Black Canyon Ultras: behind the scenes

Noel KingstonNoel Kingston

For those that do not know it, I have another life as an event crew member with Aravaipa Running and this last weekend I helped host the Black Canyon Ultras 100K on Saturday and 60K on Sunday.

I camp at Bumblebee Ranch and then work together with a large Aravaipa team to put on the race. There were approximately 1000 runners, their crew, pacers and family counting on our team to show them an amazing weekend.

On Wednesday, my first shift, I marked 11 miles of the course from the Hidden Treasure Aid Station (mile 12.9), past the Bumblebee Aid Station (mile 19.4) and then finished at the Gloriana Mine Aid Station (mile 24). Course marking is always serious business but especially in this race as it is a Western States golden ticket event and there was a huge field of elite runners toeing the line. on horse with flag I use ribbon and signs to mark the right way and wrong way on the course and try to visualize what the runners are seeing as the race; whether they are an elite runner or someone way in the back. My biggest fear as a course marker is that someone with vandalize my work in the days between my marking and the actual race day.

On Thursday I helped set up the finish line of the 100K at the Emery Henderson Aid Station, the 60K finish line at Black Canyon City, and the Table Mesa Aid Station. Setting up an aid station consists of putting up an array of tents (could be as large as a 20X30 or small as a 10X10), tables, chairs, electrical and lighting, water, food, cooking stove, etc. We drive t-posts and large stakes and use ratchet straps to secure the tents against the elements. The wind was unusually strong during setup and it was forecast to be strong again on race day for the 100K on Saturday.

My Friday consisted of assisting runners with drop bags at the runner’s expo and delivering the bags to their respective aid stations. Drop bags are essentially a container for each runner with items that are needed at different sections of the race. As an example, many runners are planning to be out on the course after dark due to their slower speed, so they would put a headlamp and warmer clothing in a drop bag for an aid station at the later section of the race. As is normal for a race, I helped with extra duties by finishing my day filling extra water containers at Bumblebee Ranch. I was tired from my day and a couple of team members. Alex and Mick, came down to help fill the water and Mick even gave me his burrito to eat since I had not really eaten anything since breakfast. I was scheduled to work the start of the 100K on Saturday morning at Mayer High School in Spring Valley so I went to bed as soon as I could at around 10 pm.

I awoke on Saturday morning at 3:30 am and shuttled a small box truck to be at the start line at 5:00 am. My assignment for the morning would be to help collect additional drop bags from runners that could not attend the expo the night before. The temperature forecast for Black Canyon City later that day was 80 degrees but it was 36 degrees at the start and the wind was howling. Obstacles always present themselves in these races and the race director Jubilee Paige would not be deterred from ensuring that the race start would go on without a hitch. Every race has its challenges, but part of our job is to keep it behind the curtain from the runners, and ensure that they have an amazing race experience. The 100K race consisted of approximately 700 runners and three starting waves – 7am, 7:30am and 8am. I saw a few of my friends who were running, snapped some photos, and helped prepare the starting line in preparation for the 60K the next day. Aravaipa is starting to host races in Colorado Springs, CO, and part of my duties for the day would be to train Dennis from the Colorado crew. I picked him up in Bumblebee and off we went to Black Canyon City to deliver drop bags for the runners. During a large race, we have a central point of contact who oversees the behind-the-scenes operation. For the Black Canyon Ultras, this huge task would fall to my fellow team member Aaron Schmidt. My duties during a race include resupplying aid station necessities like food, water and ice, transporting dropped runners (runners that quit due to injury or other issues), and generally just solving problems during my shift. After we piled drop bags at Black Canyon City, we then worked with several volunteers to try and secure other structures being threatened by the wind. Aaron then asked us to report to the Table Mesa aid station as the aid station captain had reported a 20X20 tent with wind damage from the night before. The 20X20 tents that we put up are nearly indestructible if put up properly, so I was very concerned that we did not do an adequate job in our construction the previous day. As we arrived at the aid station, I noticed immediately that something had happened to the main tent pole that holds the roof up and taut. Aid station volunteers were starting to stream in and we needed to act fast. The pole had somehow pushed through the top of the tent and after consulting with Aaron, we decided that we didn’t have enough time to take the tent down, fix the pole and put it back up. It was up to Dennis and I to somehow secure the tent and ensure it was safe to use in very windy conditions. We put our MacGyver hats on and a couple of the tall volunteers helped us attach ratchet straps across the top and bottom of the roof to secure the structure. We were mighty proud of our fix but we were concerned that it might not hold up in the still very windy conditions.McGyver For the remainder of my shift, I shuttled runners, resupplied aid stations, and took supplies to the finish line and was able to see the first male runners cross the finish line. How fast can someone run 100K? 41-year-old Trueheart Brown was the first male finisher with a time of 7:57:27. I believe he is only one of three runners finishing the course in under 8 hours in the nine years of the race. One of my fellow Aravaipa team members, Scott Traer, crushed the course in 8:03:07 and took second place. My shift ended for the day and I had to return my vehicle for the next shift, but the first female runner was Clare Gallagher and she finished in a time of 9:06:21.

I have to mention that four of my Prescott Area Trail Runner (PATR) peeps were running the 100K. As I was going to bed, two of our runners had already finished the race, but my buddies Mike Melchiors and Dean Hansen appeared to have dropped at the Cotton Creek Aid Station. Mike was running his 9th Black Canyon 100K (only runner to have started and finished every year since inception) and Dean was running his 8th. In fact, the race director Jubilee Paige is very fond of them both and gave them bib #’s 9 and 8 respectively. They are both very good friends of mine and I sadly went to bed believing their finishing streak had ended.

The runners have 20 hours to finish the race which means that 4:00 am would be the cutoff for those runners starting at 8:00 am. I woke up Sunday morning at 3:15 am and after some coffee and granola I perused the finish results of the 100K to see how many runners were still trying to complete the course. I glanced quickly at the finishers and saw that Dean Hansen had finished the course at 3:40 am – 20 minutes under the cutoff. I looked for Mike and saw that he had passed the last aid station at Doe Springs and was minutes away from the finish. The results page indicated that at his last noted pace he was supposed to finish 4 minutes after the cutoff. I kept refreshing the results page and finally saw that Mike had finished as the DFL (dead freaking last) runner at 3:56 am. This gave him an official finish 4 minutes under the cutoff and his 9th consecutive race and his streak continues. I have to tell you that I cried when I saw the final results because Mike and Dean are such great friends and I was so happy for them. They are tough and resilient and I am so proud of them!

Back to the race… I was supposed to pick up a race vehicle at Bumblebee and report to Mayer High School Sunday morning at 5:00 am. Well, the vehicle I was supposed to drive was being used elsewhere and so I drove my own truck to the start to use for drop bag transport. The 60K had approximately 330 runners in two waves at 7am and 7:30am. The shuttle buses from Black Canyon City (finish line) were running late so the first wave was delayed until 7:15am. My main duty for the morning was to keep traffic flowing in and out of the runner drop area. I wore a sweet neon vest and directed with a lighted flashlight and I definitely had a flashback to my years as an air traffic controller (inside joke!). It was a very chilly morning again and I saw many of my PATR peeps making their way to the start line. peeps After the runners were off, my Aravaipa team made quick work of the start line breakdown and I was off to my duties as event support. I drove past the Antelope Aid Station (took a couple of quick photos of my friends volunteering there) and then after dropping off water at Hidden Treasure Aid Station, I continued to the 60K finish at Black Canyon City. As I was offloading drop bags at the finish line, a mountain biker who was also an aid station volunteer on Saturday, told us that the last 1.5 miles of course marking was pulled inadvertently the night before. Mtn Biker I didn’t have any signs for the course, but I grabbed some course marking ribbon and off I went to re-mark the last section of the course for the 60K runners. I finished my shift by heading out to the Soap Creek Aid Station with extra water and ice, and afterwards I stayed at the finish line to cheer on all of our PATR peeps. Over the weekend, we had a 100% finisher rate for all of our PATR runners in the 100K AND 60K – great job!

The end of a race is bittersweet and I always think about Jackson Browne’s roadie song called “The Load” – here are the lyrics from the first chorus.

Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and the last to leave
Working for that minimum wage
They’ll set it up in another town

Monday was the final breakdown for the shift and since it was a weekday, the crew would be bare bones. We had to break down remote aid stations at Soap Creek, Doe Springs and the 60K finish line at Black Canyon City. Luckily our crew was made up of experienced and hardworking team members and we worked tirelessly to load everything into our support vehicles and close the chapter on the 2022 Black Canyon Ultras.

I always walk away from these big races exhausted and question why I do it… Well, I love my Aravaipa family, physical labor and the ultrarunning community. Guess I will stick around to “set it up in another town”.