“Bomb the downhills, fly on the flats, attack the hills and recover in the car” – Race advice from former Adams State veteran Randy Cooper
“Be prepared for extreme winter conditions” – Email from RD Matt Gunn/Ultra Adventures
Race: Grand Canyon Ultras (Ultra Adventures)
Distance: 50 Miles
Going into the Grand Canyon Ultras 50 Mile race this weekend it appeared that my race goals and the imminent conditions were at odds with each other. I had initially chosen the Grand Canyon course after chatting with Ultra Adventures race director Matt Gunn after running Antelope Canyon about his other races and which ones he thought would be a little less sandy and less demanding of my stabilizers. Grand Canyon came highly recommended. Amazing views, point-to-point, gradual elevation and buttery smooth single track mixed in with dirt roads surrounded by ponderosa forest. The location also carries a host of great memories from my time working with the Coconino Rural Environment Corps where I was able to spend hundreds of hours building trail and chainsawing. It feels like coming home when I return to the Kaibab.
I had developed a bad habit of checking the weather multiple times a day in the week preceding the race and remained optimistic about the amount of snow and rain until the drive down on Friday when Jess and I were battered with wave after wave of precipitation. The first email came in, and we celebrated the decision to bring every possible permutation of running outfit.
When we arrived, the Kaibab had been fully transformed into a winter wonderland with dusted trees and a couple inches of untracked powder adorning all of the meadows and fens. First we got cookies at the Jacob Lake Inn (best cookies in the world), and then we checked in. We confirmed the new out-and-back course (due to the prudent decision not to stuff 50 runners in a van and drive them to the original start on icy roads), grabbed shirts and bibs and revised our drop bag plan. Since a shakedown run was less than appealing we drove out to get a view of the North Rim and get the legs moving a little.
We set up camp a few miles away from the staging area, cooked pasta and then headed to the Kaibab Lodge to get the pre-race briefing from Matt and Nacho (his chihuahua that was usually found inside of Matt’s Carhartt one-piece). It was obvious that a large number of 100 mile and 50 mile runners had dropped out due to the weather, but the race was still on and the Ultra Adventures crew was prepared to ride out the storm.
When we woke up in the morning the doors to the car were all frozen shut and required a swift kick to open up. I debated some last minute clothing options and decided to err on the side of being a little too warm. We waited as long as possible in the warm car and then joined the hopping and huddling mass at the start line for Matt Gunn’s nonchalant count down to start.
The first mile was a gradual and icy incline that gave way to ten miles of steady descending through eight inches of fresh powder. Thankfully Matt sent out an ATV to break trail and help with route finding since many of the signs and flags were obscured by the snow. Knowing that it was likely going to be brutal running up this on the return I made the decision early to bomb the downhill. Only a few other runners followed suit and I alternated getting fresh tracks and following Sam Reed (100 Mile Winner) as he flew down the trail wearing only socks and sandals. When I arrived at the Stina Aid station it was me, Sam Reed and Scott Vig in the front pack. When I went over to the aid tent (banking on getting Tailwind and water) it was zipped shut, there was a pile of unopened 5 gallon jugs and no one was there. I found the nearest 100 mile crew member to see what was happening and he said no one had shown up yet, but offered me some water and gels. I filled up and headed out to punch my bib at the Stina Overlook. Scott and I ran together most of the way down to Stina and when we turned around we got our first insight into who was in pursuit and how far off they were. Almost immediately we ran into about five runners within two minutes of turning around. My hopes of establishing an early gap bombing the downhills had failed. Time to fly on the flats! A couple miles before returning to Stina I was passed by Garrett Smith as he effortlessly glided up the hill. I knew I would have to try and get a head start on the final climb if I stood a chance at getting on the podium. Right after Garrett took the lead Jess passed me going the other way and gave me words of encouragement and a high five. I rode that energy back to Stina where there was still no aid station action, but Candice Burt had taken it upon herself to lead the runner support effort while also crewing for one of the 100 milers so I filled up my water and grabbed some charity gels. Heading down to the rim Scott and I again ran together in pursuit of Garrett and a couple miles in Scott shifted gears and took off.
The next six miles were on amazing Northern Arizona single track. Soft dirt, pine needle duff and just enough rock to keep things from getting muddy as we got below snow line. The views of the Grand Canyon were spine tingling and the guy raking the dirt next to his camper at Timp Point kept my mind occupied for a couple of miles while I pondered the why of his actions. Just as I arrived at North Timp (the turn-around) Scott was leaving and Garrett was inside. Again no Tailwind was ready but I asked if they had any and the Aid Station dug out a bag and let me mix my own. I also put 8 oz of Coke into my system to see if I could shake my slump. The caffeine/sugar combo hit me immediately and I headed out just in front of Garrett reinvigorated to get as much distance as possible between us before the climb, and to try and catch Scott. The Coke wore off around mile 32 and the last three miles grinding uphill to Stina found me in a low point. By the time I got to mile 35 the Stina Aid Station was up and running so I refilled, slammed some Coke and rode the rush for the next five miles. The roads and trails had all melted out by now and I made good time to Squaw Canyon. By this time I had not seen another runner for over an hour, I found out that Scott had already put ten minutes between us and my legs were shot from stabilizing on the descent. On the slow climb back to 9,000 ft the energy difference between power walking and running up the muddy 3% grade seemed monumental so I power hiked for the next 6 miles averaging about 13:00 min/mi.
One mile out of the final aid station my watch battery died and less than five minutes later I heard footsteps right behind me. I turned to see Garrett gliding up the hill. I knew I had been keeping my heart rate down while I slogged up the hill in solitude so I figured it was time to attack the uphill and committed to staying with Garrett as long as I could, hopefully keeping him in sight by the top of the climb and giving everything I had on the final descent. It was far and away the hardest 4.5 miles of running I have ever experienced and it gave me a glimpse into how much more my body can do when my mind allows it. I managed to hold on and take second in 8:28 with Garrett just moments behind in third. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Chris Rennaker was also in hot pursuit and came in just moments after Garrett. Scott had an amazing day and held on to first from the half-way point to the finish running in at 8:08.
I got out of my wet and muddy gear immediately, found a comfy chair and started putting as many calories and fluids in me as possible. Kristi Siman came in just a few minutes after I had settled in placing first in the Women’s 50K (which due to course marking and confusion ended up well over 50K for most runners). It was a phenomenal day for the West Slope’s Mesa Monument Strider running club with three podium finishes, and a stellar 100 mile run by the legendary Kirk Apt who placed fifth overall just under 25 hours.
Jess had an incredible race as well. Due to subtle course markings she found an extra six miles of scenic double track, ran her first fifty miles on the trail over two hours faster than her first 50 miler just two months earlier, she finished her 57+ mile journey just after the sun had set and proudly let me know that she had ZERO blisters on her feet despite running uphill in what can best be described as a cow-poop Slushie for the last 13 miles. Ultra Adventures stayed true to its name this year at the Grand Canyon Ultras. Most runners found a way to add a couple extra miles to their already ultra-distance event and keeping an adventurous spirit amid the conditions and curveballs was essential. I am grateful that the event was not cancelled and that the event went as smoothly as it did despite the “extreme winter conditions”. Thanks to all of the volunteers and Ultra Adventures staff for putting on a great event and thanks to Pearl Izumi for the support this season and for all of the great gear that makes running 365 so easy and enjoyable.
Gear: Pearl Izumi (PI) Ultra Tights, Patagonia Merino 1 LS, PI Champion Singlet and Ultra Print Jacket, PI Thermal Lite Gloves, PI Fly Visor and Transfer Hat, Smith Parallel D-Max, Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest 2.0, Injinji socks, PI Trail N2 shoes, Suunto Ambit and iPod shuffle (best new song: Burn Your Village to the Ground by A Tribe Called Red https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnGnj_e6gBw)
Results and Strava:
~950 mile through-hike in two weeks! I’m not injured, almost blister free and really excited to get out on trail and develop some solid leg strength this summer before the fall racing season arrives. Tomorrow Jess and I will be finalizing our resupply boxes and will get them shipped out in advance of our supported Idaho Centennial Trail attempt – more details and SPOT Tracking info coming soon!