Rome resident Justin Strickland just put his body through perhaps its biggest challenge.
He ran 240 miles through the desert. That’s not a typo. Justin ran TWO HUNDRED and FORTY MILES through Moab, Utah. And he didn’t just run it. Of more than 202 participants who started the race, Justin placed 8th.
The Moab 240 Endurance Run is a 240.3-mile footrace through some of Utah’s most stunning and challenging terrain.
Justin is an ultra runner and the Rome News-Tribune has covered his exploits in the past. But this was a new challenge all together. It would be his longest race by far. He registered for the race in January and said that he’s “studied” the event almost every day since.
“That’s nine months of pondering, asking questions and watching every YouTube video available,” he said. “In the end I managed to pull together an outstanding crew and a solid game plan. The plan, I thought was good enough for a top 10 finish, nothing flashy, but respectable. The crew was stellar and deserving of a better caliber runner. The result was nothing short of a miracle and something that both gave me solace and helped extinguish the demons I have with both heat and time in longer races.”
One thing Justin is quick to emphasize was that his success on this monumental venture was due to three major factors. Of course he has trained for long distances and he was physically up to the challenge. But just as important, he had a plan and he had a great crew supporting him.
That crew was made up of three other impressive Rome athletes. They would run much of the course with Justin for physical and emotional support. Terra Turner, a vet tech at Culbreth Carr Watson Animal Clinic, is herself an ultra runner and has trained and raced with Justin on many occasions. Darlington School’s Stefan Eady has been running with Justin a good bit over the last couple years and Stewart Duncan of Revive Cycleworks was actually not supposed to run at all. A avid mountain biker, Duncan was initially the crew manager on the trip but Justin was afraid of taxing Turner and Eady too much, so Duncan was asked to run as well.
Justin’s wife Naomi and his daughter Sophie were also there to support in any way they were needed. Naomi kept friends back in Georgia updated on Justin’s progress by way of social media. Justin didn’t know it at the time but there were dozens of folks back home tracking his progress and cheering him on.
Justin began the race on a Friday at 7 p.m. He wouldn’t finish until 4 p.m. on Monday. And in that time he would sleep a grand total of just over two hours.
“I started with the required list of items, but as for food and water, I took 1000 ml of water, 2 honey singers and ate a thick peanut butter and jelly sandwich (My favorite PB&J the entire race, I told Stefan this at least 3 times) just before we took off,” he said. “This plan was laid out weeks in advance, and Stewart (my crew chief/pacer) was pretty good at maintaining my prerace written wishes throughout this ordeal.”
Justin ran the first 75 miles alone, and then his crew began taking turns running various portions of the race with him. They would each run two segments with him, with Turner taking the longest ones.
There were aid stations along the way, about 20 miles apart.
“We had a pack that weight between eight to 10 pounds,” Justin said. “We carried one to two liters of water, some food and mandatory gear, items of clothing an a GPS.”
It was hot. Justin said even the nights were warm. And yes, they ran through the night. This was a race, after all. The course was mostly in the desert. There were wide open trails, sandy valleys and slick rock. Justin said portions of the course looked like what he imagines Mars or the moon would look like. And although this was a massive physical challenge, he still found time to appreciate the beauty of his surroundings. He remembers a stunning view of a mountain range was beautiful aspen forests. But 80% of the course was in open desert he said.
As mile after mile rolled past, Justin could feel the course taking its toll on his body. In the beginning he was happy and feeling great. He was having fun. But near the end, Justin said he grew more and more despondent and negative.
“But they kept me going,” he said of his crew of trusted friends. “They each gave me a big psychological boost. It would have been a big pity party without them.”
After 120 miles (about 36 hours) Justin slept for the first time. He slept for an hour. He wouldn’t sleep again until about mile 180 — another hour of planned sleep. That was all he could afford. There were others on the course and he didn’t know where he was in relation to everyone else.
At one point, Justin realized that he could count the different shoe prints in the sand. He realized the other runners were all wearing different shoes and he could estimate many people were in front of him. He mentioned this to Tuner.
“You don’t know how well you’re doing, do you?” she said to him. “It’s better that way. You’re doing very well. We need to keep it up.”
Of the 202 runners who had started the race, only about 10 were in front of Justin. And as the miles wore on, he passed a few of them.
He’d replenish his water at every aid station, eat something for calories and something sugary for a burst of energy. And he’d always drink a Red Bull for the night sections.
The last 10 miles were painful. Justin was miserable.
But near the end, Turner (who was running with him at that point) peeled off so Justin could cross the finish line and reunite with his family. The next day would be his daughter’s 13th birthday.
“Although finishing this race was the primary goal, I had several others that were in conjunction with my family’s extremely important milestone,” Justin said. “I had purchased my daughter a gift sometime after I registered for this race that I wanted to give her at the finish and I wanted time to have dinner with my crew before they had to leave and for my family to have time to explore Moab and celebrate my daughter’s birthday.”
He had finished 8th overall. And he had done it in 81 hours, 8 minutes and 5 seconds.
“I would have loved to have gotten in under my 80 hour goal and I know it’s possible if I ever wanted to revisit this adventure/challenge,” he said. “But I feel content with the effort and outcome.
Surprisingly Justin said he felt fine after it was all done. He may have “looked like crap” but other than being tired and having a few blisters on his feet, this body felt good.
“I was better off after this race than my first 100-mile and 150-mile races,” he said.
Justin is immensely grateful for his family, Turner, Eady and Duncan without whom he could not have reached this goal.
“Some people do (this race) solo but for the first time it’s critical to have people with you,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing it without a crew. There was a night section that I couldn’t find the course markings. I was already two and a half days into it. I would have been in trouble without help. I would have had serious issues without someone with me. There was a section where my mind couldn’t have dealt with it.”
And of course there was the plan. They had everything worked out long before the race even started and they stuck to that the entire way.
“That made a huge difference,” Justin said.
At the moment he doesn’t have any big races lined up. He’s toying with the idea of doing an FKT on the Silver Comet Trail in December. That’s where you try to better the fastest known time for a particular course.
Two hundred and two runners started the Moab 240 this year and about 130 finished. Justin Strickland was the 8th person to cross the finish line. But he’s more proud of his crew and the plan than he is of himself. And he hopes that this accomplishment might inspire others to push their limits.
“I hope it makes people want to get out and maybe challenge themselves to do something and go farther than they’ve gone,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be running. It can be anything that you think maybe isn’t possible. But you push a little farther than you think you can go.”