My First 100K: Black Canyon
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): I finished my first 100K, in amongst the cactus and sun, fueled by GU and potatoes and joy, singing the LEGO movie theme song to runners whether they wanted to hear it or not, in less time than it took for my first 50 miler over a decade ago. Also, I saw vertebrae.
Arizona. February. Take One.
Valentine’s Day, to be precise. I’m fitfully sleeping until the hour of 3:45 a.m. when the alarm will go off for the start of a long day, an all day race through the desert wherein I will find out just what this 100K thing is all about. What sets it apart from the almost-standardized 50 mile distance or the romanticized 100 mile journey? Is 100K, as some friends have said, “all the pain of 100 miles and none of the glory”? Or is it possibly a beast unto itself, a distance worthy of serious consideration along the ultra spectrum? It is during Black Canyon 100K that I had planned to find out.
Ok, here we are, in February. For the record, this is VERY early in the year to be lining up for such a distance; typically I’d be thinking about a March-ish 50K and then a 50 mile in early summer to square up for late summer’s big race plans (this year that’s Canada’s Fat Dog 120). But no, here I am, about to beat my legs up and it’s barely the end of winter.
Life has been interesting independent of my training, to say the least, and it’s all of my own doing. Three months ago I began to unravel my life in an almost comically predictable Gen-X midlife crisis kind of way, first by panicking about what I hope to do with this one precious life of mine and then – hopefully – starting in that new direction by leaping for shore and burning my ships, Cortés-style.
Burn ALL the ships.
Regarding my general state of mind and future plans, the seemingly-TMI level of detail I’ve provided is critical as background information; in the middle of a race report it’s a bit boring, so I’ll stop there. Let’s get right to training and stuff, instead. Things like how and why I got into decent enough shape to race a 100K in February, why the distance appealed to me, and why this race chose me.
Training: Once More With Feeling
My training philosophy has shifted in the last few years, especially compared to where I’ve come from as an ultrarunner over the last 18 years.
When I started “running” ultras in 1997 at the age of 23 I was just curious and excited about the ultra “thing”. I wanted to finish. I wanted to meet interesting people. I wanted to be challenged and also have a little bit of pride in doing something that most people consider pretty weird and dumb. (I was the kid who actually liked being called weird in high school, so I guess it has always been that way.) But I only trained enough to accomplish those goals, barely. This meant around 30+ mile weeks and a long run that was often half or more my weekly mileage. Generally, it worked. I finished 50Ks and 50 milers, and I finished Hardrock that way twice (though after several attempts, so you could say I wasn’t at all ready at least the first go-round).
Then, after a handful of finishes at all distances and a rather embarassing number of DNFs, I had just turned 31 and I’d been doing ultras sporadically for 7 years. I was a bit curious about the marathon and what I could squeeze out of myself in terms of performance. I pivoted. After a long base building period, some weight loss (a whole ’nother story, believe me) and some difficult and specific training, I logged a few halfway decent times at the marathon and half-marathon. That fitness carried over when I ran Pikes Peak marathon during those years in a darn good time, and had an honest-to-gawd 2nd place finish at a trail race (a 25K).
By 2011 I was trail-happy again, ready for ultras, and thinking that maybe if I actually logged “big” miles for ultras, I could be solidly ahead of the middle of the pack for once. One interesting problem is that the middle of the pack had shifted just a little, to a higher standard. Here’s why: since I’d been “away”, the ultra crowd had gotten faster – faster mostly due to simple math. There are tons more people running ultras than ever before and some of them are fast. Six hours for a tough 50K? Maybe that was decent before, now it’s average. Course records have been lowered by hours in most 100 mile races. There are ten times as many 100 milers now as there were when I started in 1998. Ten times. This is a great thing, probably. Ultrarunners have options we have never had before in terms of races and events and people to talk to and online resources to squander our time on.
So I was re-entering ultras when ultras had a higher median bar. That’s all well and good and obviously not something I can change, regardless. Just something to note as I plod through my own training and assess what kind of strategies to use as I build mileage back up again. After 2011 and despite my intentions, the mileage didn’t grow like I’d planned. Life and stuff, I suppose. 2014 was better: Wasatch was the proving ground and I sliced 3 hours off my last time there (despite wanting 4 hours off for the magical sub-30 buckle). After that, the fall spread out before me.
Javelinas and Rims and Pacing, Oh My
September and October held some fun long runs, solo and with friends. I ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim by myself. I paced a new friend at their 100 mile event, automatically elevating that friendship into the weird pacer realm of intimacy, the kind where lube is involved. Several of us at Javelina – Katie and Geoff, mostly – conspired to run this awesome sounding 100K in the spring, right back in the same area of Arizona. It seemed so far away, back in October, that Black Canyon race in February . . . Ha. Ha. Ha.
By early December I got up to 50+ mile weeks, right around when I was burning my ships. Things seemed good, at least from the training angle. But the immune system gets what the immune system wants, especially when you put your life and your heart through the wringer while sleeping and eating little. Nine pounds vanished, never a good sign, but I have to admit it felt lovely on runs to be lesser of a corporeal body.
And then. The holidays brought on (in addition to family and cookies, in that order) a monster influenza bug, my first in years. I kept running the second it waned, no doubt causing it to hang on longer. At the end of January I flirted with a tendon injury, then ran a 50K, moderately fast, as a test run. A week after that I landed a serious head cold that hung around 9 days. Two sicks in 6 weeks – that’s a lot for me, essentially doubling the number of times it’s happened in the last decade. Yes, yes, immune system. I hear ya.
And then, I shrug it off and head into the 100K with a nose full of snot, pockets full of HALLS, and half a hope that I can finish under the cutoff of 18 hours, more ideally the previous cutoff of 16 hours.
Phoenix. February. Again. For Realz.
February 14th. 3:45 a.m. BING-UH-DING. BING-UH-DING. My phone chirps in a halfway perky, halfway annoying alarm tone. Despite the 7 a.m. start, a relatively late luxury amongst ultras, the early wake up call was needed because the start is more than an hour away. Bummer, but not nearly as bad as Wasatch where the wakeup call was at 2 a.m.
Feet hit the floor, hot water starts percolating in the tiny 4 cup hotel pot, to be added to the most expensive instant coffee on the planet, one tiny packet at a time. Because it’s race weekend and/or travel weekend, I allow myself the nastiest of habits: instant coffee creamer. Dang that stuff is toxically delicious.
Two cups down the hatch, race number pinned on, bodily functions primed, we head out the door to drive to the shuttle pickup location. It’s warm out, I say. It’s cold out, says the Angeleno. His excuse, so he says, is that he was born in the Sahara Desert. The temperature, for the record, is about 55 degrees. Your call.
After the shuttle, the wait in the school gym (nicely appointed with yet more coffee and powdered white stuff), and the gathering light outside, we head to the track for one ceremonious loop before the race is underway, rolling through paved neighborhoods of this teeny town of Mayer before we are deposited on to the real trail, the one we’ll be on all day long and into the night for many of us, myself included.
It’s rocky – moreso than I imagined because everyone has warned us that the second half is where things get ugly in terms of surface. Uh-oh. Now, rock-hopping I do fairly well, when the rocks are stable. Loose crap, not so much. The smaller the crap, the steeper the slope, the worse I hate it. So far on this course it’s flat so the rocky bits are tolerable but I really do hope that it will not get worse as predicted.
Just a wee bit rocky. Photo by Geoff Cordner.
I talk very little today, a slight departure from my occasional chatty self in the early miles of an ultra, possibly because I’ve been talking more in my daily life the last few months so it’s easy to just settle in and let my mind roam. For a few minutes mid-morning, I do talk to Kate from Durango, a woman here on her very first ultra ever, having done road marathons previously. She’s trained exclusively all winter on city streets and her treadmill, so I’m very interested to see how that works for her today. With ultras, you just don’t know what’s going to happen – your previously awesome shoes could fill up with grit and rub the skin off your feet, your stomach could reject GU #19 in a violent way, any litany of things that might not have been experienced while running on a treadmill. Kate’s mileage and pace on her runs sounds more than adaquate, and she’s a mom (meaning, I figure she’s tough), so she’ll likely be just fine despite the newness of the distance.
Baked Sweet Potatoes Are My Thighs
You could call this event the Ice Capades, for many of us only ran from aid station to aid station in order to procure more ice. As Katie put it so eloquently in her report, “My sole purpose in life had become not exploding and getting to places where ice existed, and this is literally all I thought about for the better part of four hours. Three more miles to the aid station. They have ice there. Ice for me. I want the ice.”
The morning got warm right quick, and not wearing sunscreen on my legs could have been a bad plan (I did slather it on ears, face, neck, et cetera). My SPF 30 shirt was covering my arms nicely and getting more salt-crusted as the hours went on. Because I eat a lot of salt, I sweat a lot of salt. Salt in, salt out. New to me this year was using a sun hat after mile 24 and stuffing it with ice, letting it melt and drip for a good hour. Now I get what the fuss is about (except for having to move the ice around frequently due to cold spots on my head).
Mid-afternoon, after mile 31 or so as the sun was thoroughly baking my brain and making my thighs feel like heating pads, I almost stepped on a reddish toad frantically trying to escape these plodding feet. “I wonder if I lick it if anything would happen”, I thought moments later. Was I that in need of distraction that I would pick up random things from the trail to see if I might conjure up some hallucinations? Hmm. It would be my luck that it would be poisonous and the next runner to come along would find me heaving and convulsing on the side of the trail, muttering something about sparkly pop-tarts just out of my reach.
Don’t lick me, dude. [Photo by Steve Eckert]
Mile 38 is “the biggie” in terms of mental waypoints. It’s the Black Canyon aid station, where most of us regular folk pick up our lights for nighttime, even though we won’t need them for a few hours yet. Best to have them now than run out of light before the next drop bag at mile 51. To get to the aid station there is an out and back of less than a mile each way. I figured I might see Geoff here, possibly. If he’s 30 minutes ahead, that’s 20 minutes on the out and back and maybe 15 minutes at the aid station, so the math worked, but alas, I never saw him to do a proper high-5 or something to that effect.
Black Canyon’s also the aid station to assess one’s situation and make sure you’re ready for the rest of the race – after leaving here there are 24 miles remaining, almost another marathon, twice as many miles as there would be left at mile 38 of a “normal” 50 mile race. That’s a big mental block for some racers, and it could continue until the end. A friend of mine was racing last year (his first 100K) and just completely came unhinged at mile 51, spending 90 minutes there just staring into space before finally continuing.
The Mistake That Almost Ruined The Race
I change my shoes, a welcome relief because my HOKAs were leaving some serious hotspots and were starting to just feel heavy. Off with the socks and shoes and on with freshies and my new Altra Superiors. I felt light and bouncy and happy. So much bouncy and joy! It almost makes me commit a massive error that could cost me the race. Five minutes up the trail from the aid station, I realize I’m missing something. My lights. Oh, shit. Back to my drop bag, grab the lights, off again. Rather than dwell too much on it, I’m just glad I didn’t get much farther before having that realization. Crisis averted and only 10 minutes lost. Huge sigh of relief.
Soon, I passed a truncated vertebral column and wondered what it belonged to. Something not too big, not too small. Maybe a deer. I looked around for more small bones because I like souvenirs of that nature. Alas, the spine was the only thing left of that creature. Luckily, Geoff snapped a photo so you know I’m not making this up.
All that remains of this creature…
Speaking of Geoff, where was he??? After not seeing him at the out & back, I figured he was sailing along, and I was right. Simply put, having a damn good race. He slowly peeled away after the first few miles and settled into a good pace. After spending the middle of the day approximately 35 minutes in front of me, his last 20 miles would only get better. As I slightly faded, he roared, ultimately finishing 90 minutes ahead of me, even after taking a wrong turn and losing 20 minutes.
Color, And Then, Darkness
Darkness does fall before I get to mile 51 (before 46, actually), but not before a most fabulous sunset that lights up the clouds like a pride parade. Everyone within earshot – which is about 2 people, tops – is making appreciative noises at the light show and plodding along the decidedly rocky trail. One of them is with his pacer and trying not to barf. Poor guy. His pacer and I exchange greetings and he asks how I’m doing, which means I hit him with the works, “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!” He chuckles and I mosey on ahead, muttering, “SPACESHIP!!!” under my breath like a lunatic.
Time for some light. Headlamp deployed, I hold it in my hand after deciding I didn’t want something strapped to my head, and this is what I saw for the next four hours or so:
The winding trail leaves me with a sense of lost, nearly all day long and certainly in the dark. I cannot see a runner ahead of me and know if they are ahead, behind, on course, off course, or what. There’s just very little reference points with such a contouring route. The approaching 47 mile aid station taunts me for miles, with false positives that turn out to be RV campers, lights on horizons that I’m sure must be IT but are not, other runners’ lights, and on, and on, and on. If I had a low point all day, this was it – the two miles before that 47 mile aid station. The trail was abusing my brain, big time. I mean, check it out:
The 8 miles between mile 38 and 46…
I’m Not Scott Jurek; Not Today, Anyway
All day long I’d been continually assessing my pace, thinking about my typical slow-down factor and how I might end up finishing. I do this a lot during races; it’s rather enjoyable and passes the time. A few other runners I talked to seemed to be unable to subtract one aid station’s mileage from the next, but when I’m running, math is my friend. Around mile 20 I thought 15 hours was very, very feasible. I’d done 12 minute pace for the first 20, so that allowed 14’s for the middle and 16’s or even 17’s for the end and everything would be peachy. Around 24, still looked good. 31 miles – halfway – still OK. Mile 38, good, if I kept it up. But my pace was slowing with the “big” climbs, more than I’d planned. I kept reassessing, over and over, what I needed until the finish to crack 15, 15:30, and 16. It was slipping, a little.
Eventually, I did come upon that blasted 46 mile aid station, later than my projections by about 15 minutes, and I wondered if I could really go under 16 after all. This was a depressing thought – that using the original standards for this course I would be not good enough to even finish it. Blame sickness all you want, there’s honestly no reason I shouldn’t be better than 16 hours on a course like this, and that’s the kind of thought that was punishing me for a few hours. That back and forth, “you’ve been sick! You’ve been stressed! Let it fucking go!” versus, “even sick runners can buck up and do respectable times! That Kate chick trained on a treadmill for jeebus’ sake!”
Eventually I shook it off and just tried to keep going at whatever pace felt like I was stretching my limits a little bit. Today that pace just wasn’t super fast. Other races, other times, that pace has let me go under 11 hours in a 50, but not today, not this week. I had to be OK with that, because I’m not freaking Scott Jurek who wakes up from a collapse on the side of the road at Badwater and then runs the fastest 100K of his life to win the race. Nope, that’s not me, not yet.
I’m still warm – it’s like my body stored up heat like a rock and is still slowly dissipating it well into the night. NEVER before have I spent so long only wanting cold things, and very cold things at that. Soup never sounded good, even lukewarm gels were icky. I wanted ice in my bottles, cold defizzed coke, and not much else. I thought about not putting on my shirt and just running in the sports bra but who knows what kind of crazy chafing I’d get from the vest. No, better to just keep consuming cold things.
Better Mood And A Better Finish
Mile 51 comes and goes quickly, and I savor a change of shirt that awaits at this drop bag. Finally, no salt-crusted mess anymore. I can finish feeling slightly less gritty. I’m out, tromping with determination for the next and final aid station at mile 58-ish. I’m amused enough that I laugh out loud at what it tastes like to burp up coke mixed with ginger ale mixed with coffee. We ultrarunners are a strange lot.
My time projections are still wonky and I’d need to do 16 minute miles for the last 11 miles to safely come in under 16 hours. When the first couple of miles click off in 21 minutes, 19 minutes, et cetera, I’m feeling a little sad but still OK. The end is tangible, regardless. I will get there, and I won’t explode too much.
After mile 57.x aid, there’s some flat jeep road to run and I’m overjoyed at the idea that this is how it will be all the way in – I could still speed up. But then we rejoin trail and my pace is back down to 18 minutes. I pass a few more here, bringing that total up to about a dozen since mile 38 with just one passing me. I don’t think I have any special abilities to finish fast – it just seems that other people’s wheels fall off way more dramatically than mine do. My wheels are still on, but they’re wobbling from some missing lugnuts. I try to keep it together just one more hour. That’s it. One hour. Or less.
A reflective first 100K finish
And then it’s visible, the tent, the lights, the FINISH. It’s 11 p.m. I’m still warm. Ahead of me awaits chairs and soup (after I finally stop being warm a good 30 minutes after stopping) and my clean(er) clothes and friends. It’s an hour later than I’d hoped but only a little over 16 hours when I cross, so I’m going to call that pretty OK.
I thought of some new closing lines for my friends who dismiss the 100K as a useless distance. “All the pain of a 100 mile race, . . . ”
. . . and you don’t have to stay up all night!
. . . and 2/3 the entry fee!
. . . and the ultra fairy will still bring you a buckle!
Read my post on post-ultra depression. Yeah, but it’s gonna be OK.
Oh, and Kate finished in just under 15 hours, like clockwork. Atta go, girl.