Race Report, Bryce Canyon 50K: When Things Fall Apart

When I figured out I was off course, I was at mile 24 with maybe 30 ounces of water left. My legs were on fire and the oppressive heat made the air feel like I was breathing fumes. At one point I found it peculiar that the distinctive pink course marking were gone. See, the big climb was just like the previous climbs, on a dirt road straight up a mountain. My mind lied to me and I was convinced that this was okay. Being in third place, I was overwhelmingly motivated to climb higher and get to the cool air.

It was my realization of absent footprints that shook me out of my tunnel vision haze sparking thoughts of “oh s*%t!!” And grasping I hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the last aid station, I turned around. My race became dramatically longer.

Photo by Anna Blanch Rabe

Rewind…

These 50 kilometer trail races do not disappoint. The Bryce Canyon 50K, my second ultra, was a journey into digging deep, entering the pain cave, embracing the sufferfest, pushing to the finish, and about a dozen other endurance clichés.

I raced because I wanted another shot at the 50K, specifically any distance over 20 miles. I feel like I’m almost there with racing these higher distances, but I still haven’t had an ideal day come together. This race offered a chance to do that – and it worked with our schedules (which is half the battle). Plus, I’ve long wanted to experience Bryce Canyon and Southern Utah, especially the Grand Circle area with its dense concentration of national parks and monuments (to read more about our journey from New Mexico to Utah check out “New Mexico to Utah via Arizona”).

Photos by Anna Blanch Rabe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The morning of the race I felt good and I felt confident that our logistics plan was sound. Our campsite was located right next to the start line, which allowed me to get some extra sleep, and despite some very loud neighbors I slept surprisingly okay. My pre-race protocol of breakfast two and a half hours before the start went fine, and my dad accompanied me to the start line which meant I could hand off my jacket and my bottle of electrolytes.

I was very nervous, and I had to hit the bathroom like three times within 20 minutes. Memorably, one of these was a visit to a bathroom tent, just four minutes prior to the race start. While approaching the nasty composting toilet, I tripped and almost caused the other entire tent to collapse…while other runners were pinching off their nervous #2’s! This was very embarrassing and I tried to make humor of my klutziness-“is everyone ok? Sorry about that. Just adding to the ultra experience.”

Start Line to Mile 22

The mellowest part of my day was the first 22 miles of this 32 mile race. The Bryce Canyon course was gorgeous, running mostly through forests of pine and aspen, over meadows, and breaking out to the infrequent amphitheater of Hoodoos, majestic spires of red and brown rock uniquely characteristic of the area. The challenges are also beefy, namely the trifecta of long climbs, heat, and altitude. And I think this race offered a fourth big challenge with only three aid stations (for perspective, the last 50K I raced had seven).

Keeping my pace pedestrian, at an effort level of 6 out of 10, I stuck in the leading pack of five runners. I spent some time getting to know Travis Swaim, a member of Arizona’s Aravaipa Racing Team, assuring me that he was explicitly keeping his competitiveness chill. It was neat getting to know him, but understanding that his sponsors paid for his race attendance kind of cued to me that he was underplaying his strategy.

My game plan was simple, run my own race. If I was running with someone else and they were going harder than I wanted to match, I would gladly back off. In general, I would make up ground on downhills. My pace held between 8:30/mile to 10:00/mile, and I was in the top three upon hitting the first aid station. Shortly afterward, the three of us lost the course markings and promptly turned around to find our way back on course. This cost maybe 45 seconds, but gave Travis enough time to take the lead at which he promptly took off and disappeared.

The second aid station, Proctor Canyon, was at mile 14.5 and I was hoping to meet my wife Anna there to get some Heed and salt tabs, but unfortunately she wasn’t present. Although I arrived during my estimated time window, I imagined that she was held up somewhere during the journey (and aid stations are not often very easy to access). I chose not to wait and pressed on with some watermelon and refilled water flasks. I later learned that she arrived within minutes after I departed.

I started getting slower on this third leg and incorporated more power hiking into my running. Although still feeling pretty good, I wanted to maintain my position till the finish line. The whole third leg moved along the Grandview trail rolling north to the final aid station at Thunder Mountain, and this was probably the easiest section of the whole race with no really significant climbs. I visualized that once I got out of the last aid station, it would only be one more climb and then some undulating terrain to the finish.

The third and final aid station, at mile 22, went just like the previous ones for me. I checked in, handed my water flasks to a volunteer to get them filled with water, grabbed some watermelon and pretzels, and got out. With only three aid stations, rushing myself through this one turned out to be a critical mistake. Pushing up to the Thunder mountain climb, I came across a race official walking down the hill telling me that the second place runner was 90 seconds in front of me and that I looked in better shape. This motivation pushed me to dig down and embrace the pain. With only one climb remaining, it seemed to me this was going to be a good day.

How wrong I was

Just like that, everything changed. What seemed like a relatively mellow race, and what I had hoped to be a day of redemption, quickly turned into a brutal trial just to finish.

I estimate that I spent 25 minutes off course, and I probably climbed an extra 500 feet at a minimum. Once I found my way back to the pink flags, I processed a moment of mental devastation. My ability to podium was gone, and I just wasted my effort on extra distance. The worst was that I was low on water, while I was getting very hot with temperatures zooming above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. My legs had started the painful one way journey to crampsville. When ever I’m out trail running, I always maintain a fear of being in a survival situation. I needed to cool off and try to calm down, so I opted to sit under a tree in the shade and take a few moments to figure things out. I have never, never had to sit down in the middle of a race before!

I was probably in this spot for another 20 minutes, and I even lied down for a bit. I no longer felt remotely competitive. This was my lowest point of the day, and I seriously began to think about dropping out. I was able to send a text message to Anna telling her that I went off course, and that I knew I wouldn’t be able to podium, let alone make it to the finish line anywhere near the time that I estimated. Without water, and knowing there would be nothing for the next eight miles on the most exposed climb of the day, I was not going to be able to run at all. I also thought about the option of running back to the aid station to fill up again, but that wasn’t appealing at this moment, as I had already run extra distance. So I opted for plan C and continued.

I think it took me three attempts until I was right on my feet. After the first attempt, as I was upright, I stumbled a few steps and fell right back down. Once I was finally up and moving, I was very lightheaded, my ears grew sticky, like when one is descending from altitude, and I had tunnel vision in full force. So I shuffled. At long last, I finally made it to the Thunder Mountain Trail and began the most visually spectacular and ironically brutal section of the day.

Photo by Anna Blanch Rabe

Death March

Unfortunately, there’s no other way to put it. Mile 24 onwards was a true sufferfest. Because I was out of water, I wasn’t able to take in calories. I was moving slow, probably averaging three miles per hour. And the hot heat just got hotter, possibly getting close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. With legs seized up, the best I could do was just move forward, and take my time. One foot in front of the other. Occasionally, I would bend over to take some deep breaths, lower my heart rate, and press on. Yet the scenery was so flipping amazing! I was moving through an incredible Hoodoo amphitheater on trails of bright red dirt, probably the essential section of this Bryce Canyon ultramarathon course. I was definitely moving slowly enough that I could have taken photos without taking up more time than I had already lost, but my singular focus was on moving forward. Period.

Photo by Anna Blanch Rabe

I wasn’t the only casualty of the day. Many, many other runners were slowly power hiking or walking as they too were out of fluid. If I came across any runners who looked remotely fresh, I started to ask if they had any water, and a few generous folks would graciously offer a few sips of what they had. In my entire life, even during training, I have never been reduced to asking other runners or hikers for water. I came across Trevor Ricks, the runner who was in second place in front of me after I left the Thunder Mountain aid station, and it was startling to find him lying in the trail in pain. He was surrounded by about five folks trying to coordinate help for him, and giving him ice. I believe he was one of a number of runners that day who had to get physically extracted from the trail by race officials. I found out that Trevor had heat stroke and had to be administered an IV, but he was able to get out ok.

After finally cresting the climb around mile 28 at 8300 feet MSL, the course entered a section of never ending up and down spurs. No one really had an idea of how much longer we had to go. I had 100 mile finishers on my heels moving just as fast as me toughing it out. As other folks would come toward us, either on bike or hiking, they would throw out all sorts of figures. “Three miles to go.” “Two miles to go.” One dude said four miles to go, and my reply was a very abrupt “bullsh*t!”

I estimate I had three miles to go when I met up with my father. My Dad actually hiked out from the finish line with a bottle of water that was maybe a quarter full. But seeing him was encouraging. Although I could barely talk, as my mouth was so dry, my Dad effectively paced me in, telling me how much longer we had, and that we only had two more climbs to go. He didn’t have much water since he had rationed it out to other runners also desperately in need as he came out to me. So we hiked together to the finish. On a couple occasions he would try to encourage me to start jogging, but as soon as I tried to get my legs moving they would seize up.

I estimate we had about a mile to go when I saw a kid run up to me and he was moving really good, and he handed me a heavenly bottle of cool water! It was Max Preslar, the son of my friend and training partner Matt who himself had just placed third in the 100 mile race. Max recognized me and passed me the bottle which I didn’t hesitate to drink and cool myself off. Max joined our party as we pressed on. This is the first time I have ever had other people pace me in a running competition, and I had no idea how helpful it would be to have Max and my Dad there to keep me company and help me stay in the game. I felt mentally devastated by the day, especially about how quickly everything changed.

As soon as I had visual of the finish line, I started to jog. My Dad and Max continued with me, and I finally finished. I was slightly depressed that the race officials had no water at the finish, but my wife Anna met me and as soon as she asked me what I needed, I said the word I had been thinking about for the previous two hours: “chair.”

Aftermath

I feel like the experience of running a marathon or an ultra really continues into the hours after finishing. My muscles were in so much pain that I could not get into a comfortable position as soon as I was seated. Taking off my shirt and shoes was a relief, and my family gave me a wet towel to keep on my face. Meanwhile Anna militantly kept me drinking. I drank water with electrolytes, Hammer Recoverite, and really anything. As soon as I was done with one bottle, my wife promptly handed me another. Trying to keep the cramping at bay, we tried to get some salt tabs, but unfortunately there were none to be found. I lied on the ground a little bit, and still couldn’t really move without experiencing muscle seizure. But invariably, I was able to just hold a position in the camping chair, and settle down.

Photo by Anna Blanch Rabe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because Matt and Max were at the finish line with their truck, they graciously drove us back to Ruby’s Inn to our car so we could make our dinner reservation that night in Tropic. My family was upset about the race’s slow shuttle situation, especially because people had to wait hours to get the shuttle out and thus we relied on Matt’s generosity. I was upset that the race organizers didn’t have water or ice at the finish line. The tough heat conditions made it understandable that runners would need more resources on this day, and the runners who had to be extracted from the trail apparently took up shuttles, intended for transportation but converted into ambulances. Regardless, I think a race that doesn’t have water at a finish line is missing a crucial part of ensuring that runners are safe.

Lessons Learned

I ended up finishing 38th in 7:49:26 running a total of 33.7 miles. Hopefully this will remain my personal worst for all future races. I don’t believe this result reflects the training I did and the fitness level I’m at. However the day turned out to be much, much tougher than I could have imagined. I went from third place to 38th place in the last 9 miles (which for me took me nearly 10 miles). Between going off course and spending time under the tree, I lost a full hour. The last 9 miles of the race took me as long, if not longer, than the previous 22 miles before the last aid station.

Trying to grasp lessons learned from this experience requires some analysis of my big mistakes.

Mistake #1…Min turning all of the aid stations. Minimizing time at aid stations works in either a short distance race, or possibly in a longer race with more than three aid stations. Maybe this strategy would have worked in cooler conditions, but such was not the case today. When I ran the 10 mile and 15 mile trail races last month, I was able to skip all the aid stations because I was moving so fast, and the shorter distances allowed me to finish consuming only the water and gels in my hydration pack. On a 50K course, with only three aid stations, and that last nine mile stretch covering an exposed and hot climb, I should have taken my time at the last aid station, and I could have actually planned for this beforehand. To stop, sit in the shade, cool down & calm down, pound at least a bottle of water, eat something with calories, and take salt tablets. If I had done those things, I think the last stretch would have been night and day for me.

Mistake #2…Going off course and not going right back to the aid station. The course was actually marked exceptionally, but I stubbornly convinced myself to continue far too long after recognizing that course markings were absent, and possibly I was hallucinating. When I turned around and found my way back, I’m certain I would have been more successful to have just run back to the aid station, eat about two extra miles, and just get refueled. Instead I decided to press with depleted stores and really suffered in that last stretch.

Mistake #3…Did I go too hard at the beginning? I kept my effort level at 6/10 in the first quarter, and felt really comfortable. Maybe I did push too hard right before the first aid station and could have dialed the pace back anticipating that I get fatigued quickly after 20 miles. I still need to experiment more, but dialing back the early pace and staying as chill as possible is something I need to figure out in these long events.

Mistake #4…Salt tablets? I honestly don’t know if taking Endurolytes during the course would have been a game changer for me, but I don’t think they would have hurt. For such a hot day, the way my body started to feel so depleted, I think these only could have helped.

Looking Ahead

At this point, I will continue pursuing a really important running goal….get the marathon and ultramarathon 50K distances dialed. More than ever, I look forward to racing this long distance again and achieve a day where I can finish as strong as possible. I hope this tough experience at Bryce will provide yet another launch platform to achieve that goal, and I also hope the lessons learned make me more resilient for those moments when things don’t go to plan, whether in running or in other endeavors. I will race again, and I’m confident that I have much better days to come.

Me and my crew chief

Congratulations to Matt Preslar on his third place finish in the 100 miler, and to Travis Swaim on his win of the 50K! I was so fortunate to be helped and assisted by some incredible people-Matt and Max Preslar, my parents Brian and Felicity, and the terrific volunteers during the race. I am beyond blessed to have had a crew chief in my wife Anna who intensely wanted me to run well, and went above and beyond trying to help me wherever she could. She has the heart of an ultra champion.

Gear: Salomon Hydration Vest-Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin, Shoes-Salomon Sense Pro 2, Shades-“Sunbathing with Wizards” by Goodr, Gels/Heed/Recoverite by Hammer Nutrition.

With Max and my Dad

With Matt Preslar