The Spring training block of 2019 went well for me. I got some February distance in with the First Annual Groundhog’s Day Lupe-fest, had a successful ramp up race with the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k, and hit a nice peak week with my solo Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim. It was looking like it was going to be one of my best ever build ups for my third running of the Canyons 100k at the end of April … and then I got sick.
Truth be told I was a bit sick on my trip out to the Grand Canyon. Not enough to bail on my golden opportunity, but I was definitely coughing and hacking on my trip through those magical sacred walls. I willed away the wheezing for a day and then unfortunately had to deal with the consequences. I have largely escaped the childhood asthma that I grew up with, except that now as an adult whenever I get sick it makes a bee-line for my chest. And this crud that I had caught seemed like a particularly nasty strain of sinus congestion and wheezing to go along with it. I tried to rest, even taking two days off school to lay in bed, drank more tea than I have in a year, and hit herbal treatments from all different angles trying to clear out my head and body. It worked decently well and the persistent wheezing disappeared the week of the race and left me with a forced taper of about 12 days.
I got myself up to Foresthill for the 5:30 AM start and finally realized that I was really, really excited to run. The Western States trail is one of my favorite trails in the entire world, and in the Canyons 100k you run two of the best sections of the trail -twice. The first 50k takes you out through the “Canyons” of the course before turning around and coming straight back, amassing over 10,000 feet of vert. The second 50k takes you down the glorious descent of Cal Street to the river, where you turn around at Rucky Chuck and begin your slog back up to Foresthill. Those two out-and-backs mean you see most other folks in the race twice, which is fun motivation in itself. This particular year we were running on the modified snow course, which substituted a trip down smooth and sloping Gorman Road for the last Canyon of Swinging Bridge and Devil’s Thumb.
The sickness, stress, and congestion had delayed the stoke level a bit for the race and perhaps my trepedation was easy to read over social media as my friend Zak texted me words of encouragement the day before. After getting advice from multiple people that wasn’t really resonating, Zak hit the nail on the head: “You’re going out to have fun and experience the whole thing 100 percent”. It didn’t matter if I felt as good as I usually did, or if I ran faster or slower than my previous two years. A big reason that I love running a whole day in the mountains is because of that feeling – not just the good feeling, but the bad feelings, and the meh feelings, and all the feelings. I was going to feel things. 100 percent.
I charged off the start line in a bit of a hectic rush to get to the Volcano Creek crossing “before the out of towners” as my other buddy had put it. I might have been in a bit of a hurry as I ended up running sub 8s for the first 2 miles, but it really is nice to get to the creek crossing before the bottleneck. I told myself that once I got on the other side I could relax and start hiking and that’s exactly what I did. I watched the sun rise and listened to the birds wake up as I joined a mellow conga line heading up to Gorman Road. This year’s race had a record number of starters with nearly 400 people out on the trails. I hooked up with my buddy Chris Thomas at the top of Gorman Road and we began the descent down the alternate portion of the course, chatting about all things from UTMB to Grand Canyon escapades to balancing running and family life. The conversation must have been good because we were flying down the smooth fire road – I wished him luck on his hunt for a PR that day as I slowed down at the turnaround and decided to run/walk it back up the road to Michigan Bluff.
I love descending, and I love descending on the Canyons course. The drop from Michigan Bluff to El Dorado Canyon is an invigorating, smooth, and buttery ride. I tried to emphasize not really pushing it and just letting gravity do the work, and soon enough I was crossing the bridge and heading up to the first major climb of the day and the alternate turn-around at Deadwood Cemetery. My legs were hurting already at this point, and it began the pattern of the day where I never really felt like I had my “A” game. My groins were cramping for a while, and then my hamstrings, and then my calves… and I would kind of rotate through that set of discomfort for most of the run. I tried to breathe oxygen into the parts that felt tight and remember Zak’s adage that whatever happened out there, I would be feeling it all.
The climb up to Deadwood was pleasant and I took it easy again, hooking up with other runners, including one that remembered me from a race we had ran together 3 years ago. This is one of the really magical parts of this sport – you spend so much time out on trails with people, and often have deep, meaningful conversations – and then they vanish. However oftentimes you see them again, on different trails, and are able to pick up your same conversations, albeit years apart. Every race I meet a few new quality people and I just add them to my growing tally of awesome folks out here in the mountains.
We grabbed our wristbands at the top of the climb and began the 3 mile descent back to El Dorado. My legs were still not feeling great, but at least I was about to swap one set of muscles for another. I hooked up with four other guys of similar descending prowess and we began bombing the hill. Without ever saying a word to each other we picked up a fluid motion, a runaway train with gravity on our side. Even if we were going a bit faster than was prudent, it didn’t make sense to run this part solo as there was a steady stream of hundreds of hikers coming up the climb. They wouldn’t get out of the way of a solo descender, but they had no choice but to step aside for a second while the five of us went by. I had a similar experience on this descent in 2017 and it’s one of my favorite moments in running. The second guy even dropped his sunglasses at point, and I was able to grab them off the ground and hand them back to him as he rotated to the back, all without breaking stride. I knew my legs might pay for the speed later, but I couldn’t say no to gliding down the energetic lines of the Universe back into El Dorado creek.
It was only there that my head really felt like it was in the game. I actually think the razor sharp focus / non-focus of the descent was what I needed to get the mental edge back. I wasn’t feeling the pain in my legs at that point, and I was coming up on an extraordinary runner’s high that would propel me all the way back to Foresthill. The climb up Michigan Bluff was as peaceful as it could be. I motored up in a low gear by myself, listening to the birds chirp and catching the sun as it glistened through the leaf canopy above. It was a distinctively different climb from 2017, where I was thoroughly in the pain cave and contemplating dropping out, and 2018, where I was trucking up with a group of runners engaged in conversation the entire time.
I came into Foresthill on PR pace, likely due to pushing it a bit much on the front half and the slightly easier modified course. I left the aid station at 6 hours 32 minutes after grabbing my sunglasses from my drop bag and not touching a single other thing. I kept telling myself that if my legs magically clicked into shape then I would still have a shot at a PR and a fast run that day.
Alas, I had forgotten about the inevitable pain cave between Cal 1 and Cal 2. I love the descent from Foresthill to the River, and I have done it numerous times now between Canyons, Overlook and Ruck-a-Chuck races. I have never really enjoyed the 5 mile section of rollers between Cal 1 and Cal 2, and today was no exception. It was getting hot out there and for some reason my wheezing began to flare up again. I was trying to cough up phlegm and having such difficulty that I almost threw up on multiple occasions. My stomach felt fine, and I had to tell myself that throwing up would not be good here as I was already struggling to stay hydrated with the heat. I tried to breathe, direct oxygen into my lungs, and keep on moving. I saw the leaders return and one of them announced that I was almost at Cal 2. Thank god!
Cal 2 is, and will always be, my favorite aid station on the Western Course. It’s got such a wonderful shady setting and they always have a tin cup ready with ice and Sprite ready to pull me out of my heat-induced mental struggle. This year my friend Jenn was working as a volunteer there, and it always gives you such a boost to see a familiar face out there on the course. We chatted for a moment as I filled up my water for the next stretch and I publicly declared my love for all things Cal 2.
I headed down to the river for the longest and hottest stretch of the day. My legs were still aching all over but the rest of my body seemed to be holding up okay. I tried to focus on running the flats and the downhills and recovering on the climbs, while dunking in the creeks to cool my core temperature off whenever I could. I started by just dunking my legs – right before the turnaround I got up to my chest – and after the turnaround I went for it, taking my vest off and fully submerging my whole body and head. There’s nothing like a dip in a creek to really hit the reset button, and it’s amazing how you can get 15-20 minutes of fresh-feeling running out of a quick dip.
Rucky Chucky is my mental victory point on this course, as I know there’s nothing on Earth that will keep me from hauling myself back up the hill and getting back to the Elementary school. In fact, I finally started to feel decent on the return trip, as my legs began to relax and settle in a bit. I triumphantly entered Cal 2 and told them that I had seen the depths of the river and that I had returned for their quesadillas and tater tots. The rollers leading into Cal 1 seemed like no big deal at this point with the setting evening sun. I had watched my chance at a PR (13:18) vanish, and then watched my chance at a sub 14 hour finish vanish. Luckily I had already scrolled down in my mind to my new goal of beating my 2017 time of 14:17. I tried to push and climb gracefully back up to the paved portion of Cal Street, where I knew I could safely make my most recent goal time. Despite (or maybe because of) this year feeling like the hardest Canyons for me, the victory run down Main Street felt absolutely glorious. Spectators and runners were cheering for me the entire way and I was grinning ear to ear. I had earned that finish on that day, and it had been a struggle and a journey at times. I crossed the line in 14 hours and 13 minutes while Eric Schranz read off my answer to “How did you train for Canyons” – “By hitting the Tilden Hills with the rest of the Easy Bay Quadbangers”. Damn straight.
Some days in the mountains you feel like you can move effortlessly and full of spring in your step. This was not one those days for me. And yet I carried on, step after step, always breathing, always feeling things 100 percent. I felt the pain, I felt the happiness, and I felt the camaraderie on the course. Because I was not alone. Every single person on that trail was a Warrior yesterday. Not in the violent, aggressive sense, but in the noble and honorific sense. I saw runners bleeding, crying, puking, helping, laughing, and smiling – and yet everyone kept going. The sense of community gets better every year in this race, from the amazing volunteers to the friends and families cheering on Main Street to the incredible runners. It could get annoying saying “Keep it up, nice work!” to 400+ people at least two times, but instead it becomes motivating and keeps us all going.
I love Canyons, I love the Western States trail, and I love this sport with all of my soul.
See you next year!