Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Into the Canyon: Trail de Cañon (Peña del Aire) Race Report

Dalva Looooves the Zip Line
Scouting the first descent with Oriana

 I’m trying to understand the correlation between a terrible night’s sleep followed by a decent race. I haven’t slept so poorly before a race since the 2014 Angeles Crest 100.
 Finally fell asleep and then woke at 2:50am. Of course I fell asleep once more two minutes before my alarm sounded at 4:50am.
 The previous evening, Oriana and I had driven to Peña del Aire, which is a phallic shaped rock where the race would begin.
 We got there just before sunset. We walked down to the head of the trail that leads down into the canyon, and I was reminded of how technical this descent is. No way I was going to do this without a headlamp. I hate running with a lamp all day just for an hour of light in the morning, but I was going to have to deal with it.
 As the light faded over the canyon, Oriana and I drove back to the Cabañas: we timed it as exactly 22 minutes and 21 seconds. The plan was to leave at 5:15 in the morning. Tough to get the whole family moving at that hour, and Natalia was racing the 20k and wouldn’t start until 7, so I was looking for a ride to give the family an extra hour of sleep.

FYI: It's 22 minutes and 21 seconds from this cabaña to the race start

 No Uber in Huasca and the taxi drivers don’t get up that early.
However, the caretaker had mentioned that the folks in the neighboring cabaña were also in the race, so I went and knocked on their door to see if they were running the 40k and maybe could I get a ride? I felt like a stalker rapping on their door at night, but the couple answered --if warily-- and sure enough one of them was running the 40k. The great news is they were happy to give me a ride. Unfortunately, they were planning on leaving “around 5:30.” I politely but firmly mentioned that it just took me 22 minutes and 21 seconds to drive to Peña del Aire. They appeared unmoved by this fact, and while I had several other arguments at the ready, I really wasn’t in the best negotiating position considering that I was an uninvited stranger knocking on their door at night --possibly interrupting an intimate moment-- looking for a free ride. I also inferred it was not an opportune moment to express my reservations about Mexican concepts of time, so I just assured them I’d be outside and ready by 5:20 (hint), thanked them, and then went to bed, staring at the darkness for hours while my family slept around me.

                                                   Amazing Place!                            Photo:

 The next morning I was outside and ready at 5:12. I met my other neighbor, Horacio, who was also looking for a ride, and the couple, Diego and Erika, were happy to bring him along as well. It was foggy and dark. And 5:31. We were off.  We chatted away talking about races we had run (as always in Mexican trail running circles, it turned out we all had run several races together without knowing it) and we blew right past the turn off for the Peña del Aire.

 Despite the fog I knew we were wrong, and so we stopped and turned around. But several other cars were heading in this direction and said it was the correct way. There was some mildly panicked discussion, but we retraced our steps, found the correct turn and we were on the slow dirt roads to arrive at the start.

At about 5:57 we could see the lights of cars heading into the parking lot.

It was at this moment I thought it best resist the urge to restate the wisdom of my suggested 5:15am departure.

 We rolled into the big grassy field that was the parking lot, and it seemed they wanted us to drive to the farthest part of the lot. It was 5:59. I wondered how rude it would be to simply open the door,  jump out of the slowly moving car, yell thank you, and run to the start.

I suppressed that urge as well.

 We parked. It was 6:00 by my Suunto. I noted lots of car lights still coming into the parking lot, Probably the race would start late. Nope: the countdown had begun 10, 9, 8….
...Time to run….

  1. Kudos to Trail Run Hidalgo for starting his race on time. Some said they should have waited a few minutes, but that will just lead to all of his races starting late. They don’t; they start on time. Word will get around and people will be there when they are supposed to be.

     2. Thank you to Diego and Erika for giving me a ride.

     3. Maybe a 5:20 departure next year? ;)

 Perhaps the reason I couldn’t sleep the night before is that I had been anticipating this race for months. The canyon is well-known to many trail runners, because at kilometer 60, the UTMX 100k race descends into the canyon on the same trail where we would start our race. There are many things I love about UTMX, but the canyon section is, for me, the jewel of that race. However, at UTMX we only spend about 7 kilometers running in the canyon, and I’ve always wanted to explore 

                          Awesome descents like this all day.                   Photo: Martin Forstmann of

 I don’t want to bore anyone with a blow by blow of my race, but I knew going up the first major climb that I was going to have a good day. I was wrong: I had a fantastic day. Part of the reason I felt great is that I’m finally starting to get into some sort of shape; but the more important reason is that the route was freaking fantastic: a true adventure….a dozen river crossings, several sketchy, loose rock technical down hills, and beautiful single track all day long. Also, as usual, Trail Run HIdalgo got the important details correct: the aid stations were plentiful and had the necessities, there was beer at the finish, and the course was marked heavily. Flags all over the place. Too many, for my taste, but I understand that the organizers don’t want people getting lost down in the canyon.

                           Natalia at the finish!                                         Photo:

 Despite the awesomeness of the race, two or three runners still found reasons to complain on facebook after the race.

 As an old teacher friend once told me: “Guy, you could invite some people to the ice cream store every day and they’d complain because they had to walk.”

 More on that later.

During the last 15 K, I was catching people and moving well. I completely submerged myself in every river crossing to keep cool and then I rolled up to the second to last aid station. There were about 4 runners here, so I quickly refilled my bottle, chugged a coke, ate some watermelon and kept moving. I was anticipating the last climb. What I was not anticipating was the climb to get to the last climb: slippery loose gravel and just stupidly steep. Most races end with a nice downhill or a straightway. Instead we had a two plus mile climb up to the top of the canyon. After moving so well all day I was reduced to a bit of a spit dribbler, and most of the runners I had passed at the last aid station caught me, which is to say they hiked by me. The Peña came into sight, and the trail flattened out near the top and I managed some sort of shuffle jog, climbed out of the canyon, and then had about 30 yards to the finish line. A little “sprint” and then I laid down under the tent after crossing the finish line. Man did it feel good to know I didn’t have to go back down into the canyon.

Being a little overly dramatic at the finish, I think. Really just wanted a beer.    Photo:

Neither that short description of my race or the photos do justice to these trails or the rugged beauty of the Canyon. You’ll have to go next year and find out for yourself. But please, before you do: consider a few things: most of this race is run in areas of the canyon that are not accessible by car. If you twist an ankle or underhydrate or show up unprepared, you are going to have to get yourself out of trouble and get to the nearest aid station. That’s the runner’s job, not the race’s. An unsettling idea has been creeping into trail running that the organizers can (and should) make everything “safe.” That’s not going to happen without ruining the adventure of trail running. If you are uncomfortable crossing a river that comes up to your hip without a rope or someone there to watch you, or you can’t find your way up out of the canyon if your race goes sour, please choose another race.

 Trail Run Hidalgo has made a name for themselves creating races that feature lots of single track with steep climbs and descents in beautiful locations on technical trails. I’ve enjoyed their Mountain Challenge race in Chico, and the Ultratransnavajas near Tulancingo, but Trail de Cañon is now my favorite. The Canyon is truly a gem: if it were in another country we would all be saving for airfare and dreaming about running there. I think we might undervalue it a bit because it’s only a couple hours outside of Mexico City. But be warned, while this might “only” be a 40k, better to think of it as a short ultra. For comparison: In 2015 I ran the first 50k of UTMX in 7:20. It took me 7:43 to finish the 40k of the Trail de Cañon.

 Three races on the calendar: Mexico City Marathon at the end of August, Trail Run Hidalgo’s Ultratransnavajas 60k in September….And then the UTMX 100k on October 15th.

 Hoping for a few more bad nights of sleep before October.