A Day in the Desert - Black Canyon 100k Race Report
About 5 weeks before the race, I started having some posterior shin splint/tendinitis around my right ankle. This took my weekly volume down from the mid 70s into the 20s and 30s… I figured I had a 3 week taper anyways, so maybe a two-week loss of peak fitness. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I needed to focus on getting things right, so I had a couple visits to a sports massage therapist, and she worked some magic to get me about 95% ready to roll.
Dave, my one-man crew/pacer, and I flew into Phoenix early on Thursday morning. I had rented a camper van from BOHO Campers (highly recommend), so we picked it up around 10:30am. We immediately drove up to Sedona to grab some lunch and got a shakeout run in at Devils Bridge. An incredible 4 mile out and back section with some incredible views.
We knocked that out and headed back south to grab some dinner. We decided on Benni’s Pizza right in Black Canyon City… super good pizza by the slice! After dinner we shot down to Bumble Bee Ranch where we were going to be camping that night. Bumble Bee is also the first major crew station at mile 20ish, so it was good to get a visual. Dry Camping was $10 for the night and included access to HOT showers and heated bathrooms. SOLD!
Friday morning, we got up and drove back into Black Canyon City in search of some breakfast… We stumbled into Nora Jean’s Koffee Kitchen. Holy Shit!! The food and the lattes were on point! I went with the Black Canyon Breakfast Sandwich and Dave got the Chorizo Burrito. At first, we seemed out of place in Patagonia puffies, beanies, and Chacos, among all the locals with killer handlebar mustaches and cowboy boots, but soon enough the place was packed with cowboys and runners a like.
After breakfast we had some time to kill before the Expo and Packet Pickup kicked off at 1, so we set up at an overlook right near the Gloriana Mine Aid Station (mile 24ish). Dave wanted to scout a bit of the course, so he took off for a couple of hours and I chilled out and drank a few beers overlooking the landscape I was about to embark upon.
The expo was held on the back-patio area of Rock Springs Café in Black Canyon City. It was an incredible set up with all the key sponsors (Altra, Squirrels Nut Butter, GU Energy, etc.). After dropping of my drop bags and grabbing my bib, we ended up eating dinner at Rock Springs Café and just chilled the rest of the day. The race offered camping passes in the overflow area of Rock Springs Café, which also happened to be the Black Canyon City Aid Station (mile 37ish) as well as the 60K finish which was about 25 minutes from the start at Mayer High School.
I had the typical night before a race kind of sleep, but all in all it was decent and when my 4:45 alarm clock went off I felt confident on Saturday morning. I got dressed and we made the drive up to Mayer HS arriving about 45 minutes before the race. It was about 34 degrees, but luckily, they had the gym opened up to all runners to stay warm while waiting to go. About 10 minutes before the start everyone made their way to the track where the race would begin. It was rad standing on the start line with some of the best ultra-runners in the world; Hayden Hawks, Charlie Ware, Magda Boulet, Camille Herron, etc.
We counted down from 10 and boom we were off and ripping around the track, it was finally here, the moment I had been waiting for since DNFing Leadville in August. My personal redemption race. The first 3 miles are on some county road and then onto a dirt jeep road that finally turns into the BCT single track. Within minutes of hitting the single track I realized just how technical this race was going to be, baseball sized rocks that would roll out from under your step kept you on edge the entire time. I saw several people eat it within the first 5 miles… wait, this isn’t supposed to be technical… is it? It was!
Unlike Leadville, I made sure I got out in a decent position and made sure I was in a solid moving pack not to get cramped in the “conga line”. I was clicking off high 7, low to mid 8 min miles and feeling confident in the flow I had going on. We quickly came into the first aid station Antelope Mesa (Mile 7.7). I had been practicing my nutrition utilizing a Tailwind concentrate, this gave me 650 calories that I would sip over a 3-hour period, along with another 24oz Nathan handheld that I used strictly for water. So, I just moved right through the aid without stopping. The trail through here, as is most of the trail, a beautifully winding, switchback single track with sweeping views of the mountain ranges off in the distance with massive Saguaro cactus surrounding you.
Into Aid #2 Hidden Treasure (Mile 12.9) I grabbed a couple pretzels and kept on rolling, I moved well into the first major crew station, Aid #3 Bumble Bee (Mile 19.4) (Race Time = 2:42). I was about 25 minutes ahead of schedule at this point and seeing Dave was a huge boost. I refilled my calories, water, and iced down my hat, buff, and arm sleeves, grabbed a slice of cheese quesadilla, stripped out of my ¼ zip I started the day in and took off. I told Dave, I was feeling good, but was going to slow it down just a bit knowing there was a bit of climbing in the next section.
It was only 4.6 miles into Aid #4 Gloriana Mine (Mile 24), this section was unbelievable and it overlooked the same valley Dave and I sat at drinking beer less than 24 hours ago just waiting for this moment… Welp, here it was, it was everything I had hoped for and more. I still couldn’t believe how technical the trail was, every step had to be calculated… With my ankle issues in the prior weeks I was waiting on that pain to set in, but for now I was just ripping through the desert. There was a big gnarly decent a few miles after Gloriana that took us all the way down to our first river crossing, I wet my hat and my arm sleeves along with my buff and kept on moving. Being at the bottom of the canyon meant one thing… we were going to eventually head back UP.
Soap Creek is Aid Station #5 and sits right at the halfway point (Mile 31.2). I came into Soap Creek with an elapsed time of 5:00 flat… At this point I was starting to realize how hot I was starting to feel. My stomach was starting to get that familiar nauseas feeling that usually comes at some point in an ultra. I hammered some watermelon and took a minute or two to down a good amount of water and started walking. I tried to give myself some time to let my stomach calm down and possibly reset knowing I had a little over 6 miles into Black Canyon City to where I was going to pick up Dave. This section included a lot of little punchy climbs of a couple hundred feet and included some dirt road sections that were very buffed out.
Coming to the top of one of the more sustainable climbs around mile 36 it finally hit me… the nauseous feeling turned its nasty head and within seconds I was doubled over puking everything I had taken in over the past several hours… I couldn’t believe the volume at which it was exiting my body. As is tradition in ultras several people slapped me on the back and gave me some encouraging words. I also knew this was to be expected. I immediately felt better and thought, okay, reset let’s roll. Within minutes I was spewing again… how is that possible I thought, how could there be anything left? Being only a mile out from BCC I text Dave and let him know what was happening and that I was going to try and take it easy into the aid so we could be ready to go.
By the time I got into BCC I knew things were not going to be good. I was so stoked to see Dave, but I could tell by the way he looked at me I was not in good shape. I told him I wanted some Ginger ale, I gulped it down… STUPID. Right back up it came, I ate some oranges, same thing. I spent 25 minutes in this aid station completely emptying my stomach. Things were not good.
My mind started racing, how am I going to turn this around? I immediately thought back to Leadville and that feeling I had when they told me I was done. That was the difference this time… no one was telling me I was done, the only person who was going to tell me I was done was myself. That WASN’T happening, not today. Because of my first half I wasn’t within hours of any cut offs, my 12-hour goal was still a possibility, and my Western State Qualifier was still on the line. Get the f*** up and let’s move forward I thought. I looked at Dave and without any words he knew we were moving.
The next aid after Black Canyon City is Cottonwood Gulch, 9 miles away, within those 9 miles included the second biggest climb of the day. This section was unbearably hot, I continue to try and sip water, I would start to feel a bit of relief and we would run some of the downhills. I would immediately begin heaving and ultimately puking. The Aqua Fria river is crossed several times in this section, every time we approached, I would lay in the river for what felt like hours, letting the cold-water wash over me.
We would get up and get moving and in the desert within minutes I was bone dry. I was squirting so much water from my bottles onto my neck and head that with about 4 miles to go I was down to almost nothing left. I asked Dave how much water he had, and he told me all he had was Tailwind… my soul was crushed. This section went on and on and on and on.
We finally made it into Aid #7 Cottonwood Gulch (Mile 46.4)(Race Time = 9:23). It looked like a MASH tent… There were dudes laying with their shoes off and their legs elevated trying to eliminate cramps, there were other people throwing up, there were people contemplating throwing in the towel. We had to go, I had to get the negative carnage out of my sight. I asked for some Gatorade, all they had was Lemon Lime (the WORST), I tried sipping a couple cups as we walked out. I made it about 15 steps… out it came.
From Cottonwood Gulch to aid #8 Table Mesa (Mile 51) was an incredible section… if you’re not puking. It is mostly downhill switch backs with incredible desert views. My major concern at this point was I had stashed our headlamps in the Table Mesa drop bag, never considering we wouldn’t be there before dark. Hell, I planned on potentially finishing before dark. I told Dave I thought we were going to be in trouble… in perfect Dave fashion he somehow convinced me that he had is phone light and that we would be completely fine. I trusted him.
We somehow made some decent time in this section, running some of the mostly downhill sections and hiking efficiently the climb into Table Mesa. We arrived about 15 minutes before dark. I sipped a couple of ounces of coke, it stayed down… of course! Coke! The ultimate ultra-drink of desperation… why did it take me so long in this race to choose Coke??
Coming out of Table Mesa you have the largest climb of the day. On fresh legs this would be a steady gradual climb that I wouldn’t think twice about… 50+ miles in and its hell! The climb gains about 1,000 ft over 3 miles. The thing with the desert is, you have a clear vantage point of things miles away in every direction. With headlamps now required I could see what laid ahead. Tiny dots of light that seemed an eternity away… way above me, like stars in the sky. But that was the path I was going to have to travel to finish this thing.
With the sun down and no longer a factor, the temps dropped dramatically, and with that came a bit of relief. The section involved a large climb, a small downhill, small climb, small downhill, small climb and then an all downhill finish into aid #9 Doe Springs (Mile 58.7). As we came into Doe Springs I just kept moving right on past… with less than 4 miles to go I just wanted this to be over and I knew the quicker I moved the quicker that would become reality.
We made some decent time in this stretch, we passed a couple folks, got passed a couple of times, but all in all we were keeping pace with the “pack”. In the distance we could start to hear the faint noises of applause, and then music, and then we could see it!
About 2 miles out I gave it everything I had, I ran as much as possible, I walked as fast as I could, then I would run as much as possible until it was there. The finish line! I ran my way into the light, into the crowd of applauding spectators, volunteers, other runners who had finished, and I crossed the finish line! 14 hours even, two hours off of original goal!
I felt so many emotions, Jubilee the RD, handed me my belt buckle, told me great job, and I walked into the crowd. Another runner, who had at some point witnessed one of my violent vomit sessions came up to me and told me he was shocked to see me cross the finish line, he patted me on the back and told me what incredible determination I had, and he may never know what that meant to me, but it summed up what it takes.
I am stoked to get this one done. It wasn’t pretty (first 50K split = 5 hours, second 50K split = 9 hours), and I know if I can get it to click that I can run much faster, but I am not sure I would change anything about this one. It let me know personally what I have and how much I can endure and that’s something I will carry with me into future races and in life in general.
This race is sneaky hard, the elevation profile does not tell the entire story, the technicality is a shock, the sun is intense, but all in all it is an incredible event, put on by some of the best RDs in the world at Aravaipa Running. The course markings were incredible, the aid stations were fantastic, and the entire process is something I will never forget.