[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
2023 marked the 10th annual running of the Black Canyon 100K. The course is point-to-point (love) with a net downhill (fast), with most of the climbing coming in the second half of the race (ouch).
I ran Black Canyon last year too (last years' recap is here), and it took me twelve hours and fourteen minutes. Last year, I struggled mightily and had to stop at an aid station for nearly thirty minutes to throw up and set my stomach straight. This year, my goal was to run faster than I did last year, and finish before dark. I finished in eleven hours and twenty-five minutes, but it wasn't easy, and it wasn't painless.
The weeks leading up to Black Canyon were not ideal training. After running Avalon 50 in early January, I needed over a week for my legs to feel strong again. My left hip flexor was angry, having taken a beating on Avalon's smooth, fast course. My body was not feeling as strong as I'd hoped.
Three weeks before Black Canyon, I went on a bender of a work trip, traveling to St. Louis Missouri for one trade show and heading straight to Austin, Texas for another. It was a hectic six days of traveling in different time zones, not sleeping enough, and being around a lot of different people. When I got home, I had a head cold that started with a sore throat and turned into a cough. I tried to rest while training enough to feel confident about running 100k.
And finally, I was nervous that my period would arrive on race day. I use a period tracker to monitor my cycle, and it's usually not far off the mark. It showed my period starting on February 18th, when I was supposed to be running through the Arizona desert. Running on day one of my period is not only highly unpleasant but physiologically more difficult than running during any other time of the month (read my blog about training with hormone cycles here). I've never raced on day one of my period before, and knew that if it landed on the morning of February 18th, I'd have a hard day in store for me. Luckily, my period came a few days early and was nearly over by the time race morning rolled around.
The Black Canyon course starts with ~20 fast downhill miles. Everyone is fresh and eager, therefore, nearly everyone starts too fast. I intentionally held myself back, tucking in behind a group of runners who (I thought) were going slower that I would have. Despite my withheld desire to push the pace, I was running quicker than I probably should have which would make the rest of my day harder later on.
Nearly halfway through, we came to the first creek crossing. Last year, there wasn't much water to speak of on course, but this years' wet weather meant more than one large creek crossings, the deepest about shin high. I saw some people sitting in the water during the warm parts of the day, while others tried to hop rocks to avoid getting their feet wet (it didn't work). Last year, the temperatures soared above 80, and most everyone struggled in the heat. This year, the temperatures never climbed above 70, making for a quicker day on the course.
After the initial downhill section, there are rolling climbs that are mostly runnable. Because I probably started too fast, my legs were heavy on the climbs, although I ran most of them despite my fatigue. At the mile 37 aid station, I felt the worst I would feel all day. My friends were there to cheer me on, but I couldn't even stop to say hi. I just refilled my water, ate a potato slice, and kept moving. Last year, I felt terrible at mile 37 as well, and I think the difficulty was due to a combination of starting too fast and not eating enough. It's difficult to eat when running hard, so after mile 37 I made a concerted effort to eat more. I had two Spring Energy gels (Awesomesauce), a couple of salt tabs, and half my bottle of water. I walked for a minute as I let the food settle, and once I started running again, I felt eons better.
Most of the day, I was running near the same group of people. Some pulled ahead of me, and some fell far behind. I'm convinced that fueling properly greatly impacted my ability to pass people later on, and contributed to the rapid decline of some people I was running with earlier in the day.
Mile 50 was the last crew access point, and Mike was there waiting for me. "My legs are dead," I told him, and they were. But, in the last twelve miles of the race I passed many people, most with pacers, and was only passed by one guy in the last half mile of the race. My legs were dead, but so were everyone else's. As I sat at mile 50, I contemplated taking a headlight. I didn't want to need one and not have it, but I had over two and a half hours until dark and knew I would likely make it to the finish before then. I slipped a small flashlight into my pack and went on my way.
One of the toughest things about Black Canyon is the rocky terrain. Late in the race, I saw more than one runner with blood running down their legs. I tripped lots of times, but never fell. The last few miles seemed especially rocky, with the finish line glowing in the distance.
At the finish, Mike peeled off my socks and shoes, my feet raw from being wet half the day, and bruised from kicking rocks. Later that night, back at the Air BnB, I would lay in a warm bath for too long, my fingers and toes growing pale and wrinkly. I would try to drink water and climb into bed before nine p.m., my body fatigued and aching. I would wake up at four in the morning, my stomach grumbling angrily, and pad into the kitchen where Mike wrapped up my dinner; a burger, sweet potato, salad, half a slice of apple pie. I ate slowly, unsure if my body would accept food. After I ate, I crawled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep.
My body felt awful, but in the best possible way.
P.S. Find your next race here, get some new gear here, or support the Black Canyon Trail Coalition here.
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