Ken Ellis: My Black Canyon 100K Story

Editor's note: This is another in a series of Montana runners reporting on their race adventures around the country. Here, Ken Ellis recounts his fine performance in the southwestern deserts of central Arizona. We'd love to hear from you, dear readers. If you ran a solid race and tell a good story, send your report our way--and we'll share it for the world to see.

            Last December I signed up to race in the first annual Black Canyon 100K trail run on Feb. 15, beginning in Mayer, AZ, and ending sixty or so miles south near New River, AZ. Perusing the sunny, cactus filled pictures on the website, I concluded a few weeks of enjoying warm weather and running in shorts was just what the running gods ordered. I also learned that the BC trail is laden with a history of different users, from native people, stagecoaches, military supply wagons and innumerable lizards and snakes. Jamil Coury is the race director and is donating much of the proceeds to improve the BC trail. Sweet Becky Riley agreed to be my crew and requested the time off. To add to the fun, Becky signed up to run the Lost Dutchman Half Marathon the day after my race.
            Training during the winter in Montana for what was to be my longest race was challenging to say the least. With that said, I don’t train specifically for most races anyway. For me, it seems to work to my satisfaction just to put in miles in our hills, and to spend time on my feet.  I didn’t focus on training to race 62 miles, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I do believe long races define me. I THINK I know how I will run at mile 55 or 59, but until I’m right smack dab in the middle of it—aching body, hurting feet, and tired mind—I really cannot say. So, I just put in miles and do hills, and believe it is enough. It always helps knowing this valley is chock full of strong runners (Becky is one of them) that I can hook up with when I need the company. I did run the Orcas Island 50k on Feb. 1. Being two weeks prior to the BC100K concerned me somewhat, but I ran Orcas well and seemed to recover, plus it was a great trip to a beautiful place with a bunch of crazy fun runners from Zoo town.
            Seven degrees below zero was the thermometer reading Feb 7th when we pulled the camper onto the highway heading for the sunshine. Of course at this temperature I had no water in the tanks, and all the canned goods froze solid by the time we stopped at Downada hot springs, south of Pocatello, ID for the night. It snowed that night, so while waiting for the roads to thaw, we ran in the slop, soaked in the pools, then drove south to warmer weather. We filled the water tanks in Beaver, UT, which by the way has a BIG sign on the highway proclaiming this town has the best tasting water in the USA, as determined by a tasting committee in New York City. Personally, I thought it tasted like…water.
            Two days later driving on I-17 south of Flagstaff, AZ, we passed the exit to Mayer and realized the interstate paralleled much of the BC100K course, so I was able to “feel” it as we drove to Cave Creek CG which was to be our home base for the next 11 days. Cave Creek CG is 25 minutes away from the 100K finish and one hour away from the start of Becky’s half marathon. Becky assured me there was no pressure for me to try and run like a “Wolfe” so I could finish my race in time to get back to the camper, shower, eat something, sleep more than a few hours and rise early enough to transport her to the start of her race. I was still concerned. I did not want to stumble in at the cutoff, which was 11pm, but I was determined to finish.
            During the week we checked out and ran part of the BC trail. This course was unique, beautiful, part smooth and part technical. As the race drew nearer, the regional forecast showed record temperatures of 88-90 degrees on race day. I had a sense that it may not bode well for my non-acclimated Montana body, though I tend to run well in the heat. It was too late to worry about it anyway. I had already paid my nickel to take this ride.
            I decided to wear my Nathan pack, stuffed with enough gels and S-caps to sustain me between each of the five aid stations where Becky was allowed to meet me. No gels were offered at the aid stations, but Gatorade and an array of carbs stacked the tables.  My plan at each AS was to eat real food because I love it, and drink lots of coke because I hardly ever drink soda and I love it. Plus, this method seems to work for me. Becky was to meet me at the aid stations with a box of emergency possibles just in case.
            Race day morning dawned with a full moon, and 52 degrees. The last I checked, 77 runners had signed up and we all met at the Mayer High School parking lot. When Jamil said go we all ran around the HS track and headed for the trail a few road miles away. I think I was 12th off the track and trying to run slow thinking of the long, hot, big adventure ahead.
            The first AS was 7.4 miles and though I arrived earlier than I anticipated, the sun was up and warm, and I was high on the experience. The third AS was somewhere around 18 miles, and I mentioned I could feel my legs working.  Sweet Becky heard this and it was her turn to be concerned, thinking I may have gone out too fast.
            Becky informed me there were two men ahead of me in my age group, and I was still running 12th. The RDs did not allow crews at the 23 mile AS so I would not see Becky until the mile 36 AS. This 18-23 mile section is the trail Becky and I ran earlier in the week, so I knew what to expect. This section had some climb and I ran it well. Around mile 21 I passed a color coordinated (orange) front runner who had slowed waaay down. I was being tailed by a nice local kid who told me he was picking up a pacer at mile 36, and if we were still running together, he could pace both of us.
            I entered and left the 23 mile AS with my runner friend in tow, and we passed the first runner in my age group at around mile 25. He looked reeaally hot, and I found out from Becky after the race was over that he ended up DNFing because he actually WAS really hot and dehydrated. Of course Becky made friends with him. 
            Mile 35 begins an out and back to the 36 mile AS. I met a runner as I began the out and back, and I knew he was the one Becky thought was in my age group. He was a half mile ahead of me, and unless he slowed down, he was going to stay ahead of me. Turns out, it didn’t matter, he finished 20 minutes ahead of me, but he’s actually 10 years younger than me. Mile 30-36 was my most difficult section, and I’m not sure why. Not horrible, not bonking, just feeling less than stellar. However, I brightened when I heard and saw Becky cheering for me. She had come down the trail looking for me, but because we couldn’t technically have a pacer until mile 36 and this was mile 35.7, Becky took off running way ahead of me, and would not let me catch her so as to not break the rules. It didn’t seem all that funny then, but it seems hilarious now. 

            Thus far, all of the aid stations and the volunteers were top notch, and the mile 36AS was no exception. I refilled my Nathan, got dowsed with ice water, drank all four little cups of coke on the table, grabbed some snacks and headed out. My runner friend and his newly acquired pacer left the AS with me, and it was nice to have the company for a while.
            The profile of the course shows a loss of elevation from 4000 ft. at the start to 1800 ft. at the finish, which seems friendly. However, Jamil put everyone on notice that the last half of this course is the hardest. There are several moderate climbs and some technical footing. Also, many runners will travel this part of the trail in the heat of the day.
            Jamil was right. It was harder. It was hotter.  I was staying hydrated, mostly to try and avoid cramping issues. Apparently it worked, as I had no cramping issues at any time during this race. In the heat of the day on one eight mile section with ups and downs, I drained most of my 64 ounce bladder. I’ve never done that before, but then I’ve never gone hard in these conditions.
            My friend and his pacer were hiking the ups slower and slower, so I went around them expecting them to catch me on the flats and downs. They never did, and finished an hour or so behind me. Becky befriended his girlfriend (naturally) and discovered this dude had just finished a 100 miler two weeks prior! I didn’t feel quite so badass going around him after hearing that nugget of information.
            The mile 45 AS had a Zane Grey 50 mile sign (same RD), but I figured it was close enough. The guy who checked me in said I was the first runner over 50, and 7th place overall. Whoa! Now I’ve got to run.
             Apparently the heat took a toll on all of the runners. Becky talked to the dude who came in second in the race. He was thinking race day would be 60 degrees and he would finish close to eight hours. It took him ten hours and twenty-eight minutes. Although it was hot, I never felt overheated, or nauseas. My feet were hurting from the technical sections, and I tipped over hard at mile 41. With that said, I still felt good (relative term) running the smooth sections.
            My goal was to finish the race before dark, which was 6:38 pm. I knew before I met Becky at the 49 mile AS that was not going to happen. Becky ran me in to the 49 mile AS, apparently forgetting about resting her legs for HER race in 14 hours. Becky refilled my gels, my S-caps, and my energy. She gave me my headlamp, and let me know she would see me at the finish.
            There is a substantial climb from the 49 mile AS, then rolling hills until the next AS. I ran alone since passing the 100 miler guy and wasn’t pushing hard. As I topped the climb, I looked back and saw two runners coming. Motivation to run harder came instantly, and away I went.
            I came to the last AS at maybe 6:25 pm. The volunteers informed me I was 3.7 miles from the finish. I ran a jeep road for a couple of miles and hit the trail for the final 1.7 miles. It felt good to run not having to watch my feet as closely. 
            As I reached the trail I switched on my lamp. I could see another headlamp at the top of another climb. As I climbed I started hearing “Kenya” yelled out. Out of the darkness Becky appeared before me like a TRB (trail running bitch) angel from heaven! When I go hard, when I get really tired, I get emotional. Hearing Becky whoop it up for me at that stage of a long race was an incredibly intense feeling. Once again, with no regard for her race in twelve and a half hrs, Becky had come in the last two miles to run me to the finish.
            One memory that will be forever stamped in my brain happened a mile from the finish. I took flight after trying to forcefully dislodge a rock with my left foot. I ran really fast for ten feet and just before veering into some kind of thorny desert bush (they ALL have thorns) I saved myself. Becky herself was amazed I did not cramp and stayed upright.
            I ran through the finish line at 7:02 pm, twelve hours and two minutes after Jamil pretended he was a starter pistol and twenty-four minutes later than my original goal. I was the second oldest person to finish the race and first runner over 50. Each of the six runners ahead of me was from Arizona. The two runners who came in 7 minutes behind me were the first woman and her friend.
            Becky had my chair, crocs, and dry clothes waiting at the finish for me. It was wonderful. We stayed for 20-30 minutes, I scarfed down a grilled cheese and some potato soup. With Becky’s half marathon looming, we headed back.
            By the way, the next morning Becky cranked out the half marathon in fine fashion. She place fourth in her age group out of 58 women. I doubt any of them had the kind of day Becky had the day before. Spending two weeks in Arizona with my closest everything person was awesome in itself. The races we ran just added to the enjoyment. I am glad I ran the BC100K. It was hot, long, technical, beautiful, defining, and worth every step. I’m not sure who said it, but I know it applied to me every mile of the BC100K. “All it takes is all you’ve got.”


  1. Nice write-up. I'm the "friend" of the first place woman. The two fo us finished 7 minutes behind you. You did too good of a job staying ahead of us. I thin the last time we saw you was about 10 miles from the finish and you were only a few minutes ahead. I enjoyed reading your version of the race. Here's mine -

    1. Adrian, nice to meet you! I enjoyed your race report! Congrats to you and Katrin for a strong race. I tried to post to your blog, not sure if I did. Good luck on future races. I hope I bump into you again.



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