31 miles – 6,000 ft elevation gain (at 7,000-9,000 ft) – 80% of this done on a single track trail through the back country of Bryce Canyon – 9 hours to finish … Sounds awesome! How could I say no when my running buddy, Leilah, came up with the idea of us running the Bryce Canyon Ultra?
About the time she and I were deciding to register, my mom told me she was hoping to get up to Utah this summer to visit my grandma. I told her about my plan to run at Bryce Canyon and we decided to make it one big trip – she’d spectate my race, we could do a little sight-seeing and then go visit family before heading back home. And, with that – Kris opted out – while he greatly loves family road trips, we would be gone for a week and he didn’t have the vacation time to burn at work for that.
As often happens, our training didn’t totally go as planned and spring was rough on me. Kris and I added in a few events last minute – Laughlin 1/2 Marathon, Labor of Love 50k & Mountains 2 Beach Marathon were all added to our calendar after I registered for this event. Luckily, they hit at good times during my training plan so I could use them as training runs. However, due to the stressors I faced this spring, none of the events went as I had hoped and I was feeling a little discouraged in my performance.
On top of that, a couple weeks prior to the trip, we received the unfortunate news Leilah had a stress fracture in her foot and wouldn’t be able to run – I would be on my own, running it for the both of us. I was bummed. I was still looking forward to the trip and planned to just go enjoy my time.
Friday, June 13th, mom and I loaded up the car and headed to Ruby’s Inn at Bryce Canyon – about an 8 1/2 hour drive from Chandler, AZ. We arrived around 4pm which gave us time to get checked-in and settled into our room before heading to packet pick-up (which started at 5pm).
We were placed in the Ponderosa building which ended up being the perfect location.
Our room was on the very end – directly behind us was base camp for the event, across the street was the shuttle pick-up area … I will ask for this exact location next time we go!
At 5 we headed to the main building for packet pick-up … as did most other participants. They only offered packet pick-up from 5-9pm the night before the race. I was planning to get in and out as quick as I could so I could get settled in for an early night.
It took us a while to get in, but then the pick-up process was quick and painless. I picked up my race number a long with a few samples then headed over to get my swag.
When we registered we were given a swag option – short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, tech tee, hoodie
I opted for the hoodie and love it!
We then took a moment to look at the map, and tried to ask questions about the route so we could figure out where the best place for mom to be was and how to get her there. Since it was so crowded, we were unable to find someone who could help us. After a little while we decided to come back later.
We then headed outside to the athlete ‘staging area’. This area was open for athletes to hang out, drop gear bags and get pizza. We were able to send bags to any of the aid stations – they had designated areas set out for each one. They had no requirements for the bags other than to set them out that night.
I choose to send a bag to the Proctor Canyon Aid Station – around mile 18. In it I put a pair of shoes and socks. I had been debating about whether I’d wear my Newton trail shoes or Hokas – I loved the Hokas at first for the added comfort and how well the absorbed the impact. However, lately I haven’t felt as great in them and I don’t feel like I have as much control on more technical trails. Not knowing quite how this trail would be, I decided to go with my trusty Newtons. I knew I could comfortably get 18 miles in them and switch to my Hokas at that point if I felt I need more cushion for the last 13. Plus, it never hurts to have extra pair of shoes and socks in case it’s wet, muddy or your feet just need a change of pace.
After dropping my bag it was time for a little pizza.
Runners received a free pizza Friday night (those doing the 100-miler got 2) and then we got another once we finished our event. In the pre-race email they advertised additional pizzas as $5 but they were charging $8 (although, I did notice it changed to $5 on Saturday).
We had stopped for Subway sandwiches on the way in so I opted for the dessert pizza – with peaches and no whip cream – it was tasty!
After eating we headed back to the main lodge in search for a staff member to answer few questions for mom. This was a point-to-point course with athlete shuttles to the start and finish areas … with nowhere on course for spectators. So, it definitely isn’t the most spectator-friendly course I’ve done. The expo had cleared out at this point and we were able to talk someone for while. We ended up with mom feeling comfortable being able to get to the start and finish areas.
Mom and I didn’t do much else that evening. We made sure we had everything together for the morning and I tried to give mom a rough estimate of when to be where.
As with most races, I didn’t sleep too well that night – waking up often to check the time. Luckily I had done well with my sleep during the week and still felt good when I finally got up in the morning. Since I had my stuff all laid out I was ready quickly and we headed over to the shuttles … right across the street.
At that point, I got on the shuttle and mom drove to the start. I could have gone with her but they told us it was about a mile and a half from the spectator parking area to the start and I figured I would already be getting in plenty of miles that day. So, mom snapped a few photos before she drove off … and, it was chilly!
At the start they had built a few fires to help keep us warm.
And provided morning beverages (but, we had to provide our own cups – this was a zero waste race).
Turned out the parking area was much closer than advertised and mom had no trouble finding us.
Since I caught the first shuttle (6am) and mom made it over quickly, we had a little free time before the 7am start.
At about 6:55 everyone realized we should be starting soon and we headed towards to start. It was very laid back (even for an ultra run).
It was a little girl’s birthday (in the green on the left side of the picture) – they introduced her and she told us to ‘go’ … and we were off.
The first couple miles of this section started us off with a packed dirt road through the campground to the Thunder Mountain Trailhead
Then we had several miles of rolling single track through the ponderosas.
It was quite crowded during this part so I just sat back and went with the flow. At times this meant I was slower than I wanted, other times it kept me going a little quicker.
The crowd around me definitely wasn’t shy about walking the uphills.
And none of us could resist taking pictures when we got our first glimpse of the Bryce Canyon hoodoos … all of the sudden the landscape opened up and it was absolutely stunning!
This is definitely a top contender for my favorite part of the course – rolling single track through amazing scenery … doesn’t get much better than that! One of the girls running near me referred to it as a playground for adults … I agreed!
Our trail was well marked throughout – there were flags and ribbons marking the entire route.
Those miles went rather quick and we were soon back amongst the ponderosas.
And at our first aid station – Thunder Mountain – Mile 10
It was nice to see HEED on course since that’s what I train with. Although it’s funny they had it in a gatorAID jug – ha!
I didn’t stay long at the aid station. I drank a cup of HEED and headed on my way.
This section struck me as a more typical forest trail run – rolling single track through the trees. Nothing very technical or too difficult, but a good amount of shade and a lot of fun!
Once in a while it would open up into an odd landscape which kept it interesting.
And we had a few easy water crossings
Had to sneak through a few fences
And find our way through tall grasses
During this section I became friends with Jessica – she came down from Oregon for her first 50k and was a lot of fun to run with. Chatting with her helped the miles go quick and it was nice having someone there to help keep the pace strong.
The last mile or so of this stretch was a fun downhill through the forest … I love letting go on downhills and was feeling great! Before I knew it, I hit Proctor Canyon Aid Station – hidden in the middle of the valley.
This was where I had sent my drop bag – but, my feet were feeling fine and the trail was technical enough that I wanted to stick with my Newtons so I didn’t bother getting it. Instead, I grabbed a few orange slices, filled up my water bladder and headed out.
And, of course I had to get a photo … I was trying to send my mom updates throughout to let her know when to expect me. Cell service was very spotty, but it worked well enough to get the job done.
From the aid station we ran across the field and back onto foresty single track as we made our way up for a couple miles.
Around mile 20 I ran into a lady from Phoenix who had started with the 50 mile group (an hour before we started). She was really struggling with the altitude and turned out to not be the only person from Arizona I met with that trouble. At this point I considered myself very fortunate to be feeling so good!
A mile or so later I found the spot were our course splits off from the 50 & 100 mile routes. I was to head left and now follow yellow flags.
I then found myself on a dirt service road heading down … and, down … and, down. While I was greatly enjoying the downhill and making up some time … I also knew I was going to have to climb up another trail to make up for everything I was flying down.
I tried not to think too much about what was to come and just enjoy the ease of the shaded downhill path.
The last aid station was advertised to be at mile 24. I also knew we were to start our final (and toughest) climb prior to reaching the aid station. As I was descending, I kept an eye on my Garmin. Once I hit mile 23, I figured I must be close … but, the road kept going and I didn’t end up reaching the turnoff for the next trail until mile 24. So, at this point I had no idea when I would get to the next aid station?
And, this turned out to be the HARDEST mile of the entire course!
It wasn’t even a real trail … I was just watching for the yellow flags and following wherever they were leading me.
And then we started going up …
and, up …
In soft sand and with no idea of when it was going to end.
Cresting that hill and seeing the final aid station was a great feeling. Looking down to see it took me 31 minutes to cover that mile was not! That one was brutal!
But, I was onto the home stretch and still feeling strong.
The volunteers said we still had a good amount of climbing to do from there but I don’t remember it being that bad. We hooked up with another service road and did have some uphill sections, but then several miles of downhill.
Once we hit the downhill, I knew we were in the final stretch and the worst part was over.
I was feeling great and ended up passing a lot of people on this part. This was by far the best I have felt in a race since January. I felt strong throughout and never hit any dark patches.
For the most part I had been following my Galloway run/walk intervals – aiming for 2 minutes of running with 30 second walk breaks. Throughout the course this didn’t always fit; I walked a lot on the uphills and skipped a few walk breaks when I was on single track with a bunch of people or had a good downhill. But, during this section, I stuck to it and it really paid off!
It was about this time I passed a group of 5-6 runners. As we exchanged pleasantries, one of the guys in the group commented on me being the best dressed runner out there … Thanks Sparkle Athletic! I love running in your skirts and haven’t had a race yet where I don’t get complements on it!
As I hit mile 30.5 I saw a group of people in the distance – they ended up being about a quarter mile away and right across from our final turn-off. They cheered as they directed me to follow the flags through the gate. My Garmin hit 30.8 as I crossed through this gate and I was so excited that I was almost done!
But, I found myself on another trail heading up a mountain to nowhere ???
And, it wasn’t even much of a trail … more of the super soft sand running along the side of the mountain … where was I going and where was the finish???
Before I knew it I was at mile 31.5 and still no finish in sight. At the end of this patch I hit a trail sign pointing to the campground, saying it was still 1 mile away … what?!?! This was the race that would never end!
The view was beautiful but I was ready to be done! In this last mile I ran into a few hikers and mountain bikers who said some encouraging words and told me I was almost done. At least I was on the right trail.
Finally I hit the blacktop and weaved my way through the campground – just trying to follow the yellow flags on the ground and having no idea where I was really going because I still couldn’t see anything that looked like a finish line.
Suddenly I was in a field with people cheering – I had made it! But, there was still no finish line – it was a little anti-climactic … I was just done.
But, I was very happy to be done! 32.5 miles and 5000ft of climbing completed! (Yes, it was a little off from what they said – see Garmin info here)
Official Results: 7:44:19 – 32/93 overall – 12/47 female – 6/17 age group
These people were done too – and still waiting for the shuttle to come pick them up. Apparently it hadn’t been there in a while – they advertised it would come every hour but it didn’t sound like that was really the case.
I congratulated and chatted with a few of the ladies I had met along the way and tried to get a drink … but, I had to provide my own cup, which I didn’t have on me … so, I’d have to wait. They did have a few refreshments there but warned us there wouldn’t be much because they didn’t want people hanging around. They preferred for people to go back to the Ruby’s Inn staging area (which you could only do if the shuttle came or you had someone to take you).
I hung around for a little while to cheer people in – Congratulations, Jessica, for finishing your first 50k (and then some!) … this was not an easy one to start with!
I was grateful to have mom there! It was very nice not having to wait for the shuttle!!! (but, her car got a little dusty … okay, A LOT!)
We made it back to Ruby’s Inn. I dropped a few things off in the room and walked back to the staging area. This was where we could pick out our finishers medallion – They had them all laying out and let us select the one we wanted.
Time for pizza – this time I went with the BBQ chicken – it, too, was tasty!
We relaxed in the grass for a while and I chatted with a few other runners. The shuttle finally came to bring a group of them back and we all talked about our experiences. This was when I found out one of the guys I had run a few of the early miles with ended up dropping out at Proctor (mile 18). He said there were 9 of them who dropped out at that time. It made me wonder how many total people dropped throughout the race ? The altitude and climbing hit people hard!
After relaxing for a bit, it was time to clean up and get ready for dinner. Kris had set us up with reservations at Ebenezer’s Barn & Grill across the street for dinner that evening.
It was quite the show! We enjoyed ourselves and I’ll just say – it’s about what you’d expect.
After the show we walked back and I was pleased to find the bags from Proctor Aid Station had been returned. So, I picked up my bag and we called it a night.
The party went throughout the night – they kept this staging area open the entire time so people could trickle in as they finished their events.
And, people were still out there when we got up the next morning.
That morning we slept in, got breakfast, packed up our things and headed off to see the canyon the way most people do (not like the crazies who run through it).
And, this is one canyon that always impresses me.
Pros – very well marked course … I freak out about getting lost and felt confident throughout, fun trails, beautiful course, nice choice of swag, well stocked aid stations, pizza before & after
Cons – anti-climactic finish, non-spectator friendly course, up to 10 miles between aid stations, shuttles to start and from finish, late pre-race check-in (5-9pm the night before)
If you have given this event any consideration – DO IT! While it was the toughest events I have ever done – it is by far my favorite so far. The scenery is absolutely amazing and the trails are fun (except for mile 24-25). I do wish I had been able to do it with my running buddy as planned, but was grateful for the friends I met along the way. The running community is so special and supportive – even when you show up by yourself, you are never really running alone (unless you want to).
Leilah – mark your calendar for next year … We will still do this event together!
Thanks Hammer Nutrition for getting me through, feeling strong!
The week prior to the race – I took Race Day Boost … I think this played a huge role in how great I felt on race day! I do not have much experience training or racing at altitude and this was almost double the amount of climbing I have done in other events – there’s really no other explanation for why I felt so strong in those conditions.
The morning of – I nursed a bottle of HEED and took Anti-Fatigue Caps & Endurance Aminos 1 hour prior to the start
During – I alternated between Hammer Gel (a mix of chocolate & peanut butter in my flask) and Perpetuem Solids, I took Endurolytes, Anti-Fatigue Caps & Endurance Aminos every hour
At Aid Stations – I had some HEED, a few orange slices and filled my water
After – Vegan Recovery Bar (almond cacao)
Also thanks to:
HeadSweats – I LOVE your visors and don’t run without them!
SkinStrong – not only are the anti-chaffing products fantastic, I carried their sun equipment products (spray & stick) with me and was so glad I did. The sun was intense out there and I walked away with healthy (non-sunburned) skin! For the next few days I used the after sun spray to rehydrate my skin and keep it cool – it’s one of my favorite products!
Sparkle Athletic – it’s nice to still feel cute after 7 1/2 hours of running.
Newton Running – my feet felt great throughout. I haven’t yet regretting running a race in any of my Newtons!
110% – for never letting me down with the recovery. The compression is perfect and the ice stays cold for longer than I ever expect it to!