Let me preface this with educating you, the reader that these events aren't unique, they're not all that unsafe, and there are thousands of people who do them every year. The sport of ultra/trail running is exploding and in an article posted by Ultrarunning Magazine, there were an estimated 247 50-mile, 141 100-mile, and 100 100-kilometer (62 miles) running events in US and Canada in 2016. They vary in terrain, temperature, and difficulty. There are also running events that are upwards of 200 or more miles and winter events that require pulling a sled with required supplies for as far as 160 miles or more across vast frozen tundras. Perhaps I'm biased, but these people aren't crazy. They don't lack value for life (I would argue the opposite). Most don't have life imbalance issues. They like adventure, they like nature, they like the camaraderie associated with trail and ultra running, and they like testing their physical and mental capabilities.
I’ll start with a quick summary of the event. The Canyons 100k (62 miles – although actual distance of this event was 63.6) is a double out and back (25k and back northeast on the trail and then 25k and back southwest on the trail) originating and finishing in Foresthill, CA – a couple hours northeast of San Francisco. The course is entirely on the Western States trail – first used by Native Americans and then heavily worn by horses during the early gold rush years. It’s since become familiar by the Western States 100, the oldest, most prestigious, and arguably most competitive 100 mile run in the US. Demand for entry into Western States is so high that those wishing to enter need to run a qualifying race to enter a lottery. For those applying their first year will only have a 2% chance of being selected (chances increase each consecutive year assuming a qualifier has been completed). Qualifying races are held globally; all of which are 100 milers or difficult 100k events. I selected The Canyons as a qualifier, knowing that if I want to some day run Western States I need to start collecting lottery points now. For reference, I ran part of the race with a guy aged 51 years who has qualified for Western States 6 times without having been drawn in the lottery system.
The course was incredibly difficult, with 9,000 feet of ascent during the first 50k and then 5,000 feet during the second; the equal amount of descent would prove to be the bigger challenge. The terrain was unbelievable – beautiful vistas, the American River, and at least a dozen river / creek crossings (my feet were never dry!) Adding to the difficulty of the elevation ascent and descent was the heat. The Canyons are notoriously hot and temps exceed those in nearby towns, my reference point from where I received my weather forecast. I don’t know exactly how high the temperature got in the second half of the course but my guess is that it was mid to upper 80s or maybe even 90F.
|Heading out of Michigan Bluff toward Eldorado Creek|
|Between Michigan Bluff and Eldorado Creek|
|Between Eldorado Creek and The Pump|
|The Volcano Creek Crossing at mile 2 and mile 30|
My optimism and goal of having a sub 13 hour finish quickly diminished shortly after leaving the Foresthill aid station. The second half of the race begins with several miles of sustained downhill and within a mile or so I was walking and clearly ran too hard the first 32 miles. The pain in my quads was too significant to push hard with 30 miles of race remaining. By mile 33 the temperature became uncomfortable and my stomach resisted much-needed calories. By mile 38 I was dry heaving with nothing in my stomach to vomit. At one point I was able to suck down a gel but within 5 minutes lost it the same way it went in. I was also cramping. Every time I had to climb over a downed tree, my feet or hamstrings would cramp up. Vomiting was incredibly painful in my abdomen. My body was lacking sodium.
The aid station volunteers were amazing. They filled my bottles, cheered me on, provided humor as my mind began deteriorating as quickly as my body was. Still, the physical and caloric deficit was too significant to recover from by only taking 5+ minute aid station stops. Not only was I nauseous, but I also experienced vertigo every time I’d stop moving forward or step to the side of the trail to allow runners to pass by. Vertigo when on a single-track trail with 500+ feet of fall into the raging American River is not a good feeling. There are absolutely no words to describe the dark mental state I was in – it was an impossible reality of shuffling along for more than 20 miles, vomiting, dizzy, watching other runners pass me by, having quads so sensitive that going downhill felt like someone was hitting my quads with baseball bats. I was also hallucinating – I repeatedly thought there were footsteps behind me but I’d turn around and see no one. I was also certain I saw a black bear cub on the trail, which froze me in my tracks – it turned out to be just a dark spot in a tree.
I wanted to quit so badly. I was broken both mentally and physically. If I had a mile to go, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the prospect of battling for 8 or more hours nauseous and in pain seemed impossible. What was the point of this self-inflicted torture? What am I proving? My friends and family won’t love me any less. Will I love me less? What kind of muscle damage, heart damage, and kidney damage am I doing? I don’t belong on the same course as those who have run multiple 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile events and with people who live in and train regularly on this type of terrain.
These reasons to quit were outweighed by:
How disappointed am I going to be in myself if I throw in the towel? Will quitting make it easier to quit next time? What does it say to my kids when they ask me how the race went and I tell them I quit? What does it say to my family who made sacrifices by supporting my training runs and my mother who traveled to California to watch me run, when I tell them it wasn’t worth finishing?
When I got to Rucky Chucky, the aid station 75k (47 miles) into the race and the second-half turnaround spot I sat down to regroup. I took my headlamp out of my drop bag (finishing in the dark was now inevitable), and read some cards my kids had made for me. All of my time and place goals were out the window. I just needed to finish and could do it as long as I made relentless forward progress the remaining 16, uphill miles.
As the temperature lowered and my electrolytes replenished, my appetite crept back. Unfortunately my headlamp battery started to die (I had no idea I’d be on the course as late as I was – rookie mistake by not bringing a backup battery and putting a fresh one in before the race) but I found a woman with a bright light who I could follow. I returned the favor by making good humor and exuding optimism (she was in rough shape as well). I never lost my outwardly focused humor throughout the entire race; in hindsight, the lighthearted quips were the best means I had to cope. At the last aid station, I joked, “think if I push hard I can catch the leaders?” An aid station volunteer replied, “you’ve maintained your humor!” To which I said, “it’s the only thing I have left!!” By mile 61 I found a second wind and ran hard to the finish line, finishing in 16:27:40 and in 121st place. The 2nd half of the race took me 9:47 as compared to 6:40 in the more technically challenging first half. Out of the 326 starters, 102 of them dropped or fell so far behind that they missed aid station cutoffs and were required to leave the course. So while I wallow in my suffering, nearly a third of the field had a more challenging day than I did.
The lessons learned transcend race strategy or preparation. I learned how to dig deeper and for much longer than I’ve ever done before. As someone who is always finishing road races in the top 5% or so of the field, I now understand that these events aren’t always about the finish time, place, or even completing the 63+ mile mountainous course. They’re about the battling self-doubt, testing one's ability navigate out of a deep mental cavern, fighting through significant physical limitations, problem solving, respecting the course, respecting the distance, appreciating the volunteers, and embracing the unique camaraderie with and admiration for fellow ultra distance trail runners – a community that’s unique to any other I’ve been part of.
I spent 8 hours telling myself I’d never do an event like this again. There’s a required level of experience and wear and tear on legs that’s required for success in ultra distance events (typically defined as any distance longer than a 26.2 mile marathon). Shorter distance road running / marathon fitness does not directly translate to finishing an ultra. If you’re in shape, you can fake a marathon finish or even a 50k. When I say “fake,” it’s not that these accomplishments aren’t earned or noteworthy (I’m incredibly proud of my finishes). However, if you’re well trained with little experience and go out at a reasonable pace you can make it 20-25 miles before really suffering. Even when your pace slows, there’s so little race left that your finish time isn’t significantly affected and you’ll never be chasing cutoff times. Everyone I was hanging with in the first part of The Canyons 100k had completed more than 10 ultra distance events. They floated down the steep, technical descents, their stomachs held, and their quads kept them running. They absolutely suffered and worked hard but they had better self developed tools to work through the challenges that inevitably come with races such as this. I believe in the case of long ultras, there’s no substitute for experience. If I could do it all over again, I’d run several 50ks and maybe a more flat 50 mile or 100k before doing The Canyons. Lesson learned.
I’m thankful for so many things. My wife and kids made sacrifices I’m so appreciative of. Although I do my best to work training around family fun and commitments, I am certainly absent for large chunks for time for reasons that are entirely self-serving. I’m thankful for my mom, who gave up an entire weekend only to fret at the finish line wondering why it was taking so long for me to complete the second half of the race and not realizing I had a headlamp in my drop bag. The volunteers and race organizers were critical to getting me to the finish line. They are selfless, caring, and wonderful people. I will return the many favors. I’m privileged to be part of the Madison Trail Runners. Although I don’t make group runs as often as I’d like, I’ve learned from them and they inspire me every time I refresh my Strava feed. Lastly, I’m grateful and have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone who toed the line with me. Some of them suffered more and less; all of them had the courage to fight the mental and physical battles that come with an event like this.
Will I put my name in the hat for a ~2% chance to run the Western States 100 mile in 2018? Absolutely.
|Elevation profile in relation to time as recorded by my Garmin|