If you're a trail runner AND you live anywhere in Utah...congratulations! You're living a charmed existence!
The epic trails, diverse landscapes and the general trail running community is what brought Jo and I to Utah a few years ago. While living on the other side of the country, we came out to Southern Utah to run the Zion 100 in its inaugural year and loved it so much that we decided to make Utah our home.
So it seems fitting, and quite timely, that the Zion 100 would be the catalyst for growth and expansion with the Grand Circle Trail Series, as Ultra Adventures added other amazing destination races, like Monument Valley, The Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and others.
On tap for this weekend? The Bryce Canyon 50k.
Yes, I said 50k. I feel compelled to clarify that, only because of the tremendous number of people that seemed to be surprised to hear I was "only" running the 50k. While the facts do clearly illustrate that I have run FAR more 100 milers than I have 50k's, this fact alone does not preclude me from running the shorter distance if I choose to. Which I rarely do. But I did. So...let's move on.
Bryce Canyon is a beautiful and rugged place filled with timbered forests, red rock formations, hoodoos that stretch for miles, and a bounty of steep, technical terrain. Bryce Canyon has a unique look and feel that can't be replicated or compared to any other place on earth. A perfect place for a trail race.
Utah has been plagued with violent and unpredictable weather all year and this weekend was no exception. The forecast was a mix of heavy rain, thunderstorms, scattered showers, hail, wind, heat and perhaps a few snowflakes. And we saw all of that.
Arriving at the Canyon Right After a Bout of Heavy Rain
Without too much concern for the weather, Jo and I decided to camp near the finish line for the weekend. We found a peaceful spot in the woods, backed our trailer in, and set up our campsite.
The Agnew Compound: Bryce Canyon Branch
The 50k began on Saturday morning at 8:00 AM at the Tropic Resevoir, a short drive from our campsite. We gathered at the boat launch, listened to a few words from the Race Director, and headed into the woods.
Into the Woods!
Right off the bat, my race instincts took over and surged to the front to join the lead pack. This is truly an involuntary reflex and I'm trying to learn how to control it. I almost immediately realized my mistake and allowed myself to fade into the top 25% of the field.
There are three reasons for this:
1) This is a training run for Western States, so I'm demanding a 100 mile pace effort.
2) The first 5 miles are all uphill, topping out at 9000'.
3) I'm a terrible 50k runner.
I caught up to Pam Reed and spent a couple of miles chatting with her. In 2002, Pam became the first woman to be the overall winner at Badwater, then came back the following year to do it again. She continues to hold a lot of ultra running records and has been an icon in the sport for a long time. I always make a point to spend a mile or two with her when the opportunity arises.
The initial climb was relentless and I ran it in a very measured manner, trying not to burn myself up in the early miles. When we topped out at 9,000', we were literally in the clouds.
The descent provided a welcomed relief. I ran the downhills with the same amount of restraint as I ran the uphill. I coasted at an easy pace and enjoyed the ride to the bottom.
We hit the Blue Fly aid station at 8.5 miles, and even though I didn't need anything, I stopped in for a brief social call anyway. Before heading back out, I saw Curtis Thompson, a good friend from Ogden. I waited on him for a moment and we rolled out together and chatted our way through the next 8 miles.
After Blue Fly, we continued to descend for another 500' before briefly hitting the valley floor, where we immediately started another long climb. The weather was still cooperating, providing a nice breeze, a few rain drops and the occasional cameo by the sun. We were rolling along, soaking up the miles and enjoying the beautiful landscape.
Chasing Curtis Thompson
UP and more UP!
At mile 12, we top out at 8500' and meet up with the 50 and 100 mile course. We promptly begin a two mile downhill run toward the Proctor Canyon aid station. The descent was fun and we powered through a few sections, but I kept it leisurely for the most part. We passed a few lingering 100 mile runners that had now been on the course for about 28 or 29 hours and still had 18 miles to cover. I could almost feel their pain as we sailed on by.
And here's where I almost ruined everything...
When we came into the Proctor Canyon aid station, it was still cool and cloudy. I had all the Hammer gels I needed and my hydration pack seemed to be fairly well loaded, so I didn't use anything from the aid station. I was feeling great and ready get back on the trail.
The next aid station is 8.5 miles away, separated by a lot of steep climbs and sharp descents. We begin the first climb almost immediately, and as we do, the sun comes out and stays out. I begin to really sweat heavily and I start to drink steadily from my hydration pack. I was out of water in that first mile.
The weather conditions had turned so quickly that I was caught unprepared. I contemplated turning around so I could head back to the aid station and fill up, but I decided against it, hoping the sun would be overcome by a steady cycle of rain clouds. That never happened.
Within another mile, I was feeling symptoms of dehydration. This is something I am now able to recognize in myself very early on, which has saved my ass on more than one occasion. Thankfully, I've made so many mistakes as a runner, I pretty much know how to handle almost any dire situation.
At the top of the next steep climb, I let Curtis pull away so I could get myself fixed up. My only choice was to slow my pace and conserve my body fluids for the next 6 miles of sweltering, hilly and totally exposed single track. My only focus was to prevent myself from sweating too much, so I let my body dictate my pace.
I managed to survive the trek to the Thunder Mountain aid station. This is the third and final aid station on the course and it leaves me with 9.5 miles of brutal climbing before the finish. I took my time to get situated before leaving.
My good friend Courtney Foley was working the aid station and she hopped right to it when I rolled in. She went as far as to dig the remaining shards of ice out of her beer cooler so I could have cold water for the last 9.5 miles. I got hydrated, fueled and headed out.
Leaving the aid station starts by climbing a long, steep jeep road before hopping back onto the trail and making a descent. On this downhill run, I began to bounce back. I was feeling good and enjoying the run again. This would be somewhat short lived and intermittent.
Somewhere around mile 24, the race gets hard.
I began the long, twisting, frustrating climb out of the canyon. At every turn, I was certain that I had topped out. It was clear that I was already well above all the nearby peaks, this has to be the top! Nope! This climb is riddled with false summits. Soul crushing, villainous, deceitful, false summits.
If the scenery wasn't so spectacular, it probably woulda sucked a lot.
I powered along at my well metered, 100 mile pace. It was in these miles that I remembered my amply supplied beer cooler at the finish line, which lifted my spirits and quickened my step.
As I got closer to the finish line, I was passed by the 50 mile race leaders. Their race had started a couple hours ahead of ours, further down the course. I always enjoy watching competitive runners do their thing.
Although I had lost faith that it would ever happen, I did eventually reach the top of the climb. But this wasn't the end of climbing, because the remaining miles are a series of relentless ups and downs as we traverse through a long series of finger canyons. A steady stream of predictable descents and immediate climbs. That never seemed to end.
At the top of every ridge, I totally and completely expected to see the finish line at the bottom of the canyon. But it continued to allude me.
As I was making my 976th descent into another canyon without a finish line, a woman on the course remarked that I was "Very, VERY close to the finish". I thanked her and pushed on.
Five canyon crossings later, I determined that this woman has an entirely different definition of the phrase "Very, VERY close" than I do.
By now, the sun had faded and was replaced by a series of dark thunder clouds. The rain started, followed by rain, then hail. As if that wasn't enough, lightning began to pound the surrounding hills and the thunder was ringing my ears.
I lost all interest in maintaining my 100 mile pace strategy and focused on getting my butt off that mountain in the most expeditious manner possible.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I handed my pack to my wife, mumbled something about "Time to GO!" and made a dash right to my awaiting pickup. No celebration, no fanfare, let's just go get a beer and some dry clothes in a place that's NOT currently being struck by lightning.
Back at Camp, Drying Off and Relaxing
As 50k's go, Bryce offers a very tough course, buffered by beautiful scenery and an amazing race management team. Ultra Adventures has cornered the market on challenging destination races and this is one of the best.
The race worked out perfectly for me. I logged a stout training run and finished feeling very strong and never got sore in the days after. I feel like I managed my pace properly and got a little more practice at digging myself out of yet another hole of my own making. Those experiences are priceless!
Now I'm left with three weeks of focused, specific training leading up to the Western States 100. I've never felt more prepared.
Thanks for reading!