November 8, 2013

Mazatzal - What Ultra Running Is All About


Since I've been down in Arizona a lot, I've had the chance to run several events with the Coury brothers and their awesome company Aravaipa Running. They have built an excellent reputation as professional race directors, and their events are much sought after for the impeccable organization and memorable aid stations.

But the Coury's also have another side, a taste for the old-school events that started our sport. These are more or less ad hoc races, often called «fatass» with very little organization and great personality. So when Jamil told me such a fatass was happening in the Tonto National Forest area, and that it was probably his favorite running event in the year, it didn't take long for me to accept the invitation.

The day before, I drove about an hour north of Phoenix to highway mile marker #222, then veered on a little side road, like the e-mail said. It also said «follow the ribbons», but I never found them. Luckily, my friend Caleb was going, too, and he figured out where the camping spot was. We arrived as the night was setting him and we met Anthony Culpepper and his friend, who had already set up camp. A can of Tecate magically appeared, and we all sat down to watch the magnificent mountain sky filled with stars so bright we could see the Milky Way.

I went to bed early, but didn't sleep too great because I forgot to park El Capitan on an even surface; I felt like I was rolling out of bed everytime I fell in deep sleep. The night was fresh and the morning came fast, with the sound of Michael and Kimberly Miller's truck parking next to me. More friends.

Pre-race "meeting"
Fatasses, in my opinion, are the essence of ultra running. They are gatherings of like-minded people, often way too early on a Saturday morning, which are followed by a trail run of variable lenght and usually end in BBQ, laughs and a couple beers. Minimal aid is provided, the course is more or less marked and runners are expected to be autonomous and helpful to others.

The Mazatzal run was an 18-mile course that starts by shooting straight up a jeep road for about 5 miles, then rolls up some more for another 2, then rolls down to a trailhead that somewhat follows a riverbed down patches of catclaw (a nasty, thorny little angry bush that will scratch you to blood) and other prickly things such as nopal cacti. All that over gnarly, rocky, rolly ground that will command your whole attention for about 4 to 5 miles. If you make it through, another 4 to 5 miles of climbing jeep road will take you back to the start.
Climbs always look so easy...
on pictures

It was the second time I ran after the Javelina Jundred and, although I still felt fatigued, I was glad to see I had enough legs to run the first long climbs. When I got to the trailhead, however, it became abundantly clear that my weakened right ankle wasn't ready to take the beating; I had to walk, sometimes carefully, through almost all that section.

It was good to be out there, however, and I had a happy grin on my face the whole time. The sun was nice and warm, but not too hot; it was a perfect day for a trail run. Going slower also allowed time to reflect on my ankle and foot issue, and I had an epiphany; since I started wearing my La Sportiva trail shoes, I tend to tie them down real tight. The laces are very thin, so I yank hard on them and then my foot swells during the run and suffocates. It doesn't have space to move!

The... trail.
When I came out of the trail, I took a minute to loosen up my lacing significantly. To my great satisfaction, the pain started receding. This will need more testing, but I think I finally found what's wrong!

Still captivated by my discovery, I climbed the last steep sections walking, taking time to look around and appreciate the beautiful day. I expected I had about 3 more miles to go when I saw Caleb's head peek out from a ledge and yell «Look alive for your finish photo!». I took off running, grinning, and finished my run to cheers from my friends, a nice cold beer and some burgers grilled by a smiling Nick Coury who finished first and smashed his previous record. What a great bunch of people. What a great day.

Les courses «fatass» comme Mazatzal sont l'essence-même de l'ultra. Sans grande organisation, bourrées de monde cool et dans les endroits les plus magnifiques. Quelle chance de pouvoir y être.

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