New trails rock. If there’s a new trail, I want to experience it, so when I learned that Jamil Coury, the race director of the local Aravaipa Running was asking for runners to come out and do some test runs for the inaugural Black Canyon 100K, I said, “Absolutely!” The 100K course was broken up into three segments, to be run in three different training runs. Unfortunately, I had to miss the first training run, but I was super excited to go to the second. As you will see, I almost missed that one, too. Now to begin, I will start in as good a place as any, at the beginning.
The evening of November 30th, 2013, I was very excited and busied myself ensuring I was ready to jet out the door the next morning at 5:00 am. I was meeting my friends to head up to Black Canyon, Arizona for our 18 mile training run on some new trails. My Nathan hydration pack was filled with water and some snacks, my clothes were laid out, and my alarm was set. I fell asleep thinking about what the morning would bring.
Some hours later, I woke up feeling refreshed, (which to anyone who knows me AT ALL, is a terrible sign that something is horribly wrong- I never wake up refreshed), and wondering how much longer until my alarm went off. I turned my clock around and saw the time was… 5:30 am. I’m sure some choice words flew out of my mouth, though I don’t remember what they were, (my husband could probably enlighten you, if you really need to know), and I ran downstairs as fast I could to call my friend Becky, who was driving. She and my other friend Matt had just barely left and they agreed to turn around to come and get me. I ran back upstairs, pulled on the pre-laid out clothes, grabbed my pack, ran out the door, and met them out on the road. I was so thankful they came back for me, (I’d really been looking forward to this run), but felt absolutely horrible for making us late. I don’t do late. Ever. To top it off, I enjoyed some time around a campfire the night before and hadn’t gotten around to showering the smell out of my hair, so, I had smoke-stink working in my favor too. The day was off to… well… some kind of start. Becky and Matt were both very gracious about my tardiness and didn’t give me too hard of a time about my smoke-stink. Thanks guys.
After picking up another friend of ours, Dawn, we raced up the freeway towards Black Canyon, and got to the meet-up point just in time. They may even have been waiting for us. I don’t know and really didn’t want to ask if I made them late too. The meet-up was actually where the finish of the days’ run would be, so we left our cars there and carpooled north to where we were to begin. Upon stepping out of the car, I was met with open, beautiful desert with hills all around us. If you have ever spent much time in the Valley of the Sun, you know that around town there aren’t any hills, so hills are a treasure.
We waited for a few minutes for everyone to get situated: packs on and adjusted, shoes on and tied, bushes thoroughly peed on- you know, typical runner stuff. Jamil gave us a quick rundown: he would be out in front marking the trail with specific ribbons we needed to watch out for. Someone needed to play sweeper and ensure no one was left on the trail and that all the ribbons were taken down. Then, with no further fanfare, we started running.
The beginning of any run, especially on new terrain with new people, is all about settling into a good rhythm. There are always the front runners- those who take off like a shot from the start and are never seen again, (I am not one of those), and there are the rest of us, in a clump. Thankfully the clumps never last long and people quickly begin to string out as they settle into their pace with who they will be running with or near for the duration of the run. Once we thinned out, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing.
For quite a bit of the run, we were along the side of hill, looking out over a narrow valley with more hills on the other side. No houses, no signs of the civilization we were so close to, just clean desert. Peaceful. Restive. I stopped frequently to soak it all in.
What Jamil neglected to tell us about this section of trail is that there were not one, but TWO river crossings in our course that day! Like with the hills I mentioned earlier, you would need to be familiar with the area to fully appreciate this, but I rarely see running water. In fact, I get insanely excited over a stagnant pool of water left over from a storm four weeks prior. These were not stagnant pools. These were fully functional rivers, with trees! Yes! Trees! Real, big trees! When I first caught a glimpse of the first river I was still up on the hill, so I had to stop and just look at the water for a while. When I began moving again and realized that we were heading downhill towards the river I just couldn’t believe it! While this river may only be a crick to most people, it was absolutely a river for here in the desert, and I loved it. There was no bridge to cross on, but there were some rocks which were sufficient for hopping across. It would be interesting to see this area during monsoon season!
On the way to the second river crossing (keep in mind at this point I didn’t know there was a second river crossing), I was feeling tired, so I was just walking. Suddenly, this amazing vista opened before me. The trail cut steep and straight down between two hills and way off in the distance Black Canyon City could be seen, nestled in among the hills. Now, picture me, standing at the top of a steep, downhill trail. What happens next? If you guessed extreme speed, you guessed correctly. Even though it was downhill, I was running so fast my lungs and heart were barely keeping up. It was glorious.
The second river crossing was , if possible, even more exciting than the first. The area itself was calm, reminding me of a summer watering hole. I half expected to see a tire swing strung up over the water somewhere! After descending to the river, the trail appeared to simply end among some reeds. Thankfully, Jamil has mad trail-marking skills, so I was able to follow the ribbons in between the reeds and across a few hillocks in the river. This crossing had a few small stones in the river that I was able to hop across, but no clear crossing like the last one. Thankfully, I didn’t fall in!
Somewhere on this run, I don’t remember if it was before or after the second river crossing, I made a very sudden stop because I spotted a tarantula. Matt took this shot of it. When he tried to get closer, it raised its bulbous abdomen at him and crawled away.
The rest of the trail was just as amazing as the beginning. A couple of places had some jeep trails to follow, but mostly we stayed on the single track. At one point, we climbed up switchbacks to the top of a hill and had a great view on a couple of sides of the river winding its way through the valley below us. By this time I was tired and ready to be done. Thankfully we were within a mile or two of our finishing spot.
For once, I thought ahead and brought dry clothes to change into afterwards. After every run, it doesn’t matter much what the temperature is, I freeze. My lips and finger tips turn purple (I look like a zombie), and I usually start shaking and can’t get warm. The dry clothes made all the difference. While I did turn purple, I didn’t feel bad like usual, and actually felt relatively comfortable. I warmed up very quickly. I did, however, still smell like campfire smoke, and now sweat-stink could be added to that. Excellent.
We hung around for a bit talking to Jamil and some of the other runners. It was wonderful. We discussed upcoming races and running ultras (an ultra is any distance longer than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles). The atmosphere was calm, relaxed, and laid back. It was a perfect wrap-up to a perfect run.
If someone were to ask me to sum up, in one word, what the best thing about running the Black Canyon trail is, I would say that the best thing is that it’s tight. Yes, for all you non-runners out there, I said tight. As further description I would say, “tight, single track”. I run many trails, all kinds of trails, from wide open service roads, to sandy washes, to rocky ankle twisters, to smooth and clear swaths cutting through the desert. NOTHING compares to a tight, single track trail. A trail such as this is a footpath, nothing more. Bikers certainly can, and do, ride these, but the trail is exceedingly narrow, just wide enough for you to place one foot in front of the other. The desert is unrelentingly right up against your ankles, and yet this particular trail, for all of its tightness, is clear and entirely runnable. This aspect of the trail is what struck me the most and is a huge part of what makes this such an amazing run.
The final part of any long run is food. Always. Becky, Dawn, Matt, and I stopped at Whole Foods grocery store for lunch. That sounds odd, right? I thought so too the first time Becky suggested it, but they have this huge buffet of GOOD food. The food does not have the usual buffet-style, mass-produced flavor. It’s actually delicious, and so, I ate a lot and felt great.
Becky drove us back home and, as usual, we all had great laughs and discussions. The memories of these runs with my friends are so precious and I am so incredibly thankful for each and every one of them. These runners have each taught me so much. For a long time now, I have felt something that my husband put into some perfect, simple words. “In our modern American culture, we don’t need each other anymore.” I find this to be true in my life. We each work and have our little friendships, but I have found that, in general, we have forgotten how to need each other, and in doing so, have forgotten that others need us. I don’t know if anyone other than me has felt this way, but it is a lonely and empty place to be. Amazing friends gift my precious long runs to me. They are strong people, they are beautiful people with deep stories to tell, and I have learned so much from simply running beside them for hours on end. I am a better person because these people choose to be a part of my life. So thank you, you know who you are, for the life you give me on our long runs.