Thursday, June 19, 2014

Race recap: Bryce 100

31 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds. That's how long it took me to complete my first 100 miler. During that time, I experienced just about every emotion possible. Joy. Excitement. Fear. Anger. Laughter. Happiness. Sadness. I could go on, but you get my point. When running an ultra, I feel very exposed. I'm pouring every ounce of energy I have in me which puts me in a very vulnerable state. One moment I might be happy and the next I'm cursing and want to have nothing to do with the race. While ultra running requires a large physical effort, the amount of mental stamina required is two fold. For, it is not your body, but your mind that will break first in an ultra.

I knew going into the Bryce 100 that this was not going to be an easy race. 19,000 feet of elevation gain at an altitude between seven to nine thousand feet is no joke. It scared the shit out of me. But, as I eluded to in my previous post, I knew I was ready. I felt strong and confident at the start. As long as I didn't get injured during the run, I knew I could finish. Having that belief in myself made all the difference, especially when things got rough, which it did, many times.

The race started without hitch at 6am on a cool, clear Utah morning. The sun had yet to make its appearance over the horizon, but the sky was already bursting full of beautiful dawn colors. After a two mile section on a wide ATV road, it was onto the single tracks. The course weaved back and forth and up and down through a maze of beautiful ponderosa pines. Before long, the course emptied out into Red Canyon and the unique hoodoo formations that make the Bryce landscape so special.

The course was a 50 mile out and back. The 50 mile race started at the same time as the 100 mile, so it was quite busy at the start. As soon as we hit the single tracks, the running congo lines formed. The runners around me were a chatty bunch. "You running the 50 or 100?" was a common question I heard. I tend to keep quiet and rarely strike up a conversation with those around me. Yet, if someone engages me, I will happily chat with them.

My main focus at the beginning of the race was to take in lots of fluid. Everyone told me that hydration was paramount when running at altitude. It didn't take long for me to settle into my groove at the start. I ran easy on the flats, walked the uphills and let gravity carry me on the downhills. I could definitely tell that my downhill running was much stronger. Instead of runners flying past me on the descents, I was flying past them. It felt good and bounding down the hills like a wild animal was a lot of fun!

Near the Proctor aid station (Mile 18) I felt a little pain in my right foot and immediately knew was it was, a blister. Sure enough, when I pulled off my shoe and sock at Proctor I had a nice one on the inside of my second to last toe. I couldn't believe it. I rarely get blisters and to get one not even a quarter into my race sucked. Thankfully, a fellow runner loaned me some vaseline and I slapped a nice glob over it. I also had placed one of my drop bags at Proctor so I took some extra time restocking my supplies and putting on a fresh shirt and new pair of socks.
The stretch between Proctor and Blubber Creek (Mile 27) aid stations was one of the longest stretches between aid stations at 9 miles. Many parts of the course here were lined with beautiful aspen trees. After one particularly steep climb through the aspens, the course opened up into lush valley full of green shrubs and wild flowers. It was gorgeous. The sun was now out in full force, but with temperatures in the 70s accompanied by the bone dry air of southern Utah, it made for comfortable running conditions. After stuffing my face full of deliciousness at Blubber Creek (thanks to whoever made the cheese quesadillas and rice and bean burritos) it was an 8 mile stretch to the next aid, Kanab Creek (Mile 35).

This section of the course was all above 8,500 feet, but to my surprise, the elevation didn't seem to affect my breathing at all. Many parts of the course here poked out near the rim of a canyon and gave my eyes plenty to look at and enjoy. My other drop bag was at Kanab and I again took some extra time to restock. The volunteers at each aid station were great. Before I could even ask for something, they were asking me if I needed anything. These guys make races like this possible. A big THANK YOU to you all!
Blubber Creek Aid. By far my favorite aid on course.
The nice part after Kanab was that the aid stations became more abundant at 5 mile intervals. A good portion of trail from Kanab to the Straight Canyon Aid Station (Mile 40) was downhill which let me lengthen my stride and increase my pace. I certainly wasn't stressing about my pace during the run, but it felt nice to put in a couple sub ten minute miles after the long and dragging uphill miles. Nearing Straight Canyon I noticed a guy off to side cheering runners on. "Nice job man, looking good" he said to me as I neared him. I then noticed that this wasn't just some guy standing off to the side, it was Hal Koerner. For those who don't know, in the ultrarunning community, Hal is one of the legends, having won the prestigious Western States 100 twice as well as a boat load of other ultras. So, to have him cheering for me was pretty awesome.
Heading out of Kanab
Heading into Straight Canyon
After a quick in and out at the Straight Canyon aid, it was a long 1,000+ foot climb to the next aid station, Pink Cliff (Mile 45). Minus the first mile or so out of Straight Canyon, this was pretty much a hiking section for me, but I didn't mind. After the fast miles coming into Straight Canyon, it gave me some time to recover. I remember from pictures I saw before the race that the views from Pink Cliff were beautiful, so I was eager to get up there. So eager, in fact, that I made a wrong turn. Doh! Thankfully, I didn't go too far off course, so it wasn't a big deal. Upon reaching Pink Cliff, my jaw dropped. This was the highest point of the course at well over 9,000 feet and the view was stunning.
Climb up to Pink Cliff
Leaving Pink Cliff, it was another 5 miles to the 50 mile turn at Crawford Pass. Almost halfway done! While this section was mostly downhill, I knew that I would immediately have to go right back up it. I reached Crawford Pass in under 13 hours, which was about what I expected. It was hard not to feel envy towards the 50 mile runners, knowing they were done and could relax. Part of me wished I was done too, but I knew that I still had another 50 miles to go. Let the mental games begin!
Pink Cliff
As I headed out of Crawford Pass, it was about 7pm and I knew I would only have about 2 hours of daylight left. It was my hope to make it back to Straight Canyon (Mile 60) before it was completely dark. I was looking forward to getting back to Straight Canyon because that's where my pacer (Rachel) would be joining me. The climb back up to Pink Cliff was slow, but overall, I was feeling good. I knew that after Pink Cliff it would be a nice drop back to Straight Canyon and I was looking forward to some faster miles.

Running down the small dirt road to Straight Canyon, I called out my race number to the aid station volunteers and immediately heard cheers from my friend Cathy (who had run the 50K earlier in the day), Rachel, and Sara (Rachel's friend). Seeing some familiar faces was great. I later learned that the dirt road to get to Straight Canyon was rather dicey, so an extra big thank you to Cathy and company for driving out to meet me. I warned Rachel to be ready for lots of hiking. I knew that there were a lot of hills ahead and running those wasn't in the cards for me.
Rachel and I before the start
The run (hike) back up to Kanab was slow, but having Rachel's company was nice. It was now completely dark out, but with clear skies, a near full moon, and our headlamps, it didn't seem too dark at all. In fact, at one point Rachel and I both turned out our headlamps just to see how bright the moon lit the ground. Looking up, a sky full of stars blazed brightly. It was awesome. How beautiful Utah is in the glow of the sun or the moon! The temperature had begun to drop, but as long as I was moving, it didn't affect me much.

I'm not sure if the darkness does weird things to the body, but I certainly lost the fire in my legs as the night wore on. After leaving Kanab (Mile 65), it was 8 long, long miles back to Blubber Creek (Mile 73). Once we reached Blubber Creek, I plopped down in a chair and knew that these last 27 miles were going to take awhile.

The stretch from Blubber Creek to Proctor Aid (Mile 82) sucked, plain and simple. I tried to run when I could, but my legs weren't having any of it. The life from them had been sucked away. Climbing the hills seemed to take forever. Rachel and I would soon joke that Bryce has never ending hills. They just seemed to keep going and going. Many times, I would have to sit down on a log and take a break. My mind was going in a million different directions. Thoughts of dropping entered my head. I was feeling miserable and I wanted nothing more than a warm bed to climb into. It moments like these when you begin to realize how important your goal is. Even though I felt like shit and didn't want to take another step, I refused to give up. Tired isn't an excuse to quit. As long as I could continue to put one foot in front of the other, no matter how slow, I would keep pressing forward. Each step brought me closer to the finish and I took comfort from that.

As we neared Proctor, dawn was on the horizon, which came as a big relief. I knew having some daylight would make me feel better, even if my legs didn't want to move faster. Reaching Proctor, I plopped down again near a bonfire they had burning. The warmth from the fire felt great and made leaving very hard. Sitting across from Rachel and I at the bonfire was Hal and his wife, which he was pacing for her run. I wanted to chat with Hal and tell him how much he inspires me, but the timing wasn't right. He and his wife were both doing their thing and I didn't want to disturb. Nonetheless, it was cool to sit and share a fire with such a great runner.

The last 18 miles contained very little running for me. Thanks to the very generous time cutoff (36 hours) I knew that I had plenty of time to make it to the finish. It was then that I began to realize that I might just finish this thing! However, my mind wouldn't let me believe that it was going to happen.

Rachel and I continued our trudge to the finish line. Even walking, the hills were so hard to climb up. Each footfall sent pain through my sore feet and up my tired legs. Yet, they were still moving. I'm not sure how, but there were. In any race, the will to finish will always carry you those last few miles. All the kinds words of support I received from my family and friends before the race were running through my head. I just had to keep moving!

With about a mile to go, Rachel and I spotted Cathy and Sara waiting for us. They had come out to greet and walk with us to the finish. When the finish came into view, relief flooded over. Relief that this race would soon be over. Relief that I was, indeed, going to reach my goal. I started to run again. I'm sure it wasn't pretty, but I wanted to cross the finish line running. 31 hour, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds after I started, I was done. As I sat in the finishers tent, looking at my beat up legs, the realization of what had just happened set in. I did it. 100 miles!

My thanks to everyone that supported and believed in me. Your words helped carry me to the finish and I'm forever grateful for all of you. I found it fitting that I finished this race on Father's Day and I felt my dad's presence many times during my run. He's always with me. This run was definitely for him.

Sweet handcrafted Bryce 100 belt bucket

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Second Try

"Failure will only whet the runner's appetite for another attempt." -Gary Cantrell, Barkley Marathons race director

Running isn't easy and that's why I love our sport. We pick goals that challenge us. Goals that we might think are a little beyond our reach. Goals that hurt like hell to achieve. Why? Because running is all about challenging ourselves. It's about pushing our bodies to a place its never been. A place where the unthinkable becomes reality. When that happens, it's one of the most amazing feelings in the world. It's like a drug that we can't get enough of. Once the high from achieving a goal wears off, we immediately find ourselves searching for that next challenge, that next high.

However, something that's never far away from our goals is the fear of failing to reach one. But, that's ok. Fear of not reaching a goal means we've set one that's hard, but realistic. We can't let the risk of failing shy us away from a goal. In fact, it can be used as motivation to achieve it. I believe we have an emotional tie to each goal we set. It might scare us. It might cause anxiety, uncertainty or even excitement. Having those emotions is what drives us to try. To prove our minds wrong. To succeed.

Why am I saying all this? Next week I'm attempting to achieve a goal I fell short of last year; finishing a 100 mile race. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm nervous as hell about the Bryce 100. With a course that boasts 19,000 feet of elevation gain at an elevation that varies between 7,000 to 9,000 feet, I certainly didn't pick an easy race for my second try. However, it's the type of challenge my crazy running mind needs. Am I worried about failing to reach my goal? Yes. But, it's not because of a lack of training or preparation. I fear it because I respect the distance. I know that Bryce will demand my best physical/mental effort to conquer it. 

The hard work is over. Training is behind me. I feel strong and confident. There will be highs and lows during my run, for sure. During those lows I need to remind myself why I'm doing this...because I love our sport.

Bryce Canyon, UT (Photo Credit: Ultra Adventures)