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.

1 comment:

  1. Great work to keep moving despite the difficult trails and heat!