Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blue Canyon Trail Race - Western States Heat Training

If anyone has seen the race results for this race, you already know it was brutal. For those of you who haven't, here is an in-depth explanation of why only 5 people finished the 100km and 3 for the 50 miler.

I flew into Burbank airport on friday night at 8:06 and was picked up by my long time friend Jon. As we drove up to Santa Barbara I explained that the race would be hot, with forecasts in the low 90s.

I got into Santa Barbara at around 10:15 and met up with Robert Gilcrest (race director) and began organizing the aid station supplies into the truck. We then proceeded to drop these containers at each of the aid stations in the backwoods of Santa Ynes and the Los Padres National Forest. At this time, the temperature was in the low 60s and there was quite a bit of wind, enough to where I put on a jacket. This was soon to change.

We successfully stocked all of the aid stations and made it back just in time for me to change clothes and get some food in my stomach before the race started. Yes, thats right, I was going to run this 100km race with 18000 feet of elevation gain on zero hours of sleep. Eh, a lot worse has happened before some of my races, and to be honest I felt pretty spry considering the amount of lifting and carrying I'd just done.

As we started the race, the temps were still cool but after a few minutes of running my body adjusted. I realized almost right away that my headlamp was, as in all my races, not powerful enough, and I ended up trailing a man with a searchlight on his noggin for about half of the first climb. After that I began to pull away from the group and I was alone for the next 11.5 hours.

I had forgotten how absolutely beautiful this race was. After the initial climb you are treated to a 4 mile downhill that hugs the steep mountainsides as you pound your way down. Around one of the corners I got a bit of video of the sunrise and even stopped to get a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Its these moments that make me glad I do what I do. Running on trails has offered me so many opportunities to reflect on how beautiful nature is and how lucky I am to be able to enjoy it.

Right after the 4 mile downhill you are then corralled into a section of steep downhill single track. This area is one of my favorite sections of the race due to its rolling nature and exposed trail. It was still moderately cool so the exposure allows you to take in the surroundings and also to see how the competition is stacking up. I looked to my side at the trail I'd just run and saw Maria Petzold about 200 meters back. Seeing as how this was the first 8 miles of the race I didn't really think much of it and settled back into my rhythm.

Last year I read an article about this race called "Boom!" In the article the writer, Zach Landman, used the word, Boom, to describe the manner in which you are subjected to massive uphills and downhills without any warning. Even this year I felt that way.

Right after this short section of rolling and rugged singletrack the trail juts upward and climbs for a few miles before hitting another jeep road. Once there you make your way down the jeep road to the dam. It was on this section of jeep road that the sun really started beating down on us. The temperature, once in the low 60s, became a sweltering, scorching unknown. I had no way of knowing what exactly I was dealing with out in the canyons. As I went through an unmanned aid station after the dam, I packed my water bottle with ice and grabbed a handful to rub on my carotids to keep the temperature. Seeing no gels, I took an assessment of where I was fuel-wise and found that I had 4 gels to last me about 2 hours. Not bad, but I'd be hurting if it took any longer.

The sun just kept getting hotter and hotter. I've never really experienced anything like that before, even living in Texas. I finally deduced that the rocks were now absorbing the heat from the sun and reflecting it back up toward me. This meant it was only gonna get worse as the sun got higher in the sky. On this next extremely rugged and rolling section of uphill, I ran out of water. Luckily the aid station was only about 10 minutes away. I reminded myself once I checked in to drink an extra bottle of water before leaving. Also, I found out that there were no gels. I now had 6.2 very hot and hilly miles to survive on just S! caps and water. Great.

This section is basically the same as the last, with a steep singletrack section that leads to a jeep road that goes downhill to an aid station. This turned out to be one of the harder sections for me since I had no fuel. As I made my way up the last few steps to the road, I felt my head begin to swim and my legs begin to buckle. I think now that it was both a combination of dehydration and lack of carbs. At this station I inhaled a bag of goldfish, two gels, some jelly beans, a full 20 oz ice cold lemon lime gatorade, and then proceeded to fill my bottles and stock my pack. I was only going to be running two miles to the 100km turnaround, but I wanted to be sure I'd be able to gain back some ground on what I'd done to myself earlier. Also, this race has a way of making 4 miles take forever.

I reached the turnaround without many problems and began to count the minutes between me and my closest competitor. Surprisingly only 8 minutes behind was Maria Petzold. As I passed I said "Good job" halfheartedly and only got a cold stare back. I'm still not sure if she was trying to intimidate me or she was just very focused, but I got the feeling like the day could end with her as the victor.

Reaching the aid station again, I wolfed down another pack of goldfish, another 20 oz gatorade, and a full bottle of water. After I stocked my packs and bottles I shot up the mountain, eager to gain a little breathing room between me my pursuer. I think I worked quite well because as I made it to the next aid station and met my friend Brooks, I asked him to yell when she came by him. As I ran over the mountain I never heard anything. This gave me a little bit of confidence to start running my own race again. I even stopped to douse myself with murky, lukewarm stream water. Its crazy how that sounded so enticing in the moment.

Basically I just maintained the same strategy for the rest of the race. At every aid station I would pack my shirt with ice, chug a gatorade or whatever else was available, and eat as many gels as my pack would hold between the stations. This worked especially well on the last large climb (6 miles and 2000 feet of gain). I think this is where I began to eat away at my course record from last year. In the 2009 race, it took me approximately an hour and a half to do this climb. This year it took me only an hour. I think I also gained quite a bit of a lead on the competition as well.

The next 7 miles were the only thing between me and the finish line, considering the last 2.5 miles after that are all downhill and runnable. The only problem was the fact that every single hill and canyon look the same when you're that far into a race. You are literally unable to distinguish where you are and as the hours seem to take forever its impossible not to get discouraged. I remember at one point thinking that I was on the last hill only to see the aid station tent about 2 miles away... then proceeding to scream "F*%#" as loud as I could in frustration.

As I rolled through the finish line I thought that at any moment I'd snap out of one of the many hallucinations I had that day and I'd be right back at the top of the mountain. Luckily enough this was real and I was greeted with ice packs and cold towels and most importantly, a beer. After speaking with one of the volunteers I found out that the Start/Finish area was marked at 95 degrees and the 100km turnaround on top of the mountain was 103 in the shade. I can only imagine what the exposed areas of the canyons were.

Final tally: 5 people finished the 100km. I finished 53 minutes ahead of my times last year, and Maria was 31 minutes behind me. Of the 18 others that DNFed the 100km, 15 dropped to the 50 mile. Of the combined 25 people that ran the 50 mile, 3 finished. 2 people were air-lifted out of the race. And my friend and future WS pacer won his first ultra by being the toughest SOB in the 50 mile category. Congrats Man!!!

I'd also like to congratulate and give my support to Maria Petzold, who is a phenomenal runner and someone I think will make a great impact in the sport very soon.

With this race out of the way, there is nothing between me and a great race at Western States now. I feel that this race was key in my preparation for the upcoming race and now I can look toward it confidently.


  1. Sounds like a hell of a day. Congrats on pushing through and pull out a great win. Good luck at WS!

  2. I only respond to 'tough SOB' or 'BAMF'... Awesome write-up, dude! You're probably as prepared for the WS conditions as anybody out there now!

  3. Way to go! It was even hotter than 95 at the finish: recorded temp was 99(!). Awesome running in such extreme temps. You are set for Badwater. Photos are now posted at http://bit.ly/95X1id

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  5. Yup you definitely got the heat training you need for Western. Good luck brother. I can't wait. It's gonna be a damn track meet. exciting shit...

  6. Great job out there Andy.

    I did the 50K and can only imagine how tough it mustve been to run twice that amount under the conditions we were treated to.

    Nice talking to ya post race and best of luck at WS100.

  7. Great job!

    I was running for a time near Maria at Sycamore Canyon 50k earlier this year, and found her to be fast (very fast downhill), methodical, and maybe not as smiley as me...but found her to be friendly and approachable afterward (when she finished 15 minutes ahead of me).

    Good luck at WS, have fun and represent Colorado!