Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Bryce Canyon 50k Ultra Race

A holiday arranged around an ultra race....who does that? We do!!

A request for information on the FRA forum led to virtually impulse entries for us into this race (with Tim opting for the 50mile distance and me 50km). Held on 18 June in Utah, USA, the race promised to be a hot one, and at elevation - both aspects I've never encountered in running previously. I was therefore swaying massively from being excited to run in such a beautiful area, to being anxious I would end up walking the whole distance because of the heat/altitude combination.

We planned our entire holiday around the race, arriving a week beforehand to relax and get to the area with time to recce part of our routes. It also meant we could make a final shoe choice once we knew what the terrain was going to be like under foot. The week after the race was for exploring Utah's vast canyons and national parks and relaxing.

Bryce Canyon 50km Ultra race from Lynne Taylor (Global Therapies) on Vimeo.

On the Ultra Adventures website this race is billed as follows... "This scenic, mountain course runs along the western edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, offering spectacular views above and below the hoodoos. The race is run at high elevation, with most of the miles on this rugged course between 8,000 – 9,000 ft."

It did not disappoint. In fact, totally the mind-blowing opposite. The area is beautiful beyond belief - from forest tracks to the weird and wonderful rock formations of the hoodoos - spires of sedimentary rock protruding in all shapes and sizes.

training for the race
As this race was booked back in November 2015 it gave me plenty of time to fit in some serious blocks of training over those 6 months. I had completed the Long Tour of Bradwell in August, and this race was very similar in terms of distance and elevation gain so I knew I could finish, in theory. I knew I needed to carry more water to avoid dehydrating so any run I did involved carrying weight to get used to the increase.

Things didn't go so smoothly though! A few injuries and niggles (which started in November) actually meant that I didn't get any consistent run training done at all. I managed to keep up with strength training, and come the week before the race I felt as prepared as my body would let me. I had an 11 hour cut off to finish the race and claim a finishers prize, I had calculated the slowest I could go was a minimum pace of 5km per hour- 10hours in total, and an hour spare. Optimistic perhaps - a really hard call having never run at altitude or in the 30degree+ heat we were facing.

prior to race
We arrived in the Bryce Canyon area a few days before the race and scoped out the finish area and final few kilometers. It's always useful to know how the route goes in the final few km if you can't recce the whole route, and I'm so glad we did. We also recced the first 4km of the route, so mentally I had a clear idea of at least 10% of my route. We had several short runs in the week prior to the race, good to know how I coped with the altitude and to try and acclimatise to the heat. I'm super pleased we got that all done, though in the back of my mind I did worry that I'd perhaps done too much as my weeks mileage was already more than I'd run in any week over the previous 4 months - and I still had the 50km race to do!

race day morning
The morning of the race was an early start for us. Tim needed to be at the shuttle pick up point for 4.30am. We crept out of the campsite at 3.50am as quietly as we could, and with him packed off on his bus I got a little more sleep in the car before I was setting off in my own shuttle at 7.15am. The usual pre-race nerves were making themselves known; I was glad when the shuttle left as I had no other chance to faff with gear!

setting off
Arriving at Tropic Reservoir, the start point for our 50km race, the 150+ runners gathered for the briefing. Short and sweet and with no fuss (and no kit requirements or rules on where numbers should be placed) we were given the 'Go!!!' and we were off. I'd had the chance to chat to Sam Harrison (FRA forumite who originally asked for info on Bryce) at the start line and knew that would be the last I saw of him til the finish. He should have been in the 50mile race, but a mix up with USA time zones meant he'd missed his bus!

race briefing about to start, Tropic reservoir in the background

to Blue Fly Aid Station (approx 14km)
Runners all moved as one chain of people up through the nearby campground before hitting a path that's known as 'single track' over there. The UK equivalent for fell runners is a 'trod' - a small path, generally with no place to safely overtake. We weaved through trees, gently climbing but the altitude making itself felt in the lungs. I was so pleased that fellow runners were already walking the ascents, even the most gradual ones, at this early stage. We soon got onto the steep sided red rock track surrounded by the first of many hoodoo outcrops.

First of many forest tracks

not far to Blue fly Aid station - clearly marked

After the first 4km we got to a long uphill stretch of dusty, rocky forest track. I knew I should be able to run up the gradient but the altitude was making it hard. I adopted the run/walk strategy and kept forcing myself to run 25-50 paces as another runner did the same. The day was already heating up and water consumption was a continual sipping process. I was also relishing the dappled shade of the forest we were climbing through.

Blue Fly aid station

Virtually immediately after leaving Blue Fly aid station the terrain change dramatically. No longer on forest tracks, we found ourselves weaving across 6inch wide sandy single track with vertiginous drops below. Not my ideal terrain, and a lot of self-talk was done on this bit to stay focused and confident. The sand turned to an almost ash-like consistency after a while, still plummeting us down the canyon. Hopping over tree roots and dodging a few slower runners I then found myself on a grass slope and with a sharp left turn back on a wider path and climbing once more.

Of all the video's and photos I'd seen of this race there had been little shown of forest tracks with most coverage given to the classic Bryce Canyon red rock single track. So far, very little of such terrain had materialised and I wondered if we would get the amazing views of hoodoos and weird and wonderful rock formations. Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. Sip some water, try and eat.

more forest tracks

single track through the grass and sage brush

I knew the first aid station at Blue Fly was at around the 14km mark and was the only cut-off for this race, at 3hours. I made it in around 1hr50m - really pleasing. I knew I needed to cover as much distance as fast as possible before the heat of the day really kicked in, so with the first 14km done, a few mouthfuls of watermelon I was off again after just a few minutes - hardly stopping really. My water strategy of sipping from the nuun and water alternatively meant I had only drunk about 500ml at this point, leaving me over a litre to get to the next check point in another 9km. Plenty. The views of the hoodoos and red rocks were now starting to appear in the distance, promising us of the spectacular scenery we'd hoped.

to Proctor Canyon Aid Station (at approx 23km)
As I was calculating the distance to the next check point at Proctor, I was reckoning on being around 2km away from it I suddenly heard a familiar voice behind was Tim!!! Yey! We'd tried to calculate whether we'd bump into each other prior to the race, but knew it was likely we'd not. What a lovely surprise and boost. I asked how he was doing - the vague plan was if he was somewhere mid-pack or at least not up for a podium finish (we though was very unlikely) we would run to the finish together. We were after all on holiday! He replied in a shocked voice "3rd!!!" so I urged him on, shouted to keep drinking and wished him luck to the end.

Tim passes and is heading off to Thunder Mountain aid station

Somewhere on the route (memory of where exact things are has been burned out of my brain by the heat!) there was a shallow stream crossing. It was fairly wide, and I expect in the spring the water thunders down the river bed. On race day there was a decent amount of cooling water to paddle in, yet many runners jumped over it. I took great delight in washing my dusty legs and arms, splashing water over my face and neck, and soaking my buff. I could have done with a river like that every few kilometres!

distant views of hoodoo cliffs

the promised red lands...and land of many ups and downs!

to Thunder Mountain Aid Station (at approx 36km)

the route was marked by tape in trees

red single-track path I'm about to run down
The route made hundreds of twists and turns, ups and downs, and mentally I was prepared for this. Virtually no straight lines or clear views of the path ahead were found anywhere on the route so with each turn it was a surprise and mystery what was coming. Having the distance between check points noted with my phone (what I used for photos) was vital to keeping me on track with progress, and importantly how much water I could drink as the kilometres passed.

Somewhere along this stretch, maybe at around 18km, my route connected with the 50mile (and 100mile) race routes. It was a jumble of paths, but the organisers had done a good job at making it clear which way to go. Nonetheless, me and another women did a very thorough check together to ensure we were in fact going the correct way.

The terrain changed again, and we were running through denser forest and some open grass areas - including sage brush that gave off a lovely smell of sage. Throughout the race, the noise of the clicking cicadas was drowning out everything else. Apart from a few butterflies and the occasional bird I didn't see any other wildlife - must have been hiding somewhere cool, very sensible. The hoodoos were still a way off but it appeared we were weaving our way through them, as looking back we had evidently dropped down what appeared to be cliffs!

When I reached Thunder Mountain aid station filled up my water bottles and had a major faff with one bottle as the tube came out unexpectedly), grabbed some watermelon and was off.

the last 16km
The route now climbed once more. Onwards, upwards, up up up into a heated cauldron of tree scattered hillsides devoid of virtually any shade. I'd covered around 35km and felt good, knew I would finish, but nothing had mentally prepared me for those final 15km. They just seemed to go on, and on, and on, and on. first off came the red hot cauldron of Red Canyon. Aptly named for being a furnace of heat, no shade, constant uphill on red rock gravel paths, the odd tree offering a smidgen of shade. At each one I paused, hands on knees knowing I needed to keep going.

the start of Red Canyon
The longer I was out, the worse the sunburn on my neck was going to be. I had applied lots of lotion at the start, and at the second aid station, but with sweat and wrapping my damp buff around my shoulders I was coming off and the burn was becoming intolerable. Nothing to do about it but carry on.

yep, we ran up and down and up and down all this...
I took numerous breaks to take photos, chat to other runners who were all encouraging in grand measure. The racers were now a conglomerate of 50k, 50mile and 100 mile runners - each with one focus of reaching the same finish line. Each one of us suffering on the scale of hot through to burning up. At some point I passed a supporter heading in the opposite direction. I knew I had barely enough water to reach the end so cheekily asked for a swig from one of the many bottle he was carrying. He obliged and I thanked him gratefully.

one of many weird rock hoodoos we passed
A constant battle of gradual climbs, then descents, round a hairpin, and back up. The red rock mini-canyons seemed to go on like I was heading into Mordor! Most people were applying the same strategy as me....push to make myself run the downhills, into the corner, then walk the uphill sections - pausing briefing to reduce the intensity of the sun a little in any shade we could find. I had been hoping for a strong breeze as we'd experienced most afternoons in the previous week, but this day proved to be relatively calm. How annoying! Again, nothing to do but put left foot in front of right, right in front of left. Repeat.

Distant mountains and cliffs...the finish is somewhere between here and there!

Calculating the distance to the finish was pretty much all that consumed my mind - with the massive exception of the amazing views we were granted. Yes the route took us up through the furnace of Red Canyon, but what an amazingly gobsmackingly beautiful and weird place. It certainly equals, if not betters the beauty of Bryce Canyon amphitheatre, and in many ways (on a day you're not racing 50km) would be preferable because of the lack of tourist crowds.

At each turn in the path I wondered how many more there could be. Checking my watch I had passed the 40km mark, approached and passed the 45km mark after what seemed an age (was I going to Mordor?!)...and then reckoned if the organisers had miscalculated it couldn't (surely couldn't) be more than a few kilometres. I therefore assumed I had around 7km to do. So I applied one of my home local routes to James Thorn....after 2km I was past Mossy Lea farm....still no sign of the trailhead....a few more km and I was down to my final 500ml of water. Another km and another few corners...surely that dead tree ahead is the one we'd seen a few days ago just a mile from the end? Nope. There were many, many dead trees. Many many corners.

I wanted to have my last two shot blocks for energy (I'd stopped feeling hungry about 6hrs ago!) but would need to slurp water with them. Tough choice. It really was just the heat slowing me down. I didn't feel lacking in energy otherwise so preserved the water supply.

the final 1.5km
Finally, and I did nearly cry, I see the trail head. That dead tree was in fact very distinctive. Just 300m further on and the car park and some sort of hallucinatory-confusion struck me. There was no-one around, yet there was a table with a massive water barrel, and a few other things upon it. Surely I'm seeing a mirage. Is this the finish and I'm hours behind everyone? Maybe they've all gone home. Then another couple of runners seem to appear from no-where and start to fill their bottles.

O.M.G. I think. Had we miscalculated the finish line and it was really going to be all the way down at the main road about 5km away? Surely not. I slurped a glass of water and wet my buff, threw it round my neck and resigned myself to perhaps a longer finish straight than I wanted. It should just be a mile from this point.

the final mile

The track undulated for about half a mile, then gradually descended. I passed two guys on the 100mile race - they applauded my good effort but stayed at their steady pace. I had been checking my watch constantly, and now within one kilometer of the finish I knew, if I could just keep running (very slowly) I could make a sub 8:30. How astonishing to think that in this heat (35degrees+) and at altitude I would only be about 20mins slower than the Long tour of Bradwell. Astonished, I kept left-right, left-right going at a pace slightly faster than walking. I think I was knocking out around a 6-6:30min/km and had the determination that I was going to run over the finish line.

the finish
Round the last corner, and a confusion of where to go. People were clapping, shouting, whooping, cheering and then a few people pointed towards an arch....under it I go and there's Tim running up to me with a massive smile on his face. He checks the marshals have my number recorded as I put hands on knees and all I can do is mutter I'm hot, so hot, so bloody hot. Tim ushers me into a tent where there's chilled water and drinks.

the aftermath
The first glass of water goes over my head. The second down my back. I sip from the third then throw it down my front. Tim places a soft bottle filled with iced water on my neck and says a coke will help....he speaks from experience. I think I stay seated for a good 10mins, then get up to walk around for a few minutes before sitting down next to Tim and Sam Harrison who completed the 50k in an astonishing 6:30. I'm two hours behind him, but elated with my finish time of 8:29:20. I was so proud and beamingly happy to hear Tim had finished the 50miler in third place. What a day!

Celebrating with a coke and my finishers prizes

Good tan....probably not, dusty trails = tide mark

Tim in blue shorts searching for returned drop bags
I finished in a time of 8hours, 29mins and 20secs.
Strava has me recorded at 8hours, 29mins and 2secs. I'll let them have those 12secs!
Total distance: 51.9km
Total ascent: 1723m*
Moving time via strava was 7hrs 58mins and 3secs - so just over 30mins at aid stations and pausing in shade...I'm happy with that.
Average pace: 9:48/km. (I was aiming for around 12min/km, and up to the half way point I think I was still averaging under 9min/km). Really really happy with this.

Link to official results here
61st place overall out of 154 runners
22nd lady out of 74
6th in my age category out of 21

Link to Ultra Adventures website for race information
Link to TestedToDestruction - Tim's race account of the 50miler

*Regarding the ascent - I had thought we were climbing about 1900m so for the final 5km I'd been dreading the 'final beast of a hill' they might make us climb. Not that the ascents were easy, but was mighty glad that final 200m didn't appear anywhere!