“You’re almost done, enjoy that 4-mile magic carpet ride leading to you to Burma Road,” a man at the aid station said. I didn’t know what he meant—until I did. It wasn't until my first 50K, I heard the term “magic carpet ride” in reference to trail running. It referred to the feeling of ease that came with the gradual downhill on the trail. A trail that looks flat, but feels fast. It’s a welcome change after a steep ascent or near the end of a race. I'd already been on those 4 miles, only I was going up. Now that I was on my way back to the start I could feel it—the trail surface was smooth. It was smooth for a trail anyways. Small pebbles, almost like sand, a slight decline, easy on the knees, easy on the sole.
The first 6 miles of the Mesquite Canyon 30K at White Tank Mountain in Arizona resemble a magic carpet ride. Each mile feeds a runner's endorphin tank. Each mile reiterates why we runners are out there. The temperature a perfect 60 degrees. The sun tucked behind mild clouding. Fellow runners spread out over the trail, finding our place in the lineup. The trail was wider than the single tracks I usually find myself running on back home. The ground a mix of red and beige desert sand with large rocks strategically placed to trip you. Various species of Cacti line the trail—bushes of Teddy Bear cacti and large Saguaro—one would hate to fall over a boulder and crash into a cactus. Different than the dirt and tree roots I trip on back home. I was at mile 6 and running on a high, tucked right behind my husband.
As we approached mile 8 the terrain changed. Large rock formations stacked in front of us like stairs up a tall building, or as another runner exclaimed, “stairs to heaven!” Some sections were tall enough that my arms were needed to assist my climb. For the first time, our pace slows. “We’ve reached the hiking portion of this run,” I announce to Sam. In our training, prior to this race, I made sure to emphasize that we would be climbing. I added in runs up Deal Canyon Road, a 2-mile climb with 1800 feet—close to home and easy to access in the dead of winter. I added in a significant amount of weighted and timed step-ups, and all our speed work was done on hills. Though we do some road running/races, I use them as training for ultramarathons. I wasn’t trying to be faster on flat ground, I was wanting to feel more effective pushing myself up a hill.
Our training paid off. We soared up inclines we would have hiked in previous races. We hike up rock formations with greater ease. We passed a few, and were passed—that’s the name of the game. But we never had to stop to breathe. The uphill slog continued for 2.5 miles assending 2400ft. Finally, we reached the top. 50K and 50-mile runners met us head-on as their route ran in the opposite direction of ours. The magic carpet ride resumed, but not for long. The trail was too steep in sections to really let go. Large rocks rooted into the ground parallel to the trail, likely having something to do with water drainage. At this point in the run, my foot was bothering me. I’ve suffered from arch pain formally diagnosed as tendinitis via an x-ray a couple of years ago. This is the point in a race where I start to think about strategies to improve. This 30K is training for my June 50K and my hopeful September 50 Miler, so my mind begins to troubleshoot:
-I could do better with my foot PT exercises.
-I could start doing more of my squats and deadlifts barefoot again.
-Aside from my arches aching, I am noting some rubbing—blisters?
-I note a black toenail coming on.
I think about some of the ultra runners I admire and how they persevere.
I think about the warm weather and being here with my husband. Running with him.
I think about how proud of him I am. 2 years ago he was in a wheelchair after breaking both of his feet. How unlikely it would be for him to run again.
In my early years of running, I never studied the route prior to a race. I was doing all road races, so they were generally pretty flat. My definition of a hill was significantly different at that time as well. This has changed since ultra running. In my first 50K, I knew all the mile markers for big climbs and aid stations. Prior to the Mesquite Canyon 30K, I studied the map. The race appeared to be short at 17.3 miles. The 30K distance should be 18.6 miles. So when I reached 14.5 miles I was feeling uncomfortable but assured myself it was an easy 3 miles to the finish. I needed to pee, and my feet were hurting—otherwise, I was okay. That’s when we finally came to an aid station.
I refilled my water (Sam was out completely) and I decided not to pee. There was nowhere to do it. Aside from a bunch of cacti the privacy of large trees I have at home didn’t exist. Don’t forget it’s a race that attracted 600 runners.
“You’re doing great! 4 miles to go!” —wait, how many miles? I already knew the map was off from the one I studied online. None of the hills lined up with my mental mile markers. At 15 miles with 4 miles to go, I knew I had to make myself slightly more comfortable. So I peed behind a rock, waving to the other runners as they went by.
It wasn’t until mile 17 that we reached the bottom of the mountain and the sun fully came out. It was hot now and we were in the open, exposed desert sun. We walked for a minute, sucked our bottles dry, and ran it in. 19.26 Miles complete.
It’s those last miles that test me. Those are the miles I go for. I loved the magic carpet ride. I loved the view—the weather (oh the weather!!) but I go to learn about what I’m capable of when I’m uncomfortable. The sun was coming down on us at 80 degrees, my thighs were chaffing, the blisters were forming on my feet, I was thirsty, my legs were fatigued, and yet... I wasn’t finished.