…in the desert there is nowhere to hide. Your body stands on smooth, naked domes of rock. Even in the deepest shadows of canyons you are exposed, every move a question and an answer.
– Craig Childs
Grand Canyon 50K:
The last school bell rings and my car is already packed and ready to go. Time to kick off summer 2016!
Last year’s icy roads and snow-soaked course has been replaced by quaking Pinus ponderosa on a splitter, albeit windy Northern Arizona spring weekend. Jess and I camp at the staging area in the back of the Suby and in the morning we are all shuttled out to the beginning of the Rainbow Rim Trail. Using today as a training run I start 20-30 runners back in the start pack as we spread out along the road before the single track begins. Two runners (Andrew Combs and Scott Shine) jump out front from Matt’s “Go!” and hold their positions for the remainder of the day and I settle into the chase pack as we clip off 8-9 minute miles weaving in and out of the limestone drainages that trace the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
I am committed to running easy and within myself for the first 20K of the course, but when the first cruiser downhill arrives at mile 10 I pretend I am just bad at metric conversions and let the hill take me as I move ahead of the rest of the pack chasing the leaders. The singletrack bliss is temporarily interrupted when the Rainbow Rim Trail ends and the course plummets down, up, down and back up on derelict logging roads that go straight down and straight up the drainages on the way to Crazy Jug point. Soft, pine needle frosted roads soon arrive and before I know it I am headed out to Crazy Jug point to marvel at the immensity of the canyon. Headed out to the point I see 2nd place runner Scott Shine and figure out that he has about 4 minutes on me when I reach the turn around at Crazy Jug.
It’s time to try and play catch up, and the scenario is the exact opposite of the chase I was part of at the end of the 50 miler last year when I was in 2nd fending off a charging runner. By the time I arrived at the Monument Point turn around first place was heading back and out of reach by at least two miles, but I ran into Scott just seconds before punching my bib and heading towards the finish. With a long, gradual uphill climb and then two quick downhill miles to the finish it was hammer dropping time. I ran every step to the finish, massaged some gnarly ab cramps on the final downhill but never saw Scott again, finishing three minutes behind him in third place.
The Grand Canyon course this year was gorgeous, the conditions were perfect and everything went smoothly – nutrition, hydration, gear, navigation etc., and I had a great time meeting other runners during the event and while hanging out/volunteering at the recovery tent after the race.
Huge thanks to Jess for her support and for putting up with my ultrarunning habit, to the Matts, Tony, Tana and everyone that makes the Ultra Adventure races such amazing, memorable and wholesome events. Thanks to Pearl Izumi, Honey Stinger, Swiftwick and Nuun for their support this year and for making race day a great day.
Favorite Song of the Race: Halsey – Castle
There are some trails that embed themselves in your mind like a little rock that you can’t get out of your shoe no matter how many times you take it off and shake it out. I first heard about Mee Canyon and Knowles Canyon when I was working at REI a couple years back. Most people would float the river and hike up from the bottom, or maybe hike down one of them to meet people on the river – the real crazies would backpack the whole thing in 3-4 days. When my local ultrarunning mentor Patrick Hummel told me that Peter Bakwin had an 8.5 hour FKT on the ~36 mile loop we figured we should go check it out – how hard could it be to maintain a ~14 min/mile pace?
We decided to run Knowles to the Colorado River and back in the spring of 2015 and found super runnable double track and trail for the first few miles – this is going to be great, maybe we’ll just do the loop and score the FKT today…and then we hit the bottom of Knowles Canyon where all we found were mountain lion tracks, thickets of willow and tamarisk and muddy, marshy creek beds. We bushwhacked and poked around for about 40 minutes, laughed at how easy we thought this was going to be and headed back to the car, writing off the idea of ever going for the FKT.
This spring Jess has been working in the McInnis Canyon NCA doing botany field work and I tagged along on a day hike at the top of Mee Canyon. It was beautiful, there was a nice trail, navigation was easy and the fun scrambling sections caught my attention. The next weekend Jess came back raving about the beauty of Knowles Canyon and my faded memories of the thickets were replaced by her description of an unmaintained trail on the east bank of the canyon and exposed slickrock as you continued down to the river.
With a 30 mile run on the training schedule, perfect spring temperatures, and reports of running water in both Mee and Knowles – the call of the canyons was irresistible. I posted my intentions to run the canyon on FKT Proboards (run by Peter Bakwin) and noted that no one had attempted the loop since 2011.
I drove up early in the morning to the Mee trailhead and set off down the old dirt road, following way points on my GPS. There is a maze of ATV tracks out there, some of which I discovered are ridiculously technical to run and after a few wrong turns I made it over to the Knowles junction in good time. I remembered the trail down to Knowles from my scouting with Patrick the year before and made sure to take advantage of the fast, runnable sections. There were a few backpackers out on the trail and I noticed one lone set of Salomon tracks from another runner that seemed fresh…
When I arrived at the dense thicket guarding Knowles Canyon I pushed through shooting for the right bank where I had learned there was an unimproved/animal trail. I tried to get there too soon and found myself sliding down steep embankments and swimming through dead underbrush. After about three-quarters of a mile the trail became more prominent and lead nicely down canyon to the exposed slickrock and cobble strewn lower sections where running was quite manageable. Before leaving the canyon I filtered some water and turned the corner into the unknown. I had a couple of rough waypoints in my GPS and knew that I would be traversing some exposed and sketchy slickrock high above the Colorado river as I made my way over to Mee Canyon. The first section had zero detectable trail and I made the mistake of heading towards the river only to spend more time ‘schwacking back to the cliffs through knee deep fields of cheat grass with devious prickly pear hiding in the shadows. I only punted one cactus while running fast downhill, but the amount of cheat grass in my socks and shoes was beyond anything I had ever experienced and the wet foot, off-camber stream running had already rubbed my arches raw (which has never happened before or since).
Once back at the cliff line I connected with a faint trail and interspersed cairns and arrived at the exposed one-foot wide ledge I had seen photos of. It came and went without incident and I continued along the cliff band thinking the worst was past. A few hundred yards later I came to an even steeper slab and after some scouting determined it was the best way forward unless I wanted to retrace substantial ground (for future attempts, staying high along the cliff line is advised). I made it across with slow and intentional foot placements aided by some crimping and palm smearing – very happy not to be wearing a heavy pack. One final obstacle of a steep side canyon had to be navigated by leaving the river to find an acceptable down climb and then it was easy running through the Black Rocks campsites where I was lucky enough to find some rafters pulled over for lunch. They were confused about where I had come from and where I was going but were happy to let me fill up my water bottles and I was on my way. The mouth of Mee Canyon has a couple trails leading up it, but the most prominent follows the left bank going upstream and offers amazing running for almost four miles.
The trail deteriorates after a series of towers and then you get to pick your poison: dusty cheatgrass slopes or muddy, slippery creek bottom running. I fell into a rhythm of power hiking up whatever looked easiest, filtering water when needed, eating food on schedule and checking the GPS to make sure I wasn’t pulled into a side canyon. Mee was generally steeper and harder to run than Knowles, and my feet were in full rebellion mode. After a couple of false corners, some large mountain lion tracks and bear scat I arrived at the exit that heads straight up the cliffside through a series of improbable ledges and finally dumps you on the trail and doubletrack leading back to the trailhead. There were a couple backpackers headed down Mee with dogs and external frame packs, and once on the trail that takes people to the impressive Alcove, there were lots of day hikers giving me quizzical looks. I knew Peter Bakwin had closed the loop in 8:30 and it was going to be close. I pushed the final climb as hard as my body would allow after racing a 50K the previous weekend and tagged my car in 8:21, 11 minutes under Bakwin’s time.
Not knowing that those Salomon tracks in Knowles had completed the whole loop I figured I had the new FKT, even if it was a modest improvement. After uploading my data and sharing my result on the ProBoards forum I learned that those Salomon tracks belonged to Andrew Bentz and that he had blazed the loop in 7:21!
I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but I don’t feel that my experience was diminished by missing the FKT. Just like missing the FKT on Mount Adams by a few minutes last fall this was a great day, a brutally hard day and one of my proudest days. FKT’s are meant to be broken, to push people to their personal best. No one has stopped running the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim just because Rob Krar has a wicked fast time on it, and no one expects the FKT of today to last forever. I am stoked for Bryce 100, replete with its more runnable trails with aid and amazing community, but I am also excited about more solo and unsupported adventures in wilderness, FKT or no.
Bryce Canyon 100 Mile:
After blowing up at Run Rabbit Run last year I came into this season with a lingering desire for redemption in the mountainous 100 Mile arena. Working with my coach Paul Giblin (#TeamPyllon), I chose Zion and Bryce as my focus races for the year. Zion went smashingly and my training block leading into Bryce was some of the best running I have done to date: three 30+ mile long run weekends, a podium finish at the Grand Canyon 50K and averaging 75-85 miles/week. Tapering ahead of the race coincided with a vacation to Costa Rica where I was able to run in the heat, humidity and elevation of the cloud forest while spending most afternoons playing cards when the daily rains arrived.
Assessing my previous results at this distance and the finishing times from the last few years at Bryce I set out the following goals:
A Goal: 22 Hours (likely a podium finish based on previous years)
B Goal: Sub 24 (likely a top 10 finish based on previous years)
C Goal: Finish
Four consecutive travel days later I arrived ready to run, my legs more rested than they have been since November and volunteered at runner check-in. It was great to see familiar faces, answer questions about the course and meet some Pearl Izumi Champion Team members for the first time. After some frantic drop bag prep and a pre-race pasta meal I drove out to the dispersed camping and set up the bed in the back of my Subaru.
The shuttles dropped us off at the start around 5:30 just as civilian twilight was beginning, Matt hopped up on a car to give some final instructions and before we set off one of the runners sang the national anthem accompanied by trumpet (awesome!). Matt’s classically casual “go” start sent us running down the dirt road as the field spread out. Mark Hammond and Dominick Layfield pulled away quickly with Sam Reed and a handful of other runners closely following. I tried to ignore other runners pace and settled into my own rhythm – trying to imagine keeping this same pace at mile 95 and slowing down if it seemed unsustainable. Around mile 3 the gift of drinking water in Costa Rica reared its ugly head and I knew I would need an EcoCommode soon. Unfortunately the first aid station was at mile 10.5 and required a bowel-shaking 1000′ descent on the Thunder Mountain trail. I picked up the pace a little, and arrived at the Thunder Mountain aid station just at Dj Loertscher was leaving. There was someone in the only EcoCommode that lied about being almost done and after three agonizing minutes curled over and quietly groaning I was able to set myself up for a successful day.
Running over to Proctor we came to the first creek crossing of the day and I took the opportunity to soak my hat. In doing so I failed to see the trail split from the road and headed the wrong way with someone following right behind me. After almost 10 minutes I hadn’t seen any flagging and my gut-check was starting to kick in. I decided to give it five more minutes, but before that happened a large pack of runners including Mark and Dominick were headed back and confirmed that we were all lost. Sam Reed and Dj weren’t in the group so we knew they were on the right track and after some bonus mileage we were back on track. (Apparently the signage was sabotaged by ATV traffic that morning, which makes sense since the rest of the course was so well marked).
On the climb up to Proctor I caught up with Dj and decided to stick with him at least until the next aid station. Our pace was nicely matched and we made sure we weren’t working too hard by chatting as the miles went by. We ran together all the way until Pink Cliffs aid station around mile 46 when Dj started pushing for what would end up being a spectacular sub 22 hour, 3rd place finish.
I was feeling smooth and controlled in the front half of the race, but knew that there were some steep climbs near the turn around so I grabbed my trekking poles at mile 40. Aside from blistering my right thumb (bike gloves next time), they were a huge help and all my practice in Idaho last summer really paid off. At the turn around I realized that I had moved up into the top 10 despite getting lost and that the top 20 were within 10-30 minutes back.
The climb back to Pink Cliffs went quickly as I power hiked and cheered on other 100 mile runners that were on their way to the turn around. At the top I saw Sam Reed sitting in a chair looking pretty disoriented. He came into the race struggling with strep throat and after crushing the first 50 miles he had to make the call to drop after some pretty intense hallucinations.
I took some extra time to eat water melon, fill my pack with ice again and brewed up some Nuun to make sure the heat didn’t get to me and then I heading back down to Straight Canyon to reload on Honey Stinger Chews and to start the Coca Cola party. Half way down I heard footsteps behind me and then saw the topless blur of Adrian Stanciu gliding past me. Adrian has 100 miler strategy down and I was encouraged that my first half had been similar to his (though my back half would be quite a bit slower).
Night arrived, bringing cooler weather, I turned my iPod on and settled into the isolation of my illuminated bubble. I ran alone for most of the night being passed only by Fabrice Guillaume and leap frogging with the first place female finisher Riva Johnson. The steep and long descent from Blubber Creek to Proctor annihilated my quads and I had to take breaks to recover from running the flats and downhills for the remainder of the race.
My watch died at mile 70 since I prioritized charging my headlamp over my watch (certainly a good decision), but my fueling schedule and sense of distance and pace were thrown off. It was a good mental reminder to always expect that I was further from the end than I thought and I found myself staying incredibly present through all of the highs and lows (the worst of which being a steady stream of bloody noses from mile 75 to the finish).
When I arrived at Thunder Mountain aid, 9 miles from the finish it was just after 3 am and I knew that in order to hit my sub-24 hour goal it was going to be a fight. I made good time running the flats and downhills to the base of the 1000′ climb and was motivated by Riva closing in behind me. My poles were amazing as I powered up the exposed, gravelly switchbacks and hoodoos on thunder mountain and then the hardest mental challenge of the day began. The final 5 miles of the race weave in and out of more drainages than you can possibly keep track of and each one looks as if it is the last. At my lowest I was power hiking the downs, but as the sky started to lighten on the eastern horizon I knew that the 24 hour mark was approaching and I committed to getting to the finish line before the golden orb entered the sky. I kept telling myself I had a few more drainages left after each one and after the most severe quad pain running I have ever experienced I arrived at the Coyote Hollow trailhead and the dirt road that lead to the finish. The final mile was slightly downhill but never seemed to end. Crossing the finish line was exhilarating and I found myself smiling uncontrollably as I tossed my trekking poles aside and asked Salem what time it was. 5:56 am. Perfect. Sub-24, 6th overall and most importantly, done.
So many shoutouts and thanks are due: Thanks to Jess for her support, to the Ultra Adventure crew and to all of the amazing aid station volunteers for putting on such a beautiful, organized and thoughtful event. Thanks to Derrick Lytle and Lucid Images for being out on course taking such awesome photos. Thanks to all of my friends and family that were rooting for me – knowing you are out there is a huge booster during the low points. Thanks to Pearl Izumi, Honey Stinger, Swiftwick and Nuun for their support this year and for always making race day a great day. Thanks to my coach Paul Giblin for his advice, training plans and for believing in me, go Team Pyllon!
Gear that worked well: Pearl Izumi Fly Endurance Shorts/Trail N1 Shoes/Arm Warmers/Thermal Light Gloves/Fly Jacket
Swiftwick Aspire 12 Socks
Honey Stinger Chews and Gels (Mango-Orange for the win!)
Nuun Energy Lemon-Lime
BOCO technical trucker hat, Smith approach sunglasses, Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0, Black Diamond Ultra Poles, iPod Shuffle with Yurbuds, Petzl NAO headlamp, Garmin 920xt.
Favorite Song of the Race: Beck – Wow (Giddy Up!)