Bryce 100 is a new 100-mile race held on the next major ridge line to the west of Bryce Canyon National Park.  While the race is not held in the national park, along the way runners are able to view many similar rock formations and run a few miles through hoodoos. It runs above and below what are called the Sunset Cliffs that face to the west. Much of the course is above 9,000 feet, so altitude is a major factor both because of lower oxygen and cooler weather.  The course is deceptively tough but the beauty is first-class.

In the weeks leading up to the race, I made two trips to preview the region and run portions of the course, also to try to help get me get adjusted to the altitude.  I was very impressed with the area and realized that this race would likely become one of the classic 100s in the country.  The trail is mostly soft and runnable with a few areas of loose rock.   The climbs are many, but all no longer than 1,000 feet at a time.

In the month before the race, the course was changed significantly twice.  The resulting course was mostly an out-and-back, but with the start and finish in two different locations.   The start area has very limited parking, requiring runners to be shuttled in two miles, introducing some confusion.  But it is well worth it in order to let runners experience the spectacular Thunder Mountain trail, the first seven miles of the course.  The finish is at Ruby’s Inn near Bryce Canyon, allowing a nice roomy finish location near lodging.

For this race, we made it a family camping trip. My wife and daughter came along.   We camped at the beautiful Topic Reservoir.   Race check-in was at the group campground which was very congested when we arrived, not enough room to accommodate all the runners coming and going.  We decided not to camp in the group area with everyone else and instead enjoyed a nice peaceful evening by a camp fire in the main campground.

In the morning, I let the family sleep in and hitched a ride with another runner to the start area, about 15 minutes away.  I rode a school bus to the trailhead and tried to stay warm until it was light enough to begin the race.  Because the course starts on single-track, I made sure I was near the trailhead when “go” was shouted by the race director.

I started among the top five runners and was pleased to not be back in the crowds.  I was able to run my own pace and enjoy the rolling single-track the weaves in and out of the numerous draws and pine forest.

By mile 4 I was still running in the top 10.  As I began running fast down into Redrock Canyon, since I had seen the views last week, I instead concentrated on my pace and footwork.   It was nice to be able to truly run at full speed for the first time in 18 months.  I was thrilled and having a blast.

Matt Watts photo

Once through the spectacular Redrock Canyon, the trail turned into a rolling trail through the lowland foothill forest down around 7,000 feet.   Trace Lund caught up as we were running through the foothills.  It was funny that both at Salt Flats 100 and Bryce 100 we stayed close for miles.  I was now struggling with my pace, going through a little initial low point. Phil Lowry caught up around mile 10 moving well and it was nice to be able to keep up with him for quite a while.   He would periodically take some video so I had fun being a jerk, passing him at those points and jumping into his video shots, making some sort of wisecrack.  We arrived at the Thunder Mountain aid station (mile 10.3) at 1:49, a couple minutes ahead of my goal time.   Soon after I arrived, the station became crowded as waves of other runners arrived.  I tried to get out of there fast.

At about mile 12, I finally was warmed up and could really run the hills fast.  We ran through a beautiful narrow canyon that climbed toward Proctor Canyon.   I was delighted to discover that I could push the pace hard, without difficulty, running up canyon.  I passed several runners and stretched a nice lead over them.

The final three miles to the next aid station was a long runnable climb up to about 8,700 feet.  By mile 18, Craig Lloyd caught up, running ahead of his group of three other friends running the entire race together.  I referred to them as “the boys.”  They would stay together all the way to the end, an amazing feat to do for 100 miles.  I reached the Proctor Canyon aid station (mile 19.5) at 3:53.  I received a nice friendly greeting by many as I arrived.  I left before “the boys” arrived and started attacking the steeper 1,000 foot descent to Camp Eli.   Course marking were plenty, and perhaps over-marked.  I never had problems going off course.

After Camp Eli was the steepest climb of the course without switchbacks heading up a narrow canyon and after skirting below a large set of red cliffs, we made a final 500-foot climb to the rim at 9,200 feet with spectacular views on all sides.  I arrived at Blubber Creek aid station (mile 26) at 5:41.  Yes, a pretty slow marathon, but we had already experience about 5,000 feet of climbing.

I felt the effects of altitude and it put the brakes on my pace somewhat during next eight miles or so, rolling along the high rim.  I had gut and feet issues, and ended up stopping for nearly a half hour for a bathroom break and foot cleaning.  As I got running again, I ran with Ben Blessing from Idaho.  Shortly after I left him behind, he suffered a serious ankle sprain that put him out of the race.   The section between Blubber Creek and Kanab Creek had plenty of ups and downs near the rim and seemed to be an especially tough section.  I arrived at Kanab Creek (mile 33.6) at 7:39, about a half hour behind my projected pace.

Sunset Cliffs - Matt Watts photo

The course soon left the single-track Grandview Trail and spilled out onto a dirt road that descended down into Straight Canyon.   When I arrived, the boys were there, doing well.  My long stops in the bushes had let them caught up.   I enjoyed running with the boys for the next few miles.  I then pushed the pace ahead as we made the long dirt road climb up to above the Pink Cliffs.

Pink Cliffs - Matt Watts photo

When I arrived at the top, I stopped and said, “Wow!”  The view of Pink Cliffs really popped.  It was spectacular.   We were at the highest point of the course, about 9,500 feet.  I arrived there (mile 45) at 10:45, an hour slower than I hoped, but I was still running in the top 20.

Matt Watts photo

Next up was a switch-back dirt road descent back down to the Grandview Trail and another spectacular traverse below some amazing cliffs near Crawford Pass.   I ran out of water but one of the boys caught up and gave me enough to avoid dehydration.   I arrived at the turnaround point, Crawford Pass (mile 50) at 12:04.  I was pleased with that time.

Phil Lowry was there, surrounded by family and friends explaining why he was quitting, “Not worth it, trashed quads.”   Despite all his preaching there, when I left, I bet to myself that he would still finish.   He did.

Me, almost back up to the Pink Cliffs

I had a very quick stop at the turnaround and made the next big climb pretty fast.  It was fun to see the rest of the runners behind me spread out for miles.

Trace Lund caught up with me at mile 60 and we came into the next aid station together.  I spent the next 30 minutes changing into night clothes, cleaning my feet and trying to eat.  However, I just wasn’t feeling well.  The boys arrived as I was about to leave.  I ran up the road a ways and realized I forgot my flash light, so went back down to retrieve it.  Kendall Wimmer gave me a wind breaker for the night.  I was afraid I would be too cold.  I sure was glad he did, that was a life saver.

I felt rather rotten on the next climb and near the top the boys caught up.  It was now dark.  I hung with them for a while but then stopped to get my music set up to really cruise on the rim.  Once I had the right tunes playing, I really stepped up the pace and passed runner after runner, but so had the boys.  Where were they?  We arrived about the same time at Kanab Creek (mile 66.5) at the same time, still running in the top 20.   The boys seemed to take long station stops, but I was in and out pretty fast.  I should have stayed longer because soon I started to crash.  I stopped and cat-napped in the trail for about five minutes until the boys caught up.

The next section on top, above 9,000 feet was brutal.  My stomach shut down because of low oxygen, my heart rate too high, and I was breathing hard.  I just couldn’t run much.  The wind really kicked up and as I was mostly walking, I became very chilled, hypothermic.  Eventually I would have to stop, find a warm place out the wind and rest until my breathing rate came down.   I was passed by runner after runner.   Because I was moving so slowly, I also ran out of water.   Twice I had to beg water off of some kind runner.  Trace Lund caught up and he too was having trouble.  I passed him while he napped, but he eventually went by again.   It took me a very long time to reach Blubber Creek, mile 74.

This aid station had no fire to warm by.  When I arrived, I said, “I’m having trouble, not in very good shape.”  But no one there offered any help, so I went to find it.   I went down a little row of crew cars and asked if there was a car I could sit in.  A lady quickly offered her car for me.  She was great, making room for me and offering me help.  She turned on the heat and her car seats were even heated!   Soon the hypothermic feelings left me, but my stomach was still shot.   I talked about quitting to the lady, asking her about a ride back down. But she wouldn’t hear it.  She reminded me that the next section was downhill, that I should keep going.  I kept thinking of a warm sleeping bag, back at my camp.   I went to the aid station to get some food, came back and asked if I could just sit in the car and try to bring my stomach back to life.  She even let me clean my feet in her car.  Well, after an hour there, I decided to continue on.  I knew my race time was shot, but surely I could finish.

The next section dropped to 7,700 feet at Camp Eli.  I felt somewhat better, but had no strength at all on the short climbs.  On the long climb, I moved slowly and several runners passed me.  Jim Milar caught up, good to see him.  At the turnaround I had been about 2-3 hours ahead of him.   I reached Proctor Canyon aid station (mile 80.1) at dawn, 23:54 (five hours slowing than I hoped).  As usual, after a night of stomach issues, when finally the sun hit me, I found life.  I could push the pace again and arrived at mile 89, the group campground at about 8:30 a.m.  We had just made a spectacular climb through the Cliff Rock area.

There would now be eleven more hot lowland (7000-8000 feet) miles left.   I decided to push it hard to see if I could come in under 30 hours.   I would have to run the last 11 miles in about 2:45.   I walked the first half mile but then really kicked it into gear.  My legs were fresh and my lungs were working again.  I passed about 8 runners.  It was fun to see them about a half mile in the distance and cruise to catch them.

The finish finally came into view and I came in at 29:51.  There were so many nice people at the finish congratulating me, including the lady who saved my race at mile 74.  Trace Lund ended up finishing right before.  The boys finished strong about three hours earlier.   Phil Lowry finished an hour or so later and reported that the course ended up being about 102 miles.

I was somewhat delirious from the fast miles in the heat so didn’t hang around long.  I needed to cool down fast and hit the AC in the car.  My family drove my back to the campground where I washed up in the bathroom with a nice cool floor to help my feet.   We hit the road to return home and without a couple hours I was feeling good again.

Bryce 100 is a fantastic, but tough race.   The DNF rate was high and it almost claimed me too.  The altitude that early in the season really kick my rear end.  I left wondering if I would return.   I probably will.   My 55th 100-mile finish is in the books and was a memorable experience.