Written by Aaron Stuber
Note: This blog was written in June of 2015.
I had the pleasure of running the Bryce Canyon 50 miler in beautiful Bryce Canyon National Park this weekend and let me tell you, it was a full experience. My training the last 6 months has been the hardest on record and with a new coach on board, it was precise, deliberate and much more efficient than in years past. I showed up in Utah on Saturday ready to push my body and my mind and see what this new training had prepared me for. This being my first crack at the 50 mile distance, I was also anxious to see if I might finally become acquainted with the limits of my capabilities as a runner; you just never know what you might experience at these distances.
The day started early with a 3:45 am wake up to catch a 4:45 am shuttle out to the park. I made quick work of my pre-race breakfast of bananas, dates, mangoes, almond butter, beet juice and water in the motel room, got dressed, gathered my gear and was on the bus ready to go. Accompanying me to the park was my friend and running partner Jai, who had flown out to Boulder from Virginia to test his mettle in the wilderness. An hour later, our old yellow school bus, which was trailed by another bus jammed beyond capacity with sleepy eyed runners, arrived at the start. We all shuffled out into the pre-dawn light and formed an instant line, 150 people deep, in front of the portable latrines to empty our bowels. If there is anything predictable about the minutes before a race, its that people will need to answer the call of nature and we were fortunate that the race directors had managed to tow latrines this far out into the wilderness.
At 6 am sharp, the race began and we were off. The first mile of the course was on dirt road, giving the pack enough space and time to thin out before entering single track and starting our first climb. I managed to position myself at the back of what would be the lead group of runners right before we disappeared into dense tree line. About 15 minutes later, as we moved into an open section of trail, the silence of morning was broken by a harsh buzzing sound, something akin to an enormous swarm of bees just above us. I panned up quickly to discover a small drone, hovering in the fog and fastened with a blinking GoPro camera, taking film. The drone operator was standing on a mound of dirt just off trail, glued to his remote screen. I couldn’t help but ponder the strange juxtaposition of such a futuristic technology being used to record such a primal human activity in such an ancient setting. With haste, we positioned ourselves for the first climb.
Single track turned suddenly back into forest road as we climbed roughly 900 feet over the next 6 miles to the highest elevation of the race at 9400 ft. Climbing is a strength and I would customarily use this opportunity to start making strategic passes, but 50 miles is a long way and requires an enormous amount of patience and diligent pacing to avoid blowing up later in the race. With that in mind I hung back and transitioned to power hiking the steep sections. I came into Pink Cliffs aid station (mile 6) at the top of the climb, in 12th place overall and 25 minutes ahead of schedule, quickly refilled one of my 20 oz bottles and was off. The trail abruptly lost altitude and I began descending down to the valley floor. My running was smooth, easy and on pace so as not to kill the legs on the first downhill. In hind site, this was one of the most enjoyable sections of the course for me. Eventually the trail wound its way through a spectacularly beautiful meadow, bathed in shimmering light from the rising suns rays reflecting off morning dew. The smell of mountain wild flowers was potent and reminded me of so many backpacking trips through the Eagle Cap Wilderness of NE Oregon. Had I been hiking, I would have stopped for a while to more fully take in the scenery, but I was on a war path, 100% focused on the race.
Straight Canyon aid station (mile 11.5) came quickly. I was now 45 minutes ahead of schedule and closing in on the 10th place runner. I refilled water bottles, slammed a Vega energy bar and was out in less than two minutes. The weather at this point was about as ideal as one could hope for in the mountains. The thick fog of the early morning had burned off and left a partly cloudy sky with an average temperature in the high 40s and no wind. I was running in top form, fully immersed in flow and feeling weightless, feeling strong, feeling a deep sense of connection with the wilderness surrounding me. The next 5 miles had a few rolling climbs, totaling 750 feet as I moved back out of the valley and towards the rim of Bryce Canyon.
I came into Kanab Creek aid station (mile 16.5) over an hour ahead of schedule and having passed the 10th place runner on one of the climbs, was now holding steady in 9th overall and feeling strong. I rushed over to my drop bag and loaded my vest with more bars and gels. Working my way through the aid station buffet, I crammed as many bananas, grapes and watermelon down my throat as possible, refilled my water bottles and took off. The next section of trail was a critical opportunity to increase my pace slightly and put some distance on the runners behind me. Within a few miles, I caught up to what had now become one of the lead packs and I could see the 4th through 8th place runners. My strategy was to stay put and just keep them within eye sight until the next aid station. With the race not even half way over, I knew anything could happen between now and the finish so I resolved to slow down a bit and start picking people off by attrition. This is when I started running with another guy from Boulder who was shirtless, despite the cold air that had rendered my hands useless, and sporting a deep cough which he assured me was just pneumonia and that he felt great for a 50 miler today. He would run at full speed down the steepest sections of trail, then stop and pull his dick out through the side of his shorts to piss, cough a few more times and continue on at a pace I could not understand. Surely he would blow up and drop at the next aid station.
Right around mile 19, I started to feel a familiar tension in my left Achillles tendon and it filled me with despair. This had happened before towards the end of a 50k and caused me to slow significantly. I ignored it. By the time I got to Blubber Creek aid station (mile 24.5) my achilles had started to seize up and I knew the next half of the race was going to be a test of pain tolerance. Still in 9th place and with no intention of stopping, I had to give up my hopes of holding onto a top 10 finish (9 hrs or less) and resolve to make top 20 (10 hours or less) come hell or high water. The gentleman with the pneumonia, who I had been running with, noticed I was having problems and took that opportunity to skip the aid station and put a substantial distance between us. I would never see him again.
I pushed on and prepared myself for a long and steep descent over the next 9 miles which I could use to keep good time despite my failing left leg. It was starting to warm up at this point and I was taking in more fluids and calories. Eat, drink, move. Eat, drink, move. I repeated the mantra as a reminder of self care and as a distraction from the pain in my leg. As the trail turned steeply downhill, I resorted to planting with the heel of each foot instead of the mid foot to avoid engaging the achilles. This strategy worked well for resting the calf but I knew it would put undue stress on my quads and fatigue them for the harder climbs and descents towards the end of the course.
Proctor aid station (mile 33.5) came slowly and I was now 30 minutes off my original pace and in 12th place overall. I limped over to my drop bag, grabbed my last gel flask and bars and loaded those quickly into my vest. This aid station had a good assortment of fruit so I ate as much as I could and was on my way. This next section I knew would be slow going as fatigue set in and the constant climbing and descending would take more power from my legs, especially with my current form. I also noticed a very ominous storm cell moving in that had pounded the area the previous day with hale, rain and lightning. This was going to be an epic finish to my first 50 miler without a doubt.
Eat, drink, move. Eat, drink, move. By now, the pain in my achilles had become significant. Each foot strike felt like someone was slicing into my tendon with a hot knife and it turned my stomach. The steep climbing was almost impossible as I had to engage the foot slightly to push off. Gradually my pace slowed and I started to feel the cumulative fatigue and stress of the day wearing me down. I was passed a few more times and felt my hard earned progress slipping away. Then I heard the first loud crack of thunder and started preparing myself for the storm. As I reached the top of the canyon, the first few pieces of hale made their way down and bounced off the trail in front of me. Seconds later the sky opened up with all of its furry and I was assaulted by pea sized cannon balls of ice. Having only an ultralight, windproof top on and being totally exposed with no where to seek shelter, I took the full brunt of the storm directly. Each hit felt like a bee sting and I found myself suddenly panicked by the unexpected pain this storm was inflicting. Eventually the hale abated and was followed by heavy rain, biting wind and lightning. I was now completely soaked, freezing cold, injured and exposed on a ridge in a lightning storm with nowhere to hide. Eat, drink, move and get off this ridge right now you son of a bitch.
I started running as fast as I could, adrenaline numbing the pain in my leg. I knew lightning must have been touching down behind me because I didn’t see the bolts, only their flashes followed in lock step by the ear drum popping crack of their charge. I came to find out later that a runner a few minutes behind me was knocked unconscious by a bolt that struck the ground right beside him. Apparently he came to on the ground, got back up and continued running (what else are you going to do?) Finally the trail began to descend off of the ridge and back into the treeline and by this time the storm had blown over, leaving only beautiful sunshine in its wake. I started to thaw out and continued my hobbled run into Thunder Mountain aid station (mile 42). This station had gathered a collection of wide eyed runners who had just survived the same storm and needed to vent about the experience. I wanted to be done and so wasted no time gallivanting, refilled my water and trudged on.
Eight miles was all that separated me from the finish line and the end of a very long day and so I picked up my pace a bit, ignoring the stabbing pain in my achilles. I was in 15th place and more than an hour behind my original schedule but I knew If I could just maintain my pace, a 10 hour finish in the top 20 was still possible. I was not about to let this slip away. Each mile was a grind and seemed to last for an eternity. The trail oscillated between straight up and straight down which was destroying my already fatigued quads and worsening the pain in my leg. I was reminded of a saying in ultrarunning, “relentless forward progress,” which I clung to and kept repeating in my head. Again, I hobbled my way to the top of another ridge and not a minute later the crack of thunder was above me. This storm brought hale again, and lucky for me, it was twice the size and twice the velocity. Now I was screaming obscenities and desperately searching for cover. I managed to spot a small pine tree off trail and ran over to it. I hugged its trunk and held on for the ride. It afforded me just enough cover not to be injured and I was grateful for it.
The hale passed quickly and transitioned into a downpour of ice cold rain. I was thoroughly done with my 50 mile experience at this point and just wanted to sit in a hot bath to soak my wounds. Onward I slogged through the muddy trails with inches of heavy, bright red clay accumulating on the soles of my shoes, making travel that much more laborious. I was passed two more times and lost count of my place but figured I was still under 20. With less than two minutes remaining before the 10 hour mark, I picked up my pace and grunted on. Finally, on a ridge line above the trail, I heard people cheering. “The finish line is at the bottom of the hill!,” they said and I started running hard. The last stretch of trail, downhill, towards the finish line was a blur as I passed through a row of pine trees into a crowd of muddy, cold and wet runners, smiling from ear to ear. 10 hours flat, 17th place overall. Not a bad performance for my first 50 miler, considering the injury and the conditions. There is a steep learning curve with events of this distance and I certainly learned a lot, about myself mostly and what I am capable of. Until next time.