It was a long time coming, but I greeted the summer solstice with a 17.5-mile trail running race in Salt Lake’s back yard. By 5:30 AM I was on my bike cruising down South Temple in the pre-dawn, and by 5:45 at Memory Grove Park next to the Capital Building, surrounded by an antsy crowd of 20- and 30-something athletes. Fifteen minutes later the proverbial gun was fired, and we were off.
Immediately a brisk pace was set and in no time the pack had separated into semi-discrete bunches of runners chugging along. I hadn’t warmed up at all and the first mile or so up the road was not as easy as it should have been. Right away I drifted off behind a few dozen runners until the race took a turn for the steep onto the Bonneville-Shoreline Trail.
The next three miles or so varied between effortless cruising and uphill panting. I was familiar with the trail, having either ran or biked it in the month before the race, but it didn’t make it any easier.
About four miles in: Black Mountain is at right
The single-track trail was pretty fun as it snaked along gully benches, but right after the first aid station about three miles in things got difficult. The rhythmic flurry of striding legs turned into plodding steps, and the first signs of anguish betrayed many a runner. I wasn’t feeling particularly exhausted but was concerned for a nagging foot injury which had crept into every training run (amazingly, it lie dormant for the whole race). It wasn’t until the false summit of Black Mountain that the course started to let up, 4500 vertical feet above the race’s start.
Not many people experience third-class scrambling during a running race, but therein lies the beauty of the Steeplechase. Boulder-hopping on a knife-edge limestone ridge after 6 miles of calf-burning uphill running holds a certain appeal to a deranged few, myself included. It was far and away the most enjoyable part of the race (I think I uttered a “Whoo! This is what I’m talkin’ about!” at some point) but ended quickly at a welcome aid station, greeting us with Gu and Gatorade. I snagged a Gu and tore off down the course, a pleasant, soft footpath rather reminiscent of the trails around my house growing up.
Coming down the mountain was pretty fun, too, if not just for the nutjobs tearing downhill (oh wait, that was me) at speeds unreasonable for any two-legged creature. At one point I stopped to retie my shoes next to a barely-noticeable switchback in the trail:
“Whoa! Heads up dude!”
A tatooed guy well into his forties literally hurdles me. At least he gave some warning.
“Uhh, hey, that’s not the trail!”
“Whuu? Aww shit, time for some bushwhackin'”
He then proceeds to stampede downhill through thirty yards of eight-foot brush like a rabid Grizzly, soon stumbling on the trail and tasting some of it in a full-out Three Stooges-style wipeout right in front of me. I was too busy laughing to care that he had blatantly cut me off.
Not many running races require route-finding skills, but this horribly overgrown and blowdown-strewn “trail” demanded them. At times you would hurdle a three-foot diameter fallen tree trunk only to have to put on the brakes on landing for a faint switchback hiding beneath two feet of undergrowth. Yeah, it was pretty sweet.
Another half-mile or so of this put me back down into City Creek Canyon and the barely-downhill nine miles of road and single track trail. I hauled so much ass coming down the mountain that I had time to fill up my Camelbak at an aid station without being passed.
About three miles from the finish pure exhaustion started to creep in and the experience began to take on the hellish pain that only competitive endurance-fests can provide. Two hours and fifty-six minutes after setting off I crossed the finish line to an angelic whoop of cries and applause. It was over. I collapsed in the shade, took off my shoes and uncovered a two-square inch blister on my heel. A wave of ecstasy washed over me as I stretched out in the cool grass, having finished the most difficult physical challenge of my life.
‘Til next year! Or…sooner?