A Day Well Spent

How I found fun, and my competitive streak, on zippity trails near Fruita

What makes running fun? Friends often say, “have fun” when you go to race, as I did last weekend. “Fun” is different than satisfying. Generally, running brings satisfaction—the feeling of the body heated, loosened and strengthened, mind cleared, mood elevated, sights observed over miles of terrain—but most runs I wouldn’t call fun, unless it’s the kind of “type 2” fun that comes in hindsight after persevering through not-so-fun challenges.

Real, enjoyable fun in the form of exhilaration and amusement surprised me during a race last Saturday on smooth-flowing, buffed-out trails designed for mountain bikes in the North Fruita Desert trails off 18 Road, about 40 minutes northwest of Grand Junction.

I raced an inaugural event called Kessel Ultra put on by Mad Moose Events. The race offered 50 mile, 60K (37 miles), 20 mile and 10 mile divisions. I vacillated between signing up for the 60K or 20M. The ultrarunner in me felt obligated to run an ultra distance. But I knew I’m not in shape to run well for 7-plus hours, so I opted for “only” 20. I wanted to challenge myself to run more aggressively than I would in an ultra and rediscover the feeling and mindset of faster, focused running, which I’ll need to train for a road marathon this February.

I had never been to this area before, so fun came partly from the feeling of discovery. The high desert landscape looks more bleak than beautiful, but interesting. November is a great time of year to visit because temperatures ranged from the 30s to about 60, perfect for running or biking. It would be oppressively hot to run here in the midday summertime.

An arid plateau in brown and gray tones, elevation around 5000 feet, stretches out to meet the Book Cliffs, a series of sandstone mountains that rise sharply and got their name because layered cliffs and crevices resemble bookshelves. Native grasses and shin-high scraggly desert brush eke out a living on the desert floor, and hardy juniper trees sprout on hillsides. I felt grateful I “got the job done” in the bathroom pre-race, because I didn’t see a single bush big enough to hide behind if I had to go during the first six miles.

The trails are extra curvy and flowy for the benefit of mountain bikers, and many of the segments are super smooth and non-technical. This welcome change from the rugged trails where I live made running feel like riding on an undulating luge, promoting a quick rhythm and momentum that felt easy—and easy felt fun! On this terrain, at an elevation with more oxygen than where I normally train, I could run relatively fast without trying too hard, which felt like a gift.

On those easy stretches, I told myself to go for it—to quicken my stride as if running a mere half marathon. I rarely run this hard in an ultra when the distance dictates a prudent tortoise pace for the long haul.

On a ridgeline with the playful name Zippity Do Da from the children’s song, a ribbon of smooth singletrack follows the ridge with cliffs dropping off on both sides. I would feel nervous to bike along it, for fear of skidding off the edges, but on my legs I felt as if I were running on a dirt sidewalk through the sky with a bird’s eye view of the whole plateau. The fun came from the flying-like sensation coupled with confidence.

The route made two 10ish-mile side-by-side loops like a figure 8, with the start/finish area in the middle. In the second half, I decided an aspirational but achievable goal would be to average an 11-minute pace and finish in 3:40, since I was running a sub-10-minute pace on the runnable stretches and trying to limit hiking on the uphills as much as possible. After the final aid station, however, the route became more challenging than anticipated. We had to run up a sandy gully and then ascend switchbacks on a rocky hillside. Plus, I had a sense, geographically, that we were farther away from the start/finish area than the remaining mileage suggested, so the course might run long. Could I make the pace goal? I would damn well try.

Rekindling this attitude—that I’m a competitor going for a goal—rekindled fun in the form of excitement and purpose.

The final miles turned into a race not only between my watch and me, but also with a woman ahead. She had passed me earlier in the day. I spotted her about a minute ahead in the distance, and as this perfect song by Johnny Cash came on my playlist, I surged to pass and gap her. From there, I maintained a solid 9ish mile pace and ran the final mile sub-9. I felt elated to run fast toward the finish.

I met my goal, barely. The course measured a little over 21 miles; I finished in 3:51 with a 10:56/mile average pace. The time put me in the top third overall and 8th woman (results).

I spent the next four hours volunteering at the finish line. I rang a cowbell, handed out medals and cut timing chips off shoes. Witnessing the range of expressions as others crossed the finish, from pain and discouragement to fist-pumping giddiness, moved me emotionally. Every runner—not just the podium finishers—matters and earns respect.

I left near sunset for the three-hour drive home with the satisfaction of a day well spent: I explored a new area. I turned off my phone notifications and put my to-do list out of mind. I met new people and reconnected with a couple of runner friends. I volunteered. And I ran a fast-for-me 21 trail miles. That was fun!

Related posts:

  • Speaking of fun, I wrote this report for Ultrarunning Magazine, “Know Your Motivators,” earlier this year to warn of the pitfalls of running an ultra “just for fun.”

  • Colorado vs. California Running” with recommendations for Colorado trail races in the coming year.

My client, Colette Plum, ran and nailed her first 100-mile race two weekends ago, the Rio Del Lago 100. At age 54, she met her best-case-scenario of a time goal, breaking 27 hours. Afterward, she wrote this generous testimonial. I’m sharing it because many readers are relatively new to the sport and aren’t aware of my coaching or book. I hope you will consider purchasing my book for yourself or as a gift for an aspiring trail runner. Colette wrote:

“I have received so many kind words of celebration and appreciation on the heels of my first 100-mile race last weekend. I know most of my friends and family are not ultrarunners and that this kind of distance seems crazy and unfathomable to most. I’ll own it that I have it in me to be “tough” and “fierce”, but more than anything I’m mentored and trained. Please join me in lifting up my incredible coach, Sarah Lavender Smith, who got me physically and mentally ready for this adventure. I leaned heavily into her wisdom last weekend, drawing from a reservoir of mantras and instructions and many hours logged of race-specific training to give me the confidence and enthusiasm to execute a successful race. I’m so fortunate to have Sarah as a companion on the trails. If you’re tempted to explore trail running or take on a new distance, I encourage you to check out Sarah’s book and add this to your own reservoir of wisdom for trail and life.”

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