Sarah Keyes is on a comeback. She recently placed third at the highly competitive Black Canyon Ultras 100-Kilometer Run, her first major trail race in nearly two years since suffering a bone injury back in 2019. Keyes is an accomplished ultrarunner based in Saranac Lake, New York in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. Sarah is a 2016 US Skyrunning Series Vertical Kilometer (V.K.) and Ultra Distance Champion, sponsored athlete by Julbo / LaSportiva, running coach at Eastern Mountain Endurance, and an ATRA advisory board member.
Her performance at Black Canyon Ultras earned her a “Golden Ticket” into the historic Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, to be held on June 26, 2021. In this article, I catch up with Keyes to learn how the race went down at Black Canyon, discuss her return to competitive racing and 2021 goals.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] Congratulation on finishing 3rd at the Black Canyon Ultras 100K. What does this performance means to you and was it the result you expected?
[SARAH KEYES] Thank you! This race was definitely a long time coming for me. I fractured my fibula in the spring of 2019, and really haven’t raced at a competitive event since. The goal going into Black Canyon was to do well and win a “Golden Ticket” to the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Success!
[TAYTE] Tell us about how the race unfolded. I understand it was a tight race among the race leaders. How did it evolve and were you with the lead pack from the beginning?
[SARAH] Due to COVID-19 race regulations, the race was split up into waves. The first to depart was the men’s elite wave followed fifteen minutes later by the women’s elite wave, which is where I started. I enjoyed lining up with other women and feeling out the field early on in the race. The wave start also added an interesting variable to the mix in that you could be in any wave and win a Golden Ticket. From what I heard, this played an exciting role in the men’s race for a time.
The front group of eight women stayed together until the first aid station at Antelope Mesa (mile 7.7), where I went through in first place. The next thirteen miles were mostly downhill with plenty of fun single track. Lisa Roberts then moved into first and put twenty seconds on Addie Bracy and I. Addie left Bumble Bee Aid Station at mile 19.4 just before me and soon after Brittany Peterson passed me on the next climb. I stopped to pee and by the next aid at Gloriana Mine (mile 24) they had put two minutes on me.
I decided I’d run comfortably and not chase them, trying to run “smart.” I had started to develop blisters around mile 10 and had already come to terms with that pain. When I entered Black Canyon City aid at mile 37, I was able to see that Brittany had moved into first. Addie was close behind Brittany and Lisa was still in the aid when I arrived. Here I changed shoes and socks, but without a crew I lost some time.
I’d previewed much of the second half of the course in the week prior so I knew what was in store. I was able to run strongly on the climbs but at mile 40 I took a fall that caused my right calf to cramp. After this fall, it’d cramp anytime I’d try to run faster than an eight to nine minute mile.
[TAYTE] Are you someone who seeks out highly competitive races and did the competition affect your race? Also, how do you manage lead/pace changes and the added pressure of always having someone right there on your shoulder?
[SARAH] I was really excited to run a competitive event and see how I would stack up. I felt strong going into the race and was looking forward to pushing myself. I find that races help us push beyond what we can do when we’re running solo. I’m still feeling out how I prefer to race. I don’t much like being “chased,” but I do seem to enjoy “hunting.”
Personally it’s hard for me not to get caught up in racing early on in an event. In talking with my coach the day before the race he reminded me that what happens in the first ten miles doesn’t matter but also things are so uncertain right now with events that there’s no consequence in going for it early on in the season. I took this to mean that I could see how I felt early on in the race and have fun, not holding back which may or may not have been what he intended.
[TAYTE] Have you raced Black Canyon before and what was your training like going into this race?
[SARAH] This was my first time running the Black Canyon 100K. I had five weeks to fit in some long runs with the training I’d been doing. My long runs were mainly on dirt roads in snow with a lot of downhill focus. Prior to that I’d been focusing on speed work. I live in Saranac Lake, New York, where we have about six months of winter, so most of my winter training is on roads.
[TAYTE] What was your pre-race strategy and did the race unfold as you planned?
[SARAH] Since I hadn’t raced in so long, I wasn’t sure how it would go. I felt strong going into the race even without a ton of lead time. It helped that my coach, David Roche, felt confident as well. Overall things went well and my body felt good. I’d previewed much of the second half of the course and knew I needed to save energy for the last climbs when the sun would be hottest and highest. I told myself in previewing the last climb out of Table Mesa that I wanted to be able to jog it on race day, which I was able to do! As mentioned above, my feet started to blister early on. Not having a crew also presented another challenge but it was the same for everyone.
[TAYTE] Were there any complications during the race? If so, how did you manage to keep it together and put together such a great performance?
[SARAH] Mental preparation is one of the key pieces to having a successful ultra, but I also think the only way to do that is through other experiences. This past summer I completed a project where I attempted to set a record on the Adirondack 46 High Peaks (46 mountains over 4000′ in elevation). This challenge involved 160 miles and 62,000 vertical feet of running on very technical terrain. Unfortunately, I didn’t complete it in the time I would’ve liked and with much more pain than expected but now anything that isn’t several days long seems easy.
[TAYTE] What were the best parts of your race?
[SARAH] Running with a group of strong women for several miles, feeling like I was part of an event again after not competing for almost two years, and feeling the pain that you get only from pushing yourself for several hours (this is also the worst part of the race!). I caught myself saying out loud several times, “I can do hard things!”
[TAYTE] Looking at the race profile, it appears there’s a fair amount of downhill in the first part of the course and bigger climbs towards the end of the race. Was this something you had to plan for in your training and how did you feel during these final climbs?
[SARAH] I see hills and technical running as my bread and butter because of my training here in the Adirondack Mountains. Of course, you never know what the later half of an ultra marathon will feel like but I was pleased at how good I felt. I was able to run most of the climbs and felt strong right up until the finish. Previewing the final climbs and last few miles also helped me feel prepared on race day.
[TAYTE] What are your tips for someone preparing for the Black Canyon 100K?
[SARAH] Remember the second half is harder! Train for downhills. Spend time adapting to heat if you’re coming from a cold climate. Stick to your nutrition plan, you can only push in the second half if you fuel during the first half. You’ll want a stable shoe for the more technical terrain in the second half when you’re likely to be more tired.
[TAYTE] Do you plan to race the Western States this summer and if so, what are your goals for the race?
[SARAH] I will be at States in June if it happens! This will be my second time racing Western States, having earned a sponsored entry in 2017 through Julbo. The 2017 race was one of fire and ice. There was snow for the first fifteen miles and temperatures over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the later stages of the race. These conditions left me with severely macerated feet. I walked for the last twenty miles because of the pain. The opportunity to return and redeem myself is priceless! I enter every race wanting to do well and be competitive but mainly the goal will be to get the most out of myself as I can.
[TAYTE] Do you have other competitive plans in 2021?
[SARAH] I’d like to go for a classic Northeast “Fastest Known Time” (FKT) this year including The Great Range and Presidential Traverse. As a sponsored La Sportiva athlete, I have an entry for the Leadville Trail 100 Mile and hope to race there this August depending on how recovery goes after Western States.