Outside Mayer High School, before the start of the Black Canyon 100k, it was chilly and windy. We were all thankful to be able to hang out in the gym.
Just a few hours later, what I wouldn’t give for a wisp of a breeze under the scorching desert sun.
At my last race in January, the Bandera 100k, I let the lead women get away from me at the start and couldn’t close the gap before the finish. A tactical mistake. Here, my plan was to start with the leaders and hang tight. It had the potential to be an absolute disaster, but hey, in a race field that included 2013 Ultrarunner of the Year Michele Yates, 2014 #4 Ultrarunner of the Year, Kaci Lickteig, former Angeles Crest course record-holder Angela Shartel, among many other sponsored, veteran athletes, I felt like a bit of an underdog anyway. Why not push the chips all-in and see what happens?
So, I boldly lined up with Michele Yates. Oh, you know, no big deal, I’m just going to run with … um, Michele freakin’ Yates. I guess I wanted to find out if I could. Plus, she recently had a baby, and with a nod to the incredible athlete she is, it’s entirely possible that this might be my one and only opportunity to finish a race ahead of her.
Right from the start it was just her and me. I let her set the pace, feeling completely comfortable. After chatting for three miles, she soon pushed ahead as we hit the trail. I kept her in my sights for a while, but considering I was running in the low seven minute range already, I didn’t want to push much more at this early stage. Before long, she was gone. I glanced behind to see where the rest of the ladies were, but despite the sometimes long vistas, I was never able to spot anyone. It was only me, running alone.
Through the first two aid stations, I heard that Michele was three minutes ahead, but by Bumblebee (mile 19.5), word was that the gap was narrowing. My pace was no faster, so it meant she was slowing down. As I ran into Gloriana Mine aid station (mile 24, which I thought was at mile 22 if you listen to my post-race interview), I was stunned to see Michele. She ran out ahead but within a quarter mile she let me pass. She trailed for a short while, but before long she was nowhere in sight. So here I am, lead woman in a major ultra, feeling amazing. At the same time, I can’t help but think — where is everyone? Yikes!
We’d all been warned by RD Jamil Coury (who put on a superb event) to prepare for a tough second half, due to terrain and the impending mid-80 degree early-season temps on the completely exposed trail. He was spot on – it was like running two very different 50k races back-to-back.
For the first 50k, the course is positively dreamy. Fast, mainly smooth, rolling singletrack. Stunning desert landscape that continued throughout, with cactuses from as tall as a house to the short, deceivingly fuzzy-looking variety. A couple of long-horn steer stared me down as I passed close by. I wasn’t sticking around to find out if they were friendly. The iconic steel windmill (the race’s emblem) spun and squeaked.
I clicked off the first 50k in a not-exactly-hanging-about 4:19, thinking, oh wow, this is going to be such a huge PR! I love this course! I feel GREAT.
It all turned pear-shaped for the second 50k. I passed Hal Koerner (yet another first that is unlikely ever to be repeated!). The temps were soaring and the trail became increasingly challenging. We headed down a rocky and highly technical dry creek bed for a short while. I tried to make it look good, but the footing was tricky. In other words, I totally blew my shot at showing off my downhill skills in front of one of the sport’s best 🙂
Then I ran out of water and the private pity party began. I struggled along at a much slower pace. I picked up my pacer, Kristina, at mile 38 and she asked me how I was feeling. “Sh*t” was my response. It got worse from there. Now, this is the first time I have ever had a pacer and I basically used it as an opportunity to whine and moan about everything: how thirsty I was, how bad my stomach felt, how dizzy I was getting, how rocky and technical the course was now, how much I hurt. Sorry Kristina! Try as I might, I couldn’t catch up on my hydration and spent the remainder of the race feeling completely parched. It’s pretty lame to have any serious thoughts of dropping out while winning a race, but the truth is, I did. I was suffering. Big time.
As the sun and temperature finally began to lower, I picked up the pace in the last 10 miles. I was running scared, afraid of getting caught, pushing ahead despite residing squarely in the pain cave (I only learned post-race that Michele Yates and Kaci Lickteig dropped).
The lure of the finish line reeled me in. With about a mile to go, a member of the UltraSportsLive team or a race volunteer (not sure which) was waiting for me, sprinting it in to let people know I was coming. It was an outstanding thing to do, and meant that I felt a victor’s welcome as I pounded out the last few hundred yards. It was oh-so-sweet. A win at a Montrail Ultra Cup race. A ‘golden ticket’ to arguably the most prestigious ultra race in the US, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It was, without a doubt, worth every second.
Even though days have passed and it’s starting to sink in, I remain truly amazed that I came away with the win. In my usual ‘I can do better’ way I think there is a lot more that I can give to this course, to the 100k distance, to my running in general. I learned much about what it takes to manage racing in the heat — the additional complexity that it brings to nutrition and hydration strategy, particularly in the latter stages of a long race.
No one wins a major ultra without an awful lot of help along the way. I wouldn’t have been able to dedicate myself to this sport like I have without my husband’s proud support. My coaches, Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypayver of VO2Max Coaching, have guided my progress for the past year and I’m incredibly grateful to them for their unwavering belief in my potential. Thank you to Jamil Coury and Hayley Pollack of Aravaipa Running for encouraging my entry into the race and putting me in contact with local crew and pacer, Norm and Kristina. As for Norm and Kristina, you guys were quite literally my oasis in the desert. Last, but most certainly not least, a huge thank you to Nike for believing in me — a 40 year old, newbie mother runner that no one had ever heard of.