Friday, May 29, 2015

Grand Canyon 100 - 2015

After a decent performance at Collegiate Peaks, I felt ready to tackle my 5th 100 miler of the year - Ultra Adventures Grand Canyon Ultra.

The forecast kept changing dramatically over the 10 days prior to the race, though the last report looked pretty favorable, with temps in the 50’s and only a 20% chance of precipitation, so that’s what I packed for.

I spent the night at a truck stop in Green River, periodically awoken by the sounds of wind, heavy rain, and hail.  It all stopped by morning, but driving down I-70, all the typically dry drainages were flowing with muddy runoff.  As I started heading south, towards the North Rim, another front moved through and I found myself driving through an outright blizzard.  The roads were soon covered with a few inches of slush and the large, wet flakes greatly reduced visibility.  These conditions seemed to be spotty and luckily never got much worse.  By the time I made it to the Kaibab Lodge, the ground was covered with a couple of inches of snow, which continued to intermittently fall throughout the rest of the day.

The start area was a bit of a muddy mess with all the moisture.  I staked out a close by spot to car camp and found Matt to offer my services.  He put me in charge of directing incoming vehicles for parking, check-in and camping.  Poor Matt was not having a great day.  His little chiwawa stepped on the door lock button of his truck (in which Matt had left his keys).  A coat hanger, wooden shims, and lots of prying by the two of us was futile.  He eventually called AAA, and despite their impressive 1 hour estimate, it was a couple of hours by the time the guy showed up.  It took him about 30 seconds to unlock the truck, and then 20 minutes to do all the paperwork (that’s where all of the membership fees go).

Meanwhile, a couple of Park rangers showed up and had us move every single vehicle out of the start area due to concerns for the soft, saturated ground.  It made sense to not allow any additional vehicles, but moving the existing ones seemed rather pointless to me.

Being the parking attendant gave me the opportunity to meet lots of new runners, as well as seeing some old friends, but after standing around for 5+ hours in soaking feet and blowing snow, I cried uncle and had someone relieve me so that I could fuel up, dry off, and warm up.

The local forecast for race day seemed to be quite different from what I had gotten earlier.  The chance for precipitation was much higher and I was wishing I had packed even more stuff.  After a very cold pre-race briefing, I re-packed some of the drop bags, ate a dessert pizza and headed to my car for the night.  I was pretty comfortable until the wee hours of the morning, when my covers just weren’t holding in enough heat.  When my alarm finally went off at 5:00AM, I woke up to temperatures in the 20’s and 4+ fresh inches of snow on the car.  I seriously questioned my choice of starting out in shorts.

Thankfully, Matt sent Rick out ahead of the runners with an ATV to break trail in the fresh snow up to the second aid station.  In the high, shaded areas, the bottom of the ATV was scraping the snow.  Not that I would have been out front, but breaking through that would not have been fun for any runner starting out a 50 or 100 mile race.

After about a mile of climbing, we started a nice downhill that lasted almost until Stina.  I can’t tell you how much of a blast it was running this section.  The snow (compressed by the ATV wheels) was just perfect for cruising.  I chatted with various runners along the way, and all enjoyed the scenery but most didn’t like running in the snow.  This was one of my favorite bits of running though unfortunately, I probably went a bit faster than I should have because I was having such a good time.

Now, I’ve got an iron stomach, but typically watch what I eat during a race.  Sure, I indulge in copious amounts of Doritos, cheese quesadillas, birthday cake, etc., but hey, that’s normal, right?  Well, 5.5 miles into a 100 miler, in ankle deep snow, and subfreezing temperatures, I poked my head into the first aid station at Dry Park Lakes when lo and behold, they were taking chewy, sizzling strips of bacon off the griddle.  Even an almost-vegan like me couldn’t possibly resist.  I headed back out with two scalding strips slithering part way out of my mouth, and two more clutched in my greasy gloves.  What better way to battle the wintery conditions?  My mouth is watering just writing bout it.

As if Matt wasn’t having enough fun with his dog locking the truck, rangers dispersing our car camping area and weather induced course changes, when we finally arrived at the Stina aid station (one of the main ones, as the 100 milers would be hitting it 3 times), nothing was there, except a big tent with a whole lot of water (as if we didn’t have enough on the trail and in our shoes).  There were no drop bags, no supplies.  Apparently, one of the trucks broke down.  A few of the surrounding runners were in a bit of a tizzy, but I still had an unused nut butter in my pocket, smiled, and soldiered on.  When ginormous organizations like Competitor screws up a Rock n’ Roll event, I have no patience or sympathy.  When shit happens on an adventure race in remote venues, you gotta just roll with it.  15 miles into a 100 mile race is no time to get flustered and negative.  Everyone else is dealing with the same difficulties, so we’re all equally inconvenienced.  How one reacts is what can give you a competitive advantage, or run the rest of the day.
So, on I went towards Stina Point, with a positive attitude (and doubly glad I had eaten all that bacon) until we hit the mud - what the …, son of a …., #(*&^%**&^%^&&^.  My shoes, socks and feet were already sloshing around after all the snow running, but this was the sticky, slick, nasty kind of mud that you slide around on when going up or down hill, and that you lose your shoes in on the flats.  My positive attitude was quickly dissipating.

Luckily, the mud sections were relatively short and the magnificent views of the Canyon that greeted us at the turn-a-round made it all worth while.  The other nice part about this out-and-back was getting to see more runners than just the few that were going the same pace as me.  Even though it was so early on, I couldn’t help but count the number of 100 milers ahead of me (surprisingly only 5).  I was a little curious as to not having seen Katrin since the Squaw Canyon aid station.  Part way back, I saw her up ahead.  I could tell something was up and instead of the typical “looking good, great job, etc.” type of crap, I asked her how she was doing.  I was a bit worried to hear that she had taken a bad fall and probably bruised a rib.  As it turned out, she made it to the point, and then dropped when she returned to the Stina aid station - bummer, but a smart decision, especially from someone stubborn enough to have run the last 75 miles of a 100 miler on a severely sprained ankle.

Second time at Stina, they had some gels and a bag full of trail mix, but not much more, and no drop bags.  I stowed a gel for later (yuck) and grabbed a handful of trail mix as I left.  The course continued down the road for a couple of miles and I almost missed the left turn onto the trail.  It was marked about as well as it could be, but I had my head down, stuffing my jacket away - can’t blame anyone for my own stupidity.

From here, the course followed a really nice single track trail for over 20 miles - the kind of stuff that trail running is all about.  The ground was dry, the profile was gently rolling, and there were intermittent views of the Canyon.  What more could anyone ask for?  Even the weather was perfect.  Clouds rolled in and out, but never dropped more than a few, barely perceptible sprinkles.

I was happy to finally make it to North Timp and access a drop bag again.  I switched to lighter gloves, picked up some portable snacks, and dropped off my shirt (though I did keep the light jacket stuffed in the waistband of my shorts, just in case).  I had already gotten lots of friendly flak for wearing a shirt this far.  Now I felt light and free, enjoying the perfect running temperature.

To the weary mind and body of an ultra runner, pronouncing Parisawampitts is just too much of a challenge, so it took on slight deviation to Paris Hilton’s Armpits.  Most of the innocent bystanders thought I was just slurring my speech in between stuffing my face full of aid station food, but a few found humor in it.

The stretch from Paris Hilton’s Armpits to Crazy Jug was noted as having some “tough scrambling sections”.  I was expecting rock scrambling type of stuff, but it turned out to be much more brutal - a series of extremely steep descents and climbs.  On the way back, an oncoming runner asked me about the “game trails”.  I laughed.  “Are you kidding me?  Game trails are easy.  Humans are the only animals stupid enough to take this route.”

The descents were steep and loose.  The climbs were steep and loose.  The “trail” only got looser as more runners went through.  Sometimes I try to imagine the looks on Matt and Rick’s faces as they’re coming up with these courses.  I see a little devil on one shoulder saying “yes, let’s make it tough” and then another devil on the other shoulder chiming in “no, it’s not tough enough, make it tougher.”  Where is the angel in all of this?

One of the bright spots was that the route was very clearly marked - probably because Rick was tired of carrying all of those flags up and down these dog-awful slopes.  I was lucky to be “running” (falling down and crawling up) this stuff in full daylight.  I felt for the poor souls who would have to negotiate this stuff in the dark.

The other thing that kept me moving through this section was Ozzy Osbourne - “running off the trails, onto Crazy Jug” (are you singin’ it with me?).  The volume was cranked way up in my head for the full 5.5 miles, each way.  It seemed so obvious, even though I was never a huge Ozzy fan, but when I tried to relay it to the volunteers and spectators at the aid station, they gave me that “oh, you poor dumb, bastard, you’ve really lost it now” look.

After Crazy Jug, we had an out-and-back section to Monument Point.  This was my first chance to gauge my placement since Stina Point.  A couple of miles out from the end, I came up on the leader, and very shortly after him, I came upon Sam Reed and another guy.  I was expecting Sam to win this thing, so was a little surprised to see him comfortably hanging back.  I was quite pleased when Garrett Froelich and I came upon the hole punch without seeing any additional runners.  Him and I had been exchanging positions for the past 15+ miles.  We hit the turn-a-around pretty close together and thereafter, I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting him to overtake me again, but luckily he didn’t.

I was pretty happy to be in 4th place at the halfway point, and only an hour behind the three leaders, all bunched up.  I was running a pretty smart race and figured I had a decent chance to catch someone.

The return was nice because the out and back format allowed a great opportunity to see all the other runners for a good 10 miles.

By Paris Hilton’s Armpits, I was still about an hour behind the 3 leaders - hey, at least I wasn’t losing any ground.  6.5 miles later, at Fence Point, I was still an hour behind the leader, but number 2 was only 40 minutes ahead and number 3 was down to 25 minutes.  Holy cow, I knew I had been running well, but this was quite unexpected.  All of a sudden, I was in real contention for the podium.  Despite knowing better, I started counting the chickens, though the eggs had hardly been laid.  I had visions of not just 3rd place, but an easy 2nd place.  It was all right there within my grasp.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached North Timp, their leads had all increased, and I was getting tired.

North Timp to Stina seemed to take forever.  I was pretty slow on the uphills, and even though I still had some leg speed for the descents, there weren't enough of those to make a difference.  The dry trails changed back to spotty mud and increasing snow as I climbed up towards Squaw Canyon.  I wasn’t having the strong finish I had hoped for, but my overall timing was still decent, so I tried to stay positive.

The temperature must have really dropped as everything was covered with sparkling ice crystals and much of the mud was frozen solid.  The stars were spectacular, and kept me company on these lonely miles, with no human contact, other than at the aid stations.  A pacer would have been quite nice, but oh well, I this is what I had signed up for.

I was a bit disoriented and even though I knew the final mile was downhill, wasn’t quite clear on where I was, until I saw the lights from the campground near the finish.  The course was about 5 miles short by my GPS, but I was darn happy to be done.  I was 4th overall and finished in 20:40, much better than the 7th placing and 25+ hours that UltraSignup predicted for me.  It wasn’t quite a perfect race, as I didn’t finish nearly as strong as I would have liked, but my actual pace/mile was within 1 second of what I had predicted/hoped for on my spreadsheet.  That, in itself, was a pretty nice accomplishment.  I’m certainly not the best runner out there, but I’m probably the best at estimating my performance (at least when things go reasonably well).  I missed the podium by about 30 minutes, and that was probably a good thing, as I was getting way too cocky when I had a few good miles and temporarily made up time on the leaders.

This was another awesome Ultra Adventures race and Matt and his crew did an amazing job, especially given the weather and other unforeseen circumstances.  I had a blast, and as the 4th UA 100 in as many months, each one has been such a unique experience.  Who would have thought to expect snow and wintery conditions in Arizona in the middle of May?  The volunteers were spectacular and the aid station food was really, really good.  The course was lots of fun.  The snowy downhill was an absolute blast and the single track along the rim was classic trail running.  Views of one of the seven natural wonders of the world were icing on the cake.

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