What does it mean to have a successful race? Does it mean that you won? That you got a “good” time? Placed well? Got a PR? Finished under the cutoff? Finished, period? Didn’t poop your pants? Nailed your nutrition? Had a good time? Didn’t die? Died, but then came back from the dead? Sure! Success could mean all these things or it could mean one of these things. Or maybe it’s none of these things and you have your own idea of a successful race and that’s fine too. The point is that success is very personal and not limited to some external interpretation of what it means to do “well” on race day.
My goal for the 2022 Canyons 100k was to finish, secure my Western States qualifier for the year, and procure my UTMB “stones”. Ideally, I wanted to finish before dark, too. This may seem like a not-so-ambitious goal for a semi-seasoned runner like me, but it was a realistic goal. On January 11th, I sprained my ankle and fractured my distal fibula playing soccer. It was a pretty traumatic injury. I went for a ball that my opponent was also going for on the opposite side (of my foot). We both kicked at it and well, she won. My ankle rolled as it endured the hard impact of a soccer ball being kicked at it. I limped off the field and fell into a puddle of tears. I cried all night, for the loss of soccer, my running, and my upcoming races.
After my initial meltdown, I embraced my time off running. In fact, I welcomed it as an unplanned “off season”. During this time, I truly enjoyed having time in my day to do things other than running. I found myself recovering pretty quickly, and noticed improvements on a daily basis. I found I was able to do yoga and kettlebell wearing my boot. Eventually when the boot came off, I was able to ride my bike. I tried to stay as active as possible on a daily basis without compromising my ankle. On February 12th, exactly one month after the injury, I went on my first trail run.
After surviving my first run back on the trail, I decided I needed to start training for Canyons. Recovering from injury and training is a tricky thing to juggle. My primary goal was to be strong enough to do Canyons, but I also needed to avoid reinjury. My weekly mileage (in miles) looked like this: February: 22, 38, 55. March: 65, 53, 70, 85. April: 42, 67, 36, race week! At the beginning of February I also started a new job as an exercise physiologist at a cardiac rehab center in Santa Rosa and began biking and taking the SMART train to work (9 miles of biking a day). At work, I am on my feet for the majority of my day (a stark contrast to my time at Roost). Despite having limited time to run, I was living and breathing endurance on a daily basis, starting from leaving the house at 6:45 am on my bike.
As race day approached, I felt more and more confident that I might in fact be able to start and finish the race. On March 27th, Yuch, Dan, and I celebrated Yuch’s 53rd birthday by running 54 miles with a total of 12,500 ft of elevation gain (1 extra mile for luck). Yuch remarked that I was “officially healed”, although I still didn’t feel like my ankle was 100% better. Still, I had a lot more confidence that I could do Canyons. I decided to set another goal (kind of last minute, but hey better than never). I wanted to try and do a better job with my nutrition.
Nutrition is always hard for me as the race distance gets longer, and the last two Castle Peaks I ended up with a giant balloon of a belly which caused me to do a whole lotta walking in the last 10 miles. I decided to make the following changes for Canyons.
- Take care to avoid dairy and too many veggies in the couple of days leading up to the race. Put more simply, eat simple foods.
- Do not use electrolyte drinks as fuel. Only drink water and eat solid fuel.
- Use up-front soft flasks for water (instead of bladder). Empty soft flasks completely and refill at each aid station.
- Stay on top of food and hydration (ok this wasn’t a change, but I never seem to be able to successfully do this!)
- Stay calm and keep RPE (rate of perceived exertion) low(ish) (12-14 on a 6-20 scale).
I showed up at the start line of the 2022 Canyons 100k with a beginner’s mind. Maybe it was because I hadn’t raced in a while, maybe it was because it was my first race post-ankle injury, or maybe because it was the first time in a long time that I didn’t have a laminated piece of paper with goal splits in my pocket. I started the race conservatively. I knew the first half of the race was going to be very runnable and the second half would have the steep descents and ascents of the Canyons. I really wanted to be able to run that second half. Although I was running at a pretty comfortable pace, I felt a lot of anxiety at the start as we all merged onto singletrack and I felt runners behind and ahead of me.
I managed my anxiety and intensity using the RPE scale. The Borg 6-20 RPE scale was designed to correlate well with heart rate (for a young healthy 20 something year old). A RPE of 6 means no exertion at all, while a 20 indicates maximal exertion. Add a zero to the 6, and you get a resting heart rate of 60 bpm for so-called-young and healthy-individual. Add a zero to the 20, and you get a maximal heart rate of 200 bpm. In cardiac rehab, we want our patients to be at a 12-16 (somewhat hard to hard). A RPE less than this means they are not exerting themselves hard enough to get the proper heart adaptations. A higher RPE means they are exerting themselves too hard. Although I do not run ultras to strengthen my heart, I decided to practice what I preach and stay at a RPE of 12-14. More concretely, when I found myself feeling anxious or over exerting myself, I would focus on my breathing, and staying in that 12-14 zone.
The first 50k to Foresthill was extremely runnable. I graciously let runners on my tail ahead of me. I was not in a rush. I ate 100 calories every half hour. If I had a 200 calorie item, I would eat only half of it, then finish the second half a half hour later. Outside of ultras, I sort of eat like a bird, and my GI system is not used to processing large quantities of food so frequently. Despite my conservative start, I felt tired coming into Foresthill. If I already felt tired, what was the rest of the day going to look like? At Foresthill, I used the restroom, loaded up on water and drop bag items, and sat down while I ate a 1/4 homemade PB & J. In the past I have tried to get in and out of aid stations quickly, but it was important for me to make smart decisions on the early side today.
Now I will admit that I am writing this blog entry one month-post race and my memory is not so good, so please forgive me for my lack of details for the second half of the race i.e. “the hard part”. Despite the fact that I had doubted myself early on in the race, at some point I started getting into more of a “flow” state. I think the change in terrain helped with this. My legs like variety which is part of the reason why I gravitate towards hillier races. The second half delivered. It’s difficult to spend much time in your head when you need to focus on getting in and out of canyons. I tried to run the descents quickly and efficiently while also prioritizing not re-injuring my ankle. The ascents were all about power hiking what was too steep (or just not efficient) to run, and running what was runnable. Again, RPE of 12-14. The hiking was a welcome reprieve from the running, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was easy. Just different.
I arrived at Deadwood, a 5-mile loop which bypasses the last aid station of the race. Volunteers directed me up the hill to the aid station (the beginning of the 5-mile loop). On the way up, numerous runners on their way back from the aid station and out of the loop flew by me. I was surprised at how many females were ahead of me. Not only were they ahead of me, but they were a 5-mile loop ahead of me! Because I had started mid-pack at the start, I really had no sense of where I was in the race, but this informed me I was indeed nowhere near the front. At Deadwood, I got some Sprite and some amazing avocado rice balls. Some might even call them amaze-balls. I generally don’t eat aid station food, but these were just what the doctor ordered. I ate two and proceeded on with the 5-mile loop. The beginning was slow and hard, but at some point it leveled out and most of the loop was smooth and fairly fast single track, until I arrived at the intersection that I had arrived at upon first entering Deadwood. I went up the hill to the aid station (again), ate a couple more amaze-balls, and gathered what I needed from my drop bag. I was now finish line-bound and it was then that I decided I could start “racing”. I grabbed my headphones, turned on Lindsey Stirling’s newest album Artemis, and set off for the last stretch to the finish line.
I started passing runners who had slowed to a walk. I seemed to have plenty of running legs left (two to be exact) and no longer needed to hike some of the easier ascents. With Lindsey Stirling’s help, I powered through that last stretch, finally beginning to benefit from my conservative start. At some point, I began to wonder how close I was to the finish. Deadwood had been the last aid station and without a watch, I had no concept of mileage. At the top of a long ascending fire road, I spotted a photographer. I began to get excited thinking – if there’s a photographer here, I must be close to the finish. I turned my music off and put my headphones away in anticipation. I asked him something along the lines of “Am I there yet?” His answer was not reassuring and he told me if I wanted to get to the finish, I better keep moving along the trail. So, I did. Until…the trail turned into a trail river. All of a sudden, the trail was flanked with freshly packed snow, a gift from the recent rain the night before. And the trail itself had become a river of freshly melted snow.
At first, I tried to avoid the water, by hopping on to the snowbanks on the side decorated with footprints from fellow runners ahead of me. After a while, I decided it was not worth the effort nor a potential sprained ankle, so fully committed to the trail river. A couple of miles of splashing in mud, water, and snow brought the realization that the finish was not as close as I had thought. Maybe I shouldn’t have put Lindsey Stirling away so soon. But I’m not even sure my music could have helped me. These last few miles would be a long, slow, and very wet slog. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I began to hear the finish line. I arrived to a road, crossed it, and the trail river and slog continued right up to the finish line.
I finished the 2022 Canyons 100k 25th female with a time of 13:14:46. Despite my not-so-impressive time and place, this was definitely one of my most successful races. Why? I set goals and was able to meet them. I was able to finish strong and passed numerous runners in the last stretch from Deadwood to the finish. I did not have the GI issues that have plagued me for many of my previous ultras. In the past, I have relied purely on my bladder for hydration and tend to “drink to thirst”. This is not a great method for me as I consider myself a terrible judge of when I am thirsty. Additionally, I have a hard time gauging how much water I have left in my bladder, often conserving it when I should be drinking it. By relying purely on my two soft flasks, I was able to do a better job of hydrating consistently between aid stations. By keeping my hydration and fuel separate, I was also able to do a better job of keeping on top of fueling. In the end, I did not end up with a bloated balloon belly and was able to keep providing my body with energy up to the finish.
Another interesting difference between this race and others was how quickly I gained an appetite following the race. I usually cannot eat for hours and sometimes not until the next day because my stomach is so messed up after racing. After Canyons, I actually was hungry right away and ready for my post-race burrito. Some might say that this is due to not running as fast as previous races that I have won or podium-ed, but I don’t think this is the case. My time at Canyons was actually faster than any of my races at Castle Peak and Never Summer. Of course, it’s difficult to compare apples to oranges here as Castle Peak and Never Summer were both at altitude and higher temps.
I initially did not expect to be wow-ed by this race. I have run the Western States course numerous times during the Memorial Day training runs, and admit that there are much more beautiful race courses out there. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by all that the Canyons 100k has to offer. For me, number one on the list is the challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenging elevation profile. The runnable first half and ups and downs of the second half requires strategic pacing and part of me would like to come back to see if I can improve my time on the course. Number two is the bang for your buck, and I’m not talking about race goodies because all I got is one measly t-shirt. I’m talking about getting your Western States qualifier and UTMB stones all in one race without having to travel very far. Canyons is now a UTMB race which means there is a lot of hype and fanfare (if you like that kind of stuff). It’s also a Western States golden ticket race and UTMB “golden ticket?” race which means you can expect the entrants list to be ridiculously deep (if you like that kind of stuff).
Although I considered the Canyons 100k a definite win, there are always things to learn and take into future races. For one, I had a lot more to give when I finished the race. While it is always a good feeling to finish feeling strong, having more to give signaled to me that I probably could have conserved a little less during that first half. It really was not until Deadwood that I gave myself permission to start seriously moving. Although I didn’t go into the race with a competitive mindset, it was interesting to observe how important this mindset is if you want to be competitive. Time goals are also critical. Like I mentioned before, I typically have some kind of finish time goal with goal splits written out on a piece of paper in my pocket. It was interesting to take a completely different approach and see where that landed me. Going forward, I’d really like to take my wins from this race and combine them with a competitive mindset and see if I can find some kind of happy balance between the two. In the end, I consider my experience at the Canyons 100k a success. I finished, I didn’t poop my pants, I nailed my nutrition, had a good time, died, and then came back from the dead. In my mind, that is a successful race.