Alternate titles: Mis-Adventures in Pacing; Really, Arizona Has Nice Winters; How To Run and Get A Spa Treatment At the Same Time; When You Plan to Be Broiled and Get Frozen Instead.
Thing to note that prompted this whole story:
- I’m training for Crown King 50k
- which requires getting some good long runs in
- and I like using events to achieve said long runs.
- I love sharing my desert with out-of-state friends.
- I relish any opportunity I have to see my out-of-state friends.
- I’m completely hooked on the whole ultra-running experience…I like running the races, I’ve enjoyed the volunteering I’ve done…but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to pace someone through part of a race.
Combine all of those elements together with the fact that Mel had chosen to run the Black Canyon 100k, with the goal of obtaining her Western States 100 lottery entry qualifier for the year (finish time of 17 hours of less for the 100k)…and Black Canyon is a “local” (ish) race for me…and I love the Black Canyon trail, and knew about 90% of the trail from having done the training runs on the course…
And you get me volunteering to be Mel’s pacer for the latter part of Black Canyon 100k.
In normal years, this is a fun, challenging course…lots of downhill, some short but challenging climbs, and lots of technical rocks. And for the past three years, temperatures have ended up reaching record highs for February. (I believe last year it ended up at something like 90* as a high.)
Now, we’ve had a fairly mild winter, temperature-wise…but it’s been wet. Not California-water-inundation levels of rain, but for us, pretty soggy. Definitely flash-flood levels of rain, with normally-dry washes running, and bodies of water that we call “rivers” but everywhere else would qualify as “stream” or “creek” actually running large/high enough to legitimately earn their “river” designation.
And there are several “river” crossings on the normal Black Canyon course. At those crossing points, the Agua Fria might be a foot deep if you’re lucky…just enough to belly-flop in and attempt to cool off from the afore-mentioned 90*.
This year, the water level at one of the crossings peaked at 14′ in January after significant rain.
It was down for the training run, but the levels kept creeping higher as we kept getting more rain, and the forecast kept predicting more and more rain on race week, and race day.
Ultimately, the decision was made by race management to create an alternate course for this year: an out-and-back that would avoid the river crossings, because even if the forecast didn’t hold, the river would probably be running too high to be safe to cross. (Smart decision: The river was running about 7′ high on race day.)
The course changes meant a net-downhill course was now an even mostly-downhill on the way out and mostly-uphill on the way back. The start at Mayer High School down through the first ~26 miles of the course was the same, with the course then splitting off for several miles down to the new turnaround point, and then back the same way.
Okay, with that bit of establishing background all laid out, onto the good stuff…
Mel flew in Friday, and after picking up her race packet, was at my house by late afternoon. I made homemade chicken green chili enchiladas (hitting all the major food groups of carbs, veggies, protein and dairy…nomnomnom pre-race dinner) and we had a highly entertaining evening catching up, sharing stories, and getting aid station drop bags packed and race plans ironed out.
The start up at Mayer is about an hour and half away, so it was an early wakeup call to be rolling out of the house by 4:30 to have Mel there with plenty of time for the 6:45 briefing/7:00 start. It started raining off and on as we were driving through the Scottsdale area, and by the time we hit the north part of Phoenix, it was raining steadily, with the weather app radar showing a large green blob steadily making its way north.
(Partway through this drive was the location where I blew out my truck engine two years ago — Black Canyon City — and this was the first time I’ve one the drive since. Needless to say I had a bit of PTSD going through there and until we were past the big climbs on I-17. New [reman] engine and all associated new parts did flawlessly, so I might be able to relax and enjoy the drive once again.)
Mayer High School is kind enough to open their doors (and cafeteria and gymnasium) to the horde of runners that descend en masse, so there’s a warm and dry place to hang out — as well as real bathrooms to use. The race also uses a lap around the track as a starting point before leaving the high school, running through the town of Spring Valley for a couple of miles, then picking up the Black Canyon Trail just outside of town.
Aravaipa Running can always be counted on to take good care of runners and race attendees, and they had a spread of hot coffee, hot chocolate, fruit, and pastries available inside for people to fuel up while they waited.
Since I was angling for Not Worst Crew/Pacer Ever, I headed out in the rain with Mel so I could capture the forensic evidence of her being there and at the start line.
Once Mel was off and running, I retreated back to the truck, cranked the heater up, and basked in warmth and dryness (and attempted to dry my already-wet feet) while I waited for my fellow crewbie, C, to arrive. (We ran the Javelina Jangover 7k together back in September and she’s getting hooked on the trail running/ultra world.) Since I would be pacing Mel for the last 20 miles, it was super-helpful to have a second person to drive/haul stuff around.
Once C arrived, we transferred everything over to her truck (aid station drop bags, changes of clothes, food, etc.) and headed down to the first place we would meet Mel, Treasure Mine aid station at mile 12.5.
The aid stations were well-prepared for the weather — extra tents, heaters, hot beverages and broth — and people were definitely making good use of the amenities. I saw a lot of carnage coming in to this aid station — bloody knees, mud coating, and enough rain still coming down that the term “drowned rat” came to mind.
Mel came hustling in, wet but still clean, and we got her pack refilled with food and bottles topped off before sending her back out there, 5 minutes ahead of her anticipated time and pace chart.
From there, we headed down the road to the Bumble Bee aid station at 19.2 miles where it was another lather-rinse-repeat: stand in the rain, grab bottles from Mel as she came in, refill those and her food, let her grab some food from the aid station, and hustle her back out.
This was the turnaround point for the 60k distance, and apparently, due to the weather report (more rain), they were giving the 100k the option of dropping down to the 60k for completion-only. Mel’s only question upon learning this was “Do I still get my Western States qualifier?” When told no, the qualifier was for the whole 100k, she headed back out on the trail without when a blink of hesitation.
With Mel back out on course (right on time), we now had approximately five hours before she would be back into Bumble Bee to pick me up as her pacer (we couldn’t go to aid stations 4, 5 (turnaround point), and 6).
So C and I headed down to Rock Springs Cafe for lunch (I wish I had gotten pie there…they have really good pie…but I suspected I would probably regret it by the time it came to pacing) and to find an open feed store for C to make a hay run.
We did finally manage of our goal of obtaining a bale of bermuda hay for C, so we headed back to Bumble Bee where we had enough time to even grab a late afternoon nap.
I changed into my pacing clothes — long tights, long-sleeve merino wool short with short-sleeve tech shirt over, buff, Ultimate Direction rain jacket, pack, Balega merino wool socks, and Hoka Challenger ATR 2s.
We had strategically parked in such a way that we could see Mel coming down the road, and we bailed out of the truck and ran her into the aid station. Another quick topping off of bottles and food, I shed my outer rain jacket, and we were flying out of there.
This section between Bumble Bee and Treasure Mine is one of my favorite sections of trail ever. It’s single-track, and just fun. It was still raining, but the footing was excellent, with only a few puddles here and there, and crossing the occasional teeny little running wash. (It was kind of fun to see…I always knew that the little washes would run with enough rain, but have never been out in the desert during the rain enough to see it.)
We had probably another 45 minutes or so of daylight, and as the light faded, the wind kicked up. It wasn’t too bad yet — this section is really sheltered — and we were making really good time. Mel had gotten a little behind time in the middle section, and we made up all but a minute by the time we left Treasure Mine.
C met us at Treasure Mine where we did a quick headlamp battery change, food re-stock for Mel, and we grabbed cups of ramen noodles and broth to carry out with us. It was still raining, so we had decided that we would make the last aid station stop at Antelope Mesa as quick as we could, so told C to not even stop there…just take the stuff back to my truck and she could get out of the rain and be done for the night.
We hustled out of Treasure Mine clutching our broth cups, back out into the rain. This section from Treasure Mine back to Antelope Mesa has a lot more climbing, and is a lot more exposed and open. The wind had also picked up, and it was at this point that it started getting really cold and really wet, especially on some of the exposed ridgelines where the wind blew icy needles of rain right into us.
It was also somewhere during this stretch that my gloves (Fortunately the $2 Old Navy knit variety, not some really nice ones) had popped out of one of my pack pockets and were lost to the trail. I discovered this shortly before Antelope Mesa, so have no idea exactly when they went on walkabout.
It was really cold and really windy by the time we got to Antelope Mesa. We stopped there for maybe a minute, long enough to grab more broth and some bean roll-ups, and dashed out before we could get too comfortable. Coming in to Antelope Mesa, we were leading a wagon train of half a dozen people, and there was a lot of misery and train wreckage that I could see as we quickly dashed back out into the weather.
Even that brief stop and slight bit of warmth made a cruel contrast to what awaited us. It was only 7 miles to the finish, but 5 of those miles were nasty, sloppy, icky, freezing mud. A good portion of the trail at this point was a jeep road, and you could move forward without sliding. We slopped forward the best we could, with me trying to strategically position myself behind Mel to block her from the worst of the wind whenever I was able.
I can say getting through this section was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Harder than the DNF at Crown King, harder than any endurance ride. I’ve had more physically painful moments, but I have never been so cold, and so wet…and had to be the mentally strong one.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit self-indulgent when it comes to discomfort and difficult things. I much prefer someone to take my hand and say “we’re getting this done.” But part of my job as pacer was to be the one to say “let’s get this done.” I couldn’t let on how cold I was, or how discouraged I was, or how this was absolutely insane and we were probably going to die of hypothermia out there, or how my head was playing mind games with me in terms of what I thought the trail was doing versus what it was actually doing. (At one point, I thought I could see the single track stretching out in front of us, which was insane because we were on a jeep road, it was pitch dark, and I could only see about three feet in front of myself with my headlamp. It was the ultimate in headgames.)
So I reassured Mel that she was getting it done, that the miles were ticking off (even if I did have to fudge the numbers a few times), she was on pace (this part was not fudged…she had set a goal of 19-minute miles for this section and she was ticking of 18-minute miles, even in the cold and mud).
And it was still raining. And still windy. I looked at the weather report the next day, and the area got 2″ of rain, and wind gusts of 40mph.
Finally, finally we reached the road…lovely, solid, hardpack, not muddy road. It was a relief to pick up a shuffling jog versus the mud slog, and I chattered at/nagged/encouraged Mel for the next mile and half or so to keep on going. The high school was visible, and we were almost done.
And as a parting gift on the final turn up the street to the high school I managed to step in a hidden pothill that was filled with water. My feet had just warmed up again from the last mile of not-mud, and so an unexpected water dunking was rather freezing. I think I kind of tweaked something on the unexpected step as well, but several days later as I write this, the ankle is a little sore but functional.
Going through Spring Valley actually warmed up — all the houses provided a wind break, and the pavement was a little bit warmer than mud.
Until we reached the high school, which was at the top of the exposed ridgeline. More wind, more driving icicle rain. More chattering teeth and shivering runners. But Mel shuffled through the parking lot, onto the track, and over the finish line at 11:37pm. Her “optimum time” was 11:30, with midnight as the cutoff for Western States lottery qualifying, so I guess I did my part to keep her “on pace.”
I shooed Mel off to the high school while I retrieved the truck from its further away parking space (my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t grasp the key hard enough to turn it in the lock, since the truck is older and the locks are stiff…I had to use the caribiner on my keychain to act as a leverage bar to basically twist the key around) and moved closer to the high school. Once I got it moved, I hustled back inside…still shivering. A cup of hot coffee has never tasted so good. Understandable, after you’re told your lips are actually kind of blue, as are your fingernails.
Huh, knew I was cold, but didn’t think I was that bad.
Anyway, mild brush with hypothermia aside (bet you never thought you’d read that sentence from someone who lives int he desert), we sat in the gym with warm drinks while a very kind person went out and got Mel her wood-fired pizza, which we then proceeded to polish off very quickly.
Pizza and move coffee consumed, I braved the elements again long enough to run outside, grab Mel some clean dry clothes, run back inside, grab another cup of hot water, and run back outside to the truck where the heater got cranked on again and I used the front seat as my changing room. (Sorry if I had an inadvertent audience out there…I was too cold to care.)
Ensconced in multiple layers, with the truck heater working really well, I was finally getting warm, and once Mel came back outside, we took off for home before I was completely out of functional energy.
The drive home went really smooth (and it was still raining) and we rolled into the driveway at 2:30ish. I had some very happy puppy dogs to greet me, and then I fell into bed, not even bothering with a shower.
And then I completely failed at sleeping in, up at about 7:30, because apparently once the sun is up, so am I. And so are the dogs. But I still had all of the stuff in the truck to unload — all the wet clothes got chucked in the back and I really couldn’t be bothered to deal with it until the morning.
Mel didn’t have to be at the airport until later in the afternoon, so we had some time to go to my favorite gelato shop and my local running store. Oh, yeah, and it was still off-and-on raining.
As I write this several days later, the weather has been in the high 60s/low 70s, bright, sunny, and perfect. Which I’m thinking my northern CA friends who have visited here in the winter won’t actually believe. I try to convince people our winters here are gorgeous, but every time I get a visit from an out-of-state friend, the weather goes completely sideways. Um, sorry?
I think I’ll wrap this up here for now, with a second post to follow on the good/bad evaluation, plus more details on gear.