Friday, May 10, 2024

Racer Story: Dominick Layfield's Canyons 100 Mile Race Report

 Article by Dominick Layfield

Canyons 100 mile Racer Report 

It’s a couple of minutes before nine, on the morning of April 26th, and I’m vacillating.  Nearly three hundred runners are gathered at China Wall staging area, some thirty-ish miles outside of the town of Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  It’s colder than I expected, and raining lightly. 

I’m trying to decide whether to take off my rain jacket.  My guess is that the rain will taper off.  If I keep my jacket on, I’ll probably get hot and sweaty and have to take it off soon after the start of the race.  If I’m wrong, and the rain continues, or gets heavier, I’ll get soaked and cold, and have a really tough time getting warm again.  The safe choice is obvious.

Looking around, nearly everyone else is bundled up, wearing their bad weather gear.  Bah.  What do they know?  I peel off my waterproof, and have just enough time to stow it in my backpack before the start is called.  We charge off downhill, into the woods, into the mist.  Weaving between other runners, hopping between puddles in the rutted trail, I initially feel good about my decision, but the rain is getting heavier.  Then the temperature drops enough that the rain starts to turn to snow.  I’m feeling cold and I’m aware that I’ve miscalculated.  But as we descend into a canyon, it  warms up and the rain tapers off.  I’m relieved, but guiltily aware that I shouldn’t have gambled: I saved a few seconds at best.

The race I’m running is the Canyons 100 miler, officially the “Hoka Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB” mouthful.  Last year, the inaugural year of the 100-mile variant of the race, the weather was unusually hot, and roughly half the field dropped out of the race with various forms of heat stress.  This year, it is unusually cold.  And wet.  Mountain weather is frequently wild.

After the rain stops, and I start to warm up, everything settles down into its usual pattern.  I try not to pay attention to the other runners around me, nearly all of whom are going much too fast.  I know they will suffer the consequences later in the race.  But this is routine: runners are terrible about pacing themselves, and the longer the race, the bigger the consequences.  

The Canyons 100-mile race follows much of the same course as its venerable older cousin, the Western States 100.  After the long downhill from China Wall into Eldorado Canyon, we climb back up to Deadwood Cemetery, then out-and-back past Devil’s Thumb down to Swinging Bridge.  The ground is muddy and slippery.  Instead of finding this annoying, I consciously choose instead to enjoy it: it’s making the running more interesting and difficult.  I’m not expecting to do well in this race, and don’t care much about my time or position.  Certainly not yet.

That said, I still have expectations.  I’m hoping to run a decent race, and had made a spreadsheet with rough splits for a twenty hour finish.  But this early in a long race, it makes no sense to consider anything other than moving at a sustainable effort.  I can start paying attention to time and ranking after about fifty miles.  This is one part of the endless mental game of ultrarunning: to intentionally refuse to consider such things until late in the race. 

By the time we loop back up to the aid station at Deadwood for a second time (mile ~18), the field has thinned out, and the weather is sunny and mild enough that I shed my long-sleeve layer.  The long, smooth descent into Eldorado Canyon, following the Western States trail, is – as always – sublime.  After my momentary weather-related stress at the start, I’m warm and relaxed.  There are a few muddy patches and puddles on the trail, but everything is runnable.  Clouds linger in the valleys, and the views are spectacular.  I feel excellent, comfortable and positive, and looking forward to a long, epic day of running.  These are the halcyon hours of an ultra: any initial wobbles and kinks have been ironed out, the legs are still strong, the spirit upbeat, the inevitable suffering far distant.

As we climb out of Eldorado to Michigan Bluff, I can’t help but think about the contrast to running this same section of trail during Western States, when the weather is brutally hot, and the race is all about heat management.  This morning, it is cool and sunny and green.  

Shortly after Michigan Bluff, the climate once again flexes its muscles.  Rain begins again and thunder starts to rumble.  Automatically, I count seconds after each flash of lightning.  The temperature is warmer now, so even though I’m soaking wet again, I’m not stressed, and I’m confident that I’ll warm up and dry out before too long.  It turns out just to be a quick shower.

As we close in to Foresthill (mile ~30), I share some miles with Sonia Ahuja, with whom I’ve been leapfrogging for the last few hours.  It seems to me that she’s pushing too hard, and I suggest gently that she might want to back off a little.  Turns out that she’s an experienced, elite runner, who knows exactly what she’s doing.  I resolve to keep my mouth shut and not offer any more unsolicited advice.

The Western States trail out of Foresthill is kind of a mess.  Last time I was here, it looked very different.  There has obviously been a big fire.  All the trees are gone and much of the vegetation is black.  Additionally, with all the rain, there is slick mud and water everywhere, and the trail is eroded and hard to follow.  Thankfully, only the start of this famous “Cal Street” section is destroyed.  Before long the terrain reverts to the familiar, glorious green tunnel, and I’m back in my comfort zone.  For a while, with the high humidity and sunshine, it starts to feel uncomfortably warm, and I wonder if heat management is going to be a factor after all.  But the clouds quickly return.  

Sonia catches back up to me somewhere after Cal 2 aid station, and we run the final miles down to the river together.  Here the Canyons course departs from Western States (which crosses the river), and instead climbs up the road to Driver’s Flat (mile ~48).  On the long climb, another thunderstorm rolls in and the heavens open.  As before, I guess that it will be brief.  But the rain rapidly becomes very heavy.

At the aid station, I pull my waterproof out of my pack, and put it on, but I’m already completely drenched.  The trails become a river of moving water.  It’s like running up a creek, but surprisingly the footing, while difficult, is not too bad: It’s still all pretty runnable.  My body temperature, however, plummets and despite wearing all my (wet) layers, I’m unable to stay warm.  I think back, years ago, to a brush with hypothermia at the Spine Challenger race in the UK.  That was much more serious.  Here I’m not at much risk of anything except transient discomfort and messing up my race plan.  Just about when I start shivering, the rain tapers off.  It’s still chilly, and I’m still cold.  But now I can stop fretting, knowing I’ll eventually warm up. Although I’m aware – again – that I just got lucky, and the rain stopped before I got into trouble. I curse my own stupidity: after a lifetime of running in the mountains, I should know what clothing to bring.  And when to put it on.  I feel like a rookie.

I reach Mammoth Bar aid station (~55 miles) around 8pm, pull out my headlamp and stow my waterproof jacket.  At the aid station, a runner called Andrew Clark catches up with me, and we share the miles up to Cool yo-yoing back and forth, and chatting intermittently.  Turns out that we’ve done a lot of the same races.  He’s done the Bear 100, in Utah, and I remark that the climb out of Mammoth Bar reminds me of the Ranger Dip climb at the end of the Bear: a final, steep, painful grunt.

It’s here, on this short climb, that I begin to realize that I’ve got a real problem.  For the last few hours, I’ve been aware of some cloudiness in my right eye.  I’d encountered something like this before.  A couple of months ago, running in northern Norway, I’d returned from a run complaining that my right eye seemed cloudy.  The effect was noticeable, but wore off quickly.  Within an hour or so, my vision returned to normal.  The same thing happened the next day.  It didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, and I just made a mental note to mention it next time I had an eye exam.  So today, when my right eye started to turn cloudy, it didn’t worry me that much: I had more pressing concerns.  Now, as daylight fades, I realize that this is a real problem.  Firstly, the cloudiness has progressed dramatically: previously, the vision was just a little blurry; now I can barely see anything out of my right eye.  Secondly, I realize that my ability to make out the terrain around me is significantly impaired.  The steep climb has frequent big rocky step-ups, and as I try to mount them, I realize I’m having a hard time seeing how big they are.

Once up top, and back on smoother trails, the issue doesn’t seem so severe.  I’m concerned, certainly, but mostly my worry is that the same thing might affect my remaining good eye.  Still, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I don’t want to stop and ask for medical assistance.  I have a race to run, and my mind stays focussed on the running.

At the Cool aid station (~63 miles), I take longer than I want to, struggling with my drop bag to get out my waist light and second headlamp.  I notice I’m having a hard time seeing what’s right in front of me.  My right eye is now useless.

Despite the extra illumination, I start to struggle on the ~12 mile loop around the town of Cool. I keep stumbling and tripping, and fall down a couple of times.  But it’s cold and foggy, and the trail is muddy, wet and overgrown in many places.  My legs are tired.  Somehow I don’t make the connection to my compromised sight.  I’m aware of the vision loss in my right eye but this seems to be more a distracting novelty than a serious problem.

The loop around Cool (Olmstead loop) includes a detour back down to the river and back up again.  The detour is drier and makes for easy running, but when we get back up to the plateau, the trail gets more interesting.  There’s obviously been a lot of rain up here, and there are innumerable puddles and water crossings.  At one point, the course flagging appears to route right through the middle of a small lake.  I can’t help but laugh out loud at the absurdity.  I wade tentatively through the thigh-deep water.

It’s not until the steep descent from Cool down to the Highway 49 crossing that I realize that the situation is much worse than I thought.  There are big rocks and drops on the trail, but I can’t see how big the drops are.  I know the trail is going steeply downhill, but it looks flat.  The sensation is like when you walk down a flight of stairs and there’s one more – or less – stair than you anticipated.  That extra step that you thought was flat triggers a huge adrenaline rush and a violent, strenuous recovery maneuver.   This happens again and again.  I’m tripping and stumbling my way down the hill, losing energy and strength each time.  It’s just a matter of time until I hurt myself.

The descent across Hwy 49 and down to the Quarry Road seems to take forever.  The trail is narrow and uneven, and I inch my way down at a snail’s pace. Despite my glacial speed, it’s physically and mentally exhausting.   Thankfully, when I reach the Quarry Road at the bottom, the trail is wider and smoother and less steep, and I find I can (sort of) run again.  

I trot gently up the trail to Brown’s Bar aid station (~79 miles), expecting to be overhauled by a phalanx of runners, but nobody passes me.  I do encounter the race leader, Canyon Woodward, coming back after completing the ALT loop.  He’s looking pretty ragged, shuffling down the trail, but I realize I’m not looking any better.  At the aid station, I complain to the volunteers about my eye.  They all crowd around and squint at it, but apparently it looks normal to them.  In any case, there’s nothing they can do.  They ask me if I want to drop, but I’ve reached the point of no return.  Unless I’m actually injured, I’m going to finish the race, even if I have to death-march all the way home.  Both outcomes seem pretty likely right now.

The gentle uphill to ALT is, realistically, pretty benign.  But it doesn’t feel that way to me.  I can’t tell whether the trail is uphill or downhill.  There are places where the trail is eroded into a depressed trough with steep sides, but this also just looks flat, and I keep crashing into the walls.  It’s stressful and exhausting, mentally and physically.  I’m at an emotionally low ebb when a couple of runners overtake me as I plod morosely and anxiously along the trail.  

Then another thought occurs to me.  If I can’t see anything out of my right eye, then presumably, I have no blink reflex.  We’re running through a lot of overgrown trails, with frequent overhanging branches. I could literally run into a branch and might not blink or flinch to protect the bad eye.  I consider trying to fashion an ad-hoc eye patch, but decide this would be a little melodramatic.  Still, it would have made a good pirate story.  Arrr!

The water crossings (of which there are a ton), are also stressful.  I discover that I can’t risk stepping on rocks to stay out of the water, as I can’t judge where they are or how big they are.  Instead I just wade through the water.  But even that proves tricky.  I’m surprised how far I have to step down into the stream, 

By now I’m moving so slowly that I can’t stay warm.  I put on, literally, every item of clothing in my bag: long sleeve top, neck gaiter, beanie, waterproof.  With numb fingers and poor vision, it takes an absurd amount of time. But it’s not like I’m in a hurry.  Time, I have, in limitless supply.  Even with everything on, I’m still cold.

The descent back down to the Quarry Road is even more hateful: there’s no question of even breaking into a trot.  Every precarious shaky step feels like I’m playing roulette: will this one result in disaster?  Will the next?   Another runner cruises past, looking relaxed and effortless, and I’m green with jealousy.  Then I fall when wading across a water crossing and manage to get myself thoroughly soaked, making me colder still.

Once we rejoin the Quarry Road, the trail is smooth and flat enough that I can run fairly safely again.  I try, intermittently, in a half-hearted way, but I’m close to a zombie.  I have no strength or motivation.

By the time I make it back to Brown’s Bar (90 miles), the aid station has exploded to life. There is now a steady stream of runners coming through.  A volunteer remembers me as the one-eyed runner, and asks how I’m doing.  I’m better than I thought: my loop was slow and miserable, but I made it without injury.  The volunteer hits me with bad news.  I hadn’t realized that we needed to follow the Western States course back up to Cool plateau again.  I was anticipating a straight shot down to No-Hands bridge.  This detour adds more miles, another 1000 ft of ascent, and also a trip back up the trail to Pointed Rocks that terrified me so much on the outbound leg.  I curse audibly, and set off down the trail in a major grump, knowing that the finish is further away than I previously thought, and my time is going to be even slower. 

Additionally, I’ve lost my ‘why’ – a recurrent problem in long races when all goals have evaporated.  All I know is that I’m going to finish no matter what.  The only reason to run is just to bring the suffering to an end sooner.

But actually, the final hours are surprisingly okay.  Dawn breaks around the Hwy 49 crossing, allowing me to see better on the climb up to Pointed Rocks, which is less hazardous going uphill anyway.  After that, the trails are smooth enough that I can move without too much stress and stumbling.  It just all seems to take so long, so long.  The excitement and adrenaline has long since worn off, and all I want is for it to be over.

When I get to No Hands Bridge, 50k runners are flying by in the opposite direction.  I enjoy the sudden transition from eerie isolation to being surrounded by people, and my spirits are briefly lifted by the many cheers of congratulations.  But as any Western States veteran knows, those final few miles up to Robie Point and then through the streets of Auburn stretch out improbably, feeling far longer than the map distance suggests.  The density of runners thins out to the last few stragglers when I encounter Gordy Ainsleigh.  At least, I think it’s him.  This man is a legend in the ultrarunning world, being semi-officially the first human to run 100 miles, and officially the first man to run the Western States trail way back in 1974.  I’m not clear if I’m imagining things, and make a mental note to ask someone later if it was really him.  (It was!)

Just when the trail becomes steep and narrow (of course), the first 25k runners come thundering down the trail.  These guys are really flying, and flow around me like water.   Their numbers build, and gradually fade again.  I encounter the last of them just at the summit of Robie Point.  Then I’m all alone again, shuffling along the paved road for the last mile to the finish.  There’s a photographer waiting in the middle of the road just before the white bridge.  I start to lift up my many layers of clothing to reveal my bib number underneath.  But then I figure I don’t need it all any more, so I stop to stow everything in my pack: gotta look somewhat respectable as I cross the finish line, right?  Another 100-mile runner passes me as I’m fiddling with gear.  It’s the second female, Jacquie Mannhard, accompanied by her pacer.  Instead of scrambling to stay ahead, I step back to allow the photographer to snap her first, then get a clean shot of me, minus all my cold-weather gear.  But I pick up the pace just a little and she lets me overtake her back again.  I can’t tell if this is courtesy, given that I was previously ahead of her, or whether she’s unable or unmotivated to respond.  Either way, I’m slightly surprised to discover that I have the legs to run the last half-mile or so to the finish without needing to walk.  

As I cross the finish line, I feel an enormous wave of relief.  Immediately, I ask a volunteer if they have a medical tent.  I want to get a medic to look at my eye.  It takes a while, and everyone is super nice, but there are no MD’s and nobody has any real examination equipment.  Nothing like an opthalmoscope, at least.  A lovely nurse called Jen takes a photo of my eye to show me that it does indeed look opaque.  I find this very reassuring.  Not only does it prove that my state is not psychosomatic, but it also provides a clear, specific cause. I can’t say why my eye is opaque, but it means that I’m not experiencing a stroke, nor is the problem at the level of the optic nerve or retina.  The nurse (later bolstered by a second RN) is adamant that I should go to the emergency room for a full exam, but I’m not persuaded.  I’ve had too many bad experiences with emergency department doctors, including one at the exact same hospital that they’re proposing to transport me to.  

A long-buried memory surfaces of having read about something very similar to this.  I pull out my phone and find Tracy Beth Høeg’s excellent article on iRunFar.  It seems quite clear that I’m experiencing precisely what she describes and that it will almost certainly resolve spontaneously:  I have corneal edema (though no idea what underlying cause might be).

The medical team are mystified at my confidence in my own self-diagnosis, but I want to scrub the poison oak off my legs and go to sleep more than I want to go to the hospital. It doesn’t feel like an emergency to me.  I sign a form stating that I’m choosing to ignore medical advice, and accept a ride back to my car.  After a few hours, I can already tell my eye is improving.  It’s still milky and blurry, but I can see rough shapes.  By the next morning it seems fully back to normal.

Random thoughts:

  • It might seem surprising that I wasn’t more worried about my eye than I actually was.  For sure, I was worried about falling and getting injured.  But for some reason, I wasn’t stressed that there was anything more serious (like a stroke) going on, or anything that might be permanent.  It helped that at some point I remembered reading an account by Mark Hammond of partially losing his eyesight in a race.  This seemed to be the exact same thing.  My recollection was that Mark’s vision gradually returned to normal after the race.  So I optimistically assumed that mine would do the same, and that all I needed to do was to try to get to the finish line safely.

    • I still don’t know why I experienced corneal edema, nor what I can do to prevent it happening again.  At the time of writing, I have seen an optometrist, who was baffled and referred me to an opthalmologist, who I’ve not yet seen.

  • There was a ton of poison oak on the trails.  More than I’ve ever seen in my life.  There’s not much that the race admin could do about that.  But it is disappointing that they don’t mention it in the runner guide (e.g. how to remove allergen) or better still provide washing facilities at the finish, and encourage runners to scrub exposed skin immediately.  

  • I was originally shooting for a twenty hour finish.  But I got to Cool #2, mile ~75, in 15½ hours.  So realistically, without any vision issues, I would probably have finished in 21 hours and change.  My actual finish time was 22:35, so despite the private melodrama, my loss of vision probably only cost me an hour or so.  

    • This validity of this estimate is reinforced by the fact that I ran alongside Andrew Clark from Mammoth Bar to Cool #1, and he finished in 21:37.  

    • I had been hoping to finish inside the top ten, but ended up 13th overall.  First in the 50+ age division, at least.  This permits automatic entry to UTMB 2025, bypassing the lottery and qualification process.

  • Gear:

    • I wore the new Altra Mont Blanc Carbon shoes (see my review here).  After years of racing 100-milers exclusively in Hoka shoes, I was delighted that Altra finally made a solid race shoe.  The Mont Blanc Carbons were great.  Light, fast, and they handled the many soak-dry cycles like a champ.

      • An unexpected benefit of the ventilated footbeds turned out to be that the little holes are excellent at sequestering little grains of rock.  Several times after wading through muddy water, I could feel grit in the shoe and assumed that I would eventually need to stop and clean it out.  This never happened, and after the race, I discovered that the grit had collected in the footbed holes.  I doubt this is what the holes were intended for, but it was apparently helpful here!

      • The only minor negative was that the tongues slid off to the lateral side of the shoe, at which point the cushioned part is off-center and they don’t provide much protection from the laces.  Not a major problem, as I didn’t get any blistering.  This would be a concern in an even longer race, though.

    • Socks:  I used DryMax ‘trail run’ socks.  Reliable in any weather, I find DryMax unparalleled for conditions when your feet are going to get soaked.  I was very happy with the choice I made here.  No significant foot issues.

    • I used a Salomon Adv Skin 12 hydration pack.   It is light, breathable, has plenty of space to store extra clothing, and lots of pockets for gels etc.  Works well both with reservoir and soft-flasks. I’ve had this pack for years, used it in tons of races.  I intermittently try other hydration packs but keep coming back to this (and the smaller Adv Skin 5).  

    • I didn’t use poles this time, although they were permitted.  They might have been handy when I was staggering around in the dark.  

Comments and Questions Welcome Below! 

All photos except eye closeup credit: FinisherPix

Dom 51, trains and competes mainly on trails in Southern California.  In 2017 he was 14th at Western States 100 and in 2018 finished 50th at UTMB and 32nd at the 2018 Los Angeles marathon in a time of 2:46.  In 2019, his only notable finish was at the multi-day Dragon’s Back race in the UK.  In 2022 Dom finished 4th in the Angeles Crest 100 and was 10th in his age group at UTMB.

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1 comment:

Zak S. said...

Dom, I've had slightly less serious but similar eye issues at a few 100s, I've noticed that if I'm diligent about wearing sunglasses or safety glasses for the first day I can get through the rest of the race without issue. I usually wear some inexpensive photochromic wrap around ones that do a good job of keeping wind and dust off of my eyes.
It's more difficult when it's rainy of course, but worth putting up with some blurry glasses during the day to avoid blindness at night.