Black Canyon Recreation Trail - Phoenix, Arizona
One nice aspect of doing solo runs is there isn’t the concept of a DNF (Did not Finish). But then again, you also miss out on the fun aspects of an ultra race. Two years ago this weekend, I was attempting my second 100k run at the Black Canyon 100k in New River, Arizona. Someone I follow on Instagram, @brandonruns, posted about the upcoming race this weekend so I checked out the weather. Turns out it’s looking wet and cold just like two years ago when I first ran it which caused me to relive my race memories. On that day two years ago, I was hoping to complete my first 100k since I had DNF’ed on my only other attempt at the 100k distance. But alas, it was not to be.
My first 100k was the Javalina Night Run held in Maricopa County, Arizona that started at 5pm. I was running the race as preparation for a 100 mile run in November of that year and wanted more experience running at night. My race didn’t start out great for me with my right knee hurting for no apparent reason, but I pushed through the pain. My real issue though was how my mind got to me during the race. They held the 4 loop course on the Pemberton Trail within the park and reversed direction each time and only had an aid station at the start and then at the halfway point. The problem mentally was that in the desert at night, the featureless terrain made it hard for me to focus out the pain. In addition, most of the field was only doing the 50k, so I didn’t want to be the final straggler on the course, and the small field meant you were by yourself almost the entire time. The desert at night also made it very difficult to judge the distance traveled, so the miles passed slowly. As a came into the aid station after midnight, it was just too much to think about to head back out. The lesson learned for me from this race was the importance of being well rested as that helps keep your mind strong, and also the importance of a pacer. I put both lessons to use when I ran my 100 miler and I believe was a big part of why I finished.
But back to the Black Canyon 100k. On my first attempt there, I believe the weather forecast for that week was for rains not seen in 100 years. In addition, the temperature would be just above freezing at the start. Since it had rained all week, the start of the course was incredibly muddy (think full on mud boots). The race also starts out gaining elevation to a high point with an aid station. By that point I was already soaked, there were high winds and even snow. The only way to stay warm was to keep moving, so we rested briefly and pushed on. The jacket I had was just not good as it absorbed the water and wasn’t effective at keeping the wind off. Thankfully though, the course descended, the temperature warmed, and as we neared the halfway point, the rain even stopped. I was with my friend Brian, and we both were feeling great as we hit the turnaround point. This course is normally a point to point, but since the rivers at the halfway point were so full, the organisers switched the course into an out and back. This point was not good for us since it meant that a) we were going back up in elevation so the temperature was going to drop and b) we would have to go back through the terrible mud at the start. In addition, the sun was setting, the winds were picking up, and the rain came back. As we crossed about the 70k mark I stopped and tried to make a jacket liner using my emergency blanket. This meant I had to take my jacket off which was a bad choice. At this point because of the amount I was shaking, and because my hands were numb, I almost could not get my jacket zipped back up. Neither of us had brought extra shirts, jackets or ponchos. A total failure in gear preparation I’ve since learned so I never end up in that situation again. Once we got to the aid station about 85k we discussed about whether we should go on, and we chose it would be a bad idea from a safety perspective. Neither of us prepared at all for the cold and we didn’t feel we could generate enough body heat stumbling through mud. There was a small group of us that decided it was smart to stop. We felt better about the decision when on our ride back to the start we saw people walking the wrong direction up roads that were not part of the course and then the 3 ambulances parked at the finish with their lights going. And to be honest, we also knew that if we stopped, we could get back and have some In-N-Out Burger, which sounded a lot better than a slow hike through mud with uncontrollable shivering.
The happy ending to this story, is my friend Brian and I went back to attempt the race again last year and we finished. The weather was perfect and we got to run the point to point version of the course, which was a great experience. The Black Canyon 100k runs on the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail. It is best described on the Bureau of Land Management’s web site as : The 80-mile Black Canyon Trail provides mountain bikers with a long range back country trail riding opportunity. This historic National Recreation Trail is of national significance, following a route used since the times of pre-historic Native American travelers and traders. This trail provides a challenging ride experience characterized by rough, unstable soils and rocks, with various trail grades and numerous elevation changes within a harsh desert climate. The trail meanders through the Sonoran Desert landscape, including saguaro forests and rugged canyons. The trail is recommended for use from November through April. At other times of the year, the trail is seldom used. The difficulty level is intermediate.
Arizona in general, but this trail, along with the Pemberton Trail make for a great ultrarunning destination. There are two great places I would also recommend to stay while there. The first is Prescott, Arizona that is home to the oldest saloon in Arizona, Palace Restaurant and Saloon. The town is also well known for a sad tale about the firefighters from Prescott who lost their lives in a large forest fire. I recommend the book Granite Mountain: The First-Hand Account of a Tragic Wildfire, Its Lone Survivor, and the Firefighters Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice. One learns to appreciate the endurance and dedication of the men and women who fight this large fires. The other place to visit that isn’t too far is Flagstaff, Arizona. One can ski or hike the mountains at the Arizona Snowbowl, but it is also close to Walnut Canyon where you can see the remains of ancient cliff dwellers that lived in the area. Flagstaff was also fun to hang out in to have wine, craft beer and pizza…all good things to have post running an ultra. In addition, you are near Sedona, Arizona that is one of the most beautiful places to visit with many resorts and hotels to choose from.
Arizona is also a direct flight from many areas of the US, and overseas, so makes getting here efficient. These locations are all within an hour or so drive of Phoenix, which makes for a convenient ultra running destination.