The 2019 Black Canyon 100k took place this past weekend in Arizona and four people earned automatic entry into the 2019 Western States 100 via so-called Golden Tickets: Matt Daniels, me, Kaci Lickteig and YiOu Wang. The race was very competitive for both the men and women. I can’t give a first-hand account of the front of the women’s race except to say that Lickteig and Wang were within minutes of one another each time I saw them on out-and-back sections of the course, and it looked on paper and in-person to be a head-to-head battle all day. They finished just eight minutes apart. The men’s race was, as ultras with competitive fields tend to be, dynamic and interesting, and there was much more nuance and subtlety than even a critical reviewer of the race results would find.
The fact is that ultrarunning is a difficult sport to cover from a journalistic perspective. The races are very long and much of the course is often difficult to access. There isn’t a lot of money in the sport at present and few media outlets have the financial means—not to mention the physical means—to extensively cover an ultramarathon. This isn’t a criticism, it’s simply true. Ultrarunning is also interesting from a journalistic perspective because the final results are often misleading. Inherent in the very fabric of our sport is the reality that some of the runners at the front of a race will not finish at the front of the race, or may not finish at all, yet those front runners probably had a significant impact on how the race unfolded and developed. These difficulties in covering an ultra, combined with the unstable nature of a race’s development together leave avid fans with a limited, if not altogether incorrect, picture of a race. Here’s a fuller picture of what happened in the men’s race at the 2019 Black Canyon 100k.
The race was re-routed this year because of high water levels in the Agua Fria River. This meant that only the first 28 miles of the re-routed course were the same as the original course. The remaining 33 or so miles (my GPS watch clocked 60.9 miles) involved out-and-back running on a combination of single-track trail, jeep road, dirt road and paved road. Matt Daniels won the race in an unofficial time of 7 hours and 20 minutes, which on paper seems like a blow-out considering that second-place Chris Mocko finished in 7 hours, 45 minutes, and 59 seconds, while I finished 20 seconds behind Mocko in third. But in fact, and I’d say interestingly, Daniels was chased very closely for the majority of the race and even though Mocko finished the race in second, he didn’t really have a shot at winning the thing. Anthony Kunkel finished fourth in 8 hours and 7 minutes but, like Mocko, he, too, remained out of striking distance throughout the race.
Photos by Jessica Brazeau
By the Bumblebee aid station at mile 20.9, there were five guys who realistically had a chance to win the race: Matt Daniels, Max King, Dakota Jones, Jared Hazen and me. We were all within a few minutes of each other, with a few minutes or more back to the rest of the field. Admittedly, there were at least two other guys near our front group around Bumblebee but, quite frankly, they lacked the pedigree and experience to continue to keep up as the course moved from nearly all downhill running to undulating terrain with a few bigger climbs. It was already down to five people for the win just one-third of the way into the race because if a race has a competitive field, and five guys go to the front of the race and put a gap on the rest of the field, one of those guys is very likely to hold the pace well enough to win and no one behind him will have the chance to make up the gap that’s already been established. There are different ways to race an ultramarathon successfully, and I’m not here to suggest that one way is better than any other. But if you want to win an ultramarathon, and it’s competitive, you better go out with the lead pack, or damn close to the lead pack, because you’ll never have a chance to win the race if you don’t. You might have a good chance to finish second, or third, or fifth, or somewhere in the top 10, but you very probably won’t win. Not if the field is competitive and a group of five accomplished athletes has put a noticeable gap on you one-third of the way into the race.
By mile 36, eventual second-place finisher Chris Mocko was 26 minutes behind the leader and eventual winner, Matt Daniels. Mocko ran an exceptional race to finish second, as he didn’t lose another second to Daniels over the remaining 25 or so miles, and in doing so he passed at least five or six runners. He displayed the successful ultrarunning traits of patience, mental fortitude, and strength. But he was 26 minutes behind Daniels at mile 36—his chances of winning the race at that point were exceedingly small, especially considering that Max King was three minutes back of Daniels at mile 36, I was eight minutes behind, and Jared Hazen was nine minutes back from the lead. If Daniels faltered slightly, and one of the three of us maintained our composure, the win was well within reach.
As it happened, Daniels had a rather other-worldly day. He didn’t falter, he just kept running really fast. I’ve run the Black Canyon Trail (BCT) countless times, and I’ve never seen anyone run that fast, for that long, without blowing up. It's true that the re-route cut off the toughest sections of the BCT. The last 25 miles of the BCT are tedious and difficult and involve more climbing and more technical terrain and are simply much more likely to cause a blow-up than the last 25 miles of the re-routed course. But set all that aside: Daniels ran lights out. While he didn’t lead the whole race—much of the first 13 miles was led by someone else—he ran off the front for the majority of the day. That’s a tough way to win a race, and he did it convincingly.
Jones suffered considerably over the second half of the race and lost significant time on the lead group. Such is the difficulty of racing trails in the warm desert in February when you’ve trained on roads in the cold temperatures of Durango, Colorado all winter. Meanwhile, after several pit-stops that repeatedly halted his advances, Hazen eventually caught me around mile 40 and we ran together in third and fourth, now 10 or 12 minutes behind Daniels and six or eight minutes back from King. Hazen told me he “[smelt] blood” and took off on a short, winding uphill with the hopes of gaining ground on one of the front runners. But five miles later we entered an aid station together, and two miles after that he stopped abruptly, doubled over, and started puking violently. He would drop at mile 51. Before we parted ways for good, Hazen left me with a glimmer of hope that helped me continue with a purpose: “I think one of those guys is coming back.”
Now alone in third, I re-established my focus and forged ahead. Within a few miles, I started hearing reports that King was walking. By mile 48, I was told that he was one minute ahead. I soon passed King and, then in second place, I was right where I needed to be. I heard varied reports on King’s ailment—some said he was stretching, others believed he was puking—but he would later say that he felt something was pulled or torn. That caused him to walk and then drop at mile 51.
The mile 51 aid station was the northern most part of the final out-and-back on the re-routed course. From there, it was about 11 miles back to the finish. Mocko was the first person I saw coming back out of that aid station and he was about five minutes back. He had earned himself a spot at Western States the month prior at the Bandera 100k, so it was a relief to know that my closest chaser wasn’t a threat to my purpose of winning a Golden Ticket and entry to Western States. We interacted briefly as I inquired about the field behind him and his helpful advice was this: “You have a big lead, run conservatively.” I did have a big lead because King was the next closest competitor after Mocko and he was now walking.
I ran conservatively and remained in second until I was within 400 meters of the finish line. At that point, I looked back down the trail to see Mocko charging hard. With 200 meters to go, he was right behind me while our friends urged me to fight him off. I didn’t and Mocko deservedly took second. Instead, I jogged easily and enjoyed the final minute of the race. This was my third year in a row trying for a Golden Ticket at the Black Canyon 100k. I had failed twice, and that made success on the third try ever so sweet. I savored every second of that triumph as I walked the final meters and crossed under the finish arch grinning ear-to-ear.
The 2019 Black Canyon 100k was a dynamic race with fierce competition. The race unfolded piece by piece until the final results were set in stone. Those set-in-stone results tell one small part of a larger story. A race is always more intriguing than its results. Whether you finish at the back of the pack, middle of the pack, or front of the race, we’d love to hear your tales from the trails. Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) your next story and we’ll consider publishing it here on our blog.