Cold Water Rumble ultra review part I

   THE. BIG. ONE.  The Cold Water Rumble in the Arizona desert; a 52 mile ultra race that conjures  images of insanity, steroids, and  Dwayne Johnson signing up for the next Expendables movie with just the inclusion of the word 'rumble' in the name. It was also fated to be my first ultra marathon.

Pictured: Not months of long runs
   For those not aware, an "ultra" marathon is any race distance which goes beyond the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. (Not to be confused with your coworkers and friends asking "How long is this marathon?") The Cold Water Rumble, or just Cold Water for short, had a race distance of almost double that. One of my training partners, teammates, and closest friends, Philip, and I had settled on this one almost 9 months before the race and I was just as nervous and excited pulling the trigger and becoming officially registered for it as I was actually prepping for the race itself.

   In the weeks leading up to the the race I knew that in order to be successful and be able to keep up with Philip three things were going to be required. One: lots of hydration with actual water. Two: tons of carbs to sustain a distance twice as far as I had ever attempted before in an unfamiliar terrain. Three: months of long runs to develop my mind and body. The way I figure it, two out of three for your first go round isn't too bad.

   On an early pre dawn Friday morning I did one last check of my duffle bag for shoes, gu, hat, and all the body glide the TSA would legally allow me to carry. With everything present I hopped into the car and headed for the small, local airport for a connecting flight and boarded a plane which never ceases to remind me of the tiny, rickety death trap that Indiana Jones boarded in the Temple of Doom.

"We got it for super cheap after they crashed it in the movie!"
Managing to survive the trip with only one of my fillings rattled out of my mouth due to air turbulence, and definitely not the use of a 75 year old prop plane that made me worry about the combined weight of two football players sitting on the same side of the plane, I continued to hop from airport to airport distracted only by by my incessant need to use the bathroom approximately every 12.4 minutes and the suspicious glare of the air marshall. Much like our first attempt at a goal time marathon together, Philip and I had agreed in advance to run it together and stick it out to the end. Perhaps knowing I wasn't going to suffer alone, or maybe the fact that most of the personal pressure of making a certain goal time had been relieved was the source of the strange internal stillness and calm I felt. Whatever it was I had plenty of time walking back and forth down the aisles of the plane to the lavatory and back to think about it and stare into the placidity of my internal lake of being.

My normal internal pre-race lake of being

      Phoenix, Arizona. Touch down. Another quick trip to the bathroom to empty yet another half gallon of personal fluid followed by a short call from Phillip to let me know that he had already touched down and secured a rental car. A grin on my face and a skip in my step I mentally pictured my calm, flat as ice internal lake once again while I strolled through the terminal to meet one of my best friends for our newest adventure. But whats this? A shadow slowly descending over my lake . A leaf, coming out of the distance, headed towards the surface. A giant, mountain-sized leaf. And, in typical fashion for this running blogger, the universe smiled as the Himalayan mountain range-sized leaf stop drifting downwards and transformed into a meteor slamming into the lake with the force of a prehistoric extinction-level event causing my mind to snap back and my face to melt into abject horror.

My internal lake comes standard with dinosaurs
   My body stopped moving and my eyes were glued, staring through the plate glass window into the dry, red desert having just experienced a small mental breakdown with reality. I spoke to no one in particular, but definitely out loud, as I mumbled the words. "Mountains. No one told me there were mountains in Arizona."But there they were, rising out of the desert floor, almost begging me to run them the way a linebacker taunts a skinny kid to fight. At some point my phone rang again, Philip wondering where I was. I told him I was on my way and after meeting him and jumping into the passenger side of the rental car I asked him if he knew that Arizona had mountains. He replied in the negative and we both fell silent for a few moments until one of us brought up the fact that even though it was in January, it was still pretty hot outside.  There was some sort of mumbled agreement and we both fell silent again as we considered all the things we hadn't considered going into this race.

   Having resumed conversation a few minutes later we followed the GPS's lead to what would be the start of the race and our camp site with the sun sinking behind both the mountains and the horizon in the meantime. Unfortunately by the time we arrived the good folks of Araviapa Running (who put on the event) had begun to shut down as we had well missed the packet pick up time. This did not stop them from giving us our packets and kicking up conversation with us after finding out it was our first attempt at an ultra marathon for both of us.

   I imagine that in any other situation had I encountered ear-to-ear grinning, beard-sporting guys with the crazy eye in the middle of the desert at night, I would have taken off for the hills. Which, given the situation, would have been extremely unfortunate for me due to a) the hills and b) the fact that these people could run me down without breaking conversation or even a sweat. Luckily there wasn't a banjo to be heard for miles, so I personally felt that we were safe with this group. The volunteers and race directors gave us our shirts and packets and pointed us towards the camp ground where our tents had already been set up. We had decided early on to try and get the full experience and rent tents on the race site which turned out to be a great decision because these tents were only a few feet from the start and finish line of the race meaning we could roll out for the start and hang out afterwards to encourage any runners after us.

   Tent site established and race packets picked up, we dropped our things off and went to pick more essential material for tomorrow's race. For us this consisted mostly of picking up a cooler, ice, and A LOT of beer as we anticipated sitting out in sun by the finish line cheering on those running the hundred mile option of the race. Essentials grabbed, we found a small Italian eatery where Philip ordered a plate of spaghetti and I proceeded to eat my weight in calzones while trying every beer they had, all in the place in the name of carb loading.
Why? Why do you want ANOTHER calzone?

   Beer in tow we headed back to our campsite sometime between 9:00 and 10:00pm we decided to settle in to the tents on the pre set cots inside. We talked about the next morning, and Philip explained the concept of a 'drop bag' to me. For those not in the know, a drop bags are essentially  typically small plastic bags that you fill with items that you think you might need along the way whether its gels, salt tabs, or the Duran Duran cassette tapes I made the mistake of filling mine with. Each bag is then taken to the aid stations (which are stocked themselves) by volunteers and ready for your arrival.  We made sure we had our drop bags ready to be delivered to each aid station and joked about the wolves we heard howling in the distance. I laid down, looked at my clothes set out for the morning and drifted off to sleep.

   Lying on the cot my eyes snapped open and instantly connected with Philip's as he lay on his cot across the tent. He silently mouthed the words "Don't speak," and then my ears picked up what we later estimated as a wolf pack around twenty-five in number trolling through the tents. I froze as a Game of Thrones sized dire-wolf shadow lurked across the tent and held my breath as the shadow shrunk and the wolf's' fur pressed the canvas of the tent inches from my face. Oddly, aside from the thought that he could bite my face off through the thin material of the tent, my only other thought is was "How good is this going to make the Cold Water write up later?!?" Eventually with my face still intact, the wolves moved on and I fell back asleep, not a word spoken the entire time.

   5:00am rolled around and I awoke to the sound of a muffled voice through a mega phone calling out instructions to the hundred mile racers. Blurry eyed I looked over to see Philip already dressed and rummaging through his bag. I decided to follow suit and quickly changed and meandered out of the tent to one of the port-a-potties near the campsite having almost two hours before our race was supposed to start. Philip trailing me, we crossed paths with another runner who had apparently slept in his RV on the campsite the night before. Looking like a cross between an 18 wheeler driving trucker and a 19th century pirate in overalls, his shaggy beard split open with a grin as he asked "You boys hear dem wolves last night? Man, I've been to ultras all over the country and the wolves sound different in every region and state you go to." Wait...what?? These things are a fucking staple of ultra running?!? Would be what I would have said if I hadn't been so stunned that these things were apparently a common aspect of ultra running. I found myself at a loss for words, and then mentally drifting off wondering if the wolves picked off the weaker of the ultra community like a darwinistic approach to running as Philip talked with the trucker-pirate about how the wolves in Colorado sounded different then the ones in Arizona. 

I picture him rocking out to that Macklemore song "Thrift Shop," while picking off slower runners

   Shaking my head post bathroom and wolf conversation I navigated the darkness up to the front of the start line listening to instructions for the hundred milers. There was a slight breeze and the spotlights illuminated the small puffs of sand and plants that blew through the darkness near the start / finish line. We were't alone as a lot of people who would turn out to be running the 52 mile race with us turned up to cheer these guys on their way. A nervous excitement went through me while I wondered what had to be going through their minds as they prepared to take off for a 100 mile race through the desert and mountains. I vaguely recalled thinking something similar about the first time I watched marathoners, gods and elites of running in my mind, take off for their race. The gun went off and an explosion of cheering from those of us on the side lines was enough to excite my legs and lungs causing my body to begin the adrenaline dump process.

   As the sun started to creep up over the tops of the mountains everyone who was running the 52 miler was told to line up and I strode over the barrier looking around at my fellow runners. Nervous and excited and wondering where my teammate and training partner was I tried to mentally prepare myself for a race twice the length of any run I'd ever done in my life. I felt a hand clap down on my shoulder and looked over to Philip who had cut through the crowd to find me as he grinned and asked me was I ready. While I can't be sure, I believe my response was a sloppy smile and shrug of my shoulders right before the gun went off. The movement of people was so different then I was used to; there was no explosion off the line as people jostled to clear the crowd. To be sure there were those who took off at a relatively quick pace, but nothing like other races I had attended in the past. The majority of these runners were seasoned "ultra runners" and knew that going out the gate like a bat out of hell would be a quick way to end their race without hitting the finish line. I, on the other hand, was racing my first post marathon distance...

   Our race underway I tried to stay conscious of my pace, wanting to hold back while making sure I would get the most out of my legs early on. I bounded forward again and again, weaved in and out and ran a bit until I hit the front of the pack we had separated into around the 3 or 4 miles mark. We had hit single track trail and instead of trying to be a jerk I kicked up conversation with some of the people around me. My initial conversational attempts were cut short as I was awestruck by the beauty of the sun rising over the mountains. Being a typical flatlander I preceded to gawk and talk about the view over and over again until one of the more seasoned ultra runner (presumably to shut me up) asked me how far I'd been up to in my training mileage. I responded with "18 miles." "No, no," he said. "I mean what was your longest run preparing for this race?" "Uhhhhhh...18....miles. I've been a little busy." The next thing I knew the runner, who's name turned out to be Ethan, had faded back and away from me like I was some unstable IED ready to blow and take out anyone within a small radius around me.
Taken before I was wishing for sweet, merciful death

   I knew my lack of training due to a hellish schedule made up of school, internships, and multiple jobs was going to make for a painful experience, but I had already decided on two things. One, it was going to be a part of my experience. Two, after I did it, I was going to be a smug jerk about it when I was able to finish. That thought put a smirk on my face which lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty more minutes, because thats about the time that the sun was tired of not reminding me it didn't in fact live less then 6 inches from my face.

   Before I felt the fiery ball of radiating death more commonly known as, "the sun" searing my flesh I was treated to a few miles of some of the most breathtaking views I've ever been so lucky to see. I will admit I love watching the sun rise, especially when I am involved in some physical activity, but there was something about seeing the deep shadowy stretches of night live what was left of their lives in front of a mountain while the sun bled over the top like a slow flowing plain of lava that took my breath away. Or maybe it was a hallucinatory effect of the  6 giant sized calzones I had the night before. Either way, pure magic.

   As the sun finally topped out over the mountains eliminating any shadows in existence, I felt it begin to cook my body from its first touch. Glad I had hydrated early and often in the weeks prior to the race I checked my watch just to see the time. Still early morning and the conditions had become painfully warm with only the promise of it getting hotter. Wonderful. Still, it wasn't oppressive yet and there was more then enough conversation to go around with with the six or seven people we were running with introducing themselves, where they were from, their racing history, etc. By the time we arrived at the first aid station, (appropriately named "Coldwater") about 4 miles into the race, we had further splintered off again so that for us, it was just Phillip and I.

   Running up to the aid station the first thing you will find is a tent set up in a long rectangular shape, with the entire front area left wide open.  Tables filled items ranging from potato chips and salt tablets to gu and mountain dew were lined just under the shade line produced by the tent, while volunteers stood just behind them. As you came up, a pair of volunteers would record your number while others asked if you needed anything. Just beside the tent was a large tarp covered in bags of all shapes and sizes, each with a name scrawled across the front. Grabbing a handful of s-caps salt tabs, I jogged over to the tarp where Phillip and I found our first drop bags. I reached in mine, grabbing a packet of caffeinated Jelly beans, (my go-to for energy of distance races) and tore them open as we kept walking on, determined to not lose too much time at each aid station. 48 miles to go.

   The walk out from the aid station was a flattened, hard pack dirt trail flanked on either side with mountains for about a half mile. A half mile later, after ingesting food from our drop bags, we both began to run again and I whipping my head around I was a bit surprised to find that I didn't see people in front or behind us. With such a long distance, even early in the race, I learned quickly that ultras can be a lonesome experience if not done carefully. At one point we came to a fork in the trail with a sign post in the dead center marking which way the runners should go for the race. Excited for our first ultra, baked in the sun, and wanting to keep good time were all probably factors that lead to the two of us going the wrong direction on that fateful day. Instead of packed trail we found washed out desert, making each step twice as hard as it needed to be as our feet sunk into the soft sand and the sun beat down on our heads. Missing other people on the course was of course no indicator to us, as we had already discovered despite the large size of the competing field, we had spent more then half the morning running alone.
In retrospect, choosing to wear formal wear for the race
was probably our first mistake

   The good news was that the extra 3.5 miles we had tacked on by going in the wrong direction looped back around and brought us back on track to the next aid station named "Pedersen." Pedersen was perched upon on a hill and the white tent combined with the white pick up truck parked outside of gleamed like a mirage in the distance. As my feet pushed and trudged side to side through the sand I alternated between excitement over reaching a known part of the course (meaning we were headed in the right direction) and wondering if the aid station was real, or just a mirage. It was here at Pedersen that I would see my first ultra running breakdown in person. We arrived at the aid station and I for one was instantly grateful for the gatorade, water, and ice made available for us. Pedersen also had a medic and a few cots set out to which my attention wandered while I was drinking and refueling. I stood listening and watching a middle aged woman tell the medic she didn't know why she couldn't stop shaking and that she had vomited twice already. I assumed that this was the point where her race would end, and I felt bad for her, knowing that it could have easily been any of us out there. Instead, she kept insisted that such conditions never happened to her "so early" in a race causing my brow to furrow while I wondered how many things besides wolves were staples of ultra racing.

   Phillip interrupted my thoughts and asked me if I was ready to head out. Nodding in agreement, we took off again, this time with much more company along the way, and what felt like a whole different course. This part of the course had a bit more scrub brush along the trail, and rolled up and down on hard packed dirt and gravel with tons of switchbacks.  A massive change from the doldrums of the desert sand. Feeling renewed I sprinted every downhill I could find like a kid a recess while Phillip called out over and over again to ask me exactly what the hell I thought I was doing with a little over 30 miles left in our race.
Switchbacks on the way back to base camp

   I was far too excited as we ran up on our last aid station before base camp this one, unlike Pedersen, containing our second drop bags. I arrived and instantly dove for water and gatorade, desperate for some relief from the heat. One of the volunteers from the aid station was kind enough to remark that this was not only the hottest year of the race on record, but it was almost 30 degree hotter then last year's cold snap. Because, of course it was. The race volunteers and directors did not disappoint however, and provided coolers and buckets of ice for every runner to use. I grabbed handfuls and shoved them strategically down my compression shorts, giving the appearance of massive tumors on my legs. I proceeded to to the same thing with my hat, filling it with as much ice as I could hold while keeping it on my head. I smiled like an idiot, happy to finally refill my water bottle once again and be at least a bit more hydrated. Knowing that we were only a a couple of miles from base camp we took off once again, determined to stay ahead of the groups that we had started with. The ice in my hat and compression shorts was melted and gone in less then four minutes. 

   Normally two miles is barely enough for a warm up. On this day, roughly 25 miles into my first ultra race, two miles was enough to make me want to sit down, eat and drink until I could eat and drink no more. As we came down the mountain and hit the half mile stretch of road base camp and our tents came into view and I once again proceeded to hammer the pace. Coming into camp I could hear voices yelling and pointing off to the side, but they sounded foreign and alien to my ears. It took a few seconds for my scrambled brain to translate that volunteers and supporters were trying to direct me to the shelter area with food and drink to make sure that I didn't cross the finish line prematurely, triggering the chip in my bib.

   Grabbing heaps of food, water and gatorade, not to mention raiding the drop bag at base camp I found a spot on a cooler to sit on and consume these things while I rested for a few minutes and took in the sights around me. I was roughly half way through my first ultra and having completed almost the equivalent of a marathon distance over rough terrain I thought I had earned five minutes of sitting down to recuperate. I looked around for Phillip, wanting to rehash our first half, and to make sure that I didn't lose him. A minute or two passed on the clock and I located him walking away from base camp and back to the road to start our second loop without me...

Half time, fans. Coming up in the second half of the race review are (multiple) mass delusions, cactus attacks, celebrity meet ups by proxy, health emergencies on the course, and of course the finish of our first ultra marathon. 

Half time burrito


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