I'd vowed to run less this year after a punishing but educational 2008, but the Moab Red Hot 50k+ is such a cool race (see Danforth et al. 2008, hereafter Paper 1), I couldn't pass up another shot and see if I'd learned anything in a year of hard running. The course is difficult and confusing and I lost quite a bit of time in 2008 getting lost in the second half. I also spent a lot of time at aid stations along the course when all I really need to do is grab-and-go. I now know what to expect along the course and can budget my resources more wisely. Plus you know how I am with peer pressure.

Experimental Design

The course runs for just 34 miles over dirt roads and challenging slickrock north and west of Moab, UT. After a 4.5 mile warmup along the Gemini Bridges Road, racers head north for a 13 mile loop via the Metal Masher up to the rim overlooking the starting line, then a long, easy descent on dirt roads back to the Gemini Bridges road (see Figure 1). The second and more challenging half of the course climbs for three steep miles up the Gold Bar trail to the rim again at mile 21. Then a pounding and brutal few miles along the tilted slickrock of the Golden Spike trail before dropping through canyons and washes. The final seven miles climbs over a series of surprisingly challenging petrified dunes of slickrock followed by roads and some steep drops along the Poison Spider Mesa. The finish line is preceded by steep, rock-strewn switchbacks. The entire course is littered with fantastic views in all directions.

Sample Preparation: Given the number of variables in this experiment, I endeavored to keep as many parameters as close to their 2008 values as possible. My training started shortly after New Years and I logged 180 pre-race miles in 17 runs (177 miles in 16 runs last year) focused mostly long (3-5 hour) training runs one day each weekend. Like last year, we arrived on Friday afternoon, picked up our race packets, and enjoyed a large and sumptuous carbo-feed at Pasta Jay's, even sitting at the same table (though I did not order the same dish this time).

Equipment: Chip and I spent an hour or two after dinner configuring gear, sorting out drop bags, and pouring over maps. I was determined to go as minimalist as possible this time (one thing I learned last year is that I usually carry too much crap during races) and committed to wearing shorts despite the predicted near-freezing temperature. I suplemented my short sleeve (same as last year) shirt with sleeves, gloves, and headband. Gear was carried in a waist pack: gel flask, 16 oz water bottle, camera, assorted pills, electrolytes, and small contingency items. My only significant gear addition from 2008 was a wrist-mounted GPS loaded with a track of the race in seven segments to prevent getting lost in the challenging mile 20-30 section. I packed a drop bag with a few additional items to pick up half-way through the race: a second flask of Hammer Gel, windbreaker, and hat. Upon arriving at the trailhead an hour before the start, however, I discovered I'd left my drop bag in the hotel room. Dammit!


I'm always amazed at the start of trail races the sheer number of people who show up for these crazy things! The weather was significantly colder than last year with clouds, wind, and even a little bit of snow in the air. We milled around for an hour before lumbering off at 8am up the long gentle first grade. The lighting was dramatic in the valley below (Fig. 2), but the headwind was pretty fierce. By the first aid station, things had settled into a rythm and I soon headed east for the first major climb of the day.

Fig. 2. The crowds begin to thin out in the first two miles.

Fig. 3. Climbing the Metal Masher (mile 9).

Though the climb up to the Metal Masher (Fig. 3) and rims above are the high point of the course, the memory of this climb paled in comparison to the second in miles 18-21. I was surprised to recall that it was still fairly brutal. Stopping to catch my breath and admire the view, a racer asked me to snap his photo.
"This is amazing!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, it gets better," I said.
"Harder too."

Relief and the better views came at the rim and I changed into my downhill legs for the long, technical cruise into Aid #2. My watch, constant companion through thousands of miles of training, had finally given up the ghost in the early miles of this race so I was racing more or less blind as far as pacing was concerned. So far, I seemed to be on about the same pace as last year. The cruise through Arth's Pasture (mile 14-17) is some of the easiest trail on the course, but somehow was also the most annoying and it was with great relief I rolled through the third aid station and ran the mile back down to the Gemini Bridges junction to start the second half of the course.

Fig. 4. Running with Eve and Marie on the Golden Spike.

Fig. 5. Mesa the Ultradog in the dunes with Eve down below

Deep sand in the twisting wash gave way to gravel road and thence to rapidly-rising slickrock. I fell in with a woman (Fig. 4) running with her dog. We got to talking about races from years past and it turns out she'd finished last year in about the same time I had.
"Wait a second," I said. "Are you Eve from Salt Lake City?"
"I am!"
"Well I'll be damned! We ran the second half of the race together last year as well!"
Once again, our paces were quite compatible and we cruised companionably together from mile 19 to the finish. This time she'd brought her dog Mesa, Vizsla veteran of numerous ultras and one of the best-behaved trail pups I've ever met. Mesa would have been more than happy to go back out for another 50k, I'm sure (Fig. 5).

Fig. 6. The view from the rim, mile 22.

The course along the Golden Spike trail after Aid #4 weaves up and down acres of gray slickrock, sometimes sticking close to the rim, but then arbitrarily taking a hard turn one direction or another without warning. It is definitely the hardest part of the course both mentally and physically. Early in the race, I'd been having lacing issues with my latest pair of shoes and I'd gotten some mild ankle pinching. Even after several adjustments, I'd progressed to good shin splints and ten miles on slickrock didn't help. Fortunately, the GPS and a great course-marking job by the race directors Chris and Greg (thanks guys) kept me constantly on-course this year. Despite the leg pain and rock pounding, it sure was pretty with a great view of the Colorado and associated canyons to the SW (Fig 6).

Fig. 7. Kari on the dunes just shy of Aid #5.

Fig. 8. The home stretch!

The final aid station came and I girded myself for the final five miles across Poison Spider Mesa and down to the river and the fantastic soup served by volunteers. Despite decent nutrition, hydration, and temperature control, I was really flagging at this point (Fig. 7) and ended up slowing to a walk along the easy dirt road in many places. I was really hoping to enjoy this section a bit more this time around. The pitch steepended and Eve, Mesa, and I started dropping through twisting canyons amongst cobbles and smooth rock. Without my watch, I didn't know how close I was to last year's time of 6:18:35, but it felt like it would be close. The last mile was definitely not fun, but thoughts of that soup (not to mention the spectacular views of Canyonlands and the LaSals beyond, Figure 8) kept me motivated and I finally limped in with little to no fanfare (Figure 9) at... 6:22:41, four minutes slower than my previous time.

The soup this year was Potato Leek and was exceptionally good.

Fig. 9. Finished! (photo by Yasuyo).
Table 1: Performance Comparison 2009 vs 2008.

SegmentMilesElapsed Split Pace (min/mile)
Start-A1 5.50:53 0:54 0:52 0:54 9:33 9:51
A1-A2 12.82:10 2:10 1:19 1:16 10:46 10:26
A2-A3 17.02:53 2:51 0:43 0:41 10:13 9:51
A3-A4 22.64:01 3:58 1:08 1:07 12:11 11:54
A4-A5 29.05:27 5:22 1:26 1:24 13:27 13:10
A5-Finish 34.06:22:41 6:18:350:55 0:56 11:04 11:08

Results & Analysis

Fig. 10. Distributions of men's 50k finish times for 2008 (top) and 2009 (bottom). Mean (open diamond) and median (filled diamond) are marked along with one-sided standard deviations. As you can see, my finish times very slightly faster than the median in both cases (less than 0.1 sigma), but there no clear difference in the distributions. This suggests there was no significant speed difference in the course from one year to the next.
Despite very similar training and equipment, I ran four minutes slower than 2008 (Table 1). This is a little disappointing and, at first glance, a bit surprising. I spent a total of eleven minutes the entire time not moving (mostly at aid stations) while last year I spent seven minutes at Aid #3 by itself. I probably lost 5 minutes to being lost last year while I was on-course the whole time in 2009. Where did I lose time? There is no way to say definitively, but listed here are the possible reasons (hereafter "excuses"):
  1. Poor shoe fit/lacing leading to pain later in the race. This is possible as, even a week later, I have a good case of tendonitis in my right ankle and it was swollen for several days afterwards.
  2. Weather and course conditions. Weather this year was colder (which should have negligible effect) but with a significant headwind. Certain sections of hard-packed sand last year were surprisingly loose this year. This may have played a small role, but the sections of sand on the course were minimal. The distribution of finish times (Fig. 10) between the two years is indistinguishable suggesting that the course was not faster nor slower than previous years. The median men's finish times are within a minute of each other with similar spread. Superior course marking this year must also factor.
  3. Lack of novelty adrenaline. The 2008 race was my first ultra and stood at the start of a big year of races and training. It was quite a thrill and a lot of this novelty adrenaline carried me forward perhaps faster than I otherwise would have. The second time around... less exciting, particularly in a year when I intend to "hang it up" for a while (Figure 11) to pursue other interests. Note: I noticed the same effect in my second running of the Pikes Peak Ascent; despite a vastly more rigorous training regimen, I only shaved a few minutes off my PR from the year before.
  4. Going out too fast. In general the paces in Table 1 are pretty consistent... except for the first 5.5 mile segment. I ran it at a 9:51 pace in 2008 (which was arguably too fast), but 9:33 this year was definitely too fast. Note that most of my other paces are 10-20 seconds/mile slower than in 2008. I paid for that first extravagant hour!

Fig. 11. Hanging it up... at least for a little while.

Fig. 12. A new Marathon PR (approximately 4:54) though my GPS tends to underestimate distances. True time was probably closer to 4:45.

Oh, did I mention I set a new marathon PR? It's not going to qualify me for Boston (Fig. 12).


It is likely that all the above excuses are play a role in my slower time this year to one degree or another, but excuses #3 and #4 are particularly instructive. It remains inconclusive whether youthful naivety and enthusiasm is more important the course knowledge. However, it is quite clear that proper pacing is very important. I set out to break my previous time (maybe by a lot...) and ended up spiking the rest of the race in the first hour.

On the other hand, a 1% difference in performance given the same level of conditioning should perhaps be taken as a sign of admirable consistency. The fact that both Kari and Eve also finished within a minute or two of their previous times suggests that perhaps serious relative changes in one's performance is not just a matter of knowing the course and grabbing less snacks along the way.

Future Work

After a fantastic post-race party, everyone got a pretty leisurely start on Sunday morning. I made two (2) visits to the great Red Rocks Cafe before getting on the road. The day was gloriously sunny and very reminiscent of race day 2008. The idea of piling back in the car and driving six hours home was clearly not right. But we weren't up for anything too strenuous either.

Fig. 13. Slickrock, sun, and sore muscles. This is as good as it gets.

Fig. 14. Chip, Peter, and I at our little, unnamed (as far as I know) arch.

Chip, Peter, and I compromised by driving into Arches NP and hiking out to Delicate Arch. This was Chip's first trip to Moab and, despite having in been in the Park several times before, I've never made the trip out to the most famous natural feature in the entire state. Maybe it's my post-race legs talking, but the hike is surprisingly long and rough. But well worth the effort! We deviated from the trail near the end and spent a completely wonderful hour scrambling around on the blonde slickrock domes on the other side of a steep canyon from Delicate Arch. We found our way down to a small basin with a small arch. Despite sore muscles, it was very hard to turn back from repeated "hey, what's over this dune..." explorations.

Fig. 15. Requisite shot of Delicate Arch.
Once we finally turned around and got back on the (impressive and well-worn) trail to the main tourist attraction, we were well-rewarded. Delicate Arch features prominently on all Park literature and the Utah liscence plates. It's aweful purdy, yes'm, and photogenic as all get out. We perched for an hour eating snacks, snapping pictures, and watching the enormous ravens before turning and heading back out.

A weekend well spent!

1No, I'm not taking any of this crap too seriously. It's a little disappointing to not meet my goal in this race, but that doesn't change the fact that I had a great time start to finish. Thanks to Chris and Greg for putting on a bang-up event once again, to Eve and Kari for providing excellent conversation in the latter half of the race again, and the usual and unusual Idiot crew for being the lovable idiots that you all are. It's just fun to try writing up a trip report in the style of what I do for my day job.

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Charles Danforth / Last modified: Sun Feb 22 17:51:07 MST 2009