Saturday, 25 June 2016

Bryce Canyon 50 Mile Ultra - Utah

I've been a competitive runner ever since I was just 10 years old and over the past 30 years or so, I've competed in countless races ranging from 800 metre track races to 100 hundred mile trail events, and more recently, a 24 hour race where one runs as far as possible in that limited time frame.

Every single race has been different and every single race has meant pushing myself to my limits to get the best result I am capable of on the day. I've trained hard, I've raced hard, there have been times when I've completely surprised myself and been over the moon with my result, and there have been times when I've felt extremely disappointed and frustrated at a performance where I've felt I could have done much better.

I like to think that I'm physically and mentally strong, but how do you measure that strength? Even now, after hundreds of races over the years, I am still not 100% certain about my true limits - at what point do I finally admit that I've pushed too far, and that I should call it a day during a race, and walk away being labelled a quitter? Mentally I CAN keep pushing, but at the end of the day I'm human - not the machine that I have been called endless times - and whilst a strong mind can get you anywhere, physically we don't always have control over our bodies, no matter how invincible we like to think we are.

Last weekend, I DNF'd at the Bryce Canyon 50 mile Ultra. It was my second ever DNF (the first was at the London Marathon several years ago when I "retired" at mile 17 with an ongoing foot injury), and I've always said that unless continuing would result in injury, I would never quit a race.

I  wasn't injured last weekend - in fact I was feeling absolutely fantastic up until around about 34 miles, but then it hit me.

We'd been running at altitudes of 8,000 ft - something that I am not used to these days - and whilst living in Phoenix has enabled my body to become accustomed to hot temperatures, last weekend's race saw temperatures well into the 90's which felt even hotter with being at higher elevations.

I'd just passed through the Proctor Canyon aid station and started the climb up yet another hill and having felt a slight cramping in my thigh, I took another couple of salt tablets to prevent things from getting any worse. A few minutes later, the salt tablets came back up, along with all the food I had been eating for the past few hours. I thought that was it, but after a few more steps, even more came spurting out of my mouth. It made me feel much better and I started to run again, but yet again, after a couple of minutes, I was sick 2 more times.

From then onwards, my stomach refused to accept any food nor would it take on board some desperately needed water. My head was throbbing, I was sweating profusely, my fingers felt swollen and looked drained of blood, and I realised that I was becoming a victim of both the heat and the altitude. With several miles still to go to the next aid station, I knew things were only going to get worse. I struggled onwards, but the downhills were now becoming difficult, and when I was forced to resort to a walk, it was then that I knew I was going to call it a day.

So many people on that trail tried to talk me into keeping going. Ultra runners and trail runners really are a marvellous breed, and their generosity and encouragement is something I rarely experienced in road running. I was offered endless things to help to get me going again - people even offered to run/walk with me to the aid station - but I knew I would be foolish to keep going, and I wasn't about to put myself at risk where I ended up collapsing and somebody then had to come out to fetch me.

Driving home from Bryce the following day, it was inevitable that I would start to assess whether I should really have kept going, whether I was just being a wimp and taking the easy option, but on arrival back in Phoenix, we found out via the local news that there had been 4 heat related deaths in Phoenix over the weekend. One of those really hit me hard and made me 100% certain that DNF'ing had been the right thing to do. It was a 28 year old female mountain biker that had sadly passed away whilst cycling with friends on the Desert Vista Trail in Phoenix - the very same trail that I frequent at least 3 or 4 times a week. She was fit, young, experienced, she was a personal trainer, she had taken water with her, had gone out with friends, and they had all started early morning to avoid the extreme heat that is currently hovering around The Valley. She was definitely prepared, and yet the heat still caught up with her with tragic consequences.

As dramatic as it sounds, it made me realise that it could easily have been me that had succumbed to the heat and altitude at Bryce Canyon and whilst my mind was telling me I could do it, realistically my body was telling me that it had had enough. I made the decision to quit, and I have absolutely no regrets in doing so.

Bryce Canyon 50 Mile Ultra - The Happy Tale

This race was one of my goal races for 2016, and with training having gone well and with getting on the podium at races I had competed in over recent months, I was very excited and hopeful of a good run at Bryce Canyon.

With being a 6 hour drive, we left home on the Thursday morning, arriving around tea time later that evening which meant we could have a nice relaxing day Friday before the race on Saturday. We stayed in a lovely but basic log cabin at the KOA Campground in Panguitch and had the most amazing time gazing at the stars as we sat around our little campfire with the dogs and Khayman.

Red Canyon - Chilling out on the Friday :-)

Chilling out and enjoying the scenery on Friday

On the Friday, I had a shakeout run scheduled in. I decided to do just 5k to loosen up the legs but whilst the legs felt pretty good considering the long drive the previous day, my breathing felt laboured and the run felt like hard work. Panguitch lies at around 6,500 ft - clearly the altitude was affecting me even here - and I admit to feeling a little anxious as to how I would cope the following day during the race where the majority of the course is at 8,000 ft! I thought back to the TransRockies that I had done in Colorado last year - yes, I was affected by altitude a couple of days whilst racing there, but in all fairness, the other 4 days had been amazing and I barely gave it a thought that we were actually at some 10,000 ft.  With that in mind, I felt a little more reassured that whilst my pace may be slower than anticipated tomorrow, I would be ok and had no real cause for concern.

Shakeout run in Panguitch

Shakeout run Panguitch

The race started at 6am but with the start line being a good 45 minute drive away on rough forestry roads, the shuttle buses from Ruby's Inn left shortly after 4.30am. The bus I had hopped onto was pretty quiet as we all dozed as the sway of the bus gently rocked us to sleep. Personally I had only had around 4 hours sleep - Arizona doesn't acknowledge daylight saving time and so effectively it was still only 3.30am to me, and having only had around 4 hours sleep, I was feeling like a couple more hours wouldn't have gone amiss! It was also still dark outside although it wasn't too long before dawn was breaking and things started to lighten up in the early morning sky.

Ruby's Inn 4am Saturday morning and waiting for the shuttle bus

The shuttle buses travelled in convoy to the start but with the roads being so bumpy and visibility being hindered by the amount of dust that was being kicked up, the tightly packed vehicles soon spread out as they made the climb to the start.

We arrived at the trail head at around 5.30am and I was desperate for the loo. Being a no waste event, there were no "proper" toilets provided for this race - instead we used one of the tent loos where we were greeted with a large bucket of sorts, and we had to shovel compost on the top afterwards rather than flushing things away. Thankfully I was one of the first to go at the start, but when using one later on in the race, things were a little bit more hmmmm......!

There were quite alot of folks registered for the 50 miler, and everybody was in good spirits, laughing and joking at the start, and excited about what lay ahead. We knew that we would be running altitudes between 7-8,000 ft and we also knew that the weather was going to be dry, sunny and very warm with temperatures in the 90's later on in the day, so it was vital to keep on top of things and make sure we refuelled and hydrated properly. I hadn't expected Andy at the start, but he had somehow managed to sneak behind the convoy and it was great to see him and the pups at the start area. We had a little pre-race pep talk, and after giving him a hug, I hoped that I would next catch him at mile 11 otherwise I wouldn't get to see him now until I got to the finish in around 9 or 10 hours time.

Race Start
At bang on 6am, the race started and after just 50 yards, we hit the narrow single track trail. It was lovely and cool as we followed the trail through pine trees that smelt amazing, but with the volume of runners and the width of the trail, it took a while before the field spread out. The trail was lovely to run on to start with, but after about 10 minutes or so, we hit a really technical, rocky area with some short but steep ups and downs, and in parts we had no choice to but to walk over the boulders. But what was amazing was the views that were already appearing - beautiful pink cliffs towering above us just as the sun was starting to peek its head over the horizon, and everything glowed pink and gold in the morning light. It really was truly beautiful and despite taking pictures to capture the moment, they didn't do sufficient justice .

Those first few miles were great for running but there was a lot of climbing straight away. We gained a couple of thousand feet within 3 or 4 miles, and the higher we climbed, the further we could see into the distance.

I was feeling great, but something was bothering me - there were far too many people around me! Most of my runs these days see me running alone and I've become far too used to keeping myself occupied with my own thoughts and focusing on my own thing. And yet for the first 5 miles, there were still groups of people surrounding me and chatting away about one thing and another. I found it difficult to shut them out, and I felt that I couldn't get into the zone, into my own rhythm with so many people hovering either in front or behind me, and I became a little agitated.

I arrived at the first aid station at Pink Cliffs and grabbed a few nibbles and making sure to drink before carrying on. I managed to leave a few people behind there and as the forest road we had been following narrow, we joined a lovely little single track that took us through a lush, green bushy area that gave us some outstanding views of the cliffs below. Ahead of me, i could no longer see anybody, and behind me there was nobody in sight, and all of a sudden, I got  that spring in my step and started to relax. But it wasn't long before I caught yet another group of runners ahead of me, and once again I became stuck - unable to drop back as it would be too slow, but unable and unwilling to run any faster to get away from them with it being so early on in the race. I really was frustrated!

I decided the best thing to do was to just settle in behind them and listen to their chatter as we ran across a lovely grassy meadow that was tree lined on either side. Time was passing pretty quickly and we had already been running for around 90 minutes so I knew that before long we would be at aid station 2 - Straight Canyon - which was 11 miles in, and hopefully I would get to see Andy there. I was still feeling good and desperately wanted to speed up, and I needed somebody to vent my frustrations to.

Finally we could see the aid station ahead, and sure enough, Andy was there with Wilson and Brandy, It was great to see them and I had a little hug off them as well as a moan to them about so many people (!!) Andy was as wonderful as ever and he talked some sense into me, telling me to just focus and somehow block them out.  

Approaching Aid Station 2 and spotting Andy and the pups :-)

My pace hadn't been as quick as I would have liked up to this point, but having said totty bye to Andy as I left the aid station and started the next climb, I found that I was feeling much better, much stronger, and ready to do myself some justice. Things were already to starting to heat up but I was sure to eat and drink when I could as failing to do so now would result in me struggling later.

I overtook a few people on that climb, and finally, I found myself running pretty much alone and was able to become more immersed in my surroundings. I started to notice the trees around me, the smells around me, the sound of the wind in the trees, the insects buzzing around, I started to notice butterflies, the beautiful blue skies above, and every so often, we would glimpse the amazing views of Bryce Canyon as we ran along. I was starting to enjoy the race :-)

Bryce Canyon 50 mile course

Race side views :-)

During the race when I felt FABULOUS!

There were still a fair few ladies ahead of me, but as I became more settled into my race, I was starting to gain on them and move up the field. The course route really was beautiful - far more forest trails that I had anticipated and far greener than I had thought it would be, but still none the less amazing. I stopped to take some pictures when I could but was ever mindful that I was in a race and I was still wanting to do well.

Having climbed yet another few hundred feet, we hit the Kanab Creek aid station, and shortly after, we had an exceptionally steep and rocky downhill. I had gone a little light headed  and so had been sure to eat and drink at the last aid station, and already I could feel the benefits of having refuelled. I was running strong, and  as soon as I hit that downhill, my strength came into play and I overtook at least 8 ladies on that downhill as well as several men. The course continued its steep climbs and rocky descents, but I was now in my element and loving every step. I was even working hard on the ups, power hiking as best I could and trying to stay ahead of the other ladies, knowing that if I could stay ahead on the ups, I could maintain that advantage on the downs and hopefully keep them at bay.

By 32 miles as we neared the next aid station  at Proctor Canyon, I was starting to feel particularly hungry. Although I had eaten breakfast of porridge along with a banana, it had been several hours ago and Clif bars, energy gels and salty potatoes weren't quite filling me as much as I would have liked. I was determined to take my time at the next aid station to refuel and to drink, and I spent almost 10 minutes there making sure I kept on top of things and munching on what I could without overdoing things.

This was the only other place where crew access was allowed but it was by shuttle only, and with having dogs, I knew Andy wouldn't be there. I was disappointed not to see him but I was still feeling good and with just 18 miles to go to the finish, I set off confidently to tackle the next section of the trail.

2 miles later, I started to feel cramp in my left quad. I took a couple of salt tablets but no sooner had I swallowed them, they came up again. OK I thought, may be I don't need the salt, but then I was sick again...and again,,,,and again. I hadn't felt sick at the aid station so it came as a bit of a surprise, and whilst my head was throbbing a little and I had become more aware of how warm it had suddenly gone, I was still feeling relatively ok. Yet being sick did actually make me feel better, so I pushed onwards, determined not to let the incident put a stop to my race.

Once again the trail started to climb and the further up I went, the harder it was becoming, the hotter it was becoming, the more exhausting it was becoming. A couple of guys had seen me throwing up and were surprised to see me just 10 minutes later pushing  up the hill. We had been chasing each other on and off for the past few miles  - me overtaking on the downs, them overtaking on the ups, but as we hit a downhill and they said "this is your part - GO!" I just laughed and started to walk. My body wouldn't go and i knew something wasn't right.

I managed to keep things going a little longer, but I felt like I was now running on empty, and yet every time I tried to eat something - and I KNEW I had to eat - I'd burp and up it would come. I tried to drink water but it was warm and tasted of plastic from my Camelbak and as I tried to swallow, my body rejected it. This wasn't good as we were still high up, the sun was beating down on us, and it was getting to be pretty warm now - I desperately needed to drink, and I desperately needed to eat, no matter how hard it was.

We ran over a stream with a small trickle of water, and I dunked my hat and shirt in there in an attempt to cool down - it felt amazingly refreshing but within 5 minutes, everything was bone dry again and I felt like I was in an oven. All the ladies that I had successfully passed earlier were now passing me, as well as lots of other people, and although my competitive instinct kicked in and my brain was telling me to chase, my body wasn't responding, and I knew that my race was over.

I plonked myself down in the best bit of shade beneath some trees hoping that the sudden onset of dizziness would pass. I was amazed at how many of those runners on that trail stopped to check I was ok, to offer me food and water, and tried to force feed me to get me going again, but still my body was telling me no. All I was thinking about was a can of ice cold coke and a river that I could jump in to cool off - anything else had me wrinkling my face in disgust.

I sat there for around 20 minutes wondering what to do - did I really want to quit, or did I want to carry on? Was I being irresponsible if I attempted to get to the finish? I'd been on for a finish time of around 9 or 10 hours, but now it looked closer to 12 hours and I really didn't want to be out here for that long now - besides, what would I be proving to me or anybody else if I "battled" to the finish line? I personally didn't feel like I needed to prove anything  whatsoever, and at that point I decided to drop at the next aid station. The problem was that there was no cell coverage and I had no way of letting Andy know. I also didn't know whether I would be able to get a ride back to the finish from the aid station, and if so, how long I would have to wait. I knew Andy would be worried and he would have no idea where I was. I decided to try and send him a text anyway and as soon as we reached a pocket of cell coverage, hopefully the text would get through to him.

A couple of runners passed by and I asked how much further to the aid station. They said about another 4 miles. I was shocked that I still had so far to go but I knew that I had no choice but to keep going so I forced myself up and started to walk. Running wasn't an option as my energy levels had completely gone and even my walk was now becoming a shuffle, but I had to keep moving. Another couple passed me and I explained what was going on in my head - they gave me some margarita shot blocks to help me out and boy did they taste good! Eating them brought on rumblings in my stomach, but as I attempted to eat something, a wave of nausea crept over me and so  I decided against it.

By now we had come out of the trees and were on a lovely sandy trail that rolled gently up and down and around for the next few miles. It was beautiful and I so wished that I could have ran it and enjoyed the feeling of running along in such amazing surroundings. Instead I took pleasure in watching those around me with big smiles on their faces, being wowed themselves and taking pictures. I offered to take pictures for some of them for which they were extremely grateful. 

We came to another water crossing, this time there was more water flowing and it was much deeper and wider but still a trickle by normal standards. All I wanted was to lie down in that water and not move, but I just drenched my hat and my shirt and used them to throw the cool water over my head, my arms, my legs, my feet - it felt FABULOUS!

2 hours or so after my decision to quit and some 4 miles later, I finally arrived at the Thunder Mountain aid station.  It was buzzing with runners excited about being just 9 miles from the finish, but I knew I'd done. Many offered to walk those last 9 miles with me, some invited me to jog along with them, but I knew I would become a hindrance and I didn't want to spoil their experience of this amazing race. I grabbed a coke - it wasn't ice cold but that sugar rush felt fantastic! - and having emptied the remains of my water bladder over my head, I plonked down on the floor, relaxed and smiled with relief.

I eventually got a message through to Andy to meet me back at Ruby's and I managed to get a lift back to the finish thanks to the amazing organisers. 6 dropped at that aid station with me - 5 from the 50k and just myself from the 50 miles. I felt no shame, I felt no embarrassment, I just felt relieved that I was still in once piece and ready to fight another day.

Heading back with the other guys, I was chatting with a guy from Flagstaff and with us both living in Arizona we had something in common and it was so nice to chat about things familiar to us both. He was still quite new to ultra running and had found this one today pretty tough, but he too knew that he would be back to try again. We may have quit, but it doesn't mean we've given up completely and we laughed and shared our stories with the others on that journey back to the finish line, all of us perhaps a little disappointed not to have finished, yet pleased that we did have the option of trying again.

Later that evening as I sat in the restaurant with Andy in Panguitch eating a huge bowl of amazing soup and a chicken salad, a chap on the table behind me asked how my run had gone. I didn't know this guy - he came from Salt Lake City but had seen my t-shirt and said that he had done the 50k that day. He'd struggled and found it tough, but he'd finished his first 50k and I was so happy for him and became a little emotional as I chatted to him and saw the joy in his face. That's what I love about the ultra running community - we all suffer, we all face that challenge, and we all share in it together and meet so many amazing people, and that's why I know I will continue with ultras and trail running for as long as I can.

Post Race Cuddles with my furry babies and those that mean more to me than anything :-)
That night, under a moonlit sky full of stars, Andy, Wilson, Brandy, Khayman and I sat outside our cabin drinking beer around the campfire. I was happy, I was content, and I still had a huge smile on my face. I'm happy that I managed to get to 41 miles, I was chuffed to bits to see and hear so many stories from other runners, but I was even more happy that i could spend this special night with those that I care about more than anything, knowing that no matter what, they will never be disappointed in me, and knowing that I will always have their support, regardless of my decisions when racing.

Moonlit skies and endless stars :-)
The following day we headed back to Bryce Canyon but his time with all the tourists. We visited all the view points and took all the pictures, we wandered along the concrete footpaths and took in the views and sounds around us, and as stunning as it was, we felt happy knowing that we have seen a secret part of Bryce Canyon that thousands of other people never get to see - the woodland trails in the middle of nowhere, trickling streams and rocky descents, the sun rising against the cliffs, the sounds of the wild when you actually stop for a second and listen, the stillness, the peace and quiet, and the hidden beauty that many seldom see - it made us realise how lucky we are to be able to experience these things.

Bryce Canyon the tourist route

Bryce Canyon - the tourist route

Even Khayman got to see Bryce Canyon :-)
As things stand, i don't have any more races now until the end of October when I take on the Javelina Jundred back home in Phoenix at the end of October. That's a long time not to be racing but in September I will be attempting to do the Rim to Rim to Rim at the Grand Canyon with friends. This isn't a race but it is still an amazing challenge that will take a bit of planning and organising, but I'm mega excited about doing it. Between now and then we hope to take some vacation, and I've already started to search for a trail race for when we are away. There are so many to choose from and I already feel ready to race again despite my dropping out last weekend. I still feel fit and strong and I still want to test myself somewhere in a decent race, so don't be surprised if sometime in July or August I'm back.

For now though, thanks to all of you for your support and encouragement - happy trails to all and keep on smiling :-)

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