Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Friday, June 16, 2017

2017 Bryce Canyon 100-Miler

"Eternity is a long time, especially toward the end." -- Woody Allen (And me, as the race wore on...)

When I recapped my experience at the Black Mountain Monster 12-Hour, I noted that it left me somewhat nervous about a 100-miler with 18,500' of climb and roughly the same descent. Well, the week leading up to Bryce Canyon, the forecast was showing temperatures in the mid-80s and while that was certainly lower Western States had been in 2014, it was at least twelve degrees above what I had expected. The heat would certainly play a factor in how my day went, but it also forced me to adopt a "smarter" strategy than I've used in the past, if I could ever claim to have had a "strategy."

The 2017 Bryce Canyon 100-miler would be unique for me in a lot of ways. I've never tried to tackle a race of this distance at basically the tail end of a vacation. We flew into Salt Lake City on Sunday and visited Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon National Parks before race day, making our way east to west across the southern side of Utah. While we didn't tackle any long trails, we spent a lot of time on hikes, walking around, and just being outside. One positive outcome of this was a gradual acclimation to the 7500'-9500' elevation I'd have throughout race day as each Park lay at a slightly higher elevation than the prior. Would all this exploration come back to bite me on race day? I hoped not, but felt that if it did, I wouldn't be upset because ultimately the trip was about seeing the Parks and I wasn't going to miss that just to save up energy for the race.

Knowing that late-race eating has always been an issue for me, I decided that I would take Lee's advice and give the Tailwind product a shot. It promises no "gut-bombs" and nutrition/elecrolytes to carry you through a long race. They say it's all you need--no gels, food, etc..., but I wasn't sure if that would work, so I also brought some trail and peanut butter bars, along with Huma gels and S-caps, in case I needed extra electrolytes. As usual, I had my reliable Mountain Hardware pack from Western States, two Salomon soft flask water bottles, and on my feet were my Salomon Speedcross 3s that had served me well in many long runs. Dennis had told me there was a lot of sand on the course and I felt that with their big lugs, these shoes might have decent traction in sand since they did in mud. Plus, they are comfortable and don't come untied. Just in case I was wrong, my Brooks Cascadias were in the bag Paul and Rob (who were crewing me the second half of the race) would have at the turnaround.

ace morning was fairly cool, light jacket weather if you're just standing around. After Rob and Paul dropped me off in Bryce Canyon City, I hopped on the 5:20 a.m. shuttle for the short ride to the start area. There, I saw pop-up porta-jons for the first time--apologies for not taking a picture. From what I could see at a distance, they looked a bit like tall, narrow tents with a toilet (or bucket?) inside. At the start, I finally found Doug Thompson, who was also participating in the 100 and, shortly after finding him, Paul and Rob showed up, having jumped on the last shuttle, when spectators were allowed. The shuttles were the same buses used by the National Parks Service inside Bryce Canyon National Park. The race itself runs outside the Park border, on the western side. It has, as you'll see in later pictures, some of the features of the Park, but is more of a recreation area.

Some colorful hoodoos early in the race.
After the national anthem, runners lined up at the start and at 6:00 a.m., we were off. It was a dirt road for a while, allowing runners to spread out, before becoming single track trail. Not having a 100-miler "pace," and certainly going out too fast, I found myself not terribly far back from the lead pack early on. One guy was noticeably ahead in the early miles and I had to wonder if he was that good or just that confident in his abilities. I really did try to focus on taking it easy early on in this race, while still pushing a little during the early miles since it was still cool. The coolness had disappeared within the first hour, though, and I could readily distinguish between heat due to exertion and heat in the environment. Well before reaching the first aid station at mile 10.5, I had gone through both of my 17 ounce water bottles. At this aid station, I began taking Tailwind in one bottle and straight water in the other, an arrangement I would continue at every subsequent aid station. I think that I was getting roughly 150 calories of Tailwind in a bottle. Since this was the first time I had tried it, I'll say that it had a slight fruit taste--I'm not sure if each aid station had the same flavor--but far from the over-sweetness of something like Gatorade. Whether it would sit with me over the many miles that lay ahead was a concern, but I was optimistic that all the good reviews I had read meant that it actually delivers on its promise.

Aid Station One -- Arrived at 7:48 a.m.
The long gap between aid stations early on was noticeable as I continued to run out of water/Tailwind before reaching the next station. On several occasions, after the volunteer filled up my water bottle, I'd drink it dry on the spot and then refill it. At this point, I'll note (because this is not always the case) that the plain water actually tasted good, without the chlorine taste you find in the water at some races.

When I was at roughly mile 20, or shortly after the second aid station, I texted Leslie that I was doing ok and what mile I was on. I can look back and see that I took a picture of what I believe is the second (mile 19) aid station at 9:29 a.m. or about 3.5 hours into the race. The coolness of the day had passed so there'd be no more of that pace (almost 5.5 mph) the rest of the race. As you can see from the profile chart below, it was about to get pretty rough.

There was a nine mile gap between the second and third aid stations and the day was heating up. I could carry 34 ounces of fluid and had already run out before reaching either of the prior two aid stations so weighing all of that, I tried to conserve both my water and my energy. Slowing down a bit did have an impact on my time, as I rolled into the mile 28 aid station at about 12:10 p.m. That was 6:10 for the first 28 miles and 2:40 for the last nine miles, which was a 3.3 mph pace. That actually brought me back down to a more realistic overall pace for my 100-miler since my goal was 28 hours. While this section wore on me, I didn't get into trouble.

The desert-like scenery only made it feel hotter.
Now that it was noon, I decided that I would walk almost exclusively the rest of the day--until the sun dropped below the tree or mountain-line. There was very little shade and very few creek crossings to soak my hat in. It was a little discouraging to be passed but I was able to keep my ego in check and stick with my plan, knowing that to start running would quickly overheat me and likely end my day. I told myself that a 4 mph walk wouldn't cost me that much compared to a 5-6 mph jog. And, truthfully, the number of people passing me wasn't THAT bad considering how much I was walking. I would notice that many of those that passed me spent a lot longer in the aid stations than I did because often that's where I'd catch back up to them. Except for the stations where my crew met me later in the race, I only stopped to refill my bottles, so I probably spent only 1-2 minutes at each aid station.

I reached the Straight Canyon aid station about 3:38 p.m. so mile 41 came 9:38 into the race. That was actually way ahead of my 28 hour goal pace even though it seemed like time was rapidly slipping away.

Cliffs towered over me as I neared the turnaround.
Another 5.5 miles and some very tough climbing later, I reached Pink Cliffs at mile 46.5. The previous night, I head decided that this course was a lot like Bighorn and I reached that turnaround in eleven hours (though it was at mile 48 instead of 51.5 here) so I told them I might reach the turnaround about 5:00 or maybe 6:00. It was now 5:09 p.m., the earliest time my crew thought they'd be meeting me at the turnaround. I didn't have a good way to let them know where I was because my texts weren't getting through consistently. My pace and aid station spreadsheet I gave them indicated I'd be at the turnaround between 7:00 and 8:00, though, so I hoped my earlier text that showed a faster pace didn't throw them off and make them get there too early, having to sit around and wait for me.

The next stretch I was able to run a little because it got shady and had a stretch of downhill dirt road. I had started seeing the leaders coming back toward me slightly before the last aid station, but I honestly was surprised I hadn't seen them sooner than that. Once the trail left the dirt road, it still trended downhill but we kept hitting these huge rock culverts/washes that you really couldn't run through. They were on side slopes and several feet deep and 6-12' across. For some, it was hard to figure out where best to cross. I was now encountering some of the runners I'd been near earlier in the race and I was also in the shade. Though these few miles really dragged out, I was in good spirits knowing that the turnaround was near. After maybe eight or so culverts, I finally emerged into the clearing of Crawford Pass, mile 51.5 and the turnaround.

At the turnaround. Just over halfway done.
I was surprised (but not completely) to see Leslie there with Rob and Paul. I had thought she might come though she never indicated she planned to do so. Later, Paul told me that she flipped back and forth about coming before ultimately deciding to do so. My main concern was that she wouldn't get much/any sleep by doing this, just like she hadn't when she crewed me at Western States with Donna. The turnaround was possibly my longest aid station stop because I wiped off some trail dust with a wet towel and then left it around my neck for a little bit while Rob refilled my bottles. I asked about Eric because I knew he had come with Doug to pace him from miles 50 to 62 before doing the half-marathon the following day. I then learned that Doug had to drop around mile 28 from dehydration. Doug later told me that he had a volunteer refill his Camelbak at an aid station and once out on the trail realized they had barely filled it so he had a long stretch with no water. I hated to hear Doug had to drop, especially since he told me at the start that the following day was his 50th birthday. As for myself, I was finally a bit optimistic. It was later in the day and while the temperature might not have dropped a lot, there was more shade and that easily made a ten degree difference, if not more.

So, thanking my crew, I hurried off on the return trip. It would be about twelve miles before I would see them again. I laughed to myself almost every time I went through one of the culverts because many of them were filled with millions (I'm not sure I am exaggerating) of nice rocks that Leslie would have filled her pockets with. The climb out of the turnaround was pretty steep, once I cleared the single track. The dirt road I had come down earlier was too much for me to bother trying to run so I just power hiked. I must have done well because I caught the fourth place female at the top and she thought I had sprinted up it to catch up to her.

I stayed close to her and her co-runner and was actually too close at one point. We were on a wide section of trail and they were maybe 50' ahead. I looked up and thought to myself, she's using the bathroom behind a log, right by the trail. I slammed on my brakes and instead of turning around, I just put my hands on my knees and looked at the ground. Moments later, a concerned voice from ahead asked if I was ok. I looked up (she was now back on the trail) and told her what I thought she was doing. She said she was and "thanks for being courteous." I laughed because it just seemed to be a funny thing to say. Shortly after that, I caught up to them and learned her name was Tonya and his was Joe. We talked about the usual things like where everyone was from, etc... For some reason, she thought my accent was Irish, I blamed it on fatigue and trail dust. Knowing she was in fourth place and not terribly far behind, I asked if she was going to make a push to catch third. She said that she wasn't trying to place in this race and that they were going to take a 30 minute break at the next aid station, even though they both seemed to be running strong. They invited me to hang out with them there but I told them I had a crew waiting and that I don't do well with coming to a complete stop.

At 9450', Pink Cliffs was the highest point on the course and we were dropping 1100' to our next aid station 5.5 miles later, so it was obviously a pretty good, but mostly steady and runnable, descent. The descent and the company enabled me to arrive about 30 minutes before my crew expected me at the Straight Canyon aid station. I made it to the 100K point just before needing a headlamp. I think Tonya had said it was about 9:00 p.m. So, it was after official sunset, but not yet dark. I was technically still well ahead of a 26 hour pace, but the night, fatigue, and steep climbs would conspire to significantly slow me down going forward.

Representing TRU with a new shirt for the night shift.
After finding my crew, I swapped out my sweaty shirt for a dry one and grabbed my Grindstone finishers jacket (which is almost like a shirt.) It's very lightweight and I was a little worried that it wouldn't be enough with lows forecast in the 40s, but I did have an emergency hand warmer in my pack if it got too cold. I could shake it up and let it rest against my back to keep me warm. I figured, though, that if I was moving, the temperatures wouldn't be an issue.

I headed away from the aid station with the daylight rapidly vanishing, but still carrying, rather than wearing, my headlamp for as long as I could. It was a longer dirt road than I recalled and even though it was fairly flat, I was just walking it. It did worry me somewhat to be walking a runnable section because I didn't want to fall into that trap where I walk so much, I never start running again. After what felt like a mile or so, we turned off onto trail and I fired up my headlamp.

In the dark, the miles blur together. I had twenty two miles and two aid stations between me and the next time I'd see my crew. There was a lot of climbing involved and some sketchy footing where the loose rock trail slid off down steep embankments. Though I had been on this same trail just hours earlier, it seemed foreign to me now. Every now and then, while seemingly being the only person for miles, I wondered about mountain lions stalking me, and I really wondered about it when I smelled something very dead nearby in the darkness. But, mostly I was trying to catch a glimpse of the stars as the elevation, low humidity, and absence of light pollution made for excellent stargazing. The cool temperatures forecast didn't seem to have set in as throughout the night, I would be constantly putting my jacket on and off as the temperature fluctuated wildly. I don't think it was just my body temperature and it didn't seem to be tied to elevation. It almost seemed random. This wouldn't have been a big deal but it meant also removing my pack every time I took the jacket on or off.

It's probably fair to say that, outside of aid stations, I probably encountered only about five runners during the twenty two miles and seven hours I was out there "alone." It's hard to tell because sometimes a runner might be sitting down at the aid station and I just don't notice them. I had no idea of my place, but I did know that I didn't want to have a ton of people pass me like in the latter miles of Grindstone. I certainly felt better at this point in the race than I did at Grindstone and because I had eaten very little, I have to give a lot of credit to the Tailwind product. It seemed to be keeping me together.

Until it didn't.

Somewhere around mile 70-72, I found myself getting lightheaded and tired. It was probably close to midnight, around 9000' in elevation, and I had no one to talk to keep my brain active. I don't know that it felt like a bonk as much as just feeling sleepy. I decided to adopt Doug Blackford's strategy and every so often, I'd sit on a downed tree and just gather myself. At one point, it got so bad, I actually laid down right by the path and closed my eyes for a few minutes. I told myself that once I reached mile 84, Paul would be joining me and talking with him would help fight off the fatigue and then (if it didn't happen before mile 84,) the sun would be up and that would certainly drive off "The Sandman."

So I trudged on as best I could. I didn't trust my head enough to keep me balanced if I tried to run, so I held it to a fast walk unless the surface was ideal, with room for error if I ran a little wobbly. I honestly think that despite being on my feet, I dozed off for a second or two every so often during this stretch. Eventually, I imagine somewhere around 4:00 a.m., I made it to Proctor Canyon and my crew.

I didn't really need anything out of the car, so I waited for Paul to get ready and once he was, we headed out. Having sat around all evening, he had to run ahead some to warm up and I just walked as fast as I could behind him. There was a net downhill over the 8.5 miles to the next aid station and I let him pull me into running a few times. It wasn't a lot, but enough to pick up the pace from what I had been doing. I think I was about 30 minutes ahead of a 28 hour pace at the last aid station, but I didn't actually know that at the time.

Paul got to see some of the better scenery on the course by running this last stretch. Most of the conversation was small talk. He told me what they had done while I ran my first 50 and I told him funny things that had happened along the trail, including the guy who was listening to an audiobook while running. I told him I didn't have the mental capacity for intellectual discussion so we kept it light. No philosophy. 8.5 miles is long when you aren't tired and very long when you are. I think it took us 2.5 hours to get to the final aid station and it was a very quick stop. "Just" 7.5 to go after that. There were a couple guys we caught up to at this aid station who we'd see off and on the rest of the race. I really wanted to beat them (just as a personal motivation, not any grudge) but they seemed to be moving along pretty well.

We knew there was a major climb shortly after the aid station and we thought we'd found it leading up out of a dry creek bed/wash area. We probably had, but it had several "false summits" before we finally made it to what had to be the last (8250') peak you can see on the profile chart above. This was a fairly runnable section of trail, coming off that peak, and we even encountered a few mountain bikers out for a Saturday morning ride. The tough climb made me feel like I had knocked out more of the last 7.5 miles than I had and the next miles were incredibly long, even though I was able to jog some. I soon decided that we were not going back the way I had run out in the morning (we were, I was wrong) as we were running in and out of "fingers" along a mountainside. While it wasn't very steep and was slowly descending, I got discouraged because I didn't know how many of these there were. Three went by, four, five, six, and there seemed to be no end. It wasn't until maybe we had traversed eight of these mini-canyons that I saw a dirt road and kiosk ahead. We emerged onto the road and just kept following the pink flags, optimistic that the finish surely couldn't be far. I couldn't see any sign of it ahead but Paul and I were now in a "sprint" to keep the guy behind me from catching up. I would see him closing in when we'd make a turn on one of the "fingers" earlier and though I didn't truly care if I was ahead of him or behind him, I wanted to finish strong and he was going to have to play the villain for just a little bit.

Showing my bib to be sure I get credit.
We finally passed a lady walking up the road and Paul asked how far the finish was. She replied, "about a quarter mile." The pace quickened. I glanced behind. No sign of my "nemesis" but the road is curvy so he could easily be close by and hidden by brush. After about a minute, we passed another lady and Paul asked her the same question. "About a mile," she replied. So, either we were going the wrong way or these two had vastly different internal GPSs. I was tired, but fired up to stay ahead of my pursuer (not even knowing if he was running and trying to catch me) so we pressed on at a decent pace. Finally, I could see Leslie and Susan outside the van, maybe 100 yards ahead. Since there was a small crowd at the finish, we didn't slow the pace, as if to say "we had so much in reserve, we could have done another fifty miles." Though once I crossed the mat, another 50 feet sounded like too much. 

The buckle I selected.
I actually felt better at that moment than I have after any other 100 miler. I had no stomach issues, no leg pain, and little to no dehydration. I was tired, but not beaten. We drifted over to the timing tent and looked down at a display of maybe fifty belt buckle finisher awards. Each of the finisher's buckles was unique and that made picking one very difficult, especially having just finished. I looked through them several times and got input from Leslie and finally settled on one that seemed appropriate. It had some wood fragments or feathers in it (or something) that loosely resembled a landscape.

My finish time was 27:49:11, so very close to what I had figured might happen. A cooler day might have brought a little better time, but I was happy. Perhaps the best news was that the rental house owner said that we could delay checkout until noon when originally we had to be out by 10:00. So, being that it was just now about 10:00 a.m., there was time to go back and get cleaned up rather than head straight to Zion unwashed. I thanked the race officials and explained why we were leaving so soon and we piled into the van to get back to the house. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than a cold Fresca and a not-too-hot shower.

In the car, Rob told me he had looked at the runner check sheet at the turnaround and I was around 42nd place. At the finish, I was 28th. I later learned that the drop rate was almost 40% and I had to believe that most of that was heat related. I really felt good that I not only finished but was able to move forward in place over the last half of the race. As good as that felt, however, it wasn't half as good as it felt to be hiking up the Virgin River in Zion National Park the next day as we knocked off a bucket list item and hiked in The Narrows.

No comments:

Post a Comment