I have been out running and bicycling in the high desert around the Snake River in Idaho quite a bit in the last four years. I go because my husband likes to go out there, and he likes to take me along sometimes. Without his enthusiasm, it would not be my idea of fun, but it is growing on me. Still, I would never go by myself, even knowing he has survived solo runs there of 20 miles or more.
To put my running tips for the high desert into perspective in other ways, it may help you to know
- I just completed my second half marathon, running the whole distance barefoot.
- My highest recent mileage, just a couple weeks prior to the race, was 15 miles.
- I have been on previous desert run, ranging in distance from 9 to 15 miles.
- I have been lost by myself everywhere from isolated forests to large Chinese cities.
- I run mostly barefoot, but occasionally in moccasins or sandals.
- I have been back-packing and camping numerous times in my life.
- I have followed my husband-of-32-years on many trails and paths into unknown territory.
So, in spite of my lack of initiative to be the one to start an adventure, I am not a novice in the outdoors or experiencing the unexpected.
We went on a run last week that tested me on new levels, reminded me of things, and taught me others. It does all have to do with time, terrain, temperature, and other terrestrials. Here is what I suggest you think about for a high desert type of run:
1. Plan your run more according to time than distance. In my case, a 13 mile training run was on my schedule, as I begin my marathon training. However, about half way through the desert run, it became apparent that I would have to be running much too long for my current status to reach this mileage. It turned out it took me 10 minutes longer than my recent half-marathon to finish only 11 miles. Then, we walked the last 1.5 miles back to the car. Honestly, I might have tried to run the 13 miles if my husband/coach had not firmly encouraged me to limit my time running, based on my longest recent run. Judging by how I felt the next 2 days, pushing for 13 miles would have done more harm than good. I should still be able to get close to my projected 15 miles for my next long run (which will be on flat greenbelts paths) by using combination time-distance goal for it. I will run for 15 minutes longer (10% more time) than the desert run or 15 miles, whichever comes first.
2. Mentally prepare to run quite a bit more slowly than your street or track pace. The increased time is basically due to technical challenges on the so-called roads and paths in the desert. We navigated terrain from dirt moguls to a mile long ascent on sharp, shifting gravel. The moguls were such that there was no straight line option. What looked more level still turned out to be still full of significant dips and rises. I don’t think my Garmin measure the mileage I put into the ups and downs of those. I was concentrating too hard to stop and take a photo, as I was both laughing and under stress from trying to not jolt myself due to never quite knowing when I would contact the ground. The other variations included medium-small boulders, spaced to require precise footwork; sand or thick powder dirt that absorbed at least half of my running energy; road ruts that were straight, but not quite wide enough for my normal foot fall pattern; and short steep knolls that hid anything on the other side and left my legs cramping from effort. Even my regular, vigorous dancing for hours, which includes lots of high leg maneuvers and fast footwork, did not make this type of running easy. After hardly having any sore muscles for months while training for my half-marathon, for two days after the desert run my thighs felt like I had done an intense speed workout. Let me reiterate, there was no speed involved in the desert run. (click on any photo to enlarge)
3. Carry about twice as much hydration as you usually do for the planned distance or time. And have extra in the car for when you are done. On our desert run, it wasn’t even unusually warm compared to the temperatures I had been running at. Something about the glaring openness, combined with the extra muscular effort and concentration made me quite thirsty. I had my usual diluted and slightly salted homemade lemonade drink, more than I usually finish in a 13 mile run or road race. It was not enough. Fortunately, there was a water fountain at the 9 mile point, when we passed the visitor center. I filled up my bottles with water. Plus, I was treated to a Southern Peach lemonade from a convenience store on the way home.
4. Be on the alert for wild life. We came across a badger that didn’t leave the roadside until we were quite close. My dog saw it first, but steps were taken to preclude her engagement with it. My husband reviewed rattlesnake habits with me before the run, since that early in the morning they might have been sunning themselves. The only snake seen, however, was a non-rattler. There were many lizards scuttling off the road, some of which we know from experience can bite, such as the collared lizard. My husband saw a giant rabbit on the edge of the road. Hard to tell if a rabbit that large is still vegetarian…. We have never seen wolves or mountain lions out there, but since they live near and venture into the city a few miles away, I try not to look too haggard while running in the wild. Still, sometimes the buzzards circle. We did see a large muskrat swimming in the river this trip. There were plenty of flying insects to snack on on-the-go. Thankfully, none were snacking on me. And, last, but not least, there was the camper’s dog being territorial as we passed.
5. Try to keep track of forks in the road and turn-offs, in case you get separated from your guide. It can help to turn around and look backwards at such places, and just generally once in a while, because everything can look quite different going back the other direction. There is the old standby of checking the sun’s location compared to base, but if all the forks in the road lead in the same way, that doesn’t help much. I am wondering about carrying ribbon and tying it to sage brush, because that is less embarrassing than running back and forth talking to yourself about not knowing where you are, entertaining though it is for the “guide” when he finds you after he gets back from exploring a side route.
6. Even if you want to try some barefoot running in these circumstances, carry back-up footwear. I wore Luna sandals the whole time for this desert run, which was great. I loved the open top. Having worn them many times for riding the bike or walking where I needed footwear, they were well adjusted and comfortable. The occasional pebble that got in, was either not a big deal and came out on its own, or was easier to brush loose than it would have been in a shoe. With so much rock and gravel, the ground was definitely still felt. Maybe some day I will be ready to run barefoot in these conditions, but not yet.
7. Have a plan and be proactive about sore muscles. My approach is multifaceted.
- Massage and/or foam roller to the legs every few hours. It just takes a couple minutes and aids the healing process.
- Soak in a hot tub that night and the next.
- Keep moving regularly for the next 2-3 days. This will keep the blood flowing to deal with the recovery, and keep the muscles from getting as stiff. I make sure I am walking around the house or yard for chores at least every half hour, even if I have a lot of desk work to do.
- Do only a moderate to easy workout to help with recovery the next couple of days. The following day, I rode my spinning bike and went for a short swim. It can be hard to start when feeling sore, but it always feels better afterward.
- Get to bed on time and get enough sleep.
- Have some good snacks around. Homemade popsicles work really well.
This particular desert run began at Celebration Park, along the Snake River in Canyon County, Idaho. We parked at the bridge right before the road turns east along the river to go to the main parking lot. From our car, we ran 4.5 miles west on a “road” that went from narrow, with probably tick-laden shrubs leaning into it, to a 30 foot wide gravel tractor highway. No tractors that day, though. There was not any traffic in the first direction. When we went past the car, and east of the Celebration Park buildings, we were passed by one smaller truck. There were a handful of vehicles in the parking lot, apparently mostly belonging to park employees.
When we passed the visitor center at about mile 9, around 11 AM, we heard the park employee say to an elderly couple, “You are my first visitors of the day!” Maybe I shouldn’t say elderly. Maybe dear husband and I looked like elderly runners. We probably looked a bit frightening at that point in the run, all shiny with sweat, having shed some layers of clothing, and with an intense focus on the water fountain. But, hey, even if we are on “that side of 50,” I think we ran 11 miles more than the group of teenagers who showed up on a field trip as we were finishing the run. It is safe to say, we were not the wild life they were expecting to see.