Mercury on the Run

Black Canyon Race Report:
Chasing the Sun

Last week at this time I was shuffling my way across the desert on my way toward completing the Black Canyon 100K. Overall it was a very pleasant day and experience. The memories that stick out the most are the feeling of the sun warming my skin while being caressed by a gentle cool breeze; the beautiful peachy sunrise just as the day began; all the glittery rocks and minerals scattered throughout- there was a particular white stone with coral stripes I kept seeing throughout that I was tempted to pocket and take home with me (I didn't). I saw cactus in so many forms- my favorite was in spherical, almost spiral form purple stripes, it was about the size that it would seem very satisfying to punt if it weren’t for the many needles poking out of it, and the fact that you shouldn’t go around kicking plant life! There were big tall linebacker-looking cactuses, and the roly-poly fuzzy caterpillar looking cacti. In one mile I was running through pure white sand exposed in the sun, and the next I was making my way through an oasis of shady green foliage after fording a stream.

I went into the race with some personal goals. It became pretty clear after 20 miles that my body was not ready for an “A+” kind of effort, which was to be expected, given that I had a very short/minimal build to this race- though I had a glimmer of hope going into it that everything would just work out (ha ha ha). The sign that made it most clear was that I was having trouble getting food down and felt nauseated pretty early, perhaps an indicator that my body was overstressed. I ran at a 9ish minute pace for the first 20 or so miles, very much feeling like I was taking my time and keeping it easygoing- I let the front of the pack go pretty much as soon as the race started. Then once the nausea started around mile 20 I switched to a run/walk pattern and settled into about a 13 minute per mile pace, which seemed to calm my system down to the point I could eat again, and that’s pretty much where I settled for the rest of the day. I was a little bummed to not be able to hold my initial pace which physically felt pretty comfortable outside of the nausea, but it was nice to discover a rhythm that I felt I could hold for a very long time.

There was a little bit of dissonance in taking part in such a competitive and commercialized event with hundreds of entrants (maybe over a thousand?), while kind of being off in my own little world. My friend Tara (who had an amazing race!) and her friend/support crew Reese and I shared a hotel the night before and carpooled to the start together (Reese also shuttled my luggage and such to the finish line, thank you Reese!!), so it was really nice to start the weekend with some familiar faces, plus I saw friends I knew racing and crewing throughout the event and I got a lift every time I saw them. I didn’t recruit a crew, mostly since it was a low stakes event for me, and to keep things simple I decided not to send myself drop bags and just take what I needed in my pack and use the aid stations to resupply. This was a fine plan and it worked out great logistically- but something I didn’t really expect or consider ahead of time was feeling a bit lonely out there.

Somewhere past the halfway point of the race, it became abundantly clear that I would not finish before the sun went down at 7pm, so within 12 hours since the 7am start time. I knew this would be a possibility going into the race, but perhaps out of stubbornness and overestimating my ability I didn’t bother packing a headlamp, figuring if worst came to worse I would use my iPhone flashlight. I really thought for sure I would finish before it got dark, and didn't worry about it too much. This was a reckless decision, and I was lucky to have gotten away with it. To go down the list of things that could have gone wrong (sorry mom and dad!): my phone could have run out of battery, or I could have dropped it and broken it. The temperature in the desert drops significantly at night, and sometimes the trail isn’t easy to follow- without a good light source, or without a light at all, what if I got lost, hypothermic, and had no way to communicate with anyone? Big, big yikes. I’m totally embarrassed to share the irresponsible decision I made in not taking a headlamp (or an extra layer like a jacket for that matter), but that’s what happened, and it’s a great example of what not to do.

I did get lucky though. The last ten miles or so of the course were pretty tame, just weaving through the canyon and open desert. I was treated to a very nice sunset, and since the sky was clear I could still see for quite a long time after the sun went down. I was aware of the multitude of things that could go wrong, but overall the remaining miles of the race in the night were pretty enjoyable. I could see at least one runner with a headlamp way up ahead of me, and someone way far behind me, which added a bit of reassurance that I was on the right track. The temperature cooled, but not too dramatically at first, and it ended up being a really perfect temperature for running. My body felt good and my pacing still felt comfortable. I felt very in my element. It seemed too bad that the race would be over soon, because I felt like I could just go and go. My iPhone flashlight was pretty pitiful in terms of how well I could see, and I definitely tripped a few times but managed to stay upright. I made another silly decision and picked up my pace, calculating that if I could run under 12 minute miles, I could finish under the 13 hour mark.

I could see the finish area glowing under floodlights from about a quarter mile away. As soon as I could see without the aid of my iPhone, I tucked it away and dashed down the finisher chute and crossed the line in 12:58:49. A personal record by about an hour (though on a shorter and arguably much easier course than my 13:57 at Hellgate), and a Western States qualifier. Mission accomplished! My sister was able to capture my finish on the live feed- she said I came out of nowhere like a ghost, since with the other runners finishing you could see them coming from much farther away because of their headlamp!

My feelings upon crossing the finish line were mixed. I gave myself a little pat on the back, "Good job, me!" I felt in a daze after the physical effort, and happy for myself doing a hard thing. I felt a little lonely not having anyone to meet, I finished hours behind my friends who had a long drive ahead of them (I had called earlier and said not to wait), and wasn't totally sure what to do with myself in terms of simple decision making, like... get warm, get food, the basics. It's on me for not having recruited help; an oversight on my part thinking I'd be just fine doing my own thing. I really didn't think much about it beforehand and generally don't mind doing stuff by myself, so these feelings were a bit unexpected. I found a chair to sit in and some nice runners to talk to, as is reflective of the ultra running community- everyone is generally very nice and welcoming and the finish line is always a party. Another very nice runner or someone's crew person took my picture for me at the finish line. I found my luggage, changed into dry clothes, and had some hot soup and grilled cheese (yum). A couple other finishers commented on how fresh and okay I looked, which is generally how I felt, at least until I tried to stand up again after sitting for a while (haha).

Looking back on the day, I found a sustainable rhythm that worked for me, my current fitness, and what my stomach/body could tolerate. I feel a little unsatisfied knowing I could run faster with more ample and strategic training–that’s really all there is to it. To perform at your best, you have to put in the work to get there. My race result is a pretty accurate representation of the time I’ve been putting into my running, which is… not as much as I would like, but sustainable for the season I’m in. All that being said I'm proud of how I ran, I seriously loved spending the day on my feet outside, I'm always amazed at what the human body can roll with, and there are always valuable takeaways with every new experience.

This is partially just for my personal notes but here’s what worked for me at Black Canyon:

-Walk/run combo for sustainability
-Friends/familiar faces (consider recruiting help next time)
-Smucker’s Uncrustables PB&J - Strawberry (frozen section at most grocery stores- perfect to throw in your pack)
-GU Roctane Energy Drink (on hand at aid stations - drank a lot of this when I coudn’t eat)
-GU Roctane gels (on hand at aid stations - sugary gel that’s gross to me in theory but they didn’t make me want to hurl and always gave me a little boost so who am I to knock them?)
-Spring Energy gels - Awesomesauce and Canaberry were good on a warm day, nice ‘real food’ option compared with sugary gel
Tracksmith OTQ shorts* (tried and true these are my go-to long distance short, they make’em for men too)
Tracksmith Twilight Long Sleeve* - I had only planned to wear this in the first few miles to warm up but ended up leaving it on the entire race - it’s light, breathable, I never got overheated in the sun and it protected my skin from getting burned. They make a bunch of tops for men and women in the same Twilight material in the form of tanks, tees, and long sleeves, it’s popular for a reason!
Tracksmith Speed Crew Sock* - I’m pretty picky about socks and these are very very nice! A runner complimented me on them during the race and asked how they were and I said “I haven’t thought about them once, so that must be a great sign!” Zero blisters or hot spots on my feet for 62 miles. A+
-Pack a freaking headlamp!

*If you’re curious about trying Tracksmith, use my referral link to take $50 off your first order of $150 or more.

It's been a week since Black Canyon I haven’t run a step, perfect timing as Boston just got hit with a snowstorm. I’m gearing up to hike a section of the Arizona Trail with a dear friend over spring break, then the next thing on my radar is a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail with another dear friend this summer. These are the things I’ll be daydreaming about in the lingering wintry conditions in New England!


Thanks for reading. If my writing resonates with you, please consider supporting me by buying me a coffee or becoming a monthly member (members get perks like stickers, handwritten notes, and other small goodies). My sincerest thanks to everyone who has done so!

Buy Me a Coffee ☕️
Become a Monthly Member 🌟

Another great way to support is by forwarding this letter or sharing a link with someone that might enjoy it too. New readers may subscribe below.

Here’s the copy/paste link for this letter:

Newsletter Subscribe 💫

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Greater Boston. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).