While the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the West Coast in the early months of 2020, it wasn’t until the Shelter-in-Place and school closings dropped on March 13th that many people really felt the impact of the virus. Kids were jerked out of class, offices abruptly shuttered, and groceries left in garages to quarantine before bringing them into the house. And then on March 17th the first sign of impending doom shook the Northern California trail running community as we received an email from Epic Endurance Events just five weeks ahead of the scheduled Canyons 100k Golden Ticket race:
As we promised, our E3 team has exhausted all options, and due to the COVID-19 developments it has been determined that it is in the best interest of the running community to cancel Canyons Endurance Runs 2020. We are aware of how disappointing this news is as you have been working hard to qualify for WSER, but your safety, health and the health the greater community are our highest priority at this time.
My phone immediately lit up with text messages from runners all around the country and the Facebook pages were flooded with more questions than answers. Things just got real, real quick. Canyons was canceled!
Of course other races immediately followed, and in retrospect realizing how little we knew about the virus, transmission, and precautions back in March of 2020 it was undoubtedly the right call. And so we ultra-runners went into a bit of forced race hibernation – we didn’t stop running, of course (it’s gonna take a lot more than that!) but our ways and methods certainly shifted dramatically. We started wearing masks and buffs on the trails, completing much of our training solo or socially distanced, dreaming up personal challenges and joining virtual races online to keep us motivated and keep logging the miles and building the fitness. I entered this sport as more of an isolated loner runner than a crazy social one, and so the regression to running by myself was a natural fit for me. I took on a personal project and knocked out a series of Door2Door Shelter-In-Place 50k’s, planned and trained for a 35 day family thru-hike on the JMT, and completed some big dream loops in the mountains and in the desert that I had been plotting for a long time. Truth be told, the pandemic brought with it some of the best running of my life, along with an increasing feeling of dread, worry, and anxiety, of course.
And so when I received the Registration Invitation for the 2021 running of the Canyons 100k on November 9th of 2020 I was shocked, excited, and nervous all at the same time. I had been following the vaccine science and production timeline and I was reasonably confident that I would have at least one jab in me by the end of April 2021. It seemed crazy at the time to throw down a chunk of money and register for a race, but come on – this was Canyons! – so of course I did it on the first day that it was available. It felt great to finally get something on the calendar, as dubious as it seemed, and its looming presence allowed me to keep some hope alive during the dark months of November and December as our nation got pummeled yet again by a winter surge and the outlook on the virus was looking dim.
And then, as if my deepest prayers were answered, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines returned ridiculous high efficacy results against the coronavirus with hardly any significant side effects at all. I had shared many conversations with my buddy Lucas about the potential of RNA vaccines and technology, so I had always thought there was a nonzero chance of this happening, but I joined scientists around the world in being floored at just how good the vaccines looked. Being a high school teacher, I was promoted up the vaccine queue in a drive to get kids back into schools, and I broke down in tears in the parking lot of the local horse racing track Golden Gate Fields as I got my first inoculation the end of February. I could see the road out of this long year and I was finally heading down that path. As more and more people got shots, I joined the rest of the trail running community as we pivoted towards Chaz, Abby, Sean, and the rest of the E3 crew with eager eyes and shoes ready to lace up and go – would the Canyons 100k actually go down in 2021? Would we return to Northern California trail racing once again?
The pre-race Zoom session on the Mile 99 Interview only got me more excited for the event as Chaz and crew described a brutal point-to-point course with over 4,000 feet of NET elevation gain (+15,000 feet total) and a bare minimum of aid stations along the way. I drooled over the Strava activities of folks that were heading out to scope the course, immediately posting tales about how burly the final half was and how wicked the finish out to China Wall would be with 50+ miles in your legs. We continued to receive optimistic news from E3 (even though Chaz would later confide to me that he didn’t have signed permits in his hands until the afternoon before the start!) and before dawn on Saturday, April 24th, the tribe converged at the holy pilgrimage site of Overlook Park in Auburn for that moment we had all been waiting for. We masked up, lined up, and gave a final countdown before we darted past Robie Point and plunged down to the River that we had all missed so much.
It turns out that long distance trail racing is kind of like riding a bike, and we all fell into the familiar flow of things like we had been out there just a month ago. There were a few things different of course – the aid stations were mostly full service, as we weren’t allowed to dig our nasty hands through community bowls of M+M’s anymore (this is probably a change that should stick around to be honest). There were no more community cups at the table (again, a good thing) and we buffed up as we headed near other people, but other than these minor tweaks it felt quite normal to be out there on our favorite trails. I was excited to see the rest of the crew, but I didn’t quite anticipate just how good it would feel to share miles with the homies and catch up on what the heck we had been doing over the past year. I linked up with Conor from Tahoe, my super strong finishing brother from the UTLT hundo in October of 2019 for the first chunk of the race, and we chatted and talked about all the stuff going on in our lives. My fam was working the 16 mile aid station at Driver’s Flat and I was stoked to get an emotional pick-me-up so early in the day. I was feeling good and making great progress along the way.
Time began to dissolve as it always does during these long distance events, and my day blurred into a series of time running solo until I started to crawl into the pain cave a bit before being yanked out with the familiar faces and conversation of friends that I had not seen in a long time. Garret from Jtree was in the house, I finally met up with Strava and Facebook friend Troy for some brilliant miles heading into Cal 2, and I met new friends as well including Erika from Ultrarunning magazine and Steve from Connecticut. I moved steadily along the river and finally busted out my poles for the climb up to Foresthill, connecting with the incredibly positive Mario from Boulder as we enjoyed our glory heading up Main Street to a smaller than normal (but just as enthusiastic) crowd of people cheering us into the Middle School. Yeah, this was alright!
I was grateful to finally be in the Canyons as I had been trying to run a lot of the first half, and my running muscles were starting to get sore. I was ready to hit the steep stuff and get hiking a bit. I linked up with Yuch from Berkeley on the way out of Volcano and kept pushing into Michigan Bluff before really hitting my groove on the descent into El Dorado. This was one of the high points of my journey as the endorphins were hitting full strength and I freakin’ love this descent. The poles kept me clicking up the long climb to Deadwood, and I finally started chatting with the aforementioned Steve from Connecticut as we had been within a few minutes of each other literally the entire day. He was a treasure trove of veteran race knowledge, having completed the Grand Slam, UTMB, Vermont 100, and many other ridiculous pushes around the country. He filled me up with UTMB beta and we chatted about the logistics of coaching and training for mountain events in Connecticut. We soon pushed into the aid station at Deadwood, where the Silver State Striders family (and a bright orange Kaycee!) was waiting with their ridiculous positive energy and bags of Cheez-Its and Chips Ahoy. It felt more like a family reunion barbecue than a Mile 45 aid station, and I gave big hugs all around to my vaccinated friends, congratulated Chaz on his diabolical vision for the race, and took a pocket full of Cheez-Its out for the Loop 6 section of the course.
Steve, Mario and I made decent time around the loop, although it had more vert than any of us expected, and we were picked up by a train of dudes moving quickly on the way back. It’s amazing how if you can hop on with a group of people moving slightly faster than you, it’s possible to trick your mind into pushing it a bit more than you would have on your own for a couple miles at a time. I was grateful to hit the Silver State BBQ up again and started getting mentally prepped for the 11 mile push to the finish and the part of the course that was new to me. Kaycee described it was “2 miles down, 9 miles up” and I grabbed a hug from Christopher Thomas before hitting the final descent on the course and beginning the slog out.
I finally started to hurt at this point, alternating between pushing myself to run sections of the climb and just needing to settle in and power hike stretches too. Despite having a very solid year of running, I had discovered throughout the day that it’s very hard to push yourself to the same depths in training that you can push yourself during a race. I had been crawling in and out of the pain cave a bunch throughout the course of the day, in a way that I was not able to emulate with my solo training of the past year. Part of this is because I was often doing big backcountry loops in the Sierra or the desert, where I didn’t have room for error and needed to keep it uber conservative to ensure that I emerged from the wilderness in one piece. The return to racing very clearly showed me that it’s a different ballgame when we are running between aid stations stocked with drink, snacks, and most importantly our trusted friends. Races like Canyons allow us to really dig deep, knowing that even if we fully come off the rails and have to trudge along 11 miles to the next aid station, Kaycee, Chaz, or some new friend and ally will be there to clean us off, lift us up, and send us on our way. For a year we had all been running trails without our tribe – out there on solo adventures, plunging deep into our own heads and minds. And while most of us still made it out the other side, damn did it felt good to be a part of the freaks and weirdos running all day through the woods again.
Steve eventually found a nice finishing kick and rocketed past me a few miles from the end, and I synced up with Matt from Colorado as we navigated the remaining distance of the course. The party at the finish line was in full swing (apparently nobody really cares what you do in rural Placer County, and I’m okay with that) and I literally ran across the finish line into the arms of my comrades on the other side for my fourth Canyons finish in as many attempts. I ate hella veggie burritos and posted up by the fire pit, fastidiously wiping down my body with wipes and Technu trying to stay ahead of the poison oak game as I swapped war stories with the other wildly happy and exhausted souls at China Wall. Eventually I hopped on the school bus and headed down Foresthill Road back to Auburn, basking in the post Canyons glow and already thinking about the 2022 edition of the race. Would we get to go point-to-point again? Could Chaz make it even harder? Will they keep the trimmed down aid station profile that made it feel low-key and old school? Will they really make a 500k finisher buckle??!?
And, like I said before, trail racing is like riding a bike – you never really forget how to do it, it comes back almost immediately as soon as you hop on, and man, is it ridiculously fun. Huge shout-out to all of the Epic Endurance Events crew for being the vanguard of trail racing in our region and putting on such an amazing and safe post-pandemic event. Even bigger shout-out to the members of the tribe that came out to help, volunteer, cheer, mark the course, sweep the course, fill water bottles, cut candy bars in half, or just hand out vaccinated hugs along the way. I never knew how much I missed you all in my life!
See you in 2022 Canyons family!!!!!!!!!!