Race Report: Black Canyon 100K

The Black Canyon Ultras—put on by Aravaipa Running, which also hosts the ultra party known as Javelina Jundred—offers 60K and 100K courses through the desert paralleling I-17 just north of Phoenix in Arizona. While it has a net elevation loss (total loss about 9,000 feet and total gain around 7,000 feet), much of the climbing is in the second half.

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Image (c) Aravaipa Running

In the past two years, the weather has been extreme—with heat afflicting runners in 2016 and cold, wind, and rain causing a course reroute and reportedly miserable conditions in 2017. This year was perfect, with a high around 70°F and mostly sunny skies all day.

I was lucky to have Mike and the girls as my crew. They all got up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the race start and then spent the day driving around to meet me at the Bumblee Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, and Table Mesa aid stations and, of course, at the finish.

Aid Station Cumulative Mileage Segment Length
1. Antelope Mesa 7.3 7.3
2. Hidden Treasure Mine 12.5 5.2
3. Bumble Bee (crew) 19.2 6.7
4. Gloriana Mine 23.7 4.5
5. Soap Creek 31.2 7.5
6. Black Canyon City (crew) 37.4 6.2
7. Cottonwood Gulch 46.2 8.8
8. Table Mesa (crew) 50.9 4.7
9. Doe Spring 58.6 7.7
10. Finish 62.2 3.6

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you know that I’ve struggled in longer distances. To prepare for this event, I spent a fair amount of time working through Sage Rountree’s race plan “questionnaire,” thinking about how I would approach this race. One of the questions is, “List three training workouts where you learned something about your mental/physical abilities,” and this one question ended up being invaluable as I faced a few (inevitable) tough spots during the race. Here’s my list:

  1. Owyhigh Loop: I can keep going even after throwing up. (I didn’t throw up, but I attribute that to number 2, below.)
  2. Grand Canyon: I need to take care of issues as soon as they crop up. (Issues cropped up, but I didn’t panic and took care of them early.)
  3. Bridle Trails: Mantras really work, especially when I add F words to them! (I actually didn’t need this that much—but I was happy to know I could use it when I needed to.)

Segment 1: Start to Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station—miles 0 through 19.2

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Just before the start—dawn at Mayer High School

The run starts at Mayer High School with a lap around the track. Mike was there to see me off, the girls were sleeping in the car, and I was thinking about how weird it was to know absolutely nobody at a race. Then, about a third of the way around the track, I saw my friend, Gretchen (who was there to pace a friend of hers later in the day), and with a cheer and a hug I continued my very slow ultra-shuffle around the track.

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Slowest lap around a track ever!

We were then off through a couple of local neighborhood streets and into the desert. There were some easy uphills on dirt roads and I appreciated everyone who immediately started walking them. It’s so hard to be patient and conservative at the beginning of a race, but group solidarity helped a lot.

In short order we hit the official Black Canyon Trail trailhead; we’d remain on the trail for the remainder of the day. For a while we were out on what I’d describe as open plains, rolling gently, mostly on double track. Then, a quick turn, and the promised downhill kicked in with fun-to-run but almost always rocky singletrack. We’d occasionally pop back out onto dirt roads briefly, and then make another turn onto more singletrack.

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I remember the first aid station—Antelope Mesa—where my strategy (thank you, Heidi Flora) of keeping a flask prefilled with Tailwind powder in the back pocket of my pack made for a quick refill and transition back onto the trail, but oddly I don’t remember the next aid station at Hidden Treasure Mine at all. Regardless, as I neared Bumble Bee, I was excited to see my family and had mapped out what I wanted/needed in the transition.

Bumble Bee might just be my favorite aid station from any race to date: it’s a ranch, and as you come in you see the windmill that is featured in the race logo, you cross a nice open lawn, and everyone’s hanging out in an open, covered picnic area. Meg was holding up a sign with my face (long story that I just don’t know if I could do justice to, so suffice to say I knew my friends back home were there with me in spirit as soon as I saw it), Mike helped me with my transition, I ate some potato chips and salted potatoes, and was ready to head back out. I did decide to change my shoes here since I was getting a worrisome hot spot on my right foot: I’ve had some problems finding the perfect shoes since my previous ones were redesigned and no longer fit, so I’ve been switching three different pairs around for each training run, trying to figure out a good system. Since I knew this might be an issue, I had brought backup pairs for Mike to have at the ready at each crew-accessible aid station.

As I left Bumble Bee, I gave the man eating cows the evil eye, I think they rolled their eyes back at me in disgust, and that was that.

Section 2: Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City—miles 19.2 through 37.4

Initially there was a bit of dirt road and then long stretches of exposed singletrack. Our first climb of the day was right out of Bumble Bee, and it seemed everyone around me was slowing down. I was fully down with that, as the day was now warm and, for me, feeling pretty hot. We passed through many fascinating areas here—I remember going through a longish burnt-out section, with cacti blackened and crumpled along the trail. There was a dike maybe 20 or 30 feet wide of bright white quartz in the middle of miles of dark rock. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was so bright and out of place. And trail markers, rather than dangling from trees, were knee to maybe hip-height, and carefully tied to a cactus or some other cranky plant covered with sharp things. I spent some time wondering if they were actually tied on or whether the trail marking crew simply threw them at the bushes and they stuck.

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I decided to regroup at Soap Creek Aid Station since my stomach was feeling just a little bit off and I was feeling more than just a little bit hot. Most of my standard food wasn’t appealing, and my stash of stomach-soothing oyster crackers was waiting for me at Black Canyon City. I sat down in a chair and gnawed on some pretzels and drank, then took my phone out of airplane mode to text Mike and let him know I was slowing down and taking a break. My phone immediately starting dinging, and dinging, and dinging, as I was inundated with well wishes and cheer from friends back home—I cannot describe how uplifting it was to see those come in. I then filled the OR ActiveIce Ubertube (aka a special-fabric buff) Heidi had loaned me with ice. That ended up being a lifesaver!

From there, the trail remained rocky. And then it got rockier. Seriously.

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There were a few rocks.

As we neared Black Canyon City, I finally fully understood the name of the trail and area. Ahead the bluff was a solid black rock: the sun reflected off of it, and it was really quite pretty. Just past that bluff was a muddy river crossing. I really didn’t want to get my feet wet and resigned myself to it anyway as I watched others plod through, but a guy in a green shirt showed me a way across just downstream, and I kept my feet dry. (Thanks Green Shirt Guy!) By now, we also had made it down to saguaro country. I tried to get good photos of them, but mostly wanted to keep moving. The one time I did stop completely, a guy ran into the middle of my picture. Ergh.

Finally, I hit the downhill to Black Canyon City. Downhill is always awesome! … except when you know it’s an out-and-back and you’re gonna have to turn around and go back up it.

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Coming into Black Canyon Aid Station. I’m behind Green Shirt Guy.

Black Canyon Aid Station was a mental test. First, it marked the end of the 60K course, so there were all these runners eating pizza, drinking beer, and sharing “my race is done” trail stories, but I wasn’t done. I tried to take it as a power anthem: you’re not done because you’re totally badass and going the full distance. That didn’t really work—I just wanted to be done and join the party! Also, shortly before my arrival, Abby had biffed on rocks in the parking lot (have I mentioned yet that there were lots of rocks?) and skinned basically her entire right knee. Mike had taken her to the first aid tent and they’d done a nice job of cleaning her up and bandaging her, but there were still crocodile tears pouring out now and again. She told me she just wanted to go back to the hotel, and going back out on the course was a serious battle of personal commitment and mommy instinct—I wanted to take care of my baby!

But back out I went. I was over halfway, and I was determined to finish!

Section 3: Black Canyon City to Table Mesa—miles 37.4 to 50.9

After leaving the aid station stocked with pretzels, vanilla gu, and oyster crackers, as well as extra water and Tailwind as the next aid station was nearly 9 miles ahead, I started climbing. I knew I had an immediate climb up what I had descended; what I didn’t know was that past the out and back there was a lot more climbing. I was a little worried about pushing hard on the climbs and not having enough for the finish, so another woman and I buddied up for the next hour or so. Chatting with someone else helped pass the time and it was fun to share stories of her trail adventures near her hometown of Calgary and talk about our favorite races.

Once the climbing was done I kicked into running again. But, oy! the rocks! My feet were pretty unhappy, and my fear of stumbling grew as my legs tired. I had seen many people with scrapes from falling on rocks throughout the day (and Mike said he saw several people at the Black Canyon first aid station getting cactus pulled out—ouch!) and I really really didn’t want to become another statistic. So, power walking to the beat of tunes provided by my bootcamp coach when it was rocky or uphill, and shuffle running through a growing blister and aching feet when it wasn’t—that became the name of the game.

The sun set and headlamps came out, making the rocks appear even more treacherous. But the sun setting brought the gift of colors in the sky, and the darkness brought out stars that were huge in the deep dark of the desert and a sliver of a crescent moon that took forever to set on the western horizon. I think my favorite thing running through this part of trail in the dark was the forests of saguaro cacti, silhouetted by the sky and sometimes illuminated in the beam of my headlamp.

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For a time I was running alone, and then I briefly joined another group of runners. One woman and I speculated on how much farther that next aid station would be—this would be a very long nearly 9 miles for many of us!—she was out of water and despite stocking up for this section I was running low. Here we heard what we thought were people cheering and we got excited thinking the aid station would be just around the next bend, but no, it was a pack of coyotes howling. Dammit! But, finally we saw it, and we were all so happy.

The bit between Cottonwood Gulch and Table Mesa is a blur. I remember lots of rocks and consequently lots of walking. I remember needing to pee and—keeping in mind Ana’s story of getting prickers from a bush in her pants at Javelina that she shared at a recent Boldly Went storytelling event in Seattle—looking for a spot well away from anything that looked sharp, and then stumbling straight into two bushes in the dark before I got my lights back on. Doh! I remember two guys ahead of me suddenly stumbling around trying to find the trail, and how much they appreciated my timely arrival and call of “trail’s over here!” I also met a guy from Wisconsin at some point; he asked if I was focused on a sub-17 and I remember saying “I have no idea anymore, I just want to finish!”

Finally, Table Mesa—and my family—appeared out of the darkness. I dropped my pack, told Mike exactly what I wanted (pretzels, 1 gu, oyster crackers, 2 waters and 1 Tailwind, nothing else), and headed to a porta pot to pee. (Apparently, after getting behind on fluids after Bumble Bee, I had finally caught back up!) And in the porta pot, I leaned my head in my hands and briefly let myself cry. I wanted to be done so badly, and my feet were just worked from the rocks. I got myself together, had a cup of ramen noodles and broth (soooo good!), and headed back out. It was a glorious moment to hug each of my kids and Mike and say, “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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Meg’s there to greet me as I come in to Table Mesa Aid Station. I don’t think I’ve seen her yet and I clearly am pretty beat at this point.

Section 4: Table Mesa to finish line—miles 50.9 to 62

I now had a 7.7-mile section to Doe Spring, and then a 3.6 mile final section to the finish line. Oddly, I had passed a few people between the top of the climb out of Black Canyon and before Table Mesa, and again I passed some folks. It was like a snail race! Once again coyotes serenaded from the surrounding hillsides. The crescent moon glowed red as it finally made its final descent beyond the horizon. Crickets chirped. I peed somewhere off the trail again.

And then there was rustling in a big bush of some sort right beside the trail. My first thought? Oh my gawd, it’s a javelina! Now, seriously, I have no idea why that was my first thought, but it was. I quickly turned my head, and there was a cow munching on that bush. I laughed at myself, and enjoyed the rush of positive energy that came from laughter. I’m such a dork!

I ran with the guy from Wisconsin for much of this final section, and he commented that it looked like I was going to get my sub-17 after all. I was pleased, but more than anything I was happy that I was going to finish this crazy endeavor I had set out on. I was creating new curse words for every rock I encountered in the trail (owie owie owie), but outside of that I took time to look up in the sky and marvel over the brilliance of the stars, and I shined my light up and down saguaros that caught my attention. It was miserable and mystical and exhilarating at the same time.

At Doe Spring aid station, I inhaled a cup of ramen and broth—briefly stopping to eject a moth that flew into my cup—and then set out for my final 3.6 miles. At first the trail was a relatively smooth dirt road: could it be that I was done with rocks and could run it in to the finish?! Dammit, no, the trail once again cut off onto a final section of single track and I was back to powerwalking and trying to avoid kicking rocks.

But now there were more smooth sections, and Wisconsin guy and I could hear a generator in the distance. Could that be it?! Are those cheers or more coyotes?! Finally, it was real: there was the finish! In the last 50 yards, Wisconsin and I passed two more guys, and then I stopped just before the finish line to call for Meg, and they passed me as I waited for her and I lost two places (oh well!), and then Meg and I ran across the finish line together. Mike gave me a huge hug, Abby gave me a huge hug, someone gave me my finisher’s belt buckle, a photo was taken, and then I fell apart. It was a happy and relieved and exhausted kind of falling apart though!

Postmortem

My brother said the funniest thing to me yesterday, as he watched me struggle to walk into a restaurant at the hotel we’re staying at. He said, “It’s amazing that you’re in such good shape that you can hurt yourself so badly.” It’s one of those oxymoronic statements that capture ultra running so perfectly. This run hurt a lot: but it also gave a lot.

We get to run in beautiful places, and because we go far, we get to see a lot in a shorter period of time. I went through several microclimates, saw different flora (no fauna except the cow), and saw incredible rock formations.

I was able to prove to myself that I could turn my experiences, especially last year’s struggles, into lessons learned that allowed me to perform better and do something harder than I’d done before. When I couldn’t find my inner bunny last fall, I was worried—but I think I found a stronger bunny (or am I carrying this whole bunny thing too far?). I definitely found a stronger me through this journey.

And best of all, I got to share it with my family. Training for ultras often means long periods away from them. I feel selfish sometimes, pursuing a sport that takes me away on weekends, something that I rarely share with them directly. To have Mike and the girls there, and seeing their joy for me, simply amplified my personal joy and made it a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Oh, and my friends back home? From prerace notes and gifts, to those goofy heads on a stick, to a postrace care package and notes of caring, to finding out Mike was managing an all-day text stream updating them on my progress along with all the messages I received directly with all those dings on my phone up at Soap Creek—just wow! I am so lucky! Mike said, “You have a lot of friends, Ellen,” and I said, “And they’re freaking awesome!”

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