Thursday, March 27, 2014

Race Report: Aravaipa Running - Mesquite Canyon 50K, Saturday March 22, 2014

I woke up at 3:30am the morning of the race to drive to White TankMountain Regional Park in Waddell, Arizona, 173 miles from my house in Vail, Arizona. The 50K start time is at 7:30 so leaving the house at 4:15 was necessary to arrive there by 7am and get ready. The sun started to rise on the White Tank Mountains while I was still driving west on I-10 near Avondale. I had never given much thought to that big range west of Phoenix during past trips to California. Now those same mountains held many mysteries as to what I should expect over the next several hours of trail running.
One of the coolest things about being part of Team Aravaipa this year, besides my awesome teammates, is that I have experienced several new mountain trails that I never knew existed in the Phoenix Valley. I pulled into the overflow parking lot just in time to pin on my race number and stash my after-race bag. The temperature at the start is already in the low 60s with a forecast high of 82 degrees. I line up next to Jane Larkindale and her husband Jim Holmes, both of whom also drove up from the Tucson area. Jane won the 50-mile event last year. She like many other runners are here to get a good training run in for Zane Grey 50M in 5 weeks. I'm here to ramp up my race distance in preparation for Crown King 50K in just 2 weeks.
My plan was to do a training 50K on this semi-mountainous single-track trail. I use the word semi because the highest elevation is around 3200 feet and the toughest climb on the course is 1700 feet over 3 miles. No drop in the bucket but definitely not alpine. One logistical factor of note is that there are 9 miles without aid or water between miles 4 and 13 and returning from 13 to 22. This prompted me to use a 70 ounce hydration pack. I also carried a 20 ounce hand-held for electrolyte fluids. I did notice several runners only carrying 2 hand-held bottles. I’m not a big hydration freak but knowing that the course is exposed on a sunny 80 degree day made my decision easy. Luckily there were light breezes up on the higher trails as well as some wispy clouds to take the bite out of the direct sunlight.
I have been regularly training in the Hoka One One Rapa Nui trail shoes and wore them during the race. They seem to be holding up well at over 300 cumulative miles. The week prior I used the Rapa Nui on the 21 mile Esperero Loop in Tucson, gaining 5,000 feet in 8 miles and then mainly descending over the next 13 miles. My quads were abnormally sore for four days after that run and I was concerned the Hokas were losing their magic. It turned out that it was just Esperero being difficult.
I clicked my Garmin on but made a conscious decision to not look at my time during the entire race. I started off at a conversational pace for the first two miles. After reviewing the elevation profile I knew somewhere around mile 3 would be the start of a 7-mile 1600 foot gradual ascent. The profile looks worse on paper than it feels while actually running. After some initial short steep sections the trail is very runnable even on the gradual uphills. I don’t mind walking up hills when needed but the majority of the uphill through Mesquite and Slick Rock canyons is doable even if only in granny gear.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
By mile 5 the field had thinned out and I focused on bodily feedback while enjoying the beautiful desert views. The trail ascends along canyon walls and as you get higher the views of the surrounding valley are expansive. Thankfully we got a good soaking of rain a couple weeks ago; the wildflowers were in full bloom and very fragrant. Jeremy Dougherty caught up with me on the last mile of ascent on this section. We chatted about how great the day was turning out. After topping out at 10 miles the course drops precipitously for 2 miles through an obstacle course of ankle twisting rocks. Jeremy’s ability to negotiate the downhill was better than mine and he quickly disappeared ahead of me. The first 30K runners coincidentally were halfway up their ascent from the Black Canyon aid station.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
The descent into Goat Canyon is a preview of the climb back up from the 13-mile Black Canyon aid station. By the time I reached the turaround and aid the temperature at 1500 feet elevation was noticeably warmer than up on the higher trail. This was especially evident running through the sandy sections on the way back into Goat Canyon and climbing out to the top-out at mile 16. Occasionally as I passed other runners on the uphill I noticed several were sweating profusely and taking breaks. This served as a good reminder to ingest a couple of electrolyte caps.
Speaking of nutrition here’s how my day went. I carried 5 GU salty caramel gels and only used 3 of them. These are delicious by the way and have 20mgs of caffeine. I drank three 20 ounce bottles of Gatorade and a small cup of ginger ale. At the 13-mile aid station my 70 ounce hydration pack was still half full and only needed another 20 ounce refill at mile 22. So in total I drank 60 ounces of electrolyte fluid and another 70 ounces of water over 5 hours. I used 4 e-caps and 600mgs of liqui-gel ibuprofen. I also had about a half-dozen Tums and a single ginger capsule to settle any stomach issues. Oh yeah, I had a small handful of peanut M&Ms at mile 5 and a half of a tortilla wrap at mile 13.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
After topping out at mile 16 on the return to Mesquite aid station, the course gradually descends for 6 miles providing excellent single-track running. Through here I struck up a conversation with Andrew Heard. We both shared our positive experience with the Rapa Nui Hoka shoes. It seems we both found some form of nirvana with the Hokas. After the aid station at mile 22 the next four miles of trail undulates through Willow Canyon. I was amazed by the beauty of multitudes of wild flowers and classic Sonoran Desert vegetation in all of its spring greenery. Then all of a sudden the real adventure began – Ford Canyon.
“Fear the Ford,” I had heard many say before the race. “It gets hot in there.” Ford Canyon is 2.5 miles of gradually descending wash and boulders. It reminded me of hiking through a riverbed and getting to places that you have to backtrack in order to find better passage. Except on Ford Canyon the trail keeps going. I managed to shuffle as much as possible in between climbing boulders and jumping down off of rock ledges. Through 27 miles of the course I had yet to see water until Ford Canyon. There were stagnant pools from previous rainfall. A couple of times I had to splash through pools of water getting my feet wet for the first time.
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
(Photo: Giridar Gajapathy)
(Aravaipa Photo Gallery)
Eventually the trail scrabbled up the side of the canyon and continued for another mile to the Ford Canyon aid station. I thought I had around 3 miles remaining but the aid station volunteers said 1.9 miles to go. This was joy to my ears. I pushed the pace into the finish and for the first time looked at the clock to see 5:19. I ended up in 9th place overall. The first master runner had just finished one minute ago unbeknownst to me.
Overall it turned out to be a fabulous day. The trail had mostly pristine single-track with lots of runnability and an interesting diversion through Ford Canyon. I finished the run feeling great physically, no cramps, nausea, or overheating. Unfortunately I still needed to drive 173 miles home.
Aravaipa Running really does a tremendous job organizing their races; from sign-up to the start line; course marking and aid stations; and the finish line and post-race festivities. Mesquite Canyon is definitely a race to put on your list of adventures.

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