Nearly a month ago now, I toed the start line of Aravaipa Running’s Black Canyon 100k near Phoenix, Arizona. A “golden ticket” race, the event attracts a super competitive field, as the top-two men and women get to run Western States. (Non ultra runners may be wondering: woah – wait a second – is it really a reward to win a 100 miler?!)
Thank goodness for Tara (B), I’d trained with her every week, escaping Squamish deeper winter and doing marathon long runs on the North Shore. Tara was extremely fit, so they were tough! I have flashbacks of watching Tara pound out a 3:45 min/km downhill during a short tempo at the end of a long run… (Downhill, but still!) By the time I was standing at the dark, muddy Black Canyon start line, I felt fit and ready.
The race appealed to me for so many reasons back in the fall. It presented the idea of a fun girls hangout, with Tara B, Mallory R, and Cassie S all coming from across Canada (Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Waterloo!) to hang out together. The route itself also looked awesome– it was a point to point route on this beautiful Black Canyon trail, and it was net downhill. I was excited by the idea of a point to point course, and I also thought that the competitive field would be a fun challenge.
I’m a data-driven person, and when I looked at the stats before the event, I knew I wasn’t in the running for a golden ticket. I mean, the top-two women going into the race had marathon times of 2:44 and 2:39– I’d have to have a lot of heart to out-run them! Instead, my goal was to see how fast I could run 100k on trail, and hopefully, to minimize the gap between those women and myself.
Unfortunately, in the final hours before the event, the race organizers had to change the course for safety, due to concerns about rising stream levels. This meant that we only had 60km of unique trail, and then we had to do some doubling back and forth. I was disappointed, as the original course was the main appeal to me, but I understood the reasoning.
At the start line, I didn’t feel the excitement you’d expect. I felt motivated to see if I could run a fast time, but when I think about it, I wasn’t actually pumped for the running itself. Looking back, this should have been cause for concern.
The race began, and Tara, Mallory and I ran the first kilometers close together, navigating the muddy, hilly Jeep road. As it was so early in the race, everyone was friendly and upbeat. I met a couple women from all over North America, including a woman from Vermont, and another from Montana. I believe we all ran the first 10km a bit too fast, but we were excited to get the hell off the muddy Jeep road and onto a trail.
I remember Tara and Mallory drifting ahead at some point, and I was quite positive, locking into a forever pace that I felt I could maintain all day. I thought of my friend Jordan in Australia, and how she was so strong in running forever. I felt good, totally at peace with where I was at.
Around 30k, I started to feel quite bored. The desert hills continued forever, without much change in scenery. I glanced at my watch, and realized that I had about 7-8 hours left. “Just 8 more hours of running this same pace“, I thought to myself. That was a long time to maintain! I started to negotiate with myself. “If you finish this, then you can drop from Chuckanut [next month].”
This was the beginning of my self-imposed destruction.
Shortly after I started to really feel the sun exposure. It wasn’t too hot, maybe 20 degrees, but there was zero shade. I eased my pace even more, just chilling, knowing that an easier pace really helps when it comes to heat. Our new friend Nic was volunteering at an aid station, and he told me to dial it back. It became my mantra.
Unfortunately, I quickly became super nauseous around the 40k mark. My stomach was sloshing, and my nutrition quickly deteriorated. My plan was to drink CarboPro as a way of getting calories quickly, but with my stomach so volatile, I didn’t want to put any additional liquid in there! The nausea made me dizzy, and I tripped, falling superman-style onto sharp rocks on the trail. With my stomach in so much pain, I decided to walk for a bit. At first, walking was welcome and joyful. I imagined I was on vacation, staying at some kind of spa and doing a short 5k walk.
After a few minutes of walking, (likely actually half an hour!) I hated that too. At this point, I was barely crawling forward, I can’t even call it a walk. Tens of runners were coming up behind and looking to pass on the tight singletrack, forcing me to step off into the cacti every minute. The nausea persisted, and I started realizing that it would take me almost two hours to slither along to the next aid station at this pace.
Earlier I’d bartered with myself that if I finished today, I could drop from Chuckanut. Suddenly, I had a realization: I could actually just drop from both!
Around the same time, Denise B ran by, and I was amazed by how far back she’d started. She was so positive, telling me to eat some calories. I didn’t listen, with the knowledge that I was just going to drop, anyway! I watched Denise bound ahead along the trail, so composed and purposeful.
I considered whether I should drop at the aid station behind me, which was only 4k back, as opposed to 8k forward to the next one. Dropping backward would be awkward, I concluded. It was a narrow singletrack trail, and I knew that every runner would ask me if I was okay. I ripped my race number off, thinking that I could turn around and look like a volunteer, so it would be less awkward. Still, for some strange reason, I couldn’t get myself to walk backwards on the course. Even though I knew I was going to drop, I had to do it forwards. I put my race number into my pack, and continued crawling forwards. I could get there in two hours at this 15 minute per kilometer pace, I calculated. The next 8k is a blur, I just remember a duathlon of walking and puking.
I managed to puke and rally around 45k, and I enjoyed a couple kilometers of running, with nothing in my stomach. A runner in front of me found some garbage on the ground, it was my race number! I thought that I may be past the nausea, so I grabbed the race bib and continued past that aid station I’d been dreaming about, testing myself to continue to the next aid station. The high was short-lived. My stomach was a wreck, and after a couple kilometers, I was back to my uninspired crawl. When I thought about it, I hadn’t felt any joy, all day, and it was very unlikely that I would start to feel it at 60k. I walked through downtown Black Canyon City with a slight smirk, knowing that I was about to call it a day, conveniently cutting out all the new convoluted, re-routed parts of the course. A man made fun of me for walking as he drove his car into a Black Canyon gas station. “Shouldn’t you be running?” He asked. I continued my walk along the road, defiantly.
As I walked, my mind wandered into fascinating places. When I saw the second place female on the out and back, I glanced at my watch. I was certain that Tara was in third place close behind, and I was going to tell her how far ahead the second place female was. Perhaps to pull me out of my own misery, I started imagining that she was going to come second, and that we were going to Western States together. I’m done with ultras, but I can be a great pacer, I thought to myself. I even started thinking about how we could fund the trip !!!!
At 55k, I was so excited to stop running. Cassie would be done the 60k soon, and I knew that either Tara or Mallory would be crushing the 100k. I’d rather cheer for a friend who was killing it, then run without joy.
With a smile on my face, I handed the crumpled race number to the RD matter of factly, then heckled the other runners who were still in the warzone. Pizza ensued. Hanging out with Scarlett and Nikki, and later, the entire Canadian crew at the finish line, I started to finally feel joyful, for the first time that day.
In the end, Tara also caved to the boredom of the re-route plus the stomach sloshing, joining me to heckle at 70km. Niki and Cassie both ran super strong 60k races, both in top-10. Most admirable, after training in -40 Winnipeg winter, Mallory was a stoic powerhouse, running a smoking fast 9:33 and coming in third!
I’m so at peace with this DNF. I never felt joyful once that day, which is my #1 reason for running. Too many non-joyful miles would suffocate my enjoyment in the sport, and I feel like I’m already getting precariously close to that edge, after so many years of running ultras.
I believe the problem was in focusing on results, rather than the process, the running itself. I was doing it to get a fast time, but not necessarily because I was excited to run an ultra. I can’t help but see the similarity to how I burnt out from track and field by age 11. I used to run the 1500m, and by age 10, I was already putting an incredible amount of pressure on myself. I expected myself to make the Youth BC Games, the Provincials, to get a varsity scholarship to some Ivy League school. There was always some standard, and some result I was seeking. I was 10, damnit!!!! Before long, I resented it. Each race I toed the bunched standing start line, I would tell myself: only one more race, then you can quit.
I think I’ve gotten myself into a similar predicament with ultras. I expect so much from myself, and no matter how much I say I don’t care, I can’t help but expect the best. I line up to a start line and expect myself to run fast, to the point that it’s not fun.
Walking away from this race, (hah– literally!) I’ve finally seen the light. I need a break from the expectations I set on myself. I need to re-discover what brought me to trail and ultra running originally: exploration, grassroots community, inspiring adventures. Getting back to running for the joy of the feeling of it, without any watch or time or standard, without any expectations of distance or pre-set categories imposed by other people. The irony is that what originally made me fall in love with ultra running — defying norms and limits — is now holding me back, as I expect to run in neat categories like “100km” or “100 miles”. I need to get back to the carefreeness that connected me to the sport, running through amazing places for as little or as much as I want without definitions or expectations.
From the outside, not much will appear to change– I’m still going to be running a lot. But in my perspective, everything will change.