Like Isaac Brock sang, "one hundred miles is a long drive inside a car." Indeed, a hundred miles in a long way, no matter how you cover it. Leadville certainly taught me a lot about ultrarunning but I was eager to learn more about the distance and more importantly, more about myself. How would I stave off dehydration and the nasty sequelae in 100+ degree temperatures? How would I fare surrounded by the best ultrarunners in the country? And why exactly do I feel compelled to offer up hard-earned money for a considerable amount of pain and suffering. The answers to these questions and more lie below so read on!
I flew into Reno Wednesday to allow time to settle in before the race. While it seemed like an eternity until Saturday arrived, there were plenty of activities to fill the time. There was SUPing (stand-up paddleboarding) on Lake Tahoe, a mountain lake soak during a shakeout run, various pre-race talks (one of which warned my parents of medical complications like temporary blindness, hallucinations, and kidney failure!), cheering on dad at the 6k race to the Escarpment, and the mandatory pre-race check-in. Vigilance against over-exertion was needed before the race even started.
SUPing Along the 5 Lakes Trail
A strong PI representation Cowman A-Moo-Ha at the weigh in
Race morning finally arrived and runners gathered for the 5:00 am start. As if folks weren't amped enough, Gordy offered some final powerful words from Winston Churchill,: "If you find yourself going through hell...keep going!" The shot gun fired and the race was on.
I was in no hurry from the start and estimate that I was in about 50th place after the first couple of minutes. The first 3.5 miles climbed about 2000 feet and would simply serve as a warm-up for the long day ahead. Going too slow wouldn't matter much. Going too fast would exponentially increase the agony later. As the miles ticked off, I gained a few more spots and alternated running with hiking when the latter seemed more efficient. At the top of the climb in 35th place, I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse of 2012 Ultrarunner of the Year Mike Morton, who also was holding back before his eventual 3rd place finish. I took a couple glances back to drink in the image of the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. Definitely one to be showcased in the mental highlight reel!
Though there was no snow, the feet were wet within the first 5 miles after several short climbs through creek runoff. Definitely rockier and more technical than I expected so, in light of my recent ankle sprains, all downhills were handled conservatively. The thought process behind injury prevention/management, I've come to learn, is very delicate. Telling myself to "not sprain my ankle" requires me to first think about "spraining my ankle," and oftentimes ironically results in re-injury. Instead, I employed the Stay-Puft technique, filling my head with the most harmless thoughts imaginable. Thoughts of being relaxed, running effortlessly, and, of course, giant marshmallows. It seemed to work.
Aside from a few glimmering memories, much of the day was a blur as I found myself dissociating frequently. I'd run for a stretch and realize that I wasn't really focusing on the rocks or roots along the trail. Instead, I'd almost be staring through the single track in a bit of a mental daze. Heat exhaustion? Perhaps. But one man's heat exhaustion is another man's meditative trance. In any case, I've not had success in maintaining a "racing" mindset for hours on end so perhaps tuning out here and there wasn't a bad thing.
The aid stations were placed every 3-7 miles but the first opportunity for crew was at mile 23, Duncan Canyon. Logistics prevented anyone in my group from accessing this point but it was nice to see a familiar face in Brian, who had stuck around after helping Nick C. Roughly 6 miles later, I rolled into Robinson Flat to see my people for the first time. The support from my crew was fantastic and efficient. I picked up some music, exchanged EFS flasks, and was doused with cool water. The energy in the air was truly contagious and I found myself moving well over the upcoming climb over Little Bald Mountain.
[pic: Salomon Running]
Next up were the numerous switchbacks as we would drop into, and immediately climb back out of a series of canyons. This stretch was managed by moving as effortlessly as possible, minimizing braking, and power hiking the climbs. Since the heat at this point was impossible to ignore, I carried one bottle for consumption and another for dousing. Historically, cramping has been a huge concern for me so I was pleased with how well the quads were holding up. With every threatening twinge of an adductor cramp, a quick splash of cold water immediately squelched the spasms.
[pic: Michigan Bluff Photography]
I got to share the trail for a couple miles with eventual female winner, Pam, until we got to the Michigan Bluff aid station. Here I arrived hot, tired, and a bit grumpy. I'd also been carrying my number for 55 miles as they had run out of safety pins earlier in the morning. This minor inconvenience, for some reason, now really irritated me and became priority #1 . Seeing my fabulous crew, finding a volunteer with 4 shiny pieces of metal, and choking down a turkey/avocado roll slowly helped pull me out of my bad mood. Volcano canyon was just ahead but the bulk of the elevation change would soon be behind me.
My next recollection is hitting the short stretch of pavement on Bath Rd. Here, runners could have an escort to usher them in for a mile or so. I was eagerly scanning for a familiar face when I saw my dad's. Nostalgia set in and I was brought back in time. Back to the days of being a kid when dad would bribe me with pancakes on our morning runs. My brother Andrew joined the gang for the final bit did and we all did the Stapanowich shuffle into mile 62, Forrest Hill.
Here, as with all aid stations throughout the day, I chose to remain standing but took my time in the shade. I devoured whatever looked appealing, primarily watermelon and coke, and received another glorious, icy sponge bath. Forrest Hill is the first opportunity to pick up a true pacer and we decided to make the call on the fly depending on how I was moving. Though I still was moving pretty well, I was relieved to see Kelly all ready to go. Muling isn't allowed but there's a definite advantage that comes with running with a PEF (Performance Enhancing Friend).
Leaving Forrest HIll [pic: Kristin]
Kelly and I got back to the trail and ran the next 20 net downhill miles together. The carrot at the end of this stretch was the river crossing at mile 78. I had been dreaming of fording the waist deep Rucky Chucky all day. In my over exuberance though, I began picking up the pace and was reminded by Kelly to keep things in check. There was still roughly a marathon to go! We held our position and saw no other runners until, most unexpectedly, we came across Hal and his pacer walking along the course. He revealed his trademark grin and offered a quick word of encouragement but his day was done. Wondering what other carnage lie ahead, we kept moving and I kept dreaming of sleeping in the frozen food section of a grocery store.
Once we reached the river, I was heartbroken to see that they were still transporting folks across in the raft. Apparently the fording would be a treat for runners later in the day. Ugh! Still, the brief soak was renewing and made the climb to Green Gate more manageable. What started as a hike turned into a run once the grade eased. And while I managed to pick up a couple more spots, I was pretty adamant about not wanting to know my position until after the race. I'd lost any competitive instincts and was simply trying to keep the wheels from falling off. In my mind, I was going to cover the distance from here to the end as quickly as I could, regardless of what others around me were doing. Knowing what place I was in would merely serve as a negative stressor.
Big Al Should be in his shadow to avoid the heat!
Approaching Green Gate, I saw Allen, my next pacer, coming down to greet me. Our last competitive experience together came 10 years ago on the Belmont Abbey soccer pitch. His ridiculous looking beard (the handiwork of my incredibly talented mother) fit perfectly with his "gentle giant' countenance and it was probably the only thing that could make me smile at that point. We soon met up with the rest of my crew and I deliberately but unhurriedly traded out flasks. After a quick "thank you" to Kelly, Allen and I then headed off, only to realize about a half a mile later that we had just one headlamp between the two of us. The sun hadn't yet set but we were looking at less than an hour of daylight. Instead of having him double back, we rolled with the punches and made things work. A combination of Allen's 6'5" frame and the fact that an 11 minute mile was about all I could muster allowed us to move forward unencumbered .
As darkness finally set in just after the next aid station, we became aware of a presence from behind. Moving steadily rather than fast, I thought I had at least 15 minutes before even thinking about conceding a spot. I was floored when I turned around again and saw racer and pacer now at our heels. As we stepped aside to allow the duo to blaze by, I learned it was Scott Wolfe, a fellow former North Carolinian who knew of my roots back east. Scott was moving sickeningly well and there was no way I'd see him again before the finish. We wished each other well and continued at our respective paces. Damage control was now the name of the game!
The next couple of miles passed unceremoniously until we rolled into Brown's Bar, a lively rock n' roll oasis in the dark of night. They had a leader board and I glanced at it quickly enough to know I was safely sitting in the top 20. We continued running without threat or hope of position change until I arrived at Highway 49, the next crew access point. I don't think I could have been more surprised at that moment to see what I saw next: a crazed, bearded convict screaming something at me. What exactly he was saying, I can't really recall. But his presence was intense and knowing it was my father didn't stop me from thinking "this guy is definitely going to tackle me!" Once again, a little zaniness temporarily boosted the spirits!
After some encouragement from the crew, I set off, accompanied only by the stars and my thoughts for the final stretch. The solitude was refreshing. Taking an internal inventory, I realized I didn't feel great, but I didn't feel bad either. Just numb. The legs were not hurting and I had been able to eat all day without nausea. Again, just numb. The only spill of the day came on a gentle, non-technical uphill. Uninjured, it was at this moment that I came to what in the moment seemed earth-shattering, but was really a pretty obvious realization. Running 100 miles has a way of stripping you of all desires other than a finish line and permission to stop.
Highway 49 [pic: Kristin]
No lights ahead, no lights behind, I decided to turn off my head lamp for the crossing of No-Hands Bridge. The watch had retired a while ago (thanks Wes for letting me borrow it!) and I found my pace to no longer be relevant. There was absolutely no need for any late race heroics. In fact, finding a reason to run any of the climb to Robie Point was a struggle. Thankfully, the aid station folks at Robie Point were incredibly encouraging and they gave me the strength to cruise in the last mile. I've never been so happy to run on pavement! It meant my crew, Placer High, and the finish line was near!
Under bright stadium lights, Kelly greeted me at the entrance to the track. While before the race, I envisioned showing off some impressive strides at this point, in actuality it's tough to classify what I was doing as "running." For me, the race had long been over. After 19 hours and 10 minutes of running, this was the victory lap!
[pic: Andrew] [pic: Kristin]
I owe a huge thank you to everyone that came out and dedicated their weekend to help me. Mom (logistics queen), Dad (levity lieutenant), Andrew (ipad pro), Kristin (photographer extraordinaire), Allen (night vision champ), and Kelly (pit crew/pacing superstar), THANK YOU SO MUCH! Cliché as it may be, I will remember this race forever and each of you made this the positive experience that it was. Thank you to Pearl iZUMi for incredible shoes, apparel (no need for shoe or wardrobe change throughout 19 hours of running) and allowing me to associate with good runners and better people. Thank you to Mathews Chiropractic and Select PT for helping get me healthy enough to not just show up, but to compete. And congrats to my informal mentor "Uncle" Dan for finishing what he started, even when things weren't going as he planned.
As for the question of "Why?"... Well I still haven't come up with a completely satisfying answer. But in the days that followed, after an abundance of sleep and real food, I've been able to process the experience more. I've realized that my feelings are more of contentment than euphoria, with the understanding that the former is not a less desirable outcome. There are few opportunities in this life to be so broken, so vulnerable. When you feel you are at your absolute lowest yet you ask yourself "can I do more?". And "more" you do.
Over the course of a hundred miles, no one will feel great or even good for the entirety of the event. After all, neither the mind, body, or soul are impervious to a good lashing. But while the duration and intensity of the struggle are uncertain, these moments and the moments thereafter teach us to appreciate simplicity. A cool sip of water, an unlabored breath of fresh air. An opportunity to sit. To be still. To enjoy the company of a friend. It's when we are most human.