Posted by: pointlenana | February 21, 2017

Black Canyon 100k – Feb 18 2017

At The Finish/Mile 62: After I lay under the blankets shivering violently for 15 minutes, the medic took my temperature again.  The first time she tried, she couldn’t get a reading because my temp was too low.  Success this second time, in a way: 94.3 degrees.

Hidden Treasure/Mile 49:  Things are looking up.  Shuffling our way to the Bumblebee aid station at mile 42, I was definitely in a low spell.  My friend Steve was having occasional leg cramps, the slick red clay mud had reappeared, and the trail was just rocky enough to convince my wimpy brain that attempting to run was pointless.  A finish time of 14 hours or more seemed certain.  But a short way beyond Bumblebee, we tried running.  The mud disappeared.  We gradually got into a rhythm, and started ticking off consistent 11 minute miles.  We roll into Hidden Treasure at mile 49 feeling pretty good about things.  I do some mental math – finishing in 13 1/2 hours or even close to 13 seems possible.  Then reality asserts itself.

Wednesday before the Black Canyon 100k on Saturday:  While on vacation in Hawaii, I get email from the race organizers: “**Due to a forecast for heavy rain on race weekend and in consideration for the safety of every runner, volunteer, staff and crew, we have made the decision to implement the alternate course which will avoid the lower crossings of the Agua Fria River.**  Current forecasts are calling for upwards of an inch of rain over the weekend across the course. Low temperatures the morning of the race could be in the low 40’s and the high may peak at 60 degrees down near Black Canyon City (which is at a much lower elevation than Spring Valley). High temperatures at the finish line at Mayer High are expected to reach 50 degrees and again dip down into the low 40’s at night.”  I check the NOAA hourly forecast and see that winds of 20-30mph are also expected.  So much for thinking that Arizona heat might be a challenge.

Thur night:  I arrive home at 10pm and then spend an hour emptying my roller bag and refilling it with race stuff I set aside before our vacation, swapping a few heat-related things out and adding a couple warm things.  Except for the wind, it seems like I’ll be running the race in standard Seattle weather.  If I’m moving, I’ll be fine, and if I’m not moving, something has probably gone badly wrong and I’ll have to drop out of the race for other reasons.  Then I head to bed. My flight to Arizona leaves the next morning.

Friday night:  It’s been a long time since I haven’t been able to sleep before a race.  I go to bed at 9pm Arizona time – 6pm according to the time zone my body had adjusted to while on vacation.  I lie there awake for a few hours.  I decide that 2 days of sitting on airplanes wasn’t enough activity to make me sleepy.  Then I get anxious about not sleeping, which keeps me awake.  I read for a bit and then try again for at least a short nap.  No luck.  I had set my alarm for 3:45am but at 3am I swear one last time, toss the covers off, and start getting ready.

The Race:  The Black Canyon 100k takes place north of Phoenix, starting on the track at Mayer High School in Spring Valley.  Normally it is point-to-point and finishes just north of Phoenix, but due to the weather and the potentially dangerous river crossings in the second half, Aravaipa Running made the last-minute decision to turn it into an out-and-back.  We would run down the canyon from Mayer to Black Canyon City, and then run back up to Mayer.

As I drive up to Mayer, it’s fairly warm and mostly dry.  A few miles from Mayer (at 4000 feet), the temperature drops quickly to 45 degrees and the rain starts.  I arrive, mill around in the gym and eventually find each of the 3 other people I’ve met through the Runners World online forums.  I make a trip out to the portapotties – the rain has stopped while I’ve been inside, but it starts again while I’m standing in line.  10 minutes before the race we move to the track/start – it’s definitely raining now and the runners clump up under two tiny little tents set up for the timing folks.  While I’m standing there under a tent, I see my friend Steve go by.  I hadn’t wished him a good race yet so I leave the shelter to do that.  We decide to start together – he’s much faster than me on pavement, but this is his first trail ultra.

We set off.  The first 2-3 miles are on pavement, and then we turn off onto trail.  The 100+ runners ahead of us are chewing the trail up, and the mud is challenging.  Or so I think.  A couple miles further on we round a bend and suddenly find ourselves in an 8 foot wide swath of 6 inch deep churned mud and puddles.  With only ~58 miles left to go, my shoes and feet are completely soaked.  Everyone is sliding around so much that I almost can’t run because I’m laughing so hard.  My adductors and abducters are getting a tremendous workout trying to keep my legs under my body – have I done anything to train them for this?  Cacti appear next to the trail, making the consequences of a fall even worse than usual.  I try not to think about having to run back through this later in the day after more rain and a few hundred more runners passing through on their way out and back.  Eventually we arrive at the Antelope Mesa aid station at mile 7.3.

From there the trail turns into, well, trail.  It’s about 5 miles from Antelope Mesa to Hidden Treasure – mostly downhill, nice single track, wet but generally not slick.  We’re running down the side of the canyon now, curving in and out of gullies.  Sometimes the narrow trail turns sharply around a corner, cambering slightly down towards a non-trivial drop off.  If it were muddy it would be scary, but traction stays good.  I spot the aid station about a mile in the distance, and then discover that it’s really two miles of running because the trail winds around so much.

Miles and aid stations pass.  Steve and I are generally staying in contact, not running every inch together but generally finding each other when we get separated.  He has long legs and walks uphill faster than I do.  I run faster downhill than he does – more practice.  The trail is pretty good except for occasional sections of slick red clay mud, and the landscape and views are nice if a bit monotonous.  I realize once again how lucky I am to live and run in a place where there is so much variety.  Temps warm up so I take off my rain jacket and stuff it in my pack even though it’s still raining off-and-on.  Somehow, without trying, we’re staying exactly – to the minute – on the time projection I plotted out before the race.

Around mile 28 we reach the turn off the regular trail down the canyon, to the alternate route into the Black Canyon City turnaround.  I drop Steve on a steady 2 mile downhill on a fire road and keep pushing through rollers into town.  Steve catches me as we walk uphill towards the aid station.  The road/trail turns to crap again – churned up mud, short steep uphill and downhill sections that we skid through.  We reach the halfway point (about 5 minutes behind my projection which had me finishing in 13:40), eat and head back.  Alan, another online friend (also from Seattle) is pulling into the aid station as we leave.  Eileen, the 3rd online friend, appears shortly after we’ve fought our way through the mud, maybe 30 minutes behind us.  The nice thing about out-and-back races is that you see every other runner at least once during the race.  Alan catches us as we walk back up the long fire road.

After reaching the top, I briefly drop Alan and Steve on another downhill but then their long legs take over again as we work our way up a gradual hill.  They pass me and Alan eventually disappears ahead.  Steve moves ahead as well, but somehow I eventually catch him.  Alan is nowhere in sight when we arrive at the Gloriana aid station (mile 38) and we assume he’s long-gone ahead of us.  We eat, Steve does some shoe adjustment, and I make a desperately-needed pit stop.  We set off towards Bumblebee with just less than a marathon ahead.

I’m hating life now.  The short slick muddy sections don’t seem so short anymore.  I’m tired.  We have a long way to go.  Steve tells me he saw a forecast that said the rain was supposed to hit hard at 6pm, and at our slow pace we’re on track to finish around 9pm.  There’s that muddy section lurking at the end of the race.  I eat a gel, hoping that I just have a nutrition problem and that life will get better with food.  Alan reappears – from behind us!  Somehow we’d missed him in the previous aid station.  We’re walking uphill again and once again I’m drifting slowly backwards from both Steve and Alan.  After an eternity, we arrive at Bumblebee.  I’m pretty sure the next 7 mile segment is the crux – get that done and then there is a short 5 mile leg up a possibly-runnable hill, and finally fighting through the mud to the finish.  The mud will be ugly but with the finish near it will just be a matter of brute force.  Right?

Bumblebee (mile 42) to Hidden Treasure (mile 49) goes well – Steve and I are running again.  Somehow we drop Alan.  I notice my bib flapping in the wind and realize I’ve lost two safety pins somehow.  At the aid station I ask for safety pins – they don’t have them.  “Has anyone dropped – maybe there’s a bib here with safety pins?”  They point me at a guy who had just decided to drop.  “I’m sorry your day is ending – can I have two of your pins?”  It’s a bit after 5 o’clock – it’s going to get dark and cold and rainy soon so I wrestle my rain jacket on.  As I do, it starts pouring.  I know I’ll have to dig my flashlight out in about an hour, so I do not put on my hat and gloves just yet – “I’m plenty warm when we’re running and I’ll probably be too hot inside my jacket anyway” I say to myself.

We set off again, walking a bit to digest whatever we ate at the aid station.  The wind picks up and we’re getting cold, so we start running.  After a few minutes I glance back – Steve is nowhere in sight.  I slow down a bit, until I see him come around a bend behind me.  The trail turns upwards, and once again my short legs are no match for Steve’s.  Or Alan’s – he reappears behind Steve.  They both pass me.  I’m cold but I want to make the most of the last daylight so I keep going.  Steve and Alan both disappear ahead.

I realize I’m too cold so I try to find a spot that’s slightly sheltered from the wind, and dig out my hat, gloves and flashlight.  The hat goes on for warmth, then I stuff my baseball cap over it to keep the rain out of my eyes.  My hands are swollen and my flashlight is getting in the way, and the gloves don’t go on so easily.  I keep moving, but with rocks in the trail and the difficulty of getting the gloves on, I don’t move quickly.  Eventually the gloves are on and I move upwards as quickly as I can.  The wind hadn’t really started in the morning until we started down this hill, so I’m hoping the wind will let up once I reach the top.  Night comes, it gets foggy in spite of the wind, and there’s no sign of lights from Alan or Steve ahead.  I reach the top of the hill and the wind… doesn’t stop.  But at least the fog disappears.  I see some headlights ahead on the plateau.  Best case I’m 5 minutes behind Steve and/or Alan.  I’m cold but it’s fairly flat from here and there’s only 7 miles to the finish.

As I arrive at the last aid station, Steve is just about ready to leave.  I pour in a couple cups of warm broth and leave with him.  Only 7+ miles to go – it will be muddy and take forever, but then we’ll be done.  After a short bit of muddy trail, we are suddenly in what looks like the aftermath of a buffalo stampede.  Where the trail had been 8 feet of churned up mud in the morning, it is now 20 feet wide.  Puddles that had been 2 inches deep are now 6 inches deep.  It is impossible to find dry, solid sections, so we give up and wade through the muddy puddles (or puddly mud?).  Every step refills my shoe with 40 degree water.  Every step is an adventure – which way will my foot slide this time?   We are not moving fast at all, and the wind is strong and cold.  We start debating how long the mud will last, given that there was some road at the very beginning.  Steve thinks 4 miles because he’s an optimist.  I’ve done a lot of ultras, so I’m sure it’s at least 5 miles, probably 7, and possibly even 20 or 30.

We stumble on forever, and I finally look at my watch to see how far we’ve gone since the aid station.  Only 2 miles.  The mud continues.  We’re both really cold.  The wind is not letting up.  Neither is the rain.  I suddenly remember that we had a mile or two of muddy trail before we hit the stampede section in the morning.  Maybe we only have one more mile of hell to go?   We pick our way around puddles that are 12-feet wide and of unknown depth (thereby ensuring that the runners after us will have 13-foot wide puddles to get around).  Somehow we both stay upright.  I stop looking at the distance because it doesn’t matter anymore.  Nor does our finish time.  The mud froth abates a little, but the trail is still slick and rocky and we don’t move quickly.

Eventually – days later – we arrive at the road.  We can see the lights of Spring Valley and Mayer High in the distance.  With maybe 2 miles left, we break into a sprint which in this case looks like two zombies stumbling down the road at just-better-than-walking pace.  As we run, we weave a bit and nearly collide several times.  I’m not sure if this is Steve veering into me, me veering into him, or just my cold-addled and sleep-deprived brain hallucinating.  The road is easier to run on than the mud, but it lasts forever just like the mud.  As we near the town, my ability to spot trail markers fails.  Fortunately there are a few people around and they point us the right way.  We stumble up a short ramp, cross the finish line on the track, find some finishers stuff thrust into our hands, and immediately turn towards the gym to warm up.

In the gym, we find our bags of dry clothes and head to the locker room to change.  We open the door to the locker room and it’s cold inside.  Nope, I’m not changing there.  I find myself in the men’s room instead, desperately trying to get my cold wet clothes off.  Putting dry clothes on turns into a topology problem – what goes where?  I have no balance and have to hang onto things to stay upright.  I get most of my dry clothes on, including a pair of shorts, but have to go out and sit on a bench to get my tights on.  I talk to Steve and Alan briefly and then head off to find food and a warm drink.  The medic notices that I’m having trouble picking M&Ms up.  “Do you want to lie down under those blankets?”  “Um… Yes, I do.”

The Lessons: I’ve had cold and muddy races before.  This was my first race that added significant wind and over-the-top mud to the mix.  From what I’ve read, I was somewhere between mild and moderate hypothermia when I finished.  The next stage after moderate is the one where you might die.  I did some things right, e.g. I carried the emergency bivy sack I got for UTMB – a bivy sack would have been useful if one of us couldn’t continue somewhere between aid stations, or if we found another runner stopped on the trail.  But I was under-prepared for the conditions and lucky to finish, and I’m happy to come away alive.  These are the things I’ll do differently next time conditions might be like this.

Poles:  Just after leaving the turnaround, I saw a runner with poles, and saw a few more through the day.  “Why didn’t I think of poles???”  Because I don’t like them and don’t use them often.  Most of the time they aren’t that helpful and they are a pain to get on and off my pack.  In this mud though, poles would have helped me move more confidently and possibly quickly enough to keep myself warm.

Wool shirt:  Like poles, I don’t like most wool garments because I’m hyper-sensitive to the scratchiness.  But basically I haven’t tried wool in at least 20 years, it’s gotten a lot better since then, and it would have been at least a little warmer than my tech shirt.

Fluids/food:  I noticed that I didn’t drink much through the day – it wasn’t hot, and there was plenty of rain water flowing over my body.  Also, late in the race when I was cold, drinking cold water wasn’t even slightly appealing.  Maybe I got dehydrated, maybe I didn’t.  But this was also a problem because I was using drink mix (Tailwind) to get calories between aid stations.  I tried to compensate by eating a lot at aid stations, but that usually meant walking out of the aid station for a ways to digest – and cooling off as I walked.  I would do two things differently.  First, I’d carry more gels/ultra food to have the option of eating something between aid stations instead of drinking for calories.  Second, I might take a few mint teabags and make warm mint tea for my bottle (if there is enough hot water at aid stations).

Flip flops:  Spare shoes during the race would have been pointless – soaked immediately.  But I didn’t bring shoes to put on after the race, and I couldn’t imagine taking my cold wet shoes off and then having to put them back on to get out to my car.  So, while I was lying under the blankets shivering after the race, my cold wet shoes were keeping my feet (and body) nice and cold.  I usually bring dry shoes when I can drive from my house to the race, but space is limited when I have to travel and I only had one other pair to fly home in.  But I’m sure I had space for a cheap pair of flip flops, which would have been enough to get my feet out of the cold shoes and across the parking lot to my car.  Steve was smarter than I was – when I last saw him in the gym, he was walking around barefoot.

There are a bunch of other things I could do – rain pants, extra layers, drop bags, etc..  For a long race – 100 miles or more – I would do (and have done) those things.  I am trying to be realistic here about what I will actually do for a weathery 100k, given luggage constraints, willingness to carry extra stuff just in case, etc..  The four things above are pretty easy.

On the positive side, I had zero blisters in spite of the mud.  Zero blisters even though I had a weird insole failure like Eliud Kipchoge did at the Berlin Marathon the year I ran it – around mile 20 (and a few times after) I felt something weird, pulled my gaiter back, and saw my insole peeking out of the shoe by my ankle.  Zero blisters in spite of conditions that had me wondering how long it takes to get trenchfoot.  Thank you TrailToes!

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After the race.  Me, Steve, Alan.  Looking surprisingly ok.

Kudos: Alan finished very strong, about 50 minutes before us, in ~13:21.  Steve finished his first trail ultra, in 14:10.  According to the official/chip times, I finished 2 seconds behind Steve – finishing just 2 seconds behind Steve in a race has to be an all-time performance for me.  (It took us about 2 hours 20 minutes to do those last 7.3 miles – barely better than 20 minute miles in a section that is relatively flat).  Eileen finished about an hour after us (and seemed to be as cold as I was when I finished).  The winner finished in less than 8 hours (but had much less mud to deal with than most other runners.)  A woman named Emily finished shortly after us – I talked to her during the race, she’s from Chicago and trained for this rocky, muddy, hilly 100k race by running on the paved lakeshore path (but she said she also did a training 50k trail race … in Florida).  9 people finished in the last hour before the 20 hour cutoff – meaning they were still wading through that horrible mud at 1 or 2am, several hours after we finished.  Everyone who finished that race after it got dark is tough and/or insane.

I am really impressed with Aravaipa Running.  The race was well-marked, the aid stations were good, etc., but in particular they handled the last-minute course change really well.  Tons of information about the change conveyed in multiple ways (multiple emails, video on Facebook, content on their website).  It’s one of the best examples of change management I’ve ever seen.

https://www.strava.com/activities/873023059/embed/abe3165ae2b9270d094bccdbba52761230620d31

Steve’s race report (which is reassuringly similar to mine).


Responses

  1. […] may be out of order or inaccurate in one way or another. Mark’s race report – linked HERE – is probably more accurate (I’m not going to read his until at some point after mine […]

  2. You already know this, but I greatly appreciated running the bulk of this race with you, Mark. Great report as always. Oh, and by the way, my feet are swollen, and I have a blister on my heel. Pretty sure it’s trenchfoot…

    • I looked it up, and it turns out you can get trenchfoot in as little as 13 hours. So it’s definitely trenchfoot. I’d start sniffing to see if it’s gangrenous.

      • I thought I smelled something on the airplane…

  3. thanks for the report, it means a lot to get a kudos from you! my boss told everyone about my 100k today at work and I got a few scowls 🙂 I think I want to do a dryer 100k to see how I can do!


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