FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT
Sunday, May 5, was the day Kraig “Pac-Man” Packer popped his ultra cherry and went waaay deep down the rabbit hole—in more ways than one.
The Pac-Man completed the Red Mountain 55K (including circa 4,000 feet elevation gain) in a jaw-dropping 5:25:32 and finished sixth place overall (at 57 years young) in and around the beautiful Santa Clara River Reserve, Utah.
Packer’s first foray into the ultra scene came with multiple coloured loops of steep mountainous terrain, litres of Coke, competitive spirit, aid station buddies, falls, and into wonderland itself with rabid hallucinations of a buck-toothed bunny and a Potter-esque stag Patronus.
The Stable News’ Ally “the Chin” Smith went through the looking-glass for a catch-up with Packer:
AS: Hello again, Kraig. This ultra has certainly got The Stablemaster’s imagination going; he called me as soon as you were done and told me to come over here. Tell me all about it, then.
KP: Well, make yourself comfortable, as it’s quite the tale!
WAVY DREAM SEQUENCE:
The rabbit ran right onto the trail! It was white, its ears straight back, its tail tucked, its long legs kicking hard. All I have to do is follow it; nothing else. My pulse races as I try to keep up, but it’s too fast. I was beginning to lose it; I cannot lose it!
The ghostly rabbit went straight along the edge of the canyon rim, overlooking the Red Mountain valley. The trail was fine, but suddenly I glanced at something in my left periphery. It was long, sleek, and brilliant red; it was a stallion like none other! I thought it said to me—“Let it go, let it go, Kraig!” It was the voice of my running coach, Stazza!
AS: What was that?
KP: The magic of ultra; I’ll continue. Just relax; let the white rabbit come for you.
Everyone is so excited for the Red Mountain Ultra 55K, which is coming up in a week! So many friends are going from Utah Valley; it’s going to be an awesome event. Just one little hitch: the weather is supposed to really suck! We will definitely pack rain gear and a change of clothes and shoes.
I can’t believe the race is tomorrow! We sit in the hot tub at the hotel, thinking about what it’s going to be like running 35 miles as the rain pours down upon us in the 40-degree weather. Maybe the forecast is wrong; we can hope. Let Tlaloc (Aztec god of rain) not dance on our parade!
The Red Mountain 55K course, with 4,000 feet of vertical gain, on the trails and in the mountains of St George Utah, is designed in 4, ten-mile, colour-coded loops, identified by trail markers displaying the designated colour abundantly along the path: green, blue, purple, etc.
A central aid station serves all the usual goodies and drinks, including Coca-Cola, my favourite!
As we wait at the start line (after the shuttle ride up from the parking area), the rain begins to come down, and the wind is blowing—it looks like Tlaloc will have his way with us.
The gun fires, and the race begins! I’m still fumbling with my race vest as I run; almost half a mile in, I yell, Dang it! Zack says, “What’s wrong?” “I forgot to start my watch!” The first mile or two of a race always stinks, and I feel like I am much more out of breath than anyone around me. This is normal, I reassure myself, as I try to find my rhythm and relax.
Trail running, with its uneven surfaces, climbing and jumping, and weaving and bobbing, is much harder to establish a relaxed rhythm, I’ve learned. Just relax and have fun becomes my mantra. Relax, have fun, relax, have fun. I rely heavily upon self-talk and visualisations during long and more intense runs. I especially find this useful during races, where there is a sense of compulsory competitiveness.
I told myself I was going to consider this “just a training run” on a path to my 50-miler and eventual 100-miler, but it seems like competitiveness always gets the better of me.
GREEN LOOP—7.7 miles, 687 feet of vertical gain. Raining lightly and turning to hail, temperature in the 40s. I feel a bit rough and fatigued. Bill, my local trail coach, took me on a very steep mountain climb (Baldy) three days ago, and I still feel it in my glutes. I’m finally feeling better and looser towards the end after downing my container of Tailwind.
BLUE LOOP—5.7 miles, 547 feet of vert. The weather improves, aside from some wind; there is no precipitation hitting me in the face. I realise I need to find a bathroom rather badly. I make it to the aid station (barely) and head straight to the Port-a-Pot. I throw down three six-ounce Coca-Colas and refill my water container, dumping Tailwind into the mix.
PURPLE LOOP—4.3 miles, 504 feet of vert. I catch up to a fast and professional-looking woman (who ends up winning female), and try to hold on to her; I lose sight of her two miles in. I fall twice in this loop, once all the way to hands and knees on solid rock—ouch!
RED LOOP—10.2 miles, 1,768 feet of vert. The hail starts up again, smacking BBs hard into my head and neck. I see Sarah, the fast woman, leaving the aid station as I am arriving, and I decide to abbreviate the stop. Drinking five Cokes as quickly as I can, a friend, Andy, screams, “Tyler is only a quarter-mile ahead of you!” I stay with Sarah the entire red loop, and we chat a bit. I fall again, all the way to my hands and knees; she gives me some salt tablets, and I take two Tylenol with a Maurten caffeinated hydrogel. I don’t mind the bad weather as much. Tlaloc, you win!
ORANGE LOOP—6.88 miles. Almost all downhill or flat. Sarah tells me I have to leave her and catch my buddy. I chase to catch up to Tyler, and when I reach him, he tells me to press on ahead and that he’s having a bad final. My mind is wavering, as I am running solo for several miles now, and my stomach feels hollow. I take another Maurten caff gel. I’d rather be following someone. A pacer would be nice about now.
My mind is definitely reaching for something to latch on to, but I’m telling you, the rabbit is as vivid and real as my dogs at home! I must keep up with the rabbit; clearly, “the Turquoise Prince” has put it in my path for a reason!
As everything begins to fade (except the rabbit), I look to the left and see a running horse, brilliant red mane and tail flying in the breeze. “Stop following the rabbit; let it go! Get back on course,” Stazza yells!
The rabbit disappears into thin air, and I realise there are no orange markers anywhere; I look around dazed at a full stop. Dang rabbit!
I backtrack a quarter-mile and find a trail marker that I blew by; it might as well have said, “Kraig: turn right, you idiot!” I must be dehydrated, I think to myself.
Now I bolt down the dirt road, trying to make up for lost time, thinking Tyler must have already passed me. My legs seem to be turning over faster than I expect, and I get a second (or is it a third?) wind.
The grass at the finish line feels cushiony and welcoming as I search for the Coca-Cola stand.
Then, a medal is slid around my neck, and it is finished! The gang’s all there, and we celebrate with stories and pictures. Tlaloc has given up at last, and all is calm.
Sixth overall in 5:26, and my second ultramarathon is under my belt. Thank you to the many friends and comrades who show love and compassion during long training hours and joyful running. May God bless.
Ally, Ally? Wake up!
AS: Wow! I was there! I saw everything you went through, Kraig, and it was an unbelievable experience. Wow, just wow! What an adventure you had, and massive congratulations. I can’t wait to “join you” on your 50- and 100-milers.
I need another lie-down, and then I’ll set off.
KP: Take your time, my friend, no rush.
The News found Coach Stazza chuckling away to himself on the glorious seaside of Diani Beach: “Oh-ho-ho. Ally has no idea what he is in for; Kraig’s run was simply epic! The mind can do marvellous things when we push our limits, and there seems to be no limit to Kraig’s potential. Is there nothing he can’t do? Fantastic!”