Mesquite Canyon 50 Mile, Waddell, AZ  4,4

Elevation: ~1500'     Elevation Gain: ~5600'
March 23, 2013 - After a wonderful week vacationing in Sedona, running
46 miles on rocky trails back into red rock canyons, and three days of rest,
the only thing remaining to complete a perfect holiday was a difficult trail
race in the desert and mountains twenty miles west of Phoenix.  I felt
prepared for the awaiting challenge after four solid trail workouts between
4400' and 5100' in Sedona, even though they were in the same week as
the race.  This was the first time I can recall when I continued my training
through the week of the race.  Coming off a successful 50-mile effort only  
two weeks prior, I felt strong and confident in my ability to handle hard rocky
trail surfaces and steep vertical ascents and descents.  Good thing, because
that is exactly what this race was all about.

I had run two previous events directed by the Coury brothers and knew
what to expect - challenging and tough, like they are.  The day dawned with
a beautiful Arizona sunrise over the distant city, sillouetting the saguaro cacti
against the salmon horizon.  At 50 degrees it felt fine to my winter blood,
but I could see others shivering in their jackets and fleeces as we awaited 
the seven a.m. start for the 50-mile event.  After a half hour delay the 50K
runners would follow behind us, then the 30K, half marathon, and 8K races
would begin on different courses.  The 50-mile event would first follow the
50K course before finishing on the 30K course.  Through the morning there
seemed to be runners with different colored bibs coming from every
direction for awhile.  By the end of the day only the fifty milers would remain
of the 350 participants in all events.

The start was comfortable with a 2-plus mile shuffle through the desert amid
the ambient morning light and fresh desert smells to reach the first aid station
before we would begin to climb.  I settled into a relaxed lolly-gagging pace
and enjoyed the views, deciding to drink early and drink often, having run
in the arid desert before.  As we began to engage vertical terrain I asserted 
my strength and experience and began to move past others who walked on
the early climbs.  Past the second aid station at Mesquite Canyon the single
track trail wound back and forth on undulating switchbacks as we climbed,
forever climbing to the top of the first ascent at Goat Camp. At the top I was
moving well without duress, completing the first 9 miles in 1H 45M before
beginning the precipitous two-mile drop into Black Canyon.  I've hiked down
from mountain tops that were not this steep, losing 700 feet per mile by
bouldering straight down.  Footing was extremely tenuous, which slowed 
to a crawl, allowing me to use gravity to blow right past better runners.  By
the time I reached the Black Canyon aid station at mile 13 in 2H 30M, I was
feeling very good, but did have a little tendon strain in my right knee.  The
descent of four tough miles took me 45 minutes, without so much as a 
stumble.  In fact, this is the first ultra I can remember when I didn't fall once.
Because of the abundance of cacti along the trail and sharp rocks, to fall
could have been catastrophic.  I wore my glasses and really focused on 
where my feet were and moved on rugged terrain all day without a mishap.
The only blood I sustained was from a scratch from a passing Mormon tea
bush on my hand.

It doesn't mean I didn't touch the rocks, however, as both descending and
climbing frequently required three and four point skills throughout the day.
After resupplying from my drop bag at Black Canyon we turned and 
reascended to Goat Camp up the same way we had dropped down.  Most of 
the two-mile ascent was bona fide scrambling.  There was very little running 
to reach the top at 17 miles.  This was one of three stretches where there  
was no aid for nine miles at a time, requiring two full 22-ounce bottles to 
survive the interval.

The descent on fairly easy trails down to Mesquite Canyon aid station at mile 
22 was gentle and made for comfortable striding.  The next five-mile section
was down Ford Canyon, a sandy wash with abundant white boulders often
as large as a house.  This section was technically challenging with lots of 
short climbs, leaps, and step downs - virtually bouldering down through the 
canyon.  The entire event in many ways could be said to be a hybrid 
between trail running and rock climbing.  I enjoyed it immensely. After a quick
stop at the end of the canyon at the aid station I coasted to back to the start. 

Reaching the Start/Finish, where 50K runners would stop, my 50K time was 
6H 30M exactly, a lot quicker than I would have expected, given the two 
1500-foot climbs and technicality of Ford Canyon.  I took a break there to 
really rehydrate before continuing.  Drinking from bottles all day long while 
running only goes so far.  I needed to stop a bit and let my stomach empty 
before continuing.

The first five miles of the 30K route back to Black Canyon would be my next 
challenge.  Early afternoon temperatures were peaked above 80 degrees.
Someone local corrected me when I said it was hot, telling me it was just 
very warm.  Despite the heat I still comfortably covered the relatively flat, 
undulating five miles through saguaro cacti in just five minutes more than an
hour, still at a five-minute-per-mile pace at mile 36 in 7H 35M.  Again at Black
Canyon I stopped for ten minutes to deliberately rehydrate before climbing 
up to Goat Camp in the heat of the day for one final time.
I left the aid station with two full bottles of ice water and ice gatorade and 
moved up the trail on my own, walking more than I did the first go-round.  I
learned that many fifty-milers had dropped at the Start/Finish rather than
continue in the heat to go the distance, so I was alone most of the last 
twenty miles, with the exception of three solo female runners, all of whom 
would finish ahead of me within a half hour.

The third 1500' climb up to Goat Camp was arduous, but not too taxing.  I was
still within my ability to run and knew I didn't have to kill myself to finish before
dark.  So I backed off a bit, given the expected fatigue and noticeable
dehydration.  I took time to look at the stone walls around a fallen-down
structure and  goat corals at the top of the pass.  The desert was alive with
flowers of every color after measurable precipitation within the previous two
weeks.  There was ocotillo, both staghorn and teddy bear cholla, barrel cacti,
as well as a whole forest of saguaro all the way to the top of the mountains;
mesquite with lots of creasote and many fleshy plants I could not identify.
Countless lizards scurried in front of me as I ran, never quite fast enough to 
outrun me before darting sideways off the trail under the cover of some
rock or bush.  There were two snakes as well, about two-feet long each, but
not of a venomous nature - I had been watching for and listening for any
rattlesnake that might slither near the trail, but encountered none 
fortunately.  The sign at the gate entering White Tank Mountain Park warned 
of mountain lions, so I remained vigilant for that possibility as the shadows 
began to stretch across the trails on the way back in the afternoon.

Surprisingly, as I went over the top of Goat Camp and rounded the ridge the
thermals picked up to about a 40-mile-per-hour steady gale.  I had to reverse
my running cap to keep it from blowing off, even though it still did a couple
times.  Even though temperatures were in the seventies still and I had some 
good color on my arms and legs from the sun, the air was outright chilly from
the strong thermals on the ridges on the way down.  I was glad to get to 
lower terrain as I approached Mesquite Canyon aid station one last time.

I was feeling seriously dehyrated and couldn't drink enough, nor could I eat
another gel.  After awhile gels have no appeal, despite their benefit.  Around
mile 44 I had to stop to dry heave.  There was nothing to come up - my 
stomach had just had it with the heat and dehydration.  The muscles from my 
hips to feet were cramping severely when I stepped wrong, so I resorted to
walking more and shuffling only on smooth downhill sections to avoid serious
cramping episodes.  After drinking a little soda pop at the aid station and 
refilling my bottles with warm water, just 5.2 miles remained to the finish.  
Elaped time at the aid station was 10H 30M; I felt I could walk five miles if 
I had to and still finish in 12 hours.

Somehow, I managed to work through some of the cramping and shuffle 
down the widening trail to the bottom of the mountain for a couple miles, 
walking intermittently.  There was no concern for time; I knew I would 
make it before dark; and I wasn't anxious to see the end sooner than later.
Somehow, I gingerly strolled the last 5.2 miles to the finish in an hour and 
five minutes, a good ending to a challenging day, in a time of 11 hours 35 
minutes and 15 seconds.  Still severly cramped from the waist down I dry 
heaved once again after the finish when I attempted to eat some chicken
soup.  A soft drink seemed to settle my stomach enough to drive back to 
the motel after a change out of my crusty clothing.

It was a good day.  I loved the challenge of the course.  This is why I race
- to take on tough courses that require you to prepare and bring your "A"
game if you want to succeed.  On this day I packed enough TOUGH to meet
the challenge and come away with a smile of satisfaction.  As I leave the 
desert I vow to return for other tougher challenges in the years ahead.  I 
stopped to ask Nick Coury half way through the event whether Zane Gray 
50M is really that much tougher than Mesquite Canyon.  He affirmed that it 
was.  Zane doesn't climb as much as Mesquite in terms of severity, but it is 
rocky the entire distance with no runway reprieves like Mesquite.  So, Zane 
Gray is on my radar for 2014.  I will be back.