It sounded like a great idea at the time. I registered for Black Canyon 100K last September while still in New Zealand and looking for a redemptive 100K race after Tarawera’s unfortunate cancellation. I lost my chance to race this great course when Tarawera deferred my entry twice in a row; (I could not enter the country in 2020 due to international flight restrictions, and the city of Rotorua canceled the race last minute in 2021– dang Covid). Frustrated with what seemed like nowhere to apply the fitness I had worked so hard to gain, I was primed and ready to find a race I could commit to and see how fast I could run. I genuinely didn’t take into full consideration that it is much easier to train for a February 100K when you’re living in the Southern Hemisphere than when you live at 9000ft in the Colorado Rockies. When I registered for Black Canyon, I knew I had a lot of work to do to be ready by mid-February, but I was up for it.
Fast forward to our move home to the US last October, setting up a new life again, and trying to find suitable routines for all six of us (four humans, two dogs). Add to this chaos the ongoing challenge of prioritizing ultra-training. Thankfully Mike and I had agreed on taking our time before deciding which direction to take with my career, and it made the most sense to my holding off on starting a new full-time job until everything in the family felt settled. Looking back on this training season, that was the right decision, as even without full-time work, life was pretty hectic over the last couple of months. While my family seems to have adapted pretty well to starting over and finding our new normal, it is still a lot of work behind the scenes to pull off an international move after schools have started, moving into a new house that needs some good loving care, at the start of the holidays and the beginning of a rough winter. Oh, right, why don’t we throw an eight-week-old puppy into the mix? While I know many people are busier and have more complex challenges that get in the way of training, my training was not as smooth as Mike or I would have liked. Although I completed most of my scheduled training, Mike needed to adjust and adapt my schedule to ensure that we covered all of our family bases while also allowing my body to adjust to learning how to run at altitude and up and down mountains again.
When you jump from daily New Zealand runs on the beach and through mellow forest paths to climbing 1000 ft in your everyday 7-mile run at high altitude, the body protests until it accepts the new normal. I came down with a nasty case of Plantar Fascitis that required some downtime and more adjusting. I switched gears and used the treadmill more to avoid the chunky snow that made my feet and calves work too hard. While still getting in plenty of climbing, I was able to heal some and let my body come around to what I was now asking of it. I ran the Arches 50K in Moab three weeks out from Black Canyon as a long, faster-paced training run and had a great run. I had a decent performance and felt ready for the big one that was around the corner. All the stress of trying to fit in training had dissipated, and I started to get excited to test myself in the desert three weeks later.
After a successful Moab race and a couple of weeks of solid, faster-paced workouts, I barely dodged the sick bullet that took out half of our family in the weeks before our Arizona road trip. (Edited to add, I sit here typing 48 hours after my race finished with likely the same sore throat and headache my son had the day before we left for Arizona). Mike and I headed down to Phoenix in the middle of a snowstorm, breathed out deeply, and relaxed, knowing all there was left for me to do was turn off and run. Ha. If only it were that easy.
Knowing what we knew about the course layout, I planned to run the first 20 miles comfortably and maximize my strengths. While the whole course is primarily runnable with a couple of moderately-sized hills in the back end, the first 20 miles are known to be dangerously fast and tend to lure people into starting too quickly and blowing up. I planned to run to my fitness level, and if I was running a bit quicker, I was alright with that. I ran into the first aid station right around 20 miles, exactly where I imagined I would be, just under 2:40. While I felt smooth from the start in terms of effort, I did not feel great and had a suspicion as I met up with Mike at the first aid station that it might be a rough day. My stomach was already unhappy, and I had to force a gel during this section as I worried that if I didn’t start eating, it would be hard to get into it. I felt smooth and relaxed (my mantra for the day) on the climbs and flats, but I knew early on that my downhill legs were not working well. With a quick water bottle switch, a grab of some gels, and a bar, I was on my way. It was cold at the start, but I quickly warmed up, and the weather was ideal (for me) for a great race. However, as I left the aid station with a moderate climb ahead, I tried to get some fuel in but failed. I could not get in solids or gels and relied on the Maurten water bottle Mike had thankfully slid into my pack. From here on out, I would play around with different gels, bites of sandwiches, and even gummy blocks (all things I have successfully used over the years). No luck. My race fuel ended up consisting of watermelon at aid stations and a refuel of the Maurten drink when I caught back up to Mike at mile 37. I was not consuming enough calories for what I was asking of my body. I progressively slowed down, and after 50K of running, I had mentally started to check out. I knew the competitive part of my day was over, and I had shifted to just finishing. While I didn’t walk one step on the course, my pace drastically slowed, and no matter what I did to rally, I couldn’t find another gear. My downhill speed was about as quick as my uphill speed, and I just jogged the flats. Mentally I was still hanging in there and trying every trick I knew to get the things to start working again. I had nothing.
I was certainly unprepared for the technicality of the course, even though I had read so much about it and watched so many videos of others running on it. The giant and even smaller rocks became relentless and frustrating, and I fell pretty hard three times. Surprisingly, I only fell three times because I must have kicked rocks and caught myself from tripping at least two dozen times in the last 20 miles. Right before picking up Mike as my pacer at the mile 37 aid station, I lost sight of the orange trail marking flags after one of the many river crossings. I have trained myself to be on the lookout for course markings, knowing my history of getting lost and my need for route-finding skills. I became discouraged and wandered around in the wash for about ten minutes, going back and forth, afraid of getting too far off course. Another pack caught up with me, and together, we found the trail and set off to the desired aid station.
I arrived about 45 minutes later than expected and again downshifted my expectations. I was no longer in a hurry and took my time restocking what I might need to reach the finish. Being the excellent coach and pacer, Mike was excited to see me and tried every trick to get me moving well. He set little goals for us to catch the runners ahead and would encourage me when we’d start gaining. Mike reminded me of the little strategies I could try to mix it up and get the body working better and even pulled out some of my favorite motivating quotes I use when things get tough. He made jokes, told stories, and kept me focused on the present. He was incredible, and after seeing how little I had to work with, he allowed me to be in the place I was and readjusted goals once again to just finishing. We suffered together as neither of us wore the smartest shoes for the terrain. The rocks were relentless, and at my pace, the aid stations were taking ages to reach. I continued with my aid station ritual I had settled on for the day and looked forward to checking off each one; dump water on my head, grab three pieces of watermelon and refill water. As we reached mile 51 and I did the math, I noted that I would be well off what I had considered a “C” goal in terms of time. This aid station was right by the highway, and many people were waiting for their runners. I said to Mike, “There is a road right there. We could get a ride to the finish.” Within seconds I knew this was not an option. I reflected on my last blog post about grit and knowing when to back off.
I was not injured, but I had a lot of body aches (obviously). Nothing was wrong with me as I had found a way to appease my stomach with liquid and fruit, but I was so uncomfortable. Everything in me wanted to stop moving. Those reasons were not enough for me to drop, and I knew I could go on as long as I needed with plenty of hours before any cutoff. We soldiered on, realizing that I should have carried a headlamp! Something I joked about before the race, saying that if I needed a headlamp, something was seriously wrong. You never know.
As we moved into the final aid station doing wonky math (my Garmin was way off from my wandering around looking for the trail hours ago), I thought we should have had two miles left, and a volunteer told us we still had 3.6 miles to the finish. Realizing that I would finish a good bit after 11 hours, we shifted our goals to just getting in before running in the dark on those dang rocks without a light. Mike pointed out hot air balloons in the distance, and I started to notice the incredible desert sunset. We talked about the big ice creams we would get for dinner, and we both decided there was no way we would sign up for the Leadville Trail 100 this year if we got the chance to register. We laughed and finally saw the finish line in the distance. It was over, and I had never felt so happy to stop moving. It was a tough, tough day out there, and it took all I had to draw upon all the things I tell others to find the strength to believe them myself.
While it was far from the race I wanted and expected, I am proud of this one for so many reasons. I fought hard to stay in it and battled a body that had quit before my mind. When my mind started to turn negative, and I wanted to throw in the towel, I did everything I could to shift my focus and look for the good things.
It is two full days since I finished one long hard run before dark. And here are my takeaways.
-The weather could not have been more perfect
-Mike’s company during the final marathon when things got ugly. He always knows how to handle me when things get tough. We laughed and swore at the rocks, and I could not have asked for better company, even through miles of silence (because I was often non-verbal).
-Aravaipa knows how to put on a good race and had such enthusiastic and helpful volunteers
-Another finish line and another chance to add to that perseverance bank, reinforcing that I can do hard things
-Not being able to eat or get anything substantial in my system
-Rocks and more rocks. I was so unprepared for how technical this course felt when I fell apart way earlier than expected.
-Poor shoe choice- I could have used a lot more cushion and less stiff shoes. I limped away with two giant blood blisters under my big toes. This problem popped up less than halfway through the race, and I ran for hours with so much foot pain that I could have prevented.
-Another reminder that we are capable of so much more than we think we are
-You need the bad days to really appreciate the good ones
-Running is hard, and maybe I needed a reminder to respect what I am asking of my body
-Time to work on that downhill running
-Fueling; need to figure this out. Hard to get by on slices of watermelon when pushing your body for so many hours and miles
-While I might be able to fake a 50K, the 100K is not as forgiving
-My husband is awesome
-I really like flowy courses
-Never make big or final decisions when emotional- maybe Im not entirely done running long distances:)