A couple days after I volunteered at Primal Quest, John and I exchanged the following via text:
Me: You'll never guess where I just was...
John: Waffle House?
Me: That would have been a good guess if there was one here! I just got a pedicure :) Got some foot calluses removed!
John: You're right, never would have guessed.
First pedicure of my life, the idea being that maybe I could fix my big toe blister issue by removing the stubborn calluses on my big toes. The salon lady was very nice about it, but I had to stifle a laugh a couple times watching her expression as she looked at my toes. I don't think she gets many ultra runners for customers. She had to pull out a special box with the right tools to scrub on my feet, and she did a great job of removing most of the thick skin without rubbing anything raw. Thank you ma'am!
Now for the test - the Stagecoach 100 mile race. It wouldn't be a perfect test, since there were no river crossings and no rain, so perhaps having dry feet the whole time was really what helped. But in the end I had zero feet problems, so yay for pedicures and a dry course!
That's not to say I didn't have problems... I trained pretty well this summer for climbing mountains, not so well for actually running 100 miles. Might have been better if I could have flipped my two 100-mile races (runnable Stagecoach in June and the big climbs of Bryce now), but oh well, what can you do?
The main reason we were here now is that the 2014 version of the Stagecoach 100 was cancelled for huge rains and flooding. Ian, the race director, was super kind enough to bump my entry forward a year, and I couldn't pass up that offer. After all, the idea of running from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon had captured my imagination. Time to go then!
Ian giving last minute instructions:
Walking over to the starting line:
Countdown to the start...
And we're off!
The first mile was an easy climb from the starting ranch up to meet the Arizona Trail. We would be following the AZT for much of the race and I was pretty excited to spend that many miles on such an interesting trail as this. I had seen the first section during a training run last year and again really enjoyed the climb up through the forest. The singletrack coming up (and over) from Flagstaff is super sweet. Lovely, gentle switchbacks, obviously built for biking and great for running as well.
I spotted two blond women in the front part of the pack, then several ladies around me during the first climb. I was going to try to actually "race" this one for once, so while I wasn't pushing hard, I was also not taking it easy. It was good to try to figure out a little bit about the competition even though it was way early in the race.
The first question was exactly who the competition was. Some runners were going only 55K, others were doing various versions of a relay. The relay runners started 10 minutes later, so it was pretty clear they weren't solo 100 milers when they zoomed by on the climb. The 55K runners had higher bib numbers, so eventually I would figure that out and start looking for those.
I went back and forth with another woman and her friend for the entire climb (and much of the first 34 miles, really). She was super nice, and expressed amazement that I was out to run 100 miles. That answered that question - not the competition. She came in 2nd for the 55K women, nicely done.
My legs felt great, and mostly I dialed in my effort to keep my breathing from getting out of hand. The first part was up at 8000-9000 feet, and we haven't been staying all that high in elevation recently. I wasn't sure if this would affect me, happily I never noticed any obvious issues.
One "big" climb (not all that big for me compared to recent forays) and then it was time for a short downhill run to a road (a detour from the AZT) that took us to the first aid station. Along here I first met a guy from London. We had different patterns of run vs. walk and never talked for long, but I saw him plenty of times and always enjoyed listening to his British accent.
The road to the aid station was an out-and-back, and here I could finally look at race numbers without being so conspicuous about it. The first blond lady was just finishing the out-and-back, and she was a 100-miler (race bib #16). No other women with low race numbers (i.e. 100-milers) until I reached the aid station, and there was the other blond lady just leaving, wearing #20 and a red shirt and sporting a red pack. I called her "Red" (at least in my mind).
I filled a SPIZ baggie and a bottle with water, then asked the woman who was taking numbers if there were only two women ahead of me in the 100-mile race? She verified that was indeed the case. Datapoint #1, check.
Back on the road, other women coming toward me, a few 100-milers in the mix. Lots of "good jobs" back and forth, lots of smiles. 10 miles in, a good start, and I was running well. It was nice to have several dirt road miles to get a jump on the pace chart.
I ran/walked up the road, following Red and going back and forth with other runners. We climbed up a trail back to the AZT and started a long, long, beautiful downhill run through the trees. The aspen stands were gorgeous, many of the leaves already yellow, all of them waving at me as I ran by.
I stopped to drink some SPIZ and lost sight of Red in front of me, which was probably for the best. It was great to have a long easy downhill run, but I didn't want to tear it up too fast and beat up my legs any more than I already was. A few bikes coming uphill, a few guys passing me or vice versa, and eventually I reached the next aid station.
The woman greeting me noticed that I was running 100 miles, and #20 was still in the aid station, so she made a (loud) point to let me know I could pass her right there. Calm down, it's only 21 miles in. I went through my drop bag quickly, got a little water, and started out just as the other woman was also leaving. Hi, how's it going!
I stayed ahead of her through the next section, not pushing or anything, but not letting up on the solid pace I had going. I enjoyed the 3 miles of singletrack even though it paralleled a nice road and went up and down a bit more - there was more shade in the trees and the trail was nice. At the mile 24 water stash I stocked up in preparation for the next long section and the start of the warmth of the day.
For the next 10 miles we would be running on a sometimes-rough doubletrack road through junipers and pinyon pines. Occasionally it reminded me very much of Texas Hill Country, probably from the flatness, desert-ness, and the limestone rocks. There would be occasional glimpses of the prairie ahead, but mostly there wasn't much to see and a long way to not see it.
I started feeling a twinge in the back of my right knee, which seemed strange. I've had various knee pains in all my running years, but this was a new one. Hmm. Eventually I figured out that it might be the top of my calf that was pinging instead. Also strange, but better than a knee problem, I think.
Finally when the twinge turned into a precursor to a cramp, THEN I figured it out - leg cramps, right! This I am familiar with. OK, time to slow down just a bit, work on relaxing the muscles, drink more water. Maybe it will all just go away if I'm careful.
A parked truck and two trail angels appeared - well, they were race volunteers, but they had been sent on a mission to help poor hot runners who were still 3.5 miles from the aid station. Do you need water? I don't need water, but do you have ice? Why yes we do! Oh yes please! I was super happy to walk away from there with a cold bottle of water. Thank you so much, a nice surprise!
My tummy was pleased and overall I felt cooler (there was also a thin cloud kind of shading the sun from being so bright). However, my legs were on a downhill slide, at least in terms of cramping. Other muscles started thinking about seizing up, both legs, calves, shins, thighs. I did everything I could to keep moving while not letting any muscle actually form a cramp. Lots of ghosts of cramps. I resorted to a lot of speed-walking, tried gently running, but mostly couldn't.
I popped an electrolyte tablet and hoped it would help soon. If I needed to stop and rest I would, but I preferred to get to the aid station first so I could be doing other things while I rested. In the middle of all this, runners started passing me, including the lady in red. Hello again!
Finally at Cedar Ranch, the mile 34 aid station and end of the 55K course. I found my drop bag and a couple people (including Ian the race director) helped fill my bottle with ice water and get me some cold soda. I rummaged through my drop bag, catching the fact that I needed to carry my lights with me. Good thing I had a note in the bag, I almost missed that. It was the middle of the afternoon, I was a bit hot, and it wasn't obvious that the sun would be going down before I reached another drop bag.
Alright, let's see what the legs have. I started up the 5 miles of road to the next aid station, following quite a ways behind a runner in fluorescent orange. I think he was part of the relay team that had cheered me in to the aid station just now. I looked back once and didn't see anyone following me. With all the activity at Cedar Ranch I had lost track of Red. Well, maybe eventually I could figure out where she was.
I alternated speed-walking with running, back to speed-walking as the leg cramps were still threatening. They didn't seem quite as bad, but obviously not going away quickly. Long road. A few cars, but all the drivers were being extra nice to go slowly and not kick up too much dust. Some wind, helpful for cooling.
Tub Ranch aid station was a lot quieter compared to the previous one. Sadly they didn't have any ice, and no soda except Coke. I was avoiding caffeine to keep from bumping up my heart rate in the heat. No matter, water is fine. And a banana, maybe that will help.
Walking up the next little switchbacks I spotted a rock in the shade and decided that would be an excellent place to sit for a minute. I remembered I was carrying a packet of Vitalyte and figured that would be nice to put in my water bottle. Except when I opened it, the powder seemed old and cakey. Better not to risk it. Bummer.
While I was playing around, a woman in white came running up the hill. A relay runner? Nope, a 100-miler, #33. In fact, I had noticed her on the earlier out-and-back because her number was on upside-down which made me laugh. We said hello and she cruised on by.
OK, no Vitalyte, on with it then. I topped out on an open plain and saw the woman running ahead of me. Oddly, she would stop, look back and spend a couple seconds seeming to try to figure out where I was and whether I was running. She would run for a while and stop and look again. It seemed a bit early in the race to be that concerned about someone chasing you. She went on up the next hill and I followed with my run/walk pattern at a bit slower pace.
Oh look, a giant powerline in the distance! The next aid station would be under that, in several miles. My legs handled the next gentle uphill quite well, and once at the next flat section I was able to run more and more. Two cows stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Cows are funny.
Right before the Oil Line aid station there was a short slightly steeper incline. For some reason (maybe because I was pushing harder to reach the aid station), my thighs took this opportunity to really get into the leg cramp game. Cut it out! It was starting to cool off as the sun got lower in the sky, this cramping business has to stop at some point.
The two guys at Oil Line were great. Not only did they have ice (yay!) but they filled my bottle with it, AND they had some slices of lime in a bowl. Why yes, I would love a slice of lime. They couldn't believe how many takers they had been getting for the limes. They seemed to be enjoying their stay in a beautiful spot, helping runners and chatting with them. Not long after I arrived, the woman in red and the guy from London showed up. We meet again! That answers that question.
The woman asked about other ladies in front of us, and the aid station guys said that one was way ahead and the other had just recently left. Sounds right to me. We all departed at about the same time.
Red took off on a run. My legs responded with the worst bit of cramp threats yet. I couldn't run at all initially, stuck with walking across a lovely, flat, beautiful stretch of Babbitt Ranch. Mr. London came by asking when I thought it might be dark. Soon, I told him, maybe in 45 minutes? Well, that's when the sun would be going down anyway, a welcome relief in my book. He took off on a walk/run, managing something quite a bit faster than my legs would allow at the moment.
Come on legs, let's go already! There was plenty of juice left in them, plenty of strength in my muscles and "get up and go" just waiting to be let out. Not being able to use it (yet) was frustrating, watching people run away from me wasn't great, but at least I was holding any actual cramps at bay while walking as fast as I could. My stomach was also feeling quite full (from the banana, too much soda, maybe the lime wasn't a good idea?) so it was fine with me walking.
Eventually I could run 20 steps, walk 10, run 20, walk 10. Run 30! Walk 10. An amazing, colorful sunset took my mind off my velocity troubles for a while. Then there was the full moon to the east, also beautiful!
Photos John took of the sunset:
And moon rise:
I pulled out the race map and memorized the rest of this section, easier to see while it was still light. I went through several very wide, shallow washes, counting them to track my position on the map. More running, yay! A few rocks, no problem, I can walk that. More running. Light fading. Time to get out the lights.
By the time I hit the road going northeast I was running the majority of it. It had turned into "work" but that was expected by this point. Running in the dark now. I put on my buff and light gloves as it was finally cooling off (yay!). I enjoy running in the desert at night. One more turn, this one to the northwest, then I could see lights around the 54-mile aid station. It wasn't pretty (my effort to get there, not the aid station), but I made it!
The aid station folks found me a chair, much appreciated. I noticed #33 working with her drop bag, well then. No sign of Red, but she could be either in a crew car or long gone. Never could tell with her, so I assumed she was long gone. I pulled on a long sleeve shirt and light jacket, ready for the nighttime temperatures.
A guy asked me what time I had been at mile 38? That made me laugh, because normally I never have any clue. Then I realized I had been texting John with my progress, and actually could tell him. Surprised myself there. Good time to send another text, while sitting in a chair instead of walking in the dark. 4 hours for the previous 16 miles, 12 hours for 54.5 miles, nothing special but decent numbers especially considering the leg issues.
OK, get on out of there. Right as I was about to leave, another 100-mile solo woman walked in. It's a party for 3rd place!
I missed the trail entrance and had to walk back a few feet from where I started down the road, but got reoriented in the right direction. A guy pointed to the lights of #33 across the field ahead. Someone suggested I could see everything without a light, the moon was so bright. Sure, everything except the rocks under my feet...
It wasn't so much a trail across the field as a "trail," following cairns and markers and flagging. The footing wasn't terrible, just not as smooth as it had been. I caught up to #33 before the first little uphill, asking how she was doing? She said she was OK but it wasn't super convincing. She obviously had leg speed, I should probably take advantage of any low spots in the competition. If I could, at least.
And my legs could! This section turned more technical than we had seen so far, and it was perfect timing. I was happy marching up the small hills and stepping over rocks, running the short open sections, picking my way down the short descents. Again it totally reminded me of Bandera and central Texas, making me feel right at home in the darkness. I was happy with my bright flashlight helping me find the markings as the trail went from more to less obvious and back again, zigzagging a bit through the trees.
It probably also helped to get a shot of adrenaline from passing a woman and finding myself back in 3rd place (at least that was my best guess). And without any cramping concerns, finally! I wasn't ready to call it completely gone yet, but the signs indicated it might be. Geez, 20 miles dealing with muscles on the verge of cramps, not ideal.
I couldn't remember how many miles to the Moqui aid station, and I was too focused on watching the trail to want to stop and check the map. I remembered most of this section from my pre-race map study and reached the aid station without wondering (for too long) how far ahead it might be. I checked behind me at the start of the short out-and-back, not seeing any lights across the field. So far so good with putting some distance on 4th and 5th place women.
There were lovely globe candles showing the way to Moqui, very cool. The folks there were friendly and helpful, filling my bottle and a SPIZ baggie for me. They told me I was 3rd place female, excellent info (and I hadn't even asked). The guy from London was there, hello again! He left right before me and again pulled ahead, except not as quickly this time.
Still no sign of anyone coming up behind me on the out-and-back and looking back across the field. It was good motivation to keep up a decent pace and hang onto 3rd if at all possible. I was pretty sure the first place woman had it in the bag unless she self-destructed. Ms. Red was unpredictable - would I see her again?
The less-than-ideal singletrack soon gave way to a nice doubletrack road, and as much as I had been making good progress with the technical stuff, I didn't mind the switch to something easier. My legs, however, had other ideas. What NOW? First was a pain on the top of my right foot that I didn't really understand. I loosened that shoelace, and it eventually did go away, but right at that moment it wasn't helping things.
The bigger problem was my right IT band, something I have been dealing with for a few months. This one (the opposite leg from a year ago) mostly gives me problems on uphill running when it does show up (which wasn't too often). This section was a long, gentle uphill. And any running was now aggravating the IT band. Oh for goodness sakes.
You know, this might have something to do with the lack of long running training for this event. You think?
I worked on it as I moved, focusing on posture, activating my glutes, tightening my core. Back to walking 10 steps, running 20, walking 10, running 20. I know this routine well by now. I can't even imagine how many times I counted to 10 that night. While walking I tried to knead my right butt muscle and that seemed to help the most, I was often able to run 30 steps after that.
Elk started making all kinds of noise, bugling calls from different directions. Very cool. I wondered what the guy from London was thinking about that, did he know it was elk? I had the chance to ask him but forgot because when I came upon him he was searching for the next trail marker. It was just on the other side of a gate, and together we figured out that the trail continued along the fence. Then he was gone again.
I had my iPod on by this time, listening to a couple podcasts to help pass the time during the long night hours. It didn't help prevent a low point a mile or 2 before the next aid station. I didn't realize until later, but the slight uphill grade had turned into a real uphill grade through here. I just felt really slow, moving through molasses slow. There were extra rocks on the trail. My right leg was still giving me issues. I knew I had lost the chance to break 24 hours, not a big deal, but it had been fun chasing that goal for the first half of the race.
Then I could hear the aid station, because they were playing ridiculously loud music that was thumping all the way out here. Great, another stupid loud aid station. But hey, at least it's not an out-and-back course, so I have to deal with it only once this time. And even better news, John was waiting for me! Yay, hi John! Big hug, that was so helpful and perfect timing.
He led me through the aid station to a chair that was partially sheltered from the noise and the bright strobe light (???). I didn't have too much to do, thank goodness, and had already told John I was hoping to move faster this race including through aid stations. So he helped me right quick change out a couple items and put some anti-inflammatory gel on my knees. Oh, and I was right next to a real bathroom, happy to sit down for that too. I think I stayed only a couple minutes (ish) and then both of us were glad to get out of there. Thank you John!
I was totally buoyed by that experience (including running away as fast as I could from the loud music). The gel seemed to helped my IT band almost immediately also. I cruised up the trail to the water stash at the road crossing. The next section would be long, so I filled up on water in preparation.
So begins the "Coconino Rim run." This is perhaps the most (in)famous part of this course. Deservedly so. It's somewhere around 10 miles long, maybe actually a little less but it feels like rather more. It follows along the top and just below a rim that isn't quite the top of the Grand Canyon, but not that far south of it. Lots of twisting and turning, but more importantly lots of down and back up, down and back up.
The first several down/ups were fairly substantial, at least compared to all the gentle slopes of the previous 70 miles. Then we hit the bike detour, or actually, we didn't take the bike detour but instead plunged down into a deep drainage. I was following a guy down the switchbacks and his light just kept going down, down. Where is the bottom? Oh, there it is. Time to climb way back up.
Happily, my legs were doing great. And they were good with the climbing, so I put them in cruise mode and climbed out of that sucker. Well, that was something new.
Happily again, the rest of the dips and climbs were not nearly as steep or deep, eventually becoming fairly shallow. But neverending. Seriously, it didn't end. Well, OK, it did end. But it took forever.
I must have been moving more slowly than I thought I was, because after at least an hour and a half (I know because I was timing my SPIZ servings for every 90 minutes) I came across a sign saying "Grandview Trailhead 5 mi." What? Is that a 5?? Yep, it's a 5.
Well, this gave me a lot to think about. Mostly, where is this Grandview Trailhead? The one I know is up off route 64 at the rim of the Grand Canyon, I remember it quite well from last year's explorations. But that doesn't seem right, I knew the AZT doesn't go that way across the Canyon. Is that a spur trail to the Grand Canyon rim? If so, how far is it and can I subtract some unknown # of miles from this "5" number to figure out how far until the next road crossing?
But what if that trailhead is actually at the road crossing (or the next one soon after)? Is it possible I still have FIVE MILES of this rim trail to go? Can that be?
Only one way to find out! It was a big motivator, and I figured this was a great time to switch to music on my iPod. More downs and ups, winding around, but now I was actually moving at a decent clip. I found the "Grandview TH 3 mi" sign in about 30 minutes, so that at least made sense. I kept hoping I was wrong about needing to go 3 more miles on the Coconino Rim, but after another 30 minutes there was a "Grandview TH 1 mi" sign...
I passed London somewhere in here, neither of us really in the mood to chat. I think I muttered something about where the heck is that trailhead?
Finally - the road! the road! Yes, the honest to goodness road. I was thrilled to be done with that part of the trail, couldn't believe it had taken that long, and ready to get down to the next aid station. I ran well down the road, had some IT band pain on the steepest portion of the downhill, did some "race walking" to get down it, and ran up the last little bit of the "out" part of the out-and-back to Hull Cabin.
Hi John! I'm so glad to be here! I told him I had still been working hard in the last section, it was just so slow and long. He told me that the 2nd place woman (#20, the lady in red) was still here. Now that's interesting. She was having an Achilles problem, bummer to hear. 1st place was long gone (probably almost done by that point) but it might be a race for 2nd.
John had my drop bag items all laid out on a table so I sat briefly and swapped out a couple things. I was really happy that my feet were doing great, no need to change socks or work on blisters. That was saving a ton of time and my feet were happy little campers. At least something was working! I also declined all aid station offerings, as my stomach was doing a lot better since I started sticking strictly to the Ensure/SPIZ that I had brought.
The guy from London walked in as I was about to leave. I was ready to go chase Red, so unless he was also thinking of picking up the pace I didn't think I would see him on the course again. John walked with me a short way and pointed out her light down the road. Let's do this.
I jogged down to the turn and started back up the long hill. My iPod was out of battery so I had left it with John, and it was a good time to focus anyway. I caught up to Red and her pacer, chatted briefly with the guy, and moved on ahead. Last big climb, done! I was actually surprised how quickly I found the AZT again. After a short little run through an interpretive trail section, I found the actual "Grandview Trailhead." So that's where it is! Not the same as the one on the Grand Canyon rim. Good to know.
So am I really going to spend the last 20 miles of this race running to hang onto second place? You bet your booty! I realized that I made it past 75 miles without switching to "death march mode" for the first time in a while, awesome. My legs were still working, better even than for many of the previous miles. It might just be adrenaline and it might run out, but for now, let's go.
It was a nice, mostly gentle downhill run to the next aid station. I settled into a comfortable, relaxed pace and threw in some speed walking here and there to mix it up. Mostly beautiful trail, a welcome change and I was happy to be able to take advantage of it. I occasionally checked for headlamps behind me but never saw any.
Then there was a woman running toward me. What is that about? She was doing the relay but had gotten turned around and confused. She asked if I was running toward Tusayan (the finish line)? Yes, come with me! She turned around and followed me, explaining that she had come across some switchbacks that seemed familiar so she thought she was going the wrong way and turned around. She met another runner, but somehow their conversation about which aid station each was running from and to was confusing and she decided to keep running in the backwards direction. Finally when she found me she was ready to believe that she needed to turn around.
I think I convinced her she was now going the right way, but she wanted to stick with me just to be sure she wouldn't get lost again. I was actually picking up speed as the downhill got a bit more pronounced, down into a drainage, and she stayed with me the whole way even though it might have been faster than she wanted to run. I was still running from Red and needing to gain as much time as I could while my legs would let me.
Down the drainage, through a gate, over a small hill, there's the aid station! The folks there had been waiting for the relay runner, I think they were all happy to see each other. And I was happy to see John, yay John!
One more quick turnaround, a bit more gel on my knees (so helpful!), deciding how much water to carry, forgetting again to drop off my phone now that I wasn't texting updates, also making the mistake of carrying my flashlight even though I wouldn't need it 15 minutes from now. Ah well, at least it was a fast transition.
I followed the next relay runner lady (teammate of the one who came into the aid station with me), more gentle downhill until finally the turn to go uphill for a ways. She ran uphill while I speed-walked it, so it took until the next downhill to finally pass her. It was more good motivation to keep the pedal on the gas as long as I could handle it. I checked back once in a while, no sign of Red. But she has leg speed, she could show up anytime, and she had proven to be mostly faster than me while moving. I was not looking forward to a possible showdown to the finish, that would probably be the last straw for my legs and I could envision every single cramp/IT band/pain reemerging at that point to take me down. Better to keep moving as well as I could, under control, at all times now.
Elk everywhere! They were very active as the sun came up, making all kinds of calls. I even saw one with a huge set of antlers running away. Super cool.
One last long, long, gentle downhill run and then I started seeing things that looked familiar, was I almost to the Coconino Wash? Another 1/4 mile and there it was, the wide wash that the trail would follow for the next several miles. I had run this a couple times in training so I knew it was rather long, but at least I knew exactly what to expect for once.
The sun was up behind me, the flat trail stretched out ahead. Run, walk, run, walk, just get there as efficiently as possible. Landmarks, always love having those to shoot for. Tank #2. S-turn. Tank #1. Big rock on the left. Down tree to go around. Hearing the helicopters of Tusayan. The last aid station at mile 97.5!
I told them thanks as I walked through, no need of anything except getting to the finish line. I was thankful I had run this section before, both last year and this year before the race. It's not an easy last couple miles. Uphill, rocky downhill, a touch of sand, more uphill, another little rocky downhill. Hey, there's John!!
John joined me for the last bit, through the tunnel and then on the crushed gravel path, up one more tiny hill. Chatting and laughing. We crossed a paved road - what is this surface? It was the first pavement I had walked on since leaving our campground the prior morning. Funny.
John helped watch behind me for anyone chasing, happily no need to sprint!
The final stretch down to the finish line:
And... I made it!
Winning a nice wool blanket as 2nd place female, thanks Ian!
It turns out I had plenty of leeway to hang onto 2nd place, but I was glad to have pushed myself. It wasn't a sub-24, but not too far off, and I was pleased to be running well at the end. It would have helped to also run well in the middle, but I guess you can't have everything. Especially if you aren't exactly trained for the running part of it :)
What a beautiful, fun and interesting course! I really enjoyed it, loved most of the trail, the scenery, the concept, and the wonderful race organizers and volunteers. Stagecoach 100 - highly recommend it!