How an Ultra Happens on a Whim

“Lets do this” the email from the race director said, capping off a wild Thursday, full of new adventure plans concocted by David and me. And while battling conflicted feelings, Julie could not help but admit that this was one of those life opportunities presenting itself to us, we just had to have our eyes open and go for it.

After 6.5 weeks in Mexico City, our trip to San Miguel de Allende where we’d be staying for nearly a week with friends of friends that we’d only ever met online should have seemed bold and adventurous by itself, but to us it felt totally normal. Before leaving the big city to meet with our new friends Scottie, Brian, and their 6 year old son Elijah, I sent one last message to Scottie letting her know that Julie and I were runners and that if she had any local knowledge about where we could run when we got there, it would really help us out. She came through big time.

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Pre-race with Paavo

We hit it off quickly with our new friends and within a few hours of me asking about running, Scottie had already found me a running partner. We arrived in San Miguel de Allende on Wednesday evening and I was already scheduled to meet up the next morning with their friend David, a local artist that was also a runner.  

I jumped in the car with David and his daughter. We dropped her off at school and then it was time to run. We were doing a trail run just outside the city. Usually I am confident I can run with just about anyone, especially in this situation in a smaller city in Mexico. David looked the part of a runner and I quickly learned that he was the real deal. Shorter than me, with similar curly hair, we talked with broken English and Spanish about personal best times, his a 2:30 marathon, mine a 2:33. We talked about how we’d transitioned to getting into ultras and trail events. That’s when he let me know that his next race was “next weekend.” I thought, “Bummer, we won’t be here next weekend.” As we talked more about his upcoming 100k race, I realized that next weekend meant the upcoming Saturday, 2 days from now! He then said that I should join him.

I’m generally an easy sell, especially with this kind of stuff, and it didn’t take long before we were thinking of how we could get Julie on board with this idea. He was driving his car, he already had a hotel room, and it was a good sized race. The catches: it was a 6 hour drive north (almost to Texas) and it was a 100k race, which meant that Julie would have Paavo for the entire day while I was out running in the woods. We tried to cover every angle possible.

Julie found out about the race before I even got home through a chain of emails that traveled faster than our car home. She was amused at first and when it became apparent that I was totally serious about doing the race, she became more serious about the logistics. She was not thrilled with the idea and it took until late in the day for her to surrender to my persistent efforts.

I eagerly went about signing up for the race only to find out through some sleuthing that the race had sold out two days prior. I emailed the race director and after a couple emails, the words that sealed the deal came through, “Lets do this!” We were going to the mountains!

The car ride was indeed 6+ hours and it was both challenging and memorable. Paavo did some crying and we also got to see hundreds of miles of Mexican mountain desert landscape. David is a charismatic guy and is someone that puts people at ease immediately upon meeting. Conversation was good and we were all anticipating the upcoming race, David’s farthest race attempt to date. We all embraced the notion that this weekend was a special adventure that happened to fall into place for all of us and that whatever happened would no doubt be memorable.

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The start/finish line with beautiful mountains in the background

The race expo was a bit of a mad house. I eventually tracked down the race director that had sent the fateful email that brought us to the race. I was holding Paavo when he asked that I come back in a couple hours to get my race number (I would get a number that wasn’t claimed because someone hadn’t shown up). I asked if it could be sooner. Without being pushy, the end result was that if I had the cash, he’d give me a bib now. I was officially in.

In the meantime, we had found out that our hotel was more than an hour away from the race start. This posed a logistical problem for Julie. If she wanted to be at the race and not stay in the hotel all day, she needed to get up with us and leave by 3:30am for the 6am race start. She would have nowhere for Paavo to nap throughout the day, and she’d be outside with minimal access to food for a race that was likely to take 12 hours. Ugh. The race was held in a national park area with trees and fresh air, just what we needed after 6.5 weeks in smoggy Mexico City. We asked around about available rooms but all were full – David said the same, saying that he’d called two different times months in advance to try to get a room. As we were leaving, a woman from the resort found Julie and told her that a cabin was available, but it was 6,300 pesos for the night – roughly $350, and we’d already paid for our hotel in nearby Saltillo. We passed on the idea, but as we were walking to the car, we were telling David about the offer. He stopped in his tracks and with a big grin on his face said, “I’ll pay 4000 pesos!” He said that it was part of the experience of this memorable weekend and that we should do it. We agreed to split it 50/50 and there we were, in a luxury mountain cabin at the race start/finish line.

Inside our 6300 peso cabin pre-race

Inside our 6300 peso cabin pre-race

My plan for the race was to be conservative. I hadn’t been prepping for this race so I didn’t want to make any big mistakes early and pay for them later in the race. Specifically, I was testing a new tactic that I’m thinking about using at Ultra trail du Mont Blanc later this summer, basing my early effort on a target heart rate zone. I kept it chill early as we climbed to nearly 11,000’ elevation. If my heart rate hopped over 140 beats per minute I would walk and smile. The air was cool and it felt great to be in the mountains.

I bombed down the first hill and my quads were feeling it by the time I reached the bottom. I’d passed a lot of people on the downhill though and was still sticking to my race plan. I was relaxed and smiling (with heart rate under 140), but my hips and legs were a bit more tired than I’d hoped for, only 20 miles into the 62 mile race.

And then I got really sunburned! Much of the course description said “bosque”, which means forest. I expected to be under the shade of trees, in a forest. I was in direct sun with no clouds for nearly the entire day – my skin has since peeled off in sheets, since I didn’t wear sunscreen. The sun and heat zapped more energy than I had anticipated and as the day wore on I was definitely getting tired. But given the conservative start, I was still able to keep moving well, just not feeling awesome.

A view of the Tarahumara walking away after winning the 55k race

A view of the Tarahumara walking away after winning the 55k race

Around 60k I finally started catching more people. I’d been trailing this guy for many miles that was literally right out of the book Born to Run. He was wearing a flowing white shirt and sandals made of tires and rope. When I caught him I asked how he was doing. “Tengo mucho hambre!” was the reply – he was hungry! And not a surprise because it was a long stretch, ~13k between aid stations and sunny. Plus, he was only carrying a small little bag on his back. My fueling for the race was not my normal PowerGel since I didn’t have time to get my normal race kit together. Instead, I was eating disk-shaped toasted amarynth seed cakes. They were dry and light, with a consistency somewhat like rice cakes, but more calorically dense, containing protein, fat, and sugar. David called them “Alegria” which translates to joy. I offered Roberto the Tarahumara runner a couple Alegrias.

Happy to be finished!

Happy to be finished!

Roberto and I went back and forth with each other until around 90k when I pulled away from him. It had been a tough afternoon. I feared that I’d gone off course at one point so I backtracked, only to find out that it was the correct way, and just happened to be the one unmarked section of the entire course. They had altered the course some from the original plan which resulted in some really steep and rocky stuff. Simply put, the final 30k were slow and difficult.

As I was climbing up a section of canyon for the final time (we had to repeat this part twice), I passed an older man. I asked how he was doing and he said that things had been bad for him. He then stopped to shake my hand as I passed him. “Vamos a terminar!” flowed from my mouth as I separated from him up the canyon. It hit me as I pulled away that I’d just had a meaningful exchange, all in Spanish, with an old guy that was crushing a 100k in the mountains in Mexico, being chased by Roberto the Tarahumara runner, as we battled for a spot in the top 5.

I finished the race tired, but not wrecked. I feel like I received some additional special cheers from the crowd because I was obviously an extranjero (foreigner). I was 5th overall, I gained valuable racing experience, and I indeed had an adventurous and memorable experience. David came in shortly after me and after many “felicidades” comments to other runners around the finish area, we headed to Saltillo to our hotel. It was a bit of a rush as Paavo had been a trooper all day, hanging with mom and getting smiles from everyone around. He was fading though and so were the rest of us. To cap the day, we got two large Papa John’s pizzas with veggies and no cheese delivered to our hotel. We showered and filled our bellies before finally powering down for the night.

Finisher's slippers, medals and a shirt (and an adorable Paavo)

Finisher’s slippers, medals and a shirt (and an adorable Paavo)

The drive went quickly on Sunday morning and as we waved goodbye to David, thankful for the brief, though power packed encounter, we realized that though we hope to cross paths with him again, this could be our only meeting with him. We became friends in a short time and shared a memorable life event together. And then it was over. The weekend was what we all knew it would be, a challenging, tiring, awesome, memorable experience that we’ll all take with us for years to come. Thank you David, Julie, and Paavo for seeing life’s opportunities and being part of this memory with me.

To read more about the race, check out my race report on the Coahuila 100k.

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One Response to How an Ultra Happens on a Whim

  1. Pingback: Coahuila 100k - Matt U – Team RunRun

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