Sunday, October 16, 2016

Full Moon Rising: UTMX 2016

Entering the Barranca                                   Photo by Martin Forstmann of

  Ultra Trail Mexico's third edition finished yesterday (today actually --runners had until 1:00am on Sunday to finish), but folks will be talking about this year's race for a long, long time. Another way to frame it: I went into the race chasing my 15:40ish from 2015. Ended up finishing around 18:25 last night. And I was happy with that time. Thrilled, really with how well things went, considering...

  ...But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

  At 2:32 in the morning I woke up to a sound test at the starting line. I had slept solidly from 10:30-2:32. After that I tossed and turned and finally got out of bed at 4:00, 15 minutes before my alarm would go off. I could hear the whoops outside, the first of the 500 runners were showing up for the start of the UTMX 2016. The previous two years I stayed in a cabaña outside of the town, and this year I finally got a hotel room right next to the start. However, at 2:32 in the morning I realized that cabañas outside of town do have their advantages. 

Hotel by the finish line. Loud. Cabaña might be the better choice if sleep is important.

  The first thing that surprised me as the race started is that the pace felt manageable and it wasn't crowded: it flowed as well, if not better, than previous years when there were fewer runners. At the first river crossing it became clear that there would be no games today trying to keep the feet dry. Water levels were very high.

  I stuck to my plan at the start: I walked some hills I could have run. I resisted the urge to pass; I stayed within myself: when the heart started pounding, I slowed. Between 20k and 30k I began working the downhills a bit, but still trying to avoid trashing my legs early. I never remember the first half of this race as well as the latter half, but I was reminded about what makes the first 45k so incredible: it's a singletrack paradise. 

 Running into the 30k aid station, one of the aid station workers came flying out, grabbed my bottles, and had them both filled before I could finish stuffing my pockets with salted potatoes. The attention at the aid stations was like this all day. Later, down in San Sebastian at 70k, the aid station workers brought everything to me, checking in to see what I might need. It as good as having my own crew.

Climbing to the top of "Moab" between 30-40k

  My first little dip in energy came after 30k in the climb up to the 35k point. And something seemed off about the route: we ran by the presa, but we didn't run along the wall as in years past. And then back into the woods, and I saw some 50k runners. I started to panic a bit: did I go off course? Where the hell was the 40k aid station? Did I miss it somehow? And then we started climbing again. I didn't remember this climb but looked down at the course profile on my bib and the climb was correct. I vaguely remembered Marcos talking about some change during the meeting the night before, but couldn't remember the details. I looked at my watch and realized I was way behind, I'd never get to the "highway" (50k) in 7:15-7:30. 15:40 was out the window. Sub 16 was probably out the window as the barranca had an extra climb in it this year.

  I finally arrived at the 40k aid station, but it felt more like 42, which is what my watch said. I needed to take some time to eat. I had made a stupid mistake with my Gu, leaving too many in my drop bag at the 70k mark, and not bringing  enough with me at the start. I started rationing them, as I didn't want to go into the barranca with less than 3, so I had to make up the caloric deficit with aid station food. Two cups of soup, chips, and a banana and I was out of there, and back on familar ground: the course was what I remembered it, and the section went by quickly, or at least it felt like it did, but I arrived at the highway aid station (run by the Solo Para Salvajes crew) in 8:30, an hour behind schedule. I questioned my training, maybe I had fooled myself and I really wasn't as prepared as I thought I was.

  After 45+ kilometers of the scenic singletrack of the mountain portion of the race, the course eventually dumps out onto a paved road that leads straight down to the 50k aid station which is just across the "highway." This section is always hot and a shock to the system after being in the woods all morning. Something strange happened here: as I was trailing another runner, she ate a Gel and then...she just threw the wrapper on the ground?! I picked up the wrapper (Honey Stinger), and picked up my pace to try and catch up with her to to return her trash. But she pulled away. I was in disbelief, and started to rationalize: maybe she dropped it by mistake? But in that moment I was sure she just pitched it on the ground, and so since my 15:40 goal was long gone, I made a new one: I would not finish behind the gel wrapper runner.*

*It occurs to me now that maybe the "gel wrapper runner" (or "Gu Girl" or "Honey Slinger") dropped it accidentally, but it just didn't seem like that at the time: it looked like she took a gel and slung the wrapper --city marathon style-- right on the road. I hope I'm wrong about that.

  The section from the "highway" (it's a two lane pave road, it's not really a highway) to Peña del Aire on the edge of the canyon is my least favorite section of the course. It's almost all downhill with one climb. It's open dirt road. Should be easy, but this year was the same as the last two: I got passed by a lot of people.

The Barranca.

  I was looking forward to Peña del Aire aid station for several reasons: it's the beginning of my favorite part of the race, and I was looking forward to the new climbs and the river crossings. Also, Natalia and Dalva were going to meet me there. I hoped they would make it and hoped they would still be there: I told them the latest I would possibly get there was 2:00pm. 

  At 3:10pm I rolled in. 

I was worked and needed to sit down, drink some soup, recover a bit. I changed out my small UD bottle for a large one, as the race director had clearly emphasized the changes in the barranca. He estimated it would take 3-4 hours for most runners and he implored people to fill up their packs and bottles for this long, difficult section. After about 15 minutes, my longest aid station stop for the day, I headed down to the trail leading down to the bottom of the barranca. Down, down, down...

It was a warm one in the canyon.

  One thing I forgot to mention: at the top of the barranca, back at the aid station, I had received some news. According to Natalia, most runners were arriving later than expected. This made me realize that my race wasn't going horribly: the course had changed and the section before 40k had added more time than I thought. With my time goals irrelevant, I gave her my watch. Looking at that thing had just kept putting me in a bad mood. I didn't need a watch; I just needed to keep moving. 

Dalva and Tina coming out to greet me upon the arrival to Peña del Aire.


Dalva giving me advice: "don't run, take bubble baths."

   I finally reached the river crossing at the bottom of the canyon. I wrapped my Jurek Essential belt (ok, it's a fanny pack) around my neck and waded across. When I reached the other side the current wasn't as strong near the shore so I set the belt and my bottles on a rock and submerged myself. Felt pretty good under the water, but sadly I had to get up and keep running. 
  After the river the first of the "new" climbs began. We climbed a narrow, loose rock and crazy steep climb up to the top of the other side of the barranca. I looked across and could see the Peña del Aire on the other side. It was awesome. I never would have recommended changing the barranca section, but this was genius: all the way down one side, cross the river, up to the top of the other side. And then down this crazy downhill that we had been cautioned about in the race preview. I felt great going down and passed most of the folks who passed me on the climb. Including the gel wrapper runner.

  And then she --and everyone else-- passed me on the next climb. Again, straight up on loose shale. And here I realized I had made a mistake: I had filled both bottles with powerade. Things were out of balance. I became dizzy and slowed to a crawl. Asked those who passed me if they had "agua simple." Nope: just more powerade. So I trudged up, tried to eat, stopped drinking powerade and then realized that was stupid. Alone on the far side of the canyon. At the top of the climb I sat down and took off my shoes to clean out the rocks --more to take a break than anything else. Some old guy popped out of the bushes --seriously, out of nowhere. He spoke so quickly and with such a strange accent I couldn't understand a word he said. 

  He didn't have any "agua simple" either. 

  I picked up my pace on the downhill, hoping to catch the Gu girl. Nope. Maybe next year. I gave some powerade to a runner that was out of liquid. 

  Crossed the river again. Submerged again, and then ran the trails into San Sebastian at 70k. My drop bag was waiting. Chespiro was also there, that was cool. Years ago I was returning to an aid station, intent on quitting the Maraton del Rover because I was lost again and fed up. And then I ran into Chespiro who was fixing the marks on the course. He set me back on track and I finished that race. 

  A Chespiro sighting is always a good omen. 
  With dry socks, a fresh shirt, and full belly I headed up the long dirt road that takes us up and out of the canyon. Usually I hate this section, but I had arrived so late to San Sebastian that the sun was setting. For the first time, I enjoyed the climb. The sunset and the full moon rose up out of the clouds. And suddenly I knew one thing: I was going to finish. 17, 18, 19 or 20 hours. It didn't matter: It was night time and I love running at night and there was only 20k to go.
  At the top of the barranca, I stopped in the Mirador aid station and chatted a bit with the aid station guys. They were encouraging and in great spirits. I drank a Red Bull and one of the guys said that over 200 people missed that cut off at Peña de Aire and couldn't continue down into the canyon. That was good reminder that I should put a little "giddy up" in my step and keep moving. 

Sun sets over the Barranca

And the moon rises. Unfortunately the photo is terrible. Very nice in real life, however.

  And so I started to push. I ran through the next aid station at Ahuacatitla, stopping only long enough to  stuff my pockets with chocolate chip cookies and gummy worms and then headed straight down to the final river crossing. Passed a lot of people this way, but "gel wrapper" wasn't among them. 

 At the bottom there was surprise: first a roped rock crossing [tip: try this without the rope, I think it's much safer. The runner in front of me held on to the rope for all his life and took a pretty hard fall against the rock] and then I was at the final crossing and the river was raging. There was a large tree spanning the crossing. A rope for balance. Really?

  Unfortunately, the only other choice was to go back up to the aid station.
  Carefully, I crossed the tree, almost losing my balance. On the other side I asked the guy holding the rope if some runners had fell. His curt response: "claro." 
  And then going up the final climb, a sort of serpentine path up through a middle earth forest. Pretty cool climb in the dark. Until my headlamp started flickering and went out. Javi was there with me at that point and gave me some light while I changed the battery. Thanks, Javi!
  I started to feel stronger, pushed harder, and ran well on the road that goes straight down to the Hacienda de Santa Maria Regla and the final aid station.  And lo and behold: there was "Honey Slinger" going down into the aid station. 


  I "sprinted" down as fast as I could and considered just going through the aid station without stopping, but I wanted a little coca cola and "agua simple" to balance it for the final push.
   Up to the Prismas Balsaticos, across the swinging bridge, across the presa (very wet this year and someone took the markings down, I think), got lost for a few minutes, some guy out there called me back, and finally hit the road back into the center of Huasca. Natalia, Dalva and Tina were there to run it in with me. It was 11:25pm. 

  Of my three finishes at UTMX, this one meant the most. It started out as one kind of race, and ended up as something else: some sort of survival adventure run. It had that epic "live a lifetime in a day" feel that one gets in a 100 miler.

bad selfies under a full moon

Postscript: There was a bit of chatter about all the runners getting stopped at the 5:00pm cut off at Peña del Aire. While the changes in the course (and the cut off) were clearly communicated (the example of arriving at 5:05, which would be too late, was given during the meeting), it was certainly not the intention of the race to have so many folks miss a cut off. A couple solutions:

  1.Start the race at 4:00am     and/or
  2.Return to the original (and faster) section between 30 and 40k.

 Just please don't change the canyon section: the river crossings and the climbs were awesome.



  1. Very nice description, that 100k were epic, I also run the UTMX.

    1. Elias, thanks for reading. It's really an incredible race!