Bryce 100 is held near the famed national park, on the next major ridge line to the west. The course is pretty spectacular with views of many pink hoodoos similar to those seen in the park. It runs above and below what are called the Sunset Cliffs that face to the west. I ran the race in 2013 and struggled with the altitude. Much of the course runs above 9,000 feet. Weather is always an issue: too hot, too cold, or rain. I knew this would be the most difficult 100-miler that I would run so far this year, but decided at the last minute to give it a try.
The two major factors that make this race difficult are: the altitude and the long distances between aid stations. To finish up the 100, the aid stations distances are: 9.4, 7.7, and 9.3 miles. When you are moving slowly toward the end and if the weather is hot, this can make things very difficult and for some runners, quite dangerous. You have to carefully prepare for the worst cases and hope to do well. Even with my previous experience with the course, I still wasn’t prepared enough.
When I ran the race in 2013, I had a rough night and wasted a couple hours from stomach sickness and stopping to warm up for an hour in a warm car. I finished that year in 29:50. I thought with a perfect race, I could probably finish in about 26 hours.
The course had some changes since I ran it in 2013. It started two miles further north adding a fast dirt road start section, and the finish would take us back up and over the Thunder Mountain trail through spectacular rock formations. But if your finish was more the 28 hours, those last miles could be in oppressive heat.
At 6:00 a.m. about 150 or so 100-mile runners were off and going, starting at the main highway that heads toward Bryce Canyon. The morning was perfect temperature-wise. I was one of the few that started in shorts and short-sleeves, but within two miles I would see plenty of runners sheading layers. All felt good for the first few miles. I didn’t push the early miles as hard as I did during the 2013 race and instead wanted to settle into a nice steady comfortable pace. My first few miles were: 9:20, 10:31, 10:38, and 10:27. Running through Red Rock Canyon on the Thunder Mountain trail is amazing and a thrill to experience again.
Once down in the foothills of the Sunset Cliffs, the cliff shade kept the morning heat away nicely on the rolling trail. I came into the first aid station, Thunder Mountain (mile 10.3) at 1:54, about on the same pace I ran in 2013. I suspect that I was running in the top 30-40 runners. For this race I refused to be concerned about my placement because I knew there was a high probability that I would have a hard time with the altitude. My focus was to run steady and finish. It amused me at times when other runners would see me coming and try their hardest to stay ahead. For this race I didn’t care who was ahead or behind, I just watched my pace and tried to keep things under control.
I arrived at Proctor Canyon (mile 18) at 3:41, still faster than expected. My uphill muscles felt pretty fine and I ran up steady hills well and descended fast to Eli Camp. I ran with two water bottles during the day and knew that I better fill up at the little stream crossing. The water tasted so good and cool. Next up was the toughest climb on the course, about 1,500 feet in just a few miles. I had run up this section a couple times before so knew exactly what to expect, pushing the pace pretty hard. Around me were now other runners who I would see on and off for nearly the entire race.
Finally up on the rim above 9,000 feet, I came into Blubber Creek aid station (mile 27.4) at 6:34, about 30 minutes slower than 2013. It was enjoyable running up on top with the great views below and cool temperatures. For the next four miles I struggled with the altitude but then something happened and at some point no longer felt the effects. My speed really picked up nicely and I passed quite a few runners. The descent down to straight canyon went well and I enjoyed chatting with a couple other Utah runners who I caught up to, Jared Struck and Aaron Luck. Both went on to finish in 26:35. I came into Straight Canyon (mile 40.2) at 9:49. I knew I was 49 minutes slower than I hoped, but with a continued steady pace could still finish in 26 hours. I stopped for about ten minutes to eat and drink well. There were about ten other runners there looking pretty thrashed.
Next up was a nice steady run up to the Pink Cliffs, with spectacular views, where I was greeted by Wasatch Mountain Wranger friends who helped me quickly get on my way. The first place runner and eventual winner, Mark Hammond had already passed me on his way back, about 12 miles ahead. He would finish in 19:30. Cait Morgan from Salt Lake City caught up to me on the climb up to Pink Cliffs. She was running very strong and would go on ahead. (During the wee hours of the night I would see her asleep in an aid station cot, but she would finish in 32:21.) The final five miles to the turnaround were fun, seeing about 50 runners ahead of me, including Phil Lowry who was about four miles ahead. I reached the turnaround (mile 50) at 12:35, an hour slower than I hoped for, but about on the same pace as 2013.
At each of the aid stations, I was now passing about five runners because my stops were fast. I just filled up my bottles, ate and drank well and was on my way. Only once during the race did I need to take off a shoe and that was to add a piece of tape to the top of my foot which was rubbing a little.
My run back to Pink Cliffs was pretty fast. There is a long 800-foot climb in three miles that I ran most of the way up. I returned to Pink Cliffs (mile 54.9) at 14:09. My run back down to Straight Canyon wasn’t as fast as wanted and I was repassed by several runners. I arrived there (mile 59.6) at 15:20, now ahead of my 2013 pace. Darkness arrived and I prepared for the night, grabbing my light, gloves, and putting a jacket around my waist. The climb up to Kanab Creek was steady and I was feeling well. It was fun to now see the lights of other runners. I arrived there (mile 63.6) at 16:53.
My downfall in 2013 came at this point. My stop was too fast, I didn’t eat well, and soon bonked less than a mile further. This year I took my time, spent 15 minutes eating well and keeping warm. I hoped that the time investment would let me run the next high altitude miles without problems. For me the next eight miles would be crucial. It started out pretty well, but I was being very careful with my stomach, eating, drinking, and not pushing the pace hard. I could tell that things could go bad quickly so I was careful with the tender stomach. If it shuts down, energy goes down, pace goes down, chilling increases, and drowsiness arrives. I kept things under pretty good control this time, but my pace was between 18-20-minute miles as the trail went up and down at about 9,000 feet. No runners were gaining on me, we were all going pretty slowly.
I arrived back at Blunder Creek (mile 72.4) at 19:34. I was still an hour slower than I hoped for but still within reach of finishing in 26-27 hours. I looked forward to the big downhill to Eli Camp and once I came down below 8,200 feet, I felt great again. The increased oxygen made a huge difference and my stomach felt fine again. I pushed the downhill pace faster, having great fun, and feeling no pain. I passed two runners moving slowly. At the bottom, I filled my bottle back up in the creek and then pressed forward for the next 800-foot climb. This next section felt like the best of my race as I started making up a bunch of time charging up the hill. I passed another couple runners and then ran fast down to Proctor Canyon aid station finishing the long 9.4-mile section. I arrived there (mile 81.8) at 22:44. I was well ahead of my 2013 pace. Could I cover the last 18 miles in 4-5 hours for a respectable finish?
I didn’t stay at Proctor Canyon long, wanting to keep my strong pace going. But within a few hundred feet I had to stop and put on my jacket. It was cold. That short chill was all it took. My stomach went south, my energy went down, and I was crashing. A 400-foot climb was very slow, a 24-minute mile. Two runners repassed me. Dawn arrived and as I ran down the other side of the climb, I threw up multiple times. While I felt better, I failed to have enough food in my pockets or water in my bottle to recover well for the next seven miles. I eased into eating again, and in an hour started to feel better. My water was almost gone so I had to dip in and refill in a questionable stream. The 7.7 mile stretch between aid stations was just too far and took me three hours to cover. I was only passed by two runners, but I still knew it was very slow.
I reached Thunder Mountain (about mile 90) at 25:45. I didn’t care about my time anymore, I was only focused on finishing and never had thoughts of quitting. I knew that the morning sun would soon hit the big climb up Thunder Mountain trail so I didn’t stay long at the aid station. My biggest blunder is that I did not put another water bottle at this aid station. I would try to finish the last nine miles on just one water bottle.
I started rationing water immediately. I could tell that my body had been retaining fluids during the night so I was fine for the first four miles or so. I charged up that trail strongly, staying ahead of all runners, but near the top my energy was gone. It now felt hot and I only had enough water left to keep my mouth and throat from drying up. I really need to a deep drink but didn’t have enough. My pace slowed to 20-minute pace for the final miles. About a dozen runners caught up and passed me as I plodded along. I finally asked a person coming in the other direction if he had water to spare. He gave me about 10 cool ounces which I quickly drank and immediately felt much better. But it still wasn’t enough. I continued to plod along. I knew that I needed to be very careful and not push too hard because I was feeling heat exhaustion symptoms. This wasn’t fun at all.
Finally, the finish came into view and I finished to cheers in a slow 29:37:01 in 46th place, just 14 minutes faster than 2013. I didn’t even stop to get my buckle, but went quickly into a tent and started to slowly drink some ice cold soda that was amazing. I did my best to cool down and in about 15 minutes was able to pull out of it and felt better. I wished I could hang around and watch others finish and worried about all those runners behind me who would really hit the heat of those last nine miles. I wished that the race would have put a water station somewhere to help. With more than nine miles after the last aid station in a 100-miler is grueling hard.
I took a shuttle back to where my car was parked and for the next couple hours cooled in my air-conditioned car and replenished my body with food and drink. Still feeling ill, I decided to not try to drive home and instead checked into a motel to recover. As I pretty much expected, Bryce 100 was tough on me again. But I got it done, my seventh 100-mile finish for the year so far and my 81st lifetime. Only 102 runners would complete Bryce 100 this year as many wisely dropped out.