"Get to the top of the hill, then run as fast as you can the rest of the way and I'll stay right behind you." I said to Woo as we approached mile 53 (ish) of the 62 mile race.
A few miles earlier, I had run into the last aid station and she and my brother-in-law, Mike, asked where the other pacer I was running with was. I said I wasn't sure but I thought I lost him a few miles earlier. Woo asked "do you think I can keep up" and without much thought I gave a quick "probably not." Woo asked if she should still run with me to which I responded "yes! let's go!" At this point, she was to be my pacer for the final 12 miles leading to the finish line. I'd been looking forward to this for most of the race and there was no time to think any more about it. Leaving the last aid station, I had passed the runner who was in 12th place and moved into 11th. I was told the runner in 10th was only a few minutes ahead...
The idea of running this race started, as most of our races do, as part of a vacation/family trip. This one was was really meant to go visit some Woo family, and less about the race, but I was still lucky enough to commandeer Woo and Mike for the day to help be my pace/crew for the race. This race was to be my first official *only* 100k distance, so pacing was completely unknown for me. Then, on top of that the competition was FIERCE being an early season west coast race and also a Golden Ticket race for automatic entry into the coveted Western States 100 (WSER). This combination brought out all the big dogs. I wanted to be one of them. These Golden Tickets "roll down" much like an Ironman World Championship slot would, say, if the person who wins or gets second already has entry into the Western States 100. I thought it was an absolute long shot that I may sneak into the top 5 and even have such a chance. Realistically I was aiming to break into the top 10.
Additionally, the Black Canyon 100k was to serve as Billy and my first 4 points toward qualifying for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) race in the french Alps in the fall of 2019. Runners need 15 points to qualify and points are allocated based on race distance and difficulty. This race would also be my first WSER qualifier, so I thought it was a great combination, vacation race, competition, WSER, UTMB, to check all the boxes.
The race was scheduled to begin just at sunrise, around 7am, about an hour north of where we were staying in Phoenix. That meant an early early wake up. I had everything packed up and ready to go the night before. If you don't know this about me already, I get WICKED nervous about race mornings. Getting to the site without traffic, getting lost, etc. and make sure to build in more than enough time in case of difficulty. Luckily we faced none of the sort and were one of the first vehicles in the race parking lot (my fav!) around 530am. I finished up my breakfast, listened to some jams to get me ready, and waited for Billy to arrive.
We went in and got our race bibs/packets. The morning process, as well as the race and finish process was executed perfectly, as usual with Aravaipa Running events. If you're looking to race out west, find one of their events and go for it. You will not be disappointed! The race began on an old high school cinder oval track where runners would do one lap then head down the road for a couple of miles through a neighborhood and onto the trail. It was nice at this point to chat with another amazing ultra athlete, Courtney Duwalter (if you don't know her...look her up!)! The Black Canyon trail is a point to point trail with a net downhill, but still with a few killer climbs. The trails were mostly smooth and nothing like what we normally run on here in the east (BEAST) coast! I was surprised to hear runners commenting on the "technical difficulty" of the trails at the same time I was thinking this particular section was like the "easy" parts of my normal Skyline trail in the Blue Hills just outside of Boston. P.s. the sunrise over the mountains was magical!
Anyway, back to the race. My plan was to start out slow and consistent and just let the guys up front battle it out and I'd come through and pick up whatever carnage was left at the end of the race. The first hour was a breeze, I hardly felt like I was even working. Billy and I chatted a while about our plan, how great it was to be running out in the desert together, and how much the day would mean to both of us in the end. When we got there, some 55 miles later. At the first aid station, mile 7.3, I was in a comfortable 45th place. This was just a quick run through as no crew was allowed. The first crew stop wouldn't be until mile 19.2. As the sun came up, the temps got a little warmer, but not unbearable. As we hopped along the smooth left coast trails we continued chatting and at times I let Billy know he could go ahead and pick up the pace if he wanted as I sensed he was feeling a little antsy taking the early miles conservative, or alternatively I said he could ease the pace up if he wanted, that he should run his race. Now, Billy is no slacker out there and is one hell of an endurance athlete, but at this point in the season, most of his endurance came on two wheels and I know he didn't get the miles on foot he would have ideally liked to have.
We came into the first crew station to a smiling Mike and Woo ready to hand us fresh bottles, applesauce, ice bandanas, and anything else we needed. After a quick stop and chat, re-fueled and energized we took off back onto the course. At this point in the race, the mile 19.2 aid station, I had dropped to 52nd place (unbeknownst to me). The good news was that I was feeling GREAT, like I was just getting warmed up.
We continued on smiling and happy. Especially as Billy had grabbed some water bottles he wasn't previously carrying. As you can see in the below photo of us prior to the 2nd aid station. Lucky for me I was hydrating up thanks to my Orange Mud double barrel pack. A few miles later at the 23.7 mile aid station check point, I had already moved up to 41st position; again, unknown to me at the time. For almost the entire race I really had no idea what place I was in. I just knew it was warming up and a LOT of people started out too fast. At one point early on, I had estimated about 50 people ahead of us and I was aiming for (and was at that point on pace for) about a 9 hour finish. Going from previous results there would only be a few runners under 9 hours (only 3 on this day). As bad as it sounds, I knew that a lot of those guys/girls were in for a rough day after that quick start.
Anyway...few miles later I knew it was getting close to time for Billy and I to part ways so I could start making my moves. Around mile 25 or so we were chatting along and Billy was reaching for a gel which he then dropped onto the trail. At this point, I (sorry buddy) took the opportunity to make a little move and go on my way. Before Billy knew what happened I was around the switchback and shouting my goodbyes. The middle miles were pretty uneventful. I stayed focused and positive and mostly ran by myself. A couple of guys tagged up for a mile or two to chat and then we would get separated.
The next aid station wasn't for a while and would be our 2nd crew meetup point, but it wouldn't come until mile 37. This was also the crew station where I would pick up my first pacer, Dion. He was a local Flagstaff athlete who knew Mike from some common races and who responded to a post I made on the Aravaipa Facebook event page. I hadn't ever met Dion before but anyone who is willing to get up early and help a stranger accomplish his goals is top notch in my book. As I got to mile 37 there was an out and back section of the course where I saw a few runners coming back to the course after getting their aid. I ran past Courtney again and she was looking smooth as always. I got to the aid station and Mike was handing off new bottles while Woo was giving me some more ice bandana and squirting cool water on my shoulders as the temps were getting to their highest point of the day. I had also asked about my boy Billy, but nobody knew how far back he was as he didn't get to the last check point yet. Come to find out later he missed one of the checkpoints and was moving along just fine. Phew!
Moments later, Dion and I were on our way out. I explained to him the out and back section I had just run on and asked him to take the lead and make sure there was a clear path of runners coming in that we could go through. He did awesome and kept us moving without having to veer off course or bump into any other athletes coming into the station still. At this point, mile 37.4 I had made some big gains and was up to 19th place.
Dion and I stayed consistent as we picked off a few runners. Though, unfortunately about halfway in to the section of the course we did get separated at one of the aid stations halfway between the crew stations. I looked over my shoulder and he was gone! Alas, I had to continue fighting forward. I could feel the fatigue coming in now, but knew this last 20 was going to be where I made my charge to the front. A few of the runners I passed in this stretch were walking and were looking pretty rough (see above, re: runners starting out way too fast). I would zip by and offer words of encouragement, but wanted to make a forceful pass so that nobody would consider trying to vie for the position. Another runner down. And another. Soon I was gliding into the Table Mesa aid station at mile 50.9 to a smiling Mike and Woo again. This time Woo was in running clothes and ready to go.
I was told the runner in 10th was only a few minutes ahead...and so we went. In search of 10th place. As we cruised along we knew there was a few mile long climb out of this aid station, a flat section, then a gradual downhill to the finish. I was getting tired, but Woo definitely had some payback in mind after I (figuratively) dragged her to the finish of the Sugarloaf Marathon last year for her first post-surgeries Boston Marathon Qualifier. She was exhausted as I ran 2 steps ahead and told her to think about nothing but keeping up with me. This was her turn for revenge.
"Get to the top of the hill, then run as fast as you can the rest of the way and I'll stay right behind you."
It was a bit of a struggle at times, especially on any down hills where my quads were shot, but I managed to stay right behind her. We were moving well and coming up the hill we caught the runner in 10th. I asked Woo to stay a few steps behind him as we approached to let him know we were there and wait a minute to make our move to try and be a little strategic. I really didn't want to have to sprint it out the last 10 miles with someone. Though, as we approached he moved to the side and let us by easy enough. We still picked up the pace a bit to make sure there weren't any second thoughts of gunning it out. Over the next mile or two going up the switchbacks I could still see him down there but eventually getting further and then out of sight. Here I was, just a few miles left and sitting in 10th spot with my lovely wife guiding me to the finish line. I was exhausted, but my heart was full.
Once we got to the top of the hill Woo turned on the speed and we made like bandits for the finish line. With only about a mile to go, she says "I don't know if you want to hear this right now or not...but 9th place is just up ahead" as she pointed up in the distance. I sighed and said "if you can catch him, then so can I" and we went for it. Though, in the end, we finished just over a minute behind 9th place. Not only did Woo keep up, she led the way in a commanding fashion. I noticed later scrolling through her Strava that her heart rate for the 12 miles she ran with me was considerably higher than the 5k pacing test she had done a couple weeks earlier! :D
Aside from the only other Aravaipa event I've ever done (the Desert Solstice 24 hour) this was probably the 2nd best executed race I've ever done and I needed it in a bad way. Still recovering from the disappointments I had last season, this is exactly the race I needed to have in order to have an enjoyable and focused 2018 racing season. Finishing 8th M and 10th OA here gave me a lot of the confidence back I lost last year (see here and here for reference). Black Canyon 100k Strava File here.
A special thanks to my crew of Woo and Mike for all the time they spent helping me get to the finish line as quickly as I could. I wouldn't have had the same results without your effort. And to Dion for making the trip to the race and spending some miles along the course with me.
Now it's time to look forward to some other fun upcoming adventures:
This is gonna be a hell of a start to the year! Thanks for reading!