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Respect the Distance

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A speedster dives into Moab’s Red Hot 33K and learns some valuable lessons

I come from a speed background. …

Pete Stevenson running a slickrock section of the Moab Red Hot 55K en-route to a fourth place finish.

I come from a speed background. My high-school and college years consisted of a dedicated focus on a four-lap lactic acid burn: the mile. Practice enforced preparation and taught strategies. I knew everything there was to know about staying on heels, countering moves and taking the lead when least expected. I concluded my college career with an NCAA Division III 1500-meter championship title.

Recently, though, inspired by my housemates (successful ultrarunners), I decided to venture to the ”dark side” and register for a longer race distance (in my mind, anything over a 20K). My debut death march would be the Moab’s Red Hot 33K in Utah.

Following a running schedule, my Sunday long runs began to tally big numbers. I was never so excited to add up my weekly mileage. It was money in the bank, and I couldn’t wait to count it.

As race day approached, my confidence was high. I was excited to attempt something that was so foreign. To me, the Red Hot 33K was my first “ultra” (ultrarunners, insert laughs here). Who knows, maybe I would stumble upon an even more favorable distance than the mile.

Race day, Saturday morning, February 18, finally came. One cup of coffee, two pieces of toast, three bathroom stops … I was ready. My ceremonial garb now included a Nathan hydration pack and Polk headphones. I felt geeked out and prepared to toe the line.

Bang! Off we went into the red-orange slick-rock hills. Hungry for a podium finish, I kept my eye on the two leading women. The first was about 20 meters ahead. I opened my stride and within a minute I was in the passing lane.

Filled with adrenaline, I kept moving at high speed. The next woman was 50 meters away, and moving at a quick clip. Everything in me said to keep her in sight, to not let her run away.

I could feel the tunnel vision begin as I dialed in on her yellow shirt. My miler training kicked in. I was the mountain lion, and she was the unsuspecting deer. My pace quickened and so did my heart rate. I ignored it. I was going to catch and pass her.

At the five-mile mark, I glanced at my trusty Timex. 32 minutes. I quickly realized that I was averaging around 6:35-minute miles. Oops. I knew this was way too fast for a 20.5-mile race. Alas, I accomplished my immediate goal. I was now in the lead, and it felt damn good.

Fast forward to the 10-mile mark. Oh. My. God. What was happening? My legs felt mired in wet cement. To conserve energy and recover, I speed hiked the slick-rock climbs.

Just as my positive mental outlook returned, three women bounded by like gazelles on a morning jaunt. They were talking, they were smiling and they were fresh. I was envious. I tried to jump on the party train and ride it in, but within a half mile, I had fallen off.

I stopped for some liquid at the third and final aid station. One of the volunteers asked for my number. I responded, “329.”

He said, “Wow, you really crashed,” glancing up from his computer. I quickly laughed and agreed. I had gone out too fast, and was paying the price.

It was 4.5 miles to the finish, all downhill. My stride had never been so short and my legs had never hurt so badly. I crossed the line in 2:57 for a fifth-place finish.

I walked away with a new lesson: Respect the distance. No matter how much you think you know, or what you’ve achieved in a different discipline, it doesn’t matter. Be confident in your ability, but be aware of the new challenges that can, and will, arise.

Gina is the Advertising Manager at Trail Runner.

In addition to directing the Red Hot 55K and 33K, Chris Martinez hosts 360-Degree Moab Adventures, full- and half-day running tours in Moab Utah. Find out more, here.