Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mesquite Canyon 50k Trail Race

For the past few years I've been telling my aunt and uncle in Cave Creek, AZ, that I would visit them, its been five years since my last trip. I fulfilled that promise and also discovered an amazing new trail race -- the Mesquite Canyon Trail Runs in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Waddell, AZ. Having been to AZ many times before I can say that March is probably the best time to visit. By this time of year storms have dropped lots of rain turning dry washes into raging rivers and transforming the desert into verdant oasis. Giant saguaro cactus suck the water out of the ground like sponges and swell up big and fat. Grasses and weeds cover the valley floors to the point where my uncle fired up the weed-whacker just before I arrived. In the later part of March the mountain sides are littered with brightly colored flowers with certain species dominating some areas while other species take root in topographies with different soils and terrain. For example you can be on a trail and see a patch of bright orange poppy flowers, and then after dropping in a small gorge 100 feet away you might come across a dense patch of white flowers. It seems like there's an intense struggle going on that's precipitated by rain, and ending when the sun kills everything that can't stand the heat. That's why it's the perfect time to plan hiking trips and trail races through the desert mountains.

My aunt Jane had spring break off from her teaching job. I flew into Phoenix on Wednesday so that we could do some hiking before my race on Saturday 3/20/10. On Thursday we drove to the White Tank park because Jane had never been there and I wanted to get a better sense of what I was up against. I was so taken by the beauty of this place that I didn't want to stop hiking, and kept following along the race course. After about 5 hours we had covered about 10 miles. As we drove home I thought maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to do before a rugged 50k trail race. I was feeling a little tired and hoped that my body could recover in 36 hours. In order to help things along I bought a 10 lbs. bag of ice and dunked my legs in Jane's
Japanese soaking tub. After a total of 15 minutes in ice cold water, going in and out every few minutes, I called it quits. I was also abstaining from drinking alcohol until after the race. Having toured the trails and studied the topo maps and elevation profile I felt that I had a pretty good mental image of the entire 50k course. While hiking on Thursday I also received a disturbing email from the race director saying that the park wouldn't allow them to use a vehicle to transport water out to the most remote aid station. Instead they would carry 6 gallons of water out there for emergency purposes only. This meant that we would be going more than 9 miles between stations, and we needed to be prepared. Luckily I had packed my 1.5L hydration pack and 2 hand held water bottles on the trip. We were allowed one drop bag at mile 14 but that didn't seem all that helpful.

The White Tank park is vast with many tall mountains rising up to about 4000 ft from the desert valley floor at 1400 ft. Over the ages water has run through the mountains cutting out
rugged canyons with names like Mesquite, Goat, Willow, and Ford. The park offers basic amenities including camping, bathrooms, and a visitors center. The single track trails are professionally maintained and perfect for trail running and mountain biking.

When the race started at 7:00am the air felt chilly and the temperature must have been in the mid 40s. I wore a short sleeve tech shirt as a base layer and my Trail Monster singlet on top of that. I figured that I would ditch the shirt and a pair of cotton gloves at the drop bag location. At the start I left my hand-held bottle empty except for a good dose of chia seeds which I planned to fill with water when I reached the
Mesquite Canyon aid station in the mountains. I also wore a pair of REI Trail Running Gaiters knowing that I would encounter lots of sand and tiny rocks. About sixty other people started the races with me which I thought was pretty good considering this was the first year. The first and last couple of miles of the 50k course take place on the valley floor where everything is flat and easy. There are two major climbs in the order of 1500 to 1700 ft each. The first climb was very runnable with a moderate slope and mostly smooth trails, only a couple sections were too steep and rocky to run. The first 1700 ft descent from the peaks to the valley floor dropped me down a very rugged and steep trail. I had a lot of fun with this section since I still had fresh legs and made good progress with short choppy steps and fast turnover. I was able to pass a few people who took a more cautious approach to the downhills. I ran for about 2.5 hours to the drop bag aid station at mile 14. I had consumed the contents of my hydration pack by then and needed to refill. That's also when I started eating a little food and popped my first Succeed S-cap pill. Until then the temperature in the mountains had been nice and pleasant with the shadows of the mountain peaks keeping the trails cool. But once in the flat valley in the midst of sandier trails the temperature became uncomfortable. Ahead of me was a long nasty slog up 1700 ft on very steep and rocky trails. In the absence of much vegetation it seemed like the sun reflected off the jagged rock surfaces much more intensely, making this one of the hottest parts of the course. After a couple miles of this torture I felt totally drained. Drinking Gatorade didn't make me feel much better so I took another S-cap. This made me feel better almost instantly and I realized that I needed to be taking one pill every 30 minutes instead of 60. Higher into the mountains things turned greener, the trails smoothed out, the temperature dropped, and I was able to run slowly. Finally after cresting the highest point and knowing the worst was behind me I had completely gained my strength back. The next 4 miles leading up to the mile 23 aid station were the fastest and most exhilarating. The smooth trail sloped downward slightly and followed the contours of the Mesquite Canyon walls snaking back and forth. After passing a couple guys I lead a pack of four people. Normally I like to run alone in ultras but in this case we were like a runaway freight train cruising down a track. After reaching the Mesquite Canyon aid station again I handed my pack and bottle to volunteers to fill with water and Gatorade, while I drank 2 cups and ate a few orange slices. The next aid station was about 5 miles away, and up ahead was a pretty rugged climb, and then a descent through the Ford Canyon. This section included some of the most technical trails on the 50k course.

As described on the White Tank Mountain web site, “infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows, pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges, have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.”

Here the trail follows along the very bottom of Ford Canyon. At its headwaters in the mountains a runner enters easily by hoping down a bank and into a wide sandy wash. While running in this sandy section I was reminded of running in the snow back home. The complexion of the area quickly turns to white and hot. Slowly the wash begins to narrow and the canyon walls grow taller and steeper. More and more rocks appear in the bed of the wash until eventually after two miles I'm scrambling over and around nothing but huge totally smooth white granite boulders. After 5 and a half hours the air is hot and everything looks bright. While in the depths of the Ford Canyon I passed 5 guys who had been reduced to walking. My strength was good after religiously swallowing my S-cap pills and taking-in liquid. I asked some guys how they were doing and if they needed anything but none accepted my offer. Then suddenly my hydration pack stopped working and I thought there might be a kink in the line. However, after coming to a full stop and unscrewing the lid I realized that I was empty, and the volunteer at the last aid station didn't completely fill the bladder. Now all I had left was half-full water bottle, and the end of the canyon was nowhere in sight. At that point nothing mattered except for getting out of that canyon and reaching the next aid station before I ran out of water.

But then as I came up close to the canyon wall I noticed something move inside a crack in the rocks. A big lizard, maybe a
Gila Monster, was staring straight at me. I had seen many tiny lizards scampering across the trails all day but nothing was as big as this guy who was about a foot long from head to tail. I felt that it was my duty as a Trail Monster to stop and take a picture of one of my brothers.

When I had one gulp left in my bottle I was still scrambling down rocks, the valley floor was still a ways off, and the aid station was nowhere in sight. I finally decided to stop as I passed a couple hikers going the other way and asked them if they could spare any water. To my surprise they said no, but that the aid station wasn't much further. As I rolled into the aid station it felt like a huge weight had been lifted and I was really happy. I immediately drank 3 cups, ate a bunch of orange slices, and asked a volunteer to fill my pack only. By then I was on the valley floor and it was an easy 2 miles to the finish. My legs, knees, and ankles all felt fine and I had good energy.

About a mile and a half from the finish line I saw a guy ahead of me take a wrong turn. I assured him that the finish line was this way. Had he kept going he would have been on the 50k course that we already ran at 7am.

I crossed the finish line in 6:38:57.

For the next hour I relived tales from the trail with fellow competitors and ate soup and more oranges. The guys who I passed in Ford Canyon finally came across the finish line 45 to 60 minutes after me. I couldn't believe how good I felt at the finish. I figured maybe it had to do with the fact that I walked up some sections and scrambled down others. I was sure that it had something to do with the way I managed my liquid and S-cap consumption. I hoped that it had something to do with my training choices and that I was well prepared. I'm absolutely convinced now that in a month I'll be ready for a 50 miler. And if all goes well, by mid July, I may be ready for another
Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run.


vja said...

Yay!!!! Good report, great effort!

I really need to try the S-caps.

pathfinder said...

Very detailed and exciting report along with great pictures! I suddenly have this urge to packup and hit the trails!! I guess in the desert, water is much too valuable to share?

TC Hazzard said...

Nice writeup and great pictures. Definitely a race to add to the to-do list.

Thank you for sharing.

Brock Foreman said...

Nice report, Erik.

Steve said...

Great report and congrats on a well run race!

Nickelina said...

Definitely an adventure to tell stories about. Your aunt and uncle's home looks amazing, I want to live there.

Congrats on a successful race!

Chandra + Kris said...

Congrats! Loved the lizard picture :)