Race Report: Bryce Canyon 50K 2016

by Alan Sanderson

At the end of the 2015 Mohican Trail Marathon I decided that I would never race anything longer than a half marathon again. But the memories of pain faded, and by fall I was ready to accept my brother’s challenge to run the Bryce Canyon 50K. He said that if I signed up for it then he would run it with me, so I signed up. I am a novice trail runner, and have never been very fast at anything, but he is an experienced trail runner with a lot of notches on his belt. I decided that inadequate preparation was the biggest problem with all of my previous long races, so I worked a lot harder for this one hoping that it would make race day more fun. I also worked a lot more on my hydration and nutrition plan. My training wasn’t perfect, and especially during the last six weeks I had several interruptions due to illness and scheduling conflicts. I also had some training fatigue towards the end, and wanted to take more rest days. But on the whole I spent more time training for this run, with an actual training plan, than I have ever done in the past for another race.

We planned a family vacation in Bryce Canyon starting a few days before the race. We stayed at a cabin in Panguitch and had a lot of fun doing easy hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park every day. On the morning of race day we took the shuttle to the start line at Tropic Reservoir, and the race began at 8:30. It was chilly when we first arrived, but it quickly warmed up and turned into a hot day.


My brother and I stayed together for the whole run, and he let me set the pace for most of it because he was capable of going much faster. The biggest climb of the race was in the first 6 miles, and took us from 8,000 up to 9,200 feet. The first aid station was at mile 8, halfway down from the summit of the first climb. I was feeling good, and probably overdid it a bit with speed on the downhill. The second big climb took us from just under 8,000 feet up to over 8,500 feet, and the second aid station was at mile 14 at the bottom of the descent down from that climb. By this time I was feeling the fatigue in my legs, and I had a hard time keeping up my pace on the shorter climb right out of the second aid station. The next hour or so had probably the hardest miles for me, and it was starting to get pretty hot. I kept drinking and fueling, and found my second wind by about mile 18 or 19.

IMG_20160618_102457350My fueling strategy was slightly risky, because I decided to do something different on race day from what I had done during my training runs. A few weeks before the race I ran 26 miles, eating 2 fig bars every 20 minutes along the way. I started to gag on them after 5 hours, and had to finish the last hour of my run without any fuel. After this experience I decided to use GU gels on race day, and I also had some Gatorade chews with me. I also bought different flavors of Newtons, so that I had fig, blueberry, strawberry, and mixed berry with me and every time I was eating two different flavors. I ate the Newtons during the first half of the race, and used gels for the second half. It was getting harder to eat fig bars by mid-race because my mouth was dry and I had to take a sip of water with them in order to get them down.

On the last big climb, with hoodoos in the background.
On the last big climb, with hoodoos in the background.

About 2 miles before the third aid station at mile 22.5 I ran out of water. I had been filling my water pack about ¾ full in order to run lighter, but the aid stations were too far apart for this strategy on such a hot day. I started to get some muscle cramps as we approached the aid station. I had to spend some extra time there to eat and drink, and my brother told me to eat something before drinking so that I didn’t fill my stomach with water and have no room for calories. I also took some aspirin. We took it easy for the first mile when we started again, but I soon recovered and felt pretty good, although I could no longer run up hills or even slight slopes because of pain in my hips. I need to do more core work on my hip abductors next time I train for a long race.

My brother took this photo.

About 3 miles after the last aid station we came to the third big climb of the day, which took us from 7,500 up to about 8,250 feet over red dirt through a bunch of hoodoos. It was very scenic, but rather slow going. In the last half of the race we spent a lot of time talking with other runners. My brother is much more social than I am, and had an easy time striking up conversations with other ultra runners. It reminded me a bit of being a freshman in high school when he was a senior, when he seemed to know everyone and have so much more experience and confidence than I had. There were three events on the trail that day, and we mingled with runners struggling to finish 100 miles who had been on the trail for 30+ hours, as well as the lead runners from the 50 mile run who started an hour before us. In general we passed all of the lingering 100-milers, and the 50-milers passed us up after a short time with us.

My brother said that this picture reminded him of Sasquatch. I can see it.
My brother said that this picture reminded him of Sasquatch. I can see it.

On the last big climb at about mile 25 or so my brother paused to take a few pictures while I forged on ahead up the trail. I shot a few pictures of him running up the trail to catch up, and I was surprised at how he could run uphill with such energy and vigor. He is clearly in another league as far as his endurance and running skills. When I go running in the neighborhood with my kids we go really slow, and I can almost walk as fast as they go. Now it was my turn to be the slow one, running with someone who could do circles around me.

We had a lot of time on the trail to talk, and had some good conversations. We talked about The Book of Mormon, our families, running experiences (of course), and many other things. We talked about our childhood hiking experiences with our dad, and how that was our first introduction to endurance sports. He took us to the top of Mount Timpanogos while we were still just children, and that is where we first became acquainted with the sensation of how it feels to continue on the trail despite physical and mental exhaustion. Thanks to our dad for teaching us how to dig deep and carry on despite pain. And thanks for teaching us to love the mountains.

At the finish line.
At the finish line.

I ran out of water again about 2 or 3 miles before the finish line, despite filling up my water pack full at the last aid station. The race organizers set up a mini aid station with a water cooler about a mile from the finish, and it felt really good to take a few sips and wet my cottony mouth. We crossed the finish line together at 7 hours, 48 minutes, and a few seconds. That put me in 36th place out of 149 finishers overall, and 26th place out of 78 male finishers, which is better than I expected. Many thanks to my brother, who was the best pacer in the world!

We had poor cell phone reception during the race, but we tried to keep our family updated about our progress because they wanted to meet us at the finish line. They arrived in two different shuttles within about 5 minutes after our finish, so they just missed us. Our sister had us re-enact the finish so she could take some pictures.

Transitioning from endurance race physiology to a more normal state is a strange and sort of uncomfortable experience for the first few minutes. About ten minutes after the race ended I had the strongest urge to sit down and I felt slightly light-headed, but I resisted the urge to sit down because I had been warned to stay on my feet and keep moving. I also drank some ginger ale to calm my stomach a bit so that I could start eating, which I really didn’t feel like doing at first. The ginger ale worked, and soon I was able to eat and drink without feeling queasy.

I kept track of my run using the MapMyRun app on my phone, which tracks the route using GPS technology and reports mile split times. My GPS watch doesn’t have enough battery life for a run this long. Unfortunately the app malfunctioned after I finished the run and wouldn’t sync with the MapMyRun server, so I lost all of the data. I remember that our slowest mile was 26 minutes, which was the mile which included our 10 minute rehydration stop at the third aid station. The fastest mile was about 8:30 on one of the early downhill stretches. Most of our miles were about 14-16 minutes.

My finishing prize, an earthen pot made by a Tarahumara Indian.
My finishing prize, an earthen pot made by a Tarahumara Indian.

The finishing prizes were not medals, but various items made by the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe which lives down in Mexico and is famous for their culture of endurance running. I chose a nifty earthen pot that reminds me of a Peruvian huaco. It has a little runner guy painted on the side.

All of that training definitely made a difference to this long race, and so did my nutrition plan. I told my wife at the end of the race, “The good news is that I feel pretty good right now. The bad news is that I feel pretty good right now.” This experience taught me that endurance running is a lot more fun with proper preparation, and I will definitely leave the door open to running another marathon or ultramarathon in the future. But for now I will focus on shorter distances because I really like running half marathons and because my family needs me to spend more time at home.

The race organizers had promised that there would be warm showers at the finish line, but there was something wrong and they didn’t work. We stood around and talked for a while with our family, and I started to feel less faint after about 20 minutes. We took it as our cue to leave when my 2-year old was bitten by a big black ant and started crying, so we got on the next shuttle to leave. We bid farewell to our extended family and drove home. We stopped at a rest stop near Parowan and I decided to use the bathroom. I realized that I had only had to urinate once that day during the race, and now it was two hours after the race ended when I finally went again. When I got home I found salt crystals around the neck of my shirt. It was such a dry, hot day!

Many thanks to the race organizers and volunteers for putting on a great race.

If you live in Enoch and want to post your race report here, contact me on the Enoch Running Club Facebook page. Let us know what you are running, and we will cheer you on!

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