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  Relentless Forward Progress: My first 50k Ultramarathon

Jennifer Bryce CanyonThe “race” if you can call it that is over, it at the same time feels surreal that we finished and ridiculous that we even started. Last year, one of my running partners turned 50 – she had a crazy idea that to celebrate, we should do something we hadn’t done before, and being 50, we should run a 50k trail race (for those of you non-metric people this is approximately 31.5 miles). We originally planned to run a race in the fall of 2013 at Coyote Springs outside Las Vegas, but when Irene got really bad plantar fasciitis and a neuroma in her foot that idea went out the window. So she started looking for races in 2014 that worked around things we already had scheduled (mainly me, given that I’m going to be doing an Ironman in November) and so we decided on Bryce. For those new to this terminology, an ultramarathon is any distance further than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. Common distances for ultramarathons include 50K, 100K, 50 miles and 100 miles and there are also ultramarathons that run for time like a 12 hour or 24 hour race. I don’t think we really understood what we were getting ourselves in for, but in the end we finished, we got the t-shirt and the medal and we can say we did it!

Jennifer Bryce Canyon1The Bryce Ultra Races were held on June 14, 2014. The races director puts on a series of races in Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley and although they have had races in Bryce before, this was the first year for the 50k distance (there was also a 50 mile and a 100 mile distance which is a whole other level of crazy!). The races all started just outside Bryce Canyon City on Saturday morning, they had shuttle buses to take us to the start and then there was the typical porta potty frenzy and nervous energy that accompanies every race. The 50 and 100 mile racers took off earlier than the 50k so there was only a small group of us – 118 people were pre-registered for the 50k distance. I started the morning off with an oatmeal, orange juice and the Fruit Punch Xyience Pre-workout, my current flavor of choice and was feeling good, albeit a little apprehensive. 

Jennifer Bryce Canyon 2The race started at 7am sharp and we were off, we followed a dirt road through a campground for the two miles or so before dropping into the single track trail through pine forest and eventually the famous hoodoos. The first leg from the start to Thunder Mountain Aid (mile 10) was gorgeous. The light from the sunrise brought the red hoodoos alive and the views were spectacular. I found it difficult not to gawk at the scenery at each turn of the trail. I felt awesome and though I could feel the effects of the altitude it seemed completely manageable and not unexpected. This was for me the easiest section of the race with much of the mileage going downhill to the lowest elevation on the course of 7300 feet (keep in mind the elevation in Las Vegas at McCarran Airport is 2181). We ran for a while with an ultramarathon veteran from Vancouver BC named Pat – she was 55 and also didn’t get into ultras until she was in her 50s – she was an inspiration. She talked to us a bit about her experiences and chatting definitely took our minds off the task at hand. My focus was all on just making it to the first aid station as breaking the day into smaller chunks worked better for me mentally. We knew we had 3 hours to get through the first 10 miles and rolled into Thunder Mountain after just over 2 hours knowing we were on pace. Other than Pat, we didn’t have many people around us and weren’t really sure where we were in relation to the rest of the group. After arriving at Thunder Mountain probably 10-15 people came in after us but we took off again before they did so once again we felt pretty much on our own. 
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We didn’t stay long at Thunder Mountain, we both grabbed a snack and wanted to head out knowing we had to make it to Proctor Canyon by noon, and at that point, thinking it would be no problem to go 8 miles in the next 2 ½ hours we were in good spirits. My attitude starting to change right away though when we started up some serious climbs – not only was the terrain steep but it was also very technical – lots of rocks, hopping around both on the uphill and the downhill. At one point about 2 miles from Proctor Canyon we came upon a woman kneeling on the trail and after confirming she was just cramping, we continued on. This section was really tough. A group of 4 from Phoenix passed us about a mile from the aid station and forced us to hurry. We arrived at Proctor Canyon at 11:57am – 3 minutes before the cutoff! We were the last group they let continue on for the 50k and felt grateful we made it, but we were exhausted. My water was nearly gone and my stomach was feeling nauseous. The only thing that looked good was red vines, so I grabbed a couple of those, forced down some applesauce and filled my water bladder, but they would only fill it halfway because they were almost out of water – telling us the next aid station was only 6 miles and we could fill out there. So on to the next goal – the Blue Fly Aid Station at mile 24. 
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This section of trail passed through groves of aspen and had some very steep climbs. Going up was hard enough but the subsequent down climbing was just as difficult with lots of steep descents. I settled into something of a rhythm where I could run comfortably on the flats and downs and slowed to a crawl on the ups. The exertion from climbing was tough but I was able to find a pace that, although slow, kept me moving forward. We climbed out of single track and hit another forest service road for a few miles which was a huge relief and break, however short. The last mile into the Blue Fly Aid Station was brutal. I had ran out of water, the aid station was about half a mile further than we thought it would be, and the time goal was 2pm and approaching quickly. There were about 8 of us all struggling up a very steep climb with upwards of 20% grade – everyone was encouraging and helping each other and all of us just wanted to see that aid station at the top. The whole group arrived a little after 2pm and thought we would likely be pulled from the course, but no one at the aid station said anything. Irene and I regrouped, filled water, had some snacks – the grapes I had there never tasted so good. We were beginning to really be tired and the steepest part of the course was yet to come. We headed out of Blue Fly about 2:30pm to try to make it the last 7 miles by 4pm. Right off the bat from the aid station we continued to climb, using a walk/jog combo (but mostly walking) to the highest elevation on the course of 9149 feet. It felt so good to finally be at the top. 
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From the Blue Fly Aid Station for about the next 5 miles we were on forest service road which was much easier to run on and once we hit the top we picked up our pace, not knowing if we would make it to the finish by 4pm. When we were getting close to the time cut off we would hear an ATV or truck and worry they were coming to pull us off the course but that didn’t happen. When we had about 2 miles left, there was a sign to turn left straight back up a hill! So back up we went, back to single track for the next mile before the downhill turn to the finish. It felt like we would never make it but then I saw the campground and people sitting around – we did it!! We had made it to the finish…. But past the 4pm cut off time. 

Jennifer Bryce Canyon8So I was glad to be done but disappointed that the results would show a DNF. But, as we got water, changed shoes, etc. the race organizers told us that they were extending the cutoff because so many people missed the 4pm deadline – we would be actual finishers!! Now it was time to be happy. 

Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about what happened at Bryce. I'm still sorting through it all – it almost feels like something I didn’t do, or that it was in a delirious state. Maybe that is what happens when you push your body so hard. I'd hardly call what I did a race. I can say I finished a 50k. I can say it was one of the hardest things I’ve done, the course was beautiful, although after a while my focus was so narrowed on accomplishing the goal that I didn’t really take the time to look around me. I did this with my friend, and for my friend, to show that we could take on something neither of us have ever done, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do again. Only time will tell… in the meantime, I think I’ll stick to road running for a while. 

Here are some of the things I learned in no particular order and maybe are common knowledge to those who do this type of thing more often but maybe can help those who are attempting an ultramarathon for the first time:
1. Mindset is more important than physical conditioning. There were times during the day that I really wondered if we would be able to finish but the best times were when I was positive. Negative thinking doesn’t help anything – do what you can do now and break the day into manageable chucks. I focused on getting to the next aid station, not getting to the finish. The Team Xyience Power to Win motto came into my mind on multiple occasions because of how applicable it is in endurance sports. 

2. There is a lot more hiking involved with trail ultramarathons than I anticipated. Plan accordingly. I did too many of my long runs with continuous running – that isn’t how the day went, there was running interspersed with lots of uphill hiking.
3. Be prepared to be dirty. I was covered in dirt combined with sunscreen – it was everywhere! Socks, face, even in my mouth. You just have to get over it. 

4. The temperatures change drastically at elevation between the sun and shade and we were out there a long time. Wear clothes that you can adjust and make sure you are comfortable for a long time in those clothes.
5. Look around. Take photos, enjoy the scenery. When we stopped doing that, it stopped being fun!

6. Gaiters – buy them, wear them, love them. They kept most of the dirt and small rocks out of my shoes and I really didn’t notice I was wearing them.
 
7. Carry lots of water. I was carrying a pack that held 70 ounces of water and ran out twice. I can’t imagine what people who had less were dealing with. Aid stations are not always exactly where they say they are on trails because they are wear access is available. Be prepared to be self-sufficient. 

8. Bring a friend. I can’t imagine doing that type of race on my own. Most of the day it felt like there was no one else out there because of the low number of racers and the fact that it gets so spread out. Having someone to share the pain and the joy made it a lot more manageable.
 
9. This isn’t supposed to be easy. It was hard for everyone – newbies and veterans alike said this was a tough course, with over 5000 feet of climbing, it wasn’t easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it right? Isn’t that part of the bragging rights? 

10. It’s you versus you. Coming from traditional triathlon/road racing for the last few years, this statement is much more applicable in ultramarathons. On the road there are thousands of people in races, all around you. In ultras it is just you or a few people. Don’t get caught up with what other people are doing – you chose to do this type of event for a reason whether that was to push yourself, enjoy nature, do something new (or in my case – to celebrate an occasion) – focus on that!