I planned some time ago to at least try one of the ultra marathons at one of the national parks out west. My wife Karen had always wanted to volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT, which is conveniently close to Zion, Bryce Canyon, the North Rim and actually several others. It is a great location. I recommend Kanab and Best Friends to anyone, but that is another post.
So after considering timing for a good vacation and our schedules, it was narrowed down to choosing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is much more isolated and out of the way than the South Rim and has more serious hikers and is less crowded. Still extremely beautiful as you are looking at the same enormous canyon from the other side. As many who have been there will tell you, you can’t really take in the enormity of the place in a picture. You have to be there.
After driving 90 minutes to check in on Friday I learned that the finish was not the same place where we were taken to be shuttled to the start, which I didn’t realize. I had confused some information on the site, but they had told us. Karen learned she would have to drive about an hour on dirt roads with lots of big holes in them. She’s not a fan of dirt road driving as it is so we did a test run that night on our way back to Kanab, and she became confident. We also saw a coyote or grey wolf on our drive which was amazing.
We got up at 4:50 the next morning to be ready. The shuttle left the gathering area at 6:05. We were lucky that Arizona doesn’t follow daylight savings, so staying in Utah, we got an extra hour. We got there a little early to cold winds and slept in the car for a few minutes before I checked in and hopped in the shuttle to go to the start. Karen would drive to the main lodge, about an hour away and hang out there and do some hiking of her own while she waited the 8 hours or so for the finish.
We were shuttled to the start. That was about an hour drive on dirt roads. The projected start was 7 but we all gathered and got going at about 7:15. I think there was some shuttle confusion and they wanted to make sure they got everyone to the start. He gathered us around and went over a few basic rules and the outline of the course and sent us on our way with a five finger countdown. I decided to hang back and do a GoPro video of people starting and take off behind the big group. The intent of this was to not go out too fast, which I did in my first 50K, and also to capture some good video to remember the day (I later left my GoPro in our rental car and at this time it appears to be lost for good).
Tactically, though it did slow me down, it probably slowed me too much. Those in the back were actually going slower than I found comfortable. I still am not overly comfortable with passing people on single track so I just settled in a bit. When someone ahead of me passed or I got passed, I would follow them and gain a few places. In general it was slow going and the first 18 miles of the course aren’t overly exciting. There were 2 or 3 spots where you could look out at the canyon quickly, but they save the best views for the last 14 miles or so.
Unfortunately I started off feeling a bit ill. I had a little case of nausea and just wasn’t feeling great. Nothing debilitating, but just one of those days when you don’t have your all and don’t feel strong. I tried to stay positive and think this would keep me slower so I had more strength at the end.
You tend to be bunched with the same group of people all day. There were probably 5-8 people that I saw over and over once you separate a bit. Probably 10 miles in things separate a bit and I was generally either by myself or with one or two others. The course is very rocky. In the early miles you don’t think of it as much but most of the course is covered with rocks. Not cinders or little stones, but bigger ankle twisting, baseball sized rocks that you would regularly land on or catch the edge of your foot with. There was no real avoiding it. I was wearing my Vibram trail shoes and had confidence they would get me through, but there were many times this day that I wished I wasn’t a “barefoot runner”.
I had set up several items to pick up at the mile 18 aid station. I had planned on removing my coat, switching to different bottles with my Tailwind formula, charging my phone a bit, eating etc. That spot was sort of a halfway point and a goal point to aim towards. It got so I was feeling ill enough that thoughts of tapping out at 18 did cross my mind. I thought about what a pain it would be for Karen and how she would worry because I’d have to sit there to the end and go back with those people. Though by the time I got there I wasn’t wanting to quit, lots goes through your head when you aren’t feeling well and still have nearly 20 miles of rock strewn trail ahead of you. I did realize that even if I walked the last 14 I would probably get to her quicker than if I quit, so what was the point. I had to finish this thing anyway. You don’t come all the way out here and go through all of that for a DNF unless you are actually hurt or have a serious issue, not just a little nausea and a bad stomach. I got a few good pictures and video on those first 18 but it was mostly in the woods.
The last mile or so before 18 was in heavy sun and I was getting very hot in my coat. I decided it was heat that was causing me to feel ill and I would ditch my coat at the aid station. As soon as I took my coat off a huge chilling wind kicked up and I started shivering. I put my coat back on. My phone, which I had put on airplane mode, was uncharacteristically still at 82% power, so I didn’t need the charger. I switched out my bottles and actually had a Coke. I see soda at these trail run aid stations and always wondered how people can drink that in a race because I typically have trouble eating or drinking anything, and have even struggled with different basic formulas over the years. Anyway, I gave a Coke a try and it was amazing, and I’m a Pepsi guy. I downed about half of it, which is pretty good for me. Then I thanked the volunteers and headed out. Surprisingly, I felt great. This was the first time all day that I felt good. I shocked myself. At 18 many people hit the wall and I actually felt fresh. I though I can really crush these last 14 or so. I’m going to make a run at this.
Then mile 19 came. Talk about hitting a wall. Literally. There was a drastic downhill followed by the steepest uphill I have experienced in my trail running days thus far. It was about 3/4 of a mile straight uphill. Many were stopping every few feet to catch their breath. It was more like rock climbing than running, but there was just enough of an angle to make it possible. I’ve got pretty good hill legs so I left a few people here and caught a few. I did still feel good even though this was challenging.
The tough part was that though I physically felt good, the rocks under my feet were starting to catch up to me. Where it was painful but tolerable for the first half of the race, it was starting to be excruciating every time I didn’t perfectly land on or around a rock, which was quite often. With all of the hills, many, including myself, were walking up the steep hills, and running down. I walked pretty good up the hills, but it got so that even on the downhills, if it was rocky, I would have to walk them too, to make sure I didn’t hit the rocks wrong. At a running speed I pretty much always did. The bottoms of my feet were throbbing like someone just stabbed them with tiny daggers over and over.
There were several absolutely gorgeous viewpoints the course took us too on those last 14 miles and I really enjoyed them. The race director actually made us get our bibs punched to make sure we went out on the viewpoints. Some people would actually just punch their bib and run. These were the real racers. Though I wanted to do well, I also wanted to take it in. I stopped at all of the viewpoints and took pictures and video and really took it in. I actually had another runner take my picture at one spot. I remember I was listening to an audio class on the history of eastern Europe as I ran and they were talking about Budapest. I stopped to take a picture and the runner behind me offered to get a shot of me. I turned around and he was wearing a Budapest T-Shirt. Very strange. I told him I was listening to an audio book on Eastern Europe and I don’t think I expressed it well because he just seemed confused, but he took my picture, and I think it was one of the best pictures of the day, that I was able to retain.
Anyway, there was an aid station at 24 that repeated as an aid station at 30, because there was an out and back to Monument Point that totaled 6 miles. I actually felt pretty good here and the first mile or so was down a dirt road. Yes, I said down and dirt road. Downhill and fewer rocks. I loved it. Unfortunately, this led to the rockiest section of the course. 3 miles of the out and back on a trail that was all rocks. I could do nothing but slowly walk as many people passed me. This section cost me at least a potential top 25 position I think. I ended up 33rd out of 78. I walked for 3 straight miles while people passed me. I stopped at Monument Point, which is gorgeous, and applied new bandages to my feet and just sat there for a few minutes knowing I had to go over those rocks again to go back. This was one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen though. Worth it. Here one guy came to the rock and punched his bib and turned around and left. I couldn’t believe this. I didn’t really know where I was as far as place at this point, but I figured I was toward the back. I couldn’t believe someone as far back as we were wouldn’t at least enjoy the view for a minute. To each his own. He beat me.
So I headed back slowly over those rocks. I got passed several more times. Did I mention I had a soda at every aid station after the first one I tried. I couldn’t believe how the sugar high helped. I got to the aid station at 30 and had a half soda. Supposedly, we only had 2 miles left. It was a 50K that is supposed to be 31 miles, but they told us it would be 32. The guy I ran with at the end said it was actually closer to 33. So I had been walking for quite a while at this point. I remembered that the last few miles were downhill, though I thought about walking. The guy next to me as we left, Brian, started to run, so I did to. I followed him for a bit, but eventually we just ran side by side and chatted. He was from Durango, CO. Nice guy. I talked to him about how my Vibrams didn’t stand up to the rocks and my feet were killing me, and he said it was pretty bad in normal shoes too. We ran down the hill for a while and I saw a T coming up and a bridge. Karen was standing there. My beautiful wife. I said, “That’s my wife” to Brian. I yelled, “Please don’t tell us we are almost there unless we are almost there. ” She said 1/4 mile to go. She had measure it. She is a runner and she knew we only wanted facts.
We ran the last quarter mile to some cheers and slapped five with a little girl before crossing the finish line. Karen came up shortly after. I chugged another soda. I sat down and Karen went to get me some food. It looked amazing but I was unable to eat. I felt pretty good other than my feet, but since every step involves your feet, it is hard to avoid. When I took my shoes off we saw the big hole that had worn through the bottom that you can see in the featured image. Crazy day but very proud I got through and can move on to the next one. Every race brings a different story. In my racing life I have done everything from winning my age group in a marathon do finishing last in a 10K. People race for different reasons and have different experiences. I feel like I have had just about everything from fast to slow, from pain to pleasure, and from pride to shame, but I know that the next one will be an entirely different experience.
For some reason I always have trouble getting my pictures in my posts so here are some links to a few pics.