Hook me up with a run in the desert and I’m there. Make it a long run with great views and aid stations, and I am golden. My second desert ultramarathon of the year took place on April 14th near Grand Junction, Colorado at the Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 50k. I completed the 50k distance and had a blast. (Sidebar: Had you told me three years ago that I’d be writing that today, I’d have laughed you out of the state. My goodness, I’ve been bitten by the trail and ultra addiction.)
Yes, I signed up for this race on short notice. And, yes, it very well fits into my training plan to complete 100k in July. No, I don’t regret the 4 hours driving in Friday traffic getting there just to run 6 hours then turn around and drive 4 hours back. #WorthIt.
Desert Rats Trail Running Festival
The Desert Rats Trail Running Festival is organized by Gemini Adventures and takes place along the Colorado River just west of Grand Junction, not far from the Utah line. The festival had a variety of distances including a 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon, and 50k. Of course, I chose the longer as my 50k in training for the month. All races take place on public lands near the Colorado National Monument with awesome views over the nearby river and canyons.
I met my long-time friend, Katy Jane, in Grand Junction on Friday night so I’d have a place to crash. And it only cost me a steak dinner – a price I’m more than happy to pay for a dinner filled with laughter with friends. Katy Jane was running her first 10k on Sunday but still woke up early to the start line with me on Saturday morning.
The Desert Rats Trail Running Festival start line check in was easy to find once we found a parking spot near the Mack trailhead. There was hot coffee and plenty of runners ready to head out for the day. The marathon and 50k ran on the same course for the most part. There were 132 runners in the 50k and 94 in the marathon.
Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 50k Start
With that many runners on a primarily-single track course, it could get congested. But we had a mile of gravel service road to sort things out. Then it was a good climb uphill as we didn’t see the top of the hill until approximately 3.2 miles in.
I always laugh when someone asks what my pace on long runs. The answer is always “Um… It depends…” See above.
That climb will keep a person honest, even if you head out too fast. We had a long single-file line headed up the hill with some 13-minute miles. But the view at the top with our first look of the canyons over the Colorado River in the early morning sun was worth every step up.
We were on single track with lots of rock up the hill and over again. The first aid station at approximately 6 miles was a big relief. This is where the 50k runners split off for a quick loop on dirt while the marathoners continued on for another climb on another rocky trail. I wore long sleeves for the chilly start, but an hour in, it was time to stuff them in my Nathan Fireball Race Vest.
Desert Rats 50k Course
The course, while tough and varied terrain, was beautiful. I wanted every bit to just take in the views, but I had to keep an eye on rocks and steps so no tumbles were made. It was just the kind of desert trail I love for a challenge, but not so hard it wasn’t runnable.
Aid stations were spread throughout the course as well as the service roads provided. I fueled all day with Tailwind, which is my normal long-run fuel and was supplied on course. The race is cupless, which was a bit of a pain when I wanted a drink of ginger ale to mix things up. But I was glad to have the 12 oz bottles in my Nathan vest that allowed me to carry fuel and water.
We had a good mix of single track and broad trails along the canyon. And at the halfway mark I was feeling great, not having pushed the pace, but still on mark for my A goal and a slight PR. Everyone along the course was super friendly and we had several conversations, especially with slower marathoners in passing.
Hitting the wall in 50k
As luck would have it, my high spirits weren’t unending. In mile 22, my mind got in the way. I went in knowing that the mental game would be an important part of my training this year for 100k. But it always sucks when you find that low spot. We had just left the river and the day was heating up. I stopped running started hiking. Forward is a pace. And eventually, I walked myself back on track with the help of a caffeine Gu gel.
And wouldn’t you know it, just as soon as I was back in a steady rhythm, I found myself at the bottom of a 2-mile climb straight uphill. Damn. One foot in front of the other. It’s a good thing hiking uphill is one of my strong points. I definitely gained some ground on folks, but no one was going fast. It was a 20-minute mile. And there was definitely evidence of vomit a mile up.
I haven’t been that happy to see the top of a hill in a long time. And there was a cattle water tank at the top. I seriously contemplated a quick swim! And once again, the view up top was pretty incredible as we looked over almost the entire course we’d covered earlier in the day.
Desert Rats 50k Finish
Once we made the top of that climb, it was a dry and rocky descent all the way to the finish. I wasn’t going to hurt myself jumping around rocks and switchbacks, but it was definitely a relief to see my friend Katy Jane had returned and hiked up the hill to cheer me on with a mile to go. The other runners were glad to see someone of high spirits, too!
It was a quick finish to the tents. Well, as quick as can be for someone who has been on their feet skipping over rocks for 6 hours…
I ended up finishing a few minutes faster than January’s 50k in Moab, and I was plenty happy to find that consistency in times! My final time was 6:10 (see it on Strava), good enough for 56th overall out of 132. Jason Schlarb was present and won the 50k with a time of 3:55. See the results on UltraSignup.
Final Thoughts on Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 50k
Katy Jane ended up crushing her first 10k race on Sunday, finishing 14th overall. I am pretty excited about her future in trail running, even if she doesn’t want to admit it… yet.
I’d love to do the Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 50k again and more in the Grand Junction area. But that’ll probably have to wait until after the summer heat before we hit many desert trails again. The race was well-organized, especially for someone coming out of town. Directions to the start line were a little difficult with the Google link in emails not leading to the correct trailhead. And I will say the dog tag finisher medal was one of the weakest I have ever found. Invest a little more in those next time, folks…
I definitely enjoyed the quick trip to western Colorado for the Desert Rats Trail Running Festival 50k with good friends. I had to head home on Saturday for an early Sunday flight and the next work trip. But before I left town, I had to grab a cold Ginger Ale and a Klondike Bar. I don’t know why, but I had been craving them for 5 hours that morning, so that’s what I had for lunch as soon as we returned to town. Then, after cleaning up, I had a proper recovery meal with a bacon cheeseburger and pale ale at Edgewater Brewery in Grand Junction. Yum! #TeamBeef.
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