The week leading up to this race, I wasn't sure if I was heading to the Grand Canyon to run a 50k, or if I would be making the drive to work the race as a volunteer.
The previous weekend, I was forced to drop from the Spruce Woods 100 due to an excruciating injury to my hip flexor. It was a devastating turn of events that cast a dark shadow over the balance of my race season. When I returned home, I walked and monitored the hip, but there was nothing to suggest that I would be running any time soon.
Finally, 2 days before the race, I was able to trot down the trail a little bit without any serious pain. The following day it felt even better. So I decided to see how a 50k would feel.
Off to the Grand Canyon we went!
As most people know, the weather in Utah, Colorado and northern Arizona has been rough this spring. Winter has been reluctant to release it's grip on our region and we've had chilly, wet weather for the last month. But I didn't expect actual WINTER weather in Arizona. In May.
Tent Campers at the Start Line
On race morning, we woke up to 6 inches of fresh powder and freezing temperatures. In May.
Because I was nursing a questionable hip, I was actually happy about the weather. It crushed any remnants of pressure that I might have felt to run a fast race. This course wasn't going to be fast. It allowed me to get into the right mindset for what I was trying to do. I needed to go easy, enjoy the day, and stay healthy. Pretty simple objectives.
Walking to the Start Line
My race was a point-to-point course. We were supposed to be shuttled out to our starting point, then dropped off so we could run back. Because of the weather and the poor road conditions, Matt Gunn (the Race Director), decided to change the course to an out-and-back format. I totally loved the idea because it makes for a more social environment, and one of my primary goals was to have fun.
Matt Gunn Giving me Grief for Racing on a Bad Hip
A quick side note: It's worth mentioning that Matt Gunn puts on some of the most amazing races in the country. Part of his success is due to the rugged, scenic and remote locations that he has us run. Places like Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. This comes at a price, because remote courses are prone to bad weather, poor communication, and a host of other characteristics that make it difficult to produce a trouble free event. The weather threw a kink in Matt's plans, but I think he did an amazing job of pulling it all together. Happy runners is the only thing that Matt cares about. He's an incredible Race Director.
Our race was set to start at 8:00 AM. After a quick race briefing, we were off to play in the snow.
The race starts with a steep climb that goes on for a little more than a mile. Because I was there to run a casual, leisurely pace, I decided to run the entire hill. Seems like something I would do.
By the time I reached the top, my heart was about to burst through my chest cavity and my lungs were on fire. We're running near 9000 feet above sea level. That adds a bit of difficulty to these long ascents.
After hitting the top of the hill, we have about 14 miles of downhill running. Not steep downhill running. Just slightly downhill running. The kind that still requires a bit of effort to build speed.
Mile 4, Outbound
We would be dropping about 2000 feet of elevation on the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Slowly, we worked our way to a warmer environment. The snow began to fade a bit, replaced by wet, muddy trails.
We hit the first aid station at 5.5 miles. I ducked into the tent and started chatting with the volunteers. I run all of Matt's races, so as a side benefit, I know almost all of the repeat volunteers. Aside from wanting to exchange pleasantries, I also wanted to force myself to take my time. Chatting away at aid stations helped achieve both goals.
As I headed out to the next aid station, I caught up with some runners and chatted as we cruised down the trail. I kept monitoring my hip, but there was no sign of pain. I was cautiously optimistic, but a bit of worry was still floating around in my brain.
As we dropped elevation, the snow continued to fade.
The Squaw Aid Station was at mile 9. When I got there, I saw my truck, covered in mud, parked next to the tent. I wasn't expecting Jo to be there, so it was a pleasant surprise. As it turns out, Matt had put Jo (and my truck) to work, shuttling supplies around the course. We just happened to be at Squaw at the same time.
Coming into Squaw
I messed around at the aid station for a bit, once again, chatting with the volunteers and giving Jo an update on how I felt. After a few minutes, I pushed on down the trail.
Getting Better and Better with Every Mile
Before reaching the Stina Aid Station, we hit a steep incline. I wasn't expecting that at all, but then again, I had neglected to look at the course details before I started the race. I made a mental note to be better prepared next time.
I knuckled down and hiked to the top of this relentless hill. Once I topped out, I was greeted by the Stina Aid Station. This would be the last aid station before the Rim. I walked into the tent, found an empty chair and sat down.
I spent a ridiculous amount of time hanging out and chatting with the volunteers. Runners were coming and going, but I was happy to be relaxing.
For the first time in quite a while, I was just enjoying the experience. There was no pressure and I was just having fun. I realized that this is why I fell in love with trail running to begin with. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.
From Stina, we head toward the Rim on some exceptional single track. It was warm out, the ground was dry and the sky was blue. It was a beautiful day to be running in the woods along the Canyon.
By now, returning runners were heading back toward me on their way to the finish. We greeted each other the way trail runners do, passing along encouragement and compliments. I even stopped a few times to chat with friends as we met on the trail.
Competitive Kelly would have been counting running as they went by. I caught myself when I got to 4, and reminded myself that I wasn't racing, I was just running.
A Runner Seeing the Grand Canyon for the First Time in Her Life
Sharing A Clark Griswold Moment with Keena DeLay
I eventually found the turnaround point where I marked my bib with a big blue "X" to prove that I had made it. I took a few minutes to enjoy the Canyon, then turned and headed back.
I had enjoyed the downhill run getting to the Rim, but now I had to pay the price for all that "easy" running. I started my long uphill push to the finish.
Getting back to Stina seemed to take forever. Part of that is probably because I stopped so many times to talk to friends as I encountered them along the way, but that's always time well spent.
Getting Back to Stina Aid Station
Jo just happened to be dropping off supplies at Stina when I got there. I was excited to see my bride again, so I lingered for a while, giving her a thorough update on my race and my condition.
Here's the abbreviated update: I was having fun, I felt great and I love this course.
Hanging at Stina with Jo and Cherri
After screwing off in the aid station for way too long, I was practically kicked out. It was probably time to head out anyway.
I left Stina and started my way down that steep hill that I had just climbed a few hours earlier. It felt much better this time.
As I made the climb back toward the finish line, the trail deteriorated. Where there was once snow, there was now mud. Lot's of it. And water running down the trail like an endless gutter. Footing was a bit tricky, my feet were saturated, and I was having a blast.
I made it back to the Squaw Aid Station pretty fast. I hopped inside and pulled up a chair. I remembered that Jo and Cherri had stashed a PBR in there for me. When I sat down, one of the aid station workers walked over and put it in my hand. How can you beat that kind of service?!?!
Seems Like an Appropriate Time for a Beer
After the PBR was polished off, I thanked the volunteers and hit the trail. There was only one aid station between me and the finish and I wanted to get headed that way.
Jo Just Kept Popping Up Everywhere!!!
The trails kept getting worse as I made my way higher, pushing away from the Rim. It had warmed up, well above freezing and the snowmelt was wreaking havoc on the trails. Finding runnable ground was nearly impossible.
I made it to the final aid station and hung out for 4 or 5 minutes before heading off. I thanked the volunteers and hopped back on the mucky trail for the last 5 miles.
By now, it ALMOST sucked a little bit. I was moving SO slow because of the mud and my feet were getting cold from running in icy water for so long. But despite that, I was still having a lot of fun. I couldn't conjure up a foul mood, no matter how hard I tried.
After a LONG uphill slog, I finally made it to the top of the hill that we had run up earlier this morning. I knew the finish line was a little more than a mile away. All downhill. I aimed my feet that way and bombed downward.
I crossed the line in 8th place overall. I was uninjured and happier than I had been at a finish line in a long time!
I learned a lot from this experience, but the most important thing I took away from that day was a reminder that I do this because it makes me happy. It's easy to lose sight of that when the need to compete clouds my judgment and steers my goals. I enjoyed every step of that race and had a big dumb smile on my face all day. That's a lesson I want to hold on to.
The course turned out to be 36 miles long, a bit of a stretch for a 50k, but that's alright. It just gave me more miles to enjoy. And it gives me confidence that I can run again, without too much concern about re-injuring myself. I needed that boost going into the rest of my race season.
I want to thank Hammer Nutrition for fueling me, Topo Athletic for putting great shoes on my feet and my wife for being so damn awesome. And thanks to Matt Gunn for putting on the best trail races in the West.
On to Bryce Canyon in three weeks. I hope to see you there!