(40 miles west of) Tucson, Arizona, USA
How can the wind with so many around me
I fail to understand the appeal of races that advertise themselves as an “easy course” with a “guaranteed PR” – isn’t that kind of like taking Basket Weaving 101 for an easy A? - but that’s probably a topic for a separate blog post. The organizer of the Kitt Peak Ascent seems to specialize in events that are hard not only on the racers, but on the people running the show. This is a ten-mile road run from the desert floor up to the main observatory at the top of the peak, averaging about a 6% grade. This was the first year for the event and considering the logistics it went off with very few bobbles.
Ah, the luxury! This was an evening run, so I actually got to sleep in Saturday morning, take my time packing, putter around the house… After a light lunch I drove down to Tucson and arrived at my hotel with enough time to drop off my stuff, change clothes, and have a short lie-down before hopping in my car again to drive another hour out to the mountain.
It’s a little half an hour to start time and cars are parking along the road as the small parking lot is already full. I pick up my bib and souvenir shirt and try a little bit of warmup as the announcements are made: no portaloos – something about them being diverted to firefighting efforts in the eastern part of the state. Please try to avoid peeing on the Tohono O’odham’s sacred mountain. Also, due to the triple-digit weather extra water stops have been added to the course. Brought together, these two things would seem to be a problem, but believe me in this stinkin’ heat having too much water on board is the least of my worries.
The Representative for the local Tohono O’odham district speaks briefly, the DJ plays the National Anthem, and the racers are invited to count down from ten, and then we’re off!
The course starts with a gentle grade and my calves immediately inform me that the few piddling hills I worked into my training at the last minute weren’t nearly enough. There are under 200 entrants, and the field quickly spreads out. After the first half-mile there’s a brief respite, a short flat stretch before the real climb begins.
Because of the heat I’ve stripped back to my lightest outfit possible, meaning no pocket to carry a camera. This is a bad thing and a good thing, because otherwise I’d be stopping every 100 yards to take a photo. To the right the plain of the Sonoran Desert stretches, cinder cones rising from the haze. To the left, the granite escarpments of the mountain, the observatory at the top appearing and disappearing, a little tantalizingly closer each time. Did I mention the wind advisory? We’re periodically buffeted by huge blasts, headwinds and crosswinds but never a tailwind when you need one! My hat blows off around mile 3 and I carry it the rest of the way.
I envisioned the “self-serve” water stations advertised in the FAQ as a hose by the side of the road, but they turn out to be manned and have Igloo dispensers with ice water and sports drink for your bottle – trying to cut down on litter I suppose.
Running 10 miles straight up takes a different mental discipline than the other hilly races I’ve done. I can’t say to myself, “OK, I have a push here, and then a rest where it levels out for a bit” because there are no level stretches ahead – just slightly less steep ones. Amazing are the support staff on bicycles zipping up and down the course and checking on everyone’s well-being. About halfway up a big yellow school bus passes me, checking for runners who’ve had enough of this nonsense. I wave it on.
Around the west side, and I slowly overtake an older gentleman who points out the sunset. It’s impossible to miss, ruby and amethyst mist with the sun sitting in the cleft of a cinder cone. Small bats begin to tumble through the twilight, and the observatories appear on the ridge above, gleaming like a Greek acropolis in the last rays of the sun. As true darkness falls, around mile 8, I turn on the headlamp I have wrapped around my water bottle. A younger couple with way too much energy passes me and disappears far ahead. I’m now alternating a slow run with a brisk walk, having kept at running stride (even when tortoise slow) up to that point. The lady in a dragonfly shirt I’ve been pacing voices my thought when she says “you’re keeping me going this last mile”. It’s truly eerie, as there are no lights, not even vehicle lights, because of the telescopes, and the finish line is somewhere out there in the darkness. Suddenly a volunteer intercepts us and points to the left. “Run between the loops!” Ridiculously, we both put on a spurt of speed and she pulls ahead – oh, there’s a clock! 2:40:-- something – I run between the two looped glowsticks hanging on the finish chute and get my bottle of water.
It’s even windier at the top; gusts to 50 MPH, according to one person, making me glad I put long pants & long-sleeved shirt in my gearbag. The stars are amazing, here in the middle of the desert with no city lights to drown them out. There was supposed to be a tour of the main observatory available, but there was some miscommunication on start time, so after the awards ceremony I board the yellow schoolbus for the ride back down. For the first part of the descent the bus, lights off, has to follow a pilot car with specially-dimmed headlights, very spooky. Back at the parking lot we decamp, and I drive off into the night toward Tucson. A red gibbous moon is rising and Yessongs is booming from the stereo.