Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Bryce Canyon 100: The Race that Wasn't

Dear Bryce: You seduced me with your beauty and then you broke my heart. I know I’ll get over you eventually, but I’m not there yet. Sincerely, Stacey

Ever have the feeling that today is going to be your day? That’s how I felt heading into the Bryce Canyon 100-miler. Having completed two previous 100s (Cascade Crest and Javelina Jundred) with underwhelming results, I felt I’d learned some important lessons that I would apply at Bryce and I was going to rock it.

Fate – or more specifically, my stomach – had a different plan.

Going into the race, I was confident in my ability to not just finish but to finish well. My training had been solid. Sure, there were a few injury hiccups in the months leading up to Bryce, but they left no lasting damage. Really, I felt in much better shape for this race than any others I’d done in the past two years.

With both previous 100s, I had struggled with horrendous GI issues, resulting in lots of puking and walking in the later stages of those races. I knew outside of an injury, stomach problems would be my biggest obstacle to success at this distance.

Through trial and error in training, I determined that a nutrition plan based on real food and minimal sugar worked best for me. So the night before the race in the “kitchen” of our VW van, I whipped up a feast of boiled potatoes with salt and butter and corn tortillas full of avocado and turkey bacon all stuffed into little baggies for easy consumption on the go.

Mmmm...yummy wraps.
That night I slept well and awoke at 4:30am well rested and ready to run. I felt good, no great, and was psyched for a big day out on the trails. As I got geared up, I nibbled on my PB and banana wrap. After a few small bites, my stomach started to feel queasy and I didn’t think I could eat any more so I offered the rest to Dave.

It bothered me a bit that the day hadn’t even started and already I was falling behind on calories, but I decided it was just excitement and a few pre-race nerves affecting my appetite and that I would relax once I hit the trails.

We drove 10-minutes down the road from our campsite to the starting area. It was a cool, but pleasant morning and people were huddled around small fires chatting and waiting for the race to get underway. At this point, I was still feeling relaxed and full of hope for an inspired day (and night) of fun trails and new friends. I knew there’d be lows – it's 100-miles after all – but I was ready for them too.
Ultra dork! My super sexy pre race combo of sun hat and puffy.
With little ceremony, we were off. The race started on a mostly flat double-track dirt road for several miles, followed by flow-y single-track through a sparsely wooded forest that spit you out into some of the most impressive scenery of the course. These are the views that have made Bryce Canyon famous. Gravity defying rock formations and hoodoos that are both spooky and spectacular. And we were running on, over, up and through them. It was surreal! Obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought so; I have never seen so many camera-toting racers before. Tripods and selfie sticks too. Bizarre.

Even in the first hour of the race, my gut felt unsettled and I feared I'd be revisiting my breakfast. Again, I didn’t think too much of it and decided that I should have woken up earlier so I'd have more time to digest. I told myself to be patient and wait for the nausea to pass and then eat.

When the second hour came and went and my attempts to ingest anything were soundly rejected by my closed throat and grumbling belly, I started to get nervous. This was an all too familiar feeling, yet I thought if it was going to happen, then it would happen after 50-60 miles, not in the first 10! From experience, I knew I could persevere through many hours of throwing up and moving slowly; however, I had never had my stomach go off so early in a race. This was not good. Not good at all.

Then things got a little worse when 30-40 of us went off course and added 2-3 bonus miles to our day. Not a big deal in the grand plan, but not what I needed. Once I was back on track, I further slowed my pace to see if that would make me feel better. It didn’t, and now I was vomiting too and would continue to for another 10 hours or so. As I came through the next aid station, I was happy to see Dave there as I had told him not to bother as I would be fine until at least 60 miles. (I believe my exact words were "the wheels NEVER come off before 100k!" Ha! Never say never…lesson learned.) He was clearly worried about me as my detour and slower than expected pace meant that I was already well off my projected times.

In hindsight, I should have dropped out at this point, but I still hoped that I could bounce back. It was early in the race and my mind refused to accept that it wasn’t going to be my day, even if my body was fully aware. I had come so far and trained so hard for this race. I couldn’t just quit. Not yet.

The next few hours are a bit of a blur. I recall climbing, the heat and many incredible views. But mostly, I remember vomiting. Lots and lots and lots of vomiting. It was quite a long stretch until the next aid station and I had a few very rough patches on the way there. I was obviously looking bad enough that some of the other racers had alerted that aid station crew that I was going to need some assistance when I arrived. And did they deliver!

I must give a huge shout out to the volunteers at the Kanab Creek aid station. They made me feel like a real VIP (very important puker) and did everything humanly possible to keep me in the race. When I eventually dropped out, I actually felt bad for letting them down after all they had done for me. My heartfelt thanks and gratitude goes out to you guys for your concern, support and encouraging words.

By the time I got to Kanab, my brain was scrambled and I had mistakenly thought that this was where Dave would be and that I could end my misery. In fact, that was one of the few thoughts that had gotten me through the last few hours; just knowing that my suffering would soon be over.

Imagine how I felt when I got there and didn’t see Dave or Betty White (our VW). I looked around desperately while a volunteer searched for my drop bag. It was only when he told me my bag wasn’t there and I went over to check for myself and saw all the bags were labelled “Kanab Creek” that I realized this wasn’t the aid station I thought it was and Dave wouldn’t be here as there was no crew access.

After a lengthy rest in the medical tent, and a promise to the aid station captain that I would take and finish a bottle of Gatorade before the Straight Canyon aid station in 8 miles (where Dave was, hopefully, waiting for me), I set off at a slow but determined pace. Just one mile at a time, I told myself. And who knows, maybe now, finally, things would turn around.

Nope, after another vicious repeating cycle of sip-jog-barf-walk, I finally made it to Straight Canyon and there was Dave. I collapsed in a heap on a shady patch of grass for awhile considering my options, which all seemed to point to the inevitable: DNF. I calculated that for the 12 hours I’d been out on the course, I’d taken in roughly 600 calories and vomited up at least that. Plus, I’d been unable to keep down any fluids for the past 5 hours and it was a warm day (temps in the mid-20s).

It was a big hole to be in. Too big. Especially with 50+ miles to go at night with freezing temperatures expected. My body had already been through a lot and didn’t deserve more abuse. I had to accept that my finish line had arrived, far sooner than expected and instead of cheers, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, I felt sad, sick and empty.

Dejected, I informed a volunteer that I would not be continuing on and handed in my race number. It was over. I was done and just wanted to be as far away from the race as possible. We drove back to our campground mostly in silence. What was there to say?

This DNF hit me hard. It wasn't my first, and probably won't be my last, but it was and continues to be the hardest for me to accept. I don't know where I go from here. All the training in the world won't help me if my stomach decides to revolt on race day.

After a night of sleep and finally being able to eat a bit, I physically felt much better even if emotionally I was wrecked. Needing some distraction from the feelings of disappointment and failure that consumed me, I did what I always do when I need a mental break: run. There was a 8km trail starting from our campground that Dave had checked out earlier and said was beautiful so I laced up my shoes and headed out.

In life and in races, sometimes you get knocked down, but then you pick yourself up and carry on.

Contemplating life at Reflection Point.

Post race recovery leg soak/hike in the Zion Narrows.

Climbing mountains is good for the soul @ Wheeler Peak (Nevada).

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