Aravaipa Black Canyon 100km, Arizona - 13th February 2016

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Aravaipa Black Canyon 100km, Arizona - 13th February 2016

This was to be an epic year of ultras - I had 10 booked in at the start of 2016. Far too many, especially as I had the 4-race Centurion 50-mile grand slam nestling uncomfortably close to Lavaredo and The Cape Town 100k.  I'm sat on the plane to the latter as I write this, with 2016's plans in the kind of disarray that an unattended puppy is liable to leave your newspaper.  

My amazing ultra-running friend Brea (youngest Female Badwater finisher ever) lives in Flagstaff, AZ and the opportunity to run the local 100km with her through the stunningly beautiful Sonoran Desert was an opportunity too good to miss.  It's a Western States qualifier and, studying the elevation profile, it looked about as benign as WS100 qualifiers get, with an overall significant drop in elevation, no monster climbs and - it's only 100km, right?

I swear this is the last time I'm so dumb to ever fall for this.  You can prove anything with a graph and race elevation profiles are somewhere to the right of all of lies, damn lies and the statistics.  

Flagstaff, AZ. There's something of the Wild West about it that I like

I flew into Phoenix and, as there's nothing but a shuttle bus covering the not-insignificant distance to Flag and it was a late inbound flight I thought I'd crash there for the night in an airport hotel.  If you've ever played Fallout 3, you'll remember the U-shaped, double storey irradiated motel with the dinosaur at the entrance.  Admittedly it was lacking the raptor, but in every other aspect, including distance from civilsation and probably radioactivity, matched the wasteland of the game so closely I'm sure that's where they got the idea for the set.

I went down to breakfast (shapeless biscuits in celophane and desultory muffins, also wrapped as if harvested from a petrol station that morning. 'It's a zoo in there' drawled the help, jabbing a stubby finger in the direction of the canteen door, while languidly chewing on something that seemed to be fighting back.  I asked about the shuttle to the airport (where the bus leaves to Flag) and became part of the problem.  'Spose to book the night before' she barks, shuffling over to a microscopic notice on the wall behind the till which may or may not have covered the local etiquette if you had exemplary vision and tapped it meaningfully with another finger, while fixing me with a gimlet eye.

I had another night booked here before flying home and in between the oil change coffee and gracelessly being allowed to board the bus, I'd cancelled it.

The journey to Flagstaff was surprisingly enjoyable with a personable bunch of 10 or so in a minibus and an enthusiastic driver pointing out the scenery.  Not much in the way of habitation either side of the main road but an ever-changing landscape of desert of all manner of tans, greens and ochres giving way to pine forest and snow as we closed in on Flagstaff and gained altitude.

I'd arranged to go for a shakeout run with Brea and her dog, Sophie, and she took me on a tour of 5kms-worth of trails. My chest felt extremely tight to my concern but I hadn't realised Flag is at around 2000 metres above sea level without giving any visual cues that it's that elevated. I hoped that was the reason.

So let's cut to the race. TL;DR;

It's an early start.. we're out by 4am and on the race bus to the start at Mayer's High School at the trailhead.  It's a point-to-point race almost due South through the unspoilt desert, and there's a 60k option too which covers the first 60km of the 100km course.

Arizona was in the grip of a heatwave.. even for Arizona.  The race was held on the hottest February day they have ever had and this was to prove devastating.  Little hint of that at the start as we did a lap of the school athletics track that formed the frst 400m of the race, me in an extra long sleeve cotton layer to stave off the chill. 

It took a while to get out onto the trail proper, as we jogged through the tiny town, silent save for the odd barking dog.

The early miles passed easily and the the trail was pretty easy to run on too and I felt I could maintain this forever, chatting to my fellow runners through to the 12 mile aid station.  I did my nosebag trick, learnt from Pip at the SDW100 and filled the small poly bag and walked on chewing without wasting much time.

I ditched the cotton layer there; the sun was now up and if I'd not have removed it, I'd have burned down.  I've just realised that shirt ironically came from the Cape Cod Marathon which I had to bail from halfway as the extreme cold cramped my calf into an excruciating knot.

I was starting to struggle in the increasingly oven-like heat.  Such a shock after our January to be in the 30s and it was taking its toll.  Reaching the 18 mile station felt like a lot more despite being pretty much fine just 6 miles before.  There was zero respite from the sun with no shade anywhere along the course.  I quickly learned that everything in the desert, aridly beautify though it is, is out to kill you.  Every plant is armed to the teeth (I was awed by the massive Saguaro (Boot Hill-style) cacti towering metres high. They're only found natively in this desert), the rocks are sharp as knives and if you touch anything it instantly impales you on a forest of daggers. 

Being hot in a desert takes the art of being hot to a whole new level.  Everything looks so arid it's a constant knawing reminder that you're extremely thirsty and there seems to be nothing you can do about it.  Somehow the trail grinds you down too.  Compared to other races on my calendar there really wasn't any significant ascent so it's not that so much. 

Approaching the 60km aid station, now aged 75

I'd shot off (gone fractionally quicker than) and ungallantly left Brea soon after the start but as I was more affected by the weather, she caught me up with a whoop and passed me while I'd tried stopping to pull myself together under what passed for shelter.  It had no beneficial effect!  "I won't see her til the finish," thought I, with the one and only prediction I made that day that came true.

There was a grim climb up to the 31 mile aid station where I had a sit down (not a good idea, but it feels amazing) for a few minutes and shoved a hundredweight of ice cubes into the buff and cap and chowed down on a tonne of melon (Isn't this just the best thing?)

Eventually talking myself into pushing on I lightly brushed against a cactus on rejoining the trail which responded aggressively with a hard spine deep into a knuckle.  I pulled it out accompanied by a disconcerting amount of blood and a renewed respect for the plantlife. 

Soap Creek(?)  - I could have sat in this all day.

I was feeing ever more ill heading into the 60k aid station.  A tight chest had developed and as I'd had some sort of infection all January it started to feel like this was too much too soon.  This CP is the finish of the 60k race so it was a mass of humanity and felt like civilisation.  I rested up for quite a while - a good 20 minutes - but there was no let up with the chest symptoms and my pulse was elevated.  I threw down several litres of water and having teetered on the brink of dropping, decided to head on and revisit at the next CP.  In fact I got all of 200m and had to sit down, feeling awful.  Several passing runners encouraged me to 'keep going! The aid station is only just round the corner'.  Something's not right and my body had had enough by the looks of it so I dragged what remained of it back to the CP and sought out the medics.

They must have taken my temperature and pulse twenty times.  But it remained stuck at around 130 bmp despite doing nothing for what was now over an hour.  The RD was called in and having explained that the answer to 'what do you want to do?' wasn't 'carry on' and that he didn't want to have to go and collect my dead carcass off the course (in a very kindly way) I received my first ever medical dismissal, and a chair.

Getting back to the 100k finish proved to be a challenge I hadn't anticipated.  There were no shuttle buses!  Eventually a very generous spectator was found who took me back after being reassured I wasn't about to throw up all over his car.  That was touch and go to be honest.  Reaching the finish line, I couldn't find my drop bag and.. irony.. it turned out they'd deposited it at the 60k finish by mistake!  It took another couple of hours to get that fetched and not a moment too soon as once the sun goes down, so does all the heat and I was started to freeze.

Sage Canaday blew away the men's record by a good 40+ minutes and Amy Sproston took the Women's race while I waited for Brea.  Day turned to night and I watched headtorch lights bobbing away in the distance and I felt for her as the briefing was clear that the race saved the hardest for last but she is the toughest and made the 100k finish!

I'd love another go at this one.  I'm sure I was scuppered by the January infection and a few degrees lower (no guarantee of that of course) would have made a big difference.
It's a new environment for me - hard and unforgiving but at the same time beautiful and inspiring.

The Race Route
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Awesome entry, Andrew! Brings back memories :) Your writing is wonderful! You should write a book!