It was twelve days before the 2021 Black Canyon 100k. My eight-week training block was complete, and while the physical adaptations from training had begun to manifest, I wasn’t quite ready to race just yet. The mental training wasn’t finished.
For the next twelve days, at some point during the day, I would close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and transport myself to the Mayer High School track in Spring Valley, Arizona. The gun would go off, and my mind would assemble the course, piece by piece: The early miles on dirt road before a short, single-track climb; the double-track to Antelope Mesa aid station at course mile marker seven-point-five; a winding descent into the Black Canyon and then the rolling single-track and descent into Bumble Bee aid station at mile nineteen; a quick climb back to rocky, undulating trail, sweeping in and out of washes, before another steep descent down to the Agua Fria River and back out of the creek bed into more rolling terrain near the halfway mark at Soap Creek; an out-and-back section to Black Canyon City at mile thirty-seven followed by more rugged single-track amidst sustained uphills and downhills and creek crossings to Table Mesa aid station just shy of fifty-one miles; finally, an eleven-point-five mile stretch with one more big climb and a long, sloping descent punctuated by three very small climbs to the finish line. My blood pressure would rise and my heart would race as the adrenaline circulated. The discomfort and struggle were almost palpable by the end of this mental exercise. Then I would open my eyes.
This is how I spent about five minutes of my day: eyes closed, mind searching, heart beating. And by Saturday morning, February 13th, I was ready to race the Black Canyon 100k.
There are two people that I have long admired in ultrarunning for their racing tactics. They are Jim Walmsley and Zach Miller. To say that I admire them is not to say that I am as talented or as accomplished as either of them because I am neither. But if I have an opportunity to employ the same style of racing tactics as them, which is to go to the front of the race from the beginning and dictate a rather furious pace, I like to because I think it’s a courageous and admirable way to race, and because it forces people to make some uncomfortable decisions.
But because I am not the same class of athlete as the type of runners who can employ those tactics widely, I require the most favorable conditions possible: the course needs to suit my skill sets; I have to be near peak fitness but also adequately tapered; I have to feel especially good on the day. Aside from the Black Canyon course, which contains about two thousand feet of net downhill on the point-to-point route, and which includes rolling single-track that’s rugged at times, but doesn’t include many long or steep climbs and thus better suits me, I didn’t know if those other conditions would hold on race day. That was in part because I hadn’t raced in thirteen months and I couldn’t discern my exact level of fitness and in part because I didn’t know if I’d have one of those days when everything clicked or one when things weren’t clicking.
I had an immense amount of respect for the elite athletes that were assembled on the start line this year. The race included several U.S. Olympic marathon qualifiers, a former JFK 50 Mile champion, prominent FKT holders, and tons of guys with top five finishes at top tier events. I certainly didn’t think that I could run away from the field from the beginning. But, if all the right conditions came together on the day, I thought I could put pressure on the field from the gun, forcing them to choose between two options: keep up at a faster pace that would perhaps be costly later, or hold back and have the mental fortitude to believe that a top two finish was possible even when the leaders were far ahead. It’s a tough choice to make and ultimately it might take more courage to sit back patiently and comfortably with confidence, which is why I have to tip my cap to Tyler Green, who persisted with patience and conviction and came from behind to win the damn race.
So, although my racing plans weren’t set in stone, I at least wanted to go to the front from the beginning and test the waters.
The water was nice. I felt very good: aerobically relaxed, muscularly sound, and mentally ready to suffer. This latter trait is arguably the most important element for anyone trying to run one hundred kilometers as fast as they can. The thing that separates a top level ultrarunner from the rest, I think, is his ability to suffer gracefully, to continue to move swiftly once dozens of miles have already been covered. During the second half of a 100k, it doesn’t much matter what your 5k personal best is or how fast you ran a half marathon the month before. What matters is how you deal with the many miles before you, given the discomfort swallowing you; what matters is how well you can compartmentalize the task ahead, given the pain you’ve already inflicted; what matters is your ability to endure, mentally and physically, and how well you can tolerate suffering. What matters is how badly you want the desired outcome and how well you manage yourself amidst an agony that seems endless.
I’d like to think--and perhaps some of my more accomplished results suggest this--that compared to my competition, I’m able to compensate for a lack of ability with a knack for enduring misery. Because if you’re trying to win a race, there comes a time when the race becomes miserable. More than likely, it’s a constant cycle of misery and ecstasy, like rolling waves that pound you with anguish and then soothe you into a restful lull.
It was still early, around mile five, but as I took a moment to internally monitor myself and externally assess my competition, I couldn’t help but smile. Nearly the entire race was before us and an uncountable number of things could change the course of the day, but I felt confident that I could stay on the gas a while, continue to build a buffer between the lead pack and those behind us, incur some damage but not enough to keep me from suffering swiftly later, and maintain a pace, for at least a while longer, that would put the rest of the lead pack in a compromising position that they might not handle as well as me. I write all of this now with hesitancy because, of course, I didn’t know then what would unfold over the next fifty-seven miles, and I’ve had enough poor race performances as a result of going out too fast to be arrogant enough to believe that some master plan of mine might lead to the demise of the many talented and accomplished runners around me. Yet I had to convince myself that today was the right day to be bold. So I did convince myself, and it worked.
In 2019, when I placed third, earning a golden ticket and automatic entry to the Western States 100, I ran hard with the lead pack to the Hidden Treasure aid station around course mile marker thirteen. This point marks the end of a five-mile descent and the start of about twenty miles of rolling single-track past the halfway point in the race. That year, I eased off the pace, settled into a rhythm, hovered around third or fourth until the last third of the race, and then moved into golden ticket territory as carnage amassed and paces slowed. I employed the same strategy this year, stopping for water at Hidden Treasure, settling into a more sustainable tempo, and allowing the frontrunners to find their own gear.
Two years ago, Matt Daniels and Max King slipped out of sight quickly after Hidden Treasure aid station. I never got close to Daniels again, who eventually won that year, but I did eventually pass an ailing King around mile fifty. So I was pleasantly surprised when, this year, my subdued pace put me just thirty seconds behind the front four runners at Bumble Bee aid station around mile nineteen.
By mile twenty-seven, when the course plummets to the Agua Fria River for the first time, I was happy to see the same four runners within sight, but I momentarily began to worry that these guys, despite the fact that they were all novices in a trail 100k, might have the chops to stick it out and even thrive. I quickly shook off that worry and steadied my mind.
Soon after that I rounded a bend in the trail and saw Nick Hilton, a fellow Flagstaff local, puking on the side of the trail. I moved into fourth place. Shortly thereafter, around mile thirty-four, I passed Seth Ruhling up a short, steep climb. I moved into third place. I approached the Black Canyon City aid station at mile thirty-seven on a three-quarters of a mile stretch that serves as the only lengthy out-and-back section of the course. I got closer and closer and still there was no sign of Brian Whitfield, who was then leading the race, coming back up the trail. I finally saw him when he was just a quarter mile out of the aid station, probably only four minutes ahead of me, and he didn’t look good. I saw Craig Hunt, then in second place, leaving the aid station as I entered. He did look good.
In the second half of an ultramarathon, you want to gather any data you can about the competitors around you: how they look, how far back (or in front of you) they are, and the like. You also try to spin that data in your favor as much as you can; you lie to yourself a bit (He looks like shit, I’ll often tell myself). As I came out of the aid station and started back up the trail, I was ready to take notes. It was hard to convince myself of anything positive when I saw Tyler Green, who was only six minutes back, moving well, and looking smooth. But then I turned a corner and Whitfield was walking and now I was in second place, a tough twenty-four miles between me and another chance at Western States. (The first two finishers from a golden ticket race, like Black Canyon, who aren’t already entered in Western States gain entry to the race.)
If there are moments in an ultramarathon that are nothing but miserable, there are also moments that are terrifying. You might accidentally allow yourself to consider how bad you feel and how far you still have to go, which can be terrifying, or you might take a step and feel a shooting pain up your leg that seizes your groin and almost stops you in place. Just after I moved into second place, with a frighteningly fresh Tyler Green lurking, I did stop in place. I had never felt a pain like that before. Was this the end of my race? Did I need to turn around and drop at the Black Canyon aid station?
These are not the questions you want to ask during a race. If you have to ask them, and if it’s in the second half of the race and you’re executing your race plan and you need the right answers, you have to stay very calm and then lie, lie, lie to yourself about everything.
You’re fine. Take a minute. Stretch it out. Start back up slow. Ease into it. Get your legs back under you. Drink some calories. Breathe. Start moving. There you go. It’ll get better. It’ll subside. You can win the race. Go win the race.
Some of those things did turn out to be true, except that the pain didn’t go away and I didn’t win the race. When Green caught me six miles later, I had been moving very slowly. I managed to regroup and run with him for a few miles, which was quite a help after running alone for so long. When he pulled away after the Cottonwood Gulch aid station at mile forty-six (that’s a euphemism--he dropped me hard), I allowed myself more time to stretch and run slower and be very, very annoyed that I was blowing it.
When I arrived at the Table Mesa aid station, course mile marker fifty-one-ish, I really wasn’t sure if I would keep going. Over those previous four miles, I walked uphills, shuffled more runnable terrain, and basically just felt like I was dragging my cramped leg around. It’s amazing what a supportive crew, a bunch of electrolytes, and some Advil can do, because after a few minutes I was back on the trail, now with my pacer, Stephen Kersh, and moving somewhat briskly again. I was in third place.
Three miles later, Craig Hunt was hobbling down the trail and I was laboring up, which meant he was moving away from the finish line and I was still moving towards it, now in second place. Kersh did a wonderful thing where he hardly even mentioned the very major change in circumstances. “Alright, let’s just keep moving and get to the finish line,” he said, or something like that, and then we returned to bantering about banalities in the hopes of forgetting about the gravity of my newfound circumstances: If I could cover eight more miles without someone passing me, then I’d have successfully raced my way into the Western States 100 for a third consecutive year.
A few more lightning bolts of pain surfaced in my right leg over that last stretch, but I’d slow down for a minute and drink electrolytes and return to a faster clip without issue. I kept asking Kersh to turn around and scan the horizon for an approaching runner, but the verdict stayed the same: Nobody.
At last, the finish line was in sight. And then this weird thing happened--and I don’t know if it can be described in the magnitude that it’s felt, or at least I lack the ability to describe it in words--where there’s a confluence of thoughts and emotions and feelings all at once. I was riding the top of that wave of ecstasy that I’ve never captured anywhere but near a finish line after a long, grueling race, when I finally realize that all the things I told myself during those miles of training and minutes of meditation are about to come true, and they weren’t lies after all, and those last threads of doubt that embedded themselves into my psyche from the many times I’ve failed to achieve my dreams--they were finally and at once released.
And I thought about my dad who just passed away in November and how proud he would be, and I thought about Jacky, who I’m about to marry, and I thought about my mom, who never misses my races and was waiting near the finish line, and I thought about a line from an email that was sent to me a few weeks ago from an old curmudgeon of a man who I would call a friend but he probably wouldn’t call me the same, which concluded with “Don’t ever give up your dreams!”, and I might have cried then (and I’m sort of crying now while typing this) but the moment vanished because I had to return to a laser-focused sense of awareness and cover those final, painful, glorious steps to the finish line, which I then crossed in second place.
I would, once again, have a chance to pursue my persistent and lofty dream of returning to, and racing well at, Western States.
Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Don’t ever give up your dreams.