Race Report: Black Canyon 60K

In August of 2019 I clicked “confirm” and signed up for the Black Canyon 60K. My first 60K and second ultra so far in my trail racing career. As someone with no running history or training (didn’t run in high school or collegiately) this race is intimidating, to say the least. The Black Canyon Ultra is a net downhill race as well as a Western States 100 qualifier (in the 100K distance). This means the BCT attracts many elite runners and the speedy runners who can fly on this style of course. I’d never call myself fast and I’m most certainly the kind of trail runner who loves big climbs and descents over anything else which meant I had just signed up for something that wasn’t in my wheel house. Gulp.

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From August to mid October I battled a strained hip flexor, going to PT and doing more yoga and stretching than I could imagine while being dry needled, electrode-d and scraped. It didn’t feel 100% but I decided to run Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon in October where miraculously, I had no pain. My hip wasn’t tight, nothing hurt and I had this glimmer of hope that my training for Black Canyon may work after all. If I could do 7k of climbing out of the canyon, surely things were headed in the right direction. I began to up my mileage in December, achieving my first back to back weeks over 50 miles before hitting 50 miles at Across the Years at the beginning of January in 9 hours (leading to a 62 mile week). I used that volume to flow into my last three 50 mile weeks heading into a slight taper. I didn’t cut back intensely and just maintained into race week leading into yesterday morning.

The night before, I laid out all my nutrition and gear to have ready for the morning so I didn’t have to think twice. I have leaned heavily on bringing my own nutrition after a flipped stomach at Adrenaline in May where I couldn’t get myself to eat for over 15 miles. I brought Probar BOLT chews, fruit leather, date bites, SaltStick fastchews (orange) as well as filled my 60oz. bladder with SaltStick electrolytes, Elixalyte and carried Spring Energy Canaberry packets with me as well.

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The day began by heading to Rock Springs, parking cars and hopping on shuttles that would drive us to the top of our point-to-point race. Starting in Mayer, AZ at the high school, we started at 9am with a lap around the track before heading out, running through the Spring Valley township and out onto dirt roads for roughly 4 miles. My goal for the day was to race a very consistent and strong pace throughout, leading to the finish where I hoped I’d feel good enough to say I could’ve kept going. I started those road miles off very conservatively and it can be challenging to allow many runners to pass you without trying to speed up your pace to match. After heading onto the single track I got into a groove, recognizing the section from preview running it two months prior. The day was crystal clear and the weather was perfect. At our start Mayer was in the high 30’s, but as you run you drop down towards the Phoenix valley, towards the warmer weather. The single track weaves across open pastures and farmland with the Bradshaw mountains to the right, capped with snow from our cold front that moved in last week. Seeing the rolling hills backdropped with the expansive mountains always gives it such a “wow” factor, which wasn’t lost on the three men I paced with for the first 13 miles. The first two men I met, Eric and Dave were from New Mexico and Wisconsin respectively. They had never been to Arizona before and both had these amazed reactions to our scenery, making it that much more enjoyable for me to take in alongside them, through the eyes of first timers. We talked about races and where we were from, our jobs and this trail we were running. Heading onto a forest road, you take a sharp turn dropping into this incredible canyon as the trail winds along the center of the mountain you are enclosed in. Looking out to the left,  you see the vast hills open up showing you rolling hills down towards Black Canyon City. It’s like a painting the way the hills fold and roll alongside each other, like the earth making waves and this incredible trail cutting down into them.

Many gates are present on the BCT to keep cattle in their respective areas and as many opened and closed them, I was small enough to bend and fold in between the gate bars, continuing to move with relative ease. I passed through the first two aid stations without stopping after I’d made the decision to carry quite a bit of water, electrolyte water in a flexy bottle and foods I knew my body responded well to with me from the start. I was able to maintain pretty consistent miles as we hit our half marathon point and headed out through a section that winds you through your first taste of desert-scape with cacti and granite rock on the trail. You can’t hear or see the interstate alongside you to the left, making it mind-blowing to know traffic and the world is zooming by not so far away while this breathtaking trail and epic race are happening just on the other side. Making the way to Bumble Bee Ranch aid station you find yourself experiencing a beautiful downhill with grated rocky footing that has you bobbing and weaving down towards an open view of cacti and a small town below. Much of this section felt like a blur to me as I found myself in deep thoughts often, I’d dropped my pacing pals at the previous aid station and it was just me and my body, moving, passing others and getting into the zone. I was starting to feel the heat of the day pick up and knew at Bumble Bee I needed to start utilizing liquid calories (GU Roctane) and ice. I hit the road crossing and started heading into the ranch with two men when suddenly a loud burst of cheering and yelling could be heard. There were all of my friends, shouting and clapping and making a tunnel, waiting for me to come through. The two men next to me turned, “Why are you so popular?! Who are you?!” as I giggled, overjoyed seeing their smiling faces. Words can’t describe how powerful it can be to see loved ones when you’re out there exerting yourself and being in your own head for hours on end. I ran into the barn getting Roctane and stuffing ice down my bra and all over my face before Melissa offered me a chug of Lime white claw. Conventional at 20 miles during your race? No. Fun? Yes!

I headed out with two bean rolls in my hands and a smile on my face as I went on to cover the 5 miles of “unknown” trail to me on the course. These 5 miles were the only ones I hadn’t explored before the race and also held the climb leading to Gloriana Mine aid station. I knew I needed to be mindful not to bomb my legs out, which is very easy to do on this course. With all the beautiful downhills you can get easily swept up and start to fly, faster than you should before having to climb and handle rolling hills throughout the duration of the race. I power hiked the climb out of Bumble Bee and modestly ran the flats, tuning into my breathing and heart rate, checking my pace on my watch and staying confident that this method was the best for me. This section had gorgeous trail that skirted the side of a mountain with a road below, as many drivers slowly passed down beneath you are looking to the right and seeing the rugged-ness of the Bradshaws and the winding trail before you with runners moving alongside and up the trail in conga lines or lone runners pacing it out. This trail isn’t butter smooth, with rocky footing and terrain that can wear on your feet and ankles over time — it truly is a deceivingly challenging and demanding course. I had to play hop scotch with four bike-packers for nearly 6 miles, back and forth starting and stopping for one another as they moved towards Gloriana and through it around the same time as me.

When you hit mile 24, you pop up and see Gloriana come into view. I willed myself not to speed up just to reach the next aid station, wanting more ice and craving oranges. I also knew at this point, I had 13.4 miles to go and to me, 13 was something I could wrap my brain around. That was nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was happening, I was completing this ultra feeling beyond good. No stomach issues, no negative head spaces, just hours of taking in the scenery and practicing gratitude miles. Every 5 miles or so I would just start listing off all of the things in my life I was grateful for: my healthy body, the fact that I’d overcome injury, the fact that my stomach hadn’t turned on me, how I had amazing friends that spent nearly their entire day out on the course to see us and cheer for us, that my boyfriend had taken time away from chasing/filming all of the 100K leaders to come see me on course, and on and on it went. Every time it lifted my spirits so high and just kept me floating on the course. I hit the aid station, sucking down orange slices and refilling ice in my bra as everyone clapped and laughed. I doused my buff in water, wrapping it around my wrist to continue drenching my face, neck and quads. I started out of the aid station, leap frogging the bike-packers one more time before they were able to speed down the trail with less rocky and technical navigation areas. I was glad to continue moving with ease and to take on the last portion of the course that had brought me so much joy as I ran it a few weeks ago with friends. I kept replaying that day in my head, checking off the miles and memories as I went.

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Staying consistent had played in my favor as I’d moved up in the field and noticing that every single female runner I encountered was the same: we were all constantly cheering for one another, supporting one another and giving each other words of encouragement. This is one of the big reasons I adore this sport: out here, we want to see each other succeed and we want to uplift one another so that more women take chances on racing ultra distances. Supporting women to feel empowered and capable means we all go out and shine that light and hopefully inspire other women to think “maybe I can do that too”…..you CAN. I left every interaction with the ladies on this course feeling so proud to share the trails with them and inspired that we were all out here having our own experiences, facing whatever may come and still showing up for each other even in the smallest ways to say “keep going”. And keep going we did. From Gloriana you weave through cacti and shrub, running further down towards the Agua Fria river. You lace up and down, into and out of washes, leading to your first river crossing that is about ankle deep. The water felt amazing and I grabbed handfuls to splash over my face before climbing out and up switchbacks with my sweet friend Allie. Yesterday was her first ultra and she fought incredibly hard for her finish, seeing someone I admire and respect so much totally push with everything she had inspired me more than I can say. These days aren’t for the faint of heart and her grit was unstoppable. Rising up over the switchbacked ridge, you again weave through desert terrain with shrubs, cacti and nothing but green rolling hillscape before you. Being past the 30 mile mark brought new elation, I was only 7 miles from the finish and could feel my excitement building. My legs were feeling a bit fatigued and my body was tired, but a good tired, not ripped apart but knowing we were doing something big and taxing.

Again, I leaned on my gratitude miles and decided to put in one of my headphones, turning on my “Hype Mountain” playlist and letting the excitement fuel me. There’s a hill around mile 33-34 that looks so daunting and painful and as I came up on it, I reminded myself to use my strong power hiking background to make it as painless as possible, I got to the top and continued to trot on heading down to the big river crossing that was going to mark nearly the end of my day on the race course. The first river crossing was low enough to rock hop over while the second, shin deep, cooled me down as I quickly moved through it and back out onto the trail. From the climb out of the river bed you begin to quickly switchback up to the top and as I began my ascent I looked up seeing a train of 100K runners making their way up as well. The 100K runners go into the 60K finish and then proceed to turn around and go back out continuing south on the BCT. I could see that many of them had been working hard, pushing deep for their 100K efforts and it humbled me to know, soon I would be done and they were going on for 20 more miles. Once I reached the top and got past the gate, I knew I had 2 miles left. My music was pulsing and I was feeling good, weaving around the runners heading back out and knowing every step was taking me to the finish line. I reached the trailhead parking lot, ran onto the road and took a left, seeing my friend Annie cheering for me. I couldn’t believe I was there, finishing strong like I’d hoped and soon, crossing the finish line with all of my friends waiting there.

I was able to come in 38th OA (out of 287), 17th female and 8th in my age group!

If you want a challenging, gorgeous 60 or 100K race, I highly recommend Black Canyon, it’s a beast in and of itself but the views will keep you coming back for more!

 

First 24-Hour Race Report

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A few months ago, Nicole Ostrom asked me to join her on a 2 person 24-hour relay team for Across The Years: Decade Edition where we would switch off running every hour from 9am Saturday to 9am on Sunday. This isn’t the kind of race I think I’d of ever signed up for on my own as it includes everything I like to avoid: flat, short looped course and pavement. Growing up, I was a gymnast. Ten years of repetitive pounding on my ankles, wrists and knees led me to avoid road running, or anything similar, like the plague. But, when Nicole asked me to join her I decided to say yes. Because I was scared to try something like this. I was scared to get uncomfortable. And isn’t that the most important thing? Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable? We signed up. I told myself I’d learn so much about my body and my mental strength out there, to have zero expectations, have fun and that it would be perfect training for other races I have my eye on in the next several months.

I didn’t train on road, packed gravel or any terrain similar to Camelback Ranch, I truly had no clue what I was getting myself in to. Asking Nicole every week to give me a list of what I needed, what to expect and what to bring with me. Even the idea of a looped course was new to me. This was my first attempt at anything over six hours, a timed format, a looped format and flat racing. Talk about being out of my own league.

After work on Friday I met Nicole at the race (a 10-day event where others were already over 400+ miles!) where both of our boyfriends were competing in the Last Person Standing race. An insane show of athleticism that should have its OWN blog post to showcase it. It was nice getting the lay of the land, seeing “Main Street ATY” where the main aid station, medical tent, warming tents, cots and everyone’s tents for sleeping were set up — aka home base. It made the race a little easier to grasp even with only seeing a tiny portion of the course.

The next morning, I arrived with my suitcase full of every kind of clothing: tank tops for warm daytime miles, multiple sports bras to trade out so I wasn’t wet, lots of socks, two pairs of shoes, long tights for the night, puffy jackets, a vest, hats and gloves for when the temps hit the thirties. There was a chance for any kind of weather and your body responding in different ways and being overly prepared is better than not having enough at this kind of race, where you can easily go off course and access whatever you need. At 9am I lined up along with other members of relay teams to be sent off on our first lap. We were cheered off and there I was, seconds into my first timed race and I was going to be running for 11 more hours if everything panned out.

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Tracing the course around the 1.04 mile loop I got to experience pavement and packed gravel with sections that were exposed and hot and others that were very shaded, wrapping around a pond. I was able to run alongside George, a November Project participant I had run with a few weeks prior, sharing stories and allowing the first hour to pass very quickly. Nicole and I soon traded off for her first hour and I immediately dove into stretching and using the theragun to keep my muscles loose. I was trying to be preventative, praying it would keep me from locking up early on. My second hour I pushed my pace, feeling fast and strong with my music playing. But my third hour showed me that I had made a mistake, at roughly 15+ miles my right IT band began to tug and yell with every step. My knee was irritated and so, I began a run / power walk combo. My first challenge. Accepting I wasn’t running the entire thing and to say walking was okay. I was able to maintain that strategy for 8 more hours.

Running has taught me to never feel like I’m in control, that I can’t be. That preparedness means being flexible and adaptable. Previously, something like pain in my knees and having to walk would have crushed my perfectionist spirit. It wouldn’t launched me into a negative headspace that spiraled for hours, especially on a looped course. I would’ve ruminated on my inability to live up to expectations in my head. Instead, I re-worked my plan, told myself it was unrealistic I could’ve run the whole thing and had my first timed race go smoothly! I kept my music high and my spirits stayed lifted through every hour exchange.

I changed my shoes on my fourth hour, ran one sun-filled sports bra mile that actually felt hot and enjoyed the warmth on my skin, knowing the sunset was coming early and soon I would hit the miles that worried me the most — cold miles where I could still get sweaty and then freeze. I struggle to warm up after I start shivering and it was the thing that scared me the most about this kind of race. Not late night miles or chafing or my muscles and joints aching — but getting so cold I couldn’t overcome it. I had also hoped when we switched directions (going counter-clockwise instead of clockwise or vice versa) would have helped my knee pain, but it continued to tug and express discomfort even after having one of Nicole’s friend elbow my IT band as well as trying to switch up my gait and even run sideways: basketball shuffle style.

Last night around 8:30pm, I PR’d by reaching my longest distance to date (33 miles). I came into the main ATY checkpoint, getting to ring the green bell signaling I’d achieved a new feat. It was perfect timing as a group of my friends had arrived to cheer Nicole and I on. I can’t express how much life it gives you to see smiling faces that love you and bring brand new energy into your day. After running for 5 hours already, they completely refreshed me, celebrating my PR achievement with me by drinking white claws and laughing around a mini heater.

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Simone went out for guest laps with me, helping me through my sixth hour and getting me to 39 miles. It was at this point, still feeling mentally strong, happy and fit enough to keep going that I knew I really wanted to hit the goal that scared me: 50 miles. I knew it was achievable and within reach if I’d continue to get myself out there in the cold each time. It also scared me to realize I could hit this goal that felt so far away from me. When I had started running and raced my first 25k in October of 2018 I couldn’t wrap my brain around 30 miles, definitely not 50. When I achieved 30 miles in May of 2019, I still looked at 50 as this unattainable, crazy distance. And here I was, so close to it.

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As I said goodbye to my sweet friends, I went out for another round of miles, now completely dark and my breath visible in the lights. I put in my headphones and turned on a murder podcast (this IS how I roll). I let my mind focus on the story line as I kept rotating: run, power walk, run, power walk. Over and over until I was at 46 miles. I got back to the tent, shoved my toes close to the heater and decided to get something to eat. The aid station had made vegan mac n cheese and I made a hot cup of tea to warm my hands before heading out for my final four miles. It was roughly 1am at this point and the cold was ominous to continue going out into.

I sat putting off going back out for nearly 45 minutes. But there I was, stuffing hand warmers into my gloves and zipping my coat all the way up to my chin. It was time to finish this goal and make it a reality for the first time. As I began to power walk out for my 47th mile, my shins were sore and my muscles were completely cold. Running was not an option on these laps, so I power walked as hard as I could. I completed my 50 miles at roughly 3am, looping the course with others out there trying to achieve their own goals. Pushing past their own mental barriers, their own physical obstacles, all together mile after mile. Loop after loop. the same footprints over and over. It’s a special experience being out there alongside so many others doing incredible distances, striding beside many of them reminded me I could do this for another hour if they could be out here for hours longer than I had been. Days longer even.

To some in this realm fifty miles is a small number but to me, it was an unattainable amount that absolutely terrified me to consider striving for. But here we are. Only 5 days into the new year. It truly shows that we are capable of ANYTHING and everything we put our minds, will and grit towards. I didn’t continue to push after that, even though we had six more hours to accrue more mileage. I was satisfied and so proud to hit such a big milestone and decided to spare my knees.

I’d of never attempted this without Nicole’s encouragement, the kind and supportive messages, texts and reminders and the breath of fresh air that came from my friends showing up to cheer us on in the cold night.