Thursday, June 17, 2021

Bryce Canyon 100: Brutiful


Hoodoos on the Thunder Mountain Trail
Bryce Canyon 100 on May 29-30, 2021 was my second 100-mile race, following Midstate Massive in October of the previous year.  I had some degree of confidence though compared to MM, Bryce promised about 30-40% more climbing, no pavement at all, altitude of between 7500 and 9500 feet, and warmer daytime temps with less tree cover.  My build-up to the race included a 100k out-and-back on the Warner trail, after which I recovered fairly quickly, so that was an additional confidence booster.

Given lingering COVID concerns, there was no mass start, and due to somewhat unexpected traffic, I started at the very tail end of the 100-mile wave window.  Almost forgot my trekking poles and ended up running to the car and back for a quarter mile or so, which I guess took care of the warmup.  The race start/finish/staging area was in a fairly sandy/dusty field, accessed by a dirt road, which meant a lot of dust in the air with all the activity going on.  Here and in plenty of other race sections, the dust made its presence felt, so I was glad to have practiced nasal breathing in the last year or so, which served me well to both filter the dust as well as preserve my lungs from getting too dry in the high desert conditions.

Mountain outhouse...
The first third of the course is a nice loop that included plenty of runnable stretches and I was moving much faster than planned, but I felt good and did not seem like I was overdoing it, so I figured I'd move while I can and bank some time.  My wife met me at the 19-mile aid station and that was a nice morale booster.  She also brought a fresh t-shirt for me, so that allowed me to get rid of the long sleeve.  The iColor hat with removable flaps worked well as expected as the sun came up.  The trails were quite busy with a mix of runners from different distances.  As always, chatting with others made the time pass faster than moving in solitude.

Mounted excursion on the same trails
Thunder Mountain Trail was definitely one of the highlights of the course as we went by a few hoodoos that were right there on the trail.  We also saw a few horse-mounted excursions, and plenty of horse manure as a result.  Reminded me of VT100 where runners share the course with those racing on horses.

As the temps rose, I started overheating a bit, and thankfully the aids offered some ice that I gladly stuck into my bandanna on the back of my neck, that typically helps me in these situations and I think it worked this time, though I definitely slowed down as I wanted to avoid getting anywhere close to the red zone -- anything like vomiting is hard to recover from while keeping even a minimum necessary pace.  With the heat, I felt that I wasn't able to eat as much either, but again that beat the alternative of forcing it and risking increased nausea.  Ginger ale and ginger chews did help a bit, and I shared an extra ginger chew with another runner whose stomach went to hell.

First third somewhere...
Getting to the end of the loop meant more than a third of the race done, though not quite a third of all the climbing, the remaining out and back to Crawford Pass was definitely the hard part.  I spent way too long at that aid station as it was hot and I felt like I needed to cool off, but thinking back it was probably unnecessary and I should have kept moving, as even slower pace beats sitting around.

As I reached the next aid station, I found quite a few people dropping there and waiting to be picked up.  It was well before cutoffs, but they were done for various reasons.  This was a bit demoralizing for me as their sight definitely raised some doubts in my mind, as I was closer to my "plan C".  Still, the finish seemed achievable.  The night was coming, with much cooler temps, and as per plan C, I had some warm things in my drop-bag, as well as the headlamp and a waist-lamp I was planning to use.  I downed a whole cup of ramen noodle soup, which in previous races worked wonders for me, but pretty quickly realized that I overdid it.  It was a lot of food to take in and my stomach didn't appreciate that as it was still settling from the day's heat.

On my way to the next aid, I shared some miles with a couple of other runners, which was a welcome distraction from the fatigue and queasiness in my stomach.  As the temps dropped into the 40s and probably a bit below, I felt much much better and started moving faster on the climbs as well as running downs and some flat sections.  I gave one of my trekking poles to one of the runners in our small group who left his with his crew a bit too early in the game.  Still, I felt like I could up my pace a bit and so I left the group and went forward.  They caught up as I was refueling at the next aid, I got my second pole back and went ahead.  As it turned out the other two eventually had to drop due to missing cutoffs :-(.

I kept downing a cup of ramen at each of the aids and that definitely worked much better in cooler air.  The night fell and the stars came out, it was a sight to behold.  At the altitude without light pollution, a lot more stars can be seen, but of course, I couldn't afford to stare for long. During the climb to the highest point on the course the near-full-moon was positioned right at the top of the hill, making for an unforgettable feeling of walking to the moon.  Of course, my feeble phone camera had no chance of capturing that, but that magic moment will always be in my mind.

Course markings were very well done.  The only time I went off was when I missed a clearly indicated turn off a dirt road during the night when I was only too glad to just run downhill on that road without thinking and looking.  The person in charge of marking was Michael Versteeg, a bit of an ultra-running legend himself, among other things the recent winner of Cocodona 250.  I saw him a couple of times on the course, and recall him encouraging us in the heat of the mid-first day, saying that we will rally when the night falls, which indeed is what happened with me.  Saw him the next morning again and thanked him for the nice course markings, he was super chill and humble.

All throughout the race, I've been using the RaceJoy app that transmitted my progress to people who were following, as well as allowing them to send me cheers.  At first, it was just the family but turns out my coach Greg posted about my fun run on the Facebook page of Trail Animals Running Club, and so in the end I received quite a few cheers from my family and I suspect some of the TARC people.  The phone played them without saying who they were from.  I wanted to see that later and thank the senders, but alas once the race ended, all that info was gone.  The other "fun" feature of RaceJoy turned out to be some narration about the geology/history of Bryce Canyon.  At first, it was annoying, but after a while I guess I didn't mind having a bit of a distraction.

Pink Cliffs, the morning of the 2nd day

At the turnaround point for the out and back (2/3 of the course being done), I had some time before the cutoff, so I felt fairly good about my chances of finishing, despite the fatigue.  Made the best of the cool night air.  In the morning, the heat returned before too long and I went back to the ice-on-the-neck routine, though after a couple of hours of that, my neck rebelled against so much icing, and I had to give that up.  As the stomach decided to get queasy again, I started to rely more on liquid calories in the "Gnarly" mix that was being offered in the aids.  I experimented with it a bit in training, though what they had for the race was a different version with more calories and according to the claims, aminoacids.  It went down alright, not the tastiest option, but it kept me going for the last few hours when not much else seemed to work well in the heat.

The weather turned cloudy for a bit and we actually got a bit of rain.  I made one mistake of leaving my light shell in one of my drop bags earlier, but luckily it wasn't a huge downpour, though winds picked up a bit.  In the end, this was more welcome for cooling than any sort of hindrance, but my tired mind was worried for a while.

Some of the late miles I shared with an older runner who turned out to be 72-years young.  I want to be like him when I grow up! :-).  His wife came out from the finish to pace the last few miles.  Despite wanting company, the mantra of "run your own race" stuck with me, and I went ahead of them running some downhills and flats.  The last section to the finish of course was never-ending (half a mile longer than what the race description said), but I smelled the barn and kept moving.

Seeing my wife at the finish was awesome, as was the opportunity to hit the traditional "finisher gong" and to get a unique belt buckle embedded with local vegetation.

Hitting the gong

The buckle...

I recovered much faster than expected, going on a couple of hikes the next day.  Partly I wanted to keep moving to facilitate recovery, and partly I wanted to keep exploring the unbelievable scenery around Bryce.

Great race by Vacation Races, I highly recommend them based on the experience.  Huge thanks and love to my wife for sharing my travels, moral support in training and during the race.  Immense gratitude to my coach Greg from AYP - Coaching Services (, the training plan leading to the race was excellent as it allowed me to finish and to recover quickly.  Thanks to all the family, friends, and TARC people who gave me cheers during the race.

With about 20 miles to the finish, as I was chatting with another runner, he told me the course was "brutiful", and that really stuck with me.  It is certainly not the hardest race out there, but the mix of beauty and toughness of the course justifies the label!

Accounting of what worked and lessons learned below.

What worked:

  • "Trail toes" ointment + Xoskin socks.  Two pairs of socks were destroyed but no blisters despite all the dust and heat!
  • Shared some miles with some people, but made the right decisions to go ahead when they slowed.
  • Drop bag planning -- had a backup for night arrival at the early station in case pace slowed
  • Early faster easy miles was the right call, I didn’t feel destroyed by that and banked time
  • Moved forward fairly well in cooler temps
  • Ramen noodles went down pretty well most of the time, except I think I ate too much of them the first time
  • Spent less time on wasteful thinking about how much distance/climb left at any given time.
  • Poles seemed to have worked fine for the most part.
  • More liquid calories went down easier towards the end.
  • Combo of Ultraspire waist light and a headlamp worked great, both lasted through the night, though being almost summer it was a short one.

What needs improvement:

  • My subjective feeling is that I spent way too long at the aids.  I need to go back and calculate the time, and work on ways to improve:
    • Drop bag organization was haphazard, need to make things more neatly separated and accessible.
    • Sit less
    • When approaching an aid, have a better plan in my head for what to grab/etc.
  • My stomach went to hell in the heat the first day, and a little bit the second.  Not sure how to train for that.
  • I did something with my vest cords such that I could no longer stash the poles properly in the last 3rd, but carrying them wasn't that big of a deal I guess.
  • When switching from warmer layers the second morning, I did not take my light shell with me, and it rained later.  In harsher conditions that could have been a big problem.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Warner Trail out-and-back "First" Known Time

I am not likely to blog often, but since guidelines suggest having a post of some sort with the details, here it is.

Bel Monte 50 miler was supposed to be my first race of 2021 (and a build-up run on the way to Bryce 100), but since COVID-19 is still not under control, and I am not eligible for a vaccine yet, I did not feel it would have been prudent to travel to VA for that race.  So I pulled out and looked around for some interesting other ideas.  Warner Trail appeared on my radar last year as a lesser-known yet still challenging and scenic New England route.  I also noticed that an "out and back" FKT has not yet been established, so I decided to give that a try. 

I am a back-of-the-pack runner and my typical goal is to finish in one piece first and foremost and to enjoy the journey.  Of course, what it means to enjoy an ultra-distance run or a race is a very individual thing and varies from runner to runner, and I won't get any deeper into it here.  With that in mind, I somehow came up with an "A" time goal of finishing in about 14 hours, thinking the whole out-and-back course is just over 6,000 feet of climbing over about 100K.  Rough math translated that to ~13-minute miles.  My "B" time goal was 16 hours (~15-minute miles) and anything beyond that was just going to be a grind to the finish but hopefully without injury.

Weather-wise, I've been hoping to get to the point where most of the snow and ice on the trails would be gone, but temps would still be "reasonable", and of course, no rain.  I've been going back and forth between March 13th and March 20th, and with a warm spell predicted for a couple of days before the 13th and possible rain on the horizon for the 20th, I decided to go for it on the 13th.  There were some strong winds blowing starting the night before, but I figured they won't be too much of a problem.  

I had my "aid" stops planned in North Foxborough, then Wampum Corner in Wrentham, and then at the Southern Terminus of Warner.  The two mid-stops had some gas stations and coffee shops that I was hoping to use for resupply.  I was fortunate to have a GPX of the entire trail from, which I had assumed was created by the one-way FKT holder Steve Levandosky (thank you!).  That definitely saved me from most blunders, but I still managed to miss quite a few turns, both in the woods and off occasional roads/streets back into the woods.

I aimed to start at 4am to give myself a chance to finish during daylight with my "A" goal.  I banked a bit of sleep in the preceding days and predictably could not sleep much the night before.  Was only late by about 15 min and was off by around 4:16 am.

The wind was howling but that wasn't too bad once in the woods.  The first section went pretty well, and that was the only one where I had previously explored a couple of miles.  I think the pace was just right, though a couple of navigational mishaps made it longer by at least half a mile.  Did not help that I dropped a glove and had to backtrack to find it; the day was cold enough and I definitely needed it!  I was happy to see the daylight by the time I got to the first "aid".  Bought some additional snacks and ginger ale, but was unhappy to find the restrooms unavailable at both the Dunkin' and the gas station in North Foxborough.  Oh well. 

The second segment went just fine, with the pace drifting slower more or less as expected.  The wind subsided a bit, but the temps were still somewhere between 36-40F, so I wasn't getting rid of my top layer just yet.  I crossed quite a few streams and there were even officially marked "water holes" though I have no idea if those were for horses or humans.  None of these options looked safe enough to filter with just a regular filter flask, but perhaps with a higher-end filter, this can make the out-and-back a feasible unsupported possibility.  Carrying both food and water for the whole thing is also possible, I suppose, but that would make for a fairly heavy pack. 

Snow and ice were mostly gone with the exception of a few patches here and there, nothing bad enough to slow me down or cause me to slip, thank goodness.  Navigation continued to be a bit of a challenge in places, especially where trees came down, and also around some backyards where having lost sight of the blazes I was hoping I would not be spooking the residents too much.

Grabbed some instant ramen at Cumberland Farms and that was heaven.  I repeated that two more times on the way back -- an awesome way to get some calories, water and salt, as well as to keep myself warm.

The third segment went ok, though I've noted that the total climb being accumulated seemed significantly more than what I was expecting.  The last section around Diamond Hill had a few ups and downs, including some steep ones.  I did not regret leaving my poles at home since at the end of the day the climb was not as much compared to the extra weight, as well as the time it would have taken to switch between using the poles vs. fastening them to the pack when not in use.  The sun was shining and I had taken off my top layer, leaving just the Smartwool long sleeve, which was plenty. 

I reached the Southern Terminus in about 8.5 hours which wasn't too bad, but that's when I knew that I would be way over any of my goals.  No worries, I was careful not to allow too many negative thoughts in, and maintained a "neutral" observation mode, which seemed to work, except for the occasional loud swears when missing a turn yet again.  There is an ice cream shop just outside the Diamond Hill park, where I thought I would grab something before heading back, but I decided it wasn't worth the time and I still had enough water and food for at least a segment, so I headed back.  

No sooner than a mile on the way back, I realized I dropped my phone by accident when I slid on some old leaves.  Had to track back to find it, luckily it was just sitting in the middle of the trail.  More bonus distance and climb (facepalm).

The rest of the way was a grind and a blur though I tried to take a couple of photos.  Last 6 hours was back in the dark, and the headlight lasted just long enough that I didn't have to stop and fumble for the replacement batteries.

Overall time: 21:32:47, nothing special or anything but hey, I went the distance with some bonus. Total climb per my Coros APEX which seems fairly accurate in that department: 8,714ft. Total distance: 68.74 miles, well over the official 65, guessing it's my self-inflicted bonus distance plus maybe a little of the usual GPX drift especially on trails.

The route was fairly scenic and I came away tired but enriched by the experience and thankful we have this hidden gem of a trail, and glad that it's being maintained in a fairly good condition overall.  Bodies of water are always nice to see and there were plenty of streams, little ponds, and reservoirs, including a dam crossing.  It was interesting to go over an old ski hill that still had some lift equipment standing.  There were also a few old chimneys and foundations, and of course some views from hilltops here and there.

A week later, the legs are feeling fine.  The biggest issue is the left achilles tendon, but it's not a new issue for me, I definitely need to give it more strengthening and conditioning attention.  Fingers crossed that I can travel for Bryce 100, as this run and a fairly quick recovery definitely added some confidence that I am on track to be ready.

As always, thankful to finish in one piece, grateful for my health, moral support from my wife, guidance from my coach Greg from At Your Pace Coaching.

More photos:

The start
Tree eats sign

Mustang Farm


Blowdown carnage

Bluff Hill

One of a few chimneys along the way

old ski hill

One of many brooks crossed
The finish