Sunday, February 15, 2015

Black Canyon 100k – a race report. A scorching start to the season!

Flowers and love notes were not on our mind this Valentine’s Day morning at Spring Valley high school track. The early morning began with a chilly 50F start and a blowing wind. Within a few hours – in true desert fashion - it sizzled into the low 90s.

The Black Canyon 100k was part of the Montrail Cup series this year and the top 2 finishers for men and women gained automatic entry into Western States 100miles – a premiere ultra running race in America.  It was the most talented field in probably Arizona’s ultra-racing history. The big familiar names starting the race included Hal Koerner, Dave Mackey, Ryan Ghelfi, Kaci Lickteig, Angela Shartel, and a dozen more.

Five miles into the race a group of 8-10 of us comfortably wound along the single track watching the sunrise and barely paying attention to the couple of early lead runners 1-2 minutes ahead. My strategy for the day was to run at a comfortable pace for 40+ miles focusing on conserving my energy and staying hydrated to ensure a fast, strong finish.

Early into the race the pace was quick but comfortable.
Photo by Bret Sarnquist:

In the first 20 miles I peed 3 times as an indicator to my hyrdation, I focused on breathing through my nose to control my pace and conserve moisture loss, and sipped on my CarboPro liquid energy.

Just after the aid station at mile 24, Ryan Ghelfi began his move with Ford Smith in tow. I decided to latch onto this small train and found myself easily keeping pace. We passed several runners and made our way up to the top 5. At the next aid – without a crew to speed my way through the aid station – I fell back about a minute. On a switchback ahead I saw that Ford was now leading Ryan and their pace had picked up slightly. I decided to stay on my own pace and slid back slightly.
Following the train. Starting to get hot!
Photo by Bret Sarnquist:
Then Ryan and Ford took a wrong turn. I glimpsed them below on a trail and when I made it to the switchback ahead I realized it was actually a junction. The correct trail went in the opposite direction. I yelled but they were well ahead and probably out of ear shot. I continued on hoping they would realize their mistake quickly.

I made my way to the first river crossing and relished the refreshing flow of a desert river with what had become a searing sun overhead. As I made my way up the opposite canyon wall I glimpsed with relief Ryan and Ford making the river crossing.

Ryan slid past – on a mission – and made up quickly for the time lost with the wrong turn. Ford crept up soon after but less intent to push the pace as quickly now that the heat had set in.

Ford and I came into the Black Canyon City aid station, mile 37, together realizing we would soon move into 3rd and 4th place. A sense of excitement coursed through my mind.

Then a simple mistake on my part put the rest of my day in dangerous peril. I had mixed up my drop bag locations and in my confused state I forgot to grab a salt tablet to keep my electrolytes in balance. A mile down the trail I realized my omission but pressed on. Crossing the river a 2nd time we started on a long switchback haul up the canyon wall. The heat drilled into me. My head became woozy, my body ached, and my energy suddenly evaporated. I realized I needed electrolytes badly but it would be 6 more hot miles before the next aid station. I slowed to a crawl and watched Ford climb strong up and over. I contemplated the effects of heat stroke and had to push away thoughts of disappointment and potentially dropping at the next aid station.

I passed the 40 mile mark and realized that instead of starting my race at this point it was now purely about surviving. I shuffled into the mile 47 aid station and immediately grabbed 2 salt tablets and downed it with cupfuls of Gatorade. I soaked myself with ice water and headed back out before I could think of alternate endings.

I found myself slowly recovering feeling fine on the downhills and flats but still without energy for the slightest bit of incline. I kept sucking on a mixture of CarboPro and Gatorade and dousing myself with cold water.

I did a mental self-check and found my legs to be strong – no aches and little tiredness. I realized how strong my legs have become and the potential they hold for upcoming races.

At the last aid station with 4 miles to go I realized I could still break 9 hours. I took another salt tablet, downed more Gatorade, and felt my energy reserves kick in. I estimated to finish before 9 hours I had to run under 8 minute miles. I imagined my recent fast finish focused workouts and easily covered the remaining miles faster than I thought possible and finished strong.

At the Black Canyon 100k I learned that racing ultras is just as much about focusing on survival as racing alone. With many complicating variables mixed together it takes a consistent calculating focus. However, even more critical is the ability to flow gracefully along the trail in overcoming both mental and physical challenges. I struggled mentally to remain graceful and through persistence I successfully rebounded from that long, low point in the race.

It was an epic battle among Ford Smith, Ryan Ghelfi, and Dave Mackey for the top 2 slots to Western States. All three raced strong and made it an exciting race to participate in.

Aravaipa Running hosted a great race. A highlight for me was relaxing at the finish post race, sharing stories, cheering on finishers, eating wood-fired pizza, and making new friends and catching up with old ones.