Sara and I were sitting next to the trail watching as other runners went past; I was a mile out from the turnaround aid station working way back up the mountain, she was on her way down.
We were both in rough shape.
We were fourteen hours into the Bryce Canyon 100 in Southern Utah, and it had been a struggle. It was more than 95 degrees, the sun was blazing hot, and we had spent much of the day climbing at an altitude between 8,000 and 9,000 feet.
While our training had been great, the combination of heat and altitude was defeating.
As other runners shuffled by, we stood next to the trail commiserating. We hadn’t seen each other all day and we were giving each other the low lights from the day’s events. It was obvious — in the little extra pause between each sentence — we were both waiting and hoping the other would say they were dropping.
Finally, one of us asked what we should do next. Weighing out options, we considered a few key points:
- We had bought Bryce Canyon Ultra shirts before the race. If we dropped, we would have to burn the shirts.
- If I turned around with her and we dropped at the half-way aid station, we’d have to wait several hours for a ride back to our car, and possibility to completely booked hotels. We’d be risking not having anywhere to sleep that night.
- We still had more than 20 hours to finish the race, and besides being very uncomfortable, we were both physically fine.
I had felt amazing going into the Bryce. This year I had focused on getting in strong miles, building my core, and adding meditation to sharpen my mind. I knew that if I could have a good day, this race could really be something special.
We decided to continue the race, but it was obvious this was not the race we had planned on having.
A few days before the race, we flew into Salt Lake City, saw some of Sara’s good college friends, and then made the uneventful four-hour drive to the canyon.
The afternoon before the race, we picked up our traditional feast of local BBQ. This is something we started at few years ago at our first race together, and one both of us definitely enjoy.
Then we headed back to our hotel, which was conveniently also the site of the race expo. After the long drive from Salt Lake City it was nice to check out some of the booths and stretch our legs. When we got back to the room we checked over our gear, and got to bed early for a great night’s sleep (thank you, Melatonin).
In other words, our training, travel, and pre-race evening had gone over perfectly.
In the morning, we ate the breakfast we’d picked up on the way out of Salt Lake. Bryce is located near the national park, but is not close to much else, especially in the way of breakfast options. Because we usually eat high fat, high protein, and low grain food, we’d decided to play it safe and pick up food in Salt Lake where we knew we could find something that fits our diet.
While the sausage omelet and potatoes were good, I overate (it all), thinking that it would take care of my calorie needs long into the morning run. I’d pay for this later.
When it was time to head for the race shuttles, Sara and I stepped out of our hotel room and were greeted with a good omen — or at least that’s how I took it. Pam and Susan, who had run much of the Bigfoot 200 with us, had parked next to our car in the hotel parking lot. It was a great surprise and awesome to catch up with them on the way to the start.
Race morning was cold, but the views at the starting line were amazing. Sara and I walked around the perimeter of the parking lot taking photos of the sun rising over the canyons. While we had signal, we sent the photos and last messages to our friends and family.
There wasn’t a lot of idle chatter at the start, just the usual of scene of people standing in line for the bathrooms, laying on the ground, and checking and rechecking their packs. Sara and I debated if we should start in our jackets. We decided to be cold rather than having to struggle with packing our jackets up later. The sun was going to be up soon and we knew the temperature would rise quickly.
When the sun was almost completely up, we stood for the National Anthem, the RD said a few words, and we were off.
The first 20 miles went by quickly. The terrain was rolling and sandy, but runnable. I was immediately thankful that I had worn gaiters on the sandy trail.
My biggest concern those first miles was my stomach; my breakfast was sitting like a rock. Sitting is the wrong word, my breakfast was felt like a bolder being violently jostled in my stomach. I tried to push past it and take the miles while they were runnable. Thankfully, I had David to talk with.
David was attempting to complete his first 100 and I had to push to keep pace with him. He and I shared a lot of common interests and the conversation was easy and distracting while we were together.
At Mile 19 we started the next section of trail: Proctor. Evil Proctor.
This section reminded me that in races — just like in life — you need to focus on positives to get through a bad situation. Because it could always be worse.
Like if you’re laid out on the couch in a cold sweat suffering from the flu, it helps to remind yourself that at least you are no longer violently throwing up. Listing these “positives” helps you get from one moment to the next.
And now after Bryce, no matter how bad a run gets, we can remind ourselves that at least we weren’t still hiking Proctor.
According to Sara’s GPS (I lost my file), this section offered nine gruesome miles with approximately 1,900 feet of gain. The trail was gorgeous, but the heat was climbing as fast as we were. I could move forward, but breathing in the thin air caused me slow to what felt like a crawl. I’d glance at my heart rate, expecting it to be in the high 150s as hard as I was breathing, but it would be just 110. The altitude and the heat were kicking my ass and I was less than a 50K in.
The altitude during Proctor forced me to stop a few times to catch my breath. At the base of the major climbs, I’d sit on tree trunks and rocks with my head between my knees as other runners walked past. This race was already a humbling experience.
Water quickly became a big concern due to my unexpectedly slow pace. The night before — at Sara’s urging — I had decided to bring three 500ml bottles with me, one more than I’d planned.
Those three bottles would have barely gotten me through this section, but I soon found that other runners were in worse shape. A young woman asked if I had any water left. She was out of water, had been puking, and needed help to get out of this section. She was me back at Mile 18 of the Bigfoot 200 when I was out of water and a couple of hikers gave me half a bottle. They had helped save my race. Understanding where she was, I paid it forward, but a mile later I was dry.
Coming into the Blubber Aid Station at Mile 28, I was defeated, dehydrated, and my confidence had been shaken. I had run the first twenty miles in a little over four hours and 15 minutes. This section had taken me almost three hours to cover less than half that distance. It was hot, there was no escaping the sun, and I needed a reset.
I ate some fruit. I drank a lot of water and popped a few salt tablets. I had no reason to stop going forward, but any hope I had for a quick time had slipped out of reach. I spent the next few hours trying to recover from Proctor and trying to focus on moving forward.
The new goal was to make it to sundown.
The trail was less aggressive but the Proctor section had taken a lot out of me. I spent the miles trying to make sure that I hydrated and took salt. I was also having issues eating. I had Ugo bars, bacon, and baby food, but I just didn’t want to eat much in the heat. At aid stations, I had no issues eating fruit, but on trail in the sun, I just didn’t want anything.
As I dropped down from the Kanab aid station (Mile 36) to the Straight Canyon (Mile 41), I hit the most runnable trail I had seen since Mile 20. Not only was I starting to feel good again, but as the miles clicked by, I knew that I would get to see Sara soon. I knew it would be brief, it is always refreshing getting to spend a few minutes on trial with her. That became my motivating factor heading into the turn around.
My favorite section of the race was going from Straight Canyon to the Pink Cliffs (Mile 46.5) aid station. This section was a long steady climb up fire road; there was no pressure to even attempt to run up and I knew eventually I’d get to run back down. Unfortunately, the road was heavily trafficked as I climbed up and the cars kicked up a ton of dust making it even harder to breath.
Eventually this section turned off the road and up a quarter-mile section of the gnarliest, steepest grade I’d seen the whole day. After climbing for more than an hour, it just felt horrible. But once I got to the top, I had the best views of the entire race.
It was worth every bit of training, traveling, and suffering to stand on the edge and look out over Bryce Canyon.
Motivated to see Sara and to make it to the turn around, I made quick work of the trail heading down to the turn around. It was all fire road and all downhill, and it felt awesome to feel like miles were finally clicking by.
Matter of fact, I was so excited to see Sara that that I hurried out of the aid station and left my poles at the turn around. It was at least a half mile before I realized my mistake.
I honored this exact moment with a few curse words, and then slowly and in defeat made my way back to the aid station. This aid station allowed crew and I received great applause for both of my entrances. On my first exit, I joked around with anyone who made eye contact. The second time I came in, I felt guilty as if I were stealing energy meant for other runners. I grabbed my poles and quietly made my way back up the trail looking for Sara.
I didn’t have to go too far. She met me about a mile out from the aid station and we had a Friday evening sunset date on the side of the trail. David, who I had run with earlier, had been spending miles with Sara and paused to take a photo for us.
I considered sitting next to the trail and waiting for Sara to catch up, but I was determined that the night was going to be better. I had survived the worst the race had to offer and it was behind me. Now that the sun was going down, I had to make it to up one big climb, then it would be runnable for eight miles or so. After that, get through the Proctor section and then the last 20 was totally runnable …
I sold myself an idea to keep moving forward, under the impression things would get better. Hell, I reminded everyone I spent time on trial with that the first twenty miles had been so runnable and Proctor had been all up hill, so all we had to do was make it back to Kanab aid station and it would get easier.
I normally have a rule about “hope” during an ultramarathon: Hope breeds disappointment. Instead, make decisions assuming the worst is yet to come. That way you’re mentally prepared. I reminded myself of that during Bryce and I apologize to anyone that I gave some hope to on the way back from the turn around.
Coming out of Straight Canyon, I was forced to walk. It turns out that friendly fire road was also on an oh-so-slight incline. I wanted to, but just couldn’t get myself to run even on a slight grade. So, I marched back up towards Kanab where I eventually had my two most interesting conversations during this race.
As I was running along the canyon cliffs, I spotted eyes off in the distance. They were about shoulder height. I started whooping and hollering, I clacked my poles together.
They just stared back. I thought back to the cross-word puzzle that had been in the race pamphlet. One of the words had been “cougar.” I didn’t think this was a cougar. What type of bear are there out here? Was this an elk?
Finally, I met up with a large deer. She was standing right in the middle of the trail. I slowly walked toward her and continued to talk and make noise. She continued to not care. I walked up to within three feet of her. I asked her what she was guarding. I asked if she would mind stepping off the trail. And finally, she did, thanks deer!
The Kanab aid station was being supported by a teenage girl and her mother. They were awesome and great company. But the girl then proceeded to tell me a brown bear and been there earlier.
It had climbed on someone’s car.
She showed me a picture.
She then read me instructions from her phone as to what I should do if I came across the brown bear and how they were not sure if it was a grizzly bear or not.
After leaving the aid station, as I ran back through Proctor, every time my jacket brushed against the bushes I sprinted for 100 yards away from that bear.
Within 20 miles of the finish the sun had come back up and the heat quickly followed. I was forced back into a slow death march, but I held on to hope.
I had spent 50 miles counting on the fact that the first 20 miles had been so runnable, and that the Bryce 100 was an out-and-back course. But my dumbass should have had the forethought to read the course description.
At the last aid station, I was told I had 7.5 miles to the finish. It was hot. There was no shade. I spent a lot of the next few miles wondering how the hell anyone survived without air conditioning.
At an intersection, a volunteer pointed me up a trail following yellow course markers — up until this point we had been following pink. He also mentioned I would be running with the half-marathon runners. The yellow blazed trail also looked like it had a pretty dramatic climb, but I didn’t remember running down a significant descent on the way out. Still holding onto hope, I stopped and yelled back at the volunteer. He assured me that this was my trail. Fuck.
I was quickly surrounded by a pack of fast moving half marathoners. I tried to keep pace with them as we made a quick climb and then descent into a dried-out river bed. It was at this point I started cussing out loud. The reality of what was about to happen hit me. We were in a dried-out river bed at the base of a mountain. There was nowhere for us to go but up.
I don’t know how long it took me to make that climb. But I thought it was going to break me. Some of the half marathon runners slowed down to a crawl, to my pace. They offered words of encouragement and asked how long I had been out there. It was nice to have company again.
A few runners hid under the pencil-thin shade of trees that were along the trail. I was jealous. I too wanted to be in the shade. I wanted to stop moving forward. But I would never finish if I didn’t keep moving forward. And on this climb, more than anything, I just wanted to be done.
When we got to the top I started to run with them along the ridge line. That is until I made the mistake of asking how far they had to the finish. By my math, I had gone five miles since the last aid station and I only had two miles until the finish. But according to their math they still had four miles left. Fuck. There was no way there was more than one finish line. And I couldn’t imagine the course splitting again.
This was my breaking point. I was short on water and I no longer even tried to run.
Mentally the course just kept getting tougher. I expected the it to get easier the last 20 miles. Instead I had a gnarly climb under a blazing sun, found out I was getting bonus miles, and now the course seemed to wind endlessly through the canyon. Around each bend there was just more trail.
Even though I logically knew I was within a couple miles of the finish, I was starting to consider what I would do about water for the rest of the day. I started to accept the fact that this race wasn’t just a 100 and I was not sure how long I’d have to survive these conditions. I even considered sitting down to wait for Sara.
And then, there was a road and a volunteer. I had one mile to go. One more damned mile.
I ran. It was ugly. But I ran.
Susan yelled at me from the sidelines. Then Pam. I would say I slowed to ask how they were, but I wasn’t exactly sprinting. They told me they had dropped at the turn around. I hated hearing they had to drop, but it was awesome seeing familiar faces as I neared the finish.
Finally, I made a slight left and was done. There was a volunteer and I hugged her. In hindsight, I hope she didn’t mind. But I was just so happy to be done. I made beeline for the finishers tent where someone brought me a cool drink. I was so relieved to be done, I didn’t even think about my finish time.
I sat and waited for Sara while I cheered on the other runners finishing. David came in and told me she wouldn’t be too long behind him. That she had stopped … to nap.
That’s my girl.
Not only can she run ridiculous 100-mile races, she can also take naps mid-run.
She called me with a heads-up that she had a mile to go and I met her at the finish with a big hug.
Bryce was a bitch and I know exactly how hard it was for me. I cannot say enough how proud I am of Sara for sticking it out.
I finished Bryce Canyon in 31:26. Sara finished in 32:16. I went into this race in the best shape of my life. I am a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to finish a fast 100, but I am proud of this race.
As I think about the next few months, I believe our Bryce experience was valuable training for the Tahoe 200 in September.
The Tahoe 200 is going to be a long slow race with a significant amount of walking.
Last year’s Bigfoot 200 took Sara and I a little under 100 hours to complete. Mentally, being forced to go that pace was difficult for me. So, while I would love to have gotten in a fast 100 miler this summer, I know that because of this race I will be mentally stronger during the slower miles Tahoe.