This was not a race. This was a test of endurance. These super humans that do this distance on this terrain in 6-7 hours are just that, super humans. This was hard, and I was hoping for a better finish time, but when you train on flat because you live at flat, this is what you get. Slow. 😕 I’m happy to have finished, but I’m always going to beat myself up when my time is way off from expected. It wasn’t the distance I was scared of–it was the terrain and the thought of being in the desert on a single-track trail all by myself. The Black Canyon Trail is an 80 mile trail that served as a corridor of travel for Natives Americans and later used as a stage road and by ranchers to move cattle. The elevation of the Black Canyon Ultra was about 2,500 of ascent and 4,500 feet of decent. The temperature went from 38 degrees in the morning, to 60 degrees in the afternoon, back down to low 50s as soon as the sun went down. This was such an incredible experience.
For this event, the aid stations were 6+ miles apart, so you really had to pack and carry anything you think you might need. This was also a cupless race, so even though you’re carrying a pack, if you want something other than what’s in your pack, you need to bring your own cup. I picked up the silicone cup at the expo because my pack always has Body Armour and at some point, I’m going to want water. I also dream of Pellegrino in races, but no one ever has that!
We stayed at, of course, the Marriott Tempe Buttes. This hotel was not close to Black Canyon City, however, I always want to be sure the boys are left in a ‘good situation’ when I leave them for the day for a run. This is one of Reilly’s favorite places to stay. We moved from a hotel closer to the race to this hotel the day we left and we surprised Reilly when we landed.
The morning of the race, I took a 50 minute Lyft from the Buttes to Black Canyon City. My driver and I were so chatty the entire way (not usual for me). He was a retired Vietnam vet that had so many stories to share. I enjoyed the ride. I then took a shuttle bus from Black Canyon City to the starting line, Meyer, Arizona (about 30 minutes). It was so much colder–about 38 degrees. I rode with a lovely woman who was in the middle of a move from Hawaii to Denver and pit-stopped to Arizona for a quick 60k (why not, right). We chatted the whole way about her move and her races. We ended up also hanging out at Meyer High School and saw each other off at the start of the race. I also clearly forgot to look at the elevation for this race. Remember, my cutoff is 2,500 feet, and this race started at 4,000 feet 😜
This was a course that I have been nervous about for months. I live at 11 feet above sea level. I train on the canal path that is smooth and soft as butter. Low and flat doesn’t mix with high and hilly. I don’t get big climbs and big rocks on the regular. This was definitely a stretch from what I’m used to. I was nervous about the single track, rocky trail in the desert—and most importantly, the thought of being by myself (with aid stations so far apart), and have a snake bite me or not able to find the ribbons that lead the way on the course. No biggie, right? To train for this, I was running up Montage access road in Scranton every weekend while the boys skied. It would at least give me the elevation I needed (at least 1,000 foot gain), but not the terrain. I had to do something.
When the race started, I was just in awe of the beauty of this course. My first few miles were as expected, low and slow. There was an effort to fall into place in the single track and a bunch of few big climbs. I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be out there and just amazed by the views and beauty of the desert.
I reached mile 13 by 2:45. I was pretty happy with that, considering how technical the trail was. I ran from aid station #2 to aid station #3, Bumble Bee Ranch 🐝, mostly by myself. Bumble Bee was mile 19 where our drop bags where and just over the halfway point. I could see runners way off in the distance in front and in back in between these stations. The trail was narrow and windy at points. The rocks were ginormous, and the trail was basically on the edge of a cliff. I stopped and walked through the cliff sections because if I tripped, I would fall to my death over the side. It was scary. By mile 19, I probably stubbed my right toe on big rocks at least 40 times. The toe heartbeat started around mile 13.
When I got into Bumble Bee, I decided I needed to take the time to look at my right toe. I went to the medical tent, took off my sock, and sure enough, I could see the code red situation unfolding. My right toe was already swollen and bright red. My first thought was to try and shorten the nail more (gross), and lube it up (even more gross). The medics only had scissors, so it was nearly impossible to shorten the nail more, but of course, I tried. Ugh. Also, by the time I made it to Bumble Bee (19 miles), I was at about four hours with my time. I was feeling pretty good about that. This gave me the gauge that I was looking for–I was about halfway and could hope to finish in about 9ish hours. I spent almost 20 minutes at the medical tent, and when I left the aid station, this is where it all started to go down hill.
From Bumble Bee 🐝 to Gloriana Mine, it was about 5 miles (to mile 24). During this stretch, I made a buddy on the trail, Kristin. We first started out leap-frogging, then I fell in just in front of her. We were both walking / power hiking when we needed to and running when we wanted to…it’s the trail “norm,” so naturally, we were swapping spots. We started talking after she watched me stub my toe for the 126th time. My big right toe was so sore that my footing was just getting sloppier and sloppier. She watched me stop and bend over in pain every time I stubbed it. I’d hear her stub and look back and ask, “are you okay!?” She’d say, “yes, that hurt though.” Yup. I know. We started chit-chatting and exchanged names. We were making observations and funnies about everything. Kristin is local to Arizona, so she was just a wealth of knowledge on the desert. The miles were flying by and our conversations covered a lot of ground:
- Kristin told Carrie all about rattle snakes and how they come out late in the day to warm up on rocks…another mile down and Carrie is now obsessed and stopping at anything that looked like a snake.
- Carrie told Kristin about Camp Kita…another mile down and a feel good moment.
- Kristin told Carrie about her job and that she connects pro-Bono lawyers to people who need legal representation…another mile down and a feel good moment.
- Carrie told Kristin about her other grind,’ Monday through Friday and the flights and life of a consultant…another mile down and the rocky trail didn’t seem so bad because the plane was waiting on Tuesday.
- Carrie told Kristin about Joe and Becky (met at Phish 20 years ago) and that the McNishs were going to see them the next day…many laughs ensued because Becky did some research on things to do for our visit, all of which were nearly impossible because of the condition I would be in (e.g., “ain’t no effing way am I going to be able to walk around the botanical gardens…” ha ha).
- Kristin told Carrie about tarantulas and this motivated Carrie to move faster and try and finish before dark…they come out at night, apparently. Great, it was getting dark.
- Carrie told Kristin that both big toes had heartbeats and that shoes would be nearly impossible for a few days.
We continued to pass the time with chat and both agreed that we were so focused with our 👀 on the ground, that the miles were just flying by. Ya know the military drill where the young, strong, agile trainees poke their feet through a field of tires as fast as possible (whatever that’s called)? That is what this trail felt like—mastery of agility—only I’m old and slow and the surface was skinny, uneven and rocky. Eyes 👀 on the ground or you’re tripping and falling. Period.
We kept on. Mile 28 through 31 was hard. I kept stopping because I wanted to have my toe amputated every time I stubbed it, and Kristin kept stopping to stretch her knee. She either had a pinched something or a pulled something, but it was getting to the point where she had to make a decision to continue when we reached mile 31 because she was in so much pain. We did establish, however, that we were now doing this together. That is how it organically happens on the trail. We crossed the river and counted the time until we could reach the last aid station. We both had high hopes and a list of things we wanted to do there.
We reached Soap Creek, the last aid station (mile 31.2), by 5:20ish. They asked how we were doing, and I told them I’ll hold my list of grievances to myself and thanked them for being out there all day. Ha. This means our time was at about eight and twenty minutes. I was still pretty pleased with this given that we were both demolished and destroyed. With 6.2 miles left, we were hopeful to finish in 10 hours. At this aid station, they also checked for headlamps. If you didn’t have a headlamp, you could not continue unless you were with someone who had a good headlamp. Can you freaking believe I didn’t have my headlamp. 😩 I wasn’t thinking. I thought for sure I’d be done in 9 hours, before dark. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tent, Kristin was deciding if she could continue. We spent a good 25-30 minutes at Soap Creek for her to stretch, tape and do what she needed to do to her knee to feel better to continue. It was getting dark. I needed her. Not just her headlamp. I was terrified to go on alone and I’ll never forget what she said to me (when she was explaining that all the tiny holes 🕳 on the trail were tarantula 🕷 holes), “Carrie, I’m not afraid of anything in the desert. Even at night.” Me: “OMG. You are my hero. Please make your knee okay and stay with me.” Ha ha. The aid station Captain, Linda, gave Kristin her trekking poles. For sure, this was going to help her continue, but with poles, we knew we were power-walking. I was so happy she was going to continue and glad I didn’t influence her decision. I don’t know what the EFF happened in this last six miles, but we left the station around 5:50. There’s no way that 6 miles should take more than an hour and a half, oh, BUT IT DID. This was the worst—we were at our lowest. We were so determined to get this done and we both knew we’d have to dig deep and grit our teeth to finish. This point of the course was pitch black for us. I only had my stupid cell phone flashlight and her headlamp. We couldn’t see a damn thing. The toe stubbing increased in the dark. There were climbs and drops that were close to impossible with Kristin’s knee and my toe. We were broken, but determined, and we agreed on many things in our short (but long) time together, especially the fact that we both had the grit to get it done. There is no walking off. You’re by yourself in the middle of the desert. There are no access roads, so no one is coming to get you and drive you to the finish. The challenge now was to finish in the 12-hour cut off time or be disqualified even though we finished but didn’t finish in the official time.
My watch was dead. The sun was down. It was pitch black and I was instantly focused on the possibility of seeing a tarantulas. Great. I was also now asking Kristen every five minutes, “what mileage does your watch say,” because I just wanted to finish. To sit. To drink a Pellegrino. To drink a chocolate milk. To shower. To sleep because we were delirious. To drink water because we were dehydrated. To shower because we smelled. For every reason under the stars that you could imagine, we just wanted to be done. We were both delirious. We also knew that in the pitch black, we had one more river crossing and one more ridge to climb (sad face).
We reached the river and WTF is all we could say. The water was so deep, it was above our knees. WTF. It was like “water, sliver of land, water, sliver of land with a tree, and water’ before you reached the other side. Deep and m’er f’in cold. I stood there for at least two minutes trying to explain to Kristin that, “I go to Mexico, I look at the water, I do not go in the water.” “I go to Florida and look at the water, I do not go in the water.” “I go to a pool and look at the water, I do not go in the water.” Kristen to Carrie: “Here’s where that grit is going to come in handy–let’s go.” UGH. I was almost more worried about my orthodics that were being held together by packaging tape (true story), since I refuse to move to one of the three pairs I had fitted in the past six years. I literally retape them before races in secret because Nish and Reilly give me shit about them.
We crossed and started climbing. Her Garmin was off, mine was dead. We couldn’t see a damn thing. We didn’t know where the trail went, we could only see a few feet in front of us. We didn’t know if it were switch back or straight up. We just wanted to finish. We finally made it to the top of the ridge and looked back and saw all the other headlamps of the runners. Excellent, we were not DFL (dead f’in last). We then heard someone yelling ‘help.’ UGH. We could tell it was in the river (well, duh, it was so deep and dark and the course markings were nearly impossible to find). We stopped. We looked at each other. We decided we were both too injured to go back down–we were easily about 1.5 miles from the river up the ridge at this point. We could hear it because it was echoing up the valley.
We decided to call the emergency number on our bibs. No answer (awesome). I had my phone off for most of the day to preserve the battery (so it didn’t drain looking for a tower). I turned it on and called Nish. First, he’s like “babe, are lost, are you okay, why is this six miles taking so long–what’s wrong, where are you” (no kidding babe, I’d like to know why is this taking so long too). I tell him to give the phone to a race person. We really have no idea how far we are from the finish (within a few miles maybe), but also know we can’t go back down. We ask them to send help and hope the person is okay. We also knew there were so many headlamps still in the valley that someone else was closer to help than us. Race people confirm their dispatching. We move on.
We think we are about a mile from the finish at this point. Who knows? It is so dark, we cannot even see what direction we should be going in. From ‘call for help’ to actual finish, can you believe three runners passed us?! UGH again. Honestly though, we were just so focused on getting it done with about 20 minutes to cutoff. We could finally see the path to the finish line. OMG we were so happy. We couldn’t believe we were finally finished. We ran into together. We were delusional actually. Nish and Reilly were there. I was so happy to see them. I felt so badly they waited there for a few hours for me. I couldn’t even talk I was so tired. I was so grateful for Kristin. I kept telling her in the last few miles, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” We exchanged info and off we went. I was so grateful for her. It was 8:45 at night. I was on my feet ‘moving’ for 12 hours. I don’t even sleep that long. Every single muscle and bone in my body hurt. My back was sore, my toes were probably bleeding in my shoe. I just wanted to sit.
We drive 50 minutes back to the hotel, and I shower. I soaped the salt and smell off me and just rinsed my hair. I don’t even think I put shampoo in it–I definitely didn’t even brush it. I got into bed and started hydrating. Nish went and got some food. I took a few bites and fell asleep. That first night was brutal, I had to wake Nish up to get more water for me. I couldn’t even walk my toes were throbbing so badly.
The toes went down hill the next day. We had an amazing day with Joe and Becky at the pool at our hotel (“…ain’t going nowhere…”). We had a direct flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia. I graciously took the upgrade this time (thank you, boys), and when we landed, I told Nish, “straight to Dr. Meyers.” “Really?” “Yup.” My big toes had so much fluid under the nails, I couldn’t walk. I called him when I landed, “come straight here,” he said (thank god). He caters to runners. He won the Philadelphia Marathon in 1986. My kind of foot doctor. I also had my stitches to deal with still (from my ‘a-typical mole extraction’ two weeks earlier by Dr. Perlis). I was a mess. I promised Dr. Perlis I’d keep the stitches in until after the race so I didn’t split the incision. My day ended with me getting my right toe nail mostly removed and Stacey digging out my stitches (they were crusty and stuck). Talk about feeling beat up.
All-in-all, this was just an incredible experience. I really loved meeting Kristin and my time with her on the trail–she’s a pretty impressive human and I was in awe of her. I was swearing I’d never do that course again, but I checked the registration page today to see when registration for next year opens up…