Bib #12 – Black Canyon 100k
Sprinters are drama queens. Have you ever seen a sprinter come in second and not throw themselves to the track in a fit of ridiculous, self-important sobs? Marathoners are more resilient. When Team USA’s Meb Keflezighi slipped and fell just inches from the finish line of the 2016 Rio Olympics, he did push-ups before getting back up. Marathoners are my people. Ultra-runners are also my people, with their combination of intense self-determination and a touch of laissez faire, so often mistaken for just plain crazy.
“Have you been hypothermic before?” The EMT asked me from his seat on the cafeteria bench next to the cot where I lay prone, covered in a wool blanket, two sleeping bags and a mylar runner’s blanket. “Not that I’m aware of,” I answer, honestly. This is not the first race I’ve finished with blue lips; it’s just the first one where I’ve been cornered by the EMTs, made to strip and lie down, attached to an oxygen tank and told if my blood ox levels don’t improve they’d have to send me by ambulance to the hospital.
An hour later, long after my lips had turned back to their naturally rosey hue (my body having responded well to the threat of hospitalization), I can hear Jeremy, a runner wrapped like a burrito on the cot by my toes, telling Lloyd the EMT that he’s fine to go home. The blurry spots in his vision are still there, but he thinks they’ll improve once he gets outside [into the pitch black of midnight with the sideways rain]. And Shelly, on the cot behind me who has her legs elevated after fainting in the bathroom, telling another EMT that, while she’s still a little nauseous, she’s sure it will subside over the 40 mile drive back to her AirBNB. We’d all completed the Black Canyon 100k, and in times fast enough to qualify us for the 2018 Western States Endurance Run lottery, my personal goal and reason for running the race. (Check out my live, start-line video from Mayer High School).
It was a precarious race, even before it started. On Wednesday, Race Directors made the difficult decision to alter the original course, a point-to-point with four river crossings, to an out and back with no river crossings, due to potential flash-flooding in the area. This alteration would keep runners safe from the potentially raging Agua Fria River, but it would do nothing to shield us from the other effects of an Arizona desert downpour. 53 registered runners did not even start the race.
“Shoe-sucking mud” is neither a euphemism nor an exaggeration. I’ve run in it most recently at the 2016 Rut 50k in Montana, where race-day snow and sleet-storms forced organizers to cut nearly 6 miles off the alpine course, leaving 26.3 miles of muddy sludge resembling brownie batter.
But this was different. The mix of mud and clay not only had runners, early in the race, expending significant energy with every, sliding step, but the clay stuck to our shoes. For every 50 meters we managed to move forward, we were rewarded with a ring of clay around our soles like thick, heavy flippers, forcing us to beat our shoes against surrounding rocks to loose it.
By the time I reached the Antelope Mesa aid station — the first of 9 aid stations and just 7.3 miles into the race, I was already 10 minutes behind pace for the Western States Lottery cutoff. While I kept going, 19 others would drop at Antelope Mesa, 54 miles short of the finish line.
The day improved, as runners discovered the course beyond Antelope Mesa infinitely more runnable. By 11:30am, four and a half hours into the race, the rain stopped completely. Lowering my rain hood, I heard the quiet of the desert for the first time (rather than the monotonous swoosh swoosh of nylon against my ears), and took in the view from my previously-blocked peripheral vision. For the first time all morning, I thought the course might really be a nice one.
The seven mile stretch between the Gloriana Mine aid station (number 4), and the Soap Creek Provisional aid station at the half-way point turn around was a long one. I’d made up the original time lost at the beginning of the race, but as my watch ticked nearer to my goal turn-around time, I began to once again become apprehensive about the prospect of finishing within the Western States lottery cutoff. Every corner and hilltop held the promise of the turn-around point. But my goal time passed, and I could still see neon runner raincoats far into the distance. By the time I checked in at Soap Creek, I was an hour behind schedule.
And I was hurting. I’d expended so much energy in the early miles, first in trying to gain purchase in the slick conditions, and then in inadvertently running hard to make up time. I was apparently not alone. By the time I checked in at Soap Creek, with 13 hours left until the race’s official end, 44 runners had dropped out.
The rain began again in earnest as I approached the Bumble Bee Back aid station at mile 42.2, with 19.1 miles to the finish. While still comfortable in my Geoduck Gallop Half Marathon long sleeved tech t-shirt and rain waterproof pullover, I used the opportunity to put on another layer — my North Face winter running jacket, underneath the pullover. Night would fall in the 6.7 miles to the next aid station, and I wanted to be prepared. In my preoccupation with remaining warm, however, I neglected the one item that was written on three copies of my race plan, highlighted in yellow — to take my headlamp with me before departing the aid station.
I was less than ten minutes beyond Bumble Bee when I realized my mistake, my audible “oh shit,” catching the attention of the man behind me, who I’d heard the aid station volunteer call “Stu” before we left. “What’s wrong?” He asked. “I forgot my headlamp at the aid station,” I said. In fact, my brother Stephen, acting as my crew for the race, had it in a bag he was carrying with him, and had departed for the car in the downpour immediately upon my walking away from the tent. While I was not too far away to go back to the aid station, my headlamp, I knew, was already gone.
I have never made such a potentially disastrous mid-race mistake in my life, and the following 6.7 miles played out as a mini-drama unto itself. Stu had an extra headlamp on him, his back-up, which he generously gave to me. He vowed he didn’t need it, but admitted that he wasn’t certain the lamp was waterproof; he thought it could possibly short out in the rain, and advised I try and wear it under my baseball-style running cap, as opposed to on the outside as most people do. While grateful for Stu’s generosity, I was still terrified of being caught in the dark without a light. I planned to just stick right behind him and draft off his waterproof headlamp when the time came. That is, until Stu announced he needed to make a bathroom stop. I had a choice: stand around and wait for a strange guy to pee against a cactus within eye-shot and potentially get cold in the process; or keep moving forward, relying on the non-waterproof headlamp. If I kept going, I knew I was likely to pull far enough away from Stu that he couldn’t catch me; but I was also far enough behind the next runner that I wouldn’t be able to catch and draft off him, unless I ran faster, expending energy I didn’t feel like I had, and convinced I would misstep and face plant in the process (a very real fear for ultra-runners on tired legs). In the end, my fear of getting cold outweighed my fear of being alone in the dark. Stu stopped, and I kept going.
Whether or not it was waterproof, the headlamp got me safely to the Hidden Treasure Mine aid station, where my brother was waiting. Still a little freaked out, I took not only my headlamp, but also my waist-mounted lamp which I’d brought as back-up. I would wear both for the remainder of the race, which I still thought I could complete within the Western States cutoff.
But this would be the last I would see of my brother. With nightfall upon the race and the rain still pouring down, Race Directors advised crew to abandon the aid stations entirely and go directly to the Mayer High School cafeteria and finish line. “The driving is really bad out there,” my brother told me. “I might not be at the last aid station.”
I could say the next 12.5 miles were a blur, but that’s not entirely true. I distinctly remember marching. Stomping, in fact, through ice-cold puddles as much as ankle deep, seeing nothing but the slop just feet in front of me. A couple of times the puddles reached across an entire jeep trail, and I heard someone off to my left utter, it’s a lake. (Video of this solemn march in the blackness was taken by runner @cierrecart on Instagram).
During this time, there was a fair bit of self talk, which for me comes in the form complementary, drill sergeant-like commands. You are strong, and this will only make you stronger! Not everyone can do this; but you can do this! You will not be weak! You are not in pain, you are resilient! And the chanting of names from my online running group, in a kind of Arya Stark reverse hit list. Channel Reggie, because she does funny race dances. And Julie, who is “growing and becoming.” Remember when Andy finally broke his 5k goal? Delia walks 3-5 mile blocks at a time and hashtags it #chunkingwithdelia. You are totally chunking with Delia right now. Ronald, Patrick and Gary are fast; be fast like them. And Sal is my spirit animal because he ran 100 miles in one day all by himself. The other Andy is going to kill the Buffalo Marathon…
And delusion. I walked into the Antelope Mesa aid station, looked around, and found I was too cold to actually do anything there. I still had half a bottle of Gatorade and three small bars in my pack, enough fuel (though maybe not enough fluid) to last the final 7.3 back to the high school. Despite the fact it had taken 1 hour and 40 minutes to slog this stretch at race start, I decided it would take precisely 90 minutes on the way back, as the ensuing rainfall had diluted the clay significantly, and I no longer cared about trying to step in a “good” place.
In truth, I needed the trek to last no more than 90 minutes, at least mentally. I was so wet and so cold, I could think of nothing but the high school. I was also hungry and thirsty, but the thought of biting into another packaged bar made my stomach lurch, and pulling my water bottle out of my front pocket (where it rested for easy access) felt like a bridge too far. I routinely completed 90 minute training runs without food and water, surely I could walk 90 minutes without it, I thought.
After 60 minutes, I could see the High School lights in the distance, and I decided again that I would be there in another 30. When that time came, I found myself, along with 6 other runners shadowed by their headlamps, continuing through town on what would be an additional 30-minute journey. It took me 2 hours and 1 minute to travel that last 7.3 miles. I crossed the finish line at 11:01pm with a time of 16:01:12, and good enough for the Western States Lottery.
By 11:05, paramedics where stripping me of my clothes, fumbling with vest straps, lamp hooks and watch band as I tried to describe how they worked, but otherwise looked on, a little dumbfounded. “I’m sorry I’m not more help,” I said, repeatedly.
I was treated for symptoms of hypothermia and hypoxemia, making for a great story, but sounding far more dramatic than I feel like my race warranted. That’s another characteristic of ultra-runners: we have incredibly short memories. From her cot (between trips to the bathroom to throw up), Shelly talked about the 500-mile race across France she’s doing this summer. I told her about the 81-miler I’m doing in April. And while I’m wondering if I should lay off the cold-weather races for a little while, the truth is that I’ve been a victim of bad weather, more than bad race picking. The Black Canyon 100k was 90 degrees in 2016. Maybe I’ll come back next year and run it under normal conditions.