On February 15th, I had the pleasure of pacing my good friend Eugene Smith in his first 100k and what would be his longest run to date. I wanted to run this race but injury kept me from it. Disappointed over the injury, I was glad to support Eugene in his run and still get to see the trail.
Despite getting an early departure from Las Cruces on Friday before the race, we rolled into the race area in the dark with the help of cheap gas station coffee and energy drinks and barely managed to find a cheap motel off of Interstate 15. Justin joined us later as he hadn’t left until after work. The tired and smelly three of us piled into the room for very little sleep. Hard to sleep with pre-race nerves and a belly full of road rations. Such a romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day!
The race started at 8 am, pretty late for an ultra marathon. It began at a high school track with a full moon setting over the mountains to the west near Prescott. It was a small pack of runners for the inaugural Black Canyon 100k. Unexpectedly, I ran into John “The Verm” Sherman and his girlfriend Dawn who had come down to follow and photograph a friend running the race. I’d just had dinner with John a month ago when he passed through Las Cruces. It was good to see and chat with the bouldering legend again.
The crisp air was a perfect start to the race but the temperature rose quickly down in the lower canyons. “Winter” in the southwest had brought high temperatures in the 80’s this week.
I left the course to find a real breakfast and wait for Eugene to tick off some miles before I found him. I wouldn’t start pacing until mile 36.
The course is a perfect setup for access and crews. A trail weaves back and forth across a gravel road that is only a 5-10 minute drive between each aid station. When I first saw Eugene he was looking great and pushing a good but perhaps quick pace as he ran into mile 12 at just a little over 2 hours.
I saw him next around mile 18. The temperature was starting to climb and Eugene came in with his typical white crust of sweat forming over his face. He still looked and felt good. I gave him some encouragement and drove down to mile 36. This would be the longest stretch without a crew for runners.
Crews and pacers are probably not necessary for races, especially ones with adequate aid station locations. However, after crewing and now pacing, I can really appreciate the presence of a crew and pacer. At Speedgoat last year, Marco was able to cruise right through aid stations as I handed off refills of fuel. This quick exchange easily shaves off minutes. I know I spent at least 20 minutes grazing and chatting at aid stations at Jemez. Sometimes visiting at stations is part of the fun but if one is looking to have a fast time, a crew can really help. If for nothing else, I’m sure seeing and chatting with friends as you come into each station and along the route is a good boost. Personally, the stretch through the night at Black Canyon would be a lot harder and spookier if I were running alone. After hours and hours of running, just moving forward can be a arduous thought so a pacer to keep moving can really help.
I arrived at the mile 36 aid station pretty early but in time to see the top runners come through. The temperatures had really risen and the top three really showed it. The fast pace and exposure had them sitting in shade and dumping ice water over their heads for some time. News was start to trickle in about the temperatures really affected the runners and some were already dropping out. I started to worry about Eugene a little bit but knew he is not the type to drop out of a race despite how hard or painful it may be.
I expected to pick up Eugene around one or two in the afternoon. I waited around for hours with Tim and Maxette, Eugene’s uncle and aunt, and started to worry a little more as two turned into three and then almost four o’clock. My friend Sean came in earlier but was dropping out due to a knee injury. He was hot as well and had been pouring water over his head all day. We all were getting a bit concerned about Eugene but came strolling in, a little slow but still ready to go. He slowly fueled up, rested, changed shoes and headlamp batteries. I too was raring to go for a nice long run through the night with Eugene as well.
From the beginning of our run together, this course was so beautiful. Dropping down into a river bed with exposed rock faces and sagauros all around. After a few miles in, 40 something miles for Eugene, he was starting to eye the Hoka shoes on other runners. His feet were sore and rightfully so. This trail is rocky and he just ran over 40 miles! We joked about what size each runner wore and thought of turning into desert bandits and jumping someone for their cushy Hoka One One sneakers!
As we were about to crest the longest climb of the race, a girl passed us going in the other direction and in tears. We finally put it together and she must’ve missed the spur trail down to the last aid station and had turned around, adding at least 5-6 miles, another big climb and most likely forced to drop out of the race. Although the turn was marked pretty well, the same fate would meet Justin as well. The cutoffs were tight already without adding extra miles. We felt pretty bad for her.
We kept a good but slow pace, always moving forward. We hiked the climbs but jogged most of the other terrain. We joked and chatted a lot of the run but I think the most fun and interesting times were when we said nothing. Our breathing and steps were connected. I could tell how Eugene was doing just by listening to his breathing. Occasionally looking back and saying, “Good pace”, “How you doin?” or “Relax, let’s just push to the bottom of this next hill.” The experience was similar to playing music with others when everyone has an unspoken connection and everything just keeps moving with no verbal direction. Pretty amazing.
As the sun went down, we ran for a while in the twilight and dark but soon had to switch on the headlamps. I love running at night. The field of focus is narrow, limited to lumens and battery life, and the clarity of the sky and brightness of the moon. The saguaro cacti were a bit spooky. The looked like silhouettes of large beings as we weaved through them all night. Campers shot off guns, coyotes howled in the distance (if only they knew how slow and easy of prey were running by them all day) the glowing pink eyes of night hawks shown on the trail like jewels and they quickly took off before us as we approached, piss puddles turned into hallucinatory gila monsters for Eugene. We both had several startled moments throughout the night and I know I enjoyed the company.
I don’t understand some folks running races. One lady was pretty short with volunteers when asked if she wanted a seat. She replied, “sitting is death!” in a snide tone. Another couple bickered along the trail. The husband was pacing and in a cheery mood but the wife was not having it. Both parties motivated Eugene and I to move along a bit faster. Do these people forget they voluntarily paid to run this race?! I think many miss the beauty and enjoyment of trail and long distance running. We moved along smiling.
At an aid station, 10 miles from the finish, the volunteers gave us some incorrect information and said the finish was closer to fourteen miles away. I could see some of Eugene’s moral fade as we were already pushing the cutoffs pretty close. We quickly grabbed some aid and took off with Eugene leading the way. The new urgency put some boost in his pace and we moved along quickly. We figured we would keep pushing the pace to make the finish or if the volunteers were wrong, give ourselves a cushion for the last few miles. At this steady pace we started passing several folks. I think this boosted Eugene’s moral a little bit and I think got the other runners to moving a little faster as well.
The volunteers at the last aid station looked tired as they blasted some hard rock from a radio. They had been out there for a long time and look almost as tired as the runners. Trail race volunteers are an awesome and tough bunch. They confirmed that we only had three miles left (fortunately the last aid station volunteers had been incorrect). The news was very much welcomed and we jogged in with coyotes howling and the city glow of Phoenix in the background.
Jamil Coury, race director and trail badass, greeted us across the finish line and handed Eugene his well-earned belt buckle. Justin and Uncle Tim were there as well to welcome us in. Eugene and I hugged in congratulations. Other familiar faces were at the finish eating food and sharing stories and goals. As has been said many times, the trail community is one of the best.
This run was inspiring in many ways: the distance Eugene ran and be able to support him, great race organization, night running, effectiveness of slow pace running, old school trail race vibe and the beautiful Sonoran Desert.