Slaying Dragons; Grand Canyon 50k

My first 50k. It happened when Mt. Lemmon marathon cancelled; all the training and time that went in to that preparation, ‘what do we do?’. ‘Sign up for an ultra, of course!’.

We had an eventful drive from Tucson up to the North Rim; traffic came to a stop on the high-way for more than an hour, helping a lady change her flat, a mattress flew out of a trailer and skidded along the road at around 80 mph and a few other adventures I won’t get in to here. Suffice it to say, we had a long drive and were pretty happy to finally get to our cabins, registered, fed and with nothing more to do than shower and sleep. We did that too. Not many people at this inaugural event. The 100/50 milers had left an hour earlier than us 50k’ers. Felt like there were about twenty of us, altogether. The race director sat on a fence speaking through a microphone hooked up to a small amp, covering the race information and aid stations before finally counting down and sending us off with a casual, “Ok, go ahead and start running”.

We started running.

Right away, the altitude. The Nathan hydration pack felt like it was contributing to my inability to get my breath; constricted around my chest. I was overdressed with a technical shirt and a saucony jacket. Two liters of water on my back and a sports solution in my handheld because I sweat a lot.

The trail was clearly marked as we made our way out to the Monument Point turn-around. At a parking lot turn-around some of the runners were asking if this was where they were supposed to start heading back – it wasn’t. I had looked at the map pretty closely two nights before and knew the path continued past this parking lot. They looked confused and a little annoyed and I’ve been there too, so now I try and really study the course before running – lesson learned. My Hydration/Fuel plan was to eat a Stinger every 45 minutes along with an S-Cap tablet and to try and have my handheld empty before the next aid station. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my hydration vest; refill at fifteen or just drop it altogether and go with just a hand held for the last three legs.
The elevation profile indicated some pretty good climbs early on through the race, and I wasn’t disappointed either. I pushed and set small distance goals on long hills, walking and running my way up but getting passed and losing sight of those in front of me. Had to just stay in my race and let things happen. Getting to the 10-12 mile mark would get me to a more level course, still with some ups and downs but not quite as dramatic and my drop bag was at Parissawampits Aid Station at 15. I had some time to think about it.
My shoulders were KT-taped and felt pretty good. I was sticking to my plan. The air was cool but I was still warming up pretty good in my ‘heavy’ gear. Started to think about stopping to peel the jacket off and stuff it into my pack, but it just wasn’t that pressing; uncomfortable for sure, just not absolutely necessary.. yet.

I had seen two of the other four people in our little team (Tribe Kick Ass). One passed my on my way out to Monument Point and the other had a camera trained on me when I was coming back from the point. That first guy is really fast and I turkey-called over my shoulder, but he never heard me.. he was gone down the trail. The second guy is the model of tenacity and determination; he gets it done with a huge smile on his face. The forest road kept going, but the little sign pointed right and off I went, over the fence and into the woods, following a well marked but otherwise under-used trail. This led to one of the tougher hills that just went straight up. It was like it had never heard the term ‘Switch-back’. Climbing and climbing, at altitude feeling like I could never catch my breath, and more climbing. When I finally did crest the top, I wasn’t sure I had enough gas to start running. I started running. We ran through a pine forest up and down ravines, sliding down on our butts at one point before trudging back up another steep hill.   This went on for too long, but eventually it did level off a bit and I saw a little blonde girl ahead yelling, “Way to go” rather unconvincingly.  I thanked her anyway and I was at Parissawampits Aid station.  

Parissawampits had a worker there who was spot-on the best aid-station guy out there.   Immediately he was there to help me, getting my bottle refilled, a cup of mountain dew, ‘Anything else I can get you?’.  Dude!  If you ever read this I want you to know, you really made a difference in my entire run that day with your awesome attitude and help.   It would have been a different race without you.   There was nothing I needed that you weren’t there to help me out with – THANK YOU!   The fence-post aid station had another stellar person, but Parissawampits was the best; hands down.

That was where I had my drop bag.   Such great race organization, and there it was on the tarp.   What to do?   I made a quick decision – lose the jacket and the shirt and go bare-chested for the rest of the race.  Load up on e-gels in my hand-held and drop the Nathan Hydration pack as well.  (A decision I regretted later on, but not for poor planning!).   No shirt, one hand-held – no problem, right?   Another aid worker mentioned bacon in a littany of other choices and that caught my ear.  For some reason that sounded really good and I had heard somewhere that your body ‘knows’ what it wants to eat.. so, bacon?   Sure.. bacon!   He handed me a styrofoam cup filled with hashbrown potatos, scrambled eggs and flecks of bacon.  I just wanted bacon, but I took a bit and almost threw up.   The potatoes were bad, or at least, bad for me.  My body said, “Hell no!” and I discreetly threw away my cup.  Clue?  If someone asks for bacon.. give them nothing.. but.. bacon.  Don’t free-style!   They said bacon for a reason.. don’t try and be too nice. O.K., end rant!   LOL.

Jenny came into Parissawampits just as I was headed out.  I was so happy to see her but anxious to get going too.  I gave her a quick hug, wished her well and started off again.  I remembered just in time and called over my shoulder, “Hey Jenny!.. <turkey call>”.

Now I was starting to catch people.   You get this sick feeling when passing people or approaching people that you’re going to have to pass them.  But you don’t want to pass them.  You want to tuck in behind them and ride it out, nice and slow.   So I would approach someone and get in there and they would automatically stop and move to the side.  DRAT!   I would thank them and now?  Now I’m in front of them.   I HAVE to keep running now because I can’t pass them and then let them pass me again, right?   ARRRGH!!  So I kept running and kept catching people and passing people.. ARGH!  ARGH!  ARGH!

When I got to Fence-Post Aid station, the people there said my back was horribly sun-burned.  What they didn’t know is that I’m from Tucson and I regularly run without a shirt (but lots of sunscreen) in the middle of the day.  My sun-tan is red, not brown.  It just is.   But they insisted, and the super-awesome aid-station worker applied sunscreen to my back.  (NOTE: aid stations should have spray on sunscreen available!).  Still, I got a good layer of sunscreen AND a slight massage, which felt good.   I found myself drawn to ginger ale and gatorade and drank prodigious amounts of both.  Lots of snacking as well.   Nancy, another runner came in behind me and had been dogging me for a while.  Quite honestly, I was afraid she was going to pass me, but I was still in the lead and I took off.

Between Fence Post and 250 Aid stations, it seemed to be all up hill.  Slow, grinding, uphill.   I just couldn’t run the whole thing, so I reverted back to what I did early on; run to a pre-determined target and walk for just a short bit.   Nancy kept a steady pace throughout which meant, she would just about catch me when it was time for me to take off again.  Personally, I don’t like start-and-stop runners.  They get in my head and make me go faster than I intend just so I can put them in my rear-view mirror, for good.   So I honestly felt a little bad that I was doing this to Nancy, but I just wanted to make good time uphill and this seemed like the best way to do it.  I did it, over and over again, I kept doing it.   She dropped out of sight about halfway through and I didn’t see her again until 250 Aid Station.   I had been running a while like this when I reached a Forest Service Road (FS) where the course made a right at a T-Section.  The mile marker there said 244, and I had been running at least 3 miles I reckoned, ‘but that’s crazy!’, I thought.  ‘If this is 244 and the next aid station is 250, then I have six more miles to go!’.   Jesus-fucking-Christ!   I had already run a bunch of miles and I had already been half-way over my distance to the next aid station, but now?  Now I was less than half-way and my bottle was feeling a bit light.  I was so careful about hydration and fuel and now I’m going to get dehydrated because what?  I miscalculated my distances between aid stations?

What do you do?   I kept running and thinking about this.   My mind was wandering, but I knew I needed to keep my bottle reserved as much as possible.   ‘Am I getting dehydrated?’ I thought to myself as I took a mental checklist of how I was feeling.  Tired, hurting a little, but all in all, nothing unexpected.   ‘Dry mouth a little though.. that’s not good’.  So I would take a quick swig just to wet my whistle and that’s all.   I kept running and then, I saw someone ahead.   Far away.   I kept running and losing sight of him but every now and then I would see him again and he would be the same far distance away from me.  Keep running.

I kept running.

This guy was fast downhill.  Whatever distance I made up on flat up uphill, he would demolish downhill and speed away from me.   But I stuck to my plan, run all of downhill and half of my uphills.  I had this idea that if he kept walking his entire uphill, then he was toasted and just hanging on.   I was closing on him.   I crested a hill and he was walking with another guy up a hill, so I kept running.  ‘The other guy must have been an aid-station guy’, I thought (turned out I was right) because he went tearing up the hill while the runner kept walking.  I was closing fast now.

I pulled up next to him with the aid station in sight and stopped to walk.  Yes, I was competing, but this guy looked bad.  “How you feeling?”, I asked.  “I’m shot!”, came his immediate reply.  I told him we made it.. we’re at the aid station and just hang in there.  I was genuinely encouraging.   Got his name, introduced myself and we hung around the aid station a bit.   I had some M&Ms, tons of water and gatorade and some chocolate wafers.   An orange quarter too.   Nancy came running in and left right before I did.   The aid station told her that her husband had dropped out after getting lost.   She wanted to get back to meet him.

They asked me there at 250 how I was feeling.   I got the same direct eye-contact as they were sizing me up for the last leg and I just answered that my knee hurt a little and I’m tired, but besides all my problems, I feel great!   Flashing a big smile, they laughed along with me and seemed satisfied.

I took off again and quickly passed Nancy.   This last leg was supposed to be five miles of pretty much all downhill.  Thank goodness for that.  It really was mostly downhill and I just tried to roll with it.   It took a long time into the run, but I eventually saw another runner on a hairpin turn.   That motivated me and I pushed forward involuntarily and caught him.  He had some ear-buds in, had begun walking as I approached and had no clue I was coming.   That must have hurt (mentally) to be passed by someone you didn’t see coming when your dog-tired.   I wished him well and he kind of nodded, defeated or deflated and I kept going – now terrified that he was going to find his legs and chase me down.

I kept going, down and down, around a corner and down and down and down.

The forest service road kept going soul-crushing mile after soul-crushing mile and I kept peeking over my shoulder to see if I had to keep running or if I could stop.  “What a load of shit!’, I thought, “that here I am, looking back to see if I can find an excuse to stop running!”.   Still, despite my own self-chastisement, I kept looking back.   It was clear as far as the eye could see.

Then, I started seeing tents and cars of campers.  ‘I must be getting close!’, I thought.   But more importantly, I saw another runner way ahead of me, walking.   ‘Oh my god!’, I thought, ‘I can catch this guy!!!’.   We went on down the slow soul-crushing hill and I was trying to hide on the turns so he wouldn’t see me and get motivated.  But then I turned a corner and that guy took off like a rabbit, at least 200 yards ahead of me.   Didn’t take long to realize he was responding to the cheers of the finish line.  I ran out of time and distance to ever close with him.. he was too far gone!   

One last look over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t someone else’s prey, clear, then I sprinted with newfound energy around two corners and across the line.

Brian was there, “Can I get you anything?  Water?  Soda?”.  (Thanks so much, by the way – you’re awesome)   I just wanted to be.. just wanted to stand there and wait because right then and there, I wasn’t ready for anything – not even sitting down.   Brian had finished almost an hour earlier than me.   Third place on his first ultra ever.

I made sure to make my way over to the Race director and thank him for a great race.  He apologized for the extra miles; the Forest Service had asked them to move things around at the last minute and nobody knew that the distance was actually further than a 50k.. I had just run 55k or 34 miles.   That only made my smile bigger.   Loved that race!

Rachel, Jenny and Duane all came in together.  Jenny practically collapsed in my arms, trying to tell me something through asthmatic gasps, and practically in tears.   ‘It can wait Jenny.. catch your breath and then you can tell me all about it!’.   She had gotten lost – or, thought she did and then backtracked.   Then her mind came in and started beating her up, ‘They’re all waiting for you (for hours) at the finish line’, or ‘What happened to Jenny?   She must not be running very good’.  These are the things her mind was beating into her psyche.   She kept running.   She got back on track and ran the hell out of that course with an extra mile or two on top of the extra two miles.   The whole time, her mind tormenting her with what?  That she’s a poor runner?  That we’re going to think less of her?   I couldn’t hold someone in higher esteem than someone who somehow keeps running when there’s nothing left to run for and has every reason to quit – she kept.. fucking.. running and collapsed AFTER she crossed the line, finally giving in to the tears, despair and frustration.   She quit when she finished, not before.   I’ll never forget that as long as I live.   It will inspire me on races to come forever.

Rachel was also fighting her own demons.  A burst vein in her calf, a feeling of being burned out?  Unsure whether she was going to run or watch?   Running but not running hard?   She still ran that race and ran it well.   She finished with a smile on her face, full of energy and encouragement.

And Duane.   He just doesn’t quit.   Probably the most unassuming humble human being I know; he just goes out and races at his pace, smiles and has a good time doing it.   He doesn’t seek the spotlight at all; it’s just all for pleasure.   He’s also an encyclopedia of knowledge for anything hiking or trail-running based in Arizona.   He IS from Phoenix, but I guess I can forgive him for that.

We’re all home now and we’re chomping at the bit for our next race.   Probably the Colossal Cave/Vail 50 miler, or 50k – depending on how we feel.  

To me, it feels like I just woke up from a dream where I slew dragons and saved villages.  A dream where I was the hero. I miss that dream.   I want to dream that dream again, only next time, the dragon will be even bigger!



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