Author's Note: I wrote this piece back in May, shortly after the Canyons took place. What follows is the "first draft" of the significantly shorter piece that came out in Ultrarunning this month. To be honest, I don't consider myself a really strong writer, but what I am is a crack editor. I can usually take a horrid first draft, revise it, hack it back by at least 30%, and turn it into something reasonable.
What I learned writing this piece is that the approach to writing something that is 800 words is wholly different than the approach to writing something that is 2,500 words. Like, I already knew this in theory, but oh man. Now I know it in practice. Even a good editor struggles when faced with reducing the word count by 60% while still maintaining the essence of the original piece. Next time, I will limit my "horrid first draft" to 1000 words.
So, it's not that this version is really any better than what you'll see in print. But I spent so much time on it, that I felt compelled to share the director's cut. If you can't get enough of The Canyons, then read on.
The Canyons Endurance Runs take place every spring on the historic Western States Trail out of Foresthill, and I’ll tell you a secret: April is the best time of year to run here.
Part of RD Chaz Sheya’s vision for the event is to provide an opportunity for every runner to experience this storied trail.
“The reality is, it can take a really long time to get an entry into the Western States 100. It took me six years,” he shared. It’s clear from his voice that he’s passionate about offering that access to all runners, especially those from out of the area who might not have the trail knowledge to come run it on their own. “You want to race on the Western States trail? Cool. Here’s a race where you can just sign up and come run it!”
This year, on the last Saturday in April, 400 runners do just that. Like many of the other 100K entrants, my primary goal for the day is simply to finish with a Western States qualifier. Anyone who came here expecting an easy 100K qualifier though will be in for a surprise. The Canyons can dish out suffering and disappointment with the attitude of a much longer race.
The first half of the 100K course heads north out of Foresthill through the namesake iconic canyons of the Western States trail. This half is by far the most difficult part of the race, consisting of an out-and-back across three steep canyons. Preserving any running ability for the second, more runnable half of the race requires a great deal of conservative pacing through the steep descents and climbs of the canyons.
My first worry of the race meets us at mile two in the form of Volcano Creek. All spring, as snow in the high country melted, this creek crossing had grown deeper and more challenging. Two weeks prior, it had been nearly waist deep at the crossing, with immense force from the rushing current.
|Jamie crossing the creek two weeks before race day.|
“It’ll be exciting!” I declare to two women running in front of me as we make haste on the technical downhill of Volcano Canyon.
“There’s some positive spin,” one of them laughs.
One thing we all agree on, there will probably be a bottleneck as runners cross carefully with the aid of a rope stretched across the water.
As it turns out, the race directors added a rope, giving runners two places to cross. They even replaced the usual, flimsy rope that hung there with something sturdier -- a much-needed improvement for race day. With the creek actually running slightly lower than I's last seen it, the crossing turns out to be quick and painless, the current coming only up to about mid-thigh on me.
There are a couple miles of dirt roads after you climb out of Volcano and head into the first aid station at Michigan Bluff. We run in various small groups, enjoying the company of other runners as the sun rises on the still chilly morning. I run much of this part with Jen Hemmen and Whit Rambach.
“The best way to run this course is to negative split,” I tell Jen with authority. Because, you know. I’m an expert.
It's a sentiment I repeat to at least two other runners during the day. And while it’s not an incorrect strategy, it is perhaps harder to do than I recognize. Especially if one’s training happened to consist of running just twice a week.
I do my best to execute the negative split, staying relaxed on the descent down to El Dorado Creek. The shade of evergreens and oaks keep things comfortable, and the four-mile climb up to the aid station at The Pump goes by quickly. The amount of trail work that has been done through this area is only apparent to those of us who have been out here all spring, and I am duly impressed. Winter wrought difficult conditions, with downed trees incessant and entire sections of trail washed away. The Western States trail crew, along with Chaz and his merry band of chainsaws, clearly fought the good fight in recent weeks, and I am grateful.
At The Pump, runners are greeted by the rainbows, unicorns, and energetic smiles of Reno’s Silver State Striders. The genuine love flowing out of this group exemplifies one of the best things about The Canyons Endurance Runs: community. In only its fourth year as an event, Canyons already feels like family.
|Good feels at the Striders' aid station. (Photo: Jill Anderson)|
It is hard to leave the energy of the Striders aid station. I am buoyed by the knowledge that, after a short (though not quick) drop down to the Swinging Bridge, we will see them again on the round trip back to Foresthill.
|Happy at the Pump. (Photo: Jill Anderson)|
The day warms enough for me to shed my arm warmers, and I share a few miles on the return to Foresthill with my friend Miriam Smith. Eventually though, I realize that staying with Miriam means I am probably running too fast. I let her go ahead. Although I feel comfortable, my watch indicates that I will get to the halfway point at Foresthill with about seven hours on the clock. That is exactly the same pace I ran last year, and I’d followed it up with a six-hour second-half. Thus making me the negative split expert.
In the past three years, as my motivation and enthusiasm for consistent running has waned, I have continuously revised my definition of what it means to go into a race undertrained. Now, as I arrive at Foresthill on pace with my 13-hour finish from last year. I quite honestly think to myself, “Maybe training is just a waste of time.”
Thirty years as a competitive runner, and sometimes I am still dumber than the most ignorant rookie.
The aid station at Foresthill has the familiar feel of race day at Western States. A cheering swarm of family and friends mingle with volunteers. Someone brings me my drop bag, while friend and Aid Station Director Sean Flanagan helps me get fueled up for the second half of the race.
The day has warmed considerably, and I fill my bra with ice before heading out in the opposite direction toward the Middle Fork American River. It will be 15 miles of somewhat rolling, but overall gradually downhill, terrain to the turnaround at Rucky Chucky.
The trail makes a long traverse across the sloping canyon, with views of the snowy Sierra above and the sparkling river below. When I tell people that if they only run here on race day at Western States, they are missing the trail in its best season, this is the scene that comes to mind. The 70 degree temps are mild, even if it doesn’t feel like it to this mountain girl. The slopes are lush and green, and wildflowers abound. California poppies, lupine, paintbrush, shooting stars. They attract butterflies who put on their own dancing display of color. Small waterfalls and creeks cross the trail as it winds in and out of pocket watersheds, and they are unusually swollen for this time of year.
I can feel my right hip tightening in a way that is worrisome, and eventually my left ankle also gets cranky. I find myself questioning if six hours for this 50K is really a possibility. I splash off in the creeks to keep cool, and finally find my way to the Cal 2 aid station and the loving arms of the ladies of my own Donner Party Mountain Runners. Here is another infusion of love and energy, and at this point, I am sorely in need of it. The trail is exposed, the sun hot, and I know the seven miles to the turnaround are not going to pass quickly.
Bob Shebest cruises past me in the opposite direction on his way to the men’s win. Sharing the trail with runners on their return trip is less tedious this time since there are no 50K runners, and we are more spread out. Apparently a fair number of 100K runners dropped at Foresthill, which would also account for the thinner traffic.
I approach a beautiful creek crossing to be surprised by Kelly Barber popping up from full submersion in a deep pool.
“Oh my God, you are brilliant!” I tell him, as I take off my hat and sunglasses in preparation for the same treatment. He is clearly having a good race and throws words of encouragement over his shoulder at me as he tears off down the trail. The soaking is delicious, and I swear my body temperature drops by two full degrees while my spirit climbs in proportion.
Cat Bradley heads by looking incredibly casual and with what looks to be a sizeable lead in the women’s race.
“I love your pigtails!” she calls to me. This makes me smile, and I thank her. I love it when the top athletes have the spirit to cheer and support the other runners.
As the miles slowly tick by, the trail maintains its beauty, and fellow runners trade greetings, I recognize the state that is setting in: survival and acceptance. The return to Foresthill isn’t going to be especially pretty. There will be more walking than I’d like and increased pain in my hip and ankle. But it will get done. I’ll get there. And it’s that confidence that allows me to appreciate the struggle of the remaining miles, if not quite enjoy them.
Somewhere in the last five miles, I’m climbing another endless hill that god-dammit-I-should-be-able-to-run-but-can’t, when I see my friend Michelle Edmonson heading toward me.
“Yeah, Michelle!” I give her a cheer. “How are you?”
“Oh, man.” She shakes her head, and I can see she’s deep in the thick of this thing. “I’m fighting, Gretchen.” Her voice shakes slightly through her smile.
I want to stop. Give her a hug. Tell her she’s got this, she’s badass. Tell her I totally get it.
Neither of us has time for that shit.
“That’s what it takes,” is all I’ve got for her. “Keep fighting!”
And I hike on, engaged in my own fight toward the finish.
I manage to get there before truly needing to turn on my headlamp, and I take a morsel of pride in this. There’s a reasonable crowd cheering for me, and five seconds after I cross the line, I am sitting in a chair while Sean once again fetches my bag for me. Thank God because I am certain I could not have walked the 20 yards to get it myself.
Even in darkness, the finish line at Canyons is essentially a ten hour party. Friends, family, and exhausted runners sit in scattered chairs sharing stories. Chaz grills tri tip and wild duck next to the beer keg and a buffet of hot soups. Music from the speakers is punctuated by the periodic sounds of cowbells and cheering, signaling the approach of another runner.
Well after midnight, the same crowd of friends who had been manning The Pump aid station are gathered around the finish area bringing the same effusive energy to cheer every late night runner across the line. They wait for their friend and Striders teammate Michelle, who is still fighting it out on the course.
She is the final runner across the line, and the Striders have champagne, sleeping bag, and flip flops all ready for her.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Chaz, “to have so many people out for that late-night support, cheering on every finish.” This includes the 14 finishers who won’t make the 18-hour cut off to get a States qualifier.
It’s exactly that feeling that I love about this race. It doesn’t matter that I had a fairly ho-hum performance. It feels good to have tired, aching legs and be surrounded by friends. Providing an opportunity for you to push yourself while also giving you incredible support is what makes The Canyons Endurance Runs truly magical.