Black Canyon 100k (February 17, 2018)
It took twelve months to realize it was about more than the weather.
I was exhibiting signs of hypothermia and hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) when I crossed the 2017 Black Canyon 100k finish line. Just happy to be indoors at the Mayer High School auditorium race headquarters, I was shocked when EMTs announced to me, “you are in distress,” before attempting to strip me of my soaked clothing and get me to a cot, where I would remain for nearly two hours, a period of that on oxygen.
But all this time I thought the below 40-degree temperatures and incessant rain on the race course caused it. Only now, a year later and back at the Mayer High School track starting line do I realize that I began last year’s race that way: in distress.
It would take me me six months to recover. It was not until I’d read an article by Elinor Fish on the impacts of stress on performance that I understood what I had been doing to myself with long, “always on” work weeks, followed by two weekend days with back-to-back long runs or, more often, race travel. According to Fish, if your “off day” from running is on a work day, it’s not really an off day.
An epiphany. According to Fish’s logic, I’d not had a day off in nearly two years.
Black Canyon was my 12th race of 2017 and, just 7 weeks into the calendar year, I had already run in Florida and in Dubai, as well as traveled to India on business; all many thousands of miles from my Seattle home. I would finally hit bottom in April, after 9 more races (including those in New Mexico and the UK), and business travel to Slovakia. Around the half way point of the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile race in California, I left my running partner on the trail by himself, despite the requirement that we remain within 25 meters of one another for the entirety of the race. I was in in the midst of a massive panic attack and it was the only thing I could figure out to do at the time. I finished the race alone, losing nearly two hours by first waiting and then carrying on, then pleading with race officials not to disqualify me, while by partner slept in the back seat of the crew vehicle.
I came back to Black Canyon to prove something. Not that I could complete the course (I’d done that last year, despite the hypothermia); and not that I could finish under 17 hours, the time required to secure a lottery ticket for Western States (I’d done that too, despite the hypothermia). I came back to Black Canyon, not to kick the course’s ass, but to give it a bear hug. I wanted to prove to myself I’d thawed out; that I was no longer in distress. I wanted to love this race.
I took a lot of deep breaths. I gazed at the mountains. I stopped and turned around to face the sun. I looked down and, for the first time, noticed the rocks on the trail. Beautiful quartz, in white, purple, pink and coral. Like a child, I discovered that I wanted to pocket all the pieces I found irresistible.
When I started to feel light-headed, no doubt the effect of the warming temperatures and nearly 30 miles of running, I sat down at the Soap Creek aid station and drank 20 oz of Gatorade before continuing on. In more than a dozen ultras, it was my first time sitting at an aid station.
At Black Canyon City, the 60k finish line, my stomach turning on me, I accepted a volunteer’s gracious offer to prepare me some vegan broth; a powdery substance she scooped from a mason jar that I sipped like fine wine before popping two Tums and continuing on.
It was during that 8.8 mile stretch of trail between Black Canyon City and Cottonwood Gulch that I would unite with Benedict, a runner I’d met briefly earlier on in the race. Over the remaining 20 miles, we would accomplish that perfect partnership only trail runners know, of pushing and pulling one another along the trail, waiting and carrying on ahead without expectation and without apology.
And at 59, a mere 5k from the finish, I enjoyed two cups of what I told the volunteer was “gourmet ginger ale.” An off-market brand I’d never heard of, that claimed to be made with real ginger but was still poured from two-liter bottles.
By the time I reached the finish line, it was nearly midnight. 16 hours and 34 minutes after I’d started. Dark. Cold to those waiting, though Benedict and I were in shorts. But I was still running. Nothing hurt badly enough to complain about. I was no longer in distress.