Black Canyon 100k 2019 Race Report

Background

Last summer I participated in the Never Summer 100k trail race in Colorado with my friend CJ and his dad Paul. With over 13,000 feet of elevation change, though it is not a 100 mile race, it is considered to be of sufficient difficulty that it is a Western States Endurance Run (WSER) qualifier if finished under 23 hours. I have four 100-mile WSER qualifiers under my belt (over 3 years). Being the “grandaddy” of the 100 mile ultra marathon distance and having the notoriety of the Boston Marathon among the ultra community, Western States has become increasingly popular over the years… so much so that a lottery system has been implemented. Last year there were approximately 5800 people who entered for the 261 general entry slots (limited overall to 369 based on permitting limitations). If you complete a qualifying race, you can enter the lottery. If you do not get drawn, the number of lottery tickets you receive doubles for each consecutive year that you qualify and apply. 

Having completed Never Summer 100k in 22:05, I received my WSER qualifier but failed to get drawn in 2018 (for the 2019 race) even with 8 tickets. Western States has become a bucket list item for me, so it was time to look for another race. Though I enjoy trail running, I’m starting to feel a bit burned out on the ultra distances. There are plenty of other epic adventures out there and the training definitely takes quite a bit of time. That said, when Paul decided to register for the Black Canyon 100k held in mid-February in Arizona, which is another WSER qualifier when finished in under 17 hours, my interest was piqued.

Being the procrastinator I am, I dragged my feet for a few weeks after Paul registered. I was a little nervous about having a race that early in the season, as most of my training would likely be relegated to the treadmill during the Michigan winters. I decided it would be good to get the qualifier out of the way early and I enjoyed doing Never Summer 100k with Paul and CJ, so I decided I would go ahead and register. Unfortunately, by the time I did so it was full and there was now a waiting list. I went ahead and put my name on the list. As fate would have it, they opened up a number of additional slots a week later, and I was in! When I told CJ, he decided he would sign up as well. He waited on the wait list for a bit longer but eventually got in.

Training

Fast forwarding a few months, I was able to get quite a few trail runs in in December, but conditions made it hard in January. A bad cold knocked me out for about a week over the holidays and it took another week to ramp back up.

Overall, my training was largely biased toward aerobic fitness as opposed to speed, which is fine for ultra distance races where the name of the game is endurance. I ran about 10-12 miles 3-4 days week, racking up about 175 miles in January. That’s actually pretty low mileage for many ultra runners but I’ve found I start to feel run down and bored if it do much more than that. So to make sure I was still getting the training in, I mixed up the schedule with a lot of cross training: spinning 1-2 days/week, vinyasa yoga 3-4 days/week, swimming 2-3 days/week and a HIIT body weight class once a week at the gym (doing multiple workouts per day).

To cap it off, to make sure I wasn’t over training, I made sure to get plenty of sleep and take 20 minute power naps when I felt tired during the day… one of the perks of working from home!

Pre-race

I flew out to Phoenix on Wednesday night. CJ’s parents had rented a house in Surprise, AZ, about 45 minutes from the start. In the preceding weeks, CJ had developed a pain in his knee, which impacted his training. He decided to bail on running the race but still flew down on Thursday to support me and his dad.

Earlier that morning Paul and I went for an easy 4 mile shake-out run at the White Tank Mountains Regional Park. I neglected to get any photos at the park during the run, as it was drizzling when we first arrived and I was reluctant to get my phone wet, but I went back later that day and took some pictures of interesting cacti.

Later Thursday we received an update from the race directors indicating that the rain that day had made the Agua Fria river, which the race route crossed a handful of times, run high and fast, making it unsafe to cross. They outlined two contingency routes – the “Little Pan Option” and “High Water Option” – which they may need to switch to should the water levels not drop sufficiently. The Little Pan Option made only a slight change to the route to avoid a crossing to get to one of the aid stations, while the High Water Option substantially changed it so no crossings of the Agua Fria would be necessary; however, it would involve doing a 4.4 mile out-and-back down to the river from Black Canyon City aid station, then do another 22 mile out-and-back backtracking along a previous section of the route to Gloriana Mine, finishing at Black Canyon City. They said they would monitor the situation and send out an update Friday morning.

On Friday morning CJ and I took a quick trip to the local Lifetime Fitness to get a quick strength circuit workout in. I made sure to go easy on the legs and just focus on the upper body. Yes, I have a hard time tapering before races.

Packet pick-up started at 1 PM on Friday. We were some of the first ones to arrive. Getting our bibs and t-shirts went quickly, and because we were some of the first ones there, we snagged some nice souvenir glasses from the previous year for free. We spent some time perusing t-shirts, hats, etc. that they had for sale. We also had a pre-race picture taken, WSER-style.

After packet pick-up, I met up with my boss, who I had yet to meet even after working for him for about 2 years, at Four Peaks in Tempe. I usually avoid alcohol before a race, but I’ve been gradually relaxing those rules to test the waters to see if doing so has any negative effects. Also, it was good to establish that informal rapport with him face-to-face over a couple of tasty beverages.

Friday morning had come and gone without an update from the race directors, but we did we receive one that evening, indicating that they were going to use the Little Pan Option.

For dinner the night before the race we ended up eating Chipotle and some homemade apple pie that CJ’s mom had made while watching Valley Uprising, a documentary on the history of rock climbing culture in Yosemite Valley. I probably ate more than I should, but, well, I figured it would help in the “elimination” process the next morning before the race.

I pulled together my drop bags Friday night after dinner. I had pretty much organized everything before leaving Michigan, putting together a drop bag for every available opportunity. I discuss what I put into each below in the Race Plan section, so I won’t go into it here.

I ended up crawling into bed around 9:30 PM and falling asleep around 10 PM. As is typical before a race, I tossed and turned for a bit and didn’t feel like I slept very deeply. Even though I don’t get stressed out about races much any more, my body seems to get a little anxious regardless.

Race Plan

In order to plan out what gear to put into the 4 drop bags (Bumble Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, Table Mesa and the finish), I put together a spreadsheet to estimate where I would be based on some goal times. I came up with a few goals:

Goal A: Finish before sunset so I wouldn’t need to use a head lamp. The race started at 7 AM and sunset was at 6:36 PM. An 11:30 finish time would be about an 11 min/mile pace. This was a very ambitious goal; all four of my previous 100k ultras I had finished in the 18-22 hour range, so this was definitely a stretch goal. However, each of those races had various other factors that had played into those times: more elevation change, running at elevation, heat, and sticking with other running friends. I have completed a 50 mile ultra in 10:20, so an extra 12 miles but with a general downhill trend… it seemed within the realm of possibility. Still, it would require everything going right: no injuries (luckily I’ve had nothing major happen in the past), no stomach issues (usually not a problem), the ability to bank a lot of time on the descent in the first 37 miles of the race. Having never run this race, I had no idea what the course or trail was like… fast and easy or slow and technical, so this unfamiliarity was what I considered the limiting factor (spoiler: it was).

Goal B: Assuming finishing before sunset wasn’t going to happen, my next goal was to finish only needing the headlamp from the last drop bag aid station (Table Mesa) to the end. With the course re-route, this would get changed to the Gloriana Mine. I would need to finish in about 14 hours for this to happen, with an average pace around a 13:30 min/mile.

Goal C- and C+: If finishing in 14 hours wasn’t achievable, my next goal was to just finish below the 17 hour cut-off for the Western States Endurance Run qualifier. This would require an average pace of about 16:20 min/mile. Ideally I would want an hour buffer before that just in case, which would be about a 15:25 min/mile average pace.

Goal D: If everything went wrong and I didn’t make the WSER qualifier, I at least wanted to finish and get the finisher buckle. I haven’t DNF’d yet and I would like to avoid it if possible! Doing so would require finishing before the 20 hour cut-off (3 AM!) with a 17 min/mile pace until the first aid station to make the 9:15 AM cut-off, then an overall average pace of 19:15 min/mile.

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 5.51.36 PM

Time projections.

Screen Shot 2019-02-12 at 7.29.03 PM

Elevation profile of original route (the High Water Route varies after Black Canyon City)

With that in mind, I organized my gear, drop bags and race plan as follows:

Start (Mile 0):

  • Start with the following gear:
    • Luna Oso 2.0 running sandals
    • Injinji compression socks
    • XO Skin compression shorts
    • race bib pinned to shorts
    • Ultraspire race belt (pockets for lube, nutrition bars for long distances between aid stations, toilet paper, snack baggies with 3 scoops of Tailwind, phone)
    • short sleeve tech shirt
    • arm sleeves (for warmth and sun protection)
    • a long sleeve tech shirt on top for warmth (started in the high 30’s)
    • Hideaway milagro (my race day good luck charm)
    • Ironman running hat with a brim
    • sunglasses (for when the sun is along the horizon)
    • insulated water bottle with water and Tailwind

Bumble Bee Aid Station (Mile 19.5):

  • ditch the running hat and pick up a visor for heat management, since the temperature would be warming up by this time
  • ditch the long sleeve tech shirt extra layer
  • resupply Tailwind

Black Canyon City (Mile 37.4):

  • have a spare set of Injinji toe socks and calf sleeves if necessary
  • have my Merrell Bare Access shoes handy if the Luna Oso 2.0 running sandals weren’t working out. The Bare Access shoes are actually better for road running, but I don’t have a set of trail shoes I’m happy with (read: don’t cause blisters) at the moment. I usually run in sandals.
  • have headlamp with extra batteries if I wasn’t projected to make it to Table Mesa (the next drop bag aid station) by sunset (6:30 PM)
  • have extra water bottle if I felt I would need it for an 8.8 mile stretch to the next aid station
  • have extra short sleeve tech shirt and running shorts if I wanted to change into something fresh
  • resupply Tailwind, apply lube to feet if necessary

Table Mesa (Mile 50.9):

  • have another set of Injinji compression socks handy
  • have my Luna Mono 2.0 running sandals handy if the other shoes weren’t working out. These have been my go-to footwear for my previous 100 mile and 100 km races and they are very comfortable, but they have about 1200 miles on them and the tread is pretty worn at this point, so I figured I would use the Oso 2.0’s first.
  • have two extra long sleeve shirts available for warmth, as the temp could potentially be in the high 30’s/low 40’s.
  • have a spare headlamp and batteries in case I didn’t grab the ones at Black Canyon City
  • ditch the visor and grab a winter beanie for warmth and wear with the headlamp
  • resupply Tailwind, apply lube to feet if necessary

Finish (Mile 62):

  • Dry, clean, warm clothes

Race day

I woke around 4 AM to shower and get ready for the race that started at 7 AM. I pinned my race bib to my shorts and filled my water bottle with water and Tailwind. Breakfast was a cup of coffee and bowl of a 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and half a banana. Though the coffee helped signal to my bowels that it was time to get moving, I didn’t go as much as I though I should have, considering how much I ate the night before. This had me a bit worried, as it’s less than ideal to get the urge mid race and between aid stations, but there wasn’t much I could do but wait.

We received a last minute email from the race directors before we left, indicating that they were uncomfortable with the flow of the river, so they were going to switch to the High Water Option. Not being familiar with the trail or run the course before, I didn’t know exactly what it meant as far as the experience would go, but I figured as long as I followed the other runners on the trail I’d be fine. I downloaded the GPX file they published onto my phone into a hiking app I’ve used for offline use (Maps 3D) just in case I got lost, though.

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.00.26 PM

High Water Route overview

We left right around 5 AM, picked up CJ’s uncle Nick who was going to join CJ and his mom in cheering his dad and me on, and arrived at the start around 6:20 AM. It had started to drizzle quite a bit within about 15 miles of the start, enough that the windshield wipers were necessary. This made me a bit nervous, as I hadn’t seen any indication of rain in the forecast that morning so I had left my rain shell back at the house. Considering it was in the high 30’s/low 40’s, there was a good chance of getting hypothermia if it lasted a while and I didn’t have the proper clothing.

At the risk of sharing Too Much Information, around the time it started raining, my bowels started talking to me again. I almost suggested we stop at an exit so I could use a restroom before we got to the race but it was getting close enough to the start time that I didn’t want to add any extra time to the trip. I probably should have done it anyway, because by the time we pulled into the parking lot, I was fighting hard not to start the race with a mess in my pants and I had to wait about 10-15 minutes in line for a porta-john in the cold and rain. I raced to do my business, dropped my drop bags off in the necessary locations, then got in line at the start with about 5 minutes to spare.

Start to Bumble Bee Ranch (~20 miles)

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.01.09 PM

Start to Bumble Bee Ranch aid station

When the race started there was still a slight drizzle and the temperature was in the high 30’s/low 40’s Fahrenheit, which I felt a bit underdressed for with my shorts and light two tech layers.

My hands were a bit stiff with the cold, too. However, I knew once I started moving a bit and warmed up I’d be OK. I figured the temperatures would start to rise quickly as the sun rose. Since I hadn’t seen the rain in the forecast, I figured it would also let up soon, and it did within a mile or so.

My strategy was to run conservatively during the first half of the race, as I heard from multiple sources that it was easy to wear yourself out early on the first 40 miles or so by going out too hard, where the general trend was all downhill.

The drizzle had caused the clay soil at the start to clump and stick to the bottom of our shoes (and sandals!). Not only did this add a few pounds to each foot, the mud on the shoes stuck to the mud on the ground during each step, adding a bit of resistance to the lift of each foot. This happened in a number of places on the single and two-track sections within the first 5 miles or so.

The first 2.5 miles were along surface streets and relatively flat. I took it easy at about a 10-11:30 min/mi pace as I warmed up. In the crowd of runners I crossed paths within the first mile with Matt Brayton, a friend I had met at the Born to Run ultra marathon event a few years ago. I also saw another Born to Run friend Tony Russ spectating and cheering runners on along the course around the 2.5 mile mark. As I would later discover, this would not be the end of the Born to Run run-ins.

At mile 3, there was a shin-deep river crossing at Big Bug Creek. There was no avoiding getting our feet wet, as there was no path of stepping stones and the creek was at least 12-15 feet wide. The soil at the edge of the creek was muddy clay, making the footing a bit sloppy. I watched a handful of other runners cross and picked a route across that I thought might be the shallowest.

As I exited the water, I noticed that the big toe on my left foot was prominently sticking out of my Injinji socks. Oh great, I thought. When I had put them on that morning, I had noticed that the socks had had small holes on the bottoms of the three largest toes, but I didn’t think it would be an issue. Oops. I wasn’t too concerned about it right away, as I often run in the sandals without socks during my weekday training runs. But those are closer to 10-16 miles and I’ve found that socks definitely cut down on the wear and tear on my feet during ultras. I knew that I didn’t have any spare socks in my Bumble Bee Ranch aid station, as I had assumed I’d be fine with the ones that I started with. So I took a mental note to lube up my toes at Bumble Bee and any other aid station as necessary until I could grab new socks out of my drop bag at the Black Canyon City aid station.

The other side of the creek was even muddier and up a small hill. At the top of the hill, the trail widened out into a two-track / dirt road until mile 8, where it made a sharp turn to the left and dropped onto the Black Canyon Trail. This was a single track that wound along the side of the canyon, cutting in and out of each gully and drainage. This carried on through about mile 13. Though the overall trend was downhill, the trail itself had lots of small hills and twists and turns, making it hard to pick up much speed.

With my “A” goal of finishing before sunset, I would have to maintain an average pace of 11 min/mile. The later half of the race would be slower, as I would be tired and it would involve some climbs, so I knew I would have to bank some time in the first half that was largely downhill. From the start, I kept track of the net difference from this 11 min/mile pace every time my Garmin would notify me of the mile split time. For 7 of those miles I was able to hit about a 10 min/mile pace, the remaining 6 of those 13 I was at or above the 11 min/mile pace, netting me even with the 11 min/mile pace. I had been hoping for something closer to a 7-8 min/mile pace, imagining a flatter, wider trail that I could open up my stride and catch some speed. Uh oh.

I knew at that point that I was not going to be able to bank the time that I was hoping in order to finish at sunset. I would continue to keep track of the net time difference from the 11 min/mile pace until I reached Black Canyon City, but at that point I was just tracking how much later after sunset it would be so I could determine if I should pick up the headlamp I had left in my Black Canyon City drop bag or the one at Gloriana Mine. I was now aiming for my “B” goal of finishing within 12-14 hours.

Knowing that I needed to bank as much time as possible on the front end of the race to meet my goals, I tried to spend no more than 1-2 minutes at any non-drop bag aid station. I would get my water bottle topped off with water, mixing in a baggie of Tailwind if necessary. I would quickly grab a cup or two of ginger ale to reduce the need to hydrate on the first few miles out of an aid station. Drink-wise, aid stations had: Coke, Mountain Dew, Ginger Ale, water and Gu Roctane. Food-wise the options were usually: peanut M&M’s, trial mix, sugar coated ginger candy slices, ginger snaps, chocolate chip cookies, mini pretzels, pickle chips, boiled potato chunks and salt, peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares or wraps, turkey and cheese sandwich squares, refried bean wraps, watermelon slices, banana chunks, orange slices. There was probably more but my memory is a bit spotty at this point. My go-to solid foods were typically the watermelon slices, ginger snaps, pickles, boiled potato chunks with salt, and either the PB&J or refried bean wraps.

Despite the small dips and curvy trail slowing my pace, this was definitely my favorite part of the trail. With the exception of a few miles of dirt road, the rest of the route to Bumble Bee was almost all single track and very scenic, with all of the iconic southwest flora (read: cacti and scrub brush) and shades of brown/red/yellow/beige rock all around.

As I approached Bumble Bee Ranch, my friend CJ, his mom, and his uncle Nick were there to cheer me on and give me high fives as I ran by. Though I was still feeling pretty good, it always gives me a jolt of energy to have friends or family spectating and exuding enthusiasm.

Though I expected to spend about 10-15 minutes at each of the 3 drop-bag aid stations, I made a conscious effort to minimize the amount of time I spent at Bumble Bee to bank as much time as possible. The big toe that was sticking out was now joined by the two next to it. They were all doing fine, though I could tell the big one was getting slightly tender on the underside from friction. After grabbing my drop bag, I made sure to lube them up. I attempted to pull the fabric of the socks back over them but this proved to be a futile gesture, as they promptly protruded again shortly after leaving the aid station.

Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City (~18 miles)

Screen Shot 2019-03-17 at 8.03.01 PM

Bumble Bee aid station and beyond

Immediately after leaving the aid station there’s a 300 ft. climb over the course of a mile on rough two-track. It was a bit of a slog up that hill but the slow pace allowed me to digest some of the food I had just scarfed down at the aid station. The next 3 miles or so to the Gloriana Aid Station were back on the Black Canyon Trail, a single track that follows the contour of the hillside, like following the bumps across the back of a scallop shell. Though the elevation profile shows an overall slight descent, it was more of the same short downs and ups which made it hard to get much speed…. there would be a slight down hill as the trail approached a drainage, then it would go back up after crossing the drainage, then around the side of the hill, and back to another drainage. Rinse, repeat.

At about mile 25 or so, I reached the Gloriana Mine aid station. I could tell that the lube on my toes wasn’t going to hold up until Black Canyon City and I didn’t want to keep taking breaks to re-apply. After getting my water bottle topped off and mixing in some Tailwind, I asked one of the aid station volunteer if they had any athletic tape in their first aid kit. They searched around but couldn’t locate any. The did have a small bandage, which I immediately knew upon putting it on that it wasn’t going to last more than a few hundred feet. Meanwhile, the aid station volunteer was able to track down a roll of duct tape. Despite being bright white and contrasting highly with my black Injinji compression toe socks, I knew it was going to be necessary if I had any chance of getting to Black Canyon City without a blister or otherwise putting a WSER qualifying time at risk. So I quickly wrapped my big toe with a strip of duct tape, thanked the volunteer, and made my way down the trail looking like a homeless vagabond.

The trail continued on for 3 miles in a similar way to the trail before the Gloriana Mine aid station: single track following the contour, relatively flat but with small ups and downs, and fairly rocky. It was along this stretch that I saw the runner in first place already coming back on the out-and-back from Black Canyon City. I hadn’t paid close attention to the High Water route details, so I was a little confused to see a runner coming back on the trail. I then started to put the puzzle pieces together in my mind. I had seen a drop bag area at Gloriana Mine aid station, not sure quite who it was for… maybe the 60k runners? Then I realized that we would be backtracking to it after Black Canyon City. I was at about mile 27 and this guy was already about 20 miles ahead of me… on track to finish around the 7 hour mark!

The trail then dropped down about two hundred feet to a small creek before coming back up for a 150 ft. climb up an uneven dirt road. My quads were a bit tired from running down to the creek, so the climb was a welcome change, even if it was slow going.

After cresting a pass at the top of the climb, the road dropped down almost 600 ft. over the course of 2 miles. For the first time since Bumble Bee, I was able to do 11 and 12 min/mile paces on the descent since it was wide open without any small dips or rises. I was hoping to go faster, but at 28 miles in I could only move my legs so fast. Not only that, but the side of my left knee was starting to ache… the sign of a tightening IT band. This made descents kind of painful and I looked forward to any uphill segments I came across. After reaching the bottom of the descent, the course stayed relatively flat for a mile or so, then made a sharp turn to the left, went up a steep hill, then started into some rolling hills.

The stretch between Gloriana Mine and the next aid station, Soap Creek, was one of the longer ones of the original course at 7.5 miles. There would have been a longer 8.8 mile stretch from Black Canyon City to Cottonwood Gulch on the original course, but that was no longer the case with the High Water route. I noticed I was getting quite low on water about 3 miles from Soap Creek so I started rationing my sips. Even with the rationing I ended up finishing off the 20 oz. bottle about a mile before the aid station. As we were going to be running this section two more times with the out-and-back, I took a mental note to be more diligent rationing my water earlier on this stretch.

I minimized my time at Soap Creek, taking about 2-3 minutes to refill my water bottle, quickly stuff a few things into my face from the table, then be on my way. My memory is a little hazy, but I believe it was around here that I saw another friend from Born to Run, Tyler Clemens. He was pacing another Born to Run regular, 12-year old Sebastian Salsbury, for his first 100k. I would cross paths with them a few times during the race.

The next 4.5 miles to Black Canyon City aid station were pretty quick. Three of the miles were flat, two of which were on asphalt as it followed the road through town and up to High Desert Park. Even though half the asphalt stretch was a gradual up hill, I was able to keep running (well… shuffling) rather than walk. The last mile of that stretch was a descent through High Desert Park on a rocky, winding path. Though picturesque with many different types of cacti along the path, I got a bit frustrated with it, feeling that there should have been a much more direct route to the bottom!

As I approached the aid station, CJ, his mom, and uncle Nick were there to cheer me on again. Once again their enthusiasm was infectious and I felt grateful to have them there. I also saw another Born to Run regular, Mike Miller, volunteering around the drop bag tent. I don’t know Mike all that well so I didn’t say hi, but seeing yet another familiar BTR face was another pick-me-up.

I spent about 15 minutes at the aid station. I finally had the opportunity to swap my socks with ones without holes in the toes I could look less like a hobo. I had thrown in spare running shorts and tech t-shirts just in case I wanted to wear something fresh but what I had on was working fine so I decided not to waste time changing or risking a chafing issue.

I had used up all of my Tailwind so I grabbed a few more baggies. I also took the opportunity to hit the porta-john and lube up in all the usual chafing places. In addition to the usual aid station fare, I wolfed down a few Cocoroon coconut bites from my drop bag.

I was a little unclear about the route at this point, as about a 1/4 mile from the aid station there had been a junction with volunteers asking some people heading away from the aid station whether they had been to the river yet. I wasn’t sure what that had meant, so I asked a Black Canyon City aid station volunteer about it. They indicated that there was a 4.4 mile out-and-back stretch (2.2 miles each way) down to the river that we needed to do. We would come back to this aid station before doing the 22 mile mile out-and-back (11 each way) to Gloriana Mine. I decided I wanted to minimize my time when I came back to this aid station the first time (just topping off water and grabbing some solid food), so I grabbed my headlamp since I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Gloriana Mine before sunset. 

I ended up seeing CJ’s dad Paul at the aid station as I was dealing with my drop bag. He asked if I had been down to the river yet. I told him no. He indicated he had just gotten back. I was impressed that he had been able to get about 4.5 miles ahead of me. I asked him how that stretch was. He kind of hesitated to answer before saying it was not easy. I could tell he didn’t want to hit me with bad news and it was going to be a bit of a slog. This wasn’t my first rodeo though, so to speak, and I had signed up for a challenge, so I resigned myself to just get through it and get on with the race.

After putting my drop bag back into place, I was on my way.

Black Canyon City to the river and back (~4.4 miles)

On my way out I saw CJ and his family again. After some high fives I made my way toward the junction and to the river. This stretch felt like it went on forever for whatever reason. It was relatively flat with about a climb of about 50 ft. up a hill in the first mile, then a descent of about 100 ft. via switchbacks over the course of another mile followed by a short stretch to the river. My left knee was still bothering me, so the switchbacks down were slow going.

At the turn around, we had to show our bib to volunteers and run around two stacked beer cans before heading back up. Heading back up the switchbacks was definitely a bit of slog, made all that more challenging by the fact that it was pretty much a single track and had two-way traffic… pretty much what the rest of the race would be from there on out.

I got back to Black Canyon City aid station in about an hour and 20 minutes. I had expected to see CJ and his family again but they had decided to grab some food at that point. I wouldn’t see them again until the end.

At the aid station, I spent about 5-6 minutes refilling my water bottle, grabbing some food, and then was on my again.

Black Canyon City to Gloriana Mine (11 miles)

On my way out of the aid station I saw my friend Matt Brayton again. He wasn’t all that far behind me at this point (and would later finish about 15 minutes before me, somehow passing me unnoticed in the dark… maybe while I was stopped at Gloriana Mine?).

The next 4.5 miles back to Soap Creek was pretty uneventful… a mile up the windy, rocky trail through High Desert Park, 2 miles of asphalt through Black Rock City, and the flat section to the aid station. I averaged 13-15 min/miles. When I got there I had to take a leak but there wasn’t a porta-john so I ended up hiking around to the back of aid station tent and finding a discrete bush to do my business at.

In the heat of the day I had been finding ice at the aid station was one of the keys to making me happy. At Soap Creek I loaded up my bottle with more water and ice… in hindsight, a bit too much ice. I had the 7.5 miles to Gloriana Mine ahead of me – the stretch where I had run out of water the first time. Though my water bottle was full, it is insulated and with the temperature dropping, it ended up not melting fast enough. The last 3 miles or so to Gloriana Mine I had a bunch of ice left in my bottle but no water. I tried eating one of the ice cubes but it was a bit too cold to continue doing. Fortunately since the temperature was dropping, that also meant I wasn’t perspiring as quickly, so it wasn’t as much of an issue as it could have been.

The road from Soap Creek was also pretty uneventful… rolling hills along a power line, flat road for a bit, then the 2 mile climb back up to the pass. The sunset was an amazing shade of dark pink.

I held out as long as I could without using my headlamp, but it started to get dark about 3.5 miles after Soap Creek (~6:35 pm). With about 4 miles to go to Gloriana, I whipped out my headlamp and trucked on. By this time I was back on the single track, so it was rocky with a drop off on the left side of the trail (east) and the hillside rising to the right (west). There was quite a bit of two-way traffic at this point, which made the going pretty slow. Each time a person came through, we’d have to step to one side or the other, potentially stopping briefly as to not fall down the hill!

Not long after turning my headlamp on, I realized that it was not illuminating the trail as well as I was expecting it to. I had swapped out the batteries in both headlamps I had brought with new ones before leaving Michigan. As the beam gradually grew dimmer, I realized that the batteries were not in fact *new* per se, just unused. They were Energizer lithium AAA batteries that had been knocking around in my supplies for several years and I figured I should probably use them before much longer. They had worked just fine when I tested them at home before leaving, but apparently the chemistry was no longer up to snuff. I usually carry a rechargeable lithium bike lamp as a backup but I was unable to track it down before heading to Arizona.

About 2.5 miles from Gloriana Mine, Paul and I crossed paths again. He was on his way back to the finish. I couldn’t really see him, as everything was dark and all I was seeing of the oncoming traffic was the headlamps shining into my face, but we recognized each other’s voices. As is customary in the ultramarathon world (and one of the things I love about the culture), many of us were sharing words of encouragement like “nice work”, “great job”, “looking strong”, and the like as we passed each other on the trail. At at a 15-20 min/mile pace and about 5 miles ahead of me, I figured he would finish about 1:15-1:45 ahead of me.

Shortly after, a woman who was running at a similar pace to me decided to stick with me for a mile or two and we made small talk as she ran directly behind me. The combined beams of our headlamps helped a bit, but it was still slow going with the rocky terrain. She decided to pass me with about a mile to go to the aid station, as she was actually supposed to be pacing her husband but they had gotten separated at an aid station and she was trying to find him. Fortunately I made it to Gloriana Mine without falling off the trail!

At Gloriana Mine I quickly made a bee-line to my drop bag to take care of the headlamp situation. I grabbed my spare headlamp that had truly fresh lithium AAA batteries and swapped fresh spares into the headlamp I had been wearing. I then carried that one as a handheld, giving me two sources of light and making the trail soooo much easier to see on the way back.

The temperature had dropped quite a bit by this time, and I got pretty chilled as soon as I stopped running. I quickly threw on a long sleeve tech shirt over what I was wearing and swapped the visor I had been wearing with a fleece beanie. I then took care of business at the porta-john, dumped the ice in my water bottle and replaced it with only water, and did the usual grazing of solid foods and soda from the aid station tables. By this time I was tired of Tailwind in my bottle so I opted not to use any more and just drank ginger ale or Coke at the aid stations instead.

I happened to see Tyler and Sebastian at this aid station again. I wished them luck, and with that, I was off again.

Gloriana Mine to Black Canyon City (11 miles)

The last eleven miles involved a lot of bad math in my head. I was trying to come up with estimates for when I’d be crossing that finish line… varying between a 14:30 and a 16:20 finish time. Yeah, that’s a pretty wide range. About a mile after leaving the aid station somebody passed me saying “we have 4 hours to go 10 miles”, referring to the 17 hour WSER qualifier cut-off. I thought, “That’s easy. I can usually do 10 miles in about an hour and half.” Then I realized that was assuming about a 9 min/mile pace running on flat roads and on fresh legs, not with 50+ miles behind me already. I had been averaging an 18-19 min/mile pace in the dark, mostly walking due to being tired and not able to see the trail. That’s a big difference. At a 20 min/mile pace, that would be about 3:20 for the remaining 10 miles, giving me a 16:20 finish. I decided I wanted at least an hour buffer Just In Case… or more, if I could muster it. And with that, I decided now that I had my headlamp, I was going to avoid walking as much as I could for those last ten miles. And off I shuffled.

The next 2 miles were on the rocky single track, so it was still pretty slow going. I’m pretty sure I didn’t walk at all, or if I did, it was only for a few seconds. I was still only averaging an 18-19 min/mile. Then came the 200 ft. descent down to the creek, followed by the 150 ft. climb back up the dirt road. 

By this time, my left knee had somehow loosened up again and descending wasn’t painful anymore. However, on my way down, I stepped to the side of the trail to let someone pass coming up on their way to Gloriana Mine. As I did, I kicked a sharp rock and muffled a cry. I had been kicking rocks all day long, but I realized this time was different. This time it had been pretty intense and the pain didn’t quickly subside. I looked down and saw a dime size pool of blood in front of my left big toe, the same one that I had wrapped with duct tape earlier in the day. I said to myself, “Great Brahm. Eight miles left and you go and do this?” From the start I had been pretty confident that I would finish before the 17 hour cut-off, as long as I didn’t do something stupid. With ultra marathons, the chance of something going wrong only increases with the distance. I had told myself “just don’t do anything stupid and you’ll make that cut-off” multiple times throughout the day. Then I had to go and do this.

I wasn’t going to let it stop me. There wasn’t much I could do at this point. The Soap Creek aid station was 3.5 miles away, and what would they be able to do anyway? By the time I would get there, I figured the bleeding would stop. So there was nothing to do but keep moving forward.

It was slow going up the dirt road to the pass as I hobbled and figured out the best way to minimize the pain. Then came the 2 mile descent on the dirt road, where I managed to eek out a 15 min/mile pace. 

With each mile I kept re-adjusting my finishing time estimates. “You can do this, Brahm”, I would think. For a few miles “Sub 16. You can do sub 16.” became my mantra. Then “OK, 15:50. You can do 15:50.”. Then “Hmmm… maybe 15:45?”

By the time I reached the Soap Creek aid station, I was in a zone. I barely spent a minute there, just long enough to top off my water bottle and be on my way. I was on a mission.

The 2 miles of asphalt through Black Canyon City went relatively quickly. I would see a runner up ahead in the distance and get determined to pass them. This mentally helped me to keep moving and not walk. I even managed to get a few miles in at a 13 min/mile pace, faster than what I had managed on the dirt road descent. I was starting to get pretty excited at this point. My estimates were getting even shorter. 15:40? 15:35? Was 15:30 even possible?

The last 1.5 miles seemed to last forever. The climb up to the top of High Desert Park wasn’t too bad, but the windy, rocky trail through the park seemed endless. A runner I had passed going up the hill and another I had passed on the road caught up to me at this point and followed close behind me. When the single track ended and exited out onto the dirt road for the last 1/4 mile, all three of us picked up our speed to finish strong. I couldn’t seem to muster as much as them, but I didn’t care. I had put in a solid effort for those last 10 miles and I was getting my WSER qualifier. I crossed under the finish line arch with a time of 15:34:57. Not only was it a qualifier, but it was a personal best by nearly 2.5 hours!

Post-race

CJ and his family were at the finish and once again cheered me on. His dad had finished with a time of 14:00, about an hour and a half before me! We each grabbed a complementary wood-fired oven pizza and hung around for about an hour or so, cheering others on as they crossed the finish line. It was starting to get cold again and my body was starting to shiver and shake now that it was no longer moving. Thankfully CJ and his mom had thought to bring blankets with them, otherwise there would have been no way I could have sat around that long.

With about an hour drive back to the rental house, we hit the road around 11 PM after locating our drop bags. We stayed up for another hour or so recalling things that had happened in the race, showering, then hitting the sack for a well earned slumber.

Acknowledgments

A big thanks to the Johnson family for letting me stay with them in their rental house, including me in their family gatherings, and cheering me on during the race. Your support and hospitality was and is greatly appreciated!

Thanks to Aravaipa Running for putting on a great race. It’s always tough to make last minute course changes but all in all it worked out in the end. Thanks for looking out for our safety. The complementary pizzas at the end was an awesome touch.

Last but not least, thanks to my wife and kids for supporting me on my bucket list item journey and putting up with all of my training!

Take aways

Every race has its lessons. Here are some I took away from this one.

  1. I need to double check all my gear before hand, especially batteries and clothing, preferably before leaving home. I would have discovered those holes 
  2. Unused batteries are not the same as new batteries. Also, I should have grabbed the spare batteries I had in my Black Canyon City drop bag when I grabbed the first headlamp.
  3. I should throw moleskin, athletic tape and spare socks in each drop bag.
  4. I chose not to wear sunscreen for this race. While I didn’t turn into a lobster, my exposed hands and lower quads definitely got pink and I had a sweet tan line across my thighs to boot! I don’t like the feel or smell of sunscreen, nor the idea of blocking my pores when I’ll be sweating so much, but even one application would have been better than none at all.
  5. The Luna Oso 2.0’s definitely held up, but I felt the mud early in the race definitely stuck more it their deep lugs than it would have in the the Mono 2.0’s. I’m wondering if the Mono’s would have been better.
  6. While my finishing time was a personal best by almost 2.5 hours, I felt like this was largely due to the general downhill profile of the course. I think I walked more than I should have and should have been able to run at a faster pace. My training was adequate for an adequate finish, but I think it was heavily biased toward the aerobic/endurance side. I’d like to focus on getting faster through speed work and intervals as well as being stronger on hills (both up and down).

More info

Born to Run 2017 Race Report

Background

This was the 4th year I participated in Born to Run, a multi-day trail running event held on a cattle ranch in the foothills of Los Olivos, CA, about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara.

Though the event takes its name from the 2009 book of the same name and is organized by Luis Escobar, the photographer from the book, I didn’t know about it until 2013 after hearing about it from a blogger I came across online who was into minimalist running. Several race distances are offered: 10 mile, 30 mile/50k, 60 mile/100k, 100 mile, 200 mile and 4-day. There’s even a 0.0k that people pay for. And can participate “virtually”. Yeah, I don’t understand either. People camp in tents, SUVs, camper vans and various sizes of RVs. There are no showers. The only available restrooms are porta-johns that can get pretty… inhospitable… by the end of the weekend. Several side activities happen during the weekend (some ad hoc as people get motivated to organize): bola races (a game/sport of the native Mexican Raramuri tribe that involves kicking and chasing a small wooden ball soccer-style while running), a beer mile, sometimes a “vertical mile” with donated Patagonia swag to be picked up along the way, an archery race, a “no-talent” show, and bands on Friday and Saturday nights, the latter having morphed into a “dirtbag prom”.

I had signed up for the 100k initially that first year but had to drop down to the 50k after experiencing some foot pains in the weeks leading up to the event and was not confident I could run that distance with the injury. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I was able to hang out more and make many new friends during the downtime. I have run the 30 mile/50 km offerings ever since. The event has become to mean much more than just a trail race; it is a yearly opportunity to unwind and reconnect with some of the most down-to-earth, fun-loving, unafraid-to-let-loose-and-get-funky people I have ever met.

Deliberations

(Kinda boring, if I do say so myself. Feel free to skip this section.)

Fast forward to this year, I went back and forth quite a bit about making it out to the ranch. I had initially put it on my race calendar, as it has become something I look forward to every year, but between hearing that a number of my friends were not likely going to make it this year and obligations at home falling on the same weekend, making it happen was going to be a challenge. My friend Toni, a fellow Michigander who I met at Born to Run in 2014, was also going back and forth due to various things going on in her life. In the end, she ended up pulling the trigger, which was enough to push me over the edge and sign up as well.

Typically we have headed out on Thursday morning, flown into LAX, rented a car and driven the 112 miles in time to get reacquainted with our friends and participate in the side activities starting that afternoon. Unfortunately this year Toni could only fly out on Friday, so I did the same to simplify the travel arrangements of getting between the airport and ranch.

Additionally, this year my youngest daughter had a 5k scheduled for Sunday morning through the YMCA’s Girls on the Run (GOTR) program and my oldest daughter had a voice recital scheduled for Sunday evening. I sometimes feel that my involvement in these endurance sports can be a bit selfish, so I try to minimize its impact on the family schedule. There was no way I was going to make it to the 5k if I did Born to Run, so instead I ran with my youngest daughter in another local 5k the weekend before as well as a “practice” 5k at the after-school GOTR practice during the week. I booked an early flight back to Michigan so that I could arrive in time to see my oldest daughter in her recital at 7pm. This would require getting up at 5am to pack up after racing, hit the road by 6am to do the 2 hour drive back to LAX, return the rental car, take the shuttle to the terminal and get through security in time for a 9:25am flight that would put me back in Michigan around 5pm, assuming there were no delays. To maximize the buffer time, I bit the bullet and parked in the airport parking garage rather than using the much cheaper off-site US Park. I also packed everything I would need for the weekend into a carry-on (a backpacking pack) so that I wouldn’t need to wait to retrieve anything from baggage claim after I arrived back in Detroit.

As far as which distance to race, I was torn between the 30-mile and 60-mile offering. As mentioned earlier, I’ve done the 30 mile/50 km race for the past 3 years. I’ve found it to be a good balance of being a legitimate ultra effort yet leaves enough time to hang out with friends and participate in Saturday’s other activities. However, I’m also in process of training for another 100-mile ultra marathon in June and had already done a 50k ultra at the end of April, so the 60-mile option would be a good stepping stone to further gauge my fitness level heading into the 100 miler. Toni had done the 60 mile event the past few years and highly recommended it, so I figured I would give it a shot. It would mean less time hanging out with friends, but I figured this would be the year to do it since there would be fewer friends around.

This ended up not being entirely true. As it turned out, most of my friends I thought weren’t going to make it were able to do so after all. There were some additional circumstances that I would argue did NOT make this a good year to try this distance, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I received a text from Toni earlier in the week indicating that the forecast was calling for a high around 88ºF on race day. Great, I thought. Yet another hot race. I’ve been plagued by bad weather for many of my endurance events over the past few years. In 2014, my first ever 100k started out with the hottest day for that summer, then had a wind storm come through around midnight while we were running through the woods with trees swaying violently and dropping branches all around… one of the fortunately few times I’ve genuinely ever feared for my life. Later that year, the swim at Ironman Florida was canceled due to crazy waves and riptides and the bike segment had 30-40 MPH gusts of wind. In 2015, a heatwave struck the Pacific Northwest and I dealt with temperatures that topped out at 106ºF at Ironman Couer d’Alene. Last year’s Mohican Trail 100 high was around 96ºF, as was Ironman Chattanooga’s. The silver lining to all of these sufferfests, though, is that I’ve learned how to manage the heat:

  • Lube up the feet and any other place where friction is going to be an issue (including areas where the sun don’t shine). They are going to get wet either through sweat or from being doused with water.
  • Wear a visor rather than a hat to let the heat escape.
  • Wear loose, light colored clothing that can soak up doused water.
  • Wear arm sleeves and a bandana under the visor to protect your neck. Douse them, too.
  • Stuff ice cubes into the tops of the arm sleeves and let them melt between aid stations.
  • Don’t rely solely on addressing the heat at the aid stations. Carry an extra water in a bottle and douse regularly in between aid stations.
  • Favor dousing with water over drinking water, as evaporation is a more effective cooling mechanism and it’s important to save room in the stomach for actual food.
  • If an aid station has bucket with ice water sponges or towels, use them!
  • Stay on top of the nutrition. Eat a little bit at every aid station even if not hungry, as it’s possible you won’t want to eat later so it’s important to get the calories in early.
  • Wear and regularly apply sunscreen to any exposed skin. Though it’s not great to clog the pores, once the skin is damaged, perspiration – the body’s natural sweat evaporation cooling process – is also compromised.
  • Slow down. Duh.

Travel

Friday morning arrived. I met up with Toni at the gate at the airport shortly before the scheduled boarding time, only to find that our plane had been delayed… not due to mechanical issues or weather, but because Delta is in the process of changing terminals at LAX and the planes there were backed up getting assigned gates. So rather than circle in the air, they delayed our departure back in Detroit. Ugh.

Thankfully the flight was relatively uneventful. After grabbing our rental minivan, we grabbed lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant near the airport I discovered on Yelp the first year I went to Born to Run called Aliki’s Greek Taverna. We picked up some baklava to share at the ranch then hit the road.

The drive typically takes about 2.5-3 hours in previous years when we’ve arrived on a Thursday, but due to the flight delay and it being a weekend, ended up taking an extra hour from the extra heavy LA traffic. While we were a bit frustrated that our already limited time with friends at the ranch was getting cut shorter and shorter, we managed the situation by keeping the windows rolled down the whole way, soaking in the warm California air, blasting tunes, and guessing the ages of palm trees we passed along the way. Somewhere near Camarillo we passed a strawberry field that was extremely fragrant and for a few brief moments that heavenly heady scent seemed to make everything all right in the world.

18527524_10155367832832458_2767832292992883462_n

Guessing the ages of palm trees (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

After making a stop in Santa Barbara to pick up some food and another in Los Olivos for a cooler and beverages, we arrived at the ranch around 5:30pm… too late for the beer mile but time enough to hang out for a bit and grab some dinner from the taco & burrito “truck” (a.k.a. RV) Luis’ sister runs at the event.

18581521_10155367839072458_7653774927171358567_n

Only a few minutes away! (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

File May 27, 10 15 12 PM

We have arrived!

Afterward, we partook in one of my favorite activities at Born to Run… dancing to the live music at night. The band that evening – Brass Mash, made up of a collective of saxophones and brass instruments – played some kickin’ mash-ups of various popular songs. As always, it was a blast to cut loose with the tribe and a great way to end the night.

btr58 (1 of 1)

Brass Mash, yo (Photo credit: Tyler Tomasello)

Race Day

Morning comes early on race day, at least for the 30- and 60-milers. The race doesn’t start until 6am, but at 4:30am mariachi music is blared from the PA system at the center of camp. Around 5am Luis fires several rounds from a shotgun, yelling at everyone to get up and that all runners need to be at the starting line at 5:30am for instructions and announcements, etc. In the meantime, a mariachi singer serenades everyone as they perform their morning preparations.

After the announcements and instructions are given, the pledge that originated with Caballo Blanco at the race he held in the Copper Canyons in Mexico – “If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault!” – is recited by everyone and the race begins.

The course is comprised of two loops on dirt roads and single track trails through the ranch. The loops are followed logically, though not even remotely geographically, like a figure eight. There is no map. The route is marked by pink ribbons for the first loop, yellow for the second. If you see blue, turn around. Blue is bad. The loops are approximately 10 miles each, though the distances are anything but certified and Luis is uninterested in their accuracy. Show him your Garmin and he’ll tell you to take a hike. This event is not about accuracy. It’s about a love of running and everything that comes with it, good or bad.

18622486_10155367834142458_8750929671063020632_n

Luis explaining the trail markings. (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

That said, in years past, the typical 50k (31 miles) and 100k (62 miles) ultra marathon distances were offered, but due to the logistical hurdles needed to add in the extra mile or two (not to mention the frustration of having to run past the start/finish and then turn around), the offerings were changed last year to multiples of ten. However, even though those multiples-of-ten distances were what was offered this year, the pink loop had to be re-routed due to where cattle were grazing on the ranch, so the loop ended up being 11 miles instead of 10 and about 1350 ft elevation gain instead of 970 (according to my Garmin data). So the 30 miler ended up being closer to 32 miles and the 60 miler closer to 63 miles (or 64, again, according to my Garmin…). C’est la vie.

Loop 1

The temperature was around 50ºF when the race started… quite pleasant running weather!

File May 27, 10 14 01 PM

And they’re off!

I was not looking forward to the hot afternoon temperatures, so although I made sure not to go out too fast, I tried to find a balance that would allow me to cover more ground early so that less time would potentially need to be spent in the heat.

File May 27, 10 27 19 PM

Catching the sunrise.

Toni and I stuck together for most of the first (pink) loop. Running is very much a social thing for me, so I also try to find a balance between finding the time to stick with friends and running at my own pace. At this point Toni started to slow down a bit, so I pulled out ahead, sticking to a pace that felt good but not so fast that I wouldn’t have enough energy to finish the 60+ miles.

18620023_10155367835802458_5163064534940000955_n

Eating hills for breakfast. (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

I finished the first loop in just over 2 hours, my Garmin showing 11 miles so far. After getting my water bottle refilled at the nearby aid station, I ran back to the minivan at camp, maybe 50-75 yards from the start/finish, and spent about 10 minutes preparing for the next loop. With the sun now low in the sky, I knew this loop was going to get warm as the morning progressed. I applied sunscreen to any exposed skin, applied Body Glide to my thighs to avoid chafing, threw on arm sleeves to protect my arms, and replenished the Tailwind energy drink in my handheld bottle.

Loop 2

The beginning of the yellow loop passes a watering trough that on this day seemed to be extremely popular with the local bee population. I had noticed quite a few bees flying around near the entrance to the ranch the day before, something I hadn’t seen in previous years and had wondered if it would be a problem at camp. I hadn’t noticed any back where the minivan was parked, but as I started off on this yellow loop I passed through a stream of hundreds… no, thousands… of bees that were flying between the trough and some unknown location to the right of me. I didn’t realize what it was until I looked over and saw them swarming all over the trough. At that point I wasn’t interested in figuring out where they were going to the right of me… I just wanted to get through them unscathed and not stung! Fortunately this was the case. The bees had better things to do and flew right around me.

I met up with Toni again briefly about a mile into the second (yellow) loop. She had passed me during the time I was prepping at the minivan. The rest of the loop I ran on my own. I lingered a bit at the aid stations to cool off but didn’t eat much… something I realized during the next loop that I needed to be better about.

I finished the second loop in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Though slowing a bit as temps and fatigue started to rise, I was doing a good job of keeping a maintainable pace. Now 21 miles in, I knew the next loop would be rough, as the temperatures were already noticeably warmer and the sun was now above the hilltops. I did what I could to prepare for the heat. I stopped by the minivan again, re-applied sunscreen and Body Glide, refilled my water bottle with Tailwind and grabbed an extra water bottle so I could carry ice water to douse myself between aid stations. I changed my shirt from the dark red tech shirt from last year’s Born to Run to a white one to minimize heat absorption. I grabbed a white bandana and tucked it under the band of my visor to cover my neck. I also changed my shoes from the Altra Superior trail runners to a pair of Luna Mono sandals I had picked up the year before at Born to Run. There are a number of relatively steep descents on the yellow loop that caused my toes to ram into the front of my shoes and started to give me hot spots, so I wanted to give my toes a break. I figured I would give the sandals a shot on the pink loop since its descents weren’t quite as steep. I run quite a lot in my Lunas at home, though mostly on flatter terrain and nothing longer than a marathon. Unsure of whether my feet were ready for the wear and tear on the descents, I kept my Injinji toe socks on as a protective barrier, fashion be damned. Born to Run is definitely not a fashion show… well, not in the traditional sense.

Loop 3

About fourteen minutes later I was back on the pink loop. Little did I realize just how rough the third loop would be. Within about 30 minutes I was starting to get a little light headed so I stopped at the side of the trail in some available shade and recuperated for a few minutes. Less than 20 minutes later I had to do this again. Fortunately Wild Bill’s aid station was not too far away, so after I regained my composure again, I ambled down to it and recuperated there for about 15 minutes… sitting in the shade, eating what I could, refilling my water bottles with ice water. Best of all, they had towels soaking in ice water at this aid station. Glory be! I eagerly took advantage of that icy goodness.

Due to all of my stops, though I had past her early in the loop, Toni arrived at the aid station shortly before I was about to leave. She seemed to be handling the heat better than I. It was good to see a familiar face, though later she mentioned that I looked like I could strangle her for convincing me to run the 100k. After mentioning how woozy I had been, she urged me to stick around until she was done at the aid station. I contemplated finishing off the loop with her (she had dropped down to the 50k before the race started due to some shin issues she was experiencing), but I was eager to get this loop behind me. I figured if I could just get back to camp, I could take a short nap and re-assess my situation from there. So I told her I would just start walking, assuming that she would catch up at some point in the remaining 7-8 miles.

I was able to keep moving for about another 40 minutes before I had to stop and sit down at the side of the trail in some shade again. I did this about 3 times before reaching the next aid station, where I sat for about 10 minutes, taking in food, refilling my water bottles again, and letting my body temperature drop again. I didn’t meet up with Toni again, though I saw her approaching the aid station as I was leaving. Thankfully the end of the loop was only about 1.5 miles away at this point, which took me about 20 minutes to reach.

As a point of reference, when I ran the 30 mile option at Born to Run last summer, due to the cooler temperatures that year and the flatter pink loop, I finished in 5:10. With that in mind, and a 50-mile winter PR of 10:20, I had set an initial goal of finishing in 12-13 hours. But with the longer, hillier pink loop and high temperatures, it had take me 8 hours to go those 32 miles. With about half the distance still ahead of me, that initial goal was long gone.

After crossing the timing mat, I headed back to the minivan to formulate a plan. Though I had experienced some dizziness from the 96ºF heat at the Mohican Trail 100 last summer, 95% of that trail is under a tree canopy so that made it easier to get that under control early on using some ice-water sponges. I had never had to stop so many times before. Was I alright? My legs still felt fine. I didn’t feel exhausted; I just couldn’t muster much energy, if that makes sense.

On the drive to the ranch, Toni had been wavering between still attempting the 60 miles that she had signed up for and dropping down the 30 due to her shin issue. Hoping to help her come to a definitive answer, I had asked her, “What’s your ‘why’?”… what was she looking to get out of the experience? I now found myself asking myself the same question. I had signed up for the longer race because I thought it would be a good challenge and a better gauge of my readiness of the 100 miler I was planning on doing 4 weeks later compared to the 50k I had done 3 weeks earlier. And I had already told people I was doing the 60 miler… made it part of my Leukemia and Lymphoma Society fundraising campaign… and didn’t want to let anybody down. But part of me really only wanted to do the 30, as I would be missing out on hanging out with my friends on the ranch. I also didn’t know if continuing under these conditions was compromising my health and going to jeopardize my 100-miler attempt in any way.

I decided I would eat some food, take a quick nap, and see how I felt after that. My Garmin was at about 46% battery level, so I planned to charge it while slept.

The minivan – which I slept in the night before – seemed like it would be a bit warm, so I grabbed some food and climbed into one of a handful of hammocks that people had strung between a small grove of California oaks. After scarfing down a fresh peach, some Coco-roons, some tortilla chips and an almond butter packet, I set my phone alarm for 25 minutes, as I didn’t want to rest too long and risk having my legs cramp up. I didn’t sleep very deeply, as there was still a bit of commotion going on around camp, but it felt good to take that break regardless.

Around the time I planned to get up, Toni and her brother Tyler came by and found me on the hammock. We chatted a bit and I re-assessed my situation. I decided that since my legs still felt good, so as long as I stayed on top of my nutrition, managed the heat by continuously dousing myself with water and was able to make forward progress, I would continue and push through until the temperatures started to drop, if I could. I resigned myself to walking that fourth loop, as I figured that’s what it would take to do so.

Tyler also offered to pace me for the last loop, should I want it. I personally wasn’t sure if I would make it that far, but I figured we’d cross that bridge when I came to it and thanked him for the offer.

As I started to replenish my Tailwind I realized I had forgotten to start charging my Garmin. Great. It wasn’t going to last the whole race, but it should last at least one or two more loops, depending on how long they took. I figured I would probably stop for at least 20 minutes at the end of the 4th loop… probably even take another nap… so I would at least charge it for a few minutes while I continued to get ready for the next loop (which only increased the charge to about 48%) and then plan on charging it again when I came back to camp. I also had a choice to make with regards to footwear. The Luna sandals had worked well for the pink loop, but the yellow loop was going to have steeper descents. I wasn’t looking forward to having my toes ram the front of my shoes again, so I decided to chance it with the sandals again.

I also decided for this next loop I would listen to music or podcasts to help take my mind off the drudgery I was anticipating, so I grabbed my headphones and hit the trail.

Loop 4

The fourth loop once again started by running through the stream of swarming bees (no stings!) and was just as hot as the third. There were reports from others that it reached a high of between 93ºF and 96ºF. The temperature at the top of the hills seemed to be a few degrees warmer than in the valleys.

After stopping for a few minutes at the first aid station, which was only 1.5 miles from the start of the loop, I found myself getting dizzy again. I found some shade around the 3 mile mark and once again laid down at the side of the trail in some available shade for a few minutes. I did this again at the 3.5 mile mark. Then again at 4.

“What am I doing?” I thought. “I could just drop. I don’t really need to be doing this. I could be hanging out with my friends right now.” The specter of my first DNF hung over my head. “It would be a badge of honor. It would mean you gave it your all.” But I felt like I hadn’t given it my all. I was still making progress after all, albeit slowly. I still had food on me. I still had water and Tailwind. My legs weren’t cramping. It was only another 3 miles or so to the next aid station.

I thought about what it meant for gauging my fitness for the 100 miler. If I could push through, it would be a confidence booster for attempting Mohican again. If I didn’t… well, it left a big old question mark up in the air. Maybe it was just the conditions and I’d be fine at Mohican. Or maybe not. What will my legs feel like later in the race? Would I still have the mental fortitude to tackle the 100 again?

I thought about the people that had already made the donations to my fundraising campaign in the single day between when I had sent out my email and had left for the airport. My brother. A cousin. Friends. Parents of friends. Neighbors. I thought about how this discomfort was voluntary. The people I was fundraising for didn’t have a choice in facing their blood cancer. I did. And I had people rooting me on back home.

So I got up and ambled on. I was able to push it a full mile before laying down this time. And then pushed through another two miles to Wild Bill’s aid station again. Relentless forward progress.

I re-filled my water bottles and scarfed down anything I could: PB&J squares, pickles, boiled potatoes with salt, watermelon chunks. I sat under the canopy and just relaxed for a bit. About 13 minutes passed before I felt ready to move on. As I was leaving, I overheard one of the aid station volunteers mention that the temperature there had dropped about 12 degrees in the last hour or so. I looked up in the sky and noticed the sun was getting lower. A smile started to spread across my face. It was showtime.

The first 1.5 miles past the aid station were uphill, which I managed to walk at a relatively quick 15 min/mile pace. The last 1.5 were downhill. I was finally able to run again and knocked out a 10:30 min/mile pace, finishing the loop in about 3:15. The light at the end of the proverbial tunnel was coming into view, well, at least as far as the heat went. I still had 21 more miles to run.

Despite once again feeling good, I still had the matter of recharging my Garmin. And to play it safe with my body, I decided to take another nap back at camp. The minivan was no longer in the direct sun by this point, so I opened up the back hatch and a side door, ate some more food, set the alarm on my phone and a backup travel clock for 25 minutes again, and settled in for another nap on my air mattress, remembering to put the Garmin on the charger this time.

Loop 5

Once again, I didn’t rest very deeply due to the commotion of camp, but it was better than nothing. I caught Tyler again as I was prepping and told him I’d take him up on the offer for pacing me on the last loop. As I mentioned earlier, running is very much a social thing for me. I figured I’d be tired of listening to podcasts by that point and it would be a good chance to get to know him better.

He asked if there was anything he could get me… food… water… It was about dinner time and I didn’t have much in the way of non-snack or race food and the options at the aid stations were, well, aid station food. He offered up some sriracha tofu salad that one of our friends, Brookque, had just whipped together. It was a very welcome change from everything I had ingested previously and I scarfed it down quickly, thanking them profusely.

Since the sandals had served me well for the previous two loops, I decided I would stick with them for the rest of the race unless they started giving me problems. At 42 miles, it would be the furthest I’ve gone in them in one go. However, before doing so, I took off the Injinji socks, washed the layers of dirt off that had made their way through the fabric, re-applied Chamois Butt’r to my feet, and put on a fresh pair of Injinjis. Luxury.

With the sun going down, I ditched the sunglasses, arm sleeves and the bandana I had been using to shield my neck and grabbed my headlamp.

File May 27, 10 14 44 PM

The sun setting over the hill tops.

By this time the temperatures had dropped to about 77ºF according to Garmin Connect… still warm but much better than before. I no longer felt the need to stop between aid stations, though I still spent about 5 minutes at each one to refill my water bottles and take in more food. Still listening to podcasts, I power hiked the uphill segments and was able to eek out 10:30-11 min/mile paces on the downhills. I finished this loop 45 minutes faster, in about 2:30.

Loop 6

At this point was feeling surprisingly good, considering I had about 53 miles and several hours of stumbling through the heat behind me. I was eager to knock this last loop out and be done. After crossing the timing mat, I headed toward the minivan, worming my way between the front of the stage at the center of camp and the throng of dancers at the “dirtbag prom” I was missing out on. I tracked down Tyler to let him know I was back and going to resupply and head back out in a few minutes. Shirtless and donning American flag jean shorts, a coonskin hat and evidence of a heavily lipsticked kiss on the check, I quickly realized there was probably little chance I would be pulling him away from the party to pace me… which I was fine with. I was doing well. I was well acquainted with the trails, especially since the last one was the yellow loop and that had not changed from previous years. I’ve run in the dark quite a few times in practice night runs and previous 100k and 100 milers, so that wasn’t a concern either.

18671096_10155367859777458_1326391842997380829_n

Tyler, Kimberli and Sam at the dirtbag prom, yo. (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

I took a few minutes to replenish my Tailwind one last time and threw on a fresh shirt. I grabbed a new Bonk Breaker bar, as I had finished off the one I had been carrying with me to keep a steady stream of solid food going in my system between aid stations. I stashed my headphones in one of my pockets in case Tyler wasn’t going to join me and I wanted to use them, then headed back to the dirtbag prom to track him down. Considering he hadn’t come back to the minivan to get ready to head out, I pretty much knew I’d be on my own. I found him again and told him I was going to head back out. He looked conflicted about whether he should stay or head out with me, but I told him not to worry about it. It was obvious he was having a good time and I’d be fine. He gave me a big hug and I started making my way toward the start of the loop.

At this point I ended up passing Toni hanging at the back of the crowd of dancers with our friend Loic.

18581611_10155367840082458_2424404945072329346_n

Toni and Loic dirtbag promin’ it. (Photo credit: Toni Reese)

Excited to see me, they jumped up and asked me how everything was going. On the spur of the moment, Toni got the idea for the two of us to pose for a picture, her all dressed up for the dirtbag prom and me in my dirty, sweaty running clothes, separated at arms length, dancing a safe distance apart like at a “proper” prom.

18556044_10155367860227458_5776453017206489951_n

Practicing safe dancing (from the stanky stank?) (Photo credit: Loic Bernard)

With that, I headed out on the last loop on my own. I started fiddling with my Garmin to start it again and the next thing I knew Toni and Loic were right behind me chasing me down the road. With a surge of adrenaline, I started sprinting to outrun them, and outrun them I did. I was amazed at how fresh I was feeling at this point considering all that had preceded that moment. The cooler temperatures were making all the difference, though the fact that I had walked so much earlier rather than run also helped.

It’s amazing how much the trail changes at night. This time around there were no bees. What can be seen is largely defined by what is illuminated by your headlamp and the silhouette of the trees against whatever light is left in the night sky. My awareness of my surroundings intensified. I purposefully left my headphones in my pocket, wanting to take in everything. Though I had traveled this loop many times before, there were a number of times I started questioning if I was still on the right path as it had been a while since I had seen a yellow marker. At one point shortly after passing through the first aid station I started to get off route but quickly realized I was heading away from where I thought the trail should be going, backtracked, and found where I needed to go.

Every step of this loop I made with a purpose. I was proud of having pushed through all of those low points earlier in the day and was eager to cross that finish line. I power hiked every uphill section and ran the flats and downhills. I barely lingered at either of the aid stations this time. There was one point when I did stop mid-trail, though. The sky was still cloudless and the stars were looking amazing. On top of the ridge line about halfway through the loop, I stopped, turned off my headlamp and just looked up. I stood there for a minute, just soaking it all in. The endless number of stars. The endless blackness between them. The cool evening air. The breeze blowing through the grasses surrounding me. The silence of having no one else around. The feeling of accomplishment from what I had pushed through earlier that day. This lack of relentless forward progress was just as important as every other moment in this journey. It was important not to let this opportunity pass.

34727934661_5be4134872_k

Camp under the stars (Photo credit: Scott Smuin)

I crossed the finish line right around midnight, eighteen hours after I had started. By then the prom had ended and everyone had headed back to the tents, campers, etc. I moseyed back to the minivan and camp, where I found the rest of my tribe. Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like finishing a long ultra event like this and being greeted with a huge hug from a shirtless, American flag jean short- and coonskin hat-wearing friend and his luchador mask-donning significant other.

18556167_10155367841057458_5654748429679645784_n

Now that’s a greeting. (Photo Credit: Toni Reese)

A drink was quickly placed in my hand and Brookque once again came through in the food department with a plate of vegan pancakes, applesauce and fresh fruit. It was heavenly.

Toni and Loic found me shortly after. They had gone off to grab something before planning to head to the finish line to cheer me in but just missed me. I was too quick!

We sat around for quite a while chatting and recounting the trials and tribulations from the day. It was 2am before I crawled into the minivan, wiped off as much dirt and dust as I could, slid into my sleeping bag and nodded off. I needed to get up at 5am to pack up and head to the airport to catch that early flight back for my daughter’s voice recital. I was going to get less than 3 hours of sleep. But I didn’t care. I could sleep on the plane (though I didn’t!).

I sometimes get asked why I participate in events like these. To be sure, there are moments I ask myself this question, such as when lying at the side of a trail for the fifth time recuperating from the heat. There are many reasons:

  • I view these events as metaphors for life, with high points, very low points, and everything between. How we adapt and face the challenges often reflects on how we handle situations in real life. Knowing I can get through situations like these give me the confidence to reach big.
  • They are often very humbling and allow time for reflecting on what is and what isn’t important in life.
  • I have met some of the most down-to-earth and amazing people at these events that I am proud to call my friends.
  • With a wife and two daughters, sometimes I feel like the time it takes to train and prepare is a bit selfish, so I make a conscious effort to minimize the impact to the family schedule. However, I have discovered the positive aspect of this is that I have become a role model, with my wife training for a handful of half marathons over the years, my oldest daughter participating in her middle school cross country and track teams, and my youngest daughter having run a number of 5k races through the YMCA’s Girls on the Run program.
  • I am able to harness the attention I inevitably get by doing these events and direct it toward a greater good, such as fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
  • They are an amazing source of stories like this one and make my life feel all that much richer.

Takeaways

  • I love this event.
  • I’m not sure I want to do the 60 mile/100k again. It was a great challenge, but I need to spend more time hanging out with friends. And dancing.
  • Friday to Sunday isn’t enough.
  • I love this event.

With that, I’m outta here. See you on the trails.


In case you’re curious, I was 12th overall and 2nd in my age group out of 51 registered and 32 finishers.

Here’s my Strava data:

Here are a few other race reports I’m aware of:

And some photo collections:

Mohican Trail 100

Got ‘er done! Second 100 miler in the books. Man, those hills at Mohican! Makes the hills at Pinckney look like bunny hills. Dug deep and ran strong for the last 14 miles or so, finishing in about 28:15. Thanks to Michael Wolff for pacing and crewing me for 46 of those miles. And thanks to all of you who sponsored me by donating to my Leukemia & Lymphoma Society fundraising efforts. Your support helped me get through some tough spots!

13445731_10209764174961352_1711478051034948176_n

13418988_10209764175601368_1773968493709768077_n

13537587_10209847684769045_1902679183843083579_n