Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In The Heart Of The Desert: Recap of the 2011 Juniperwood Ranch Marathon

by Bobby Aswell, Jr.

I always love traveling out West so when the opportunity presented itself via a business-related trip, I jumped at it.  With the travel dates in hand, I started scouring the Internet for any races in the area and wouldn’t you know it, I found one:  the Juniperwood Ranch races in Ash Fork, AZ.

Very nice race logo.
The Juniperwood Ranch event consists of 4 races:  a 48 hour race, a 24 hour race, a 50 Mile race, and a marathon.   I opted for the ‘sprint’ of the 4 and was looking forward to running in the middle of the desert.  Saturday morning arrived and I was up, checked out of the hotel, and on the road at 5:45 am for the drive to Ash Fork.  Three hours later I arrived with plenty of time to spare before the start of the marathon at 10:00 am.

Located in the desert in the middle of nowhere, Ash Fork is one of the mile high cities located at an elevation of ~5,200 feet.  The course consisted of laps run on a relatively flat one mile trail made up of dirt, gravel, and some strategically placed large rocks.  For the marathon, you ran ¼ mile followed by 26 laps of the one mile course.  Since the event was chip-timed, no lap counting was necessary (however, in my case, that proved to be incorrect) as on each lap, your name, total time, and number of laps was displayed on a wide-screen TV.  Even though the course was relatively flat, there were very few straight-aways as you were constantly turning one way or the other.  Some of the hairpin turns contained very loose gravel causing your feet to slip and slide as you rounded them.

Being my 3rd marathon in April, I didn’t really have any expectations as far as time.  Add the fact that my legs felt ‘dead’ all week and all I was hoping to do was to enjoy the scenery and complete another marathon (#162) on my way to number 200.

One nice thing about running laps is that the aid-stations come frequently so plenty of refreshments are available the entire race.  On the flip side, you start to go stir-crazy repeating the same thing over and over and over.  To help break up the monotony, the race directors decided to change the direction of the course every 2 hours so on the hour, as you approached the start/finish line, you made a u-turn and headed the opposite way.

Pre-race and ready to go!
At 10:00 am we were off.  I started out about 7:40 pace and it felt a lot harder than it should have!  I kept running steady for the first hour until we made the first u-turn of the day at 11:00 am.  At that point, the wind became incredible and my splits starting slowing!  Even though I was slowing, I was passing people left and right and was even lapping runners very frequently.

At the 20 mile mark, I glanced at the TV monitor for the first time and it’s a good thing I did.  Somehow, they ‘lost’ one of my laps and showed me with 19 complete and in these conditions, there was no way I wanted to run an extra mile!  Luckily, I was recording each of my splits on my watch so I knew I had run 20 miles, not 19.

The sun was really bright and it felt like it was sitting on my head baking away.  The flags lining portions of the course were flapping so hard I thought they were going to fly away at times.  I continued trudging along and started grabbing watermelon from the aid station and eating it as I ran.  Man, was it delicious!  Best tasting stuff ever!  After a couple of laps, I was rejuvenated and picked up the pace.

As I came running by with 2 laps to go, I yelled out that the lap counter was off by one.  Next thing I know, on the last lap, one of the race directors started running next to me asking me if I took an 8 minute break on one of the laps.  I said ‘no’ and told him that I was recording each of my splits and would show him after I finished.  I finally completed my 26th lap crossing the finish line in 3:55:42, 2nd Overall.

After catching my breath, I proceeded to the timing area to straighten out the timing issue.  It turns out they missed my 12th split making my 11th split look like 16 minutes.  It was corrected but it did make me wonder how many other people ‘lost’ laps and didn’t know it?

Unlike most marathons, no medals were given to finishers.  Instead, I received this unique finisher’s award:

Nice finisher's award!
After chatting with a few people and sampling one of the locally made wines (pomegranate), it was time for the 3 hour drive back to Phoenix to catch my flight.  As much as I enjoyed running in the desert, this was an extremely tough race due to the conditions:  intense sun basking down on you, the lack of shade, and the 20 mph winds.  All said and done, I don’t know if I would run this race again but would consider it if the start time was moved earlier, say to 8:00 am.

Bobby Aswell

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