Monday, 27 June 2016

Bryce Canyon 50 mile June, 2016

A bit out of the ordinary, this one. Despite the inevitable length of this post - first, a short backstory.
In November, Sam Harrison mentioned the Bryce 50 miler on the FRA forum, asking if it was a nice place to run and if the race might be decent. Lynne, who has been there before said "yes". She then went on and convinced herself to do the 50k version, and me to enter the 50 miler.
When its cold and dark, and you see the lovely pictures of people running around a surreal landscape in the heat of the summer months, you immediately think its a brilliant idea.

2 months later, it seemed like as we had entered the race, it would probably be a good idea to get some flights, a hire car and book a hotel for the night after the race, and that was pretty much it.
June came around, and we headed off to Utah, I'll spare you the details of the packing, the organisation and the flight, and also the days leading up to the event, but suffice to say we had a brilliant time - managed to get in some recces and get an idea of the lie of the land, get used to the altitude (it starts at somewhere around 2300m above sealevel and tops out at about 3000), and the heat (the coolest it got was maybe 19 deg, and the hottest parts of the days were hitting about 32).

So yes- what about the race?

Registration was the day before, based at Ruby's Inn. A couple of tents had been set up on the grass, there were hammocks, pizza, tacos, t-shirts etc. and a whole load of people socialising. The ultra trail running community in the USA is obviously a massively social one and everyone seemed to know each other. I felt a little out of place as I don't have a beard, tattoos or retro looking sunglasses...
Lynne getting her number
However, we registered, picked up a t-shirt and beanie, grabbed a pizza, dropped off our drop bags (there were 5 stations where I could get stuff shipped to) and generally soaked up the atmosphere before returning to the campsite for an early night.
Drop bags
Kicking back in Hammocks
Taking in the atmosphere
Perfect race prep
The 50 miler starts someway south of the finish, down a beautiful valley which is reached by an unmetalled road. To get to the start for 6am, we had to be at Ruby's for 4:30am to catch the shuttle buses, which meant a 3:45am alarm call. When the alarm went off I have to admit that there was a momentary "really? I think I might just stay in bed" thought that went through my head, before everything else just kicked in.

We struck camp and Lynne drove me to the pick up point (her pick up was in the same place, but a couple of hours later, so she was just going to nap in the car til then) where we hung around with a quickly increasing number of racers in the dark, waiting to be told what to do.
Waiting for the buses
Soon enough we were packed onto the various transport, and on our way. The journey down the road was fine, the moon was setting over the ridge we were about to run along, and no sooner had it set than the pre-dawn light started.
Milling around waiting for the start

The start was a little chaotic as we were meant to have been dropped off about half a mile away from the beginning of the singletrack, to allow the racers time to spread out before plunging into terrain where overtaking is a little more tricky. However, the message was not passed along the drivers, so some of us were dropped off in one place, and the other lot at the trailhead. I was one of the lot that had to walk the half mile to the trailhead, but that really wasn't a problem, it was nice to get the legs moving after having been crammed into a bus for the last hour or so.
It was fully light as the start was explained to us, and the race director apologised for the fact that there was now a whole 50 metres before the singletrack instead of a half mile, and that we should probably sort ourselves out accordingly.

I started behind a line of particularly athletic looking specimens, but ahead of the vast majority of the pack, figuring that even if I started out at a pace that was too fast, before long we'd be back on a forest road where I could slack off the pace a bit and fall back to an appropriate speed. As it was, the guy said GO bang on 6am, or was if 630? I have no idea, and we surged off into the woods.
Perhaps surge is too strong a word. We ran towards the woods, and I was a bit astonished to be the 5th person on the trail as we hit the single track.
Starting dash

Although it was light, it wasn't bright enough to have sunglasses on yet, nor really bright enough to take photos. We ran down the single track, twisting and turning through the trees. At some point I overtook a couple of people, and a couple of others overtook me, because as we hit the first rise of the day on the forest road there were 3 people ahead of me, and only 1 of them had been ahead of me at the beginning of the forest.
Morning hills
Behind us, the sun was rising above the horizon providing some amazing shadows. The ever-so-slight chill of the morning was beginning to lift and the promise of a hot day tinged on the skin. Above us, the sky was massive and blue, with barely a cloud to be seen. It was going to be a good day.
Glorious sun rise
Views like this.... and only been going for an hour!

The first few miles beyond the forest single track that we plunged into at the beginning were mostly uphill on forest roads. Big wide tracks that were very runnable. I was keeping my speed to what seemed like an intelligent pace, and concentrated on taking photos and generally having a bit of a look around me.

So yes, I was in 4th place, and fairly comfortable, chilling out and enjoying myself. The track became single track, then double track again. It was comfortably cool, and as you ran around the corner to see a new view, the coolness of the air hanging above the creeks and streams washed over you, a lovely refreshing coolness that revitalised everything.
Woodpeckers were drilling into trees, and it was beautifully still, it was just me running and wondering if I was going too fast, too slow, or what was going to happen with the rest of the day.
Single track through a meadow

Very quickly I passed the first aid station. I'd been going for 50 mins, turned a corner, and there it was. My number was taken- it was pinned on my shorts and the officials appeared to have absolutely no trouble reading it whatsoever- and I ran on without even breaking my stride.
Aid station 1
The day was slowly getting warmer, and I began tucking into my food. We were unable to get hold of my normal race food, so had been experimenting with the various offerings in america for the past week, and so tucked into some type of random oaty energy bar thing.

The next few miles continued on without too much worry. The ascents were very runnable in comparison to anything in a fell race - decent gradients, solid underfoot, and it wasn't too long before I caught up with the guy in 3rd place, and gradually overhauled him on the next upward grind as he opted to walk. At this point I was really hoping I wasn't overdoing it too much. The theory generally expounded is that you should run the flat bits and the downs and walk the ascents, that way, when you've been going for 40 miles, you can still move at a decent pace. I was running everything because it felt pretty good, and was really hoping that I wasn't cruising for a complete breakdown later in the day.
It was cool now, anyway... best to run while its cool and get a decent amount of mileage under the belt before the heat really set in.... right?
Aid station 2

Not too long later I came across my first 100mile racer of the day. The guys on the 100miler had set out 24 hours before us, and had essentially run the 50miler from North to South, and then turned around and ran it back the other way. I came across a lady sitting in the middle of the path looking dazed.
I stopped to chat to her, she said that she had lost her way and had been wandering around lost for a while and was she in the right place? Yes indeed. I made sure she had food, and was eating it, had water, and was drinking it, and could see the tags in the trees that showed the trail going in the right direction. She said she was ok and told me to go on... reasoning that there were 150 other runners at various speeds behind me who would be doing exactly the same thing as me, I took her at her word and carried on, making a mental note of her number and location to tell the next aid station.
Ah. Cool breeze. A single track to run on. Being allowed to pin my number on my shorts. The simple pleasures.
I mean really. You have to take time to stop and stare.
Blubber Creek Aid station

The sun rose higher into the sky and the miles ticked off. Food was consumed and landscape was gaped at. Forests, grand vistas, hoodoos and all kinds of amazing things popped up as I scooted along the trails. I hit the next few checkpoints in a bit of a dream, making sure that they knew about the runner I had seen previously.

All of a sudden I hit Blubber Creek aid station - 24 miles in, maybe after about 3:40. I felt fine and hadn't really eaten a massive amount or drunk much either. However, this was one of the places where I had a drop bag, so I filled up my 500ml bottles, one with water, the other with Nuun, (I still had another 500ml in the back of the pack as well which hadn't been touched), picked up some replacement food, and carried on.
Leaving Blubber Creek
The guys ahead of me were a good 10 mins up, and I figured I wouldn't be seeing them for the rest of the day. It was still astonishing that I was in 3rd, and was well aware that there were runners behind me, so was expecting to be caught up and passed at any time. Not really a problem I was just enjoying the day out, and taking it at my pace, taking photos and videos and generally going "woooow"! a lot.

Things were hotting up, and I was now running directly north. Not only that, the terrain was becoming more undulating and I was resorting to walking some of the ups a bit more, but still very much relishing the downhills. There were a couple of moments where I was concerned that a bit of a stitch was developing, but kept the pace down so that it came to nothing.
3 more 100 milers were passed, none of them looking particularly great. They had been going for more than 28 hours by this point, and I know what that feels like. I stayed with each of them for a few mins, checking they had food, water, and knew where they were and what they were doing, taking notes of numbers and positions for the next aid station. However, it was a long way to the next aid station.... a good hour or more at a decent pace.

Down up, around and some more astonishing scenery, and all of a sudden there was a bloke with a race number running towards me... how odd. Maybe he was a rescue guy for one of the 100 milers that I had seen recently?
He asked if I had just come from a checkpoint... well, yes, but about an hour and a bit ago.... ah.  Turns out he was a 50k racer who had missed a turning and was following the wrong streamers, and had been for the last 30 mins. Poor guy!
I turned him back, and the other person that had followed him, and followed them back up the hill, overtaking the slower one in the process.

Up a hill, and and fair few more twists and turns, and then a massive coming-together of trails. The 50 mile and the 50k, which previously followed different trails, met (this was the turning the guys had idea how), and from this point on, followed a common trail to the end.
Lynne and I knew this, and we figured that she would be somewhere amongst the slower runners in the 50k, and I would be somewhere along the faster of the 50 mile, therefore, we'd probably meet at some point along this 30k section.

As I pootled my way along, overtaking what seemed like the tail end of the 50k runners, my running solitude now over, I noticed how enthusiastic about everything the trail running community are. We exchanged mutual "Good Job" comments, and generally egged each other on. Soon enough I noticed that the runners I was passing seemed pretty decent, fit and to be going at quite a pace. As I was still (somewhat astonished) to be 3rd, I began wondering.... am I going too fast? Have I passed the meeting point of the trails before Lynne even managed to get there? She was worried that she wouldn't make the cut off.... oh crikey, I hope she hasn't been timed out....
Catching up with some 50k-ers

On I ran, glorious trails. More food, and then... oh dear. I'm really running low on water. The nuun bottle was out, the other bottle was gone, I was sucking on the last few drops of the 500ml salomon soft flask I had bought along as a spare. Not good. The sun was really bearing down on us now, and it was pretty much impossible to eat anything without having a gulp of water. Dehydration was beginning to become a potential issue, and although I knew that the aid station wasn't going to be too far ahead (the confluence of trails was only a couple of miles before Proctor aid station at my 32 mile mark), I didn't really know just how far I had to go.

Through a massive meadow type thing, and what should I see ahead? An Inov8 bag... only one person in the race is going to be wearing that. As I jogged up behind Lynne I started singing, she asked how I was, where I was in the race and how things were going. I said third, so she basically said.
I recognise that runner!

There was a possibility that if I was going fairly averagely, we would join forces when we met, and just enjoy ourselves together along the trail, but if I was going well, then I'd just forge on. 3rd place? That doesn't happen often! Lynne was looking strong, and told me it was little more than a mile to the next aid station, so I didn't ask her for any spare water. I can do a mile with no water, so ran on through to Proctor, getting there in about 5:40.
Lynne catching me up at Proctor aid station

Previously I had been only the 3rd person through each aid station, and they were beautifully calm scenes, with a few volunteers milling around. Proctor was different. 50k runners had been coming through for a while, and it was basically a massive bun-fight. Crowds of people getting food laid on by the race, watermelon, potatoes, energy bars, other stuff... I just wanted to fill my water bottles and go, but it still takes time when you have 3 soft flasks to fill.
Only just managed to get them filled and back in my bag when Lynne turned up at the aid station as well. A short conversation, and then I was off up the horrendous climb out of Proctor.

After a short time I noticed my back getting wet.... damn it, the Salomon soft flask I filled and put in the back must not have been done up tight enough. Power walking up the hill, passing 50k-ers all the way I took off my pack to get it out and sort it.
Seems tight.... thats weird.
Put it back.... still getting wet - odd.

Took it out again, and.... ah. There is a tiny hole in the side of the flask. Great. Im in the middle of a 50mile run, its 30 degrees or more and 1/3 of my water supply is compromised. The Ultimate Direction soft flasks.... still going great. The salomon one, on its first race outing fine for one filling, now pretty much useless. Thanks Salomon. Thats Freaking brilliant. Between here and Thunder mountain aid station I have 15k, and then 14 to the end, and the temperature is just going to get hotter, and the shade more sparse.
Drink intelligently, thats the only thing I can do. A litre of water for each section, we'll see how it goes.
Getting hotter

The run over to Thunder Mountain was pretty decent. More ups and downs. More cicadas chirruping in the trees. Dusty underfoot. Bits of dust and sand had been getting into my Terraclaws since the beginning of the race and I could feel the sand building up around my toes. However, I had been in 3rd for the past few hours of the race and there was no way I was going to stop to get a bit of sand out of my shoes. The uphills were certainly feeling a bit harder now, and I was walking them rather than running, and it was more of an effort to get running along the flats too.
More 50kers were passed, along with a good number of 100 mile racers, one of whom told me that the guys in 1st and 2nd in the 50 mile race were about 30 mins ahead of me, and looking strong... fine by me, its almost like they're in a different race!

My water management strategy was working and I jogged into Thunder Mountain aid station, just on my last few drops in about 7:30.
It was ridiculously hot now. We had maybe 15k to go to the finish, but the vast majority of it was uphill. I knew this, but really didn't appreciate just how MUCH uphill there was. By the time you've been running this long in this amount of heat, food is the last thing you want, especially as it turns to dusty clag in your mouth.... more water was needed to wash down nutrition, but with only a litre of carrying capacity, that was going to prove interesting over the last few miles.

I filled up the 2 remaining soft flasks that didn't have holes in, took a gulp of water, didn't even bother looking for my other drop bag, I still had plenty of food left, and started up the hill out of Thunder Mountain. Long and horrible (but not nearly so bad as the one out of Proctor). As I topped out I noticed one of the other guys near me had the same colour number as I did... he was a 50 mile racer as well.... had he caught me up? Was he one of the guys ahead of me and had crashed and burned? Was I in 2nd now? Was this the fight for 3/4th? I had no idea, and didn't really want to ask, so surged on as best I could.
There comes a time where you think... surely not up THAT?! Yes. Up that.

Things were beginning to hurt now, and the uphills were made considerably harder by the sun beating down on us. My watch was reading 35 degrees, I could feel the sunburning through the sun protection I had put on at the beginning of the day, and was very very glad I had opted for the t-shirt rather than the vest. My cap went from shading my eyes to the back of my neck, to my eyes again, and there was no way I could have even thought about racing without sunglasses.
My pace began to slow, and the uphill took its toll.
Red canyon. Amazing. But doesn't distract you enough from the heat and the pain.
We ascended for 2km straight, toiling up through a spectacular canyon of Red rock and hoodoos. Other people I passed were remarking that the 50k they were doing was certainly one of the slowest they had ever done in a race, all I was thinking about was the guy behind me, and if I was 2nd or 3rd...  I just needed to keep going at the fastest speed I could.

We got to the most amazing scenery at about 42 miles in.... I almost wished I had only done the 1/2 marathon so that I could properly take it in and enjoy it. Single track running through desert spires and hoodoos, with massive drops on either side. An unreal geography made all the more spectacular by the fact we were racing through it.

 (though by this stage I wasn't really giving racing all that good of a name... plodding as I was).
High desert like trails

Up, up and still up. Towards the final 4 miles, I was passed by a 50 miler... the first time I had knowingly been passed by anyone today. I patted him on the back and wished him well, he was going much more strongly that I was, and there was no way I was going to keep up with him considering my meagre water supply, and the state I was in... I could have tried for about 1k before it would have broken me.
Any videos I was taking now were just videos. There just wasn't enough water for me to talk and then get back on terms with running again....

So now I was certainly in 3rd... maybe 4th? No idea, and to be fair, I didn't actually care. The heat was getting to me and the final few miles were in sight. The only problem was, the final few miles go around fingers of land, out and back, out and back, not only that, but up and down, gradually gaining more height. It dawned on me that I had seriously underestimated this final section. I had no real idea how far I had yet to go, and was down to literally my last 3 gulps of water.

Each headland we went around I convinced myself it was the last one.
It wasn't. Looking at my GPS trace I count 9 of them, only about 4km in total, but it was totally soul destroying. There were moments where I thought about just sitting down. Just stopping. Just not going another step further.
But if you do that, its going to take a much longer time to get to the finish.... not only that, but you'll have to get there on foot anyway. A helicoptor certainly isn't going to come and get you, so you might as well get to the finish as fast as possible. And that means one foot in front of the other.

By now I was getting into a bad state. There are no photos as I really didn't have the energy or willpower to get the camera out... everything was going into getting to end in the most expedient way possible.
After what seemed like an eternity I turned a corner and there was the roadhead. I know this bit. Its a mile to the end.
Not only that, but there was a box of ice, a cooler of water, and iced cans of fizzy drinks. Am I hallucinating?!
I stuffed a couple of ice cubes down my top, grabbed a can of coke and stuck it in a pocket, filled a soft flask... no I must not be hallucinating, turned, and with renewed energy and vigour set off down the road, sucking in the water at a rate of knots. Better not drink the coke as I don't actually know what it will do to me.... best to shake it up now as I run to flatten it off for when I finish.

Down the road, down towards the finish, and as I come in through a few people clapping someone shouts "Well done! Third!"
Really? Really, really?
I stumble over the finish line and wander to the cool tent where they are giving out cold drinks and ice. There are people everywhere, eating drinking and sharing stories of the day... all I want to do is sit down and cool off. Ive been running for the last 2 hours in 42 degrees conserving a litre of water. I feel broken.

Soft flask full of ice on the back of my neck, I chug a water, a coke, a sprite, a mountain dew and another sprite in quick succession and slowly begin to feel better. Wandering around I meet up with Sam Harrison who ended up running the 50k, find my drop bag and get changed, and have a pizza- the complimentary food at the end.
Feeling mangled. Elated. But mangled.

My prize is a rather fantastic Navajo made pottery vase which I pick up along with a finishers pottery mug, and we sit in the sun, conversing with strangers about the shared experience of the day.

A while later, Lynne runs into the finish, looking in much the state I did a couple of hours before. Having been there, I do much the same for her, and we sit, in the sun, contemplating what a great day we've had.

Thanks so much to the organisers and the volunteers of this superb race. It took us along paths and trails that, as foreign visitors, we would never have been on without the race. We pushed ourselves, and enjoyed the entire experience. I'd certainly do it again, and this time am well aware of the final few miles.

Things learned...
Clifbar Shotblocks are brilliant food in hot races. I should have had more of them.
Eating clifbars in the heat is like trying to chew on dry mud.
Having a bottle of Nuun and a bottle of water is a great idea.
Inov8 terraclaws work well in America. (tried the x-talons a few days before and the rubber is just too soft; the grip gets annihilated).
Salomon soft flasks are shite and puncture in the middle of races for no reason.
Don't worry about what others are doing, just run a pace you enjoy, and keep it going.
When running in America, if you pass someone, or if someone passes you, say "good job".
In your final drop bag of the race, its a cunning plan to have a carb drink mix so that you can still be taking on energy without the need for attempting to eat... I should have done it, but didn't and its certainly something I'll consider in the future.

And in case you're interested, here's the strava file.

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