Race Report: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100-Mile Ultra and Relay, September 26-27, 2015
This was my second 100-mile race of the year, falling on the heels of Kettle Moraine in June. As race week approached, I was nervous. This one would take me completely out of my comfort zone; not only would this be my first race outside of the Midwest, but it was a point-to-point race and much of it took place above 7,000 feet. (When you live 614 feet above sea level, the odds aren’t exactly in your favor.) I would also be flying solo for this time, as two days prior to race day I found myself without a pacer. So, assuming I finished in one piece, I had no means of transportation to get me back to my car. Panic! After freaking out just a little (read: a LOT) I saddled up for Flagstaff and headed out alone.
Race: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100-Mile Ultra and Relay
Organizers: Ian Torrence and Arizona Trail Association
Location/Course: The race begins at Hotshots Ranch, north of Flagstaff. The course passes under Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey’s Peak, through the high alpine meadows of the Hart Prairie Preserve, across 422-square-mile Babbitt Ranch and along the Coconino Rim, with gorgeous views of the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Navajo Mountain. Finish is near the entrance of Grand Canyon National Park in the small gateway community of Tusayan, Arizona.
Distance: 100 miles point to point
Elevation: The course starts at 7,400 feet, reaches a maximum elevation of 8,800, (most of which is concentrated in the first 6 miles) and finishes at 6,600 feet with approximately 7,000 feet of climbing.
Terrain: The course ranges from single track to varying degrees of double track and forest dirt roads. Sections of the trails are covered with heavily vegetated ponderosa pine and alpine aspen forests to sparsely vegetated pinion-juniper grasslands and back again. The terrain is mountainous and rocky.
Time Limit: 30 hours (100 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Nutrition (approximately 2,200 calories):
Goals & Training
After having run and successfully finished a 100-miler in June, I was looking for a challenge, something that would take me a step forward yet not completely shred me mentally and physically. Flagstaff had been on the list, and as mentioned above, the race presented what I would call a “scenic challenge.”
Now, 100 miles is a long way to run, and it seems like my last two 100-mile races have come with issues during and post-race. So, the goal for this race was to try and run without issues and let the trail dictate what kind of experience I was going to have — something I think I’ve gotten really good with is running by feel.
Leading up to Flagstaff, my peak training was 78 miles a week. Thereafter, I consistently dropped my mileage all the way to a three-week taper before the race. Four things I incorporated into my training for this race were hill repeats, power hiking, working on my decent/down-hill running technique and pacing (80% of my running was done at a pace well below my threshold).
Seeing as I wouldn’t be able to train for altitude, I consistently pushed for that vertical; my average weekly elevation gain was 6,500 to 8,500 feet. Now, for some of you, that elevation gain is attainable in a day’s trot of 5 to 7 miles, but for flatlander standards, that elevation gain sometimes required hours of running on the same hills (“cardiac hill” was my bestie).
As for power hiking, I wanted to be able to maintain at least a steady pace of 15 minutes/mile on the terrain I was running. Why the concentration on power hiking? Quite simply because when shit breaks down and your primary goal becomes to get your rear to the finish line before cutoff, there’s nothing that’s going to save you like power hiking. It helps break up the constant running motion and shake off some of the fatigue and lets you continue to move forward without having to completely stop.
The night before the race I’d connected with a couple of other runners who were also going to Flagstaff, so race morning I had a ride to get me to the start line. How I was going to get back after I finished was still up in the air. I needed to clear my head, so I focused on getting through the finish, then dealing with the rest.
It was a crisp morning. The sun was out, and I was surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks. I smelled the pine needles in the air and took it all in. It dawned on me that I was going to be on my own. It seemed like everyone else around me had a crew, friends, family or pacers cheering them on. “Time to make friends with yourself,” said the little voice in my head as Ian Torrence, the RD, finished the pre-race briefing. We hit the trail running, and just like that it was go time.
Kelly Tank (Mile 21)
It was a pretty uneventful first mile following behind the front of the pack. I was right where I always am: the mid-packer. As we made our way under Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey’s Peak, which is the longest climb of the race and the most beautiful section of the course, we ran through the high alpine meadows of the Hart Prairie Preserve towards Bismark Lake and made our way downhill through some switchbacks surrounded by gorgeous spruce, fir, ponderosa and aspens along the course to Kelly Tank aid station. I stopped numerous times in the first 12-mile section at the start of the race, sometimes to take photos and capture what my eyes and mind were seeing, and other times simply to catch my breath.
As I ran this section of the course, I noticed ever so slightly a bit of vertigo and a lingering headache that would stay with me for the next 30 miles. As soon as I would try and push pace, it would hit me even harder. My heart rate was elevated, and I could barely hold a conversation without grasping for breath. WTH? I was getting frustrated with myself, as I wasn’t even running that hard yet. I was unable to regulate my breathing, and I was being passed by all these runners who seemed to be moving along smoothly without any issues. Soon enough, I fell towards the back of the pack.
I tried to clear my head as I continued to run/hike simply to catch my breath and drop my heart rate. If this was what the day had in store for me, not only would it make for a long and miserable 100 miles, but there was no telling if I would make the cutoff. My legs felt fine — in fact, I wanted to push pace if only I could steady my breathing and the headache would go away — and with a slight panic I left Kelly Tank aid station at 21 miles into the race only 1.5 hours ahead of the cutoff. “Just hold pace and keep it steady. As long as you’re moving, you’ll be fine. Focus,” said the little voice in my head.
Cedar Ranch (Mile 33)
The next section of the race took us through multiple ranches, road junctions and little to no tree cover. As we made our way to Cedar Ranch aid station, it was mid-afternoon and the sun was bearing down on us. It got hot, the kind of hot where you don’t even notice you’re sweating because the moisture gets sucked out of your pores. I could feel the sun on my shoulders. I was parched, and I could feel the dryness as I swallowed. I was drinking a ton of water and dumping some on my head and face as I continued to move forward. My breathing had regulated, and my head had finally caught up to my legs, so running felt more natural. Except now I was dealing with the heat.
I passed three runners in this section; two were doing the death march and one was stalled due to cramping. I stopped to check on him and then moved forward. I noticed a pickup truck and two volunteers with water. Water! I ran up to them; they had driven back, as it was getting hot and they wanted to make sure runners had enough water. I filled up my handheld, drank some and threw some on my head. I mentioned the guys behind me and kept on running. A couple of miles later, I saw another pickup truck. They stopped and gave me ice that was a life saver!
Before I knew it, I was at Cedar Ranch, starving but felt pretty good. I refilled everything and grabbed my headlamp. The next drop bag access would be at 54 miles, and it was going to get dark between now and then. “What’s there to eat,” I asked? Someone said chili and cheese quesadillas, but you probably don’t want chili. Whaaaaaaat? To heck with that! I poured myself a bowl of chili, grabbed a cheese quesadilla and ate to my heart’s content, then made my way out.
Boundary (Mile 55)
This next section of the course was brutal on many levels. First, there was no tree cover at all. Sections of the course were flat, dirt/gravel road with dust slapping you in the face and a head wind that made it hard to push forward. I was starting to lose my cool a bit. Up ahead, I could see a female runner disappearing into the cloud of dirt. I stopped to look around me; it was vast. I was surrounded by mountains, and despite the nuisance of having to run this section, I was able to take in how beautiful my surroundings were. When I came up on the next aid station, all I remember saying to the volunteers was, “That was f**ked up.” They laughed and said the next section had some switchbacks and varied terrain, so it would get better.
Onward I went, repeating to myself, “Just wait for the sun to go down. It will get better.” And so it did! I watched the sun going down as I ran, and a full moon hung over the sky as the crystal blue grew darker. I quickly noticed the change in temperature. It was getting cool, and I was actually digging the run as I made my way to Boundary aid station.
Quite a few runners were just camped out at this aid station. I made a B-line for my drop bag, waited for the Porta Potty to open up, then shuffled my way to a complete gear change. I went from running in shorts and T-shirt to long running tights, long-sleeve shirt, lightweight jacket, gloves and a beanie. As I sat there, digging through my bag, making sure I had everything for the night stretch of the run, I could smell cigar. It smelled so good that I had to ask who was smoking. Someone spoke up and said they’d get me one if I’d like a boost for the next section of trail. I laughed and continued on. This was an interesting stretch, and I passed five more runners. I was feeling pretty good and digging the run in the cool, moonlit sky. Later, as I looked at my GPS data, I had spent 25 minutes at this aid station. Who cares, right?!
Russell Tank (Mile 68)
This stretch of the run was pretty uneventful, other than the fact that I was running steady and singing out loud to my iPod. I felt better than I had the entire day. There were two other runners about a half-mile behind me, holding steady. My goal was to stay ahead and not let anyone pass me.
I rolled into the Russell Tank aid station, and there was music and disco lights. Music was welcoming — the disco lights, not so much. I filled up my handheld, ate and was up and out. I dropped the two other runners who were at my heels the entire time.
The next stretch of the course until we hit Hull Cabin at mile 80 had one water drop and no other aid or support. It was going to be the longest 13 miles I’d ever run. As I made my way out from the aid station, about 2 miles into the run, I took a drink of water and could feel my stomach turn. The water tasted like burnt plastic. Ugh! I dumped it out. Luckily, I had another mile to the water drop and sufficient Heed/Perpetuem in my bladder. At the water drop, I rinsed my handheld, drank some water and filled up. I reached back to feel my bladder, and it had enough fluid in it. “This should last me the next 10 miles,” I said to myself.
This section of the course was absolutely beautiful, but also challenging, with some steep climbs, switchbacks and drops to rolling hills and technical terrain. I wished I was running this section in daylight and could see everything around me. It was the Kaibab National Forest section, and the tall pines stood towering above my head as I cruised through the single track in the company of my own shadow as the moon hung low and peered through the gaps in the trees.
In the middle of the single track, I saw two tiny eyes reflect in the light of my headlamp, and as I got near I saw something fly lopsided to my left and then across. The two eyes landed on a fallen tree limb. Is that a bat? I stopped and turned to look. It was a bird of some kind. Burrowing owl? I reached for my camera, but when I turned it was gone. (Later, I found out it was a poorwill.) I continued to run forward and saw two other sets of eyes that took flight. I assumed more poorwill.
It was at about 73 miles into the run that I sat down on a tree stump to replace my dying headlamp battery and realized I was all out of fluids. I looked around me. The forest was great and unforgiving. I felt the soft breeze flow through the ground vegetation. I felt insignificant, small. “What is the purpose of this?” It was the voice in my head, and just like that I was crying. It was completely involuntary. I could hear my subconscious mind asking, “WTF? Get up, get up you need to run.” I pulled my sorry butt up and I started to run. It was, in a way, liberating. I ran the next 7 miles without water and didn’t stop until I got to Hull Cabin.
Hull Cabin (mile 80)
Ah, Hull Cabin! This is where I spent 25 minutes talking to Neil Weintraub. Seriously!?! I had the run in 26 hours, but I didn’t care. It was the best conversation I’d had in the past 20 hours. You know how sometimes you meet a complete stranger and you just connect? Yeah, this was it! We talked about races. We talked about trails. We talked about everything in between. Come to find out after I finished the race that Neil is the original Arizona Trail Runner and “the Godfather” of the Flagstaff Trail Running community.
I was so busy talking that I completely forgot I was racing and had another 20 miles to go. I turned to look outside and saw I wouldn’t need the headlamp anymore. The sun was up. Dang, I’d better get moving! So, I said goodbye to Neil. As I was leaving, he pointed out that I should look over to my left and catch the sun come up on the south rim. I did just that! I walked over to the edge and looked down at the Grand Canyon, took a deep breath and kept moving forward.
Watson Tank (mile 88)
I pulled into the Watson Tank aid station and saw three runners that I’d been playing catch with. At each aid station I pulled into, they were headed out. I didn’t think I would ever catch them, but here they were. Something in my brain clicked. I grabbed a banana, threw down some Coke and was running.
I ran hard for the next 3 miles. I needed to put enough distance between me and the other three runners. This is where I meet Luis; he had been running in the wrong direction for the last 3 miles, so after we talked, he started to pace with me. I tried to lose him, but he was always there, hobbling along, so finally I gave in and decided if we were going to pace together the rest of the way I might as well get to know the guy.
Me: How many ultras have you run.
Luis: This is my third.
Me: What have you run before this?
Luis: Bigfoot 200 and Tahoe 200.
Me: WTF? Who does that?
We laughed so hard at that.
Right there and then I decided to run to the finish with him, no matter what my finish time ended up being. So, we started to walk. I could tell he was hurting and was unable to keep up with me running or power hiking. We talked about racing, kids, family. Come to find out Luis had gotten off course twice; he should have finished at 4 a.m. Instead, he took a hour and a half nap at Russell Tank and was hurt bad, but quitting was not an option, as his family was cheering him on and waiting for him to finish.
Luis: You should keep running and finish ahead of me.
Me: No, I’ll hang with you and we cross the finish together. Now, if you were a girl, I’d be leaving you in the dirt to finish this damn thing.
Tusayan/Reed Tank (mile 97.5)
Luis and I both stopped to fill up our water, ate some food and I threw some ice in my buff. I was starting to get hot again, and I was in cool weather gear, making it even hotter.
We started our last trek to the finish, and as we approached, Luis’s kids ran towards us all excited and talking a mile a minute, wanting to run us into the finish. And just like that, we were at the finish line! Done! My time was 27:16:33, making this my 100-mile PR by an hour. I finished 10th Overall, 4th Female and 1st in my Age Group!
So, yes, 100 miles is a long way to run, especially when doing it alone. But it’s what you learn about yourself that’s more important than how far you ran and what time you got. It’s about the people you meet, places you get to go on your own two feet and the connections you make along the way that you cherish — not so much the bling, although the buckle is pretty sweet!
I ended up hitching a ride back to town with the infamous Ian Torrence. Not only did I get to hang with the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon crew post-race, I sat in Ian’s truck and talked my ass off as he drove me right to my hotel room! (I was star struck just a little bit.)
In conclusion, this race was absolutely breathtaking during both the day and night. It’s very well done, with great organizers, volunteers, swag and a kick-ass finisher buckle. It has a homegrown and organic feel to it, where the ultra community comes together to truly inspire each other and see you through the finish. Definitely worth doing!
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
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