06/14/2014 – Bryce Canyon 50k – Bryce Canyon, Utah
A 50k race starting at 7,800 feet above sea level, slicing down through blood orange-red sandstone hoodoos before steadily climbing through an undulating 5,500 feet of crisp green pine groves, the Bryce Canyon 50k in southern central Utah is an understated race which should find some national coverage in the not too distant future.
There are actually three races, all starting on the same day, within an hour of each other, and at the same starting line. However all three are of different distances and all three at different finish lines. There’s the Bryce Canyon 100 miler, the 50 miler, and then the shortest race – the race I ran, the 50k. It’s an ambitious day (or two if you’re bringing home the back of the pack) with lots of logistics to coordinate. Thankfully this isn’t the Race Director, Matt Gunn, and the team of volunteers’ first rodeo.
For reference, here’s my version of the sourced and compiled 2014 Bryce Canyon 50k race preview and the 2014 Bryce Canyon 50k results – my name is top-ish in the list, but there’s still work to be done to really be competitive.
If you’re looking for the video, scroll all the way down to the bottom.
Fifth event of the year and 4 weeks removed from my last race, but I also used this race as a glorified training run for my next race, so the training didn’t provide quite same kind of taper I might normally would have worked into the schedule. Week 1 was a “hard” week, week 2 an “easy” week, week 3 a “slightly harder than easy, but not hard” week, and week 4 actually mostly all hiking, but as far as miles, vert, and time on a feet go it was equivalent to a “hard” week. But in all honesty, none of the weeks were really hard.
We were lucky enough to spend the weekend before in Las Vegas, then spent the week in Zion National Park and finally to Bryce Canyon the day before, so a few hours drive and gradual increase in sea level between each point made for an easy transition. Coming directly from Seattle would have made for a little bit more dedicated timing.
It’s a 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas, past Nellis Air Force Base where we saw fighter squadrons scream over the interstate making their training runs in a tight formation, through the Northwest corner of Arizona and the Virgin River Gorge, and final cut off from the main interstate to the southern edge of Zion Park.
From here, it’s a 2 hour drive Northeast through increasing elevation and open range, the color of the earth slowly turning from brown to orange to red, finally arriving at the ever so one-street-intersection-light teensy tiny town of Bryce Canyon, Utah sitting literally minutes outside the National Park at around 8,000 feet above sea level – just a tad higher than I’m used to in Seattle at 350 feet above sea level.
We stood in a line stretching out the door, down the hall and spilling into the hotel lobby at the infamous Ruby’s Inn with all the other 50k, 50 mile, and 100 mile racers. This being the first race I’ve been where 50 milers and 100 milers are also running, 50k seems pretty insignificant and short. Listening in to conversations in front and behind us it seemed as though this wasn’t anybody’s first big(ger) ultra. “Yeah, I’m just using this 50 miler as a warm-up for Hardrock.” “I was one of the lucky few to get into the Tahoe 200.” “I’ve been running 100’s for about 10 years.” “I ran a few back to back 50 milers for training.” Uh yeah, so 50k is what they must do when they wake up and need to go get some breakfast. Standing in that line was probably the most inadequate and in awe I’ve felt around a group of runners in a while. Thankfully no one asked what distance I was running or what races I’ve done.
The line moved quickly and we made it to the back room where I was given my race packet, bib number 387, and a choice of race schwag – hoodie, long sleeve tech tee, short sleeve tech tee or arm sleeves, all with the graphically sharp race logo adorning each item. I’ve been looking for arm sleeves for a while now, so those were a perfect choice for me. We rounded the room past the Altra shoes stand and random other race fuel samples past the map with all of the races printed out and hung on the wall. Matt Gunn stood behind a table patiently answering questions and thanking people for coming to run his race.
Time to go get prepped for tomorrow and get some sleep for tomorrow.
The course is not insanely steep up or down, but between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level (especially when you’re essentially coming from sea level) it doesn’t have to have much of any incline or decline to feel the effects by the end of the race. It’s a gradual net gain in elevation change with the latter half of the course definitely being the tougher of the two if not for the elevation change, then because while the landscape is immense and breathtaking throughout, by the far the most scenic portion happens in the first half of the race.
None of the race is actually in Bryce Canyon National Park. (No sanctioned race of any kind are allowed in National Parks.) All three races (50k, 50 mile, and 100 mile)actually take place in the adjacent Dixie National Forest. A few minutes before the sun rose we slowly filtered onto the school bus which would shuttle us 15 minutes to the start line. Not entirely an odd site for me to see anymore, but the thought still amuses me when I think about it – a bunch of adults sitting in seats too small of a big yellow school bus, their knees poking the seat in front of them, wearing shorts and short sleeves even though it’s only 40 degrees outside, mostly wearing sunglasses even though the sun has not yet woken up, many wearing vests and running shoes usually with at least one strip of glaring neon coloring if not multiple neon colors, nervously, anxiously, and a bit sleepily chatting or joking about where the nearest restroom is.
Arriving at the start line we gathered around drums of fire with “Bryce 100” cut into the steel, inching as close as possible without outright burning ourselves, the smarter ones standing on the east side of the steel drums trying to capture the warmth of the rising sun on the back of their legs while capturing the heat of the fire on the front of their legs. The even smarter ones decided to go back on the bus and wait just before the start to venture out into the cold.
There was no pre-race briefing, just a, “Hi, I’m Matt Gunn, Thanks for coming. My niece(?) said she wanted to do the countdown to start the race so here she is.” He handed the microphone to a small girl not even ten. The sounds of watches all around intermittently beeped locking in their GPS signals. The girl held the microphone with her right hand, took a big breath and then said in all of no more than a second, “Fi-Fou-Thr-Tw-One-Go!” Most everyone exclaimed rather surprisingly, “Oh! Ok then” and many chuckled almost immediately being drowned out by the sound of watches being started.
Mile 0 to 10.0 (Thunder Mountain Aid Station)
The first mile or two of the race skirted along a flat spacious dirt service road which was a great avenue to let the crowd of runners spread and self-seed themselves before turning slightly uphill, briefly bisecting a campground and entering into sparsely wooded single track where it requires a bit more patience and effort to pass. These first few miles are also when everyone still has excitement and energy to both talk, joke, and laugh and I found myself next to a woman from Las Vegas who was wearing arm sleeves, gloves, and a hat and thought the 45 degree morning temperature was frigid and a guy from northern Utah who thought the temperature was perfect. These first few miles are also usually when you get to see the people that you’re going to rubber band or yo-yo with for the majority of the run and this proved to be true for me at least for the first half of the race.
As we approached the first glimpses of sandstone and breathtaking hoodoos I found myself running with Bridger, a guy from Utah who had come down with a few other people in his running club who were running the 50 mile and 100 mile races. This was his 4th 50k although only his third 50k race, the other being a training run. We ended up running together for pretty much the entire first 10 miles all the way to Thunder Mountain Aid Station. Great morning company to accompany on my little desert stroll.
There is a decent stretch of a few miles which are absolutely breathtaking, the sun slowly creeping upward in the sky blasting the red sandstone with it’s ever growing rays of warmth, the singletrack snaking back and forth up and down ridges and sidestepping steep slopes where you cross a washout and finally find a bit of flat leading to the first aid station. It is surreal, sublime, and if you’re not from here, you will stop to take photos, and then you’ll smile and wonder out loud to no one in particular, “how beautiful is this?”
Mile 10.0 (Thunder Mountain Aid Station) to 18.0 (Proctor Aid Station)
It wasn’t yet hot (actually it never really did get hot, at least not like I had expected it to) but it wasn’t really cold, but still cold enough for me to keep my long sleeved shirt on and not really be hungry or thirsty, even though I had completely drank 2 liters of electrolytes that I was carrying. However, this being one of only three aid stations, it would be foolish not to refill and grab some fuel. The problem was I didn’t really know what I wanted since I wasn’t hungry. Sweet? Eh, maybe. Salty? Eh, maybe? Carbs? Eh, maybe. Ohhh I know! Since none of those three entirely convincing I should probably just get all three. This is when I found my new favorite race sandwich, Nutella smeared on a piece of white bread wrapped around a dill pickle. Sweet, salty, and carby. I thought briefly about backtracking to go get another one before remembering there was still 20+ miles left to run.
I honestly don’t remember much in this stretch leading up to Blue Fly aid station, only that it was mostly prairie and forest and that if I hadn’t kept looking down at my watch where the altimeter hovered between 7,500 and 8,200 feet above sea level I might have mistaken myself being transported back to the trails of Washington State. It was still beautiful and somehow slightly familiar even though I was thousands of miles away from where I usually run.
What I do remember about the trail is that it felt slightly uphill the entire way and the dirt kept changing from brown to red and eventually outright beach sand, then back to brown again. It was weird and I couldn’t help but watch my feet run over such varied terrain. Oh yeah, also I had a hole that had formed where the foam footbed seams with the upper and it was getting bigger. Thankfully the shoe held together for the entire race and honestly it never crossed my mind that it would completely rip and I would truly have to barefoot it to the finish line.
Plodding along at a decent clip I caught up to a guy I had been trading places earlier in the race. He’d pass me on uphills and I’d bomb past him on downhills, both of us gladly and without needing to be asked stepping off the trail to let the other one pass. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but recognized him as I silently ninja-like crept up behind him. I felt like talking for a bit so when he asked if I wanted to pass I asked him instead if he mind if I ran with him for a while. Tory was from Arizona, but originally from the midwest and running his second 50k, his first also hosted by Ultra Adventures, the Grand Canyon 50k. We talked about the similarities and differences between this race and other runs in our respective local areas. (There’s not many similarities between Phoenix and Seattle in either weather or elevation, shocking I know.) Turns out the reason I was able to bomb past Tory on the downhills was because he had broken his collarbone earlier in the year and so he methodically carefully and purposefully would pick his spots coming down rocky and rooty terrain.
Crossing another washout we found another short bit of slight downhill coming into Proctor aid station where volunteers were busy calling out bib numbers of runners coming in and asking if we had a drop bag or needed anything. Lots of activity here with runners from all three races still on the same course and the 50k runners finally catching up to the back of the pack 50 and 100 milers.
Mile 18.0 (Proctor Aid Station) to 24.0 (Blue Fly Aid Station)
Handing my pack off to a volunteer to be refilled, I looked around the aid station tables to try to find the same ingredients to recreate my culinary masterpiece, the white-bread-nutella-dill-pickle wrap , but (un?)fortunately could find neither white bread nor dill pickles. I did though manage to find Nutella being spread on a tortilla and some boiled potatoes, which of course led to all of these being combined for something that looked like it should not be going into my body, but out of my body. But it was good. Nutella=pure joy for a mid-race fuel.
Leaving the aid station, we immediately cross another washout and head up the steep embankment before emptying out into another uphill meadow which was completely runnable but for some reason everyone was walking it, 50k’ers, 100 milers, and even a few 50 milers. I fell in line marching with Mike from southern California. Mike was tired, but rightly so as he had just finished a 24 hour race a few weeks before while prepping for this 50 miler. Why? Because he thought he hadn’t done enough actual running, so he signed up for a looped 24 hour race and ended up running 100 miles by accident. Who ‘accidently’ runs 100 miles? Crazies, that’s who. Ultrarunners are crazies. I tagged along behind him for a while catching my breath and giving my legs a walking break before wishing him luck and moving along up the trail alone by myself setting my crosshairs on the next person I could see a few hundred feet in front of me.
We’d been following pink streamers attached to trees and shrubs every so often, but soon the trail was going to fork with the 50 and 100 milers continuing south and the 50k runners turning west, I just didn’t quite know exactly where and when that was going to happen. Apparently everyone else I was passing was in the same boat. (Ha, a boat in the desert. That’s about how out of place everyone felt not knowing if they were on the correct course or not.) Eventually, a few miles farther than most everyone thought, the sign popped up indicating the split in the course, the 50 and 100 milers to continue following the same pink colored streamers we had been following and the 50k runners to now look for yellow streamers. Yellow proved to be a bit harder to spot for some reason, although it might have been because they seemed to be spaced farther apart than earlier in the race. I stole numerous glances from my watch checking to see how far it had been since I last saw a marker, trying to figure out how far I would have to backtrack. Thankfully I stayed the course and never had to decide whether to continue or turn around.
Finding our way down a smooth packed dirt forest road, I opened up a bit and clocked my fastest mile split of my race at mile 23. It’s not all that fast at all honestly, but for me at this elevation, this far into the race, it was fast! So what if it was all downhill. The road continued, but we took a sharp right up a “path” to another patchwork connecting “path”, each one steeper than the next and the dirt turning again back to sand. Hands on knees, huffing and puffing, this was steep, but I’ve been training on terrain like this, so I didn’t mind the slow burn of the long steep hill. Plus Blue Fly aid station was at the top and I was running out of water.
Mile 24.0 (Blue Fly Aid Station) to 31.5 (Finish)
Every volunteer at every aid station was more than kind to spend their day looking out and helping out runners and the guy and boy at this aid station was no different. They happily helped me fill my bladder and made sure I got whatever fuel I needed. I picked up a few potato halves and doused them with salt and grabbed a handful of chips on my way out. A runner I had passed earlier arrived at the aid station not looking very well as I was leaving and the volunteers immediately went to assist him. No time for me to make sure everything was ok though, I had 7 miles to go.
The trail turned back onto packed dirt forest road for quite a while, gaining a cool 1000 feet of vert over the next three miles to reach the high point of the race at 9,134 feet above sea level. I happily power hiked the majority of this knowing that what goes up must come down, and down it went!
After cresting the “hill”, the road and slope turned down and we were awarded with a lengthy 4 mile, 1000 foot descent and I again was able to open up my stride. Late in races I always feel like I’m running far faster than I actually am, probably because I’m tired, but this time I actually ran some 7:30 splits from mile 26-30 – that’s fast for me! (Again, forget that we dropped 1000 feet. Just go with it and let me delight myself.)
One last “little hill” and I would be done, except that one last little hill turned out to be a 300 foot sand infested foot sinking trail that not even the beautiful landscape of the hoodoos could make me not toss out a four letter expletive. 30 miles of running is too easy for you? Ok, fine, here’s an uphill sand trap. Oh and here’s a ‘bonus’ mile for you too! Oh and if you gawk at the scenery for too long I’m sure you’ll roll an ankle, which of course I did. Then I limped along for the next few hundred feet before I saw someone approaching from behind and that’s when I decided I’d run too far to let someone pass me in the last mile of the race, regardless of what position I was in, so I limp-ran the rest of the way.
You know you’re close when you see children walking up the side of the trail clapping and giving you high-fives. You know you’re even closer when the trail dumps you out onto the road going through a campground. But then you’re not really sure where you are when you follow the wandering yellow streamers not quite visibly obvious back onto a trail heading out of the campground. Thankfully this was only a slight detour and as the trail wound back and forth one more time, we turned to the left and a few hundred feet away was a pavilion and people clapping, cheering, hooting, hollering, and bringing us in to the finish. With no actual line to cross for the finish, I stopped and walked in the last 20 feet, not knowing entirely where the actual finish-finish of the race was. Someone asked me if there’s anything I needed. No, not really, just for someone to make sure that my bib number was recorded as finishing the race. And that was it. 50k #5 completed!
I drank some water and coconut water and ate a Honeystinger waffle, then we went and sat in the meadow for a bit cheering in a few of the runners finishing. It was a small crowd – I’m not sure I’d even call it a crowd. It was a small spattering of a few runners who had finished before me and a few spectators who were waiting for their runner to come in. We soaked in the sun and then it was time to go. We were held up briefly by a cattle drive crossing the road, but were back in town within half an hour and out to the yard behind a hotel next to Ruby’s Inn. A bit confusing to get to and no one really seemed to know where it was and once we got there, there were only three volunteers and two other runners, but once we found it, it was great to just sit and relax, pick up my finishing medal and eat grilled pizza. Eventually more finishers showed up and a woman named Alison joined us. Alison is from Minneapolis and I kind of gathered that she was a triathlete turned part time ultra runner. She’s also super fast and talented as she is the first person I’ve ever talked to who’s won an ultra event and set a women’s course record – the Black Hills 50 mile race in South Dakota in 2013. We talked for a bit before it was time to call it a day.
A great race with a down home atmosphere in a beautiful landscape surrounded by talented runners and gracious volunteers. Go there. Do the race. You will be amazed and will tell your friends to do the same. Thank you Matt Gunn for organizing the race! Well done! I’m pretty sure I have no choice to sign up for another Ultra Adventures race. Perhaps maybe even something a bit longer?
Lessons (Re)-Learned. What went well? What could be better?
- Who would have thought that starting out slow could help in the long run. I felt strong throughout and even at the end of the race.
- I ate a gel and a salt pill within a few minutes of every half hour. No cramping, so I guess the salt pills worked?
- Instead of just swallowing the salt pills I would bite it in half, let myself taste a bit of the salt and then open up the hatch and swallow. I think I heard a podcast one time about how even just the taste of salt can trigger your brain to fool your body into being Superman or something to that affect.
- It’s perfectly fine to run and talk with someone for a while even if you’re feeling great and could probably pass them. You’ll trade stories, tips, have a great conversation, get to know someone (as much as you can while running a race) and who knows, you might even become friends with them through some social media.
- Still haven’t utilized a drop bag anywhere. Not sure a 50k is long enough to warrant needing one. I might have to reconsider for a longer race.
- I’m still looking for another product that can beat vaseline, but I haven’t come across anything that can top that oil based lubricant. Water based lubricants seem to wear off before the end of the run, but I haven’t had any issues with oil based lubricants so far.
Final Race Goals Recap and What’s Next?
I had five main goals for this race…
- Make it to the Start Line.
- Keep hydrated. It is still a desert after all.
- Take my time. It is over a mile higher above sea-level than where I’m from.
- Make it to the Finish Line.
- Breathe. Take in the landscape. Thank volunteers. Smile.
Goal #1 – Took a plane ride, 5 hour drive, and a 15 minute school bus shuttle to make it there.
Goal #2 – Had to stop and pee a few times, which is always a good indication of hydration.
Goal #3 – Definitely took my time for the first half of the race. Picked up the intensity for the last half.
Goal #4 – Completed with an extra bonus mile.
Goal #5 – Even at over a mile above sea level I didn’t have any issues with breathing. The landscape is surreal compared to the environment I usually run in. Thanked every volunteer including some who I thought were volunteers but turned out just to be spectators. It’s easy to smile when the course is so beautiful.
Next up is an immediate week of high mileage, vert, and time, then it’s a multiple week taper time. Then the Mt Hood 50 just south of Mt Hood, Oregon!
- PatagoniaFore Runner T-shirt short sleeve
- Arcteryx Morphic Zip Neck Long Sleeve
- The North Face Long Haul shorts
- XCCU Unisex Experia Multi-Activity micro mini crew with COOLMAX fiber
- Hoka One One Stinson Trail shoes with quicklaces
- UltraSpire Alpha vest with 2L bladder
- Suunto Ambit 2S
- Garmin ANT+ Heartrate belt
- $20 pair of sunglasses that I picked up from a drug store somewhere on the Strip in Las Vegas
- Vaseline lubricant for legs and armpits
- Athletic tape – two 1″ pieces – one for each nipple – and one 3″ piece – center of chest underneath heartrate monitor
- (Phone, insurance card, credit cards, cash, and license in a zip lock bag – in case I get hurt, can’t talk and need to be identified)
Fuel used – (not consumed in parenthesis)
- Banana – 105 calories
- Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter – 11.5oz squeeze pack – 180 calories
- NUUN Active Hydration Tablets – 20 oz – ~10 calories
- VFuel Gel – single serving – one each of maple bacon, vanilla, and fudge brownie, two each of peach cobbler and cool citrus – 100 calories each – total 700 calories (1 maple bacon not consumed.)
- Hammer Nutrition Energy Gel – single serving – one squeeze packet of apple cinnamon – 90 calories (1 not consumed)
- (Honey Stinger Energy Waffle – 1 honey, 1 chocolate and 2 vanilla not consumed.)
- (Stretch Island Fruit Company All Natural Fruit Strip – 1 strawberry not consumed.)
- Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem Drink Mix – one single serving mixed before and drank during race – 35 oz – 260 calories
- Hammer Nutrition HEED Sport Drink Mix – one single serving mixed before and drank during race – 35 oz – 100 calories
- Aid station electrolyte – Gatorade 200 oz – ~1000 calories
- (NUUN Tri-berry – 4 tablets not consumed.)
- SaltStick Plus Electrolyte Salt Capsules – consumed 12 (brought 16) – 0 calories
- Tortilla, Nutella, potato sandwich – 150+200+50 = ~400 calories
- White bread, Nutella, dill pickle sandwich – 70+200+5 = ~275 calories
- Small potato and healthy pinch of table salt ~100 calories
- Mountain Dew – one small dixie cup – ~20 calories
- Honey Stinger Energy Waffle – 1 honey – 160 calories
- Calories burned ~3,044
- Calories consumed pre-race ~295
- Calories consumed during race ~2945
- Calories consumed post race ~160
- Average heartrate – 143
- Max heartrate – 174
- Time in heartrate zone 1 and 2 – 0:50
- Time in heartrate zone 3 – 4:10
- Time in heartrate zone 4 – 1:55
- Time in heartrate zone 5 – 0:04