Black Canyon 100k
20 February 2020
This race was a mixed bag for me. Beautiful weather. The full epic course with no rain reroutes. Excellent fitness. More experience on my side. Everything was in my favor. But in ultras there's no such thing as a meaningful plan. The race gives you what it sees fit, and the skill comes in working with what you're given.
What I was given was 50k of cramps that made every step a risky investment and each rock in the path twice as tall. Weirdly, though, in the days since I've found that's exactly what I needed to get me refocused.
But let's back up. The first hint of fatigue hit around 20km in, still up on the mesa. The rain had made lots of mud, which the cattle and elk (?) had undoubtably had a great time walking through. All that had now dried out and frozen. It was not flat. The rocks that had been just below the surface were now somehow sticking out just enough to need to be dealt with. We were all fresh off a nice taper. It was fine. But I suspect it was burning the candle quicker than it felt like. At 20k I merely took note— this is a run. You feel like you've been running. No big deal. Keep on.
Somewhere in here I talked to my wife, who was crewing me, on the phone. It was fine. During the first training run I remember being ready to be done around here. I remember a particular dip in the trail that marked the spot I had realized that a few months ago. I was happy that I felt no where near being done… in fact I felt pretty great.
I learned from her that the livetracking software I had been working day and night on for the last few weeks (red flag #1) had gone down. I made a call to my brother and had him log into the server. The hard disk had zero bytes available. I love that Linux can run out of disk space and hum along nicely, just unable to actually do anything needing disk space. He adjusted some log levels and I resized the disk from my phone (!) on the trail (!) without hanging up (!!) in about 20 seconds (!!!). What a time to be alive.
I rolled into Bumble Bee (30k) feeling much better than last year. I found my wife, saw my friends, and got back out in a reasonable time. The first non-trivial climb is immediately after Bumble Bee, and I felt good that I had been responsible early-on. I continued that theme and hiked the hill while the runner in front of me continued to push. My hiking pace was only slightly slower than his running pace. I quickly dropped him at the top of the hill— his running pace wasn't any faster after the climb, but I was still fresh. Why people kill themselves slowly running hills above threshold I do not understand.
Just after this another guy mentioned he was falling apart. I don't remember what prompted the conversation, but we were 35k in and he was talking like he was done. Most muscle glycogen is depleted around 28-35k into a long race. This is early in a 100k, so it's not outside the realm of possibility to have runners not yet serious about fueling. But the fact that it's early is one of the reasons I love ultramarathons: you have a chance (right. now.) to redeem yourself and bounce back. I told him as much; that it was exactly the right place to be starting a low point and that it can always turn around. His reply sounded pretty defeated. I hope he kept pushing.
Pretty quickly I hit the new section of mining road. The first time I ran this bit I didn't know how much of the trail the Kay Mine had destroyed— I was headed north at the time and the road went all the way to Big Bug for all I knew. Race day, though, only a vague memory of the situation briefly stumbled into my head before wander off wherever lost dreams go. It must have been around 45k in, and I was starting to hit my own low point.
I came through Soap Creek and the 50k point at about 5:03. A few minutes slower than last year, but still feeling relatively fine. Last year I went out fast. This year I was very much in control and right on pace. The only thing that worried me was that my left hamstring wasn't letting go after each stride. There was a strong tug exactly at the wrong time, when I needed to extend my leg again.
This was at its most obvious on the way into Black Canyon City just before 60k, on a trail I've run countless times. I caught a toe and took a fall. Somehow I made it extra graceful this time. It didn't matter, though, because getting up sucked worse. I tried a few times but I cramped so hard I only made it half way. Finally when people started to stop to help me I managed to get myself back up on my feet.
Coming into Black Canyon City aid my stride was thrown off and with it any efficiency I hoped to carry through the race. My crew and my friends tried to help me, but there wasn't much to say. I'd listened to a podcast about cramping the week prior— back when cramping was not a thing I'd needed to worry about. My take away was that there isn't one cause, and so there isn't one solution. There probably just wasn't much to tell me— but insisting on some pickle juice probably wouldn't have hurt.
Instead, I kept doing what I had been doing: a Hammer gel every 30min, Hammer fizz in my bottle, and watermellon and potatoes at each aid station. It hadn't helped that far, but I didn't change it. I should have. Lesson learned.
I wasn't the only one in rough shape at that point, though. I saw my friend Travis who came and said hi. He was there to pace, but his running was peeing blood. This was a theme at Black Canyon City this year. Against my better judgement I asked him if he wanted to jump in with me. To this point I had started listening to music, which I had denied myself the week prior. It was so powerful, and I wanted to see what would happen in the latter stages of the race, but I'm not antisocial and I won't drown out someone whose job is to be there with me.
This turned out to be a great decision. The guy is just so positive and realistic his attitude grounded me and kept me outside of my head. No, I'm not going to get lost on the Black Canyon Trail, but pacing has enormous mental benefits. I felt bad that I could only move on the downhills, but he didn't seem to mind.
The downhills were good though. I was fully aware that I would need to be efficient moving downhill at Black Canyon this year. Last year I worked so hard "taking it easy" (being slow) that my quads were destroyed early on. This year my downhills didn't require nearly as much musclular input to maintain. I was still faster than 4:40/km (7:30/mi) after 80km on the downhills. Unfortunately, I was having trouble seeing clearly and quickly and picking out rocks.
The southern end of the Black Canyon Trail past Table Mesa becomes very rocky very quickly. Lacking in nimbleness is not a winning situation. It had become clear that my goals were no longer attainable. The shadows were awful long for someone who was going to finish before sunset. I just couldn't run. My legs kept locking up.
So I hiked. Hard. If one stride wouldn't work I'd try another. I was slower this year, but I was much more tenacious. I put in a high effort level the entire day. It's easy to finish a race and then think back, "man, if only I would have been faster on that section; pushed then." I don't regret slacking off this year because I didn't. I'm happy to be able to say that. Especially because sometimes that's all an ultra will let you leave with.
Well, that and a shiny new buckle.
Somewhere around Doe Springs at 95km I tipped over a mental edge, though. I had been trying to keep in mind that the pain was normal, and it was unchangeable; it was the new normal. After several hours of pushing that thought I convinced myself good and hard that this was the new normal. I convinced myself that this was just how it was. And how it would always be. I started to feel like there was actually no finish line. That we would just continue like this indefinitely. I think that took some wind out of my sails. The fact that this can happen with less than a 5k to go is infinitely fascinating to me. I know better. The reality is obvious. But that didn't matter.
I didn't beleive we were close until way beyond being able to physically see the finish line. I ran up that hill, got a giant hug from Jubilee, and got my buckle. I'm still processing the experience and the weeks leading up to the race. I want to improve. I will follow up with a breakdown of my mistakes leading up as these ideas firm up in my head a bit more. In the mean time, thank you for enduring my tale of endurance. 12 hours of running is hard to condense.