The Canyons 100k
“If Charlie Bucket can win a Golden Ticket on very small odds, then by golly, I can dream of winning one too.” That was my attitude going into The Canyons 100k. Oh I studied the ultrasignup lists, rankings, placings of my competitors, watched the list grow and subside, and by race day, I held the belief that it was at least possible to place in the top 2, more reasonable (duh) to be in the top 5. While top 2 are guaranteed the coveted ticket allowing automatic entry into Western States 100 this June, the spots will roll down to 5 if any of the 4 above do not want the spot (?) or are already in.
Physically I went into the race feeling great. Fit, rested, excited. I had 2 very strong races this year already (Tarawera 100k in February and Ruck a Chuck 50k in March) where I felt back to my old young self and got to make a few mistakes that I would hopefully not repeat. Mentally, I was in a weird place – I definitely was putting a lot of store into my placement, with good reason, but I didn’t like how it felt to be that concerned. I run for fun, I love to race, and I really wanted that to be my focus, but I found myself slipping into the importance of place and my complete inability to pick and choose who shows up and how fit they are. And then my absolute feelings of selfishness for wanting more Western States finishes when so many folks fight for just one.
Regardless, race day showed up, and I showed up ready to go. Having so many familiar faces and friends at the start added a specialness. I felt at home, with my tribe. It meant a lot that so many folks were pulling for me to get a ticket. Once at the start line, I saw some of the favorite women whom I had not met, plus Darcy Piceu, my good friend and sometimes training buddy Luanne Park, Callie Cooper Uhan down from Eugene, and Amy “I’m not anybody” Streeter. It was a steep field, and looked like it would be an exciting event to watch.
It was not quite dawn, and I had decided to forego a headlamp, knowing it would be light soon, and the first mile plus were on pavement, I wasn’t worried about the dark. Eric Schranz gave a few words of advice, course info, and at 5:30, we were off. As I expected, there were a number of bolters, but with plenty of room before single track, I relaxed and let ‘em fly. Up Foresthill road, and then down Bath road, I found myself slowly warming up. Just before the single track I saw some headlamps off the course a bit, and thought that it was pretty early in the race for a pit stop. Minutes later, Darcy and another woman came up behind and around me. Apparently they had already gotten off course, but were working their way back up. I tucked in behind some men and just relaxed. It was going to be a long day and I wasn’t in a hurry to get tired. The crossing of Volcano Creek was pretty seamless, knee deep, but the rope across was helpful. Hiking out was slow, but strong, and I jogged a few sections. When it leveled out, I ran, listening to voices behind me. I had no idea how many women were in front of me, but it mattered not. At the downhill I relaxed and let gravity be my governor. I started in with the Gu, determined to keep up with calories.
Because of snow blocking access to the course in what could be critical places for access to anyone injured, RD Chaz Sheya took out the upper most section which included the descent and subsequent ascent from Devil’s Thumb to Swinging Bridge and back – which makes this race a bit on the spicy side – and replaced it with a service road that descended for about 3 miles, then turned around, came back up, and went on to Michigan Bluff. This afforded one extra out and back in which we could count how many competitors were ahead, and how close others were behind. By my count, I was in 8th at this spot. Three women I didn’t recognize yet were in 1-3. Darcy, Amy, Callie, and Sarah Bunting Lamos (2nd place last year) were all ahead of me. We all exchanged “good jobs!’ and on my way up I saw Luanne, not far back. The 3 miles back up were fun, seeing so many of the locals to cheer for.
Partway up this section, I was passed by another woman I was unfamiliar with, with a bright orange shirt. She stayed in front of me all the way into Michigan Bluff, mile 13, but not too far. Again, too early to care. I knew every inch of the this course, I knew what lay ahead, and I was going to keep myself in complete control. Laurie and Craig Thornley, John Trent, and many others were all at Michigan Bluff, cheering me on. I was in 9th place, but was pretty certain as long as I took care of myself, I would gradually move up.
My descent from Michigan Bluff to El Dorado creek was just pure fun. I didn’t put any brakes on, just glided along, keeping my toes up. At the bottom, orange shirt was just leaving. I refilled my water bottles at the aid station, and a nice young man tucked in behind me. We chatted awhile, and finally he went around me. I just ran what felt comfortable, hiked when the legs had the slightest feel of any build up, kept my breathing very controlled. The climb was more than 3 miles, and with a little more than a mile to go, 2 ladies came running down, and then the 3rd. so they were more than 2 miles ahead, but again, not a reason to go outside of a sustainable effort. Next came Amy, then Sara, then Callie, then Darcy, then orange shirt. At the turn around was my good friend Matt “Princess” Keyes and 20 time WS finisher Dan Williams handing out the bracelets that were proof that we had made it to the turn around. I was feeling so stoked, I told Matt it was the best I had ever felt on that climb. He was genuinely pleased for me, and off I went on one of my favorite descents in Western States.
I still needed to stay mindful of the day ahead, the second half of the race, and not blow anything. There were many runners still on the way up on this narrow single track. I danced and danced my way down, and eventually caught Darcy and orange shirt, chatted briefly, wished them good luck and went around. I arrived at El Dorado creek again, had great help from Jay Marsh and Nicola from Fleet feet, getting my water bottles filled. As I left I found myself jogging – and thought – wow – I never feel this good at this spot – it is pretty steep, and I was already in over 20 miles. But I found myself jogging more and more. I wouldn’t let my legs get heavy, listened to my breathing, and it was all working just grand. I passed one man, then heard some labored breathing behind me. I wondered if it was a female, but didn’t turn around to look. In another switch back, I finally saw it was orange shirt, but I just kept my same steady effort, and by the time I got to the top, I could no longer see her.
At Michigan Bluff again, I had now moved into 7th place. Joe Uhan said Callie had just left 5 minutes ago. Craig said “Wow! You look great!” I started cruising out yelling “I feel great!!”
From Michigan Bluff to Foresthill maybe one of the least aesthetically pleasing sections, especially during Western States – you’ve run 55 miles, and you’re in an exposed service road, dry, dusty, with some very uninteresting climbs. But today, with “only” 25 miles on my legs, I found myself running up all the climbs. At one point I saw Callie ahead of me about a quarter mile. She disappeared and when I got to the down hill to Volcano Canyon I worried she had missed a turn. I scampered down the steep, rocky trail to Volcano Creek, to see her just on the other side. “I wondered when you’d catch me” she shouted. I took my time to get across, cooling my self off in the cold water, and when I looked up, she was gone. I took my time, still well aware that more than half of the race lay before me. I was running closely with another fellow, and as we finally hit Bath Road, he showed indecision about which way to go. I indicated straight up, but not seeing Callie ahead, I was worried she had gone down the wrong way. I ambled up the pavement, wanting to walk but knowing I would be bored with the speed, I slogged along. When I saw the top of Bath, I could see Callie cresting, so I was relieved she had not missed the turn.
Cruising into Foresthill with only 31 miles on my legs vs 62 I normally have on Western States was nice. I looked for Mark, and he made himself clear. He offered me water, chocolate milk, pepsi, electrolyte drink. As quickly as I could, I chugged the milk, and grabbed the bottle of electrolyte. It was a quick turn around and I felt almost rude to speed through so quickly, while my mother-in-law Joy took pictures. But time was of essence, and I felt fantastic. On my way out, I saw Callie stopping to lay down and stretch. I cheered her on, as I moved into 6th place.
I reached California Street and as I turned, buddy Nick Banazack was there, offering support. I asked “how did the ladies ahead look?” He said he only saw the last 2 and they were fading. I cruised on down the street, then hit the trail – revisiting the first trail on the Western States course I had encountered back in 2005. I kept the reins a bit tight. I knew I had to come back up this lovely bit in a few hours. The 3+ miles to the next aid station have a lot of sweet downhill, and upon arrival I quickly stopped to get more water, Gu, a good sponge bath with cold water, and off I went. Before long, I heard behind me approaching ice laden water bottles, slosh slosh slosh. I hit the “Dave Mackey” hill and started hiking, not fast, as the fatigue was starting to show up, and my shadow seemed content to stay. I offered to step aside, but he stayed. After a bit we began chatting. In the small world of ultra running I learned that we were mutual friends with Nicole and Zach Bitter, so we had fun sharing our experiences with them. His name is Kent and he is in Western States for the first time. I enjoyed sharing as much information about the race as he wanted. He eventually went around, hiking strong. When I finally got to the Elevator Shaft, that gnarly downhill – a bit hard to run, harder to walk – when I spied a female runner. It was Sara Lamos, and when I caught her, we traded words of support. By my accounts I had just moved into 5th place, the absolute minimum I needed to qualify for a Golden Ticket.
I kept up my good effort into Cal 2 aid station, getting water and more gels, passing Kent, and then barreling down the quick switch backs. I was so happy feeling as energetic as I did, continuing the Gu and water. A water crossing allowed me a chance to dip my hat, but I realized I wasn’t too skilled at it. I eventually just reached down and splashed water over my head, then booked out. Quickly, I hit the bottom of 6 minute hill (7 minute?) and hiked up. Legs weren’t too bad, and I didn’t force it. At the top, a mere 5 miles to the final turn around, I became more focused on running every bit that I could, hiking what became too much, and at the same time, taking in the intoxicating perfume of the wild flowers, and just feeling pure bliss of what I was capable of doing, moving my body through space and time, and appreciating what I have experienced over the years of this sport. Even with weariness adding up, it was a privilege I will not take for granted. The undulating terrain to the sandy bottom, then up to the dirt road above the Ruck a Chuck rapids, eyes straining to see the first female coming toward me. Finally, about 1.5 miles from turn around, was female number 1, Kathryn from Canada, followed a few minutes by Kim Maguns, also a Canuck, and then little Amy “I’m not anybody” looking solid in third. We encouraged each other, she commenting that 4th place wasn’t far back. Just before the turn around here she came, Kelly Emmerson from Australia.
Mark met me at the aid station with a delicious cold Pepsi, fresh bottles of water and Gu, and cheerful words of encouragement, and in short order I was on my way back up the long climb to the finish, 15 miles away. Runners were coming toward me, and no one made me happier than Luanne – we are both 58 years young, and still just loving this journey and adventure of training and racing and pushing each other. She was followed shortly by Darcy, again, so positive and hopeful. Love these women.
I heard from some men coming towards me that 4th place wasn’t far ahead. When I got to the downhill of 6 or 7 minute hill, I was actually cringing the downs. How much more fun that is when your legs are fresh. I kept a happy face, and cheered my oncoming compatriots on, but couldn’t wait to get to the bottom.
Once there, about 2 miles back to Cal 2, I spotted Kelly. I eventually caught her heels, just as Kathy D’Onofrio was coming towards us. When all the passing was done, not actually knowing Kelly, I asked her if she knew who that red head was. And then I got to tell her a bit of history about Kathy, a 2 time WS winner back in the 80s when she was in her 20s. These facts should not go unrecognized as she is a testament to longevity and passion for our sport.
Kelly and I hit the creek below Cal 2 at the same time. I took a chance and filled a bottle with unfiltered water, cooled off, and left ahead of her. When I hit the climbing switch backs, I forced myself to run. Seriously, the grade was not bad, and with a little focus, I trotted along. At Cal 2, Jennifer Hemmen told me that Amy had left about 5 or so minutes ago and had admitted she was starting to flag. Running buddy Kynan Matz said that 1st place was only 25 minutes ahead, so go for it! I laughed and moseyed out. The climbs were getting tougher, but not impossible until I hit the Elevator Shaft. OOF. I felt pretty cooked. There were many runners sill on their way down, all saying “You make it look so easy!” I’m not sure how i was pulling that off as I felt pretty much like I was at a standstill. But of course I made it too the top, and began running. I caught up to Gerad Dean, from the Shasta area, a very good runner, who was battling some stomach issues. He stopped to chat with another friend, so I forged on alone. Throughout the day I had been ingesting extra salt whenever anything felt twitchy, icky, or just plain off. And when I kicked a rock, flailed through the air before finally wiping out, I was in shock that I had not cramped. Usually such a jolt to the system that late in the game has me sitting on the ground waiting for the spasms to stop, but I will give credit to the salt for keeping me from contorting. The section was otherwise pretty runnable and I made good time into Cal 1. I realized the Gu was now mostly dribbling out of the packet to the ground instead of my mouth, so my friend and volunteer Rob Myers helped me with a banana and some coke. I sponged off, and set off for the last 3+ miles to the finish. Fourth place sounded pretty awesome, not as good as 1 or 2, but honestly I couldn’t have expected even this good of a day.
I heard some steps behind and saw that Kelly was catching back up. “I got my second wind!” Wow, I thought. That was amazing with so little time left. I stepped aside and let her go. Soon afterward, Kent caught back up, and modestly claimed he wasn’t trying to beat anyone, but the men I was near plus myself were pretty much in survival mode and let him pass without complaint. I knew full well this would be the toughest part of the race, but also I would be motivated by the fact that I was almost done. Near the top I was surprised to see my athlete Jenelle Potvin with a big smile and a camera. She exuberantly cheered as I trudged on. When I finally hit the pavement, I tried to gather my strength, catch my breath, so that I could run the final stretch of about a quarter mile up Main Street to the finish. Oh how badly I wanted to walk it in, but my pride wouldn’t allow it, and I jogged up to the finish, crossing in under 12 hours.
My reception party was complete with Mark, RD Chaz, buddies Craig and Matt, all genuinely pleased for me. But the biggest reaction and most memorable was turning around and seeing Melissa “MJ” Johnson, hands on her cheeks, tears rolling down. It’s hard to explain how the purity of her emotion touched me – that what I do and did mean that much – that somehow it lifts someones spirits, gives someone motivation, inspires others – is the biggest reward of all.
I was not even slightly disappointed in not getting a Golden Ticket, as I had given it my all and had a heck of a race – I actually set a few PRs on sections that I have run countless times. Not being in Western States is an opportunity to be part of “Statesmas” in other capacities, and I look forward to them all – I hope to be marking course, and will be pacing and crewing a good friend from New Zealand, and genuinely having a fabulous time.
Many thanks to Chaz and his team for putting on a fine event, and to all of the local runners out on the course with whom we shared encouragement, to my sponsors The North Face, Injinji, Nathan, NOW Foods, and Squirrel’s Nut Butter, and to Mark for crewing and supporting me throughout the day.