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Long Road to Ruin: Blue Canyon 100K* Report

Posted Jun 09 2010 12:00am

*Technically it was only about 49 miles, but that’s part of the longer story …

"Maybe the season - the colors change in the valley skies -
Dear God I’ve sealed my fate - running through hell, heaven can wait -
Long road to ruin there in your eyes ... "
- Foo Fighters, “Long Road to Ruin” (video after post)

Obviously, there’s not much suspense to the way this one ends: I've already announced that I didn’t finish the 100K race last weekend. Consequently, I’ve been predictably undermotivated to post a detailed account of one of the most disappointing events of my life, and pondered not presenting a report at all.

Two considerations ultimately changed my mind …

1) I’m still wondering how much of last weekend’s result was my own fault, and to what degree I was just an unfortunate victim of circumstance – and hopefully, writing an official report and getting some objective feedback (that means you, kind readers) may help sort some of that out. Also …

2) I took a ton of pictures and covered every trail on the course, so a full report might still be instructive (not to mention cautionary) to anyone thinking about doing this race in the future.

And with that, we’ll jump into the recap. I’ll try to keep things moving through the early stages, and spend some extra time on the more pivotal parts as we get there. Away we go!

The race started at 4:30AM, with about 20-25 people gathered in the darkness. Most of the first six miles are an uphill climb on a rocky, narrow single track …

… which poses some unique trail hazards not typically encountered in your average ultra.

One reason the race starts so early is to get some mileage under our belts before the fierce heat of the day takes a stranglehold on the course. Forecast temps were in the upper 90s for Santa Ynez (the nearest town), but we all knew the heat of the remote canyons would be far higher than that. The sun was coming hard – and the more shaded miles we could get in beforehand, the better.

Just past the Arroyo Burro aid station at mile 7, you spend a few miles on rolling single-track …

Before taking on a 2,000-ft climb towards Angustora Pass. Total elevation gain for the 100K course is more than 16,000’ - so while stretches of trail like this would be the biggest climb on many courses, at Blue Canyon it’s just a practice hill for later in the race.

From the aid station at Angostura, you’re awarded with a great view of Gibraltar Dam and Reservoir, and more than 3 miles of downhill fire roads ahead.

As you get closer to the reservoir, small rock features you first saw from a distance become larger and more impressive with every step.

This aid station marks the turnaround point of the 50K race held later in the morning, as well as miles 18 and 49 of the 100K. On my first time through, the morning was definitely heating up, and by the end of the day, one of the volunteers here (more about him later) told me the temperature reached 103. And this was a relatively cool spot: ultimately the course would take us 22 miles further into the hills, where the heat was noticeably greater. For the time being, however, I had no worries at all.

The next several miles skirt up and down the hills and around the inlets of Gibraltar Reservoir. This was one of the most scenic sections of the race – but later on, it would be the place where everything fell apart.

I’ve done two ultras this spring, and run past two quicksilver mines. I just thought that was an interesting coincidence.

The single-track portions of this race are best described as overgrown. Anyplace you could actually see the trail was a luxury; more frequently, you were stepping on top of tall grasses or through brush and brambles of various sizes (anywhere from shin- to waist-high), or bending over at the waist to avoid scratching the heck out of your face and neck. By the end of the day, the burrs and weeds nearly destroyed both my shoes and socks.

Even crazier is that these trails had actually been cleared prior to race weekend - so I’d hate to see what they looked like beforehand.

This is the Forbush aid station at mile 31. From the pre-race e-mails sent to us, here's what was supposed to be there: water, ice, soda, S-caps, Succeed, amino drink mix, GU gels, GU Brew, cooked potatoes, salt, crackers, jellybeans, chips, and various other snacks.

And here's what was actually there: water.

It might not have been so bad, except for one thing: the previous aid station was in precisely the same situation. The mile 25 station was billed as having the exact same list as above, but all it had was a single Gatorade container-sized stash of water and one bag of ice in an igloo cooler. And even THAT might not have been so bad, except for the fact that we had to pass each of these stations on the way back as well. And did I mention that the day was a little bit warm?

Nevertheless, I was still feeling pretty good here, and while I had my bottles filled, the volunteer assured me they’d keep replenishing the water supply throughout the day. File that one under “famous last words.”

Beyond the Forbush station begins a long descent towards Blue Canyon, which actually doesn’t look blue from here – but it sure looked challenging.

There’s really not much to the creek at the bottom of Blue Canyon, but a little later on, I’d get to know this particular area fairly well.

Leaving Blue Canyon is one of the steepest, longest, most difficult climbs I’ve ever done in an ultra. Throw in the fact that the trail was almost completely overgrown in parts and that the heat was becoming insufferable, and this was one of the most dreadful climbs I’ve ever experienced.

At the top, you’re rewarded by two things: this killer vista, and the knowledge that you’re only about three miles from the turnaround point.

I haven’t mentioned one other little unpleasantry yet: the whole course was simply CRAZY with flies. They were so widespread, so numerous, and so bothersome that I was compelled to pitch a tent over my head at times, like on this fire road that leads to the turnaround point. There’s really no way to accurately describe how irritating this was … but I’ll be darned if I’m going to let my race be ruined by a bunch of bugs.

Have you ever seen the turnaround point of a race in the distance, figured out that there’s nobody within miles of you, and realized you could just turn around early without being noticed? More importantly, if you were in that situation, would you spin around early?

Me neither.

There’s something about making the turn for home that feels great – and when it’s combined with the sight of a long downhill stretch in front of me, it’s not surprising that I was feeling really great through this section of the course …

… although the steep descent into Blue Canyon was almost as difficult on the descent as it was going up. The loose rocks, tricky footing, and steep grade were quite a challenge to my Evo shoes , which are super comfortable but a little bit lacking in the traction department. Worse, though, was that the heat was definitely becoming a major player in the event. Shady spots had long since disappeared, and there was really no escape from the conditions …

…except perhaps during a brief dip in the creek at the bottom of the canyon. In hindsight, this was probably my happiest point of the day: I was in the thick of the battle, but there was no doubt in my mind that I’d be able to survive.

Which is why I need to stop jumping to conclusions so much.

Even the bugs seemed friendlier around here: instead of the biting flies and gnats that swarmed everywhere else, this area of the wilderness was overrun by ladybugs (if you click to enlarge, you can see them). I like ladybugs: they don’t bite, they don’t try to burrow into your eyes or ears, and they’ve got that whole cute vibe going for them.

So I certainly didn’t mind giving several of them a ride for a while – even if it was on my head.

To this point, I was managing salt and calorie and fluid intake fairly well, typically draining my bottles 10 or 15 minutes before rolling into an aid station. However, I for the past several miles I also knew that I was dancing right on the edge of “managing” and “dealing with chaos”, and I could tell that my margin for error was razor-thin.

That’s why I was so glad to make it to back to the Forbush aid station, where the following exchange took place …

Me: Boy, am I glad to see you!

Volunteer: Hi there. Unfortunately I’ve got some bad news for you: we don’t have any water.

Me: Um … what?

Volunteer: We’re out of water, and we think the next aid station is out of water, too. I’m trying to get some more water in here, but in the meantime you should probably just sit in the shade and wait until it gets here.

Me: Crap. OK.

So I sat down next to a group of 50-mile runners who were also waiting for water, all of whom had already decided to drop from the race. It’s also worth mentioning here that I don’t have any ill will toward the volunteer, who was making the best of a horrible situation. All of this was happening at about 2 in the afternoon, at mile 41 on the course, after I had been running for more than 10 hours on a day when the temperature was well over 100 degrees. His main concern was keeping us safe, and I’m not sure what he could have done differently.

He eventually scoped out this little creek about 200 yards off-trail, where I spent the next 30 minutes soaking in the water, trying to lower my core temperature while simultaneously not letting my blood pressure boil because I was stressed out about getting back to the race.

I also contemplated just how sick I might get if I started sipping straight from the stream, but I flunked out of Boy Scouts too early to remember if I would get “life-threatening sick”, or just “bacterial infection or intestinal parasite leading to hospitalization” sick. Ultimately, I decided against taking the risk …

… and just stared at the happy ladybugs instead.

My own outlook was taking a significant downturn, however. After sitting for almost 40 minutes, my muscles were starting to cramp throughout my legs and feet, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue the race if I sat much longer. So I shuffled back towards the volunteer, where we had the following exchange
Me: Any update on the water situation?

Him: Not really … I’m still trying to find out if anyone’s able to get some out to us.

In other words, the status report went from “We’ll replenish the water for sure,” to “We’re waiting on water to arrive,” to “We’re not sure if we’ll get any more,” in the time since I passed through here on my way out. For the first time all day, I wasn’t certain that my race would end well – but I became convinced that the way to finish wasn’t by sitting around here anymore.

And so I walked. Hobbled, more accurately. The next aid station was more than 4 miles away – a distance that seemed almost hopelessly far.

Along the way, I tried to hydrate through the skin as much as possible by lowering myself into whatever ponds or streams I came across, which was temporarily effective for cooling, but did nothing for my cravings for a drink.

Even though the terrain was only moderately rolling through here, I couldn’t run more than a few steps at a time because 1) my legs were still in cramp mode from the long rest, and 2) the more effort I exerted, the thirstier I felt. So I ended up walking most of the miles to the next aid station …

Which was out of water as well.

The Gatorade container I described earlier was completely empty, and all that was left in the igloo was an empty ice bag and a bit of standing water with lots of dirt floating in it (from ice being grabbed by messy hands). I tipped the cooler on edge enough to fill one bottle halfway, and eagerly drank the water almost all in one gulp …

… only to have it come right back up a few minutes later. By this time, I caught sight of the reservoir again. It’s hard to explain the feeling of seeing a huge body of water when you haven’t had anything to drink for several hours, and just thrown up while walking into the sun after covering more than 45 miles of hills … so let’s just say it’s unpleasant.

I was basically a dead man walking – my legs were cramped, I was completely lightheaded, and I had absolutely no energy to make it up even the gentle hills. And the day was running out on me: with a 9PM course closure, I was looking at a little over 3 hours left to cover 15 miles. That wouldn’t be happening.

So when I reached the 50K turnaround aid station at mile 49, I was cooked. I sat in the chair for a few minutes to see if I’d recover, but my leg pains just got worse, and my head wasn’t getting any better. So for the first time in my life, I officially dropped out of a race. Needless to say, it's not a moment I’ll remember fondly.

The only bright spot in the whole ordeal was this guy: Scott, a volunteer at the aid station who reads my blog. He recognized me on my first pass through the station as soon as I took my camera out for photos, and then he thanked me. When I looked puzzled, he explained that he was one of the winners of the Sockwa giveaway I did last fall. He was also the one who eventually gave me a ride off the course in his truck.

It turns out that Scott’s a super nice guy who’s fallen in love with trail running, and has two daughters who like Jack Johnson music. So obviously we hit it off pretty quickly. (He didn’t even complain when I made him pull over so I could puke again.) And I wouldn’t have known any of that if I hadn’t dropped out. The lesson here? Practice kindness – sooner or later it will come back around to you. And you never know who you might need to get yourself rescued.

Despite the pleasant surprise of finding a blog fan (really, what are the odds?) in the middle of the Santa Ynez Mountain I felt almost unbearable remorse as my final impression of the landscape was from the inside of Scott’s truck rather than standing upright on my own two feet. In the days since, I’ve spent an unhealthy majority of my waking hours vacillating between being disappointed in myself for not trying to finish the race - especially my decision to sit for 40 minutes instead of just trying to power through the Forbush aid station - and upset at the organizers who created a situation that invited so much failure and potential disaster.

Only 5 people finished the 100K race. Only 4 others finished the 50-mile race. From my standpoint, I’m absolutely certain that I could have finished if I had the support that was advertised, or even if I had an accurate sense of what to expect going in. I could have worn a hydration vest instead of carrying bottles, or I could have stashed fluids for myself at the drop stations. Other races have long stretches (10 miles or more) without aid, but that’s spelled out in advance so the runners can plan for it.

But to tell runners that aid stations will be fully stocked, and then have two consecutive stations turn up completely empty on the hottest day of the year on one of the toughest courses in California just seems irresponsible, potentially dangerous, and – in my case at least – a perfect way to ruin someone’s ultra.

I’ve decided to leave my ranting at that, but a friend of mine pointed out some interesting discussion that’s taken place since the race last weekend. I don’t really hold any bad feelings towards the event, although it’s unlikely I’d ever be inclined to race there again. In the meantime, I’ll just chalk this one up to a bad day and a learning experience, and move forward towards finding the next adventure to start building my mojo back.

Foo Fighters, "Long Road to Ruin" (click to play)

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