Thursday, December 8, 2016

Race Report: Four Corners Quad, Day One

Today was the first day of the Four Corners Quad.  Today’s marathon was in Arizona.  It was a six mile loop that we ran four times, followed by a 2.2 mile out-and-back.

The race started at 9:00, with packet pickup beginning at 8:00.  I was unfamiliar with the drive and didn’t know if the roads would be icy, so I left before 7:00.  That got me there well before 8:00.  Runners doing multiple races have the same race bib for each day.  Besides my race bib, my race packet included a poster, a Navajo Parks hat, and two T-shirts.

The overnight low was 11 degrees, but it warms up quickly.  By the time the race started, it was 23 degrees.  There was a strong wind, so I decided to err on the side of dressing too warm.  I wore three layers on top, two layers on my legs, a warm hat, and two pairs of gloves.  I had no regrets about dressing that warm.  My only regret was wearing a hat that didn’t cover my ears.  In the early miles, they were painfully cold.

I didn’t have any idea where we would be running other than we would park at the Four Corners Monument and run in Arizona.  We started in the center of the Four Corners Monument.  We were careful to line up in the Arizona quadrant.

Each loop began with a lap around the monument.  By the time we ran a quarter mile, we had already run through four states.  After running a short distance down the driveway leading into the monument, we turned onto a trail.  The rest of the course was all on trails.

The trail loop was shaped like a Y.  First, we ran out to a junction.  Then we did two different out-and-back segments before returning to the monument.  There was an aid station at the junction, so we could get food, water or Gatorade more than once per lap.  There was also an aid station near the start/finish.

The first part of the trail was mostly single-track.  The footing was uneven, and the dirt was loose in places. Going out, it was mostly uphill, so it was tiring.  I followed the lead runners, but I didn’t try to keep up.  I was content to run a relaxed pace, but I wasn’t planning to do any walking as long as the wind was cold.

After about a mile and a half, we came out onto a section that was like a jeep road (i.e. double-track).  This was less tiring at first.

The first time I came to the junction, I saw all the faster runners go by without stopping.  I stopped for some Gatorade.  Even though it was cold, the air was dry enough that I wanted to be vigilant about staying hydrated.  My first cup of Gatorade was slushy.  Yeah, it was cold.

The first out-and-back was by far the longer of the two.   It was still double-track, but it got rocky and uneven.  You would hardly call this section a road.  It was mostly uphill going out, so it was tiring.  Coming back, it was somewhat more treacherous.  There were so many rocks, and I quickly found out how painful a fall can be when you’re running downhill and fall onto rocks.

I landed pretty hard on my right side, but got up quickly.  I immediately began to notice discomfort on the right side of my rib cage.  It wasn’t severe, but it hurt to breathe deeply, and it hurt if I took a jarring step.  There were lots of those.  I suspected I had a bruised rib, or possibly even a fracture.  Without knowing, I kept running and tried to be more careful.

The second out-and-back was much shorter, and generally had better footing.  Then I did the return leg back to the monument.  When I reached the single-track section, I ran somewhat conservatively.  I didn’t want to make my ribs hurt with too many hard landings.

By the time I reached the short road section, my ribs didn’t hurt as much.  I was less worried about a fracture.  That would keep hurting more.  At worst, I had a bruise.

Coming back to the memorial, the wind was at my back.  I briefly felt warm, and I was tempted to remove one pair of gloves.  Knowing I would be going into the wind as I started my second lap, I waited.

Sure enough, as I started my second lap, I was glad I still had two pairs of gloves.  That wind was cold!  Eventually, though, the wind died down temporarily, and my hands got warm.  When I knew the wind would be at my back for a while, I took off the second pair of gloves.

My second lap was uneventful until I was on downhill leg of the rocky section.  Then I had another fall.  Once again, I instinctively tucked my right shoulder and rolled.  Once again, I took the impact on my right side.  Once again, I landed on rocks.  The first time, I bounced up quickly. This time I didn’t.  I was in pain.  Whatever I did to my ribs before, was now worse.  It took several second to get going again.  At first the pain forced me to walk.  Then I forced myself to run again, but slowly.

Breathing deeply was now painful.  I had to learn to keep my breathing shallow.  Did I mention that the elevation was about 6,000 feet?  Did I mention that the uneven terrain was tiring.  If you can’t breathe deeply, you’re not moving very fast.  I was roughly nine miles into the race.  I had to tough it out for 17 more miles and avoid any more falls.

The next time I passed the aid station at the junction, it hurt to drink.  I’m right handed, so I was raising a glass to my mouth with my right hand.  I eventually figured out that raising my right arm caused rib pain.

After completing two laps, I had twelve miles behind me.  There was a sign 1.1 miles into each lap that marked the turnaround point of the shorter out-and-back that we would do at the end.  It read “25,” but we were told before the race that it was actually 25.1 miles.  On this lap, it was 13.1 miles, which happens to be halfway. For the first time in the race, I looked at my watch.  I ran the first half in 2:19.  That’s only about a minute slower than the halfway split of my previous race, but I knew I would be much slower the rest of the way.  The trail was more tiring than I expected.  I wasn’t doing any walking, because it was too cold.  Running at 6,000 feet elevation and having to keep my breathing shallow didn’t help.  I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and I was slowing down noticeably.

About the time I reached the beginning of the double-track section, the sun emerged from behind the clouds.  It felt warmer now.  For the first time in the race, I was warm enough to remove my Tyvek jacket and tie it around my waist. I was still wearing two more layers.

About the time I reached the first turnaround, I started to experiment with my breathing. I discovered I could control my diaphragm well enough to breathe deeply into my left lung without breathing deeply into my right lung.  That worked.  It didn’t hurt.  I abandoned it when I reached the downhill section where I had already fallen twice.  I needed to focus my full attention on watching the trail.  I needed to see every rock and make sure I didn’t trip again.  I had to slow down, but I got through the rest of that lap without a fall.

As I started my fourth lap, I was getting weary.  Maybe it was the terrain.  Maybe it was the elevation.  Maybe it was the wind.  Maybe it was the psychological toll of coping with the pain. The hills felt steeper and more tiring.  I got through another lap without incident, but it was slow.

As I started the 2.2 mile out-and-back, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  I was already done with the rockier sections, but I couldn’t remember how much of the loose dirt I had to run through.  Fortunately, that section started just before the turn.  Then coming back was easier.  There was a downhill trend on the trail and a tailwind on the road.

At the end of every lap, we ran back into the Four Corners Monument.  We entered through the Utah quadrant, so technically, we were finishing in Utah.  This race started in Arizona and finished in Utah, so it could count for either state.  About 98% of the course was in Arizona, so I’m counting it as an Arizona race.  I finished in 5:06:53.  It wasn’t pretty, but I toughed it out.

After finishing, I had some soup, a slice of pizza, and some chocolate milk.  Then I talked to the medical personnel.  They said the only way to know if I had a bruised or fractured rib was to get an X-ray, which they strongly recommended.

I drove back to Cortez and got cleaned up.  Then I went to the ER of a local hospital.  After an exam and a few X-rays, the doctor was able to confirm that I had a fractured rib.  Needless to say, he advised against running again tomorrow.  In all likelihood, I won’t be doing the rest of the quad.


  1. Wow. Some big, hard lessons in this one. I hope you are well soon.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your injury on the first day of the quad. I hope you'll be able to return next year. I don't know how long it takes to heal a fractured rib, but take care of yourself.

    1. It takes six weeks to heal completely, but I'll be able to resume running before then.