Compared to most ultra runners and adventure fiends, I haven’t been running long. In fact, outside of a few 5Ks and 10Ks I ran with my friends during my teens, I’ve been running weird amounts for about as long as I’ve been dating Nick. Yes, I’ve noticed the correlation.
Two years ago, I picked Nick up from the Rabbit Peak race he’d just finished. He had promised we would spend the rest of the afternoon hiking, soaking in the Agua Caliente hot springs and camping on the cool desert floor. By the time I picked him up after the race, he was too hungry and tired to do anything but eat and, selfishly, I was frustrated. A whole day of exploring the desert was slipping away! Why were we still sitting here at a diner at 3pm?
Unfortunately for Nick, at the time I didn’t realize what running Rabbit Peak actually entailed (nor what running sub-5 hours and the course record meant for one’s body, either). It was just a race, right? It couldn’t be that bad.
This past weekend, I finally got the memo. Running or hiking or even crawling up Rabbit Peak takes a whole lot of determination, patience, endurance and, perhaps, some stupidity thrown in for good measure. The 22-mile course takes you from the desert floor outside of Borrego Springs, gradually up Villager Peak (5,756 feet) and to the crest of Rabbit Peak (6,666 feet). The roughly 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss is gnarly and technical, too; jagged rocks line the entire route, which is no more than than a barely visible trail that someone has chosen as the path of least resistance against the ridge’s edge (a huge drop on one side) and the spattering of barrel cactus, blooming ocotillo, strongly scented creosote and the cunning cholla. At the start of the race, we were warned about the jumping cholla and the potential need for needle nose pliers. I didn’t opt to bring any tools, and tried to minimize the amount of gear I needed for the race in general. I carried with me in my hydration pack two bags of a CarboPro/Hydra C5 mix (tallying roughly 400 calories per bag), two peanut butter Perfect Food Bars and roughly 70 oz. of water. I carried another 20 oz. in a handheld bottle throughout the race.
Although I trained with Nick’s Gut Check Rabbit Peak-Trail Running Group on Sundays, I didn’t do much running besides the occasional speed work session and a few short trail runs with my dog, Cashew. I did, however, keep up with the lifting 4-5 days a week that I have kept up for the past couple years. My plan for the race was to keep a sustainable pace, something Nick had talked about during his classes. I owe much of my success at this race to Nick’s stretching talks where he discussed great tips like using the flatter sections and the downhills to your advantage. His “fuel early and often” mantra stuck in my head as well as I forced myself to take in roughly 200 calories each hour. (This also helped pass the time quickly as keeping an eye on my nutrition timing allowed me to focus my energies on something other than the miles left of the race! 21 left, 20 left, 19…)
I took off at the start of the race at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, following Kyle Dulaney and, farther up, Nick, through the sandy wash. Nick had taken off quickly, and I knew that this would be his race. I wanted to keep up with the group following Nick, and so I pushed myself up the first climb just over a mile from the start. The first few miles were a gradual climb in the cool morning air, thick with the scent of creosote. The morning had been overcast, and it wasn’t until an hour or so in that the sun peaked through, heating my back. Already, people had spread out but I urged myself to stick with the runner in front of me, who happened to be Darren from the Gut Check classes. Taking the follow helped ensure that I stuck to the actual trail; I learned later on in the race that I lost valuable time in the latter half by choosing instead to go the route that I thought was the fastest but often turned out to be slower due to the climbing and scrambling that was involved. My legs (and their thick scratches) can attest to the fact that it’s better to waste a few seconds up front locating the pink flags marking the correct trail than trying to forge your own!
Villager Peak came sooner than expected, and I was relieved to see the encouraging volunteers and their smoldering fire. I found myself in a pack of four (myself, Kyle, Dave and Corry) which helped with the loneliness that I knew I might otherwise feel. We changed positions back and forth as we descended and then ascended the pinyon pine-dappled climbs and I attempted to follow their wiser trail navigation skills as we passed miles 8, 9, 10 and then we were climbing the last and longest hill before reaching Rabbit Peak. I had passed Nick a mile before and he looked strong. “Jade, I love you!” He called out as he came running down the hill I was ascending. The quick, sweaty kiss he gave me was further motivation to get to the top and back down quickly to see whether or not he would break his own course record!
At this point, I was still feeling all right, although I was anxious to keep up with Corry who had taken the lead. I knew that Nick and Jeremy were already dozens of minutes ahead at this point and figured I didn’t have a chance of seeing them again, but I could try to stick with Corry. The climbs, although steep and covered in cactus, sharp logs and angular, slippery rocks, were easier for me than the flatter sections and the downhill. My nutrition was right on, but I occasionally felt a side stitch that only went away after I held my arms up in the air like a fool. Better to be a fool than stop altogether, I thought. Corry let me go ahead of him as I quickly ascended, but he caught up fast once the trail leveled out and I lost my way (again…) between another cactus-cropped rock field.
I tried to stop myself from counting down the miles as the time ticked on. I had in my mind that I wanted to be under 7 hours, and I struggled to stop doing runner’s math as I teared myself away from my watch and looked to my right: the magnificent desert floor thousands of feet below and far past that the toothy peaks of the parallel mountains in the far distance. Even though I could barely look away from the trail at my feet for fear of tripping or being pricked by cactus, the scenery was beautiful. As Nick later described, the landscape looked like an underwater garden, complete with “coral” rocks and cactus “sea life.”
At mile 15, which should have been the second passing of Villager Peak, I missed the aid station. Somehow I had been distracted by my own thoughts and the scenery around me and had missed the pink flags that lead to volunteer and water. It wasn’t much of a detour–I only had to cut across the top of the peak and run back a quarter mile–but it was enough to remind me that I needed to pay attention.
While I stopped to refill my handheld for the last time, Corry passed me and kept going. I struggled to keep up but knew that I would have to watch it on the downhill. “Pick up your feet, pick up your feet,” I mumbled to myself, hearing Nick’s words (again…) ringing in my head. A few near-stumbles alerted me to the dangers at my feet and to the right. A sheer drop of five hundred feet would not end well.
Miles 15-20 were tedious, but I had picked up my pace some and was motivated by the minutes ticking by. Seeing other runners coming up the trail was a welcome reprieve from the otherwise empty landscape of the desert ridge, and hearing their encouraging comments and throwing some back made me smile. Although I cursed when I felt myself slipping off of another rock, or nearly twisting my ankle on yet another jagged edge, I was getting down. Eventually.
At roughly mile 20, I caught up to Joe Decker. His smile and chipper comments added to my mission of staying under the seven hour mark and as I thanked him for a brutal race and darted down the trail, I heard him radio in, “Jade is on her way down!” Only a few miles to go. Briefly, the anxious thought of a potential runner behind me entered my mind but again, I realized that I didn’t want to twist an ankle now in my hurry to stay in front. Once I got down on the desert floor, I could push all I wanted. For now, I just needed to get down.
With a few swigs of the lukewarm CarboPro left in my handheld, I finally reached the desert floor and was thankful to be on flat ground again, however sandy. Where are the cars? I questioned, then realized that the tiny mirage of shining objects in the far distance was the start and finish of the race. I cursed again, but knew that it would’t do any good. I was at 6 hours, 24 minutes and I was going to do my darnedest to stay close to the 6:30 mark. I took off as fast as my legs would allow, winding around creosote and up and down desert washes. As I hit the last quarter mile of the course, I could see a figure in the distance: Corry. Had I really been that close? My mind zeroed in on the finish as I saw a black figure–Nick with phone in hand and ready for pictures. Just a little more and you’re done, Jade, just a bit more, I willed myself and somehow, I was done. It was over.
This race, though by far the most technically challenging race I have ever run or hiked, was also the most rewarding. While I generally call myself a sloppy, overly cautious downhill runner, this course gave me confidence–I’m not quite as bad as I think. And, unbelievably, I had the most fun on the downhill sections of the course, picking my way through the rocks and jumping over the jumping cholla and trying to race myself and no one else down the mountain.
Thank you again to Gut Check for putting on such a wonderful race. Thank you, also, to everyone who participated at this year’s event and shared such camaraderie and encouragement on the course. Most especially, thank you to Nick for all of your wise words. I’m beyond grateful that you share all of your own past successes to help guide my own.
And, as I sit here with sore quads and hamstrings and for some reason a very sore back, I guess I can understand why you were tired, Nick.
See you next year, you Wascally Wabbit!