Think back to the beginning of 2021. 2020 was in the rearview mirror, and we had high hopes that the pandemic was behind us. Inspired by watching Tyler Green’s come from behind victory of the Black Canyon 100k, I threw down $300 on UltraSignUp for Aravaipa‘s Black Canyon 2022 race just north of Phoenix. Since my Dad lives in Goodyear, the trip would also serve as a family visit and an escape from Portland’s wet winter.
I put together my first training plan since running Mountain Lakes 100 in 2019. My 2021 trail racing was very inconsistent, so I was looking forward to concentrating on an “A” race. However, as the February 12 race day grew nearer, I realized winter training for a desert race was more difficult than anticipated. Most of my runs were in the dark, making it hard to do any speedwork, and the consistent rainy weekend runs in Forest Park waned on my motivation. A Wildwood E2E DNF on Black Friday was a low point, and I was settling to be happy with a finish at Black Canyon.
My legs started to come back, followed by my confidence, and after a strong 30 mile run on New Year’s Eve, I put together a race strategy. On paper, Black Canyon looks easy. The point-to-point course is 7000′ feet downhill and only a little over 5000’ of ascent. I read about the rocky terrain, but I love downhill technical trails. How bad could it be? If everything went well, I figured I could run this 100k under 12 hours, with a worst-case scenario of 13:30. I don’t do well in high temperatures, so I had a plan to drench myself at every aid station and river crossing.
Race day had three waves starting every half hour at 7:00 am, with me in the second wave. Runners stand in the corral until five minutes before the start. I gave Liz my coat and headed to the start around the gravel track of Mayer High School. Trying to get warm from the cool, crisp, 41-degree morning, I went out a little fast. I slowed a little bit and waited for my fellow Portland runners, Andie Wright and Steffi Kautz. I wanted to run near a 10-minute pace for the first few miles of the race. The first mile was downhill, and I hit the split at 9:23. It felt effortless as Andie, Steffi, and I talked about their AirBNB and the run in the desert the day before. Andie left us behind on the hills as Steffi, and I hiked each incline. I was a little behind my anticipated pace, but I knew a downhill stretch was coming up that I could make up some time.
We got to the first aid station, and I ate a little food and then took off and left Steffi behind. I started catching runners from the first wave as the trail switched back down a canyon. Most were courteous and moved out of the way, but a few runners wouldn’t step to the side. It took some extra energy to pass these runners because the ridgeline did not leave much room to get around people. I passed several runners in the 5 mile stretch to the next aid station.
Before the race, every piece of advice I received was don’t go out too fast. The first 19 miles to the Bumble Bee Aid Station are the most manageable sections, mostly downhill on hard clay-rich soil. Soon I could feel the day getting warmer and slightly eased my effort. Andie and I ran into Bumble Bee Ranch Ranch together. To my surprise, Liz was there to greet me. Bumble Bee was the first aid station that crews were allowed. She and Steffi’s pacer Philippe Boutros planned to spend the day together until Philippe joined Steffi at the Black Canyon City Aid Station at mile 37. Andie kept going, and that was the last I saw of her for the race.
I told Liz and Philippe it was starting to get hot, and I would slow down. Liz refilled my hydration flasks, and I realized I had drunk less than a liter until that point. No big deal, I felt fine. Liz gave me two Advil, and I went on my way. The Bumble Bee Ranch is slightly off the Black Canyon Trail, so the course winds through the ranch up a dirt road by a fake horse. Thinking I went off course, I desperately looked for a course marker or another of the 80o competitors. Finally, a runner passed me, and soon we were back on the trail.
This section followed a ridgeline on probably the flattest part of the event. The course was beautiful, but the heat was starting to kick into high gear, and I could feel it. The miles were getting slower, and I knew at this point a sub-12 time was not going to happen. Even though the pace was lagging, I was still passing runners (and runners were passing me.) At the Glorianna Mine aid station, I ran into Mikey Morales, another Portland trail runner that started in the first wave. I asked for two cups of ginger ale instead of my usual one cup. Glorianna Mine was also the first aid station to give sponge baths, and I had her drench me from head to toe before I left. Refreshed, I confidently headed to Soap Creek; the competition’s halfway point. The desert heat quickly dried me up, and shortly after, my left calf started to cramp. I grabbed an S-Cap from my pack, hoping it would help dissolve the muscle seizures. I took my time at Soap Creek, getting ice for my neck and another sponge bath, hoping for another brief respite.
But soon, the wheels quickly fell off. My shoulders started to cramp, and I began walking. Next was my diaphragm, which made it harder to breathe. Steffi caught me at this point. I told her I was going to drop at the next AS. She said she would walk with me for a while and help me with my misery. She gave me a salt pill and called Philippe to let Liz know I was struggling as they were waiting for us at the next aid station. I kept telling Steffi to go and not worry about me, but she wouldn’t have it. Soon Mikey caught me, and both were trying to uplift my spirits. Steffi left me in the care of Mikey. Around mile 34 was an employee of the nearby mine who brought 600 Costco water bottles up to the trail. What a savior. He also had water in buckets to pour over us. The water helped, but this was the first time I told myself I would drop at Black Canyon City. Mikey could tell what I was thinking, and he told me he wasn’t going to let me drop. I kept telling him to go on, but he wouldn’t leave me. After two dry river crossings, the Agua Frio river finally had something for us to cool off. However, it was merely ankle-deep and full of algae. I took my shirt off and dipped it in, hoping it would cool me down, but it stimulated the cramps in my upper body.
On the way to Black Canyon City aid station is an out and back over a hill that would seem pretty small on most days. However, today this was a mountain. Mikey finally left me as I slowly made my way up this knoll. Finally, I crested the monadnock and walked down to the aid station where Liz, Philippe, Steffi, and Mikey were all there to greet me. Liz got me to eat several bunches of grapes and a banana-Nutella wrap. A Diet Coke sounded good, so she grabbed one out of the car while drinking a liter of water. After finishing the Diet Coke, I drank another liter of water and some Tylenol. Steffi, Philippe, and Mikey had left to finish the race between all this eating and drinking. Just before Mikey departed, he looked me square in the eyes and said, “Don’t drop.”
Quite frankly, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t drop. Last summer, I crewed Shane Kroth at the Western States Endurance Runs. He had a miserable day in 100+ heat with vomiting and cramping, but he finished. How could I look him in the eye and tell him a few cramps in 80-degree weather took me out of this 100k? As long as I was under cut-offs, I had to finish.
Liz put on a pacer bib, and after 30 minutes, she helped me get out of the aid station and back on course as long as I needed her before she would go back to Black Canyon City. My stomach was so full I didn’t want to walk too hard in fear of leaving all my calories spilled orally on the trail. We hiked for a mile, and then I tried jogging down to the next river crossing a mile further. The fluids, calories, and Advil began to kick in as we started the 1.5-mile ascent out of the canyon. I started hiking harder and (gasp!) passing people. I actually started to drop Liz, so she headed back. This trail followed the ridgeline and circled the hill, offering views of Sheep Mountain, Rock Hill, and other prominent desert landscapes. Saguaros dotted the terrain. The Agua Fria River and the Black Canyon City were visible well below me.
Once the hill was crested, I felt great and started running, actually running! There was no question I was going to finish this race now. I found Mikey again. He gave me a big smile, a congratulatory high-five, and told me he knew I’d be back.
It still seemed like it took forever to get to Cottonwood Gulch, the 46.5-mile aid station. Most of the aid stations were in view from far away, but this one was hidden around a bend. I started feeling cramps again, but the aid station was out of salt tabs. In fact, they were out of mostly everything. Besides sugary foods and gels, the only food was some dates in a small bowl. Still fairly full from Black Canyon City, I put my headlamp on and kept going.
Darkness slowly filled the desert, but not before a spectacular sunset. Since Bumble Bee Ranch, the Black Canyon Trail seemed to be getting rockier and rockier. Typically running on loose four-inch diameter volcanic rhyolite and white quartz isn’t too tricky. But after 50 miles, it gets unbearable. You’ve probably heard the saying “death by 1000 cuts.” Well, this was death by 1000 rocks!
At mile 51 was Table Mesa, the next crew aid station. I felt pretty tired, but better than the last time I saw Liz. “Fix me up as you did at the last aid station.,” I told Liz. “When’s the last time you went pee,” she asked when I told her I needed more Advil. “Mile 7,” I replied. “No Advil,” she said. “You’re not getting acute renal failure on my watch.” It’s nice to have a nurse in your corner.
I was ready to go back on the trail in about 10 minutes, but Liz had to run a few things back to the car before she could “pace” me for a few miles again. As we left the aid station, I realized I had forgotten gels. Liz said, “I’ll go grab some.” I started walking down the trail, but no Liz. I stopped for about five minutes, still no Liz. I began to worry and ran back to the aid station. I found her at the junction to Table Mesa from the Black Canyon Trail. Liz didn’t see the junction, and the volunteer didn’t notice her running the wrong way. Oh well. I needed to leave that frustration behind and start moving.
Soon we headed up the last climb of the day. Liz turned around after a mile or so and I hiked as hard as I could up this delicate pitch. I wanted to look at the stars above or the parade of headlamps along the route, but every time I glanced away from the trail, I stumbled on another rock. If you have seen the movie “Interstellar,” you know that gravity moves time at different speeds. These miles felt like I was in an anti-gravitational time-warp. I was passing runners, but miles were hovering around a 15-minute pace.
At the crest of the last hill was an intersection with a dirt road and no course markers. The trail seemed to bend left, but the trail was marked closed. I called out to the runner behind me to see if I missed any markers. Nope, somehow the course marker missed this turn. The subsequent few runners arrived, and we had a council meeting of where to run. Two of us took off down the closed trail until we found a confidence marker a quarter-mile later. I ran back up the trail to let the group know this was the course.
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After two more miles of downhill rocky stubble, I made it to Doe Spring, the last aid station. The city lights from the North Phoenix Metro were in view. I rushed through Doe Spring, knowing we only had 3.5 miles to go. The next mile was down a dirt road and finally back on the trail, where it went up and down several creek washouts. I went by a woman with what I assumed was her 13-year old son. “That’s a cool pacer,” I said. I ran as hard as I could in between the technical rocky sections until the finish line finally came into sight.
At 15 hours and two minutes, I ran under the Black Canyon finish line banner; I found Liz, Andie, Steffi, and Philippe. Andie was able to beat 13 hours in the 100k. Steffi finished just under 14 hours and looked like she could rerun it. Meanwhile, my muscles started cramping so bad I couldn’t stay seated. I wanted to stay for Mikey’s finish, but the spasms were unbearable. Mikey finished a few minutes after we left.
As Liz and I headed back to Goodyear, I reflected on the race. I was stunned by how hard this race was. My pace was slower than my 100 mile and previous 100ks with double the vert. Did I start too fast? Did I not eat well enough? Did I not drink enough? Probably all three and more. It looks like I’ll have to rerun it next year and find out!
Shoes- Altra Lone Peak 5.0
Shirt- NWDC Territory All Day Tee
Shorts- Patagonia 8″ 9 Trails
Electrolyte Drink- Gnarly Fuel20
Race Cup- Ultimate Direction Re-Cup
Headlamp- Ledlenser MH-10
Sunscreen- Dermatone Sport Sunscreen SPF30
Anti-Chafe- Squirrel’s Nut Butter (race sponsor)
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