Monday, June 9, 2014

Grand Canyon 100 - Shattered Expectations

After not finishing Rocky Raccoon 100, I wanted an interesting race that wouldn't be harder than a 100 miler has to be. I chose Grand Canyon 100 on May 17 - while it was an inaugural race, it was a race director who has other non-inaugural events he produces, temperatures were supposed to be no higher than 65 degrees typically on the plateau on the North Rim, it wasn't too much altitude (8000 ft on average), the terrain not too technical, and the climbs were supposed to be difficult without being mountainous (12,600 ft gain). The weather in the two weeks leading up kept showing temperatures in the mid-80s so I knew that was an added complication going in.

It would end up being a very different day than I imagined. The DNF hurt. My DNF at Rocky Raccoon 100 hadn't hurt. I didn't really cry about that one. I had a good race, got unlucky with blisters, had pushed through to suffer for 30 miles with them, and then timed out for completing my last 20 miles. I was proud of that race day. But everything about Grand Canyon 100? Well, this DNF involved a lot of tears.

It hurt bad enough that I needed a few weeks to sort through and process, and I can finally write the race report and reflect on the good and fun things instead of being all sour about it.

The Long Trip There

My mom commented while I was on the phone with her during this trip that people have no idea the logistics required to even go do races like this. Trail ultramarathons, particularly the beautiful scenic ones, tend to be in isolated areas, so the travel to get there can be extensive.

For this, Jeremy (my pacer/crew), his wife Sara, and I flew into Las Vegas on a Thursday night. Dinner on the strip but very little partying.
Jeremy and Sara

On Friday we picked up the rental car in the morning and drove 4 hours to Kanab, Utah. Hotel check-in and a short rest while I finalized my drop bags, and then the drive to the race site for packet pickup and turning in my drop bags for the aid stations.

The drive to the race site was a country highway through open cattle land where you would find cows in the road during the day and rabbits would play Frogger at night. Then another 20-something miles of rutted bumpy dirt forest service road into the Kaibab National Forest. It was a roundtrip 100 miles and 1 hr 15 min each way.

We drove to the closest viewpoint after packet pickup. I would come through the Crazy Jug Viewpoint at 8 miles in. Sara and I had never been to the Grand Canyon, and it was amazing when we stepped up to the edge of the viewpoint and took it all in.
Crazy Jug Viewpoint

Happy to have a friend's support out there!

A long drive back to Kanab and a stellar pre-race dinner before bedtime. We highly recommend the Rocking V Cafe - gourmet fare in a little bitty town? Their southwestern cornmeal-crusted mountain trout was delicious!

Race Morning and Miles 0 to 8

On the road at some awful hour like 4 AM. Yawn. Getting to the race site was uneventful and thankfully the slight break of dawn was good assurance that a headlamp to start wouldn't be necessary. It was cold at that elevation (about 7500 ft at the start), maybe about 35 degrees, and I kept on my warm puffy jacket and huddled with the others around the fire boxes they had.
Filling hydration bladders and gearing up. Excited!

There were about 50 of us between 50 milers and 100 milers. 28 in the 100 mile including myself. It was time to start the race, so I gave Jeremy a quick hug and handed off my jacket. In the first mile I get thinking about how frozen my hands were. No use in having gloves because I wasn't going to be cold for long.

I wrapped myself up in my own thoughts and listened to the conversations of all the Utah folks who knew each other. Another mile in and when a few stopped at a viewpoint, I asked a guy, "Are you Cory?" He was and I yelled a quick introduction of myself as I went by. "Fast Cory" and I share a mutual friend, and I had found him on Facebook ahead of time and introduced myself so I would know someone at the race. The running community is pretty cool like that.

At 3 miles we left some dirt road to move to single track. It was tight between bushes and two-way traffic as we headed out to Monument Point, our first viewpoint. It was a lot rockier than I expected and the climbs had begun. Cory was nice enough to take my picture at the viewpoint at mile 4.5, then we all marked our bibs with a star from a Sharpie left there and turned around.

At mile 8, we went out to the Crazy Jug Viewpoint, where I didn't linger because we had visited there the night before. I got checked in with my number because it was a small out-and-back and moved on. I refilled my water at the aid station and grabbed a few snacks but didn't spend long.

NOT A TRAIL (Miles 8 to 15)

Two miles of dirt road into nice trail. And then.... a big climb up soft forest soil between scraggly bushes. NOT A TRAIL. I was ready - they had said the course was pretty runnable except for a technical section from miles 10 to 15. I had done technical. I knew I could handle technical.

But this wasn't just some rocks. Or even bouldering. Or hundreds of roots. This was NOT A TRAIL. For 5 miles, they splatted the forest, up and down valleys, through rough and overgrown sections, with little marker flags. I admit it took a couple miles before I figured out - this is not going to end. This is the full 5 miles. We bushwhacked through the cambered sides of hills, with a foot of pine needles and when there weren't pine needles to squish down in and ruin your gait, it was soft soft forest soil, not packed like on a trail. Between soft soil and cambered surface, I twisted my ankle a half-dozen times.

This antique section of forest was described well in another participant Kelly's blog post where he said "The next stage of the race takes us onto a trail section that hasn't seen a trail runner since Christ was a carpenter." Ha. Kelly is actually a total running stud who had a shot at winning the 100 miler but on this awful terrain he pulled a groin muscle and ended up finishing the 50K.

We hit downhills full of soft soil with lots of small rocks, and I would curse when my foot slid and I would hear curses back and uphill behind me as we all negotiated the terrain. The climbs would be steep and you would set your foot where others had for a foothold so your foot didn't slide back down a little in that soft dirt.
See the two little people at the top? No one had been on this
trail before they came through and flagged it. I'm sure of it.

When I got into Parisawamppitts aid station at mile 15, I was mildly cranky and starting to get hot. But Jeremy hooped and hollered, and I was happy to see him. "That 5 miles was awful. That was not a trail." Jeremy confirmed everyone else was equally shocked, disappointed, and jaded coming into the aid station. That made me feel way less prepared.

We get up to the aid station table. "What do you need?"

Me: "Ice."
Jeremy. "They don't have ice."
Me: "Ice."
Aid station head: "We have eggs and sausage and...."
Me: "Ice?"
Jeremy: "They don't have ice."
Me: "I just really want ice."
I wasn't throwing a big fit. It was just that my sole focus was ice. And now I was petrified that maybe none of the aid stations had ice!

It's 9 am and getting hot, and I'm worried. It's 6.5 miles to the next aid station and it will only get hotter on this exposed course. I eat some food, then Jeremy walks with me the tenth of a mile to where I have to go do a one mile out and back to the Parisawamppitts Viewpoint before continuing on. Jeremy says he'll wait there until I come back.

Some of the tightest single track I've done with branches grabbing at my clothes and a lot of boxing-style duck and weave moves, while moving through rocky spots and lots of up and down climbing. I get to the viewpoint, grab a selfie, and mark my bib with the red Sharpie marker. It's slow going on this section and a kick in the butt after those last 5 ridiculous miles.
Selfie with a handheld water bottle is easier said than done.

I eventually get back to Jeremy, and he's jumping ahead of me, snapping pictures. It did make me smile and laugh. I think I asked if I was going to be okay. He told me I was. I headed out for the next 6.5 mile stretch.
Yes, I was still smiling.

To Fence Point Aid Station (Miles 15 to 21.5)

Uneventful except for getting hotter and hotter. So I'll use this 6.5 mile stretch to talk about heat exhaustion and my strategies to get through it. Heat exhaustion is often associated with dehydration, but that's just one way to get it. A raise in your core body temp is really what is going on, and what I've learned over time is even when well-hydrated, some people are just susceptible to heat and that raise in body temp that leads to heat exhaustion. At 8000 ft altitude plus a lot of time with little shade, it becomes a problem.

I wore a buff around my neck that I could wet or put ice (if there was ever an aid station with it) inside. I wore a visor to keep the sun and heat off my face. I wore a light colored shirt rather than the dark The Active Joe shirt I really wanted to, which would have just absorbed the heat. I had on my hydration pack with 70 ounces of water. I carried a 20 ounce Amphipod handheld water bottle with an insulating sleeve.

When it started to get hot, my strategy out on the course was to put the buff up over my head and cover my ears. Then I would use the 20 ounces in my handheld, rationed out to the next aid station, to occasionally squirt the water on the top of my buff on my head and onto the back of my neck.

It worked well and kept the heat managed. Not GREAT but managed. All participants were complaining about a little lightheadedness and nausea. My nausea was almost non-existent, and I wasn't very lightheaded, but I felt very heavy and sleepy and my legs were like lead. I couldn't get a good run going as I trotted along. I could feel the sun sucking out all my energy.

At Fence Point, Jeremy was waiting, and I said we needed to get my core temp down quick. I sat in the shade of the tent for a couple minutes eating and drinking while we iced my buff down and put it on me. Thankfully, they had ice. We put cups of ice into my sports bra and put ice in both my handheld and my hydration pack. I was determined to get through this heat, even if it took a 10 pound back of ice every 6.5 miles to do it! My attitude was good.

I met Angela there who had a mountain bike and was crewing her friend. Jeremy had given her a ride to the aid station. Jeremy said the back roads made it difficult to get to the next aid station and make it to the following one in time. So Angela volunteered to crew me at the next aid station.

To Locust Point Aid Station (Miles 21.5 to 24.5)

Pretty uneventful besides trying to avoid death (just a little melodramatic there). I just kept moving through the direct sun and heat. It felt like my brain was boiling. Yep, that's what early stages of heat exposure feel like for me. My head was on fire and I thought it was going to spontaneously burst into flame. The last couple miles I fell in with another person in the 100 named Jennifer. She was from San Francisco, where I've run the marathon twice before and for two years served as an ambassador for the SF Marathon, because I love the race so much. So we had some great stuff to chat about. Before we got to the aid station at Locust Point, we stopped to take pictures of each other at the viewpoint.

Angela was there as promised. She was such a doll! She helped me get my core body temp down again and put ice everywhere we could. This was the point in the day with the sun directly overhead so it was so warm. Temperatures in the mid-80s. Jennifer had gone ahead out of the aid station. She had a faster pace than me and wasn't suffering in the heat quite as badly as I was.

To Timp Aid Station (Miles 24.5 to 31)

This section had numerous small valleys we would go down into, through where the sun's rays penetrated and heated up the grassy meadow, then climb back out of. They were like little fingers of the Grand Canyon pushing into the forest. And like a canyon they were also HOT.

Around mile 28 I passed a guy who was laying in the grass in a slightly shady area. I asked if he was okay. He said he was and just taking a rest. I asked if he had crew at the next aid station that I could notify of how he was, and he didn't. The heat was sucking the life out of everyone.

About mile 29, something miraculous happened. A cloud covered the sun, I hit a high plateau with some good shaded forest, there was fairly flat single track trail, and it was hitting about 4 pm where the angle of the sun was becoming way less harsh.

And ZOOM. It's like I was flying. My speed picked up to normal paces, my legs felt incredible, and I seriously couldn't stop laughing. Loudly but no one was around to hear. I was giddy with excitement. Finally, I had waded through 20 miles of awful heat to get my "second wind". I was hopeful for what would happen as the sun continued to set.

I came running into the aid station at quite a clip, and Jeremy seemed supremely happy to see me moving so well and the smile I had to go with it.

At the aid station, we refilled water, retied my shoes, and I ate. The heat had done a number on my physiology though because my essential tremor was in rare form. The best evidence of the hardship of the day on my body. I stood by the aid station table downing Oreos and couldn't accept the cup of coke he offered until I was ready to sip because I was going to shake all the liquid out of the cup. My tremor is typically light and just left hand and left foot, but I was under so much stress that my entire body just shuddered nonstop. It was frustrating but didn't slow me down.

I left the aid station in good spirits. Jeremy was heading back to the start/finish site and would take over pacing at mile 50.

To Stina Aid Station - Miles 31 to 38

I left the aid station just ahead of Bill, the runner Angela was crewing for. He had fought bad nausea all day. I had a run going and he was doing a fast walk so I stayed ahead of him. Until about a mile down the road. We were in shaded single track in the forest but all of a sudden it felt like all the heat of the day was trapped in the canopy of those trees. And it enveloped me and I turned to the side of the trail, came to a sudden halt, and dry heaved. Bill passed me and I couldn't catch his powerwalk after that.

That second wind of mine was already gone. My body started to act like it was beyond exhausted, but I kept a trot and brisk walk going. I came out onto a forest service road around mile 33. This terrain was easier although it had a lot more rolling hills. And I could feel that it was starting to cool down.

But I started to feel more nauseous and more light-headed with each step. I just kept moving forward and every once in a while would stop to dry heave.

After a couple miles, I still had a little over 2 miles into the aid station. I hadn't been able to eat any of my chews with the nausea. Throwing up was a bad calorie deficit situation to end up in. I needed to start fighting this awful feeling head on.

So I pulled out the papaya enzyme I keep on hand for upset stomach and chomped down a few of those slowly.  I gave it another 10 minutes and it just wasn't working. Fine, sometimes that works but sometimes it doesn't. Maybe some salt hitting my stomach would calm it down - another trick I've learned from experience.

I took an S-Cap and within another few minutes my stomach was feeling less on the verge of a reversal of fortune. I could now eat a GU. I went for one with caffeine and increased electrolytes. I needed calories, I needed energy, and I hoped maybe the caffeine would help the lightheadedness too.

But no, 1.5 miles from the aid station, and the lightheadedness was not recovering itself. I saw a kaibab squirrel (unique to this area with a giant fluffy tail) for the first time scurry across the road much further down in the direction I was headed. I was definitely woozy because I had to play the game of "did that really happen?" and decided that it indeed had.

I couldn't pinpoint why I was feeling awful. My legs felt awesome. My feet, even with the rougher rocky terrain and my usual issue of being a tenderfoot, felt amazing. No hot spots, no tender points.

I think my body had fought a hard battle ALL. DAY. LONG. It was signaling the white flag, and there wasn't a lot to do to stop it.

Making the Tough Decision

When I pulled into the Stina Aid Station it was manned by two high school students. That's it. Just them. I told them the issues I was having and that I was going to take 5-10 minutes to sit and sip ginger ale and frankly "try to get my shit together." I sat and sipped and talked to Bill who had decided to pull there. It was now getting dark and because I was getting there later than I had hoped, I luckily had a flashlight stashed in my drop bag, but I didn't have any headlamps.

I asked the aid station guy what the situation would be like if I had to drop at this aid station. Would I have to hang out here for hours? "Well, we have no cell service or radio signal here. We have to drive 3+ miles down the road and then TRY to get a signal, then we can radio to get someone to come drive you back to the start/finish."

Okay, wait. I'm at an aid station manned by only two kids. In a race where there are ONLY 50 between the 50 and 100 miler and I'm back-of-the-pack, so there's a handful max of people at this point in the course who may or may not be behind me. It's getting dark in the next hour and I have 12 miles to go on just a flashlight on empty remote forest service road. And if I get a couple miles out and I'm still dizzy and have to come back (my initial plan A when I pulled into the station), they couldn't radio for medical if someone was seriously wrong. And search and rescue would be interesting since no one was being informed of if and when I had checked into this aid station. Guhhhhh-REAT!!!!

I sat for a couple minutes, processing all this. And then I told him I was dropping. I was already off pace to continue past the mile 58 cutoff at this point, and I was seriously uncomfortable about the conditions I just named above.

The Ride of Shame

Once I made the decision, it was maybe an hour and a half until Bill and I were back at the race site. We had to wait for one of the high school guys to drive miles away to radio that two people were dropping. Then the race made the decision that he would drive us to the next aid station 6 miles away, but with how remote this all is, it was a 30 minute drive. I kept my cool through this. I had changed out of my wet outer layers into items from my drop bag at the Stina aid station. I had pushed away the emotions of what was happening.

At the next aid station, we had just arrived and I heard someone call our names. Jo loaded us into her big SUV and we started another bumpy backroad excursion to the start/finish. We chatted with her, what a nice person, and we had been to some of the some races and I knew Aravaipa Running in Arizona well from Javelina Jundred last year. I mentioned that I was eager to get back to the start/finish before I emotionally broke down completely and also I was thinking Jeremy was going to be pretty mad at me. She had actually spent part of the day hanging out with Jeremy so that was a funny further connection. Also, Jo's husband is Kelly, the stud runner I mentioned much earlier in the report with the funny synopsis of those 5 bushwhacked miles.

The Sobbing

Back at the race start/finish site, I thanked Jo and left her vehicle and walked to where pacers and crew were standing around waiting for their runners. Jeremy saw me and yelled, "What are you doing here?" Not in a happy way. I said I had dropped at Stina. "What happened?" he said loudly.

"I don't want to talk about it. I want to go." I turned and walked to the car, and my emotions were crashing down. I was barely keeping it together.

I got to the car, and I sobbed. SOBBED. For a while too. I just lost it. I was frustrated and disappointed, I felt like a wimp and a wuss and any other name you wanted to call me in that second, I felt like I had let down Jeremy as my coach, and then that I had let him down as my friend because now he had come all this way to not get to do 50 miles on that gorgeous course.

Jeremy ran to the portapotties before the long drive back and I continued sobbing in the car. I heard my door open and Jo practically crawled into the passenger side to give me a big hug. I had just met her and she was telling me not to cry and that it was okay. A little prodding and asking me about different foods (my stomach was still not completely over the nausea) and she convinced me to wait while she went and got me a warm flatbread and a cold Coke. I nibbled on that flatbread the whole hour and 15 minute drive back to the hotel.

Shattered Expectations

Jeremy had heard from the fast people their incredulity that the course, which had changed a couple times, was really "only" 6300 ft of vertical gain/loss in 50 miles. I've done some races with climbs so the 6300 felt on the low side to me as well. Many thought it was closer to 8300. (In the end, my Garmin fritzed out royally and I lost all my data which really upset me.)  So that would have put it at almost 17000 in a 100 miler. And you add to that the bushwhacking for 5 miles through ancient forest for what was described as "more technical" trail. The rest of the "runnable" trail was still rocky in spots and at times reminded me of Bandera (terrain I don't love). And the heat was supposed to be 65 degrees, not 85 degrees.

Jeremy said a lot of things on the drive back, but one stuck out, besides reassuring me that I needed to stop worrying about disappointing him in not getting to pace. He said this race was just not what we had expected it to be. I picked a beautiful race, but we had agreed on it because it really was tough but manageable - not too hot, not too much altitude, not too much gain, not too technical. In the end, it really wasn't those things. And my body had just had enough. THAT made me feel better.

When I think back, that 38 miles was harder than any 50K or 50M I had finished (15 of them). And I am proud for how I kept moving through obstacle after obstacle presented.

I know I was smart, and being smart sometimes sucks. Nothing, no buckle, is worth making a stupid decision with a husband and two small kids at home. But good gosh if I don't wish I had injured myself in a very physical and apparent way. Something clear cut.

In the end, it was a hard day for many. About a 45% drop rate in the 100 miler.

What's Next?

I don't know. Everything for future planning was basically put on hold for this race, in pursuit of this 100 miles. Within a couple hours of the DNF, I was on the edge of contemplating when to try 100 miles again. And by the next morning (after I had another good cry when my legs and feet felt incredibly good and not sore at all), I was thinking more about the next attempt. A hunger has been awakened to rise up and take on this challenge, and getting to 80 miles at Rocky Raccoon just makes it a more insistent feeling.

But in the meantime, I strained my back two weeks ago during strength training at the end of the sets when I was fatigued and just picked up a 25 lb dumbbell wrong. Maybe that was a good thing ultimately to make me less reactionary coming off this DNF and to settle myself.

I'll be pacing Jennifer for 20 miles at Western States 100 in a few weeks. I have a fun race, the Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon, where you run 3 miles in an unlit tunnel, outside Seattle in mid-July. Then I have a smattering of road marathons this fall where I may use them as speedwork or to just go enjoy a scenic location (all destination races).