Running Solo(ish) at the Bryce Canyon 100

Bryce Canyon is beautiful, but it sure felt like an oven.

The Bryce 100 scared me for a lot of reasons.

Jared and I before the start, when it was dark and refreshingly chilly.

100 miles is really far, but this race in southern Utah also had the added challenge of running between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, something this sea-level dweller isn’t used to.

Another high … The weather forecast. Before we flew out I watched in horror as the forecasted temperature kept climbing … and climbing … and climbing.

Together the distance/altitude/heat sandwich had me lowering my race bar so far that by the time we toed the start line I just had to step over it.

[Goals – in this order: Don’t die, don’t get SAR’d out, don’t burn like toast, finish, finish sub-30]

These are all scary factors by themselves, but the scariest part for me was thinking about running 100 miles alone.

The Bryce 100 was my fourth 100-mile start, but the first 100 I’d do without a crew or pacers.

This race, like all things in 2017, was geared toward helping me get ready for September’s Tahoe 200; I wanted to run Bryce solo to force myself to get comfortable running long stretches alone.

In 2016, Jared and I ran all but one mile of the Bigfoot 200 together, and while I would love to go step-for-step with him again, I know I need to at least be prepared to run Tahoe on my own.

So, Bryce … solo.

Scary.

But what I always forget is that in ultras, you’re never really alone.

Less than 4 miles in I was already chatting with Dan and Zack from Chicago. They didn’t know each other back home, but were happy to share stories about running the Windy City.

A couple miles later I picked up Zack No. 2, a 24-year-old engineer who was running his first 100. Zack and I spent miles talking about his life aboard a container ship for eight months out of the year.

I’d end up trading places with these three men, plus a few other runners, throughout the rest of the race. We started to form a little group of mid-pack runners, checking on each other, sharing aid and water, waiting at aid stations so we could leave with some company.

I wasn’t alone.

I had my runner people. Nothing unites us like mutual suffering, right?

Plus I knew that out there – somewhere – in front of me was Jared.

Bryce is an out-and-back course, so I knew at some point we’d pass each other and I could get a much-needed pep talk. The altitude and heat were kicking my ass, and mentally I was already out of the race. I kept telling myself I wouldn’t drop until I hit the turnaround, or until sunset, whichever came last.

The volunteers at each aid station were not only tracking bib numbers, but also the times of arrival, meaning I could check on how far ahead Jared was each time I hit an aid station.

All day I knew he was 45 minutes to an hour in front of me, so after the Mile 46 aid station I started to keep an eye out for the cute boy.

I wasn’t alone.

Hoodoos!

He wasn’t with me, but he was on the same trail. I just hoped he was having a better day than me.

A half a mile from the turnaround I spotted him, picking out his stride before I could really see his face.

We sat down and talked for 10 minutes. What did I want to do? What did he want to do? This is hard. Fuck this is tough. How are we going to make it 50 more miles? If we drop, where will we go tonight? And most importantly, we bought race shirts, we’d have to burn them …

We decided to push on. The time limit at Bryce is generous enough that we knew we had 20 hours to finish the next 50 miles. Neither of us would be satisfied going all that way to Utah to drop because it was hot and the course was chewing us up.

Jared and I near the turnaround. I was headed in, he was headed outbound.

It was unanimous. And then it was time to go, me toward the turnaround, him toward the finish.

I knew I wouldn’t see him again for at least 16 hours.

But I knew as soon as the sun went down the temperature would mercifully drop and we would be able to run on legs that had done nothing but walk all day.

It was amazing how much the course changed in 50 miles.

That night I flew. Finally getting a reprieve from the relentless sun I was able to tick off 12 and 13-minute miles, even up to 9,300 feet.

I flew down the trail until the sun came back up.

Damn that sun.

The temperature skyrocketed in a matter of an hour, and I was reduced to walking again, knowing that too much running on the exposed trail would cause me to dangerously overheat.

And for the first time all race I really felt alone.

I didn’t have anyone to cheer me up, to force me to eat, to kick me out of my chair toward the finish.

At Mile 84 I knew I was still hours and hours and hours away from being done, and mentally I was drained.

And then it occurred to me … I still wasn’t alone.

I was close enough to something that I hoped I’d have cell phone service. I pulled out my phone and fired off an SOS text to my ultrarunning girlfriends. I knew these ladies would be ready to jump in and virtually pace me to the finish.

They sent .gifs, photos, and cheers in response. I didn’t feel like I could go any faster, but just knowing that there were others out there rooting for me helped keep me trudging forward.

The volunteers at the final aid station covered me in ice, filled my pack with ice, and my Buff with ice. Then it was time for the last 7.5 miles (really, at least 8.5) up and out of the canyon and toward the finish.

It took forever.

As I started up the hellacious climb out of the canyon I fell in with runners in the half marathon. They were equal parts amazed and horrified that I was in the 100, keeping pace and passing them as we climbed. I just wanted to be done.

With a mile to go I pulled out my phone again. I called Jared.

He’d just gotten done. He was at the finish. I wanted to hurry it up and get done.

Each buckle is unique,  handmade with materials from the course.

My “hurry” was more of a shuffle, until I could finally see the finish line, I ran across, spiked my poles and went to find shade.

That course almost did me in, but I was done. We were done.

I’d run my first 100 solo. I knew I had it in me to keep going when it got brutally hard. When there was no one but myself to push me on.

But the real lesson was, I was never alone. In ultras, you’re never on the trail alone. Just look around, find your people. Find your strength.

Bring on Tahoe.

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