very low. Knowing that I was moving further away from my car and towards a huge ridge-line to climb, the thought of turning back was tempting. I found some shade a couple miles up the valley, switched out my socks for a fresh pair and continued on, across the San Juan Rd, and started up the Alta Trail climb. I hoped that the new trail would make my spirits “high”er (get it?) and for a moment I felt reenergized. Towards the top of the climb, however, I saw another piece of temping shade and took a the opportunity to sit. With my back against a cool slab of stone, I closed my eyes and dozed for about 5 minutes.
Wow. That felt great. I jumped, bounded up the trail for about 10 seconds, but the energy didn’t last. Nonetheless, I think the nap helped. I soon crested the major portion of the climb and was thrilled to see the trail now start to head SW – down the ridge-line and back to my water-drop. 20 miles done, 10-ish to go.
Unfortunately, this stretch of trail was in very bad condition. Lots of exposed rock (instead of nice dirt) and continually covered with scree, loose rocks, etc… Much of it was unrunnable. A lot of it was even difficult to hike. It was very slow. And, with the descent, the IT band pain flared big time. It was a long, maddening few miles.
I reached the bottom and was at about 23 miles. From here, each step brought me closer to the end. Hooray! My energy level was low, but the flatter (and nice soft dirt trail) back to my water drop at mile 25 was heavenly. Spirits were lifting. The end was coming close. From the water drop I turned south and headed for the Gila and Bursera Trails. The Gila ran along a valley back to my car, but I – of course – had planned to run the Bursera up one final ridge. It was all trail I had done previously, and I seemed to remember that it was in good condition. The descent in particular – which is a VERY heavily used portion of trail – I knew to be in good condition. It wouldn’t be like the NW strech of the Alta Trail.
I pushed on, fight off some more leg cramps and screaming right IT band on the descent, and made it back to my car.
Total distance – exactly 29 miles. I could have run down the trail and back to add another ~2 miles to make it a full 50k, but I was late and my family was expecting me home soon. So off I went.
On the road I stopped by a McDonalds drivethrough and ate the 2 most delicious McDs cheeseburgers I have ever had. A protein shake, bananas, chips, 1/2 a pizza, and yogurt later…was still hungry when I went to bed. The next morning, I was famished, at cereal, drank soda, got a huge hot dog at Coscto at 10:00, etc… Still hungry. By the next evening, my appetite subsided.
The damage? Sore and stiff muscles. ZERO blisters, ZERO stomach problems. The gear all worked so well. The Altra Trail Gaiters SAVED ME! With so much rock and sand and gravel and debris on the trail, I would have been shaking my shoes out non-stop if not for them. Absolute lifesaver. The Hammer Perpetuem seemed to work well, the Nathan VaporWrap was very comfy. The ultimate direction bottles were great. I’m sold on those.
High fives all around.
It was, hands down, the hardest physical feat I have ever accomplished. I don’t know how you 100-miler ultra-marathoners do it. But, I am glad to have done a marathon…and a bit extra. I won’t call it an “ultra” until I do it as a real race. I’m signed up for the Bryce 50k in June, and might do the Buffalo 50k this Spring. We’ll see how the recovery goes…