Where to start? The beginning. But the beginning is too far back. It has been at least four years that I have been thinking about running a 100 mile ultra. For the past several years I have gone back and forth, almost signing up at time only to pull back. The timing simply wasn’t right. Until this year. That is how I found myself driving out on a dusty road with my brother Marshall and my wife Ricki to check in for the Bryce 100.
Marshall, Ricki and my friend Jon all volunteered to crew and pace me for my first ever 100 mile run. Jon would drive down from Utah County on Friday to meet me at the 61 mile mark. Ricki, Marshall and I drove out to the check in at Kings Creek campground near Bryce UT. It was a beautiful afternoon but we were all a bit concerned about the wind gusts that would likely be much worse at higher elevations. For some reason the check-in line went very slowly, and there were some problems with my registration. But after standing in line for nearly an hour I was momentarily worried that I wouldn’t even be allowed to run. No drop bag, no number. I started to panic. Matt, the race director came over, cleared it up and gave me my number 197. Game on. As long as I got my number and my sweatshirt, I was happy. And my buckle – but that would come at the finish line.
I was trying not to think about the fact that I would be running twice the distance I’ve ever run in the morning. But everyone in the pool, at the hot tub, or just hanging out were runners and seemed pretty chatty. All I wanted to do was get to bed.
But this wasn’t just my race, it was also a family trip. Next time we’ll simplify the trip. We finally managed to get the kids back to the hotel room and I realized that I still had not set out my gear. Not a good way to spend the evening, stressed out that I hadn’t worked out my own plan. I knew Ricki and Marshall had the other side taken care of. They are both detail people. Ricki knows how to take control and Marshall is a Marine. Enough said. I wasn’t worried the pacing/crewing. They would be there. I knew it just like I knew the sun would come up in the morning.
So I set out my gear. Sleeveless, teeshirt, long sleeve, light jacket, heavy jacket, shorts, compression shorts, tights, gloves, hats, body glide, socks, gels, electrolyte tablets, iPod, shoes, poles, water bottles ….. it takes a lot to spend the day, night, and morning running through all sorts of conditions. I wanted to be prepared. I got hit with an unexpected storm once in a 50 miler and ended up hypothermic and pulled from the course by an EMT. That wouldn’t happen again. I wasn’t planning on carrying all of it of course, just have it with my crew. So I packed the things I would wear in the morning, then the rest went into my crew bag. Ricki and Marshall would have it with them whenever they saw me so I could change as necessary.
It was after 11PM when I finally got to put my war paint on. I made a Feed Your Crazy stencil to paint on my arm. Ricki and I managed to successfully get it painted onto both of our arms and laughed about how funny it would be to wake up in the morning and have the tattoo on our face instead of our arm. You know, that crazy dream where you fall asleep on something made with ink only to wake up with it printed on your face? I was tired, and didn’t think it was all that funny. I was really starting to think about the 100 miles. 100 miles. Ugh. I set two alarms, forced Ricki to do the same and went to bed. With four alarms set I would not miss the start.
4:15 AM came very early. I was up instantly and despite the short sleep I felt totally awake. Body Glide first. Chafing can be costly in a long race, not to mention painful. I was dressed in Pearl Izumi gear from head to toe except for my Injinji socks which I simply won’t give up. Pearl Izumi supplied some amazing gear and I love the opportunity that I have to work with them, wear their gear and support their brand. It is amazing stuff. Over the course of the next day I would get to talk up their stuff, especially their shoes to countless other runners.
That is when I noticed a large red smear across my forehead and eyebrow. At first I thought it was blood, then I remembered the joke Ricki and I shared before going to bed … the one about falling asleep on the freshly painted tattoo on my arm and waking up with it on my face. No freaking way. After I managed to pick Ricki up off the floor (she collapsed from laughter), she gave me some oil that removed the permanent ink on my face. Sigh. If this was the only problem I ran into for the next 24-36 hours I’d be happy. I managed to choke down a yogurt, protein bar, and banana. Before I knew it I was geared up and driving out to the start. To avoid congestion at the start line we were dropped off at the trailhead and stood around fire drums until a large school bus picked us up. It was standing room only. My good friends Shannon and Cat were both running the race. Both veterans they looked cool and calm and offered me kind words of encouragement. I was still scared as hell.
The sun started to rise and Matt gave us a few encouraging words. “Course markers have been disappearing. But don’t worry, we took care of it.”
The next thing I knew I was running. Up dirt hills, down washes. The beauty of the course was instantly recognizable. Red rock, hoodoos, amazing formations and the rising sun made the first few miles a literal wonderland. I stopped to take pictures, forcing myself to listen to Cat’s advice. “Just enjoy the day”. I knew Shannon was out front pushing hard. I chatted a bit with people, but mostly just enjoyed the views. We were running at elevation, ranging above 7000 feet. I knew we would peak well above 9000 feet so I was trying to run conservatively. But even 7000 feet can push you a bit. I was running easy but my heart rate was well into the 150 beats per minute range, somewhere I would expect to be if I was holding a moderate pace. It was going to be like that then. Elevated heart rate would mean more calories, more effort, etc. Not much I could do, I simply wouldn’t stress about it.
I remember somewhere in the early miles running down a very steep section, right through the hoodoos. I could feel the downhill in my quads and was concerned. If I was already feeling the downhill, how on earth would I manage another 95 miles and over 18,000 feet of climbing and similar decent? After a few miles of up and down through hoodoos we switched out of the hills into some low alpine terrain. We passed through the first aid station and I was really enjoying myself. I was aiming at the 20 mile mark, knowing it would mean I was 1/5 done. I had to think about that a few times. 1/5 done? 20 miles is 1/5 done? Crap.
But I was really having fun. Trail running is the essence of great running. Trail running is the exact opposite of the dreadmill. Where the mill is constant, never changing and numbing, trail running is ever changing, inspiring, and captivating. Every turn provides a new view. Every hill provides a new challenge. It was wonderful. I rolled into the 20 mile mark and grabbed food, filled my bottles, and quickly pushed on. I knew Ricki and Marshall were waiting for me at the 26 mile aid station. My crew would be the big checkpoints in the race for me.
Luckily I ran into Cat shortly after leaving the aid station. We spent a lot of time running together over the next few miles pushing through increasingly alpine terrain and one of the nastiest climbs of the course. There were a few sections of particularly rocky ascents where expletives were pretty much the only thing that could be heard over the heavy breathing. Again, the elevation played into the equation. The steep trail was tough, but climbing up into thinner air made it just a fraction more difficult. I do pretty well at elevation, I never felt like it was oppressing. I don’t normally really get hit with elevation until 11-12,000 feet. But when you are exerting yourself at 7000 or 8000 feet, it takes just a bit more out of you. The climb slowly became less entertaining. I started thinking about my time, how quickly I was moving, and how I felt. It was becoming more difficult to think and I started to feel frustrated. When we peaked out and started descending into the 26 mile aid station I figured I was running at about a 24 hour pace. Very fast. Especially for your first 100. It was also getting very warm. Ricki and Marshall were there as soon as I stepped in, taking my bottles to refill, slathering me with sunblock, and getting me more gels. I was feeling a bit frustrated, and didn’t really know why. I was only at 26 miles. I still had 74 to go? I had just completed a marathon, the pinnacle of most running careers. How would I manage doing it three more times? My plan was to slow down a bit, enjoy the next bit of the course, and get some calories in. I am notoriously bad when calories get low and only ¼ into the race was too early to become depleted. I had already burned nearly 5000 calories according to my heart rate monitor.
Pete was also at the station, he’s a friend that I’ve known for several years, another accomplished ultra runner. He was crewing Cat and offered me some great advice. Keep moving, get the calories in. In fact other than occasionally telling me I was looking good, that was his advice whenever I saw him on the course. Keep going. Get some food in. And as simple as it sounds, those are the two things I could have done better at late in the race.
I started figuring, and realized that I was developing a problem. I had been running for over 6 hours and had only had to answer the call of nature once. Spoiler alert – only peeing once in a 6 hour period is not a good sign, especially moving into the hot part of the day with 75 miles to run. I voiced the concern to Cat and she agreed that I needed to seriously increase my intake of fluids. We ran along beautiful cliffs, exposed ridges, and had some wonderful views of the hoodos, even an arch or two. At the next two aid stations my goal was to walk in with empty bottles, drink a whole bottle, refill both before I left. I also added a cup of coke to the mix because it tasted great. One of the cross-country athletes manning a station offered me a burrito and I took it, thinking the solid food would be good.
Everything worked, and I started feeling better. By the time I hit 40 I was feeling good again. I was running well, feeling strong, thinking clearly. Pete was there again waiting for Cat. Ricki and Marshall would see me at 50. Pete asked how I was feeling. I told him I felt great and he replied “Good, get as many calories in as you can, because it won’t last.” Lol. Thanks. It was good advice. Chris (Swede) who would be pacing Shannon later was also there. I asked how Shannon was doing, figuring he was still burning through the course. Evidently Shannon had gone off course for a while, fallen on the trail, and was really struggling. Still time to turn it around but only an hour ahead of me. You have to be a tough bugger to push through the distance feeling like that. That is why I respect ultra runners like Shannon, Pete, Swede, and Cat. They demonstrate what is possible if you just keep going. I left the aid station feeling good, but a bit tired. It was a bit of a walk down a dusty road to the next trail and some jerk in an oversized pickup flew by me on the road throwing up dust for me to suck on. I wanted to throw rocks at him but no sense wasting valuable energy.
The next 5 miles were all climbing up to the high point on the course, around 9,500 feet. It was a slow steady climb until the end. Near the top you hit the edge of the Pink Cliffs which are spectacular but then you hit this nasty steep 100 yard section of less than enjoyable climbing. The kind of hill where you stop and look up, hands on hips wondering why the trail had to go that way.
During the long climb to the top I spent a lot of time considering the return trip. I still had over half of the race to run. It was late in the afternoon and knowing I wasn’t yet halfway was a bit daunting. So I simply dismissed it. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. I wasn’t seeing many people, and it felt a bit lonely. At one point I found myself chanting “I won’t quit” in rhythm with my steps. I knew my crew was waiting for me and I wanted to see them. Feel their encouragement. When I reached the Pink Cliff aid station (45) I chose to sit down. It was the first time I had done so, and set a bad precedent for the rest of the race. The chair felt good while I inhaled a few cups of MtDew and fruit. But the wind was bad and my body starting to feel pretty depleted. That meant shivers. Sitting there left my body without an energy source and my legs started shaking uncontrollably. Someone asked if I was cramping, and I assured him it was just the shakes. I knew it was time to get moving. No way I could stay warm in that wind sitting there. Only 5 miles to meet up with Ricki and Marshall.
I started down, but really didn’t want to run. I was getting tired again, and the long uphill left me feeling a bit short of energy. But I knew walking all the way in would be way too slow. So I set myself into an alternating rhythm. I would run for the count of 50, and then walk for the count of 50. After a few sections I found myself running longer and longer sections, but keeping my breaks to the 50 counts. Packed road turned to single track, and I found myself wandering through some really beautiful trail with the pink cliff formations above me. It made for a great bit of a run. Traffic was coming the opposite way pretty frequently now, runners who had already turned around at 50. I bumped into Shannon and his pacer Swede. They encouraged me, let me know I was only about a mile from the aid station, and that sent me into a faster run, singing along to the music streaming from my iPod. I was feeling good. Psychologically knowing that I was nearing the halfway point made me happy. Feeling happy makes it easier to run. And before long I was strolling into the 50-mile mark.
I found it easy to laugh with people, offer high fives, and joke about all the miles I had covered so far. Jon, my first pacer who would be joining me at 61 was there with Ricki and Marshall and I was excited knowing that a pacer was only 11 miles away. You can pick up a pacer at 50 miles, but I wanted to save the three pacers I had for a bit later, ensuring they would be strong when I was really suffering. Watermelon tasted fantastic at 50. I ate 3 pieces of it and downed two cups of Mt Dew. I wasn’t enjoying my gels as much as I had been previously in the run, and had a bit of indigestion. I think the 12.5 hours living on soda, water, gels, and the burrito simply wasn’t enough solid food for my stomach, and it was a bit rumbly. But I still had the long climb back to the top before the decent into 61. My crew wouldn’t let me sit for too long. A bit more encouragement, the addition of a long sleeve shirt and headlamp for the cooler temps we knew were coming and I was off.
I also picked up my trek poles. My plan was to use them to help push me on the uphill for the second half of the race. As I get tired I tend to slump over a bit on the uphill, I figured the poles would help me stay upright, as well as offer some balance on rough terrain as I began to fatigue.
I left the aid station in good spirits, and surprisingly moved pretty quickly up to the top. I knew where I was going, and in a way that helped. The climb was a blur of counting steps in time, cadences with my poles, and rhythms to simply keep my mind off the distance. I alternated between cadence counts with my poles often to keep my brain occupied. I hit the return trip to Pink Cliffs in good time and very quickly pushed on. It was very windy up top, and cooling off. The cups of MtDew had a nice film of dust over them, but I didn’t care. Calories in. On the way down Pete and Cat caught me. I ran with them for a while, feeling good and chatting. But after a while, my legs started to lead me down the mountain and I said my goodbyes. By the time I hit the bottom it was starting to get dark. I ran the road into the aid station and was surprised to see Ricki a ways out. She jogged in with me and I laughed telling her how good I felt. It was so weird; my legs were either numb or simply really good. I had at that point run further than I had ever run. At the aid station I picked up a heavier jacket and gloves, it was cooling off quickly. Jon was ready to pace me and since he was planning on driving the 4 hour trip home after finishing the leg I knew he wanted to get moving. I drank some broth, downed a coke and then just closed my eyes for a moment. I’ve covered 61 miles. I ran from sun up to sunset. It felt good. Pete and Cat showed up and Pete commented about how this was where the 100 mile race started. Up to this point we were just doing a 100k. Now we were moving beyond it. I tried not to think about the nearly 40 miles and several climbs to go.
Despite everything I was in good spirits, and for the first time had a dedicated pacer with me. Jon and I set out and started chatting about the crazy run, the energizing environment that existed all around the course and how Jon got into running. We were having a good time. Then at about an hour I decided to take in calories. I was starting to slide on my calorie intake, mostly because I didn’t want to eat what I had. The gels we giving me indigestion but there really wasn’t much I could do about it. I had to get something down. It was a peach cobbler gel. The second I tried to swallow it my body totally rejected it. Now, let’s all agree that throwing up is perhaps one of the most miserable experiences one can have in life. But after 60+ miles the body is pretty fatigued. That means very painful muscle cramps while dry heaving on the side of the trail. Talk about baptism by fire. Jon simply had to stand there, holding my poles while I puked my guts out… except I didn’t have anything to come out.
The next few miles were slow and tough. We jogged a bit, and tried to keep it light but I was worried. The effects of no calories hits quickly when you are on the edge like that. It meant that I was walking where I should have been jogging. Walking slow where I should have been walking quickly. The next aid station couldn’t come soon enough. After about 45 minutes I managed to choke down an Ensure shake that I was carrying in my pack. It felt good to get something in, but I kept burping it up, and my stomach still was not very happy with me. Whenever I tried to run I felt nauseous. I knew I had to keep the calories down so I slowed down. The section of trail we were covering was slowly rolling up. Once we rolled into the aid station ~67 miles I worked to get in as many calories as possible. It was cold, and my body shook every time I stood still. Coke and broth were the only things I could get into my stomach. And I was getting tired. Despite the fact that I knew I shouldn’t sit for too long, the chair and the large bonfire looked inviting. I rationalized that I needed to get some calories in and sitting would allow me to get more in. The aid station was run by a cross-country team up from St George and they were having a lot of fun. They kept the Coke and broth coming and when my shakes go too bad I knew it was time to go. I tried to go, and announced my intention to get going. But about halfway up my legs failed and I fell back into the chair. It was good for a laugh. Two of the aid station workers jumped up and helped me stand up straight so I could get going again.
It was only about seven miles to the next aid station and the funny thing is, I wasn’t really even keeping track of time. I was just trying to keep moving forward. Jon and I left the bonfire behind and pushed into the darkness. By this time the wind was picking up so every time we climbed up onto an exposed ridge we got a blast of cold air. We kept up the conversation, and came across a few other runners. There were a few sections where I managed to push myself into an easy jog, but I still did not have much energy. One runner was falling asleep and asked if he could tag along to keep up some conversation. When we passed the 100k turn around point, where the 100k runners had turned around earlier in the day I sat down on a stump and nursed down a chocolate cherry Cliff Turbo. I was thinking the 100 mg of caffeine would do me good. Jon did a great job keeping me going. It was a slow death march but we were moving forward. We caught a glimpse of what we thought was the fire at the next aid station. That got me excited because arriving meant more food, warmer clothes, and my next pacer. I was tracking my progress by the pacers I was running with. It ended up the light was the rising moon. It was more than a crescent, but not quite half. It was pointed and dark orange. It was one of the coolest moonrises I’ve ever seen. But that meant I wasn’t as close as I thought. Shortly after we got onto the ridge just above the 74 mile aid station. Jon and I could finally see the aid station and that made me feel great. Ricki and Marshall were excited to see me, I’m sure they expected me much earlier.
I was really feeling it. I climbed into the car and changed into my warmer clothes. They told me that a friend of mine had come in earlier, but had decided to sleep until sunrise. He was having problems seeing, blacking out, and his pacer was really worried about him. I thought that maybe 20 minutes would help me feel better so Ricki turned the lights off in the car, covered me with blankets and I dozed for 20 minutes. I woke up with a clear head and anxious to get going. My brother Marshall was pacing me next, and was literally jumping up and down out side the car trying to keep warm. He had tried to curl up in the luggage space in our car, but it was way too cramped. I’m sure all the caffeine wasn’t helping either. My short nap really made me feel better and we powered into a section with a ton of vertical. For the next six miles it was either straight up or straight down. The calories put me back into a good spirit and Marshall’s bullhead, Marine, Can-do attitude was infectious. We quickly chewed through the ups and down, and before long there was a greyness in the eastern sky. The sun was coming up, and we were just about 20 miles out. Marshall tricked me into a conversation about Tolkien. I’m a devout nerd in that area and it made the trail move along for a while. The next aid station was offering pancakes and more breakfast food. I choked down some Mountain Dew and random snacks. The aid station workers were in great spirits, and that always helps.
At this point were on new trail. Or, dirt road. The course was out to the 50 mile mark, then back 30 miles along the same trail. At that point you pushed off the trail to cross the plateau heading for Bryce. It started with a lovely climb. It was light, but the sun was not up yet so it was still cool. Marshall was doing a fantastic job trying to keep me talking and my spirits up. But since I hadn’t been paying attention to really solid calorie intake (hindsight), I started sinking. A few miles down the trail we passed a guy on a four-wheeler with water and snacks. I thought that was the unmanned aid station, putting us only 4-5 miles from the 89 mile checkpoint. That gave me a little bit of a lift and Marshall’s egging me on got me to start moving. But then reality hit and we found out that we still had about 7 miles to go. It instantly deflated all the positive energy I had and I think I would have cried if I wasn’t so angry. Like a good pacer, Marshall let me be frustrated for a minute then started challenging me again. With Marshall’s help I managed to actually catch and pass a few people on the slow downhill road. It was a beautiful section.
Even though it was dirt road, it wandered along some fantastic meadows, and did I mention it was downhill? Off in the distance I saw some streamers and that got me excited. It looked like a cut off from the road, which meant I was near the campground. When Marshall and I arrived at the cutoff the trail split two ways. One way was a direct route to the campground (checkpoint), the other went steeply uphill to a view of Keyhole arch. I was not happy about the direction the course took. I was done with the steep uphills and near to tears again. It is obvious to me now that I was seriously low on calories and every little thing put me over the edge. Marshall, ever the poet turned to me and said, “Well, you signed up for a 100 miler, not a 98 miler.” The uphill was really slow, my legs were flat and felt like lead. I do have a great picture in front of Keyhole Arch to show for it. Eventually we headed back down hill, and after what felt like miles, but was likely only another quarter of a mile we punched into the campground and arrived at 89 miles. Ricki was there and Shannon’s crew was all there. After ditching my cold weather clothes I made the mistake of sitting down in the chair again. I got nauseaus, and used it as an excuse to sit in the chair with a blanket resting in the sun. That lasted for about 15 minutes and then I knew I had to go. If I sat much longer I wouldn’t get up and I was way too close to call it quits. One unmanned aid station to go then it was the finish line. Ricki and I started out at a walk, and she was a good sport about it. But very quickly the good mood from hitting the milestone wore off and I was getting angry again. I only had nine miles to go. Any other day that was an easy run. I’d be done in an hour and a half if I were going easy. At this pace it would take nearly four hours. It was getting warm and I finally noticed a blister that had formed where the silt had gotten trapped in my shoe. Right on the ball of the foot. That made every step uncomfortable, downright painful. Ricki played the good sport for a little while longer, then handed me some Redbull and told me to quit my whining. It would hurt walking or hurt running, but if I ran it would be over sooner. I started to run. It wasn’t a fleet footed effortless run. It was a slow, painful, death march run. We quickly clicked off a few miles and passed the unmanned aid station. I downed a handful of fig newton cookies and the calories hit my body very quickly. The next few miles felt better and I was in really good spirits. But the dirt road seemed to go on forever. Looking back, it really wasn’t that long, but I looked at every rise, every turn in the trail like it would lead to the finish line. Then every rise, every turn in the road disappointed me because I didn’t see the finish line. At that point my body was exhausted and my mind was as well. I was simply so tired of telling myself to keep going that I wanted to walk. I’d stop, take a few steps telling Ricki I needed a break, but then get angry that I was wasting time and start running again. Ricki was a great sport, and after a while she began looking at her GPS watch more frequently. I would come to find out that we had passed the distance she was expecting and were now in uncharted territory. I kept asking her how much further, and she kept telling me “just a bit more”.
Eventually we did turn a corner and I could see the finish line. I told myself that I wouldn’t walk another step. And I didn’t. I shuffled in the last 200 yards and finished my first ever 100 mile run. Well, it ended up being 102 but who’s counting. My family was all there and I got to cross the finish line with Ricki. Cat finished ahead of me, and Shannon finished after me. Everyone at the finish line told me how hard the course was. They were comparing it to other very hard mountain courses. What’s better than running 100 miles? Running 100 miles across mountains, across obscene amounts of vertical ascent. Cat grabbed my buckle, Pete gave me a bottle of water and told me to get it down before someone stuck an IV in my arm. Heidi put me on a blanket and worked on my legs. I got hugs from my mom who inspired me to start running years ago. And all my kids told me how proud they were of me. Would I run another? Yes.