[I wrote an initial draft of this post shortly after the race, but I'm just now getting around to posting it.]
Since I took the Dreamchasers running camp last summer, I have thought about doing this race, but I had expected to do it at a later time. Then a variety of circumstances led me to sign up to do it this year. And then it was announced that this would be the last year for the 100-mile option (they’ll still have the shorter races), so I was really glad I would be able to do it.
The race takes place in Alta, WY, about 20 minutes from where my father grew up in Driggs, ID. He and his SO have a townhouse there, which was a great place to stay. They and my wife Connie graciously agreed to be my crew for the race, trading off until late morning on Sunday, when they were all there for me.
The scary part of this race to me, besides the usual respect that 100 miles is due, was the altitude. I live at about 2200′ and work essentially at sea level, so this course’s 6700′ to 9800′ altitude was a concern. Since I didn’t have enough vacation time to arrive much more than three days before the race, I ended up buying a device called AltoLab, a breathing apparatus that simulates lower oxygen levels. I did the initial 15-day cycle at home, breathing with it one hour per day, ending on the Monday (8/30) before the race. I had worked up a pessimistic prediction for the race that called for an average speed of about 3 mph, based on the actual splits from a 2009 runner (Lynne Hewett), whom I have never met but whose times seemed like they might fit me reasonably well. A normal brisk walking pace is 4 mph, but remember that this was a lot longer and hillier.
The first morning I was in the area was Wednesday (9/1), and Wednesday is my traditional day for the last short run before a Saturday ultra. The one part of the course I had zero experience with was the Rick’s Basin portion, which conveniently was exactly as long (5 miles) as I was looking to cover that day. Also conveniently the course was mostly flagged already, so I only covered about 1/2 a mile further than intended after one wrong turn. The weather was drizzly, and it was clearly snowing up at the top of Fred’s Mountain, where the race would be going. But the forecast was for warming through Saturday, so I was more concerned with possible heat than with snow.
Race director and ultra legend Lisa Smith-Batchen promised me that she would find a pacer for me, and she really came through with Amy, who had finished her first 100-miler at Leadville (at high altitudes in Colorado) two weeks prior to this race. Despite Amy’s relatively young age, her enthusiasm and extensive outdoor experience were perfect. We met her for the first time at dinner the Thursday night before the race, in her current Jackson, WY, hometown.
I got to bed fairly early Friday night, and got up when the 3:30 am alarm went off. I got ready (sunscreen, Body Glide, etc.), and my father drove me to the start. As it got close to the 6:00 am Saturday start time, Jay Batchen (co-race director with his wife Lisa) made sure the 16 of us got any last-minute questions answered, and started us right on time. There were 17 signed up, so one apparently did not start (DNS).
The course consists of four laps of a 25-mile course. Each lap has three sections, all of which come back to the start/finish at the Grand Targhee resort:
- Section A is the most brutal, with a 2.8-mile 1800′ climb up Fred’s Mountain to the top of the main chairlift (where there is a full aid station), and back the same way.
- Section B is a total of 14.4 miles in the Mill Creek area: 5.7 miles to the lower Ski Hill Road aid station (mostly down), 3.3 miles up Ski Hill Road itself to the Cold Springs aid station, and 5.4 miles back to the start/finish (more up than down). The 5.7 and 5.4 mile segments also had intermediate unattended water-only aid stations.
- Section C is 5.0 miles around Rick’s Basin (the mellowest section of the course), with an intermediate unattended water-only aid station.
The race started. The first trip up Fred’s was pretty fun. I was fresh, the sun was coming up (we needed flashlights for 20 minutes or so), and there were people to talk to (mostly Al, from New York, and Katy, from Wyoming, both of whom I stayed pretty close to for about the first 11 miles). I counted ten people ahead of us (coming back while we were still going up). My first round-trip up Fred’s took about 1:18, which was about eight minutes faster than my plan.
The Mill Creek section didn’t seem too bad, though at one point I had to stop quickly since there was a moose standing directly on the trail. I knew Al and Katy were close behind, so I waited for them so that we had safety in numbers to shoo her (no antlers) off the trail. You don’t get moose in California, at least where I live!
Rick’s Basin was pretty easy too. One of the other runners from the running camp I did last year (Becky) was doing the 50-miler, and she passed me during this section at around 11:00 am on Saturday. Since they started at 7:00 am, she covered in 4 hours what took me 5 (she went on to be the women’s winner of the 50, and fourth place overall of 46 starters). Congratulations, Becky!
I got to the 25 mile point at 11:53 am Saturday, which was 23 minutes ahead of plan. At this point I actually thought this course might be easier—or at least not much harder—than the other 100-milers that I’ve done.
My second trip up Fred’s Mountain quickly put any thoughts of this being an easy course to rest, with the warmer temperatures adding to the challenge (though the day never got as hot as I expected it to from the forecasts). It felt much slower, though my plan was conservative enough that I actually picked up a little more time. After that, this second lap began to run pretty close to plan.
Race nutrition is important, and can be interesting. While boiled potatoes are my normal go-to food during the first 50 miles, they stopped looking good. I found I craved more protein, primarily the turkey and cheese wraps that most of the aid stations had. But the wraps were missing something. Just the evening before, Duncan Callahan (winner of the Leadville 100-miler that my pacer had just run) had waxed poetic about turkey, cheese, and avocado wraps during his pre-race presentation. It became hard to think about anything other than avocado, so at the Ski Hill Road aid station I asked Connie if she could get some. Before I even got to the next aid station she had found some. And it was good! [Connie's interjection: I went to the Grand Targhee restaurant between hours, found a wait person, and said “My husband is running the hundred mile race and he'd like to get an avocado. Can I buy one? It's really good nutrition for runners.” And, yay! They came through.]
During the segment from Cold Springs to Grand Targhee (miles 39.6 to 45.0) in the late afternoon on Saturday, it occurred to me that 1) my stated priorities were that enjoying the experience was more important than my actual time, 2) I was very likely to finish under the 36-hour cutoff (6:00 pm Sunday), and in any case a few minutes would be very unlikely to be the difference in that outcome, and 3) it was Connie’s and my 11th wedding anniversary that day. So I hatched a slightly crazy plan. When I got back to Grand Targhee I told Connie that I was going to take a few minutes, and I flagged down a waiter at the restaurant adjacent to the aid station. My hope was that for the $15 I had on me I could buy a glass of Champagne, a glass of something similar but non-alcoholic, and we could toast our anniversary before continuing the race. This turned out not to be easy, since they didn’t have Champagne by the glass. But the wine list indicated they had a half bottle for $12, so I still had hope. But after two different waiters looked for it, a third confirmed that they definitely did not have it. I ended up settling for soda water in two plastic cups. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts, right? And Connie and I linked elbows and toasted eleven years. Sweet!
In the last section of the second lap (miles 45.0 to 50.0), the leaders (Duncan Callahan and Andy Jones-Wilkins) lapped me, meaning they were 25 miles ahead of me after about 13 hours.
I arrived at the 50.0 mile point at 7:33 pm, only 11 minutes ahead of plan, feeling generally good but knowing that the steeper uphills were continuing to get harder. Amy (my pacer) was ready to go, so it was time for my third trek up Fred’s. My plan was really pessimistic, so again I picked up time despite moving really slowly. The Fred’s aid station was really cold, as the sun had just gone down, but the people volunteering there were in good spirits, even when the space heater lit the insulated pants of one of them on fire (it was quickly put out, with no injuries except to the pants, which were patched with camouflage-colored duct tape).
I got to the 64.6 mile point (Cold Springs aid station) at 12:51 am Sunday, 43 minutes ahead of my plan, which was probably the best yet. In the next segment (miles 64.6 to 70.0) we were told that some people had seen a moose, and sure enough we did see one (another cow, based on the lack of antlers), maybe 20 yards off the trail. It was probably wondering why there were strange people running through in the dark, since it was probably close to 2:00 am. I wonder what other wildlife was there that we didn’t see? This is one reason why having a pacer is good at night, especially one with as much wildlife experience as Amy has (in the past she has seen a mountain lion at very short range, a wolverine, etc.).
It was probably also in this section that I first started to lean to my right. By the end of the third lap (mile 75.0 at 5:01 am Sunday, 26 minutes ahead of plan and 23 hours into the race), the lean was obvious to me and even more obvious to anyone who looked at me. Having heard a similar story from another coach, my theory was that my core muscles had reached their limit, and just couldn’t keep me upright any more.
It was time for my fourth trip up Fred’s, but thankfully the last. The leaning was making my back hurt, so maybe two-thirds of the way up I took my first pain relievers of the race (acetaminophen). The sun rose during the segment (in fact both sunrises and the one sunset all happened during the Fred’s segment—weird). I lost time, despite my plan calling for doing this climb and descent at an average of 29:30/mile pace, about two mph.
At the Grand Targhee aid station (mile 80.6 at 8:00 am Sunday—still 15 minutes ahead of plan), a doctor offered to take a look at my back, so I sat down for the first time during the race. She asked questions and poked around a bit. Nowhere she poked hurt due to the poking, and she agreed with my self-diagnosis: That this would not be a long-term injury (my number one priority—the only one more important than finishing), and that the worst case scenario was back spasms which could be temporarily debilitating.
The section down to the Ski Hill Road aid station (mile 86.3) was where I first started to wonder if I would finish or not. The pain increased, I could rarely run even downhill, and I didn’t seem to be able to even walk continuously. I needed to stop frequently and bend over forward to stretch out my lower back. Many people doing the marathon (which started at 7:00 am Sunday) told me I was an inspiration or their hero as they passed, which made no sense to me at the time. In retrospect, if I was really leaning something like 45° to the right as I have since been told, then I can understand it a little better.
When I finally got to the Ski Hill Road aid station (mile 86.3 at 10:48 am Sunday), I used the word “intolerable” when describing the pain to Connie. She thought I was getting ready to quit, but what I really meant is that the pain was too strong to ignore or run through. At this point I realized that I had 13.7 miles to go with a maximum remaining time of just over seven hours, and the required 30:00/mile pace would not be a slam dunk in my current condition. I needed to keep moving as best as I could.
Amy was a little sleepy and needed a nap, so she asked if Connie could walk the next 3.3 miles up Ski Hill Road with me. Since the even surface of the pavement caused somewhat less lower back pain than trails did (less stabilization was required from my non-existent core muscles), I pushed this segment a little, to try to get a little cushion for the final two segments.
Connie wants to say something here:
Mike’s being modest. The 3.3 miles I went with him up Ski Hill Road were agonizing. Mike stopped every hundred or two hundred yards and bent over to stretch his back and make painful throat noises. We kept thinking the aid station was around the next bend or the next or the next and being disappointed. I found myself trying to figure out how much longer he’d have to endure this, and wondering how best to support him. I decided that, since it didn’t look like physical damage, and there were only a dozen miles left (half a marathon, but a pittance for ultra runners), it was up to him. But I did encourage him to swear, since the Mythbusters say it really does help when you’re in pain.
At the Cold Springs aid station (mile 89.6 at 12:11 pm) I sat for a few minutes since sitting at the previous two stops seemed to help my back. When I was ready to go, I actually took off fairly quickly for maybe 100 yards or so, when I found myself getting out of breath more than I would expect even at this stage of a 100-miler. I wheezed a bit on many exhales, and the back pain became just one of two issues to worry about, especially since this segment was second only to Fred’s in the amount and steepness of climbing. Thanks so much to Amy for her patience, especially in this excruciatingly slow segment (roughly three hours to cover 5.4 miles).
At the final aid station stop (mile 95.0 at 3:22 pm), Connie looked me in the eye and could see that I wasn’t fully present. So she got my attention and said “You need to pull yourself together. You have 2.5 hours to finish the last five miles.” I had been sitting for eight minutes, so my back felt better, and I got up and started moving again.
These miles had less climbing than the previous segment, and I also hoped that “smelling the barn” would get me moving slightly faster. It was decided that my father would pace this final segment, which was cool since he started running marathons in his mid-40′s and thus was one of my inspirations to do the same. All the way through I was watching the distance covered (now on my third GPS of the race) vs. the time remaining, and managed to stay ahead of where I needed to be. Cutting a few minutes off my finishing time was not worth pushing through any more pain, though, so when I was passed by Katy (from early in the race), it was not a big deal. Any finish before the 6:00 pm deadline would be a victory.
Eventually I did get to the final short descent to the finish. Unlike the short sprints I finished my previous two 100-milers with, this was an ugly Quasimodo-like jog/shuffle. Whatever. I was done in 35:50:01, I sat down, someone put a blanket over my legs, and someone found me a beer. I got my medal and my belt buckle (buckles are traditional for 100-milers, but my other two 100-milers did not give them out, so the buckle was a big incentive in my mind for most of the afternoon).
I want to give you the flavor for this: My guy is nearing the finish line, covered with dust and dried sweat, leaning at about 1:30 and he still ran at the end. Then he gets his medal, belt buckle, and a hug from Lisa, and he sits, covered in a blanket, wearing his dorky-sunblocking hat, drinking a beer, still leaning to the side, surrounded by a swirl of support people and other racers, looking really spent but just about glowing with the achievement of it all. And he beat the cutoff time and got his belt buckle. OK, there might have been a few tears.
This was definitely the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done. I expected my first 100-miler to be, but I concluded afterwords that The Death Ride (a very hard bicycle ride, in 1997) was harder. My second 100-miler was easier than the first.
This one was a whole different experience after the first 25 miles, and especially for the last 30. I had a chance to find out what I would do under serious adversity. Of course the bulk of that adversity was of my own making, since I have known for some time that I need to do core work more than once or twice a week. I will definitely step that up before the H.U.R.T 100 in January.
These are the lap times for the four 25-mile loops:
Lastly, my huge thanks to all of my crew (Connie, my father, and Margie), my pacer (Amy), the race directors/coaches (Lisa Smith-Batchen and Jay Batchen), and all of the volunteers. I couldn’t have done it without you.