Date: 14 February 2015
Location: Mayer High School, AZ
Start Time: 0700
Weather Conditions: Cool, breezy early in the day, warming to 87+F, dry.
Trail Conditions: Almost 100% trail, mixed fire road & single track. Dry and exposed. Generally non-technical, with jagged relief preventing a wholly smooth flow. Very well marked.
Finishing Time: DNF
Shoes: Nike Zoom Terra Kiger II
Singlet: Nike Dry-Fit Touch Tailwind Stripe
Socks: Nike Elite Cushioned Crew
Headband: Mountain Hardwear Way 2 Cool Bandana
The voices of each runner seemed to echo in my skull as each of them passed me by. I was sitting down beneath a bunch of cactus and a small clump of rocks; the only shade I could find as the desert miles stretched out before and behind me. Nonetheless, I was sitting down – in the middle of a race.
The Black Canyon 100K was to be my first foray into the 100K realm: it was a net loss, generally tame as far as topography goes, and it was a winter run in the desert – cool and dry in any other year. It was a Montrail Ultra Cup race, offering automatic Western States entries to top 1st and 2nd place male and female finishers and to top it all off, it was to be a short getaway for Natasha (my only crew) and I – we would spend a few days in Flagstaff, AZ and drive down to Mayer the morning of the race. I was totally equipped for the day distance ahead – I had been working with Chris Vargo and was feeling strong and dialed in to the specific needs of the day.
That was before I checked the seven-day weather forecast.
Winter weather in (Coastal)Northern California, while not altogether frigid, is far less than adequate heat training. I had been running in the low 50’s for several months and was now faced with the reality of an almost ninety degree race day on a course I had never before seen, much less run along. It weighed heavily on my mind for several days leading up to the early rise of the race day alarm clock. A few days out from our initial departure to Arizona, I woke suddenly from a dream (more of a nightmare) that ended in a DNF. Nevertheless, I shrugged off the shroud of negativity and insecurity, moving confidently forward with my plan for race day.
The drive from our hotel room just at the junction of I-17 and I-40 in northern Flagstaff was dark and quiet. Temperatures were in the mid-twenties, but felt comfortable with nothing more than a softshell jacket and sweatpants. I had the standard fare before leaving the hotel – oatmeal, almond butter, and a banana, along with two cups of coffee. I tuned out for a while; visions of a successful, strong finish overwhelmed my thoughts as I let cruise control do all the legwork of driving our Subaru. I even day dreamed of a far-fetched scenario whereby, after crossing the line in about 8 hours, I was offered an entry to Western States. I accepted, of course.
We pulled up to the Mayer High School about an hour before the race was to begin. I shuffled inside to pick up my race bib and some safety pins, sign a waiver, and most importantly, to visit the restroom. I returned to the Subaru to double check my gear, sip on a Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration Mix with Mangos, load up the gel pockets in my shorts, and to double and triple check my shoe fitment and lacing.
At about 6:50, Jamil Coury of Aravaipa Running made his rounds to assemble the racers at the High School track, a circuit of which would start the race southbound towards Phoenix.
I lined up cautiously, a few lines back from top dead center, but making sure to keep Ryan Ghelfi, Hal Koerner, and some of the other top competitors in sight. Jamil reiterated a few last minute things as runners became more and more anxious – bouncing lightly in place to keep warm in the 40-degree chill of morning. Finally, he began counting down from 10.
3, 2, 1 and the race was on.
Dave James took an early lead, jetting forward 400m sprint style. I cruised around the dirt track, waved to Tash, and followed the front-runners and the locals on quads down the road to the trailhead. I looked down at my watch to a seven and a half minute mile, and eased off the throttle a little. The sun was just peeking above the distant ridgeline, almost ominously foreshadowing the coming heat.
My feet flitted gently across the singletrack of the Black Canyon Trail. You could hear the rhythm of hoofbeats and wagon wheels of mule trains past as the dust from the runners ahead kicked into the dawn light of the crisp morning. The trail was slightly inclined, though gentle, for a while to the top of the Antelope Mesa – the location of the first aid station.
I didn’t stop long at the first aid, though in retrospect, I probably should have spent more time. In the time between the start and the first group of selfless souls, I only managed to drink about eight ounces from each of my Ultimate Direction handhelds, though I did manage to get an early start on my fueling, getting down a strawberry banana PowerGel before the sweat even began to show through my Better Than Naked Jacket. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to apply BodyGlide, and could feel my upper thighs start to chafe. I intended to apply liberally when I stopped, but got caught up in the wave of excitement as the cheering few pushed me towards of the canyon. As I dropped off the edge, I realized I hadn’t even grabbed my sunglasses – but I was already below the lip of the canyon and the draw of the lead pack was tangible. I pushed on and planned for a longer stop at the next aid.
As soon as my feet made contact with the trail below the canyon, the trail changed – ragged edges and quick dips in the trail refused me the right to settle into a steady pace. I pushed up and over and around as the cactus began to pop up out of the sandy outcroppings, littering the dusty landscape with muted greens.
Five miles passed relatively little to note other than the sun was higher, hotter, and more volatile with each step.
I came to the junction of trail and dirt road that made up aid station number two with great relief. Chaffing of my upper thighs had begun and the sun’s glare was causing me to squint, which caused the sweat pooling below my headband to run down into the creases of my eyes. I met Natasha near the edge of the aid station and listed off the things I needed. I applied body glide, donned my favorite pair of cheap mirrored sunglasses, swapped water bottles and was off. I opened a gel packet as I exited the stop and forced down the sticky sweet package. The heat made the taste less than appealing, but I knew I would need it as I moved forward.
Another 7 miles passed. I don’t remember too much. I lost my position as 20th when I stopped to pee for the first time in the race, but wasn’t too concerned about it. I had a prevailing tightness in my left quad that dissolved into a dull soreness as the miles passed below my feet. I felt myself slowing, though not fading, when I noticed the increase in terrain variation – hills became longer, turns in the trail more prevalent, even some moderate switchbacks had started. I focused on the trail beneath my feet, picking out different lug patterns that I recognized to keep my mind from wandering down too dark a road and into self-pity and defeat.
As I descended the final switchbacks to the Bumblebee aid station, a weight was lifted from my mind as I heard Natasha ask calmly, “What do you need?” I told her that I was hungry; she gave me an EPIC bar. I asked for new water bottles, even though mine looked like they had only barely been touched – maybe half gone from each – two new bottles were strapped into my handhelds before I even realized it. When I told her I was sore, she just looked at me and questioned, “Sore?” I responded with a slightly bewildered, “I know…”, bent down to giver her a quick kiss, and was off again.
The climb out of Bumblebee was the first stage of my demise. A short jeep road led to the trail pick-up. The road wasn’t steep, but I felt myself getting more and more tired with each step. I made the left turn back onto singletrack and began a short climb. I made it no further than 1/3 of the way up and was hiking. This terrain was not steep. Not by a long shot, but my legs refused to push hard enough to propel my 175lbs up and over. I put hands to knees and began hiking; for shame.
Winding and twisting along, the trail followed closely the contour of the hills and shallow valleys of the desert washes and dead creeks. I ran, though progressively slower with each kink in the trail. I walked when I thought I needed to. I drank from the handhelds often, hoping to stave off dehydration for a few more miles. I had 6 miles to go to the next aid and I was wilting.
The next aid was a brief stop. I asked for water and Gatorade in my bottles, doused my headband in cold water, ate a handful of chips, and pushed down the trail only to stop and hike again almost immediately. My legs refused to go. I could feel precious salts caking on my face, the sun baking my skin to a dry crisp. Sharp rocks seemed to jump up to meet my feet and ankles, now clumsy and heavy. I stopped and sat on a rock – stretching my calves and quads. As I turned back to the trail, a fellow runner from Chicago joined me. He was hurting pretty bad, too, but seemed to be in better spirits than I was. I let him pass and followed his pace for a while, trying everything and everything in my power to regain composure – to get back in the race.
After doing his best to brighten my spirits, Chicago left me in the dust of the Black Canyon trail when I stopped to hike a small hill. I told him I’d see him later, but was pretty confident by this point I wouldn’t. I was hiking more and more, and even though the trail exposure was certainly the same, my mind projected a barren desert wasteland sprawled in front of me, shimmering heat waves coaxing me to into submission and delirium.
I trudged on, my once spry, light step, now felt more akin to a death march – plodding and tramping slowly forward, kicking sand and rocks aimlessly and without control to do otherwise. Finally I came upon the Soap Creek Aid station. I could tell by the look on the faces of the volunteers that I didn’t look great. I found some shade beneath the canopy next to the ice water bucket and sponged myself off. I gasped as the cold water ran down my back, causing my whole body to brace. It was painful, but it was the only thing I could do – nothing sounded good, nothing tasted good, I was dizzy, my eyes were going cross, and my head had started to hurt. I should have stopped here.
But I didn’t.
A few minutes passed. I forced myself to eat a whole gel packet, chips, and some pretzels, & two salt tablets, all washed down with as much ginger ale as I could stomach, I pushed on. I even started running, or at least I thought I did – I looked down at my Suunto, and much to my despair was pushing a 12 minute mile. Downhill.
Fatigue doesn’t even begin to describe it. There was no soreness, no stiffness, no pain. Just nothingness. I couldn’t force my legs to move faster, no matter how I tried. I punched my quads, laid down in a creek crossing, sat on a rock and stretched; anything and everything I could do to force some more “oomph” out of my tree trunks I tried. Nothing helped. I was distressed beyond words, but had been sucked dry by the desert to the point that I couldn’t muster a single tear of frustration.
After a long, slow descent, another creek crossing should have livened my spirits. Instead, I trudged through the shallow sandy ravine and onto the opposite shore without so much as a single word. I climbed for what seemed like days up and over a short rise of switchbacks. I was being passed every few minutes. I crested the hill and began the switchback laden descent into the Black Canyon City aid station. A 0.9 mile stretch of trail was intended to be an out and back section. For me, it was just an out.
I arrived at the aid station, practically ignored the aid station volunteers, and sought out Natasha. She looked at me, and I just shook my head. I couldn’t muster the courage to verbalize what I was processing. I couldn’t say that I was quitting – it hurt to even think those words. I didn’t say anything, but I think she already knew.
I sat in the trunk of our Subaru for 15 minutes, Natasha forcing me to drink water. When I stood up, the aid station volunteers must have noticed my state of depletion, because immediately someone was by my side asking if they could get me anything. I asked for ginger ale, and accompanied them to the table. They showed me to a cot in the far corner of the canopy, and invited me to lie down.
The medic on duty was caring and gentle and supportive, and for that I was appreciative. I knew that everything she was saying was meant out of kindness, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated as she continued to try to provide condolences and comforts. I was given pickle juice, water, salt tablets, ginger ale, solids, and time to rest. Every one of the volunteers wanted to see me push forward and cross the finish line. I know they did – I even got an impromptu pacer volunteer. I repeatedly and profusely told everyone thank you, accepting advice and information willingly, wishing that somehow I would hear something or be able to do something that I hadn’t tried or thought of before to get back on the trail.
After lying on the cot for what must have been half an hour or so, the medic asked if she could take my blood pressure. I agreed, and the cuff came flying out of her supply bag. I offered up my left arm and waited as the cool plastic pressed against my tepid skin.
“117 over 70, and if you stand up, it’ll drop at least 20 points”
I knew it was over. All the hopeful thoughts and comforting, supportive words in the world couldn’t undo those numbers. The medic gave a solemn nod of the head and said something to the effect of “I wouldn’t advise you to continue”. I looked at Natasha, and my heart sunk. I tried to cry again, but still nothing would come out.
I was so ANGRY. I had moved beyond frustration and sadness into a state of jaw-clenching hatred for the environment and the trail and my inability to monitor my own homeostasis. I knew anger wouldn’t do me any good, but it was all that I could feel at the moment. I walked to the car, back again, to the car, back again, looked at the medic, looked at Natasha, the trail, my shoes, and back to the trail again. And then I took the longest walk of the day.
I approached two older gentlemen with radio packs and clipboards. I informed them of my decision. Without remorse or hesitation, they radioed in “Number 79 dropped” the sound of which resonated through my skull. Everything else went quiet. I lumbered back towards the car, the weight of the afternoon’s events pulling my head and my heart into a deep, dark place.
I remembered to thank all of the volunteers: the medic, the pacer, the ginger ale guy.
I sat down in the passenger side of the Subaru – and didn’t look back. It was gaoing to be a long drive.
//Post Race Reflections:
- From my recollection (though I could be – probably am – wrong), there were over 180 entrants in the day’s 100K. Only 89 of those individuals finished. Sometimes the mountain (or in this case the canyon) wins.
- Hydration, hydration, hydration. This was the bane of my American River 50 Mile debut as well. Dehydration is entirely debilitating. I’m re-working my hydration and logistics strategy to accommodate the heat that I know is coming this race season. Sauna time and higher capacity gear will be central to improvements in this area.
- DNF’s happen. So do DNS’s and poor performances. I know this, I’ve lived it. It never makes the happenings easier, but accepting that they happen and understanding why they happen is the first of many steps to both learning from the negatives and improving in the future.
- Clearly, I’m disappointed by my performance in Arizona, but I’m trying to focus on the idea that everything is a learning experience and that failure is just one of the many steps toward success. This doesn’t stop the feelings of disappointment, sadness, and shame from echoing around the inside of my head as I nursed a splitting headache with water, salt, and (probably too much) caffeine on the long drive back to California. Too many “what if’s” linger in my brain – “what if I had another cup of pickle juice”, “what if I finished my first bottles between the start and the first aid station”, “what if I had only breathed through my nose”, “what if I hadn’t quit”. Even with all those “what if’s”, and despite the fact that the Black Canyon experience was a negative one, I’m reminded of exactly why I do what I do. I run because it is my passion – I ache for the feeling of freedom, power, and sovereignty that can only be felt on the trail as you move through the pine, sage, or cactus; scree and boulder. It is this passion, this longing, that drives me perpetually forward and into the next chapter of my existence. It is this drive that has given me direction for my race season and for the re-calibration of my race season goals (my amended schedule is up on my races/results page) and the courage to drop off of the ridgeline once more – plunging forward into the wilderness of the trail once more.
//Thanks & Commendations :
– Natasha, my beautiful, supportive wife (and my only crew). Even in the most irrational and illogical endeavors, I know that I always have your support and love. I couldn’t do it without you.
– Chris Vargo, the coach behind my continually improving performance. I’ve come so far, and I have so far yet to go. I’m proud to be working alongside you and I’m excited for the future we’re mapping.
– Aravaipa Running and Jamil Coury, the conductors behind the organized chaos that is race day. You put on a great race and I’m glad to have been part of the experience.
– The remaining cast and crew – both racers and support team members – for the strength and support offered selflessly to me and all the fellow runners on the trail that day. Without your provision, care, and guidance, we could never do what we do. You keep our head in the clouds and our feet on the trail, and for that (on behalf of racers everywhere) I sincerely thank you.
A huge congratulations is due to Ford Smith, Dave Mackey, Ryan Ghelfi as the male top 3; Caroline Boller, Angela Shartel, and Gina Lucrezi the female top 3. Truly great performances!
Congratulations, too, to all those who crossed the start line – even more so to those who crossed the finish.
I’m sure I’ll se you down the trail.