Hottest Day of the Year?

The Canyon Meadow 50k seemed like the kind of race that was almost absurdly, perfectly suited to my every need.

The race organizers (Coastal Trail Runs) always put on great races. I’ve run several of their events in the past. They always have a great course design and very clear, easy to follow course markings. They have good swag and post race chow. Perhaps most importantly they always have super amazing, enthusiastic volunteers who cheer you to the finish with a genuine, joyful smile on their faces.

This year they moved the start line so it was now within walking distance of my house! That was a double thumbs-up because it meant I could sleep in a little later than most race days and get a little warm-up on the way to the start.

Since it was being run on the trails where I do most of my training, it also meant that I knew every twist and turn of the course. I knew all the climbs intimately and wouldn’t be surprised by a few steep descents and a couple patches of technical, rocky, rooted trail. I’ve never had that experience before…

How could I pass on that?

In the days leading up to the race, I was the least nervous I’d ever been when faced with the prospect of running fifty kilometers. I was even thinking of possibly setting a personal best at the distance…I had dreams, big dreams.

And then?

Well, then I checked the weather.

Normally, when I’m out training on these trails, the temperatures range anywhere from high 30s in the pre-dawn winter to high 60s in late summer. Occasionally, if I happen to be running after noon, the weather might hit the mid-70s. There is always (and I do mean ALWAYS) a chance of thick, chilly, morning fog…winter, spring, summer or fall…that will keep temperatures in the comfortable range.

The race day forecast called for a high of 86 degrees.

Okey-dokey.

Clearly there would be no personal best. I would need to adjust my hydration plan and adjust any time goals significantly. Not to worry though. As long as I slowed my pace, filled my water bottles at every aid station, and kept a close internal eye on how the heat was affecting me, I’d be okay.

Right?

Hmm…

Lining up for the race start was an odd experience. This trail is normally completely empty of humans. On race day we were packed in like sardines. I felt out of sorts. One of the reasons I run trails is to escape from civilization for a while. The trails are my quiet, happy place. It felt…wrong somehow for so many people to be out there with me.

But when the Race Director counted us down, the race began, and all thoughts of these other runners as “intruders” were gone from my head. It was time to focus. It was time to run. The thrill of an organized race coursed through my veins.

The first six miles of the race were a gradual downhill with only a few small climbs. As I knew first hand that none of these climbs were significant, I was able to keep a good pace. Slow and steady going downhill (and getting passed by sooo many people). Slow and strong on the uphill.

At roughly the six mile mark, we hit the first aid station. As we had been in the relative cool of shady, tree lined trails the entire time, my water bottles were still pretty full. I chose not to stop.

After a short section of relatively flat trail and some bike path, we hit THE climb. It’s long, it’s steep, and if you aren’t familiar with it, it’s gonna feel like forever. But I know this hill. I actually love this hill. During most training runs, I will actually run this entire hill.

Not today.

Not in this heat.

Power hiking was the smart move. So, with hands on quads, I focused on the trail immediately in front of me and made it to the top feeling pretty strong and ready to run again.

But I was now entering the Scorch Trails. Exposed ridge trail. Zero breeze, very few trees, and all the direct, pounding sun you could ask for…only I hadn’t asked for it.

It was at this point that I recalled the words the Race Director spoke right before the start. It went something like this:

Due to the heat, we will be allowing runners to downgrade to shorter distances after the start and we will still consider it a completed race.

The course was a 13 mile loop and a 5 mile loop. Depending on your distance, you ran one or more (or both) of each.

When he said the word downgrade, I figured there was little chance I would take that offer…maybe 10 percent…tops. I was sure I’d do two 13 miles loops and one 5 mile loop for a full 50k. But, once I hit that exposed ridge trail for the first of two loops…well, maybe I was up to 20 percent…

I shrugged off the idea. It was WAY too early to make that call. I was only 8 miles in to my first 13 mile loop and I was definitely doing at least two loops. I was hours away from needing to make that decision. I put it out of my head.

The rest of that loop went by as so many miles do during a trail race. I was blissfully cruising along on my favorite trails in the entire world, sipping on Tail Wind, and munching on my Lara Bars. The odds of my downgrading to the marathon had been downgraded to maybe 15 percent…

Before long, I was charging up a steep climb that brought me to the start/finish and to the cheers and applause of some of the greatest volunteers a race has ever seen, in addition to a few half marathon and 5 mile runners who had already finished. For that brief moment I felt great. I knew it was downhill and shady for the next six miles and confidence was running high in that moment…except?

Except the heat was starting to take its toll. The downhill was not so easy the second time through. The heat was burning through the canopy of trees overhead and I was feeling rundown. I was feeling gassed. I was feeling like the heat was slowly, but surely sapping away my ability to finish the full fifty kilometers.

Trouble was brewing.

The odds of downgrading to the marathon had officially passed the fifty percent mark at this point. It wasn’t looking good. I was starting to feel just the slightest bit dizzy.

Even more telling was the fact that I wasn’t having the ongoing conversation with myself (out loud) that I ALWAYS have when I run more than an hour or so. There was no singing (again, usually out loud). No silly inside jokes between me and me. I was running in silence. This meant I wasn’t feeling well. This meant I wasn’t having fun. This meant bad things…

I hit the next aid station and, for the first time all day, stopped moving.

“What can I get you?” a volunteer asked.

“Water,” I said. “And if you could turn down the thermostat, that’d be great. Maybe 5…10 degrees cooler would help.”

He laughed and said, “I have ice.”

ICE! What a wonderful word…just the thought of it was enough to make me feel cooler. I nodded like a crazy person. Yes please!

“How much?” he asked.

“Give me a hat full,” was my answer.

I left the aid station will all three of my bottles filled. I was munching on ice and my hat was literally ice cold. I felt pretty good. I started running with purpose again. A passing mountain biker commented on how strong I looked, she even complimented my pace. It was a nice boost and lead to a couple of wonderful miles.

Then I returned to THE hill. Then I returned to the Scorch Trails. The heat had increased considerably since my first pass through this section. The hills seemed steeper and longer, the trees seemed to have grown fewer and farther apart. There was much walking, striding with purpose. But I was melting. The dizzy feeling, while not alarming, was growing. My enthusiasm was flagging. My head was drooping.

I waved the white flag.

I arrived at the last aid station and refilled only one of my water bottles. I had less than two miles left at this point and I didn’t want any unnecessary weight. I refilled my hat with ice and informed a very concerned volunteer that I was downgrading to the marathon.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can definitely make it to the finish.”

And I did.

I ran and power hiked the rest of the way, managing to run up the steep final hill that led to the finish. I crossed the line as a marathon finisher.

For me, this feels like a win-win:

FIRST WIN: I logged another trail marathon. Considering the challenges of both the terrain and the weather, I posted a time that I’m quite pleased with.

SECOND WIN: I got off the course and out of the heat before anything serious happened. I made a smart, healthy decision instead of a dangerous, prideful one. Instead of needing a lengthy recovery, possibly several days off, I’m already back to running.

Here are some final numbers (I love numbers!):

Time: 4:42:35
Overall: 5th
Age Group: 1st
Elevation Gain: 3068 ft
On Course Temp: 86º
“Feels Like” Temp: 90+º

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