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Mesquite Canyon 50-Miler Race Report

Mesquite Canyon BibMy first “race” of 2015 was the Mesquite Canyon 50 Miler. I guess I must have decided to subscribe to the “Go Big or Go Home” philosophy by selecting a truly long and grueling event for my first race of the year! I will admit that I wasn’t overly pumped for this run (mostly because I’m just tired of running on desert trails) but I could drive to the starting line and it would earn me one UTMB point.

Wait, What??? You aren’t familiar with UTMB? Allow me then… UTMB is a 100 mile running event that encircles Mont Blanc in Europe. Those 100 miles take athletes through some gorgeous regions of France, Italy, and Switzerland. To enter, one must accumulate enough points to enter a lottery and then cross every digit they posses! Ever since learning of the UTMB, I have set my sights upon it and Mesquite Canyon was (hopefully) another step closer.

So, beyond getting that point, I really didn’t care about how fast (or, truthfully, slow) I moved. I just needed to finish before the 14 hour cut-off (seriously, 14 hours? Pffft… that’s a walk in the park right?!?!?!) and I’d get that coveted point. So, with that massive amount of interest and motivation, I signed-up and prepared to run!

Mesquite Canyon: The Course

While 50 miles is obviously no easy task, I wasn’t overly worried about finishing. Sure, the course had a “deceptively challenging and very tough” reputation. Yeah, there was about 7,300 feet of total elevation gain over those miles. But, come on, 50 miles in 14 hours… I’ve got that in the bag right???

On paper, the course looked pretty manageable. From the start, there was a 13 mile “out” section that went up and down one huge hill. Turning around at that point, we would travel another 18.5 miles up and down two other large climbs, ultimately scrambling down a boulder wash and back to the starting line. From 31.5 to the finish was a mellow five miles followed by one last huge climb (the same from Miles 10-14) and descent to the finish. So, in total, four big climbs totaling about 26 miles. Tough, but certainly manageable… or so I thought.Mesquite Canyon Elevation

In addition to those climbs, this race has some pretty remote aid stations. Certainly easily accessible on foot, but two have no vehicle access. In the world of ultras, no vehicle access means no ice. Ummm, I know it is March, but “No Ice” means “Better Plan and Plan Well” as those 18.5 miles would be long and hot without cold water. Frankly, I’m not sure they’d be doable without cold water, at any speed. (More on this later…)

The one, ahem, small thing that might, just might, also impact the difficultly is weather. March 14 in Arizona is a strange time of year when it comes to weather. You can wake up and be freezing. Literally, there are freeze warnings in March. By noon, however, temperatures can easily crest 90 degrees. While that doesn’t seem to bad, on its face, no clouds, no wind, and a tight canyon will turn into a veritable oven for hours. That baking effect was in full force during Mesquite Canyon and it had an enormous (and I mean E-normous) impact on the day. So, with that, let’s get to the race!

Mesquite Canyon Start/Finish LineMesquite Canyon: Pre-Race

Having recently departed the world of triathlons, the convo went something like this….

Toby (to “Triahlons”): Hey triathlons, listen, it isn’t me; it’s you. Welcome to Splitsville. Population: You.

I was elated to wake-up a mere two hours before race start. That even factored in a one hour drive to the starting line. I woke up, ate some oatmeal, grabbed my stuff (which I had prepared the night before) and left home. Annoying, Google Maps was a bit off in the driving time as I arrived a whopping 45 minutes early. Sigh… simultaneously grumbling and giggling (grumbling that I could have slept more and giggling because I had so much time, quite in contrast to triathlons), I chilled in my car with the windows down, enjoying the morning chill, and played Pitch on my phone until about 15 minutes before race start.

Finally leaving my car, I sauntered over to the start line, filled my bottles, put my two drop bags in the appropriate places and literally walked to the starting with minutes to spare. Ahhh, comparing the start of an Ultramarathon with the Pain-In-The-Ass factor of triathlons, I knew I had made the right decision! Standing there, I couldn’t help but smile and be excited. Getting ready was so simple and I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. Today was going to be a great day, I thought. In little time, we were given a ten seconds count down and the race was on!

Mesquite Canyon: Miles 0-13

Being that this was only my third true ultra, I still don’t get the starting line. I’ve done one 50-miler and one 100-miler (in addition to 73 as part of an Ultra Ragnar team) so I am clearly not an experienced expert by any stretch. However, I still am blown away by what people do at the start. When the gun sounded, people bolted off the starting line running sub-10 minute/miles! Uhhhh, hello people, I don’t care how easy you think the day will be, it is still 50 freaking miles. Are you really going to hold that pace??? Is now the time to be dropping the hammer??? I think not.

So, when everyone surged forward for no good reason, I stepped aside and started walking. As in, immediately. I wasn’t going to run hard at all for a long while and, frankly, wasn’t even going to run easy at that point. Thus, before the end of the first mile, I was literally DFL. As in Dead F***ing Last. Now, this didn’t take too long since there was only 22 people who started the 50-miler, but still, I was D.F.L. While I didn’t particularly care, it was still a new experience for me. But, from a “pacing strategy” perspective, it was completely the correct call. Without being unkind, a chunk of the people who passed me was people I was extremely certain I’d be seeing again. And, by “seeing”, I mean “passing”.

Mesquite Canyon My KidsOnce the shaking out at the start was done, I settled into a nice rhythm and enjoyed the desert canyons and views as the trail began to climb. From mile 2ish to 10ish, the trail slowly climbed through various canyons and ridge-lines. While it was still the desert, some of the views were pretty spectacular and I enjoyed them all. Quickly enough, the trail reached its zenith and began descending into a relatively narrow and pretty steep canyon. UNthankfully, this coincided with the sun unleashing the start of its anger upon all the runners. As I descended, the temperature far-too-quickly ascended. And, the descent was much steeper than I had expected. Running meant risking a sprained ankle, at best, or worse and that was a price I just wasn’t willing to pay. So, somehow, I traveled even slower going down that hill than I did climbing the backside! Yikes… that made for some very slow going. Eventually though, I reached the sandy wash signifying the end of the descent and only had a few more miles until the aid station at Mile 13, where I knew my family would be waiting for me. That definitely gave some pep to my step and, rounding the last corner, my two little kids were there to run the last fifty feet to the aid station! Pitifully, it had taken me nearly THREE hours (2:53 to be exact) to cover that 13 miles. Wow. I was possibly taking the “Tortoise” part a little too seriously!

Relaxing and chatting at the aid station was pleasant, but I could feel the sun floating higher and higher in the sky. Knowing each moment only meant greater temps, I stayed shorter than I would have preferred, said my goodbyes, and began to retrace my steps up that same, miserable (and miserably steep!) canyon…

Mesquite Canyon – Miles 13-31.5

Before leaving the aid station, I made sure to start my “Keep Toby Cool and Alive” plan until I made it the next aid station with ice, a mere 18.5 miles away with two of the four big climbs. My hydration pack had four bottles: two in the holders and two in the pockets. In addition, the two in the pockets were the extra large, insulated kind. I filled the two in the holders with as much ice as possible and water. The two in the pockets, however (remember, large and insulate), got as much ice as they could hold but no water. (Physics lesson here! Ice will melt faster when in liquid than air. I was banking on those two “ice only” bottles surviving for 18.5 miles. Fingers crossed right???)

Within moments of leaving, the trail began to climb and the began to punish me. I kept thinking, it was March f***ing 14th, how in hell can it be this hot??? That four-mile ascent witnessed me stopping two times when I found cold slabs of rock still hidden in the shade. I literally took off my shirt and pack and put my body against the coolness of Mother Earth for a bit. I was seating bullets and hadn’t even reached Mile 17 of 50… Crap. That is a bad, bad sign. Those miles ticked of in a miserably slow fashion of 14 minutes, followed by 17, 25, and 22. Yeah, I really kicked it up a notch for that last one right??? Ugh, whatever misconceptions I had about this race not being that tough were destroyed by the seemingly endless attack of those four little miles. They just ruined me and, had I been willing to be honest with myself, I would have started to doubt my ability to finish. Cresting the ridge, I was so happy to see the trail slowly descend in and out of smaller ravines but, I was also a little nervous about how I’d get to 31.5 without completely over heating…

Mesquite Canyon 50 MilerThe descent down from Mile 17 was pretty mellow. I started slowly until my body cooled (yeah right!) and then slowly jogged to the bottom where an aid station waited at Mile 23. Reaching that aid station, I felt significantly better and was pleased to see that I had taken “only” six hours to cover those 22 miles, as they contained two of the three biggest climbs on the course. I just had 9.5 miles, with one big climb, and I’d have ice again!

Chilling in the shaded tent of the aid station, I was happy to see that my two bottles of ice had melted to nicely yield one full, insulated bottle of ice! BOOM! (I had stopped twice to sip whatever water had accumulated from the ice melting, thus keeping with physics lesson going! Science is REAL!) I quickly replenished my liquid supplies and got out of there. I was the only person who had arrived with surviving ice from Mile 13 and could see that others wanted my frozen water. Sorry if I sound stingy or selfish, but the only chance I had of reaching Mile 31.5 was if I, and only I, used that ice. There were just too many people in various states of melting down for me to consider sharing and I wanted to get out of there…

Starting Mile 23, I faced the third but shortest climb of the day, but the temperature was crushingly hot by this point. No shade. No clouds. One bottle of ice. Ugh… it was scorchingly hot. Even though I had reapplied sunscreen at Mile 23, I still felt like my skin was on fire.

I know what you are thinking: Toby, stop being a baby. It is March 14th. How hot can it really be??? For those that don’t know, a warm and cloudless sky, especially with no wind at all, can easily feel ten or even twenty degrees hotter. The thermometer may read a seemingly cool 80 degrees, but the air temperature can feel like a solar burning 100. On this day, I don’t care what any thermometer read, it felt easily into the triple digits to me.

The few shady spots I could find, I would sit and chill for two minutes (yes, I timed myself) but those spots were very few and far between (as in, there were three). Cresting the top of the climb near the start of Mile 26, I was so happy to see land beneath me. I was starting to hate walking uphill (note, I didn’t even imply running) but I was completely hating being hot. I was entering that, “I don’t care about time, finishing, points, UTMB, etc. I just want to not be hot” zone. I felt caked with sweat, heated beyond the point of comfort (and, possibly, safety), and wanted to sit in a freezing, cold shower. Sadly, there was no shower. There was nothing cold (my ice was gone before I reached the end of the climb). And, much to my sadness and irritation, I was still eight, bakingly-hot miles from ice.

With great resolve, I pressed on and just focused on keeping my heart rate (and, therefore, my body temperature) under control. If I needed to walk to get my heart rate to drop, walk I would do. When the terrain (and my body) permitted, I would run at whatever fastest speed was prudent. Given how much walking I’d been doing, I didn’t feel sore; rather, I was just wasted by heat and getting concerned about cooling. Crossing one last small ridge, I had two mellow, rolling miles to the aid station. Picking a comfy pace, I settled into a nice tempo and, mercifully, rolled in at 8:13 on the clock! Yikes, 8+ hours to cover 31.5 miles… Holy Slow Batman!

Mesquite Canyon: Start/Finish Aid Station

I interrupt my (so-called) run to share my thoughts, emotions, and mind-set at this aid station, which also happened to be the finish line for those running the 50k. Ready for it??? I was Done. D-U-N. Done. For those who have read any of my race reports, they know I have never DNF’ed any race/event, ever. I will never quit, even if all sage signs point to that being the correct decision. I don’t care; I’m not willingly giving up my timing chip. No way and no how.

But, on this day, I was one nanometer away from that very decision. The heat was absolutely awful and I was completely baked. My whole drive to finish this event was simply to get one puny UTMB point and I was beyond caring about it. I wanted to be done and I wanted to be done NOW.

The aid station volunteers were amazing, as they always are. They tried (and failed) to lift my spirits. They brought me everything I requested (e.g., two buckets of ice water, which I promptly poured over my head). One even offered to run the remaining miles with me. But, I was so utterly destroyed by this point that I just didn’t think I could muster to willpower and energy to continue. It simply wasn’t there this time. Then, damn that nice kid, a volunteer brought me news.

He said: You are in 8th place overall.

I know, I know, who cares? Like that fact is going to change anything right? Well, for some unknown and completely unexpected reason, it hit apparently the one remaining competitive nerve that was still firing into my brain. For some reason, I actually cared again… just a little.

8th place huh, I thought, wonder where 5th, 6th, and 7th are. So, I asked and he replied, 6th and 7th just left and 5th is close enough that you can catch him.

Damnit.

And with that, I was right back into it. I could have hugged and punched that kid at the same time. I packed up my crap and headed out…

Mesquite Canyon: Miles 31.5-36

The next five miles were rolling to slightly downhill and I did my best to maintain a steady pace. I regretted not asking how close were these three other runners. When he said I could catch them, I just didn’t think to inquire how fast he actually thought I could run at that point. In my mind, I just figured they were close enough and I wanted to use these five or so miles to close (or eliminate) the gaps.

While running, I searched for any signs of other runners and received exactly none. I did, however, see a runner a mile or two behind me. Oddly enough, knowing he was there kept a fire lit under my feet and, even with the oppressive heat, I generally held a steady pace. As I neared the Mile 36 aid station, I started planning what I wanted to minimize the time I’d be there.  Soon enough, I rounded a familiar bend and saw the aid station. Sadly, no other runners were sitting (or, even better, lying on the ground) so I knew they had already arrived and departed.

Moving with a purpose, I replenished my water bottles, grabbed some snacks, and asked how far in front were the next three runners. They told me one came through “maybe 45 minutes ago” but the next two were “only 15 minutes” ahead. While a 45 minute gap seems pretty large (and, in truth, it is), at this stage of an ultramarathon, a walking athlete can give back massive amounts of time to a running athlete. I knew that if I kept running, I’d at least give myself a chance and I wasn’t going to give up without making an effort. I mean, come on, it was Top Five territory!

Mesquite Canyon

I really could have used this moment again

Mesquite Canyon: Mile 37-Finish

Leaving the aid station, I knew I’d be covering ground I’d already seen. This gave me the chance to plan out how I’d spend my energy. Plus, it was approaching 5:00pm. Since I was entering the hellish canyon from earlier, I figured I had about an hour until the sun would be off my body, something I eagerly anticipated. I decided I would run, walk, or climb (since the course would quickly become pretty steep) with some intensity and then, once in shade, I would back off a bit to cool. Holding that effort level took all the focus I could find. My mind and body were screaming to mellow but I knew I’d had to push to catch those three dudes. Astonishingly, I covered the same steep, three mile section in 17, 27, and 25 minutes, only five minutes slower than 25 miles (and many hours) ago! Just a great reminder about how the mind really controls what the body can do… (Admittedly, the shade played a major role in my ability to continue pushing. Had the sun been high in the sky, like it was earlier on those same miles, the results might not have matched so closely.)

Cresting that last ridge and knowing I had a few wonderful things happen. One, I knew I had a mere 11 miles to finish and that almost all of those miles were somewhat downhill. Two, the sun would not touch my body again. Some sparse clouds now covered the western sky. Either they or the topography would thankfully keep solar radiation away from my tortured skin. Third, last, and by far the most compelling to me, I could see the two closest runners. They were only about 2-3 miles in front of me and, even better, I could see they weren’t moving overly fast.

You can catch them, my brain whimpered, but it will hurt. Are you up for that??? With a impish little smile, I picked up my pace and started to ponder the looks on their faces when I passed them.

Being a little more cavalier with my energy, I could see I was closing the distance. Each time the terrain afforded a chance to check, they would be closer. And, more importantly, they weren’t picking up their pace. With the setting sun and cooler temps, I was able to push myself and knew that, as long as they didn’t begin to hurry, I’d be on them soon. Well, at least, that’s what I thought was going to happen…

As I rounded a bend around Mile 43, I was blissfully and blindingly enjoying the setting sun. Ahh, cool desert temperatures and shade. Perfect running conditions, no matter how beat to hell I was. Passing this bend, I entered the last canyon and could again see I had closed the gap to at most a mile-and-a-half. Sweet, my brain cheered! But, I also realized that I was straining to spot them for some strange reason. Oooohhhh, that’s right, the fading light. See, you (the reader) may not know this but, as the sun sets, it gets dark. Pretty simple additional physics lesson here. This means, we humans (being the visual, diurnal creatures that we are) will struggle to see things. No biggie have two headlamps for running. I’ll just throw one of them on my….

Crap.

I didn’t bring a headlamp, you know, because there’s no way I’d be running past sunset.

Shit.

In one mile, I’d be in total darkness (there was no moon) other than the light dusting of starlight. Doing some quick math, I knew I had at least 90 minutes of running ahead of me. In the desert. At night. With no light. F***.

Mesquite Canyon Night Shot

Here was how the trail looked without my light…

I thought, well, I could call someone (not really sure who) as I had my phone. Didn’t really see (pun intended) how that would help me but at least people would know I was out there. Then, my brain screamed: the Flashlight App!!! Whipping out my phone and turning on the app, I disappointedly realized it would work. If I ran hunched over, holding it just below my waist and shining just slightly ahead of my feet. That cinched it. Goodbye other runners (who I could see bobbing in the distance. Because they had headlamps, those Intelligent, Planning-Ahead Bastards) and hello to the slowest pace ever.

Sigh…

Realizing immediately that any chance I might have had to catch anyone disappeared with my remaining illumination was a major buzzkill. I had just pushed myself to the edge for a couple of hours to accomplish exactly nothing. Or so I thought…

The remaining miles passed with dreadful boredom. Running like I lived in Notre Dame was un-comfy and un-fun. I basically just focused on a few things, like not falling, not running off trail, not running into cactus; you know, little things like that. With about five miles to go, I reached the last aid station was nearly snuck upon the wonderful volunteers hanging out in the darkness for fools like me. They were stunned when I said I had no light but impressed I was “running” with my phone for illumination. I basically just said thanks for being here and took off as I wanted very badly to be done.

Moments after leaving the aid station, my phone rang, which simultaneously raised two emotions: Happiness, as it was my wife calling and Sadness, as my light disappeared so I had to stop moving. I told her was still running and probably had an hour remaining. She, to my profound joy was actually at the finish line with our kids! I cannot express how happy that made me. I told her I was probably an hour out but would hurry as fast as I could, you know, under my barely-lit circumstances. Ending the call, I fired up my torch (read: Flashlight App) and sprinted (read: walked quickly) into the darkness, feeling a wonderful pep in my step for the first time in many, many hours (and miles)…

Mesquite Canyon FinishFrom there, the last five miles were a dark blur. I ran when I could but mostly walked with a purpose. But I let the thought of seeing my family be my beacon in the night. The fact that they had driven back out and waited for me required an “A” effort on my part!

Eventually, I reached what I knew was the wider trail near the finish line. Comically enough, I must have hit some use limit in the Flashlight App as the light began to flash on and off. Thankfully, this happened about a half mile to the finish and the spot lights were bright enough that I could run without my phone. Dropping the non-existent hammer, I cruised both into the waiting arms of my wonderful wife and kids and the finish line as the 8th place male (11th overall) in 13:52.

That’s right, 13 hours and 52 minutes. A scant EIGHT minutes before the cut-off deadline. Sheesh… Had I not run hard for a few hours trying to catch those two dudes, I doubt I would have made the 14 hour cutoff. So, in the end, the effort was more than worth it. Once the course profile reached the UTMB, I was rewarded again with not one point but two. I guess the challenge of the day even reached Europe! 🙂

That’s a great closing lesson: Never give up and never take anything for granted! You never know how any day will unfold… Comically enough, while I was 8th male and 11th overall, I was also the last finisher. Out of 22 starters, 11 (yes, 50%!) DNF’ed. Wow, that’s the highest DNF rate I’ve seen at any event, ever. I think that captures quite nicely how tough that race really was!

Mesquite Canyon Cup

My finisher “trophy” – Totally worth it right!?!?!

Thanks for reading!

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