Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bryce 100 Trail Run Race Report

Two of the three hundred mile runs I completed prior to Bryce 100 were in Utah – and with Southern Utah being one of my favorite places to visit it was hard to pass up the opportunity to run the inaugural Bryce 100 when my running buddy Howard, whom I had met at the Grand Mesa 50 in Colorado last July, showed interest and signed up.

I met Howard at Bryce Canyon in time for a quick traipse around the course en route to packet pick-up at Kings Creek Aid Station which we would cross during the race around mile 90. Howard was going for his first 100 mile finish – and we were going to battle the course as a team to get him his first belt buckle. The race course was as advertised – scenic. We hit several aid stations – Crawford turnaround (mile 50), Blubber Creek (mile 26 and mile 74) – and saw directional signs for crews to a few others.  We both commented on how much better we felt having seen some of the course ahead of time – as if viewing an aid station gave us some type of mental edge. It sounds trivial – but it did seem to help.

Packet pick-up was smooth and the weather was great – no wind and warm temps in the low 70’s. I picked up an extra hat and Howard purchased a few extra shirts as souvenirs and for bragging collateral – already anticipating a finish before it happened. I thought this was a good sign – he was already in a good frame of mind and had a positive attitude. He anticipated finishing.  We laid down our drop bags in the appropriate locations – and headed back to the hotel and found a pizza place to grab a quick bite. Extremely greasy, thick crusted pizza which was very welcomed – particularly considering I hadn’t eaten many carbs leading up to the race in hopes that I could somehow trick my body to burn more fat for fuel.

I managed some ZzZ’s before getting up a little before 4am. We headed to the start/finish, huddled around the fire pit in the dark watching the sky gradually get lighter – and headed off on the trail when it was light enough to run without a headlamp. The 10 miles to the first aid station were effortless. Smooth single track that several times I described as “freeway” – soft under the feet with some gradual ups and downs – just fantastic running. It was hard to decide between stretching the legs out and getting a good, quick start – and stopping every few feet to grab another photo of the landscape which was now in full light with the sun up. It was a good mix through the first aid station which we hit around 8am.

The terrain after the 1st aid station was a little more technical – but not by much. A few more rocks – some steeper ups and downs – but still mostly runnable. I was trying to stay focused on nutrition and hydration – a plan that I usually start off paying attention to and then lose interest in keeping up with. Howard was still moving well too although he had a little bit of a blister already forming which he stepped off the trail and took care of – and some twinges of a heel issue that had been bothering him the last month or so. No big issues – these things come up.

The 2nd aid station around mile 19 was our first chance to dig into our drop bags. Sometimes drop bags are like Christmas morning – “what did I surprise myself with??” I decided to go with a minimalist approach this time around – since most of the time I have too many things to sift and sort through. Plus – for the most part they have emergency type things if there’s anything you don’t have. I looked in my bag to find some UCan drink mix and a couple of 600 calorie energy packs (a gel, some peanut butter crackers, an energy bar). I grabbed some of each – re-loaded on the water – and headed out – looking forward to seeing the same aid station again around mile 80.

The stretch between Proctor at mile 19 and Blubber Creek at mile 25 was some serious running. This is the time typically when you hit the wall anyways – you’ve blown through a lot of your energy reserves – it’s just a tough time in any race. The first few miles we started to descend a fairly steep but runnable trail – some deep sand which wasn’t an issue since we were going down – though in the back of your mind it lingers “I’ve got to come up this in another 60 miles.” Howard and I both moved well through this section. We passed several people that were walking and I commented to Howard that it was great that we were able to run the runnable sections.

Once we got to the bottom, we turned and headed up into the canyon and all hopes of any type of running were whack-a-moled. The trail became steep, narrow, and unforgiving. One section was so steep I had to cling to some large boulders with my finger tips and hope that my trail shoes would hold on the loose gravel. I was gasping for air – not a stitch of wind – and we kept going up and up with no end in sight. It was a hard climb that I had somewhat expected so mentally I was ok. Howard and I had the elevation chart – and we had been to the upcoming Blubber Creek aid station which was on the edge of a cliff during our course tour so I figured we were just working our way up the cliff. One foot in front of the other – and another – and another – through the soft sand – and eventually through the aspen trees. It was slow going but the legs were holding and still felt strong.

We finally crested the top of the climb – and could see red cliffs off in the distance. Those must be the cliffs below Blubber Creek Aid station. It looked like they were still pretty far off, and a lot higher than we were which meant a lot more climbing. But then we started to descend. Wha? We went down a pretty good ways – before finally climbing again. That was cruel. And not funny.  Then once at the top of the next climb - again we dropped off. Down, down, down – and then started up. I felt defeated by the repetitive ups and downs and false summits. The guys behind us were looking for their elevation chart – how much more of this do we have? It was a steep, steep climb up to Blubber Creek which we finally reached around noon – defeated and in a bit of a daze – and only 25% of the course behind us.

After re-fueling and re-grouping we ran a trail along the rim of the ridge with some great views. We knew there wasn’t any significant elevation change since we were at the top – and we spent some time re-covering from the last climb. We had a fairly good combo of run/walk all the way through Kanab Aid Station at mile 33 and down the long descent to Straight Canyon Aid at mile 39. The climb to Pink Cliffs aid at mile 44 (super windy at the top) was jeep road and gradual uphill which we power walked at a good pace and we moved pretty well  down to the Crawford turnaround at mile 50 which we hit in a little less than 15 hours. Whew – half over.

Leaving Crawford the sun was almost down and I realized it was going to be awhile til I would get my warm clothes at Kanab aid station, mile 67. Bad planning. I had some compression sleeves and a vest which normally would have been ok even in temps in the 30’s – but the wind on some of the ridges was fierce. I was about 100 yards out of the aid station when a volunteer ran after me with a trash bag to put over for warmth. These are the small, random acts of selflessness that make aid station volunteers great. I immediately felt better that I had some type of additional protection.

I felt good leaving Crawford and could have run at a good clip – but Howard was having some issues so we took it easy to get him back on track. Every now and then we would decide to jog some short sections – but we mostly walked back up to Pink Cliffs at mile 55 where the wind was blowing at least 40 mph with gusts higher. The aid station tent seemed to be hanging on by a thread – and all Howard and I focused on was getting through there and getting down off the ridge. I held the trashbag on and pretty soon after we left the aid station the winds calmed down. We moved pretty well through Straight Canyon Aid at mile 61 but hit a wall as we climbed back up to the ridge to Kanab at mile 67. The trail seemed like an endless climb for miles. I remember the long descent down – but didn’t remember if being THAT long. We could hear the wind whistling through the trees – and when we finally made it to the top of the ridge – the trail continued. It wasn’t technical or a tough trail – it was just never ending. We thought we saw the aid station in the distance because we saw a light – but then we realized it was the moon shining through the trees. Bummer.

We finally arrived at Kanab and I got into my drop bag and put on some warm pants and borrowed a warm pullover from Howard. I also picked up some trekking poles from Howard. We sat – probably longer than we should have – around a fire and ate some Ramen Noodle Soup and tried to pull it back together. The middle of the night is such a hard time to battle through. You’re tired, cold, and still have a long ways to go. It’s this point in the race where you start showing raw emotion. Things come out unfiltered – things that are trivial seem monumental and frustrating – distances seem twice as far – everything is uphill – chatter and dialogue are internal as you try to will yourself through the night in hopes of rallying when the sun comes up. The body wanted to quit long ago – so this is the point where you really have to have mental focus to keep going. We kept going – although I fell asleep while jogging a short portion just before sunrise.

The sun came up and we hit Blubber Creek at mile 74. There was a short time where we both seemed to hesitate – were we ready for the long descent – and then the long climb up to Proctor? Howard said “do you think we could run some of this section?” which really encouraged us both to run the long downhill. We separated a little – but never more than a few minutes. Through the steep canyon – and then up the long, sandy climb to Proctor mile 80 which we hit around 1030am.

We ate grilled cheese sandwiches – put on sun tan lotion since the sun was up and it was getting hot. We thought we had some more uphill – referencing the elevation chart again - but the aid station volunteers told us it was pretty much flat til the end and we were pretty much home free. This was a huge mental boost and we both left really encouraged and with a new lease on life. That lasted all of about 2 minutes – when we immediately started climbing again. Really? It wasn’t technical trail since it was a road – but it was up – and it was supposed to be flat. Typically this would have been frustrating – but at this point we figured worst case scenario we could walk it in and still sneak in under 36 hours so it was a manageable frustration.

The gravel road was a technical breeze – but it was hot. Really hot. My sunglasses were back in my drop bag where I had left them when the sun went down at Pink Cliffs (mile 45/55) aid station so I was squinting to keep the light out which was really, really bright. We went on for what seemed like much longer than 5 miles until we hit the self-supported aid station to re-fill our bottles. The trail continued down the road before turning off onto single track and climbing again. This climb was really steep, completely exposed and excruciatingly hot. We had bad attitudes. Again – flat? Howard seemed to think we weren’t going to finish in time – even though at mile 90 we had nearly 5 hours left to finish in the 36 hour time. We pressed on.
The last 10 miles which were probably closer to 12 wouldn’t end. Dry, hot, dusty. The previous 30 hours had left my chest and throat raw and dry where it was hard to swallow. I kept drinking but continued to feel dehydrated. Although we walked the entire way – we actually caught up and passed some people so that gave us a little bit of a boost. We saw the finish line off in the distance – got the camera ready – and trotted across the finish in right at 35 hours for Howard’s first 100 mile finish.

If you’re reading this and haven’t run The Bryce 100 – it is a great race and definitely worth checking out. It is tough though – and when originally advertised it had 12K feet of elevation and was promoted as a good 1st 100. After a few course changes – the elevation was all over the board – and went to 18K feet up to 26K feet and then back down to 22K feet with an “expert” saying it was back at 18K feet. I have no idea how much elevation change there was – but there was quite a bit in the first 80 miles. The last 20 miles seemed almost all gradual uphill – but you always feel that way towards the end (or at least I do). This is doable as a 1st 100 but I would not say it’s a beginner’s course – although the trail really isn’t very technical. I heard several people say the course was long – somewhere around 102 – 103 miles. Will be interesting to see what everyone’s Garmin had for distance and elevation.

The course was really well marked. The trail was so well marked it was your own fault if you got lost. Nowhere did I even feel there was the potential get veer off course. Night time markings were almost better than daytime markings because there were LED lights that you could see from a pretty good distance if your headlamp didn’t pick up the ribbons. Aid stations – had pretty much everything you could need. Ramen was great – grilled cheese was great – volunteers were great (especially those that track you down with trashbags to keep warm). Scenery – tops.

Thanks to Race Director Matt for a great inaugural Bryce 100 run and one that’s going to be on many race calendars when the word gets out about it. Kudos to all of the runners who battled a tough course with lots of up and down and weather that was dry, windy in places, cold at night, and hot during the day. Lastly – congrats to Howard on his first 100 mile finish. Dude – you were tough as nails and never waivered mentally. You’re a warrior and this race was a stepping off point for other 100’s to come. See ya in Leadville!

“This day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.”
-Winston Churchill