Go West. Go West.
If I wanted to seriously appear on the big stage of ultrarunning, it meant venturing out west. In the later stages of a successful 2014, I began to really embrace the idea of doing a western ultra. Looking at the calendar in terms of both other potential races and time off of work, I landed on Aravaipa Running's Black Canyon 100K (this year part of the Montrail Ultra Cup). So around Thanksgiving, I signed up for the trip out.
Black Canyon was a perfect choice. Course suited a lot of my strengths. The average high for the Phoenix, AZ region is usually around 70 a temp, I adore. And coming from Philadelphia, PA, where we average around 45 degrees, not a huge jump. Furthermore, the 100K was 6 weeks out from Umstead 100 at the end of March allowing me plenty of time to recover. However, in no way did the assumptions I made play out as expected.....
Going in, I expected to have a good solid base of training. In other words, fully healthy. After Batona, I had been enduring 4 weeks of bronchitis, translating into 4 weeks of little running. And forget it if I tried to run outdoors. Hack a lung central. Usually, in addition to my running mileage, I bike commute to the office. Also out the window. It was not until a week before the race, I could really do anything. Talk about a blow to my conditioning. Only a few people knew going into the race I was experiencing this.
Weather, you could say was the big player. My expectations were way off in the reality. Winter here in Philadelphia has been more like highs of 20. And as race day got closer the forecast for Black Canyon called for temps in the 80s. So instead of a manageable 25 degree difference, it was headed for a 60+ degree shock. In a fully exposed area, this scared the heck out of me. Due to this, I packed one of my Ultimate Direction hydration vests with some Nathan's waist pack bottles for use later in the race.
The night before the race, I did not have the best of sleeps mainly due to some fear of the heat. Yes, it really was freaking me out beforehand. But once the race started, that was going to have to go out the window in such a deep men's field.
My strategy was simple enough. Take advantage of the cooler portion of the day before the sun really gets up. And then once it got warm, do what I can with the goal of finishing. For a while this worked well. For the 1st 18 miles, I was in a solid pack of runners but started to feel off but I was still running at a reasonable but untaxing pace. Once I left the 24 mile aid station, things changed. I was out of there around 3:02. It was a good 24 miles (I was still in the top 10 at this point) but my race after that no longer became a race. The warmth really began and the lack of training started to show up. My pace suffered. However, I told myself I did not come out to DNF. I came to finish no matter the time. I pushed on. During this section, eventual Women's Winner Caroline Boller passed me. She looked solid. And just before the aid station, fellow Trail Whippass Member, Michele Yates caught up to me. She left the station before I did as I was utilizing some extra fancy sponge cool down equipment. (Ok, it was a large sponge sitting in a big bowl of ice water.)
Maybe it was the sponge coolant but the next section was fairly well to me. There was a pep to my step again and I moved decently passing Michele and a couple others. But while I ran, the pace still was slow. In my head, I was moving aid station to aid station in want to finish this thing survival mode. Eventually, I made it to Black Canyon City around mile 37. (Taking a fall on the way in on the out and back.) Here, I had a drop bag for me with my UD pack and bottles. Prior to that point, I was running with a visor and a Nathan handheld. A headgear swap also occurred. Now I was sporting a full hat so I could put ice in it. The Nathans bottles I was using on the front of the UD pack had one purpose, cool down water. And with this being the longest stretch before an aid station, vital equipment.
But instead of getting juiced up and getting into a groove, the sun and heat were taking there toll. The aid station could not come soon enough. Eventually when it did, I was now asking what mile I was at and how far to the next station. As it turned out, it was mile 46 and 4.5 to the next. My watch had me at around 8 hours. I mention this because it took me close to an hour and a half to cover that distance. My pace felt like a crawl. I was passing some 50K participants which at least made me not feel like I was alone. For some reason, when I finally got the next aid station in sight, my body did not want to take another step. 400 yards out from the station, I had to pause for a second. It was at that moment, my day was done. In no way was I going to be able to cover the last 11 miles. Sure I had been out for 9:20 giving me over 8 hours to make the cut-off but I had no headlamp. Which not really a huge deal since I am sure I could have latched on with another runner with one. Physically, my body told me enough. Walking into the aid station, I gave my number and uttered 'I'm dropping out'.
Did I want to finish? Absolutely, given it was my first time to race an ultra out west. And to be honest, that is what kept me going even when I knew my day as a contender was done. It was pure pride and trying to represent the east coast. I dug as deep as I could have.
Once I was out, I layed on a cot for a bit with a cold rag around my neck before some roll and puke action. Knowing it was an aid station that allowed crews, I was able to get a ride to the finish area. While I was walking well, it took about another hour to feel better. Should I have just waited the 2 hours total to make a finish? You could say possibly but when I made my decision, I reached a point continuing was not possible. I knew it and knew it was a reality I could not turn an eye to.
It was nice to be able to speak with some people at the finish including both Caroline and Men's Winner, Ford Smith. Ford ran a tremendous race.
Bravo to everyone who got a finish. It was a tough day out there for many of the contenders as a list of DNF's could show you.
I cannot be upset because I went to my end. Normally it gets me a finish but when I'm compromised from the start, you see how far it gets you. It got me pretty damn far. And I can look at Black Canyon as a good time on my feet. Since I have the Umstead 100 mile at the end of March, no time to dwell on the bad but to find the positive. There are some adjustments that will be in place for Umstead.
And hopefully in the future, I'll be back out west for another race. In the meantime, I leave with this feeling....Black Canyon really made me realize how much I love trees!