Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ultramaraton de los Canones in Guachochi, Chihuahua 2014 Race report

Dusk at Sinforoso Canyon night before race

I had a great time at the 18th running of the Ultramaraton de los Canones in Guachochi, Chihuahua.  I wanted to share the experience with all of you who may consider this event in the future.  There is not much written about this event in any "blogs" so I went into it with very little knowledge of what to expect. I hope to inform  readers of this report as to how difficult but how beautiful and truly unique it is.  At the end, I will compare and contrast with the Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco in Urique which I have done twice before and have written about as well.

For me personally, the training for this event was not optimal.  I had come off my first DNF at Western States 3 weeks before after running 90 miles and reaching the time cutoff.  I was not able to run after that race for about 10 days due to my quads getting trashed.  More about Western States here:Western States 100 race report. Not only was I physically not in a good place, but mentally I was having difficulties accepting that I had DNFd my A race for the year.  It was hard for anyone to relate as everyone thought 90 miles was "pretty amazing", but to me it was a failed effort that I needed to put behind me.  I ran easy on roads and the weekend before did some easy trails as I was recovering and tapering at the same time.   In hindsight, here is really no place adequately prepare for this race.  No trails in El Paso match the technical and elevation gain of this Ultra, more about that later.
Parral, our first overnight stop

Getting There
For many people, one obstacle to participating in this event is the perceived difficulty and danger of getting to Guachochi.  I have done 2 prior races in the Copper Canyon and had no concern what so ever.  We had a group of 8 total runners from El Paso and New Mexico/California that would be making the trek together, for that we had 2 cars.  I rode with Alfredo H, his wife Pamela M, and Pam's sister-in-law Myriam.  In another car were Jaime H, Nancy K(from Santa Barbara), Miguel C, and Kelley K. (from Santa Fe).  We left Thursday at approximately 2 pm, which allowed me to work half a day, and stopped at the Santa Teresa point of entry.  We got our visas and drove down to Villa Ahumada for the requisite stop to eat quesadillas and Mexican coca cola. From there we drove to Chihuahua City and then to Parral, Chihuahua for a planned overnight stay. We arrived around 9 pm, pretty hungry and stopped to eat first at the Vaca Voladora Restaurant. From there we drove to the Hotel Americano and got 3 rooms for the night.  Next AM,  Friday AM, day before the race, I had planned to run 2 miles easy.  Kelley had a different idea as we got started said she wanted to go up to a statue she had seen lit up the night before.  So it was that we ran towards the statute trying to find a path to the top. It was pretty technical and there really was no trail but we made it to the top.  The views of the city were spectacular and made it worth the effort.  There was also an old silver mine that we got to see.  Many years ago, Parral was known as the World's Silver Capital and was felt to have the best quality silver.   On the way back, we took a different route and got lost, making our run a total of 4.5 miles.
going up to statue in Parral
On the way to St Joseph Statue

We ate breakfast at the hotel and joined the others on a tour of the city before starting the final drive to Guachochi.  We arrived at around 3 pm and went to have a late lunch/dinner at the restaurant El Corral. From there we went to pick up our packets and there was a long line and they did not have Pamela's bib which delayed the process even more.  It was not very well organized and was unnecessarily lengthy, in my opinion.  There was a 10K race at 5 pm in the city streets on Friday going on at the same time. After that,  Kelley, Nancy, and I drove to see the Mirador or place where you can see the Sinforosa Canyon.  Nancy was not racing with us and we wanted to show here how to get there for the next day.  There we had some spectacular views of the canyon but it got dark and we had to head back to town, arriving around 9 pm.  There is a pasta dinner and orientation at 7 pm which I did not attend but Miguel did and he found it helpful.
Packet pick up L to R  Jaime, me, Myriam, Pamela, Alfredo, and Kelley

Race Morning
The race begins at 5 AM and we needed to be there early for check in.  I set the alarm for 330 AM but was awake before the alarm.  We had the unpleasant surprise that there was no water that morning which caused some complications. I ate a Kind bar, banana, and a Cliff Bar with water for breakfast. We drove to the starting line and got a bracelet to indicate we were at the starting line and checked in.  That process was quick and may allow one to arrive later and get extra sleep if possible. We lined up at the starting line and the race started on time.
Race AM, ready for battle R to L Alfredo, Pamela, Myriam, Kelley, Jaime, me, and Miguel


I am going to divide the race into 5 sections which are very different to help illustrate what to expect.  The first is from Guachochi to the edge of the canyon, the second is from the top to the bottom of the canyon, the third is along the river and up El Chipote, and the fourth is the climb back out of the canyon, and the fifth is the return to Guachochi.  For gear, I had brand new compression trail shorts and top from Compressport which Laura had suggested.  I also had calf compression gear and a Salomon hydration vest with 1.5 Liters of water.  I carried two empty 20 oz. bottles in the front to fill later.  I carried a whistle, an emergency blanket, a water proof jacket, and a small flashlight.  For food, I had several Kind Bars, CLiff Bars, Gu, and Endurolyte salt tablets by Hammer. I also had Black Diamond adjustable climbing poles.

Guachochi to Edge of Sinforoso Canyon
We left the main town square where the race begins on paved roads for about 1 mile and headed out to the canyon on the road I had driven the night before.  I was pretty dark and most runners had headlamps.  I did not have a headlamp because I knew that the sun would come out soon and did not want to carry it for the rest of the day. I did have a very small flashlight, which was helpful and for safety in case dark fell on my way back that day on the way back.  Retrospectively, I think it would be better for EVERYONE to have a headlamp because when it gets dark, the canyon can be a very dangerous place with no light.  I went an easy pace to save my legs for the 63K (39 mile) journey that was ahead of me. The elevation, I should point out IS an issue and we started at 8,000 feet from the city with a slight elevation gain to the canyon. This part was mostly paved and unpaved roads up to the point at 5 miles where the first aid station was.  There, they had "drop bags" and some runners with family drove their cars there to meet the runners. In theory, one could have them take the hydration packs there, which some people did, but I would not recommend it.  I heard of at least one person who arrived to find he did not have his gear there.  After that, we went on single track trail towards the canyon.

Edge of Sinforoso Canyon to Bottom of the Canyon
Once I arrived at the edge of the canyon, the views were spectacular.  I had seen it the day before, but some people were seeing it for the first time.  Many runners stopped for pictures at this point.  It is also said, some runners have in the past been so intimidated by the sight of the canyon that the abandon the race at this point. This downhill section is gnarly and technical.   I found myself along with the others slipping and falling on my butt countless times.  Rocks would occasionally roll down and everyone would yell, "Piedra!". Probably a good word to learn if you are not fluent in Spanish. I had never trained or used the poles before, so I had to figure out how to make use of them.  One runner badly sprained her ankle and told me she had heard a pop.  The next day she told us how she had to climb back up because she knew she would not make it as she had done it before.  There were several "conga lines" that formed on the trail and I had to pass some of them.  On the way down, we passed several streams and creeks.  I stopped to fill my 20 oz bottles and drank from the stream.  They had told us it was OK to drink from the first river but not the second river, so I drank a little bit and poured water which was cold on my head.  In one of the 20 oz bottles, I put iodine tablets that Miguel shared with me.  The other bottle, I would use to pour over my head to keep cool as the temperature started to rise rapidly.  As I said earlier, for the readers who live in El Paso, there is nothing to compare or train for this section. The footing was loose and the angle of descent was more steep than anything I had encountered in the past.  At the bottom, approximately 3,300 feet, there was an aide station which consisted of a couple of guys with bales of water and pinole (a corn based drink) that was being stirred with a stick.  I decided to pass on that as I did not want to get sick.
Initial descent, photo by Alfredo H.

Route along the river and up El Chipote
Once we arrived to the bottom of the river, you reach a run-able flat sandy section, which I was able to gain some time. The temperature was starting to rise and I was running out of water. We passed several streams but I did not trust the water quality.  We then started to climb again, a mountain next to the the river which all the runners called El Chipote. Looking at the Strava data, it only goes up to 3,800, an elevation gain of 500 feet, but the bottom of the canyon was pretty hot, and as I said, I had run of water. I then reached an aid station called "la cueva" which means the cave in Spanish because there is a cave next to it.  Here I filled my hydration vest and 2 bottles.   I inquired the volunteers, who were great, where the water came from and they explained that it was from spring water nearby which they hauled over in a big bucket.  For Gatorade, they had the powder which they carried down from Guachochi and mixed for us. During this section, I encountered a group of runners that had gotten lost and ended up down close to the river.  They believed they has been lost for an hour but as happens in this cases, it always feels like you lose a lot of time.  The course is marked by red ribbons as there is no "trail" to follow in some sections.  I had several occasions where we went off course for a short distance and had to backtrack to find the red ribbons.  In the beginning, I tried to keep my feet dry and jump over rocks at stream crossings.  It was at a stream crossing that I slipped on a rock that was wet and jammed my thumb on my pole against the rock.  I fell right in the stream and from that point on decided that I didn't care if  my feet got wet.  I took the opportunity to soak in the stream for several minutes up to my waist to cool off.
Pamela on the rocks (photo by Alfredo H.)

Climb out of the Canyon
After the climb up and then down the Chipotle, we passed next to a small creek, and from here you could see the top of the canyon where the Mirador or lookout point is at.  That was the point we had to climb to, 4,800 feet of elevation gain in about 6 miles.  By this time, the mid day sun was bearing down and the temperature was up to 99F according to my Suunto watch. The climb is very steep in several sections and sometimes require "boldering" through large rock formations.  These sections required me to put both the poles in one hand and climbing on hands and knees.  Some of the runners had climbing gloves to protect the hands from rocks.   On the way up, we passed another aid station next to to a stream and once again I sat in the water and poured water on my head.  From here we climbed a section of switchbacks that was very exposed and hot.  The next aid station is next to a beautiful water fall.  Here I loaded up with more spring water and drank several cups of Gatorade.  This is where I caught up to Jaime who was asking the volunteers if they had any ice, I thought he was delusional from the heat.  As I left the aide station, I had a horrific cramp in my left quad that stopped me in my tracks.  I sat in the shade and waited for it to pass.  I took 3 endurolyte tabs with water and it finally subsided to the point where I could resume.  The next milestone we reached was "the wall" where the trail narrows along the side of the canyon and the drop is about 2,000 feet.
More climbing, shows how gloves may have been helpful

Pam negotiating the Wall (photo by Alfredo H.)

After this section we reached the swinging bridge after which there was an aid station where they had bottles of water, electrolyte solutions, and even ice. The next mile and half is a road that climbs pretty steep for another 900 feet to get to the edge of the canyon where the Mirador or look out is located. It was on this last section that I ran into Nancy who had driven there to meet us.  She walked with me and carried my pack to the car leaving me with a hand held to finish the last 8 mile section.
Pamela climbing back out of canyon (photo by Alfredo H.)

Mirador to Guachochi 
This is a run-able section of the course if one still can run.  I surprisingly was able to run most of it to the end.  It follows a completely different road back to town after passing some open fields with single tract.  There are aide stations every 3 Km and you pass the 100K runners coming back from the city which loop back to the swinging bridge for the additional miles.  At the aid stations, I had coca cola, bananas, and electrolyte solution.  My watch lost power at this point so I could not keep up with pace but knew the time.  As you arrive at the finish, there were many spectators lining the street encouraging you and I got followed by an ambulance that was escorting the first female 100K finisher.  As I arrived at the finish, I received a Finisher's medal.  I looked at my watch and it was 7:15 pm meaning I had taken 13 hrs. 15 to complete the race.  The official results have not been posted yet, so I am not sure of the exact time.  Afterwards, I was filled with emotion and cried from the relief of having completed this tough event 3 weeks after my DNF at Western States.  I kept thinking, this is my Placer HS finish, this is the finish line that I did not get to experience in Auburn. It was a cathartic experience and made me realize how much it had bothered me not to have finished.

Post Race
After finishing, I walked to the apartment where Miguel was as he had completed the race in 11 hrs. 44 min.  I showered and walked back to the finish line to meet the others.  Jaime was driving back after having completed in 14 hrs with Nancy.  After dropping him off at the apartment, Miguel and I went to get Kelley who had finished just as it was starting to rain quite heavily and was dark.  Alfredo, Myriam, and Pamela would have the most difficult experience of the last 2 hrs in the dark and rain, but finished in a little over 17 hrs.  As the results are not out yet, I don't know the percent that did not finish.

Comparison to Ultramaraton Caballo Blanco
Having completed both races in the canyons, I wanted to compare the two events for anyone who may be interested.  Caballo Blanco in Urique has many more people from outside Mexico due to the book and the Mas Locos who attend make it a truly special event. Guachochi has many more events, a 100K, a 63K, and on Sunday a 21K.  There seemed to be many more Raramuri runners in Caballo Blanco because they receive corn vouchers for completing even one loop of the race and more for finishing the 50 mile course.  At Guachochi, they don't give corn vouchers.  As far a difficulty, the Guachochi race is much harder and more technical than Caballo Blanco.  Guachochi is also more self sufficient because the bottom of the canyon is inaccessible compared to the jeep roads which Caballo Blanco follows.  In terms of natural beauty, the Sinforosa Canyon is spectacular and you get to run on it.  The Caballo Blanco race starts and end in Urique which is at the bottom of the canyon.   In short, I think both of these races need to be experienced.

Post script
Overall, I had a great time traveling down with the group from El Paso.  It is a quick and relatively affordable trip to a very exotic land for a tough challenge.  I want to thank Nancy for being such a great sport in crewing for us. To Alfredo for driving us there and back while Myriam and Pamela drank beer all the way down.  To Jaime for driving the other vehicle and making the reservations for the apartment in Guachochi.  To Kelley for inspiring me to go to do this race, you were an inspiration to all who met you on this trip.  Miguel who was such a great travel companion to all of us as well.  I also want to thank the organizers and volunteers who hiked down the canyon to meet us an provide aid or to make sure we arrived safely at the various checkpoints or to get bracelets. Now is on to the next event, the Ultratrail Mont Blanc in the French Alps. I will be blogging about this race as well.  I hope to complete the 100 K in less than 16 hrs and thereby get on on the lottery again for Western States as I have unfinished business there!


  1. Sounds like a tough one. Thanks for sharing.

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