I've done several trips in the general Pine Creek area over the years, mostly low-key hiking and canoeing with family and friends. Last spring was the first time I did the West Rim trail, as an overnight with my son, who was nine years old at the time. We stashed a canoe at the north end, and hiked south to north, camping a night on the rim. Then we paddled back to the car, camping another night in the canyon. I carried all his gear, so there wasn't much running with a 50lb pack. But, for much of the hike, I was commenting on how runnable the trails were, and trying to guess how quickly it could be done.
In 2019, with Manitou's Revenge on my calendar, I needed some quality long runs. While not nearly as rugged as the Escarpment of the Catskills, the West Rim was drawing me back as way to test my running. I knew it would test my weakness - the actual running part - being mostly runnable. I tend to do better when the trail forces everyone to hike. Given my long runs so far, 5 hours seemed like it would be hard, but doable. Some poking around found a 4:57:57 set by David Stango during the CanyonMan 100 race, where entrants paddle down the canyon, run back up the trail, and then bike 50 miles down the rim and back up the gorge to end a long day. Appropriately, this race starts and ends at a bar, as those who finish certainly deserve a beer! I reached out to David and he assured me there was time left, as he'd been saving himself for bike.
My longest previous races were a trail marathon, done with a much slower friend in my running infancy, and a road marathon done off a serious block training. Pacing a trail 50k with limited miles in my legs this year was going to be a challenge. I decided to just run as fast I would typically let myself on a 1-2hr easy run, and then start checking splits. So, on Saturday May 11, 2019, I stashed a kayak at the top of the canyon and geared up. At 8:27am I rested my hand on the trailhead sign at the southern terminus, and started my watch. I wore Bushidos, an Ultimate Direction AK race vest bulging with food and water, and was dipped in DEET in case the rain the day before caused the first major mosquito hatch of the year.
I had a map with split times marked at various intersections, based on Stango's time. At the top of the long (30 minute) first climb I was up by 2 minutes, which gave me the confidence to keep cruising at an easy pace, at least for a while. Looking at the data later, I hadn't noticed that David had started his watch where the pulled his kayak out of the water, and I was actually several minutes behind. Whoops! This was probably good, as it gave me the confidence to hold back a bit. I didn't see another human for an hour and a half, (I saw fifteen people total, all day), and really enjoyed moving along the trail, connecting orange blazes. The trail was wetter than last year given the steady rain we've had, but there were still only a few swampy sections. Most are on the northern half, so your feet will stay dry longer running south to north.
Slowly chipping away at the splits, I enjoyed passing spots where my son and I had spend time the year before - our lunch break at a vista, our campsite on the cliff-edge, the place where he fell into a stream and soaked himself head-to-toe because he was trying too hard not to get his feet wet. As I moved I ate on a regular schedule, and felt good energy-wise the entire time. Around 3:30 I was out of water and stopped to fill my bladder and treat the water with a steri-pen. This took 4 minutes, which was most of my lead at the time. I left that creek only 3 and a half minutes up, a little sluggish from sitting still for that long. In hindsight, I probably should have lugged an extra liter of water from the start and not stopped at all. I popped a couple caffeine gels over the next hour, and began running very associatively, pushing the pace especially on the climbs, pulling back time. I'm a good descender, and got another minute back on David's splits over a steep downhill mile.
About 4 miles out I took my only fall of the day, the sort of jolt you could easily shake off on an easy run. Being fatigued, it took a while to get moving properly again. I got back up to speed and once I started seeing signs of infrastructure that indicated the end was near, hammered pretty hard, finding another minute. I hit the sign at 4:46:50 on my watch, and promptly laid down in the grass. After a quick breather I did a horrible shuffle on the pavement down to my kayak, and set off down the river back to the car. It turns out that I don't enjoy solo paddling. I love canoeing with my friends and family, but now I suppose that's because it's an outdoor adventure that I can share equally in with less-fit people. It was great to sit there and not do anything, but the kayak didn't let me move my legs around, and there wasn't a great place to set the mountain of food I had stashed with the boat. When I'd done this route with my son, the 3.5 hours on the water seemed to go by in a flash, as it was split into two days and proceeded by two big days of hiking. Compared to the very enjoyable 5 hours I'd just spent running, it was interminable. For some reason the bright sun had the wildlife in hiding as well - last year it was misty and drizzling and we saw deer crowding the banks, eagles fighting for territory in the low clouds, and fish jumping. This time it was just water and sun. But of course the end came, and I even saw quite a few bald eagles right at the end.
As I post-mortem the run, I'm sure there is a lot of time left to be taken out of it. Sub-4 for sure, maybe 3:30 for a real world-class talent - and that's in line with times from big-name 50k races. With more miles in my legs, drier trails, and no water stop, 4:30 should go even for a weekend warrior like me. Even this weekend, I don't think my pacing was aggressive enough. Although, that's a fine line: start 2% slower than you're capable of and you can cruise, start 2% too fast and you'll blow up and DNF. I didn't find my limit, but it's hard to say how close I was. Mentally it was certainly getting very hard to keep moving quickly, even if the legs were there once I found the focus.
Overall the experience was like what I've had in the past, when moving fast on terrain that I've covered slowly before - a bit of a surreal time-warp effect. The short dirt road sections of the trail seemed to drag on forever when hiking them in boots and with a pack, but when I could crank the pace down and run them, they were insignificant. The few times I paused at a vista to see where I was, I was able to spot the last cliff I looked out from nearly out of sight down-canyon. With some effort and a light load, very large landscapes simultaneously shrink and expand - they shrink temporally, as I realize I was just recently standing at that distant spot, and yet most of the time I'm focused on just a few meters of trail, which grow into my whole world, and swallow me in the moment. There was a lot of alternating my attention between my immediate surroundings, and the immensity of the larger place I was in, a surreal experience I usually associate with technical climbing. And that's a good thing!