Monday, June 10, 2013

Bryce Canyon - A hell of a place to lose a cow...

Bryce 100, May 31 - June 1

It took me less than a day after finishing my first 100 mile run to decide that I wanted to do another one, but over 6 months to decide which one.  I was pretty set on returning to San Diego 100, but came across Bryce 100, a first year race just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. The time of the year was good, the elevation gain wasn’t too ridiculous (although that would possibly change), the weather looked ideal (dry and 30s – 70s) and southern UT was someplace I really wanted to visit.  

Training started back in February as did planning for the race.  After a couple of months of solid running (thanks, Kyle!), the wheels started to come off – I ran too many miles too fast on a flat course, which I was unprepared to do and got severe tendonitis.  Thanks to an amazing PT (Pam rocks!) and an equally amazing massage therapist (thanks Patrick!), I only missed out on 3 weeks of running.  They were important weeks, but allowed me to volunteer at some races and enjoy a few rare weekends in Atlanta.  I eased back into running as gently as I could, hoping I’d have fresh legs on race day.  As much as I wanted to cram in the month before Bryce 100, I focused on improving my running form and staying injury free.

Soon, Memorial Day arrived and Andrea and I were off to SLC!  I convinced a long-time friend, Andrea, and fellow runner, scientist and foodie to make the journey with me and volunteer her time as a crew member.   

Normally renting a car is a very onerous and disappointing experience – not this time.  I reserved a small SUV expecting something standard.  We were treated with a Toyota FJ Cruiser – orange!  That car rocked and set the tone for the adventure.  

Our culinary tour of SLC started with a stop at the Red Iguana for the best mole on the planet and continued with chocolates from Hatch Family chocolates and breakfast Wednesday morning from the Blue Plate Diner. 

We also made a crucial stop at Target.  Last year, my pacer and I were mildly hypothermic due to being unprepared to walk in cold temps.  We were passed in the early morning hours by a woman wearing flannel PJ bottoms.  Silly?  Possibly, but I thought it was brilliant so looked for something similar and ended up with pepto bismal pink pants.  Best $10 I ever spent – I stayed warm AND my sisters were super-excited to see me wearing pink.  

We took a leisurely drive across UT, along Hwy 12 through the Grand Staircase Escalande National Monument (GSENM) en route to Bryce.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  If there is a more gorgeous stretch of road than Hwy 12, I am not aware of it.  Every bend revealed a new landscape.  The view was expansive and would change from pine forest to red rocks to moon rocks to rocks that looked like stacks of pancakes to aspen forest, usually abruptly. 

We stopped at many of the turnoffs, but I just soaked up the views – my photos couldn’t do it justice.  Our culinary tour continued with dinner at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, UT, a village of 250 people with rocks, Buddhist monks, breath taking views and one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. 

The pot of chili chocolate and apricot & cherry bread pudding left us speechless.  It has occurred to me that I could get by with running less if I didn’t enjoy food so much!  The rest of the drive got even more amazing and we arrived in Bryce just before sunset to meet up with Hoa (from last year’s R2R2R adventure in the Grand Canyon), his awesome dog Stormy, and check in at Ruby’s Lodge, our home-away-from-home for the next few days.  

We spent Thursday exploring Bryce Canyon National Park, starting with watching the sunrise as the aptly named, Sunrise Point.  The views were even more spectacular than the pictures I’d seen and well-worth getting up early for.  

The 3 of us did a short run / hike loop to loosen up – legs were fine, but lungs could feel the 7,000+ft elevation. 

We proceeded to the end of the scenic road and then stopped at every scenic vista, even meeting and chatting with a few other runners, including Eric (from Ultrarunner Podcast fame) so Andrea and Hoa had more friends to cheer for on Friday.  A few of the turn offs had maps naming the features we could see – including distances to the landmarks.  The plateaus that were 45 miles away looked far and put the next day’s daunting journey into perspective.

By Thursday afternoon, the race vortex began in earnest – instead of taking a nap, I was filling drop bags and figuring out what I would want from Andrea at which Aid Station (AS).  After Pete (fellow-Atlantan) arrived, we all piled into the FJ cruiser to first check out the race start and then to packet pickup at King’s Creek Campground.  Initially, this was supposed to be the staging area for the start and finish of the race.  Due to logistical challenges, the race start/finish was changed multiple times in the last 2 weeks.  It turned out to be a great place to congregate, eat pizza made in a nifty brick-oven-on-wheels, and would eventually be AS 13 at mile 89.  We met Matt, the RD (race director) – super-nice, super-conscientious, super-enthusiastic guy, who seemed a bit stressed with only a few hours before the start of the race.  I just wanted to give him a big hug!  Pete and I thanked him for all of his hard work and said we were looking forward to the views & challenging course he had put together.

A bit about the race course itself…The race would take place between 7,000 and 9,000 just outside of the park.  I have been at that altitude numerous times and felt fine, but running is different.  The total advertised elevation gain for the race was 18,500 feet.  In the 2 weeks leading up to the race, last minute course changes made estimating this difficult – the total gain would be somewhere between 18,500 and 26,000 feet (hopefully much closer to the initial estimate!!).  The race was an out and back course but with different starting and finishing points.  The first 20 miles were on gorgeous single track, the next 30 miles was a mix of trails and dirt roads before reaching the turnaround point, but the last 20 miles would be new.

The alarm went off at 3:45am.  Pete and I really wanted waffle house!  I ate instant oatmeal, a Hoa cookie and clever-brewed coffee.  Temps were in the low-40s and fires were set up in barrels with “Bryce 100” cut out so runners could stay warm.  I love the start of a race!  Everyone was excited and optimistic about the day (and night!) ahead.  We had one last surprise – shuttles to the start to ease congestion, but there must have been a delay, because instead of a school bus delivering the last group of runners, about 50 people spilled out of a U-Haul!  It was only a 2mile ride, but definitely a unique way for some runners to begin their journey.

With little fanfare, we were off at 5:45am, straight into the single-track.  I stayed towards the back, walking early and often (I couldn’t breath!).  I was going to be on my feet for a looong time and wanted to ease into the day.  I started with my now-favorite pink pants so I was cozy.  The views were instantly incredible – we ran past hoodoos and along steep ridges and through panoramic vistas.  

I saw Andrea, Hoa and Stormy at AS1 (10.5mi) and AS2 (20mi) quite a few minutes behind Pete, but ahead of my 27hr predicted pace.  Hmm…I did my best to take it easy, ate and drank well, walked the hills and stopped to take pics.  As the day warmed up, Andrea had cold bubbly drinks and avocados waiting for me!  Much of the trail wasn’t too technical (by East coast standards), although long stretches were quite sandy, which took a great deal of physical and mental energy.  The technical parts were broken up with long road stretches – not exciting, but still amazing views and a nice mental break from the sand. 

According to the race profile, there would be a steep climb up to mile 45 at Pink Cliffs – I took my time and was rewarded with the most spectacular view right before AS6.  I felt so incredibly fortunate to be outside and part of this amazing event.  Multiple times, Matt made sure a trail took us off the main road, close to the cliffs for better views.  From Pink Cliffs it was (mostly) downhill to AS7, the midway point at Crawford Pass where I would pick up Hoa to keep me company for the next 50 miles.  I started seeing runners (including Pete!) heading back – so much fun to cheer them on and hear their encouragement.  I arrived in good spirits, ahead of schedule so took advantage of the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, enjoy strong ginger ale, another avocado and any other food I could make myself eat.

Despite meeting the day before the race, Hoa and Andrea got along swimmingly and made a stellar team.  Once again, I felt utterly spoiled – and my spirits always picked up due to their cheers and support.  Andrea was a great crew member because a) she yelled “vermin!” every time we saw vermin (and we saw lots of them); b) she could identify most of the various kinds of scat we saw; c) she was a great driver; d) wherever we were, she would look around and point “see, that’s higher!” e) all of the above

And then we were off for the second half of the journey, facing a tough climb back to Pink Cliffs.  Because the course was (mostly) out and back, I (mostly) paid attention to the trail and knew what hills & terrain to expect on the return journey.  After Pink Cliffs, I knew it would be mostly non-technical trails back to Andrea at mile 60, lots more rolling non-technical trails to mile 74, and then a stretch to mile 80 that I was a bit nervous about.  Those technical 6 miles would be even more challenging in the dark (happy to have 2 headlamps) and at a (usual) low-point in the night for me.  Thankfully I would have Hoa for company!!  We continued to make good time, running much of the course, and walking the hills.  The course was extremely well-marked and in the night, the flagging also had lights so it looked like we were chasing fireflies.  Fortunately, that was the closest I would get to hallucinating!  

A bit about the AS workers – they were FANTASTIC!  It is not easy getting to remote aid stations, helping out smelly, cranky, tired runners, making grilled cheese and pancakes, often during the wee (and cold!!) hours of the morning.  Many volunteers camped out for a night or 2 and for most, this was their first experience helping with an event like this.  They were friendly, encouraging and super-helpful.  My fellow runners and I couldn’t do ultraraces without their support.  I don’t think anyone was more excited about raman at the aid stations than Hoa!!  

Somehow, there was a 900ft climb at mile 78 that I had forgotten about.  By this point, I was starting to get mentally fatigued, although thanks to Starbucks double-shot, a 5-hr energy, and coffee at an AS, I was awake.  It still took lots of concentration during this section as some of the trail was eroded and very close to cliffs and shear drop offs.  I took my time – it would kind of suck to fall off a cliff this close to the end!   Finally, the climb ended and we saw cars, people and a fire.  Many runners were shivering near the fire, attempting to warm up.  Not me – loved my pink pants!!!  Hoa grabbed more raman, I ate some grilled cheese sandwiches and we asked the AS volunteers about the last 20 miles.  They said it was gravel roads to the end, a long climb out of this AS, but then mostly flat and downhill to the end.  Sweet!  I saw Eric’s parents again and they said he was doing well, just a bit cold.

Hoa and I headed for a brisk walk up the long, gravel road climb.  It wasn’t horrible and when it flattened out, I could still manage running for 20 – 30 seconds at a time.  So I settled into brief bursts of running, between short walk breaks.  If I could keep this up, a sub-28hr finish was still very much in reach.  Yay!  The sun came up which also helped the spirits.  The miles seemed to be going a little slowly and then, almost to the Campground, the course veered off the road.  On a trail.  Up hill.  A STEEP LONG HILL.  Abby, a woman who finished in front of me, described it as a SOUL-CRUSHING HILL.  Yup, that about sums it up.  Switch back after switch back.  I yelled ahead to Hoa “is this a joke?” as we passed a wooden sign pointing to the campground and another arrow towards the Keyhole arch.  The course markings went towards the arch – in my not-too-clear-state-of-mind, I was convinced a trail gremlin had moved the course markings!  A combination of not expecting the hill and bonking made me a not-very-pleasant person during this section.  Hoa wisely stayed quite a few paces ahead of me.  Finally, we could see people (including Andrea and Stormy and Pete) and cars at AS 13, but I was too crabby and my spirit broken to be happy – which should have been an obvious sign to myself that I was bonking.  Pete had slowed down quite a bit at night – we weren’t expecting to see him before the finish, but were now looking forward to his company.  I tried to eat and should have forced food down, but I didn’t.  Instead of being excited at being only 11 or 12 miles from the finish, I felt disheartened at knowing I would be on my feet for 4 more hours.  I am normally a pretty positive person during events like this and feel fortunate to be able to do what I do – but I am sorry to say, that at that moment, I was not.

We knew we had a climb out of the last AS so Pete, Hoa and I headed up the gravel road.  And up.  And up.  And up.  It felt like an 8 mile climb.  It just wouldn’t end.  And I remained crabby (ultra bonk, but not an excuse!) and started to slow down.  Even when the road flattened out again, I couldn’t make myself run for 30 second bursts like before.  I was unfortunately, sadly resigned to a death march (but still forward progress!) in order to finish – exactly what I was hoping to avoid.  I was unpleasant to be around (that’s an understatement!), but Hoa kept encouraging Pete and I.  I don’t think the 3 of us have ever walked so slow.  I was reminded that 100 miles is not twice as hard as a 50 miler – the last miles are exponentially harder than the earlier miles.  Even when we saw the parking lot where the race ended, I wasn’t convinced I was going to finish.

Finally, the finish line was in sight.  Hoa encouraged us to run the last tenth of a mile, ok just 100 yards.  I said no.  He tried again and again – I managed about 10 steps of shuffling, before finally laying down in the fetal position on the side of the road like I’d wanted to do for the last 4 hours.  After 29 hours and 20 minutes, I could finally stop moving.  Ahhh… Andrea was there to cheer us on and tell us how proud she was!  Stormy too. J  Matt the RD was there to greet every finisher too.  Pete and I chatted with other runners and exchanged stories of shock and bewilderment at finishing.  I kept hacking – it sounded like I picked up a smoking habit, but I inhaled so much dust.  I wanted to scrub my lungs with a toothbrush!  The pizza guys were there again!  Perfect post-race food.  And I got my cherished belt buckle.  Another last-minute change was that Matt’s wife learned a craft technique to make the buckles – it was a picture of the canyon covered with epoxy.  Matt said some of them turned out better than others – I picked one that wasn’t perfect.  Because the race wasn’t perfect.  But I finished.  And sometimes not being perfect is perfect.

Nearly 2 weeks later…I’ve recovered from the bonk (and I keep eating more, just to be safe!).  My lungs feel clean again, although I hope I don’t develop Valley Fever in a few weeks.  I’m even more grateful for Andrea, Hoa and Pete’s friendship and support – and all the positive emails, texts, calls and FB posts.  I’m still disappointed I wasn’t smiling at the finish, but next time I’ll write “DON’T BONK” in black marker on my arm to help me remember to eat.  And yes, there will be a next time.  Bryce was an epic, destination 100 miler.  Maybe something less epic next time – San Diego again?  There’s still so much room for improvement and I have more to learn about myself and ultrarunning.  And I need to finish with a smile on my face!


Thomas Bussiere said...

Congrats on your 2nd 100. Each one is different and unique. Great race report and enjoyed the pics.

Carissa and Tanner said...

Awesome post! Loved the pics and you write really well and I didn't even skim it because it was very fascinating to me. Wow. You should never say never but I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to. Let's just shoot for a normal marathon again :) Congrats! You rock!

Rachel R said...

Well done!!!!!!! I hope you save those pink pants so I get to see them one day. The pictures are awesome. I hope to go there one day and do a few hikes rather than a 100 mile run :)

brycecanyonhotel said...

Nice and awesome articles, I really like this place too, hope to be there soon.

Dinner in Bryce Canyon