2018 Zane Grey 50: Analyzing My First DNF

This might read like a list of excuses, but that’s not what it’s meant to be. It also might read like some sort of extended self-flagellation, but that’s not what it’s meant to be, either. I made a lot of mistakes leading up to and during the race (only one of which was really out of my power to affect), so this is my post-race analysis of those mistakes, written with the intent of helping me to remember them so I don’t repeat them in the future.

For the record, I make mistakes in and around most of my races, but up until now I’ve managed to keep them from snowballing into a mess that takes me out. I just didn’t do that this time.

Not Enough Training

There are so many ways that this happened.

• Not enough time between Black Canyon and Zane. I ended up having to take two weeks for recovery after Black Canyon, because something in my feet was still pulling funny after a week, when I usually start running again. My nine weeks of training time (that I thought would just kind of roll on through from Black Canyon) turned into seven.

• Got sick with some kind of awful cold. This was probably the biggest issue with the training block. I came down with a cold, and three days later went on a 4-day/3-night cold-weather campout with my scout troop, where we had freezing to sub-freezing temperatures every night and were snowed on during day 2. Opting out of the trip wasn’t an option, because it was my trip—I was in charge of it, and I there were no backup leaders available to take over.

Fortunately, I had planned for bad, cold weather and managed to stay relatively warm (everything but my feet!). If I hadn’t been sick, it would actually have been a blast—it was still fun even though I wasn’t feeling great. As it was, I felt like I got a little better over the first couple of days out, and then got worse for the last couple. And then it was at least an additional week after I got home before I really got better. I lost two weeks to the cold and probably should have lost three, but I was starting to panic about the training, so my Zane training block started at five weeks out.

The cough lingered for weeks after that—I’m writing this roughly two weeks after the race, thus nearly 8 after the campout, and my chest has just barely stopped feeling sore when I cough.

• Mountain Man Rendezvous. An honorable mention goes out to the above-mentioned scout camp. It was a Mountain Man period reenactment event, and my first time going, which meant I had a lot of regalia I had to create. It took a lot of time to put together, which took time away from training, and created a lot of stress. I think my stress over the whole thing contributed a lot to my getting sick.

Normally, I do my peak week three weeks ahead of a race, and then taper, but with the time crunch I was in, that would have meant a whopping two week training block. I opted for a two week taper this time so I could get an extra week of training in, giving me a grand total of three weeks. On the mistake/not a mistake scale, I think this at least was the right call. I got good running in that third week, and I didn’t feel like losing a week of taper time really hurt me. I was pretty rested and ready to go on race day.

A Bad Plan

I knew time was going to be tight going into this race—the biggest challenge would be staying ahead of the cutoffs. In an effort to shave time, I came up with a “minimal aid station time” plan that I thought was a good idea. 

I pre-packed bags with my own food (a mini-can of ginger ale, a single-serving pack of Pringles, a few mini-pickles, and some “running food” of the usual sort—Tailwind, gels, cubes, etc.—of varying amounts that I estimated I would need for the next stretch between aid stations) in plastic bags I could quickly grab from my drop bag, and go after refilling my water. Also part of the plan was that I would just refill my bladder at the aid stations and then fill my soft flasks from that once back out on the trail. The main idea here was that moving along the trail would be better than being stopped at the aid station.

It didn’t work for me. I’ll give the details when I talk about my race day mistakes.

I also opted to use a “hard” aid station-to-aid station strategy of tracking the distance, which is to say that I used a custom watch setting that doesn’t display overall distance covered and turns off the auto-lap mile counter. I manually start a new lap each time I leave an aid station, and then I only have to keep track of how many miles it is to the next one. It helps keep me focused only on the segment I’m doing rather than the overall distance done already and remaining, and in the case of Zane where I’m chasing cutoffs, lets me focus easily on the necessary segment pacing. This wasn’t a new strategy—I tested it during Black Canyon 100k and loved it. It was the most present I’ve ever been in each segment, and I spent almost no time throughout the entire race thinking about the overall distance left to cover.

What got me in trouble was that I had a “cheat sheet” in my pocket of aid station cutoff times that I needed to focus on, and even though I wrote everything down accurately, I did not double check it on race morning and had a mistaken assumption give me a scare. More on that later, as well.

Race Morning

I didn’t get up early enough. The race started at 5 AM, and I was getting a ride out there at 4:15. I rolled out of bed at 3:45. I had gotten all my stuff ready the night before, so there was very little I needed to do by way of prep, aside from getting dressed and putting water in my soft flasks, but I need some time for the ol’ physiological process to get going, which is to say… I didn’t give myself enough time to be ready to poop before the race. In the “contributing factor” department, I didn’t have my usual pre-race green tea, which also helps get that going, and helps stimulate my mid-morning appetite while running.

We got to the starting area about 20 minutes before the race was to start. I went to go drop off my drop bags, and walk around a bit in hopes of (as my friend Pete says) getting “the magic to happen,” but as I was doing that, the race director started making the rounds, calling all runners to the starting line for the race briefing. So instead walking around, I got closer to the starting area, where I heard not a word of it. I kept waiting for it to happen. I assume it did at some point, but I never heard it.

I resigned myself to planning on using one of the trailhead restrooms further down the trail and socialized a bit, and suddenly everyone started running, taking those of us talking by surprise. Not only did I not hear the briefing, I never heard a “go.” I could hear the RD when he was calling for the pre-race briefing, but that was the last I heard from him. I don’t know what happened. Fortunately, I had already turned on my watch and it had acquired the GPS signal, so it was ready to go. I hit the start button and we were off.

The Race

It took about six miles for my cheat sheet to get me in trouble. I should have written down what the distance was from the starting line to the first aid station, because I didn’t see anything posted about it at the starting line, and what I had thought I’d read was wrong. I thought we had to cover nearly seven miles by 6:30 AM to make the first aid station cutoff, and I was wrong all around. I hadn’t really been watching our time because I thought we were pretty comfortably on track for where we needed to be, and suddenly Chris (who I had been running with) said, “How are you feeling about our pace right now?” 

I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost 6:20, and (I thought) we were still about a mile from the aid station. So with a rallying cry of “HOLY CRAP,” we started hauling down the trail. 

I had done the math on the pace we needed to maintain, and we had been comfortably under it. How had I gotten it so wrong?

It took us less than five minutes to get to the 260 Trailhead aid station, which we discovered was closer than we’d thought, and we’d had more time to get there than we thought. My fault on both counts.

We’d only run “hard” for about four minutes, so I don’t think it was enough to have affected later performance, but it rattled me, and I know that didn’t help anything. I took a couple of minutes to grab my drop bag soda and down it, and then we kept going. As we left, we went past the sign giving us the distance and cutoff for the next aid station (7 miles, 8:45 cutoff).

It also kindly informed us of the distance and cutoff to the aid station we’d just arrived at (6.5 miles, 6:45 cutoff).

The next stretch was relatively uneventful. There were a lot of short, gradual drops and climbs, and eventually a long descent going into See Canyon that really hammered me.

On my way in toward the See Canyon aid station. Things hadn’t gone south yet.

I got into the aid station a little before 8 AM and was finally able to go to the bathroom. Once I was done there, I went to my drop bag, took my bag of food, refilled my the water in my pack (I remember filling the bladder… I actually can’t even remember if I filled the bottles or not; I don’t think I did, and if I didn’t, I should have), and left. Total time in the aid station was around ten minutes, which would be a fast stop for me without a bathroom break.

I should have stayed longer. Relaxed a bit, drank some water, or soda, or anything. Eaten something. I was trying to bank time for the stretch ahead, when I should have been banking energy from rest and food. I had made up about 25 minutes from the last station and had 45 I could have spent at See Canyon (not that I should have spent that whole time there, but I definitely had a cushion I could have used to rest a bit).

Instead, at about 8:10 I started hiking up the hill on the climb out of the aid station, on my way to Fish Hatchery 12 miles away. I tried to eat while I walked, but my chips felt chalky in my dry mouth, and I was breathing hard from the uphill climb and elevation. My ginger ale went down okay, as did the pickles, but I could only finish about half of the pack of chips, and I scattered the rest for the wildlife to enjoy.

And after that, I gave up. 

It didn’t happen right away, of course. Took a few hours to get there. I don’t know exactly where it started, but it was probably about halfway through that stretch, maybe after one of the longer climbs (but more likely on one of the lousy descents I could only kind of run), I started to surrender. The sky was clear, the sun was high and hot, and I know I was low on electrolytes and calories. My Tailwind, my staple of countless runs and at least a dozen races, just wasn’t sitting well, so I had gone to water only and was supplementing it with my gel cubes. It wasn’t enough, but it was all I could handle.

I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of running into Fish Hatchery and having to turn right back around to come do this again the other direction. And I started to question whether I even would go back when I got there. At that point in the race, at the pace I was going, I was still on track to have to make that choice.

But I slowed down. I trudged. I stopped to stretch my legs and one of them tried to cramp up. That was when I knew I was in bad shape and decided that whether or not it was going to go down well, I needed to get some more calories and electrolytes in me, so I went to mix up a new bottle of Tailwind from the water in my pack… and watched as it ran dry at about the halfway point. So I scrounged the leftover water from my other bottle and put that in on top of it, and combined I had almost one bottle’s worth of liquid. And I started drinking it.

It was too little, too late. I had gotten myself in a hole, and that wasn’t enough to dig myself out of it.

I made it to Horton Creek, not an aid station stop, but a cool creek crossing where I was able to dip my hat to help cool me off. I saw Chris, who was dealing with dehydration (a ridiculous irony, sitting right next to so much water, but not safe to drink without some kind of treatment). He said his day was done, and I had to move on. By that point, I had about four miles to go, with about an hour and fifteen minutes to do it. Both he and I thought I had plenty of time to make it still, and I thought I was still going to have to decide whether or not I wanted to go back out again.

But my energy was gone. All I could do was hike, hike, and keep hiking, and as I watched the distance never seem to shorten, while the time kept on ticking by, it became more and more apparent that I was probably not going to make that decision, because I was going to miss the cutoff.

And then it was a weight off my shoulders, and all I felt was relief. I wasn’t happy, and I knew that I would be even less happy later on, but I was just so relieved to know that I would be done soon. I passed a lot of runners as I came in, the ones who did make the cutoff and were keeping their fight going, and I congratulated them all and meant it. But it was over for me.

Kris was waiting at the aid station. She was thinking she had got there too late to see me come through, just as I came up the hill and waved at her. I was glad to see her. I just about broke down, briefly, when she asked if I was out and I had to tell her yes, and then it got brushed aside because I needed to hurry up to the aid station to get some much-needed water. They were closing it down fast and wanted to clear out.

So I refilled, drank, and repeated that process a few times. The volunteers for some reason had brought my finish line drop bag out to Fish Hatchery, so, fortunately, I was able to pick everything up right there. I had my coat in it, which I would need that evening.

And that was my Zane Grey experience.

One of the upsides to DNF-ing early was that Kris and I got to spend a lot more of the day hanging out together than we would have otherwise.

Post-Race Analysis

As I write this and see all the many, many things that went wrong, both because of my choices and things out of my control, it almost surprises me that I made it as far as I did. The race calls itself an “advanced degree run,” and I feel like I went into it at about the level of a fifth-grader.

My single biggest takeaway from the experience is that I stressed too much about… well, everything. I was worried about this race from just about the day I signed up for it, and it only ramped up as the race got closer and my training wasn’t going as planned. I think stress contributed to me getting sick, and I know it drove my bad decisions in my planning and race day decisions.

Next time, and forever after, I’m going to take the time I need at the aid stations. I think one of the biggest reasons I have done well in my previous ultras is because I haven’t been afraid to move through the aid stations at the speed I needed to—sometimes that’s quicker if I’m feeling good, and sometimes it’s slower if I’m feeling not-so-good. That’s the eating, drinking, and resting I do to keep me going, which is critical in an ultra.

When I first conceived of my grab-and-run drop bag food pack idea, it was meant to be an emergency measure. If I rolled into an aid station with very limited time remaining, I could refill my water, grab the bag, and roll on out onto the trail. I think in my original conception of that idea, it even involved sitting down to eat once I got the requisite distance out of the aid station.

So I don’t think it was inherently a bad concept. I just took a decent idea and made it bad by deciding to try doing it when I didn’t need to do it. I think that in spite of all the other mistakes that were made along the way, I probably still could have finished this race if I hadn’t messed up at that See Canyon aid station.

And again, making sure to refill properly at the aid stations is such a basic, basic concept for ultras that I feel like I should have to wear a dunce cap for bungling it this time.

That’s my race-day takeaway. I don’t think there are any good lessons I can take away from the pre-race training mess. Maybe use more hand sanitizer to keep from getting sick? 

I registered for Zane well before the scout camp was even announced, and when it came, that campout was my event to manage. So obviously if I’d known about the camp ahead of time, I would have known it would be a major training conflict and would be likely to derail the race training, and thus the race. It may have changed everything. But I didn’t know when I registered, and I had no way of knowing.

Without those two issues—the sick and the camp—I still think the Black Canyon 100k to Zane Grey 50 schedule was a pretty good plan, even with having to take an extra week of recovery in between. This is the thing I am evaluating the hardest right now, because I am planning on running a hundred miles this September, and I am trying to figure out what kind of big effort I want to put out in that range of about eight weeks before the race. Another race? Some kind of very long day event? How hard should it be?

I took a screenshot of the last time my Ultrasignup profile said this, before the Zane Grey race results were uploaded. RIP.

So What About Zane?

The other question that needs to be answered is what I am going to do about future runnings of Zane. Go back for revenge? Or not?

Right now, I am leaning toward “not.” I did not enjoy the race, completely aside from the issues spelled out above. Well, mostly aside from the issues above. I know there are people who love the Mogollon Rim area, which I completely understand. It’s very pretty. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t pull on my heart strings the way alpine mountains do. Maybe that’s the thing for me. I really fell in love with high-elevation mountain trails last summer, and that’s been in my heart and on my mind ever since.

The other thing is, this is potentially the only year the race will be run using this specific course. The race director is (according the Zane Grey website) currently exploring the possibility of having the course go further west next year, which would make it a different course than the one that beat me. And eventually, it will return to its normal course, starting in Pine and finishing at the 260 trailhead. So even if I do go back, it’s probably not going to be the same.

I don’t feel like I need to make peace with the race itself. Maybe that will change in time. It would be nice to walk away with one of those finisher jackets. What I do feel like I need to make peace with is the course we ran. The idea that keeps bouncing around in the back of my head is just doing a “fun run” consisting of the distance I covered, plus the return back to See Canyon, started at 5:00 AM and completed before 4:00 PM, the original start and cutoff times of the race. It would “only” be 38 miles, but right now I don’t really care about the last 12. I just want to clear those first 38.

But it’ll be a while before I’m back out there to try it, and my mind may change before then. All I know now is that I’m glad it’s over and that I won’t be worrying about it for a while.