Black Canyon 100k DNF: Lessons About Joy

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.

Tara on our shakeout run in Prescott before the race.

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.

Cassie, Mallory and I watching sunset at our Prescott Valley zen house. I was pretty happy to skip the race expo and festivities to stay holed up in this place!

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.

Photo by Nic. I think it’s only around 9 or 10am in this photo, and it’s already warm!

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!

Our little crew post race! Oddly I look the most banged-up, those bandages on my knees are hilarious– and just covering little cuts from my fall. Photo by Nic!

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.

Exploring Seodna. (Worth all the hype!) Photo by Cassie.

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.

Team Thirsty Beavers in Sedona post-race. All my friends are so tiny!

 

This is what joy looks like – @taraberryadventures, somewhere in Prescott!

 

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Failures

A couple of years ago, I had this realization that I wasn’t failing often enough. Yes, that may sound weird to you, that I wanted to fail more? For me, failure means trying something challenging, pushing your limits, and falling short, and I feel that it is in these moments that we develop new strength, skills, and capacity.

These days, I feel that times have changed and I have successfully carried out lots of failures! After the recent Rainshadow Running Gorge Waterfalls 100k in Oregon, where I trained really hard to run with the best women in the US and ultimately dropped from the race, I thought it would be fun to reflect on some of my favourite personal failures to date in running & adventures. (Speaking of which, even finishing this blog was hard.)

BMO Vancouver Marathon… 2013BMO Marathon disaster

This was the most hilarious disaster I’ve ever experienced, and my first big case of hyponatremia (severe case of too much water, not enough salt!). I was hoping to run a PB, and because I’m a local runner I was able to get into the elite field, with a 3:01 time, which is very soft for women’s elite marathon standards. This meant I had fancy priviledges, like having my own bottles all along the course. (This makes the epic failure even funnier.) I heard the race was going to be hot, so I loaded up on tons of water all week. Unfortunately, I never drink water, and I didn’t realize that I was effectively washing all of the electrolytes out of my body before the race. At 10km in I realized it wasn’t going to be my day so I waited for Tara, who was doing it as her second long run of the weekend. And suddenly, I felt drunk. Very, very drunk. That kind of drunk that you never, ever want, the really, really painful kind. My brain wasn’t there. All I remember, is feeling as though I had consumed 10 large glasses of vodka.

Suddenly I was lying on the seawall, literally on the side. Then I would walk/job for about 200 meters, until I could lie down flat again. The funny thing is, I would pass my “elite bottles” station every now and then, which was hilarious given my state. Tara loyally stayed with me for the entire time, sacrificing her own race for my bullshit. I was determined to finish, no matter what the time. Thankfully Tara called my dad, and he came and found us, and helped me get into a little golf cart headed off the course. At the finish line, someone asked me if I had run a long distance like that before. I just smiled, and laughed a lot inside. I’m pretty sure that was my last marathon.

Zion Traverse… 2014

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This one is too funny…

In January 2014, I needed a big, epic adventure. I had never been to Utah before, and I had never run more than 100 kilometers, so apparently what I needed to do, was run 100 miles, unsupported, in Utah: the Zion Traverse, out and back. I was captivated by the idea of running 100 miles and I couldn’t wait for an official race, so I just thought I’d make it happen. I immediately booked a ticket, and started planning for my run. I was planning to do all of this solo. Thank the lord, my friend Meghan noticed my Facebook post about heading there, and asked if she could join. She wanted to join “just” the first 50 miles, and she would meet me at the end of my 100. Fast forward to mile 30 on the first direction of the traverse. Up until this point, I noted interesting trees along the way, and felt confident that I could navigate myself back to the start on my own, in the night. Then we hit the canyons. It was open, endless, and only the rock cairns pointed in the direction. The night was freezing and suddenly, I felt really stupid to attempt the return all on my own at night, without really knowing the trail. Thinking of my mom, I did the responsible thing. I decided I would finish with Meghan after 50. And then, stupidly, I stopped eating, thinking that we were almost done.

Without any fuel, I had nothing left, and poor Meghan had to suffer through my walking the last 10km, which was extremely flat and actually, quite a few nice downhill sections. It was freezing, with frost on the ground, and we had to share my set of gloves. Meghan kept telling me to eat but, after my Vancouver Marathon experience, I kept telling her it was just electrolytes. By the time we finally made it to the trailhead, I shrivelled into fetal position in the ditch, while Meghan ran the final mile down the road to get the car. I don’t want to know what would have happened if Meg hadn’t joined on that trip!(Side note: It wasn’t clear to me that Meghan was right until we got back to the hotel, and I had a huge pile of un-eaten foods, which was supposed to have been gone. Hah!)

Mount Rainier Communication Disaster… 2014

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A third failure, is the misplacing of my boyfriend in Mount Rainier National Park. Similar to my ambitions to run 100 miles alone in Zion, the next summer, I wanted to do the same thing in Mount Rainier National Park. Even though everyone told me not to, saying “just wait, your 100 miler at Cascade Crest is just one month away!” there was no talking sense to me. I had to do it, it didn’t matter that I was slightly anemic at that time, or that I would be completely alone, or that my best friend, mom and boyfriend all thought it was a dumb idea. I was enamoured with the idea of running solo around Mt Rainier at that very moment and I had to do it. Cascade Crest, which was one month later, could be sacrificed for this dream.

The plan was that Julien would meet me every 50km around the mountain with more food, and I would just keep going, running as far as I really wanted. The first meeting point was Reflection Lakes. After running alone for 7 hours, I was so excited to see him. I ran into the first meeting point in the middle of the expected timeframe, and expected to see him all comfortable, lounging and reading beside the lake. But he wasn’t there, so I waited ten minutes. He was never late for anything, so I started to panic. I ran to the next lake. Still no sign… after thirty minutes of running around and searching, I realized… he must have been in a serious car accident somewhere on the mountain! I immediately started looking to hitchhike the ~3 hours to the other side of the mountain, to the hospital.

Thankfully, a couple of hikers convinced me that would be a dumb idea, and convinced me to hike out with them and they would drive me to the nearest ranger station, to gather information. Two hours later, we arrived at Paradise, one of the most beautiful mountain lodges, but they hadn’t heard anything that would be helpful. I was convinced my boyfriend was dead or at minimum, severely injured; it wasn’t like him to be late.

By now it was 9pm, I found some beer in Paradise and decided to hunker down for the night in their lobby area.In the beer line-up, a girl asked me “are you Alicia?” and I said yes, wondering how I knew her. The hiker told me that a man was looking for me, the “runner in a blue Hawaiian skirt”. Lucky for me, I chose to wear something ridiculous for the run that day, and we eventually reconnected, around 11pm, simply thanks to that. Now close to midnight, and after the emotional rollercoaster of thinking my boyfriend had died, I was not in the spirits to complete the remaining ~100k around the mountain. I was only 1/3 of the way around…

And those are just a few of my failures. You can read about the canoe / bible camp rescue here, or failing at the World Trail Championships here

Although quite painful, I think these failures serve a great purpose. For me, an appropriate amount of failure can mean that I’m in the process of challenging myself to jump for a new bar. And when I do eventually succeed somewhere, there is this hard-earned kind of satisfaction I get, which makes it that much sweeter. More importantly, I find that failures are often the events that bring me closest to my friends and family, because in that vulnerable state I rely on them so much just to get through. If nothing else, these challenging days can go so badly that they make for hilarious memories.  Sometimes when I’m running around Stanley Park I think, Really?! I was lying down on the side of the seawall right here?! During a road marathon?!

I expect to keep failing at things as long as I keep challenging myself. And hopefully, some loyal, sucker of a friend will be around to help me through!

Photo Journal from 2015 IAU World Trail Running Championships

I wrote a big long race report about my experience in Annecy and the World Trail Running Championships, but I think it would be more fun right now to show some pictures that make me really happy when I look at them. Although it wasn’t my day out there on Saturday (I DNF’d at 70km), my experience at the event was really positive. These photos capture my experience other than the 12 (?) hours out on the course!

Team Canada

Team Canada was a fun team and I enjoyed every moment of our captivity together in the race lodgings. The team really had my back this year, and I’m excited to return the favour to them!

I ❤ Annecy

Annecy blew my mind… it’s beautiful old town, its crystal clear lake, its breathtaking and relentless mountains, and its friendly people…

 Post Race Chilling

It was really easy to relax in Annecy after the race, thanks to team mountain-top sleeping, hilarious gargantuan desserts, and fondue & wine sessions with my sister. Post-race chilling photos courtesy my sister, Melissa!

Thank you to my Bremner’s Team for supporting my journey to get to the event, and for making damn-good berries, juices and wines without compromising on your values.