June 18, 2017 4:30 PM PST: I’m sitting at the Pei Wie bar at McCarren International Airport. I order a pineapple ginger rum drink. Primarily for the ginger to settle my stomach, secondary for the rum to help wipe away the previous day’s memories. To my left, my eyes catch a man moving towards another gate. He is wearing the same t-shirt that I had received from Bryce Canyon Ultras. He is moving to his gate with a walker; shuffling his feet to freedom after yesterday’s hellscape. Truly, his movement summed up the majority of our experiences. I do not laugh, I do not judge, I finish my drink, let the rum wash over me, and can only wonder one thing…
Why didn’t I think to grab a walker?
I have learned in my own trail running life that there are three types of ideas that frequently cross my mind:
-A bad idea
-A stupid idea
-A deadly idea
Up until this previous weekend, I had lived life on the edge between the first two noted choices. I had no idea that my most recent race, the Bryce Canyon Half Marathon, would teeter between what is deemed stupid, and what is accepted as deadly.
This is my story…
I live in flyover country; that means life is flat, fields are flat, water is flat, and trails are flat. Our climbing? 200-300 foot increases along the mud, rocks, and random raccoon ‘leftovers’. This also means that my mind has a hard time processing the idea of hiking, mountains, and falling to my death. Additionally, altitude? Elevation? At elevation? These terms and phrases meant little to me. After all, after experiencing the harrowing adventures through Free State this year, and the
misery adventure of the G.O.A.T.z Gravel Classic, surely there was nothing on this planet that could match those moments.
However, thinking the above notion resulted in God finishing off His glass of wine, looking at Michael, and saying, “Hey Michael! Watch this! We’re going to let Shawn ring the bell to Lucifer’s house!”
Months ago I had signed up for Bryce Canyon, nearly 20 runners from Kansas City would be embarking on this journey. Everyone had random stories; some were running the 50k, one the 50 Mile, and a few took on the 100 Mile. Personally, under the strong advisement of smart, more experienced runners, I chose the half marathon. The course was to be rocky, it was to be 13 miles, it was to be beautiful, and it would be a unique challenge versus what I had finished so far.
The only problem I had leading up to the race was the cutoff time. A 13 mile mountain race with a 4:00.00 cutoff. Considering that my only claim to fame was a 5+ hour half marathon through the swamps of Kansas, a 4 hour cutoff was a daunting task. However, I had to get the bracelet. People who completed the course were given a bracelet that were locally made, and just an iconic way of saying, “I did it.”
After flying into Las Vegas on Friday, we took vehicles through the mountains to Bryce Canyon. At one point we piled out of the vehicles and enjoyed the scenery that is Zion National Park. Once I stepped out and something immediately caught my attention, “I was breathing heavier than usual.” Make no mistake, I sound like a serial killer when I run in the woods. I breathe heavy, I step heavy, and I fall heavy. I scare other runners, I am sorry. At Zion though it was different, I just couldn’t catch my breath. I joked about it with everyone else, but in my head I thought, “Wait. This isn’t even as high up as the start point tomorrow. Oh no…”
After a dinner of country fried steak with gravy, I settled into my sleeping spot for the night at the Bryce Canyon Pines Hotel, breathed deeply (and frequently) as I accepted my fate of what the morning was to bring.
The half marathon started at 9:30 AM Saturday morning. The 100 Mile started the day prior, the 50K and 50M had started earlier in the morning. With icing from the honey bun I consumed still fresh on my beard, I stepped out to the beginning of the course. From there, the race director said the following…
Alright! We had to make a slight adjustment to the start. If you’ll follow the wash out under the road, you’ll find the start point.
There was 4 feet clearing for the wash out that I was walking on, and the road I was going under. I am 6’5. Suddenly, I’m hunched over in the mountains, crawling through this tunnel and I can only think of one thing:
“THIS IS JUST LIKE THE TUNNEL UNDER THE PRISON AT THE BARKLEY’S!”
…there was only nervous laughter. No one was amused. Death seemed to permeate the air before we even started. Something was amiss in the masses. It was as if those going towards the slaughter knew so, but refused to inform me because of my innocent pleasantries. They felt pity for what was coming. We all stood along the start point, roughly 300-400 runners towed the line (OH! I used fancy trail running terminology right there!), and before you knew it…the race started.
On me, like any other race, I had the following:
I did not carry a whole lot (i.e. food) because it was only a half marathon. I confess that my nerves got the best of me and when the race started; I took off. The first 1/2 mile felt great…it was on a flat surface. It was only after passing the campground that I made my first grave mistake. I looked up from the course. When I did that I noticed the runners that had been in front of me were no longer there. No, this wasn’t an apocalyptic rapture. No, this was worse. This was our first climb. Staring at me, as the peasant I am, was the first large hike on the course. 1/2 mile into the race and I was walking. We climbed for approximately a mile before dropping back down. That first climb set shockwaves throughout the whole group. Everyone at this point realized that we, collectively, had made a serious mistake.
As the climbing continued so did my fish-out-of-water gasps for air. The race started at 7200 feet, and by the second mile we were easily into the 7900 range and climbing. Additionally…there were no trees. No. No. God didn’t plant trees in southern Utah. He did plant sage and rosemary bushes, but no such luck on the trees. By mile two the sun was 100% on us. I can’t collectively figure out what was worse, the hiking up the massive climbs, or the free-styling, X-Game wannabe flying down the mountain side afterwards. To the runners that were around me; I am sorry for the crazed, nuclear size chicken that was flopping around you going up and down the hills. I mean no harm, I just need hugs. As the insanity sped up through the razor sharp edges of my life (literally), I made my second large mistake: I looked down. I am terrified of heights, I cannot even get on a ladder, it is that pathetic. I had thought going into this race that there would be trees, and large bushes, and everything that would hinder myself from peering of the edge into eternity.
On a pathway, that was no bigger than one of my feet, was two sides; one was the mountain side I was attempting to run down, and the other side…it was 1000 foot drop to my death. And. I. Am. Not. Kidding. The rest of the race, after that tragic mistake, would result in myself watching my feet and leaning to one side or another, whichever was the hillside of the decent or ascent (I just used mountain running terms!). By mile 4 I did get into the thought process of, “Well, it could be worse. It could be like those weird races where there are ladders at the tops of mountains. That would be insane.” It was no longer than 30 seconds after thinking that, that I peered around a corner and immediately in front of me were the runners, slowing to a climb, why? Because in front of them laid a dozen unevenly spaced railroads ties, in the form of stairs, to the peak of one of the mountains.
If I could have caught my breath, I would have cried.
I am grateful for long legs. They saved me during this race. If you were not tall, the spacing of the ‘stairs’ resulted in you having to step between each tie to get to the top. Thankfully, I could at least power through the ties to the pinnacle of this ‘challenge’. It was after that last tie that I noticed something; people bending over, coughing, and sitting down.
We were at mile 4.
The race director, through email, social media, and other forms of communication had emphasized that if you were going to drop, to do so at an aid station. Otherwise, finding you (your body) would be quite challenging, and you (or your loved ones) may be charged for the cost of search and rescue.
I thought he was being dramatic.
With a mile left prior to our aid station, I genuinely thought, “I’m going to drop at the aid station. This is insane.” Unfortunately, the next mile was a flat, smooth (haha!) descent back into the valley. I ran with a lady who hunts elk because she’s awesome, and the company kept me moving to the station.
At the aid station I grabbed water (barely drank any), topped off the Tailwind (barely drank any), snagged a Honey Stinger gel, a banana, and sprayed myself down with more sunscreen. I had so much ‘fun’ on the final stretch that I had forgotten about dropping, instead I pushed on from mile 5 to 6 and eventually from 6 to 7.
Anyone who read the course description, or even the elevation profile, knew that there was a massive 1.5 mile climb straight out of the aid station. It was not a joke! I climbed so much I forgot that places like Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska even existed. Everything was a climb, the mountains, life, hope, Miley Cyrus…everything at that point required my legs to go up. It was through this climb that the weird stuff started to happen. First of all, do you know why the rocks are red out in southern Utah? It’s not because of sandstone, sediment deposits, science, etc…No! It is the saturation of the blood of our ancestors who were also foolish enough to mess with these rocks. Do you know what a wash out is? A
place for water to run through during the wet season…NO! It’s a hot bed that lava rolls through on the daily; I’m convinced. As the climb continued, so to did the temperatures. The average high in June is around 78 degrees. Lucifer looked at his demons, and said, “Hold my Keystone Light*, watch this!”, and cranked up the thermostat. In fact, we would find out later that, that race was held in temperatures that were near 10 degrees above average. I’m surrounded by blood stained rocks, the ground is basically lava, and the temperatures are increasing by the minute. This all factors in nicely with the previous thought of 100% exposure due to lack of…well..life in the desert. Knowing the odds were against me, and the Hunger Games had finally caught me, I started laughing as I hiked. My laughter was quickly interrupted when someone (faster) at the top of the peak yelled, “BIKE!”**
BIKE (verb): Yelling “BIKE” while running on a trail indicates that a mountain bike individual is going down a hill, or around a corner. It is wise to give them the right away on downhill due to physics, gravity, and the probability of eating a tire rim if you don’t…
I have never been so confused in my life. I peered up through the scorch trials of the sun just to see a reincarnate of Evel Knievel come flying down the same mountain I was going up. This meant that I had to get off the side for the bike to pass, but…wait…THERE IS NO SIDE! IT’S A MOUNTAIN! DEATH! After, by the loving grace of God, the bike passed
I continued my journey, right up until I heard…
Someone, somewhere with way too much free time (and not access to an event calendar) had decided to host a mountain bike race the same day as our race, on the same peak. Meaning, I got to juggle my life and faith with a bicycle thirteen times while trying to go up one mountain side.
You would think, at the top of this insane mountain, that there would be a sense of victory for the accomplishment. There really wasn’t because of the realization that there was still five miles to get out of this course. Also, to add flavor, our course had blended in to the same course as the 100 Mile runners that were still moving about. I was fortunate to pass one at the top of the climb; she was decked out in orange, tall socks, trekking poles, hat, neck cover, sunglasses…I mean she looked the part. It was intimidating. I tried my best to converse with her, but after 31 hours on the course, she was merely moving one step at a time. I bid her farewell, counted my blessings that I was not her, and kept moving.
It was only two miles after that, through smell of rosemary, sage, and burnt flesh that something actually, humorlessly took place. I grabbed my hose to my bladder for a drink, and noticed that nothing was coming out of the bladder.
With four miles left in the race, I was out of water. I had a 1/2 cup of Tailwind (blazing hot Tailwind, mind you) that I rationed for another mile. I took one 1 second sip every ten minutes. As time wore on, I started finding runners sitting on rocks, laying in makeshift shade, and puking…oh the puking…throughout the course. Some were assisting others, and the truth was, the path was so small and limited that vehicles struggled to get back there to help someone in serious need. By mile 11 I was asking Jesus to come back, looking for a rock to hit with a stick to bring water, plus my stomach was starting to hurt. All while this was happening, my clock read 4:00.00. I was out of time. Frustrated, sick, and actually very scared, I did something I never thought I would do during a race; I sat down.
I sat on the trail, tried to figure out what I was doing, and tried to cry, only to have salt powder come out of my tear ducts. I did not know what to do, because like any other race I have partaken in, somehow I had wound up completely alone on the trail.
Two minutes into my personal pity party I heard noises from the trail, “click, click, click, click, click…”, and when I looked up, I kid you not, standing in front of me was a girl in orange, with tall socks, trekking poles, a hat, and neck cover. She stopped, looked at me, and I will never forget the words out of her mouth:
Well. This is hot.
Alright, get up, let’s go.
That was it. She would not move until I got up. I tried to explain to her that I was out of water, and her response? She tossed one of her own flasks to me, full of water. I drank half of it. I said thank you, we passed by two medics going back onto the trail to get someone behind us, and we kept moving. She said that we had less than two miles left based on her watch. I would have loved to have kept up with her, but she was so strong, so fast, and so incredible that I never stood a chance. Like life itself in the desert, she was gone with the wind. I rounded a few corners, and saw the road in front of me.
At the road, we had been told that a makeshift water station had been put up due to the heat. Mind you, this was not an official aid station, it was done due to hazardous weather conditions. It was unmanned. I saw it in front of me, and was so happy that God was allowing me to have water. I moved down the hill towards the table, and suddenly this elderly woman yelled from the road, “Don’t stop! There is no water!”
Sure enough the water stop was bone dry; this was the making of a bad John Wayne western. Again, feeling defeated I just stopped. The elderly lady split half of her water bottle with me and said, “You can do this. It is only 1 mile down the road.”
For the final mile, shuffling, walking, crawling, hallucinating that I was flying; I moved with another 100 Mile runner. He kept me entertained, telling me, “I run this…because of the honey’s” just to get me to laugh. We saw the finish line, neither one of us could run, and I am so proud to say that I walked right through that finish line in 4:50.00***.
I went into the shade, got ice on my neck by the same lady that iced my neck on my first ever trail race last year, drank some ginger ale, tried so hard not to puke, and just rested on the reality that I finished.
Later that night, while waiting for our 50 Mile friend to finish; I saw three fire and rescue trucks, two backpackers, and six ATV’s make their way to the trail from the road to go find runners. Sometimes it is hard to find humor when you are legitimately scared. This was extremely outside of my comfort zone, it was dangerous, and man it made a memory. I don’t regret it, it made all the trails back home seem so, so runnable, and I am
so glad I did not drop.
Most people were behind their projected finish of any distance from one hour to four hours on average from talking to people at the finish line. We’ve seen heat out here in flyover land, but not with the unlimited exposure. I will, unapologetically prompt this one thing, from a man who should not ever be making choices that involve things like this…
BRYCE CANYON ULTRAS I WOULD ADVISE AGAINST IF YOU HAVE NO EXPERIENCE IN TRAIL RUNNING. IT IS POSSIBLE TO FINISH AND HAVE A GREAT TIME, BUT IT IS A VERY, VERY HARD COURSE.
There is something to be said about community. I’ve spent several years of my life in natural disaster zones, assisting broken communities. I am always fascinated by how, in the worse moments, humanity several times has come through by assisting one another. Natural disasters aside (minus the forest fires just outside the range), it was incredible to see so many people, random people, helping one another through the race. One of our runners that eventually dropped did so by the aid of a random guy from Europe, our 50 Mile runner finished because she had someone that had stuck with her through thick and thin the last 20 miles. A dude with weird jokes, a crazy 100 Mile lady, and an elderly woman were incredible in unknowingly ensuring that I got to the finish line safely. The world is a really, really messed up place. I think one of the reasons that I’m so drawn to the trail is because of the people that makeup the entertainment, the support, and the culture.
*You cannot tell me that Keystone Light is not served in Hell
**Note; the bikers were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Thank you so much for being patient with us moving up the mountains.
***Nearly an hour faster versus Free State