There are lots of interesting places to see in the USA, and a disproportionate number of them are
in Utah. So when an ultramarathon race at Bryce Canyon turned up in a Google search, scheduled
for the week after my brother's wedding in California, I figured that we were looking at a sort of
“perfect storm” of reasons to travel.
“Bryce Canyon Ultras” was the name of the event, offered as part of the Grand Circle Trail Series.
With distances of 21km, 50km, 50 miles, and 100 miles, I picked 50 miles as it seemed about as
long as I could run and still enjoy my holiday afterwards.
Bryce Canyon is a pretty unique place. It is a bit out of the way, but it's worth the trip. It is the
place where the high, forested plains of the Paunsaugunt Plateau fall away into an other-worldly
garden of pillars of orange rock (called hoodoos), forming the beginning of what is known as the
Grand Staircase. The landscape is beautiful and complex, and happens to be quite accessible too,
with some fantastic trails. While not actually including the section protected as a National Park, the
race would run the length of the Plateau from South to North along the Grandview Trail, starting
high in the forests, crossing peaceful meadows, skirting edges of cliffs and then descending into
the bare canyons.
Note that due to a lack of course access, the photos in this piece were taken in the surrounding
areas and not on the actual course, but they illustrate the general area.
Race day began at 4:30am, riding shuttles down to a frigid starting line at the forested southern tip
of the plateau. Anticipating a hot day and unprepared for the cold, we chattered and shivered
violently until being released onto the course to race at 6am. The starting pace was quite
reasonable (at least compared to European event), so I was able to keep track of the race leaders
and settle into my own comfortable pace. Within five minutes we were out of the cold pocket and
cruising along forested single track under orange cliffs radiating the pre-sunrise glow. We hit a fire
road for a relatively easy climb to the first aid station and race high point at Pink Cliffs, and got a
spectacular view off the summit before heading inland across across misty meadows with muddy
We ticked off aid station number two at 11 miles, turned onto another fire road, and I heard a
voice behind me. “That's a lot of Altra gear, this guy must be Fast!” it said. I like Altra gear a lot and
I was of course sporting my plush new Lone Peak 3.0s, but that just seemed like a real fanboy thing
to say. After introducing myself I learned that he wasn't so much a fanboy as an Altra brand cofounder
by the name of Brian Beckstead. Brian was equally Altra-attired but I couldn't quite
identify the shoe model. “Prototypes” said Brian with a grin, and we chatted about shoes for a bit
before drifting onto the topic of local wildlife.
Apparently, a black bear had raided one of the race's aid stations the previous day, during the 100
mile event. A blond one. The notion of a black bear being blond surprised me, but Brian explained:
“You see, 'Black bear' just refers to the species, but we actually get them in all different colours –
they can be blond, brown, white, blue-grey...”
“Ginger?” I asked.
“Cinnamon.” Brian replied.
“Sure,” I thought to myself. Next time I see an American tourist I'll tell them we have Basil & Lime
Hyenas and Cardamon Warthogs back home. As it turns out, Google says Brian was exactly right.
By this point the race was starting to take shape. A young guy from Colorado started to move off
the front, and I followed for a while but needed to take a pitstop, which left me running on my
own. It was a beautiful morning, and the trail took us again to the edge of the plateau with orange
cliffs falling away metres from our feet, and a view west into the seemingly endless forested
landscape below. Up on the rim we benefited from the shade of the tall ponderosa pine forest at
this point, which also concealed the origin of a startlingly loud noise. I had been jogging along at
around 5:15/km, but the noise coupled with the earlier conversation about bears precipitated an
improvement to around 3:30/km without a conscious effort on my part. Has the performanceenhancing
effect of scary forest noises been adequately dealt with in the sport science literature? I
would say no!
After passing the Blubber Creek aid station at mile 25, we left the Plateau, plunging deep into a
forested gorge so dense that my GPS gave up tracking. The trail was rougher and narrower here,
with the familiar ruggedness of a South African path. We were still at a relatively high altitude of
around 2500m, but as we broke out of the trees the temperature began to soar. The terrain varied
from dry creeks and dusty, eroded basins speckled with pinyon pines to steamy meadows of grass
and wildflowers, but the heat continued to build. I had been running in third place for some time,
but somewhere near the marathon mark I had a surprise encounter with running water, and the
second place runner stopping to cool off. That was good thinking, and I did the same, but I dared
not drink the water since I was told that any of the streams can be infected with giardia or other
parasites. This business of not being able to drink from a cool stream is torture, frankly, especially
when the water you are carrying is warm.
Shortly after this little oasis I slipped past into second, and tried to open a bit of a gap. I was only
able to gain a minute or so before the next aid station, so I made a point of refilling as quickly as
possible to retain my position. By this stage, our race had merged with the 50km course, and we
were picking up dozens of runners who were starting to crack (not to mention some of the last 100
mile runners, whose general condition did little to inspire me to attempt the distance). In fact, as
the course gradually climbed over the foothills there was hardly any running happening – any
positive gradient seemed to be met with a walk by just about everybody on the course, and there
was still 30km to go!
My energy levels were still good, and I had plenty to race for so I kept the running rhythm going,
but I could feel the dreaded muscle cramps brewing under the surface. By the time I reached the
final aid station at 42 miles I had opened a significant gap to third. It was now 12:54 and I sensed
that the heat had undergone an upgrade from “inconvenience” to “danger”, so I packed my 20oz
bottles with ice and sports drink, and downed a few extra gulps for a head start.
Before long, the heat was simply too intense and I was forced to walk like everybody else. After an
undulating approach, we found ourselves on a white, loose ridge of clay with barely any vegetation
on it at all, masquerading as the race's final climb. The trail took anything but a direct line, it swung
the “wrong” way and after ascending for a mile, it delivered a surprise descent to the start of the
next “final climb”. This also was a white, loose ridge of clay with barely any vegetation on it. If I had
come here looking for an even sun-tan from above and below, I would have been delighted with
these conditions, but after 70km of running I was not in the mood for it. My body was starting to
to break down, which seemed to be the case for everybody on the course. Even so, the third
placed runner never seemed to come into view and I wondered how the leader was faring up
front. I continued to scan the horizon for him.
The scenery was stunning – we were gradually gaining the plateau again through a landscape of
canyons and hoodoos, some of the most beautiful terrain of the race. But near the top of the climb
I came across a disturbing sight. A young runner from the 50k was lying seemingly unconscious
across the trail. There were a couple of other runners stopped around him, one trying to give him
water from what was obviously his last reserve. We still had about 9km to “run” and it didn't seem
like this guy was going to get up. Knowing a little bit about first aid, and about heat injury, I was
extremely concerned. One of the stopped runners was on the phone to a race official, and she
reported to us that they would not be able to extract the collapsed runner. “!!#$*!”, I thought,
“This could end very badly.” I bent down to speak to him to see if he really was unconscious, and
thankfully he was able to give me his name. We carefully lifted him off the trail and into the shade
a of a small pine to slightly reduce his heat exposure. Having establised that nobody had any extra
water (wishful thinking), I pulled out my nearly empty bottles and poured warm, high-electrolyte
drink over his head to try to effect some sort of evaporation cooling, but beyond that there was
not much we could do. We were nowhere near a road. I noticed my pursuer go past, but racing
was on the back-burner for me at this point. After a few minutes a sweeper from the race
organisation arrived, and I decided that there was nothing for it but to hand over and push on into
my own little medical drama.
I tried to get running again as the trail flattened out, but that wasn't happening. I was parched, out
of energy, my ears had gone all weird inside and my muscles were siezing. I attempted to sit down,
but I couldn't get it right without making the cramps worse. Despite rationing my remaining sips of
energy drink, I still ran out of it well before the end, and couldn't bring myself to force my
emergency gels down my parched throat. Clearly I'd developed a huge deficit during the day and
my competitive urges had prevented me from addressing it. Fit, healthy people started running
past in the other direction (carrying water to their friends, it turned out, since word had spread
that runners were collapsing and aid stations were running out of water). I asked one how far it
was to the end. “About three point two miles” he said, “but there's water halfway there.”
Water in 1.6 miles! Very exciting, but in my current state that would take literally half an hour.
Ebenezer Bryce, who gave the canyon his name, is said to have proclaimed upon his first sighting
that it was “A hell of a place to lose a cow.” While I did not lose a single cow all day, I did lose my
sense of humour when I came upon the water point to discover an empty cooler box.
The final mile was down a gravel road, and as I limped around the last corner I saw Hayley. She was
quite shocked to see me walking, so she yelled: “You can't WALK! Run!!!”. So for one hunderd
metres I did, and got over the line in an eventual 4th place. It makes me shudder to think what the
rest of the field must have gone through, if after all of that I was still 4th!
If you are thinking of visiting Bryce Canyon, don't be put off. It is running heaven, with great trail
conditions and mind-blowing landscapes. Just try to avoid the heat!
Thank you to Ultimate Direction and Altra SA for the great gear, and to the Altra guys in the USA for
setting me up with a race entry. Much appreciated!