Jessie Gladish battled extreme temperature changes, wildlife encounters, mental barriers and her own competitive edge while running 240 miles over three days through the undulating Utah desert
Most people aren’t motivated to spend a long weekend immediately preceding university midterms running a race that would cover the distance of Sun Peaks to Vancouver, B.C., while ascending and descending the same elevation change of Mt. Everest from sea level, but that’s exactly what a Thompson Rivers University (TRU) adventure guide alumna did early last month.
At 6:45 a.m. on Oct. 10, Jessie Gladish left the start line of the Moab240 race alongside 196 other runners with one goal: to complete a single 240 mile loop through the Utah desert on foot before the cut off time of 112 hours.
What laid ahead of Gladish and her competitors was undulating, diverse and remote desert terrain with forested climbs, dry valley floors, high mountain passes through the La Sal and Wasatch ranges, red slick rock canyons, ankle twisting and knee pounding descents, long monotonous traverses through small western towns on gravel highways, blistering heat and blistering feet.
Although Gladish had a lot to physically overcome with only the water, snacks, layers and first aid supplies she could cram into her 12 litre running vest, the most difficult thing was getting through the mental low points of the race, she said.
“That’s one of the best parts about the race too though, the fact that in within 12 hours you can go from feeling like you could do hundreds of miles to feeling like you’re crawling through this high desert valley wash and not wanting to be there anymore and then getting back to the other end of the cycle where you feel like a million bucks again.
“I’ve had breakdowns out there, I’ve full on cried, had temper tantrums, but I compartmentalize it and there’s always a part of my brain that rationally is keeping track of everything that I need.”
When race day arrived Gladish was feeling fine.
“Shoes and socks felt good, coffee was delicious, shorts and top were comfortable, pack felt heavy but fine, taped up a spot on my back I knew would chafe, I picked up my Spot [emergency GPS] device and was ready to go,” remembered Gladish.
The first day was bluebird and hot. The racers got busy finding their places and there were a lot of passes and leapfrogging as they got comfortable with their pace. The first day moved through lower elevation valleys, where runners were welcomed with 40 degree celcius temperatures.
About 10 hours into the race Gladish hit her first low.
“I was feeling sick and super low. Mentally drained, physically drained, getting close to the end of my water reserve with many hours to go. I took a bathroom break, had some water, ate and I actually felt better. I thankfully found a second wind and picked up the pace.”
Other racers were struggling with the heat. As Gladish rounded a corner, she found another female competitor nearly unconscious laying in the dirt.
“She looked pale and her eyes were closed. I definitely could not just keep going so I stopped and made her talk to me, found out she was nauseous and almost out of water, wanting to quit. I picked her up and told her to walk with me to the next aid station. I was pulling her the whole way, it took hours, it got dark, miserable and hard,” remembered Gladish.
They finally made it to the next aid station together where Gladish would desperately down some water and food while the other racer did the same.
“I reset myself and watched this girl get up and leave without saying anything to me. I battled feelings of wondering if she would’ve helped me. I’d like to think yes, but I bet not,” Gladish said.
By the end of day one Gladish covered a total of 111km (69 miles), and met John, her partner and crew, at the Indian Creek aid station around 1 a.m. where she was able to take off her shoes and socks, have a rest and eat some fresh food.
She was on the upward trend of one of her mental cycles by this point and decided to continue on through the night with no sleep.
“I was amped up and feeling good, going on without sleep was the right decision. I was off again feeling super fresh with the coffee, change of socks, and short but sweet visit with John,” remembered Glaidsh.
At this point in the race, racers are allowed to pick up what are called pacers to run alongside them, help them navigate, keep them company and support them through the mountains and valleys but Gladish opted out of having one for this race.
“Not having a pacer seemed to be the anomaly, and this would become a source of frustration and resentment for me during the race, but also, ultimately, a source of pride for having done the race solo, and with only one crew member [John],” recalled Gladish.
Gladish was solo amongst many pairs of headlamps running through the first cold night toward the next aid station where she received some news.
“[At the next aid station] the volunteers were super nice, and the medic informed me I was in first, which is not my favourite position. I was feeling stressed about it already. I didn’t want to be up there and I hated the thoughts of winning when I wasn’t even halfway through the race. I hadn’t even slept yet and my only goal of the race was to finish and have a good time doing something like this with John. Being in the lead was messing with my mental stability. I left the aid station feeling hunted, tired and slow,” remembered Gladish.
The next leg of the race was mostly downhill, not her favourite, and in another hot, exposed valley floor her thighs and armpits started to chafe, and hot spots formed blisters on her feet and between her toes.
“Finally I was getting close to the next aid station around 4 p.m. when I saw John up the hill with his camera, I was relieved to see his face knowing he would take care of me while I was stopped,” said Gladish. “John was trying to not make a big deal about me being in the lead. I felt scared. I knew what it would take to stay in the lead: no sleep, continuous painkillers, constantly checking my watch and GPS for other runners and ultimately no more fun.”
Glaidsh continued on, once again unable to get any sleep, this time because of the anxiety that came with the top spot.
“One hundred and ninety km in with no sleep as the lead female played with my mind a lot. The second and third females were not that far behind me. It was the middle of the night, by myself, refreshing a stupid screen on my phone checking to see where other racers were. I had a bit of a mental breakdown at the next checkpoint.”
Now, near the end of the second day Gladish was over half way into the race and finally able to catch an hour and a half of sleep.
“I got my running gear off and somewhat organized before crawling into bed for a much needed nap. I was crying and I told John I didn’t want to race, all I wanted was to finish the race and do well, but I don’t have what it takes to win right now. I didn’t look at the track leaders after that.”
The third day came and Gladish was reset once again, she dropped the stress of placing in the top three and could run her own race.
Gladish soon ran into more fatigue, and napped twice on the side of the trail. One nap lasted 15 minutes whereas the other was interrupted by a coyote.
“I shot awake and snapped out of my fatigue for a while because of that.”
That wouldn’t be her last animal encounter however.
The next leg of the race was the most remote and she had started it in the dark. It had a long ascent from Pole Canyon and would traverse the La Sal mountain range to Geyser Pass—the high point of the race.
“Before setting off I had my feet tended by the nicest medic. I laid down under blankets and had a rest. She cleaned my feet and doctored my blisters; it felt like a spa in the middle of the desert, I could’ve stayed all night. The volunteers were making sure everyone had proper gear and enough food for that leg, warning us of the elevation, exposure and weather swings.
“Luckily I didn’t find the cold all that bad. When things got hard I would remind myself that it’s not as bad as towing a sled through negative 40 degree temperatures,” Gladish said.
“I actually love running through the night, although I did run into a cougar for the first time ever. It was terrifying because I was alone. I knew there were two runners behind me so I stopped and waited for them and watched the eyes disappear into the forest. The other runners caught up and I told them about the cougar. One of them shone their headlamp in the trees and caught the eyes staring back at us. I banged my poles together and it didn’t move so we stuck together for a little while and I thought ‘I never want to run by myself through the woods again,’ then an hour later I’ve moved on and am alone in the woods once again. It’s crazy what your mind and body can go through and you think I don’t want to continue, I won’t continue, then you just keep going.”
Before the end of the most remote section of trail, Gladish ran into another obstacle when a pacer was warning runners his racer was sleeping in the middle of the trail. Gladish saw the runner taking up the whole trail, and had to grab some tree branches on the uphill side to get around them as there were tight trees and steep slopes on either side.
The final day came and so did more heat, Gladish said.
“The first couple hours were forested and beautiful, then I hit the road and it all went to what felt like actual hell. It was so fucking hot. I was on the road with no shade and no variety. Just plodding along in the blazing 2 p.m. sun. I ran a little on and off. But between those spurts I was falling asleep on my feet, so I napped twice in the shade, setting an alarm and falling asleep before waking up to shuffle some more.”
The sun went down and with low light came dark thoughts. Gladish worried about more cougars, navigation, sore feet and sore everything else.
“I was reaching the limit of what I could do. I was struggling mentally with wanting to finish the race, I was feeling slow and eventually finished at 11 p.m. The last 20 miles took me 14 hours.”
Gladish took 6th place in the female category, 28th overall and averaged a moving speed of 5.63 km per hour (3.5 mph), 105 km (65 miles) a day and her moving time was two days, 19 hours, and 57 minutes with a total time of three days 16 hours, and 20 minutes to complete 240 miles through the Moab desert.
“It’s a bit of a shock that things are over and you can stop for however long you want to. I was definitely excited to go to bed and I felt really supported. I had a flood of congratulatory texts from my friends and family as I was nearing the finishing line,” said Gladish.
Gladish cited her tough skin and breadth of experience in adventure and racing as key to get her through the mental barriers that rear their ugly heads in ultra marathons.
“I grew up in the Yukon and read a lot of survival and expedition stories. Our family billeted sled dog racers and I always looked up to them too. I guess I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors and learned not to complain about the weather, and had to adjust to changing scenarios.”
She started to develop that tough skin, a competitive edge, and an adventurous attitude at a young age while canoeing, cross country ski racing and hiking with her parents in the unforgiving arctic terrain of the Yukon Territory. This lifestyle eventually led her to enroll in the Adventure Guide diploma program at Thompson Rivers University in 2010. The running started after she moved to Kamloops from Whitehorse for school, where she eventually competed in every single Dirty Feet race across the province, including the 50km race in Sun Peaks.
Her participation in the local Dirty Feet races eventually evolved into competing in the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU), an ultra marathon race where participants can choose distances ranging from 50km to 430km; the latter traverses all the way from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon, by either foot, ski or fat bike with no outside support.
By 2015 Gladish was running multiple marathons a year when she became inspired by her friends who completed the MYAU and opted for the longest distance.
“I didn’t want to sign up for the 100 mile and wish I’d gone longer. I wouldn’t recommend that to others but I got hooked on the distance” explained Gladish.
Now Gladish has completed the MYAU 300 twice by foot, and the MYAU 430 three times: twice by foot, and once on cross country skis — the most difficult of the three disciplines, all while towing a sled with her bivy sack and rations inside to survive the unforgiving arctic.
Gladish also spends her summers working as an amateur prospector up north, where she is dropped off in remote terrain by helicopter and traverses the backcountry to collect soil samples. Her unique job requires her to spend hours on her feet, which over the years has improved her baseline level of fitness and capacity for long solo days, an asset in ultra marathon races.
“I really enjoy how mentally challenging [ultra running] is combined with having to be physically fit. There’s something about distance and experiencing time and miles that is very real and it’s hard to find that somewhere else,” Gladish said.
The Moab 240 wasn’t exactly Gladish’s area of expertise and was especially contrasted against her typical long walks in freezing temperatures from Whitehorse to Dawson City.
But, when Gladish ended up in Salt Lake City in July to visit her partner John, and with her geology classes moved online, she found the time to extend her visit and get off the Moab 240 registration waitlist. She started running and mountain biking in the heat and high elevation desert around the area and welcomed the “normalcy” of running 240 miles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This year I felt surprisingly mentally relaxed. I’ve had a few years of a full, busy, troubled mind and life changes. It’s funny this year among a pandemic I felt free to not think about life stuff, just to be more present and excited for the aid stations where I could rest and reset. It was shockingly nice to do something ‘normal’ even though I know running 240 miles isn’t normal to most people, it was nice to forget about things for a little bit.”
Gladish has remained in Salt Lake City with her partner John while taking courses online and squeezing in mountain bike rides or trail runs when she can. She said she’s motivated to share her experiences in the hope that it will inspire others to get outside and accomplish their goals whether it be a hike they’ve been wanting to do, or a race they’ve been meaning to sign up for.
“Even when just one person says that they were inspired to get out and do something based on what I’ve done it motivates me. It can be hard to share accomplishments in general and having those responses is really nice.” she said.
To (try to) keep up with Jessie, follow her on instagram @jessiegladish.