Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2014 Bryce Canyon Mountain 100 Mile Race Report

I had felt a sense of weariness from Ultras ever since my DNF last October at Cactus Rose 100, where I went in rather banged up after already doing 7 Ultras (50-60K distances) in a bit over 5 months leading up to the race.  I needed to take a step back, heal from long festering injuries, and mentally refresh myself from the endless grind of always pursuing the next longer, higher, and more difficult Ultra out there.  I also saw a lot of friends suffer from debilitating injuries due to overtraining and racing too hard and frequently, and didn’t want to suffer their fate, but the main thing that influenced me was a series of articles and blog posts by two Ultra Runners that I highly respected and admired, Geoff Roes and Ellie Greenwood.

Geoff Roes and Ellie Greenwood were both at the top of the Ultra Running world at one point, then it both came crashing down for them rather abruptly, with catastrophic injuries and chronic health problems that kept them from competing again for years (Ellie Greenwood has just started coming back to racing with her win at Comrades, though can’t say Geoff Roes will ever compete again).  I couldn't imagine having such a steep setback like they did after finally reaching the pinnacle of their running profession, but I didn't have to, because they both wrote deeply moving articles about their setbacks on; how it has affected their identities as runners, the slow agony of physical therapy that never seems to make any progress, and words of caution to other runners not to make the same mistakes they did in pushing themselves too hard and ignoring the warning signs that your bodies are telling you.  

Feeling like I needed to take an extended break after Cactus Rose, before I injure myself further or burnout from Ultras altogether, I took the writings of the two Ultra runners above to heart, and was ready to slow down my racing schedule, focus on shorter distances and maybe getting faster, and not even think about attempting another 100 Miler for a good long while… Shortly after Cactus Rose though, I was already obsessing about a 100 Mile Mountain race that I just couldn't get out of my mind for the next 7 months.  I initially became attracted to the Bryce Canyon Mountain 100 Mile Ultra, which runs just outside the National Park alongside the Paunsaugunt Plateau, like I do with all other Mountain races, from the gorgeous photos depicting trails and wilderness amongst the High Country that I could only dream about doing when I first started trail running.  Bryce was different though, with its unique stone formations along its cliffs that mentally burned their images into my brain after ogling at them for so long; which made me excessively research the race further, till I eventually convinced myself that Bryce would make the perfect first 100 Mile Mountain race to attempt. 

Besides the jaw dropping environments you’ll be running through at Bryce, there were a lot of technical reasons, on paper, making race seem like such an ideal “beginner’s” Mountain Hundred.  First, being a flatlander from the plains of North Texas, I wanted to avoid any race that runs anywhere close to the Tree-line (around 11K ft) where most people would experience Altitude sickness from a lack of concentrated oxygen in the air; most of Bryce runs between 7.5K ft to 9K ft, with briefly peaking close to 9.5K ft twice in the race, well within the range where Trees are still growing healthy and tall, but high enough to give you a taste of what high altitude running is like.  For the amount of climbing I was looking for, I wanted to stick to somewhere in the 16K ft gain/loss range, to a maximum of under 20K ft (a psychological barrier I just couldn't imagine tackling under any circumstance at the time), Bryce was approximately 19K ft of gain/loss, near the upper-end of my limit, but the race also had something that I considered a necessity, a generous cutoff.  Being realistic with my chances at finishing any Mountain Hundred within the next year, I knew it was going to be a slow grind-it-out kind of an affair where I would have to walk and hike a good portion of it; I would not have even considered doing Bryce if not for their 36 hour cutoff.  Finally, the climbs that they do have, only a handful are over a thousand ft of continuous climbing, with the rest being rollers of several hundred ft a piece; with no monster 3K-4K ft climbs like in Bighorn 100 Mile (another race I was eyeing as my first), I felt it would've been more doable for me…though some would much rather prefer a few big climbs to a bunch of rollers. 

Bryce fell squarely into what I considered the “Possible Scary Impossible”, and as long there was just the slightest possible chance I could finish this race…I knew I had to try.  Sure I had just DNF’d at Mile 70 during Cactus Rose, making me painfully realize just how weak my hill climbing truly was, but I had over 7 months to carry out a training plan that I could only hope would give me even a remote chance of finishing Bryce 100…the seed had been planted, now let the obsession grow.  Running a lot of flat miles and racing the flat’ish Ultras that Texas mainly has to offer was getting me nowhere when it came to my proficiency of climbing hills, and being mindful of my need to balance rest and recovery from my recent grueling schedule of Ultras, I had to completely change my training methods to a more slower and methodical approach, and essentially my whole identity as a runner, to that of a Power Hiker, who occasionally runs. 

I neither had the time to train nor had a strong enough base of experience under my legs to pursue both speed and climbing (I still have trouble with consistently reaching 50 miles per week in training), it was one or the other, so any notion of speed training had to be tossed out; my training would revolve around Power Hiking from then on to survive the relentless climbs of Bryce.  Also, instead of racing smaller Ultras frequently, I would focus on just a few big races with lots of climbing instead, to give myself more time in between races to recover and train hard before the next one.  The two main races I was targeting to get my legs broken in for Bryce was Bandera 100K in South Texas and Run LOViT 100K in Arkansas (in early January and late February, respectively), both races had the big and steep, Power hiking grade, climbs I was looking for to get me ready for the Mountains. 

Trusting that I already had a strong base of mileage under my legs for running, I spent most of my weekends Power Hiking at Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve in Dallas; if you've read my previous race reports, I got pretty obsessed with doing repeats up and down the Fossil Valley Hill there, sometimes doing 20+ repeats each Sat/Sun on that short, but very steep, 125 ft hill.  Mileage no longer mattered to me, only vertical gain/loss, as I was routinely hitting 5-8K ft of gain/loss in only 40-50 miles per week.  I rather enjoyed the slower hiking pace (I did run the downhills and flats), and found the impact was considerably less on my feet, joints, and knees over the same amount of miles then running would be, which they sorely needed the rest, but the monster vertical gain/loss I was pulling down was murder on the quads, nonetheless. 

Bandera 100K would be my first test, the time between that race and Cactus Rose (both ran on similar courses at HCSNA in Texas) was only a short 2 and half months, so I wasn't reaching my peak climbing numbers then, but it gave me a glimpse of what was possible.  At Bandera, my ITB partially gave out half way and the frequent amount of resting I was doing around the 50 Mile mark froze up my quads in soreness, but the interesting thing I realized was, that I could continue climbing with relative ease, even though I could no longer run the last 5 miles.  Run LOViT 100K was up 6 weeks later, and was the make or break race for me, if I couldn't have survived this monster race with around 10K to 12K ft of elevation gain/loss, I may have settled for just the 50 Mile at Bryce or some other race.  I doubled down on the power hiking, reaching my peak in the +8K ft gain/loss range before tapering and felt strong for Run LOViT, but ended up having a lot of mixed feelings about the race afterwards.  Once again, my legs fell apart at the 50 mile mark at Run LOViT, soreness hit my legs badly and I could hardly run the last 8 miles or so.  As in Bandera, I could still climb any hill with shocking ease, but if the rest of my legs can’t last 50 miles without being hit with crushing soreness…there would be no way I could finish a 100 miles at Bryce.

So worried about this soreness issue with my legs, I even declared that I was officially out of the running for Bryce in my race report for Run LOViT 100K, and for the next couple of months that was clearly the case.  Not only did the bad ankle sprain I incurred on the very first mile at Run LOViT take over a month to fully heal, I made the mistake of donating whole blood just a week after that race, which sent my whole system out of whack (crushing fatigue, high resting heart-rate, and a weakened immune system) for about the same amount of time it took my ankle to heal; not that I want to discourage blood donation or anything, I don't think it was entirely due to this, I was also pretty exhausted from a heavy training schedule.  I barely ran for a month after Run LOViT, and I would've been okay about this if I was truly considering not doing the 100 Mile at Bryce anymore, but I continued to obsess and stew about the race as it was getting ever closer to race date…I needed to make one last training push for Bryce or I knew I would regret not doing so for the rest of the year.

A big part of what made me believe there was still a chance of finishing the 100 Mile at Bryce was finally purchasing a pair of the maxxed-cushioned Altra Olympus and the great feedback I was getting with the shoes at my next two races.  The Altra’s performed beautifully at my next race, one and half months after Run LOViT 100K, at the Possum Kingdom Lake 55K, where I ran it on non-tapered legs, all the freaking cushioning allowed my legs to recover fast for my next 50 Mile race just two weeks later.  I ended up DNF’ing at the Ouachita Trail 50 at mile 37, for a variety of reasons, such as not using the Olympus till mile 26 (didn't trust making the climb over the ridiculously steep and rocky Pinnacle Mountain with those shoes on…), and the aggressive cutoff of just 13 hours for the race…I was just not built for speed anymore with all the Power Hiking that I was doing, and didn't want to blow out my legs trying to finish all 50 miles at Ouachita.  Regardless of the DNF at Ouachita, I had the extra bit of confidence I was searching for, I was finally signed up for Bryce Canyon 100 mile.

For impossibly tough races and new distance goals, I like to go by the 80% rule, you’ll never feel 100% ready for something intimidating like Bryce 100, but as long as you can convince yourself that you’re at least 80% ready for the race…you may as well throw caution to the wind and just go for it already.  I was still highly concerned with my legs being destroyed past the 50 mile mark at Bandera and Run LOViT 100K, but at the same time, I had to believe my legs had grown stronger and more resilient as a result of those thrashings…plus I would be using my Altra Olympus full time, and hopefully the lesser impact of all that cushioning would preserve my legs well past the point they fell apart at the previous two 100Ks.  For the last bit of training I did for Bryce, I power hiked as much as I could in the oppressively hot and humid spring of Texas, which I’m told is a great simulation of the difficulty of breathing at high Altitude…in actuality, I think I had an easier time breathing at 9K ft altitude in Bryce, than at 600 ft altitude in Dallas when it was 80-90 degrees and a 1,000% humidity.

It is customary before every milestone Ultra for me to cast predictions of doom and gloom and sandbag to everyone who would listen, I’m not exactly sure why I do this; perhaps it’s to let out all the negative and nervous energy out of my system beforehand, or it is just in my nature to be pessimistic, cautious, and too realistic about my chances.  One wonders why I go for these ridiculous goals I set myself up for when I have the mindset that I do, then again, maybe that is precisely the reason why I take on the risk of Ultras in the first fight and push back against all my doubts, and to take a weakness and turn it into a strength, my cautious approach (as cautious as running Ultras can be…) makes sure I take the training seriously and that I don’t take on anything before I’m mostly ready for it (out of fear and self preservation); it’s always a struggle just to get to the race to begin with.  While there was plenty of sandbagging going on before the race, I did try to visualize how my race would go from the beginning to a successful end, which ultimately resulted in my writing a 100 Mile Poem about it, that was proven quite helpful as I found myself reciting the lines a lot during my race.

Race weekend finally approached, and as I was taking the train to the airport to Las Vegas, then rent a car to drive another 260 miles to Bryce Canyon Mountain, I kept thinking to myself, “My God, what the hell am I doing here?” and secretly hoped there would be a major accident on the way there to get me out of this race.  I couldn't escape the gravitational pull of the Mountains any longer, it had been tugging on me for most of my life and accelerated greatly when I discovered Ultras over two and half years ago and dreamed of conquering all the iconic Mountain races I read and heard about; I had finally reached the event horizon of the Mountains, there was no turning back now.  At the packet pickup area, I waved at Timothy Olson like a star struck school girl (he was there to crew his wife for the 50 Mile and not racing), and met with friends for some pre-race strategizing and encouragement over Pizza before finally turning in for the night at a Motel; Bryce 100 was tomorrow, tomorrow.

After some pretty decent sleep (a rarity for me before a major race), I got up at 4am to catch the shuttle bus that brought us to the race site where everyone was gathered around a couple of large fires because the temps were in the 30s to start the race.  The race started at 6am (no headlamps needed, thankfully) rather unassumingly, I was a bit disappointed there was no speech or trail briefing before the race to signify the massive endeavor we were about to partake in, we just lined up on the dirt road and off we went.  The first and last two miles of the race was a long a flat dirt road to the Thunder Mountain Trailhead, to make myself feel just a little bit better about the race, I just thought of Bryce as a 96 mile race without the beginning and end sections.  Upon reaching the trailhead, the next few miles where I mainly ran with a fellow Texas runner Fred Thompson (who is like the spitting image an older veteran Ultra runner), was spent snaking around the cliffs of the northern end of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, treating us to gorgeous sweeping views of the forest with the Dawn’s light struggling to break over the high cliffs.  

Behind Fred and few other in the early Conga line, some of my early pics are blurry, btw, camera was dying on me. 

It wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth mile and cresting around the western edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, is where your breath is just taken away from the majesty of Bryce Canyon, many audible gasp and “whoa’s” were uttered as we reached this section.  The next two miles was spent either dodging the many runners who stopped to take pictures, or taking pictures yourself of the Canyon cliffs in the distance and amongst those uniquely alien-like Hoodoo stone structures right along side the trail.  I would’ve spent all day along this section if I could, but I reasoned I would be coming back here on the way back to finish the 100 miler, and pressed on.  The next four miles to the Thunder Mountain Aid Station at mile 10, went by in a blur as we descended an entirely too fast thousand ft drop to the lowest point of the entire course, a mere 7,400ft altitude. 

Thanks Fred for the photo 
Touring alongside the Hoodoos
Taking pictures of people taking pictures
Beginning of the winding downhill section, very fun
Breathtaking...just make sure you don't run off the cliff.

It was relatively flat for the next 5 miles, with endless snaking around the cliffs, before the race truly begins at mile 15 with relentless ups and downs, coinciding with the afternoon sun beating down on us.  Fortunately, we we’re no longer as exposed to the sun as in the wide open canyons section, the trails transitioned from a desert environment to a forested one, it was almost like being transported to an entirely different race.  I finished the first 15 miles in about 3 and half hours, squarely on target of where I planned to be, and was looking forward to slowing things down; the course may look flat on the elevation profile but there was a constant barrage of little rollers, the trails were rarely ever “flat”, and I was running too much of them in the first 15 miles, I was having way too much fun to be slowing down.  

Bryce 100 Mile Elevation Profile

It took me awhile to settle down, after the first 15 miles went by rather quickly, the race slowed down to a crawl, as I was making climbs that shot up 500ft into the air, quickly descended a few hundred ft, before rapidly ascending another 500ft, all in just the 3 miles to the next aid station at Proctor Canyon at mile 18.  The largest continuous climbs I’ve ever encountered were only 500-700ft at Run LOViT 100K, but those were spread out over several miles, I was now going to have to make them in rapid succession over the next quad busting 9 miles to the next aid station (though it was more like 10-11 miles) at the top of the plateau at 9K ft altitude.  There was a brief momentary reprieve of about a mile of flat open fields before we headed back under forest cover to make the endless climbs.   

The open fields of grass and shrubs were a nice change of scenery

There was one long ~800ft drop at about mile 22 that was exhilarating to run down, spread out over a mile and half, it seemed to go on forever; I was never able to make these kinds of descents living in Dallas, and was one of the things I was looking forward to most running on the Mountains.  Unfortunately, every large descent has to go up eventually, and the next 5 miles ascending to over 9K ft altitude was the longest freakin 5 miles of my entire life.  I went into what I would like to call, my “Anton Krupicka Mode”, with my hands on quads helping me power up the climbs for most of this section.  I met a lot of good people here, some were experienced Ultra runners with many 100s under their belt, and others were newbies just like me, and every one of us were trudging up this outrageously long and steep ascent in the afternoon heat; which made me just a little bit more calm about the sometimes 40+ min/mile paces I was pulling in the more steeper sections.  About a mile or so from the aid station, I cramped up badly, with the cool morning weather and the lack of visible sweating in high altitude (sweat just evaporates immediately up there), I kept forgetting to keep on top of my salt pills, and I had ran out of water like a mile ago, so I had nothing to drink down my salt sticks.  Fortunately, a lady I had been running with for several miles earlier caught up to me and gave me some of her drinks, an awfully warm electrolyte drink I nearly gagged on, but I was extremely thankful all the same; I rested for a couple minutes waiting for the salt sticks to kick in and massaging out the cramps before finally trudging up the rest of the way to the Plateau.  

A couple of the more brutal climbs in this section

At the Blubber Creek aid station at Mile 27, just as you reach the top of the Plateau, I rested for about 20 minutes to change my shirt, unloaded a lot of useless weight I was carrying (my digital camera that died shortly into the race, and way too much energy bars and gels), and slathered on the Sunscreen (we had about 6 hours of intense sun left) before leaving.  I did the first 15 miles in 3 and half hours, while the next 12-13 miles took well over 4 hours to hike up, I was looking forward to a more flat section up top the Plateau, but was faced with yet more endless rollers.  Besides one agonizingly long forest service road that gradually went up hill, and that I was in no mood to try and run, this section was utterly gorgeous; it runs a long the side of the plateau, and every so often you’re greeted to a new breathtaking view, as the trail snakes right up to the edge of the cliffs before darting back into the trees.  While on this section, and hiking up the 500 footer in the middle of it, a guy I was passing up remarked he couldn’t believe he was at 9K ft altitude as he was panting up the hill, and I couldn’t believe it either, mainly because I wasn’t feeling any effects at all with the altitude.  Like I said earlier in this report, I had more trouble breathing at 600 ft altitude in Dallas with the oppressive heat and humidity, than at 9K ft in Bryce; the altitude was the main unknown variable I couldn’t account for, and what I was most apprehensive about, since I have lived as a flatlander all my life, so I was relieved it had no affect on me, other than a mild case of dry throat (I carried a hydration pack and a handheld with me to constantly drink).  Just some of the amazing views on top of the plateau to follow:

I let out a triumphant "Whooooo" upon coming up on this last amazing view of the cliffs.

Now that I finally made it to the Kanab Creek aid station at Mile 35, I could afford to relax a bit, for the last 20 miles I had just survived the worse that this course had to offer, and now the next 7 miles would be mainly downhill and flat with the Sun starting to set.  Unfortunately, taking a long 700 ft gradual downhill was hard on tired quads, I had to stop every mile or so to briefly rest the overheating quads before continuing on with the descent.  I made it down into the Straight Canyon Aid station 5 miles later in no time, stopped by briefly for some food and gels and left to make thousand ft climb up to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station, and the highest point of the entire course, at nearly 9,500 ft altitude.

Some great sweeping views on the way to Straight Canyon A/S

40 Miles into the race now, my legs were definitely feeling it, while the first two miles out of Straight Canyon A/S was fairly flat, I was in no mood to run much and I figured I should save myself for the climb up to Pink cliffs, since I’ve been particularly fearing this one ever since I first looked at the elevation profile for Bryce.  The climb turned out to be rather uneventful though…for the first 500ft up, it was nothing but a gravel road, and since it was designed for vehicles, the climb wasn’t exactly that steep either, it was actually quite pleasant to make, and I could feel my legs recovering a lot from all the walking that I was doing.  Shortly before reaching the aid station, you get off the gravel road and onto flat single track trails again for a short while, before making the final steep ascent of several hundred ft into Pink Cliffs A/S.

The thousand ft drop after leaving Pink Cliffs A/S (made sure to grab a headlamp from my drop bag there before leaving) was absolute murder on the quads, I pretty much had to quit trying to run downhill for most of the race, and take short shuffle-like steps instead to reduce the force of the sledgehammer slamming into my quads when trying to run the descents.  By now, I was running into a lot of the 100 Milers making their way back in the opposite direction, a few of the friends that I ran into tried to encourage me to keep going, but I wasn’t exactly sure if I wanted to anymore and seriously thought about dropping to the 50 Mile.  I could no longer make up much time on the downhills, and could only manage a 15-16 min/mile shuffle pace on the flats, but, and a big but…I could still power hike up the steep climbs with relative ease and I was very reluctant to DNF as long as I still had the strength to climb; still, the thought of possibly being on my feet for another 20 hours was not easy to swallow.

Finally making it to the 50 Mile Crawford Pass A/S turnaround point, in around 14:40 hrs, I immediately gulped down my Endurox R4 recovery drink, hoping it’ll have some effect while I take a long 20 minute break to refuel, use the porta john, etc.  I sat for awhile eating ramen, bean burritos, and whatever else hot they could whip up, while chatting with the Aid Station volunteers there about 100 Milers.  When I finally felt my legs returning to life, I resolved to keep going, I didn’t come all this way to drop at the 50 Mile point…as long as I could still climb, it became a Mantra for me.  I felt like a new runner on the two miles of rolling trails before making it to the base of Pink Cliffs, the long rest helped, and it was now night-time, the temperatures started dropping rapidly.  The thousand ft climb back up Pink Cliffs was long, but effortless at a brisk hiking pace; I stuck around the aid station long enough for some hot Ramen and joking around the camp fire a bit, before grabbing my pull over fleece from my drop bag (temps were now into the 30s) to make the long descent to Straight Canyons A/S. 

By now, I was perfecting the downhill shuffle; take short choppy steps, while landing squarely on the midfoot to absorb the most impact, or just about the heels if the downhill’s are steep enough to require some braking force, sure it wasn’t pretty, but at least I was making some progress.  I made it back to Straight Canyon A/S rather quickly, took a long break waiting for Pancakes and a couple of eggs, and then sat down by the campfire they had going there to joke about bears, cougars, and other potential wildlife out there (I am not sure why we were joking about this!).  Before I took the guys too seriously there, I left to make the long and mostly straight and boring 700 ft climb back up the Plateau area.  To get through this mind-numbing section, I finally pulled out my smartphone to play music, mainly LP’s new album “Forever For Now”, but mainly again her one song that I’ve been obsessed with for a couple years now “Into the Wild”.

I blame Timothy Olson’s 2012 Western States 100 video on my obsession with LP’s, “Into the Wild”; I usually play this song nonstop for a week leading up to a major Ultra, I feel the lyrics perfectly convey the fears, doubts, and uncertainties of taking them on.  Regardless of the risk, the draw of the mysterious unknown is too strong, and we rush headlong into in the wild in hopes of finding whatever it is we’re looking for.  I admit, I’m perhaps too drawn to the more romantic notions of struggle and suffering in the great outdoors; I remember joking to a friend that I’m afraid to read the book “Into the Wild” or watch the Movie based on it, out of fear that I’ll end up like one of those fools that get lost trying to search for the Bus in the Alaskan Wilderness that the guy in the movie ended up dying in…and I sorta meant it, thank goodness running Ultras is a “safe” way to carry out that impulse, I can get lost in the wild, but with convenient flag markers to keep me from wandering too far off the trail.

I must have played “Into the Wild” over and over again for nearly an hour straight while I was walking up the long incline back to Kanab Creek A/S at mile 65, afterwards upon reaching said A/S, I got thoroughly sick of music and pressed on with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.  I can say I reached my lowest point in the whole race during this tough 8 mile stretch on top of the Plateau to Blubber’s Creek A/S.  A dull pain in my upper inner thigh on my left leg was threatening to tighten up on me, it first started freezing up badly when I stopped to rest for a while at Kanab Creek, reducing me to a walk for the first couple miles while I tried to massage, stretch, and stamp out the tightness.  The pain would “go away” after awhile, or at least enough so that I could run, but it was building up steadily all through this section, and produced sharp pain on some of the steeper and long downhills.  As well as breaking down physically, mentally, I was at my lowest during these darkest periods of night; all the doubts, negativity, and otherwise existential bullshit came pouring out in a flood of thoughts trying to get me to drop at the next aid station…and I nearly did.

I limped into Blubber Creek A/S at mile 73, bending my left leg became progressively harder to do, and sat down and stalled for time while slowly eating more Ramen noodles.  Through my worst moments in the previous 8 miles, I kept reciting lines from the 100 Mile Poem I wrote earlier, about making it to the next morning and “experience a rebirth like no other while bathed in the morning's first light”.  I remembered the first time I experienced the second sunrise of a 100 Miler at Rocky Raccoon after a long, cold, and miserable night that never seemed to end, and how I felt like a Phoenix being reborn from the ashes when the Sunlight hit my face for the first time; I was holding out for that experience all over again.  It was around 5:40am when I made it to Blubber’s Creek A/S and the night sky was starting to fade to the point where I no longer needed my headlamp and flashlight, so I headed to my drop bag to store them, when I finally remembered I had a bottle of Acetaminophen in it.  After some hesitation (I’ve only taken pain killers once during an Ultra at Rocky Raccoon 100), I said “Fuck it”, and downed a 1,000mg of Acetaminophen…with a lot of water and food, you know, to be safe. 

The pain killers kicked in quickly, my legs could run again right as I was about to make the crazy descent from Blubber’s Creek A/S; over a thousand foot drop, with a couple of mid range climbs in between, in just a few miles, it was so steep that I just let gravity take me for a ride all the way down.  Maybe it was the pain killers, the Sun radiating new life into me, or whatever, but my legs were pounded back into shape from the long descent; just in time too, as the long downhill that I loved in this section at the beginning of the race, now became an agonizingly long ascent.  I heard from the volunteers at the Proctor Canyon A/S up ahead, that this section broke many a runner’s spirit; first your legs are pounded into jelly from a very long and steep drop, and when you finally make it down, you’ll have to immediately switch gears into climbing mode.  Not only that, but this section is about a mile or two longer than estimated, from the already too long “official” 9 miles between aid stations, and with the morning starting to heat up, everyone typically ran out of water a mile or two from the Aid Station. 

The climb was brutally slow, and later into it, every hundred footer you climbed got your hopes up that you finally made the last one, only to crush it again with another hundred ft hill in your way.  When I finally made the last of it, and still thinking this section was only 9 miles, I relaxed on the mainly descents and flats to the aid station…then I started panicking.  I relaxed too much, and dumped way too much water on my head to cool down thinking I had enough in my hydration pack to last the rest of the trip, but that soon ran out too with no A/S in sight.  Dehydrated, a bit delirious from how quickly it heated up on that second morning, and massively sleep deprived, my brain was fried, and was having trouble recognizing shapes.  All of a sudden I started seeing signage advertising the likes of used cars and locksmith services and Taco stands, I saw washing machines and other appliances, a guy in a freakin boat out in the middle of the woods, and most interestingly a Dragon ahead in the distance.  I was entirely conscious and knew the area of my brain responsible for processing vision was hay-wired, but I felt like I was trippin out on the trails a bit, usually after 5 seconds or so though, my brain finally recognized that the Dragon was just a bundle of interestingly curved tree branches.  With how long this section was turning out, and given that my vision was on the fritz, I had to touch every single flag marker on the trails just to make sure that they were real.

Finally making it to Proctor Canyon A/S at “Mile 82”, I needed to rest a bit, hydrate, and set my faculties straight; shortly after arriving, several more runners showed up all exclaiming that they thought that section would never end.  After filling up on more bean burrito’s, I slowly made it out of the aid station, but I didn’t get very far before I had to collapse on the ground and try to massage and beat back some life into my left leg that froze up again during the rest at the A/S.  I couldn’t bend my left leg again and got extremely worried, it’s been about 3-4 hours since I last took the painkillers, enough time to take some more without destroying my liver, I reasoned, as I downed another 1,000mg of Acetaminophen.  

Soon after leaving Proctor Canyon A/S you’re faced with a steep 500-600 ft climb, my left leg hadn’t fully returned to life yet, so it was one of the worse climbs I had to make that day.  The Volunteer at Proctor Canyon said once I made it over this hurdle it’ll be mainly descents and flats for the next 6 miles…not quite, as those “flats” consisted of mainly 20-40 ft rollers that aren’t high enough to show up in the race’s elevation profile.  Fortunately, my left leg finally returned to me after I made it through the initial climbs, because this was one of the more frustrating sections, as it kept snaking around the cliffs, every turn you made just brought more cliff walls to snake around for miles and miles on end.  I was making good time though, and almost felt like a runner again, being able to run the flats and descents without have to resort to a depressing shuffle, and before I knew it, I had finally arrived at Thunder Mountain Aid Station, just 10 more miles to go.

Learning my lesson from my last visit to Proctor Canyon A/S, I tried to get in and out as quickly as possible at Thunder Mountain A/S, but it still takes several minutes to fill a Hydration pack and water bottle to full, stock up on gels, and eat some real food before leaving…just enough time for my left leg to freeze up on me again, I wanted to cry. The quick in and out visit did help, as my leg wasn't as stiff after leaving Proctor Canyon A/S, but I just wanted to be done and not wait around to see if my leg can return to life on its own, so down another 1,000mg of Acetaminophen it went, no signs of liver damage yet, I figure.  Right out of the Aid Station was a steep climb of several hundred ft, before it drops you down into the open Canyons section to make a steep, nearly thousand foot climb on 90+ mile legs…go ahead and have a good weep before you start.

What makes this final long climb all the more brutal is the intense afternoon sun beating down on you with no shade cover, combined with 90+ mile legs, you’re tormented with the feeling of being so close to the finish, yet so far with how slow your climbing is reduced to.  Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed the climb, as my legs were still rather strong on the way up, and the slower pace gave me a chance to see all things I missed while I raced down this steep drop at the beginning of the race.  Some of the more fascinating and gigantic red hoodoo’s were at the bottom of this spiral hill you had to climb, and every time you made it further up, you got to see the giant red hoodoo’s from a higher perspective, it was amazing.  Steadily and methodically, I made my way up the climb, still sorta shocked at how strong my legs felt on the climbs after 90+ miles, were these really the same legs that ignominiously died on mere 400 ft climbs just 8 months ago at Cactus Rose 100?  Here I am, with already 18K ft worth of climbing and descending on my legs, and I’m still somehow going up…believe in the Power Hike folks, when your running legs ultimately fail you in a 100 miler, you need to be able to shift into that lower gear and keep going; all those mind-numbing power hiking repeats on the same 125 ft hill back in Dallas had paid off.

I swear these hoodoo's had eyes that were following me up, it even sorta looks like a gigantic head

I even managed to finally pass up several people who had nothing left on this climb, something that I hadn’t done in the past dozen miles or so.  After finally being done with the last huge climb, I thought I would cruise the last 5 miles to the finish, but the climb up took so long that I was dangerously close to running out of water by the time I made it up.  A mile later, and I was bone dry, a mile after that, and my legs finally started falling apart; I was reduced to a shuffle during the last mile of snaking around the cliffs before I finally made it to the road.  Thankfully, they had set up a water station right as we got to the road, I was getting rather dehydrated the last two miles without water, and that may have contributed to everything else breaking down.  Remember how I wrote that I thought of Bryce as just a 96 mile race without the first and last two mile road section?  Well, my body certainly thought the race was over as soon as I hit the dirt road, my left leg locked up again for good, and I could no longer run anymore.  The last two flat miles on that lonely dirt road took an eternity to walk, I laughed a bit hysterically that after 98+ miles, 34 hours on my feet, and 19K ft worth of ascending/descending, that my legs could no longer run on the easiest section of the entire course…well, at least I wasn't dead last as I feared I might have been at times, finishing in 34:42 hrs.

Bryce was a majestic experience; you can’t go wrong with picking this race as your first taste of the Mountains, the environments will blow your senses out of the water, and even if you’re struggling to make it up that Mountain, you just want to keep going to see what gorgeous sights are up ahead.  On the shuttle bus back to the race meeting site, I was already discussing plans with the local volunteer there on how to move to Southern Utah to run all the amazing National Parks they have there every weekend; it was a huge come down to arrive back in hot, muggy, and flat Dallas after experiencing a 100 miles of the High Country, to say the least.  For the first time since I started Ultras two and half years ago, I do not have a race on my schedule, or even thinking about one, I’m going to savor this finish a little while longer, or at least till I’m able to actually run again; also, where exactly do you set your sights on after a Mountain Hundred? 

The obvious question would be to target other Mountain Hundreds, progressively higher in climbs, gnarlier in trails, and chasing ever faster times, all the way to Western States and Hardrock…but I’m sorta sick of Power Hiking repeats at the moment, I’ve been practically doing them for 7 months straight now, and Bryce was basically 19K ft worth of Hiking repeats.  There’s also the question of just how much extreme suffering that these Monster Hundreds demands of you that I can put up with.  I do believe that one of the main reasons why I DNF’d Cactus Rose is because I just didn’t have the fight in me to keep going, I was still mentally tapped out after being so traumatized by my Rocky Raccoon 100 finish earlier in that year, and didn’t want to go through the pain and suffering all over again to finish; it took a failed attempt to reignite the fire in me to try again, and aim much, much, higher while I was at it.  I left a piece of myself behind at Bryce, and it may take a long while to regenerate the will to go through something similar again; hopefully I can get stronger to the point where I don’t have to suffer and risk injuries so much to complete these enormous challenges.  Anyhow, it’s a good time I take that two month break from racing that I meant to take 8 months ago to figure things out, at least from the Ultra distance anyway, of which I’m not even sure I’ll race one again this year.  For now I’d much rather pace someone else to their Hundred finish, for something like Arkansas Traveler or Cactus Rose if they’ll have me, I can claim to have some experience at Hundreds now, after all.   

At the race meeting site to collect my buckle

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Hundred Mile Poem

Wake before the dawn in the cool morning of race day

Converge upon the trail head to meet with friends and shed the pre-race jitteriness away

The race starts slowly with a lack of fan fare

The nervous energy of the field quickly fills with somberness in the air

As runners collectively realize they have over 99 miles left to cover

And fret about what the next 24-36 some odd hours may yet uncover

Crowded on the singe track trails, and waiting for spacing, runners trade tips and idle chatter

In the words of Karl Meltzer, the race doesn't begin till mile 70, so what does it matter

The first 6 hours almost seems surreal in it's ease

As cool morning temperatures and strong legs leads many to be naive

Of the upcoming struggle under the full intensity of the Sun

That reduces even the most experienced down to only something vaguely resembling a run

Thoughts of quitting starts creeping into the mind

As fatigue, heat, and tough climbs escalates with the increasing time

Runners find inspiration to keep moving wherever it can be found

But they need not look so far as every step brings gorgeous views of the trails and nature abound

Keep toiling forward as aid volunteers and crews encourage

The Sun will soon set, now is not the time to be discouraged 

Now that the Sun and heat has started to die down

New life in our legs and second winds are suddenly found

Runners pick up the pace to take advantage of what little daylight is left

For when night falls new challenges presents itself

Rocks and roots suddenly grows bigger in the night

While their shadows are seemingly dancing under your headlamps light

Hills and Mountains become never ending with their peaks amiss

And climbing them can seem like a stairway towards the dark abyss

The mind starts to play tricks after countless miles and many hours in the dark

Of hallucinations of Monsters and Bears lurking amongst the shadows of every tree and large rock

For every runner who's lucky enough to have a pacer to help keep their minds occupied

There's another solo runner battling against their doubts and demons with their sanity half compromised

Aid Stations become brief oasis of light and life during the dead of night

Juxtaposed against scenes of weary, sleep deprived, and injured runners contemplating giving up the fight

For those brave few who choose to carry on

Just hang on a little bit longer for the giver of light to bring about the Dawn

The night sky of twinkly stars begins to fade

The great ball of fire starts to ascend, as you prayed

Just for a moment all aches and pains and fatigue subsides 

As you experience a rebirth like no other while bathed in the morning's first light

With renewed energy and purpose, you press on with determination

The absolute worse is now over, reviving your motivation

You may have survived the night, but don't get too cocky

There are still many miles left to go, and making cutoffs may get spotty

Fatigue and pain of which you have rarely known 

Has accrued exponentially over the last 80-90 miles that has cruelly sown

When every footfall adds ever more to the growing list of aches and pain

And every small hill becomes Mountains that you have to fight for every gain

Common sense and brief moments of sanity urges you to quit

But you’ve come too far and stubbornly go forward just to spite it

The last few miles of the trails are littered with the broken bodies of the walking wounded

As you past your fellow trail brothers and sisters, you are both encouraged and silently saluted 

All the day's many struggles are suddenly forgotten, for now, the end is truly in sight

Even if you have to crawl up that last Mountain, there are no more thoughts of giving up the fight

During the last mile your legs experiences a phenomenon

Against all reason, it suddenly springs to life as you begin to smell the barn

You wonder in which dark hole your legs may have been hiding in for the last 20 miles

But no matter, at least you get to finish strong and with a gigantic smile

At the finish, collapse into the arms of your family and friends or a well deserved chair

Marvel at how you managed to slog through a 100 miles with only a few hours or minutes to spare

The Race Director comes by to greet you with a firm handshake and the coveted 100 Mile Buckle

As you excitedly share tales at the finish line of epic struggles and a few chuckles

Two weeks later your body still hasn’t forgiven you

While you’re back on UltraSignup, searching for the next 100 Miler to squeak through