Thursday, February 23, 2017

Black Canyon 100k race report

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...
~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
There is inherently a level of stupidity that accompanies an ultra-marathon regardless of the distance. Combine that with atypical Arizona weather conditions - rain, wind and cold temperatures - and 2 types of people showed up for the Black Canyon 100k this year:
  1. This sucks. I hate running. I quit.
  2. Play in the mud? Cool! Sounds awesome!
This historically hot and dry race got flipped on its head as a storm front moved through central Arizona over the weekend dumping almost 1.5" of rain and dropping evening temperatures into the mid-30's.

The Dicken's quote is significant for me because despite the conditions and change to the course, this was perhaps my best worst race ever...

Start to Antelope Mesa (mile 7.3)

Adrenaline combined with race-day excitement makes the first couple miles of the race whiz by as you're running through the streets of Mayer. Once we turned onto the Forest Service road however, I had serious doubts in my head that this race was going to happen.

...and this was when it was in good shape!
Photo: SweetM Images
Think about the deepest, stickiest mud you can possibly imagine - the kind where your shoes sinks in 3-4 inches, creates enough suction and causes your heel to pop out of your shoe. After about 50 feet of this (a) running is not longer an option, (b) the cumulative mud-pack on the bottom of your shoes has made you 6" taller and (c) your groin is strained from all the lateral slipping.

It's a good thing you eventually hop onto the AZT - which was in MUCH better shape...I wasn't about to spend the entire day slogging through a mud-bog.

Antelope Mesa to Hidden Treasure (mile 12.5)

I don't remember anything super-good or bad about this section. The AZT was in pretty good shape and the wind started to die down but other than that, my focus was settling into a solid pace.

This would be the first time I'd see my crew as well. Apparently, I already looked defeated...while I don't remember acting like I was going to drop, GG says he deliberately rushed me through the aid station just to be sure :-)

Yes, it's still raining.

Hidden Treasure to Bumble Bee (mile 19.2)

Aside from the mileage and consistent hammering your knees take from the downhill portion of this course, I don't remember having any issues through this 20 miles.

The rain started to subside a bit but not enough to ditch the rain coat. The awesome part of this race is that the AZT is extremely friendly to runners and of course net downhill. It's also the part that can trash your quads because it's way too easy to fly down the course.

I made a point this year to keep my pace in check no matter what (I didn't pick a pace, I just settled into one that felt like I could run all day).

Due to the course change, I did spend quite a bit of time considering what I would need to take for the next 20 miles. Bumble Bee is the last place you see your crew for the next 5-6 hours.

Bumble Bee ONB (mile 42.2)

Fast-forward a bit. I've left Bumble Bee and arrive at Gloriana Mine to find multiple trail friends hanging out and cheering everyone on. It's always a great feeling to have folks around propping you up and yelling words of encouragement.

Should I go on? Absolutely!
Photo: TA Mora

Leaving Gloriana Mine, you head off on what looks like a very reasonable section of trail only to see a big-ass climb in front of you...specks of people making their way up and over to the turn-around point (Soap Creek). It was a climb but nothing too horrible.

Sweet mother of Mary, the rain has stopped. Is it getting warm?!

Descending into Black Canyon City, it's very easy to go crazy on the descent. But I didn't. I kept my relaxed pace and let gravity do most of the work.

What seemed like forever, I finally got to the turn around point and nearly stripped down to nothing because it was so warm compared to the start. I was dreading the climb back up the mountain but ended up chatting with a new Dirtbag friend from Phoenix...turns out we have a few friends in common - such a small world. The time passed quickly and before long, we'd crested and were heading back down into Gloriana Mine.

Still, no rain.

Lots of people stopped at Gloriana to change their socks and shoes. It made me wonder if I'd made a mistake only having nutrition waiting for me. I didn't really have any feet issues at the time and was honestly debating on whether to change them when I got back to Bumble Bee. My Peregrine + Injinji combo were solid up to that point even with the moisture and mud so I figured why change what's working?

Turns out, changing shoes at Bumble Bee was the best thing EVER. In fact, I changed everything to ensure I started the final stretch as dry as I could.

And then the rain started again.

Bumble Bee to Antelope Mesa (mile 54.1)

After my extensive wardrobe change, RM would pick me up to begin pacing. An uneventful stretch would put us into Hidden Treasure just as darkness set in...earlier than normal because of the cloud cover. The weather of course was poised to get nasty.

Somewhere around mile 50 the Stinger chews weren't happening. I can only surmise that I was eating too much and over-hydrating. Cause I spewed. Hard. A couple lurches and my stomach emptied...and instantly I felt better! Carry on! :-)

The rain was now near horizontal and escalated to real drops that made runners, crew and aid stations just miserable. Now add the 20 mph winds and colder temperatures and we knew by the time we reached Antelope Mesa, the last 7 miles were going to be a doozy.

Antelope Mesa to Finish (61.4)

This aid station was a complete mess. Barely big enough for the tables and volunteers, runners and crew were doing their best to cram under the flapping tent wings in hopes of staying warm.

Though the trek out of the valley to the final aid station was slow and steady, I had not allowed my core temperature to drop - always moving and still bundled up. I did have a problem with my hands however - they were cold and soaked from the rain...biting even more in the sharp winds.

GG stepped into pace the last 7 miles and also offered up his completely water-proof gloves. Definitely clutch!

Off we went into what I already knew was going to be the messiest, slowest and wettest part of the run given what we'd slogged through earlier that day. Man, it did not disappoint.

No path was dry. No line was solid. You'd slip. You'd slide. You couldn't tell the mud from the rocks. The only thing you could do was run straight through the massive puddles clinging to what little balance and foot strength you had left...praying you didn't fall on your face.

"That's not mud chuck-o"

The only saving grace or running through cold water is that it helps with swollen feet!

Before long we found ourselves on solid ground and within site of the city lights fighting the wind gusts and rain pelting the right side of our faces. We both swore it was sleet but I'm guessing it was just a cold rain with a little sting in it.

I've never been so happy to run roads than I was those last couple miles back to the high school! You know it's a tough stretch when you pass 3 different solo runners bundled up in their silver/gold emergency blankets.

I would run into the track with little to no fanfare - RM taking some video and a lonely volunteer at the finish line attempting to take my picture. Happy to be done I thanked them, grabbed by pint and buckle and continued to run towards the high school gym were my warm clothes and food were waiting.

Not a single blister...thanks Injinji!

Closing Thoughts

The best worst race ever: I paced myself completely from the start and ran 75% of the course. Despite the elements, I fueled and hydrated well, kept moving and never got mental about the distance or trail conditions. I finished 30 minutes slower than last year's 'normal' conditions...perhaps faster had I not stopped to change clothes 5 times :-)

Cross-training = strength: last year, my knees and quads took a pounding on the course. This year, after hours and hours of strength training, I felt stronger than ever over the entire day. Tired, but never weak from the elevation loss/gain.

Be prepared: I freely admit that even with as many layers of clothes and rain coats I brought with me, I was not fully prepared for the resulting cold and rain. Had it not been for my crew, a waterproof rain coat and gloves my race would have likely ended in a DNF. Never take the Arizona elements for granted.


  1. It was amazing to see your execution during the race. Honestly the biggest learning experience I've ever had. When do I get to crew the next one :)

    1. Yes, crewing and pacing is honestly a great place to learn through the process (and mistakes) of others. Glad you guys were there to get me through the night. Next race = ??? :-)

  2. You did awesome on that course in those conditions. The key was to not fight the course or lose your cool because of nasty weather. Major props to anyone and everyone that toed the line for the 100K/60K event. Even the folks who DNF'd for various reasons have my utmost respect. Can't wait to catch up on your experience.

    1. Miles 0-5 were questionable for me dude. Slogging through those pastures was hell. After that, I embraced the suck and just kept going. Certainly one for the books!