UPDATE: Here are some of the free photos provided from the event. I just had to dump them in here real quick. Can you believe it? FREE photos!?
It’s 4 AM.
The moon is high and bright over Vail Lake and the sprawling campsite of tents and easy-ups nestled next to it. Tiny, bobbing lights whirl around for miles in the darkness, all eventually coming back to the village. Two bonfires blaze with huddled runners sharing stories and sipping hot chocolate.
The runner exchange is constant action, but there is quite a bit of stillness in the dark tents nearby. Runners trying to sleep or at least stay warm in their sleeping bags. Trying not to think about the one or two more grueling runs they have to complete before they can truly rest.
One circle of tents is particular quiet. Most of Team Running In the Dirt has sought the dark, stillness of a tent, save for two; the runner currently out on the course and the panda eating a cup-o-noodles.
It’s 4 AM.
I actually had gotten some rest due to the fact that our air mattress that was half as large as our tent. Worth it.
I have my panda beanie on, layers of clothing, a blanket, and I’m hunched over in camping chair. Any passerby whose headlamp happened to illuminate my campsite would’ve only seen a table full of food and a panda head noshing away at it.
I was expecting to start my third leg of the relay around 6 AM. I needed to get some warm food in my body. My friend had just finished her longest run and she was in our tent resting. I didn’t want to disturb her. So I sat under the stars and watched the moon shift in the sky as I slurped beef flavored noodles from a styrofoam cup.
Runners from other campsites passed by. Some getting ready to run. Some still hot from their finished run. I envied their warmth, in nothing but a tank top and shorts, unaware of the chill that the rest of felt. Soon I would be warm with running.
It’s been 15 hours since my first leg. In the hot desert wind. They called it the “Red Loop”: 4.5 miles of everything from ridge line single track, powdery dirt descents, dry riverbed hurdles, and a short but steep climb fit for a mountain goat. I’d gone in expecting fire roads and maybe a few hard climbs.
The Red Loop. A 14:37 average pace. Over an hour of face-melting heat that would leave my lips burned and flaking the next day. I finished humbled and steeling myself for some very “adventurous” trail running. Hydration required.
But I’d be in the dark. Complete dark. Except for the moonlight. I was betting on the moonlight. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I highly prefer letting my eyes adjust to the moonlight than running in a narrowly illuminated, bobbing circle of headlamp.
It had been about 6 hours since I headed out on the second run. I had found the initial climb at the beginning tough. A dark, dirty “stair case” had brought me to what felt like a ridge line run. Which I crushed.
All I knew was the path was narrow and the world around it felt expansive and deep in the darkness. I could see the light of the runner village in the distance. I could see moonlight on the lake. I howled a few times into the night because I wanted to feel wild. Also because I wanted to not worry about predators. So I pretended that I was the biggest, baddest predator out there. Huffing and puffing along in the brush. AaaahWHOOOO!
I passed several runners on the descents but even I was passed by more experienced trail runners who treaded swiftly down the very steepest hills in the night. As I climbed the last mini hill to the timing strip, I knew I could confidently run into the exchange in the dark. A 13:48 average pace. 55 minutes of night time bliss. I handed off to Yvonne.
But now… it was 4 AM.
I was no longer warm from running. Anyone who wasn’t running was resting. I made my way to the bonfire, wrapped in a blanket. I brought a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup to make a fancy s’more. I brought my thermos for a half hot-chocolate, half coffee concoction of drinkable warmness.
I was waiting for Mark to start his last leg. The Red Loop. He took off around 5:15 AM and after that, I was counting down to my last leg. The Green Loop. 6 miles.
By 6:15 AM I had eaten. I’d changed into my run clothes, sadly putting aside my warm pajama pants and hoodie. Time to get moving. To stay warm. To get ready to run. I stood outside the transition tent watching the monitor. Waiting for Team # 268 to come up on the feed. That would mean Mark was coming in and it would be my turn to go. My turn for run warmth. Soon the sun would rise. Soon I’d be on my last leg.
No sign of Mark. I made a last minute dash to the bathrooms. The weird, crap-into-a-rubbermaid-tub-and-sprinkle-sawdust-on-it bathrooms. At least they were open at the top, letting moonlight in and the awful stench of nervous runner out. I ran back and, still no sign of Team #268 on the ticker.
The sky started to brighten. Thank goodness! I wouldn’t have to rely on the headlamp to start the run. But now I’d be racing the sun, trying to make it through the canyons as it rose, heating up the world as the light fell down the hills.
It’s 6:44 AM.
The air is chilly, the sky is an early-morning blue, and I give Mark my second headlamp in exchange for our team’s bib. It was attached to a clip-on belt that would never quite sit right on my hips. I let it fly loosely around my waist.
I took off for my last run and felt like taking it easy. My legs were tired. A mile in I could feel my foot complaining. The foot I had injured. Was it tired or in pain? It was distracting me, so I stopped for a second to test it out. Not bad pain. Just the cumulative fatigue of the weekend. It won’t go away so I’ll just have to ignore it and tough it out.
The Green Loop went around the other side of the lake. From here I could see across the lake the colorful tents sprinkled over the hillside. I could also see mountains in the distance, veiled by a pink morning mist. Super beautiful! Wish you were here! Damn dead phone! I’ll just have to describe it all with words.
Approaching mile 3 there was a long, slow climb to a metal cattle fence. When I reached the top of the hill, I was ecstatic! Nothing but a long, easy descent for as far as I could see. So I let loose. My legs felt free. Free and strong. Free and strong and also sore. Like the sore of mile 10 in a half marathon. The “I’m tired but I can keep at this for another 3 miles, no problem” kind of sore.
I kept a modest sub 9 minute pace as the road continued to gently descend. Then I was at the remote parking lot. Joking with myself that I should’ve brought my car keys and I could’ve just driven back to the exchange. Not far now.
What a great run to finish on. The easiest of the three loops. The PERFECT time of day. Light but still enough of a chill in the air to not overheat. I made it half way before the sunlight touched down on the ground. I got to run in the shade under a golden canopy of trees whose leaves were already glistening in the sun light.
An 11:26 pace. I handed off to Yvonne for the last time and helped myself to some tasty beverages and treats. I thought about doing yoga.
I choose poorly. The massage sucked. Next time, yoga all the way.
On our team of 8, there was only 1 I knew in person (Christine, whom I had invited), one I “knew” from online (Yvonne, who organized the event), and the others were all strangers to me. But they were amazing.
Getting to know them around our campsite was definitely a highlight of the weekend. All willing to jump on to a relay team of strangers and now they’re all on my list of runners to call. I love it when my running family grows.
Related Post: Ragnar Trail Vail Lake Recap by Sharp Endurance