Monday, June 14, 2010

2010 Blue Canyon 50 Mile Trail Race

(Updated 6/20/10: I've added a few more photos, all courtesy of Thuy Greer, who was working the mile 17/37 aid station. Thanks! More to follow in the next day or two...)

One of the amazing things that draws me to ultra-distance races, above and beyond the health benefits, is that regardless of what place you finish, there is a unique, challenging, painful, emotionally draining adventure and corresponding story that unfolds in the hours between the start and (hopefully) the finish. Last Saturday's Blue Canyon 50 Miler in CA was the epitome of this.

As I previously posted, I claimed my first race victory by winning in 11:02.00, but this isn't the primary reason this race was so rewarding and memorable. Additionally, there is good reason for such a slow winning time. Allow me to elaborate...

The whole decision to enter came about spontaneously and very last minute when my friend Andy Henshaw (the 100k race winner the past 2 years) was able to get me a complimentary entry (thanks to the RD, Robert Gilcrest) to the event as long as I was able to book a flight in time. This all happened on Tuesday evening with me scheduling a Friday morning flight to Santa Barbara. Another cool piece of the puzzle came together when, despite the short notice, my uncle from Dana Point decided he was overdue for a last minute weekend getaway, and made the drive north to come witness the carnage. Having never witnessed an ultra before, he would be in for a shocker on Saturday!

Race morning came around and those of us running either the 50 miler or the 50k had what we thought was the luxury of a 7:00am race start. The 100k runners on the other hand, were sent off into the dark at 4:30am. With temps only forecast to hit the low 90's this didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but in hindsight, having temps that reached at least 103 degrees, I would have killed for the 4-ish start. This was the only criticism I had for Robert after the event.

Anyway, after the official start we were immediately met with the steepest climb of the day (total gain for the day would end up being in excess of 14,000 ft):

The mileage isn't shown in the above course profile but this initial climb is covered in barely over 3 miles. While not easy by any means, I was stoked when I reached the summit having run every step except for when I needed a GU or salt. So far, so good. After a nice, gradual descent down a jeep road I arrived at the first aid station (mile 6.3) in 1:05.

(Mile 13. Photo courtesy of Kevin Steele)

At this point I was ahead of all but two runners, and it was at this aid station that it was confirmed that they were running the 50k distance which meant I was officially leading! Receiving this bit of good news I now had renewed energy to tackle the second big climb of the day.

This climb was not quite as steep as the first but definitely lasted longer. This is partially due to it being the longest stretch between aid stations, at 6.8 miles. It was while running in unshaded areas on this climb that I first noticed how hot it already was outside. It was about 9:00am and it's safe to say temps were already in the mid to upper 80's! (Concerns about what temps 3:00 in the afternoon would bring were now lingering in the back of my mind...) Anyway, I arrived at the Angustoro Pass aid station around 2hr and 20min in. This is where I took my first full refuel, dunked the bandana in some ice water, and hit downhill #2.

Being all downhill on a jeep road again, it only took about 38 minutes to cover the 4.6 miles to the next aid station (mile 17+/-), but during this descent I began to notice hot spots on my feet for the first time, and start to feel knee pain from the descending. At the aid station I decided that since I was well hydrated I'd take 400mg of ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation in my knees. From here the aid station workers said it was 4 miles to an unmanned water station and then another 4 until the next manned aid station. Status: 1st place still with NO signs of any runners behind me. In fact, I was only about 6 minutes behind the two 50k leaders!

(Mile 17. Photos courtesy of Thuy Greer)

Here I'm going to break away from the monotony of a verbatim play-by-play and fast forward to the memorable events a little further ahead in the day:

I found almost all of the terrain over the next 8+ miles to be very runnable, BUT despite topping off my water at every oportunity, I found myself running out between aid stations since my sweat level was soooo much higher than I'd ever experienced. It was now officially blast-furnace hot! In hindsight, I think carrying a hydration pack would have worked better than just two 20oz handhelds. As an example, due to the mid-day temps at the turnaround, it took me an hour to go 4 miles from the last aid station to the turnaround and back, and only 35 minutes to completely deplete my water supply!

Something else that attests to the impact of the extreme heat (skipping ahead a little here), was that this 27+ mile split to the turnaround took me 5 hours.... whereas the next 22+ took me over 6!

The pattern of the day for those next grueling hours: Hit an aid station. Proceed to slam down gels and salt like it's my job. Drink as much as possible and top off my water bottles. Leave aid station running. Run out of water in 30 minutes. Begin walking. Suffer for 45 with no water and thus no ability to run. Repeat.

(Coming into and leaving aid station at mile 37. Photos courtesy of Thuy Greer)

Whenever I would try to run with no fluids, I found myself overheating almost immediately and getting dizzy/disoriented/clumsy. Knowing that I was probably dehydrated AND extremely low on salt, I at least had the presence of mind to just walk and try to keep my core temps as low as possible. This was the pattern for the last 14 miles. The peak of suffering came at about mile 44. No water, lots of ups and downs on the course, and no aid station within sight. The way I was stumbling around at this point led me to become legitimately scared of losing consciousness. I began to pick my footing VERY carefully, thinking that if I passed out I at least didn't want to hit my head on a huge rock or fall down a ravine (been there, done that, not fun)! Side note: It's amazing how extreme levels of mental and pysical anguish cause you to change your priorities. I went from being psyched that I was leading a race for the first time, to not even caring if I won or even finished for that matter. I just wanted the suffering to stop...

Just past this low point, I stumbled across a slow moving stream and despite knowing that giardia was a real possibility if I drank the water, it was a no-brainer that I had to drink or I wouldn't make it to the next aid station... and drink I did! I must have chugged close to two bottles of water right there and taken 10 salt tablets. It was amazing how quickly this caused me to become lucid again. While I still was miserable, I no longer felt I was in danger of severe injury.

On this home stretch before the last aid station (which marked 2 miles to go) I came across a couple of women walking the course to check on runners. After a brief recap of my condition, I had a volunteer who was willing to run the last 2 miles with me just to make sure I didn't lose consciousness. We were able to bomb into the finish since it was almost entirely downhill from here. THANKS GRETCHEN!! I was pretty worried before running into her, but after she joined I had not only someone to look after me, but someone to talk to and get my mind off the pain, and this did wonders!

Finally the finish line showed itself! Water bottles were thrown aside, a barrel roll on the grass ensued, and I could finally collapse in the shade!
(Crossing the finish. Photo courtesy of Kevin Steele)

Final time: 11:02.00
(In the end only 3 other runners finished the 50 mile distance and two of them were runners that dropped down from the 100k. My margin of victory was over 2 hours and 40 minutes.)

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Steele)

In the above picture, I had just finished and Gretchen was helping me with my waist belt... look at how much salt is soaked into my shorts; even for me this was a TON! I again need to thank my doctor and dietician at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, for helping me figure out my salt intake issues last summer. Without them, I can safely say a race like Blue Canyon would have put me in the ER or killed me.

In ultra running the saying truly applies: 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'
Saturday's race didn't kill me, so I guess a thank you is in order to both mother nature and the Blue Canyon race course!

I would highly recommend either the Blue Canyon races or the upcoming DRTE 100 Miler (same start/finish, different course) to those who are looking for a HARD, HARD ultra. Check them both out at the Blacksmith Endurance website:

With less than a month until Hardrock I am supremely confident in my ability to rise to the challenge...  it's now time to keep the body in one piece and focus on high altitude training!


(Here's a cool track I just stumbled across... it's instrumental, but awesome none the less. Could be a good running tune. Enjoy.)


reubengregory said...

incredible man. hero you are. mine, at least. i'm seriously considering going to hardrock to watch.

Brooks said...

Reuben, it would be a privilege to have you there and have the extra support! It's so motivating to have the friends and family around to pull you through the tough spots.. let me know if you want more info on the logistics as it gets closer!

怡孜 said...


thuy said...

Hey Brooks!

Here's you breathing down a Gatorade in style at the BCTR 50 km aid station:

Skim through the set if you have time. There are quite a few pictures of you taken in the morning and afternoon. Let me know if you want the pictures in full res.


BLOS said...

Nice write up Brooks!

Brooks said...

Awesome pics! Thanks for being out there in the scorching heat again!

If it's not too much trouble, I would love the full resolution copies and would like to post a few on here even.

If it's too much of a pain to send them all to my gmail account, I can pic a few that I like...

Please send me your email address and we'll be in touch!