Friday, March 3, 2017

Black Canyon 100k: More and Less Than I Bargained For

“By seeking and blundering we learn.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As February 18th, 2017, the day of the Black Canyon 100k, rapidly approached, a multitude of challenges began popping up. The first was a lingering cold which first appeared at the beginning of December, just as training was ramping up (since I decided to run this early December), but lingered in my lungs and sinuses nine weeks later. Second, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago (Time's-a-Tickin') came in the form of a nasty fall on the ice at the end of one of my best trail runs this winter. This, two weeks before race day. After trying to run with a busted up tailbone and sacrum, I made the decision to stop running for eight days - until the starters gun went off.  And then the final ominous sign came in the form of an unprecedented storm forecasted to bring over an inch and a half of rain to the already saturated desert and with that a last minute change of course.

The week leading up to the race consisted of a lot of swimming for the sake of my sanity, a multitude of visits to my chiropractor, sinus flushing and sudefed swallowing, and an over the top case of obsessive compulsive weather checking disorder (OCWCD). I installed four different weather apps and checked them desperately for some tiny signs of hope. I hemmed-and-hawed about whether to take the DNS and move on. I vacillated back and forth - weighing the pros and cons of pressing on with plans. The cons were clearly ahead on all counts but the passional ones. Ultimately rationality gave way to desire, and though I knew that the rational thing was to pull out, save the money, heal up completely, I could not let it go. I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.

We land in Phoenix greeted by blue skies and mild temps. It's almost unimaginable that things will turn so dramatically so fast. I keep hoping as I tap Weather Underground...NOAA...Accuweather...All tell me that my empirically supported hopes are for naught. As the day progresses, the precipitation totals climb and spread across the entire day of the race.

We make the best of the two days of nice weather, freaking perfect weather, hiking and even visiting the zoo (and yes. I did walk too much!)

And then the alarm buzzes me awake at 5a.m.  I hear the rain coming down in the darkness outside. I drink some coffee, eat a bar, dress, gather my dropbags. We drive through dumping rain as we climb the 4000 feet to the start of the race 50 minutes away. Lightening flashes, brightening the still dark morning sky. We get to Mayer High School, I toss my bags on their designated piles sitting out in the rain and head into the gym which is packed with runners and others. I have enough time to pee and get my shoes on and then we are called out into the cold, dark, wetness onto the track for the start.

Keep in mind that I have not run a step in eight days and I actually have no idea how my tailbone/pelvis will feel. My husband takes a quick shot of me and then he and my daughter, still in her PJs, head for refuge in the car.

I wish Clare Gallagher (who's there to earn a Golden Ticket into Western States) good luck, and she wishes me good luck as I laugh nervously...and then there's the countdown and we're off. A lap around the track and then off through town on the muddy dirt roads.

Miracle of miracles, my tailbone/pelvis feels totally fine and I have not forgotten how to run, which given what I am about to face, is very good thing.

A couple miles in we leave the roads for the 'trail' which consists of a path through what appears to be a cow field.

The mud is as deep as I've ever seen, swallowing our shoes while adding what feels like, 15 pounds to each step. We slip and slide, side to side, looking for the best way through it. There is no "best way". This lasts for the first 7+ miles until we hit the Antelope Mesa aid station. The rain pours down on us but I find a few seconds of reprieve in the porto potty. From here, we head onto single track trail.

Thus far, I've 'met' two women (hard to know who you're talking to when you are covered from head to toe): Lynette and Mindy. During races like this, we develop these weird friendships and connections with total strangers. Sometimes they last well beyond the race. You learn a lot about people you are in close proximity to during ultras. You talk and get through tough parts together. It is one of the things I love about ultras.

This next section is the fastest part of the course going out since it's mostly sand, and though it's saturated and puddly, it's more runnable than the sticky, slippery, ankle deep mud.

We reach the mile 21.5, the Hidden Treasure Mine aid station where our first drop bags are. It's such a cluster because there's no place that's dry. Everyone's trying to change and restock inside the too small tent and smaller covered overhang. I do my best to change out of my sodden shirt, placing my drenched Houdini jacket back on saving the jacket packed away for the nighttime return trip. Everything is mud and water. As I peruse the AS goodies I start coughing a hard, painful cough. It's almost embarrassing, it sounds so awful. I'm afraid one of the medics patching up a woman's leg is going to question me - so I try to keep it on the down-low. I've had a cough, off and on, for a while, but it never felt like this and the tightness in my chest is worrying. As I leave the AS I take it very slow, trying to see if it will loosen up. After a mile or so, I feel okay, but still a little concerned.

And so we slog on. At this point I'm running with a group of guys. The trail has returned to mud and rocks. One guy is ahead of me and a bunch are close behind. I hate running in front of people because it messes with my ability to adjust to terrain. I mention, "Let me know if you want to get by" to the the footsteps behind me. "Nope. You're fine". But it never feels fine. At each uphill I catch up to the guy in front and then each downhill he pounds down, gaining ground...repeat...repeat...repeat. He asks several times if I want to go by, "Nope. You'll leave me in the dust on the downhill." The problem is that my funky knee/shin has started bothering me - the same pain I had at Kettle 100 and at Des Plaines 50 last year. At Kettle it hit around mile 45. At Des Plains it hit around 25. Now I am feeling it at 16. The constant ups and downs help, but I'm worried. This damn thing NEVER bothers me in training. It didn't bother me at Leadville. It's so unpredictable and no one can figure it out. This makes trail negotiation a little tricky than I'd like.

At this point I have seen many bloodied runners. Each bloody knee and muddy torso serves as a cautionary tale. By mile 20 I've had only one adrenaline rushing toe catch. Somewhere in mile 24 I go down, rolling a bit off the trail and down a slope, hitting my knee, thigh, cheekbone and the bone above my eye. I sit for a moment assessing the damage and cursing my stupidity as other runners trot by asking if I'm okay. I don't know if I'm okay. My cheek is throbbing and there blood running down my leg. Thankfully the next AS is just about a half mile away. As I jog on, I first think, "Oh screw this. I'm just done." But by the time I get to the Gloriana Mine AS I am determined to run the effing race. The medics see me coming and immediately take me into their tent. They clean me up, check for concussion signs and say I'm good to go, and that they don't want to see me again. There are drop bags here so I change my socks and shoes for the first time which almost feels luxurious.

From here it's 7+ miles to the turn around. The bummer about this alternate course is that it's a net drop of almost 4000 feet for the first 50k and the same gain for the second 50k (though some claim it is actually 6000 each way). As I leave the AS Mindy catches back up to me. I'm walking, trying to shake the stiffness out of me damaged body parts, and let her pass. I slowly start running again. I turn a corner, and see another woman I've been yo-yo-ing with sitting by the trail. I can see a deep gash in her hand and leg. I ask if I can help, but she says no. She hit her head hard and knows she is done and will go back to the aid station a half mile back. Once I get moving again I realize that my fall seems to have made my knee/shin thing go away. Bodies are so very weird.

And so we move on. The skies actually lighten up for about 2 hours giving a false hope that the worst is over.

I get to the turn around after a long long decent and turn to head back home. It's always a lift to make that turn, no longer moving farther away from where you want to go. Mindy and I have been yo-yo-ing some (she is better on the downhills and I'm feeling better on the ups) since mile 24. It's nice to have a friendly face around. As we make our way up the long climb I see few runners. About 3 miles into the climb I pass another woman in a red plastic poncho. I never get her name, but she will figure into the story from here on, and later...

I get back to Gloriana Mine (mile 37.7) grab my handheld Nathan light, a beanie, a couple gels, some cookies, PB&Js and head out. I see Mindy meeting up with her crew. All Smiles and cheer. I head out alone and for this whole stretch, between Gloriana Mine and Bumble Bee (42.2) I see no one. The low dark clouds move back in and in a blink the rain is pounding down again. It is torrential now and the wind starts picking up a bit. The last mile before hitting Bumble Bee is a challenge of what looks to be sandstone (or conglomerate) slabs of rock and rivers of water. The wind now is piercing. And as I jog into Bumble Bee I am feeling the first signs of hypothermia.

I get to the AS and find the tent chock-full of runners trying to warm themselves enough to get to the next AS. It's 7.5 miles to our next drop bags, but now it's dark and cold and drenching. My waterproof jacket is at that AS but I'm not sure I can make it to there. I'm talking with a woman who is equally concerned. Mindy comes into the tent followed by her crew with a bag of supplies. She has a plastic poncho and I jokingly ask, "I don't suppose you have another one of those?" She doesn't, but offers me a "Disney' heat sheet. I jump at it like a starving, desperate person grasping for something...anything. As I listen to the rain pounding down on the tent, I take my hydration vest off, wrap myself in the heat sheet and place the vest on top of that. I then wish all my compatriots well, and head out into the cold darkening skies.

I am still fine running if I can run, and I do run once I find the trail. Those 7+ miles seem to take an eternity as the darkness gets darker and the rain pours down harder. Three guys pass me and I stick with them for several miles. It's a party of two runners and a pacer and one runner isn't looking great, but they're soldering on.

We get to Hidden Treasure Mine (48.9 miles) and I grab my sodden dropbag. If Only I had a fresh, warm shirt, but the only shirt I have is the drenched one I left here at 12.5 miles. I grab my headlamp, change jackets, adding my waterproof Brooks jacket over my wet tech shirt, I change socks and shoes, now switching from Altra Superiors to PIs, suck down a lot of hot broth, burning my tongue but I don't honestly care. I'm talking to a woman named Betty who offers me another heat sheet. I almost don't take it, thinking I'm good - I have one. But I'm not at all good, and have the good sense to accept her generosity. As I sit there trying to get my shit together, I look at at row of runners, 6 or 7 of them, sitting behind the AS table. Their eyes are blank. They aren't there anymore. I look at them, probably too long, and I don't want to be them but I know I'm very close.

I set out for the last AS, 5+ miles away feeling okay but not great. I almost can't find the trail (this happens on several occasions and many runners did go off course). My donated Disney heat sheet has now been made into a skirt as my featherweight shorts are proving to be a liability. A little while later Mindy and her pacer are behind me. We talk for a bit. I thank her for saving my bacon with the heat sheet, and we run on. I don't want to hold them up and I also don't want to lose them but I ask if they want to pass, but they're okay and we run together for a while. At some point I let them pass and stick with them. Mindy is wearing a sparkly skirt which is easy to follow in the dark. She was smart enough to add pants under her skirt back at Bumble Bee. I lose contact with them for a while but as the wind increases, I catch back up to them.

At this point my watch has died, so I'm not sure how far we have to go to Antelope Mesa (mile 54.1), but we've been moving for what seems like hours. The wind picks up ferociously, like a train screaming through sodden desert. The rain is coming down sideways and I'm trying to figure out if it's turned to snow (which was predicted). My heat sheet skirt wraps around and clings to my legs making it impossible to run. I have no choice but to hold it up with both hands making running awkwardly and exposing my legs to the frigid winds. I attempt to open the extra heat sheet to wrap around my upper body just to see if I can calm my chattering teeth and recoup some body heat which seems to be gone for good.

At this point we've become a congo line of bedraggled runners, trudging our way toward the AS somewhere out in the darkness. We look like refugees fleeing some unknown, but horrendous, fate...

I finally see the glowing light of the tent off in the distance. I try to keep moving as fast as possible just to generate heat, but it's nearly impossible in these conditions. As I enter the tent, jam packed with runners and volunteers, I head for the double propane heater in a futile attempt to warm myself as the winds buffet the tent walls. I can not stop shaking. I ask for soup but my hands shake too violently for me to get it to my mouth. I try to settle my mind and get my bearings. It's about 9:20 pm. I have plenty of time to make the 12:00am WSER 17 hour cut off IF I can get moving now. But I'm in no shape to head out yet.

I know that the last 7 miles begins along an exposed ridge-line with very deep mud for the first 3-4 miles. Between the wind, the cold, the rain, the mud, and my foggy head I know that this could take a good chunk of time. The thought of being out there alone, in the condition I find myself now, strikes me as foolhardy.

Mindy's crew is getting her set to head back out. I want to stick with them, but I know I can't leave in this condition. One of her friends comes into the tent with two arm-fulls of coats - Big, fat, warm coats. I look at them longingly and think: "This is not the race to try to do alone. Not today." Mindy and her pacer head off into the cold darkness, but I stay behind huddled around the heater...

At this point there are 5 five of us considering our options. One woman, the woman in the red, plastic poncho who I've passed and who has passed me several dozen times over the last 20 or so miles, is in slightly better shape than me, but decides that she won't go on because she is confident that the sub-17 is out of reach given the trail conditions and her condition. She disappears with her sister for the car ride to the finish. I try to hold onto hope. I try to warm myself so that I can get going - I need to go now - but it's just not happening fast enough. My running body is not the problem right now - I can still run - but can I run in these conditions? And if I can't, what will happen to me out there?

This leaves myself and three other guys:
One is a local runner who has run this race several times.
Another is from Canada who has traveled a long way with high hopes.
The third is a 62 year-old from Oklahoma. He says: "This is probably my last chance for a WS lottery ticket. I ran Western States years ago. I wanted it to be my last 100." We try to cheer him up with stories of many runners older than him running WS. "Some can do it. I can't."

At some point I can see that I am running out of time. I weigh the risks of going for the finish for the sake of the finish. At that time, given how I feel, I decide that the risks are too great. Additionally I can't see keeping my family waiting until 3 am, if necessary. The volunteer asks if I am dropping. I nod, but say nothing, returning my gaze to the glowing heater.

We then wait another hour before someone can get out to bring us in...I am still hit with bouts of uncontrollable shaking.

As we drive back, I'm in the front seat. The heat is blasting. The driver asks:
"Are you number 225?"
"Yes. Why?"
"I was just talking to your husband."
"Really? I'm surprised he's there already."

As I walk into the bustling gym, Peter and Sophia spot me, wrapped in two heat sheets and covered in mud. They are all smiles and my daughter runs up and hugs me hard. They think I've finished. As I deliver the bad news, my husband tells me that they received an update from Ultrasignup hours ago that I had finished, 9th woman in 11:48. When they arrived they couldn't find me. The race had no idea where I was (though I was very careful to check into every aid station). No one knew where I was. My daughter was beside herself, upset that she would never see me again. They heard that many had gone off course and that there were exposed parts of the trail.

My daughter doesn't care that I DNFed. She just wants me.

I find my bag and see that there is a message from one of the race people asking me to call and another message from my husband asking where I am. I see a ton of messages congratulating me on an amazing race. I see Facebook threads where people are calling me: "badass", "amazing", "inspiring"...etc. Ugggggg. This is NOT helping.

As we drive the 50 miles back to the hotel my cough has returned with a vengeance - Deep, raspy and painful. It's midnight but I take a hot shower and get into bed, but I don't sleep.

In the dark I think about all the things I could have done...all the things I should have done:

1) I should have had better clothing options. I was under-prepared for this. I tend to run warm and have plenty of experience running in the cold and the wet - but nothing had prepared me for what happened after the sun went down.

2) I should have asked the other woman who dropped if she wanted to try to go together. Though she had crew, she also had no pacer. We were both scared to go out there alone. Together we might have made it.

3) Always ask for what you might need at an AS. They may just have what you need. After dropping, while waiting for the the ride back, a runner came in and asked if they had trash-bags. Sure enough they had an ample supply. For some time I had been eyeing the black Heftys full of trash, tempted to ask if I could empty one and use it. After sitting in the tent for an hour, seeing this trash-bag, draped over a runner heading out to finish, I just wanted to slap myself. I wanted to say, "Wait. I don't want to drop. I want to go.", but it was too late.

4) Try not to get sucked into what others are dealing with. It is very hard to make clear choices when everyone around you is in the same place. I should have already decided, before the race began, if just getting the finish mattered. At that time it didn't. It does now.

And all through the night, these thoughts drifted through my mind. I leave with nothing. Nothing but cuts, bruises, pounded muscles, aching lungs, and absolutely zero to show for it.

I cried a lot for the next couple days. I desperately looked for a race to redeem myself, but the options are few given that most are already full. I came to the uncomfortable realization that now all my eggs are in the Leadville basket - something that both terrifies me and motivates me. I really wish that things had gone differently, but I know I did my best at the time. Unfortunately my best was not good enough.

And since there is nothing I can do about that now I have only one reasonable option: Learn (again) from my mistakes and try to use these lessons to do better in the future. There's always something positive to take away from an experience.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” ~ John Dewey

(Photo credits: Many of the race shots were taken by MindyPrzeor)


  1. Caolan - I'm the woman in the red plastic poncho! (My name is Katrina, nice to formally meet you btw.) This was an excellent and heartbreaking race recap. I remember looking at your heat blanket wrapped around your legs in those final miles we did and thinking "How is she still standing?!" It was so cold, even after I had changed into leggings at mile 42. I also had the same thoughts about asking you if you wanted to go together (I was terrified of getting lost out there alone too) - but I think I had that thought after I had mentally DNF'ed. I actually sat in my sister's car for about 15-20 minutes trying to convince myself to go on, but it was no use, I was done. I remember seeing you after dropping in the high school and telling you I did not regret dropping, but less than a day later I did. It's still heartbreaking, we were so close. I'll carry that feeling with me into all my future races, and also not be afraid to ask if someone wants to run together in a tough spot again.

    I'll be cheering you on from afar for Leadville!

    Here's my recap - echoes much of what you said

    1. For what it's worth, that line going into the last AS is also what killed me. That's when I tried to open the extra heat sheet I had and tried in the pouring rain to wrap myself in it since I knew I was losing the last of my body heat too quickly. Also, I am also a vegetarian (not vegan) but I drank the damn soup ;)


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