Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Wasatch 100 Race Report

I signed up for the Wasatch 100 lottery mostly on a whim and in hopes I could convince my sister to join me one more time. (And I heard it was beautiful!)  However, I've had a bit of a love-hate thing with 100s lately. I fear them. I've seen both sides of the beast. At one point in training I wrote this on Facebook:
"I've run a lot of different races and the thing that always brings me back to the 100 miler is the richness of the experience. Words cannot describe to someone else what is like to go through it. You must either do it, or, at the very least, witness it to understand. At some point, you are going to be stripped raw of everything except the most basic things: food, water, and the strength/desire to keep moving forward. At times, the desire to move forward wanes and the fatigue feels unbearable. Perseverance is what it boils down to and there is no better character trait in life. I get a great sense of angst before a 100 miler because I know of the struggle. I know the pain and the fatigue will come, but I also know I will find the strength."
Heading into the race I settled on three goals for the day as a way to focus my pre-race anxieties: Patience. Grit. Gratitude. Patience to do the little things right during the day and give myself a chance to finish strong. Patience to not panic and make hurried decisions that might lead to a spiral of negative thoughts. Grit to work hard when the task seemed impossible. Grit to push through pain and fatigue and finish the fight that I picked. Gratitude for health. Gratitude for all those that have sacrificed so I can do these adventures. Gratitude for the volunteers that show up and treat me nicely in my grumpiest moments.

The first mental hurdle to overcome was a series of course changes in 2016. Those changes made finding information on the course via Internet a challenge. I heard/read estimates that the course was 1 or 2 hours harder than previous years. Then, two weeks before the start, they announced the removal of a critical crew station (Lamb's Canyon). The race is already very limited for crewing and I had a bit of a freakout and nearly called off my crew altogether. Cooler heads prevailed and we adapted. Actually, we wound up getting a nice condo Friday Night for my crew (since they weren't able to see much of me) in Park City that wound up being a real treat. Patience. Sometimes good comes from change.

On our way to Salt Lake City, my car started acting funny so we parked it in Park City to avoid the potential headache of a race day break down. Then we made an hour long drive in traffic to Layton to spend the night near the race start. We ate dinner in our hotel room, watched the Broncos game, and finalized a game plan for Friday. We got a bit turned around on the way to the race start and I literally got out of the car in time to get into the crowd and start the race, maybe 3 mins to spare.

Just before the start: look how clean the clothes are!

Start to Big Mountain

After the start, there is a mile plus section of pavement before the big climb. I took that really easy, trying to settle in after the hurried start. From previous year's race reports, I was under the impression you could pass early in the race. But the climb this year was new (a vertical mile to start!) and it was a total conga line, no where to go. I got a bit frustrated at the slow pace and long stops at logs and such. One woman kept saying "patience" to me. Finally, near the final steep stretch, I made a move and passed a few really slow hikers and made my way to the top. I was in about 150th place at this point.

Arriving at the ridge, I began running the gradual jeep road that turns into nearly pristine dirt road on my way to Bountiful B. My race shorts and vest were loaded down with food since it would be half a dozen more hours until I saw my crew. Carrying the extra weight was plenty of motivation to eat and eliminate items. Before arriving into Bountiful B, I made a mental checklist of things to do, the biggest being to tighten my shoes. This type of checklist was an asset all day as I stayed on point and executed my plan and exhibited patience. One thing I was disappointed with was that none of the aid stations had sunscreen. Considering the huge gaps without crew, I thought sunscreen was a no-brainer. (I did find a volunteer willing to sacrifice some of his at Sessions.) I thanked every volunteer I saw, gratitude.

Other than going off course for a very brief section after Sessions, the stretch between Bountiful and Swallow Rocks was uneventful. I was passing quite a few runners on the climbs and talked to a few race veterans to get course knowledge for the day. The key thing I learned... don't miss the turn after Dog Lake! Unusual for me, I even stopped a few times to take in the sights of the course, marveling at the beauty of the Wasatch Mountains. I expected The Bear and it was so much more. The course was quite rocky -- particularly downhills -- and starting to be exposed a bit.

Crews are required to wait at a staging area before heading to the Big Mountain aid station. Once the runner leaves Swallow Rocks, they can proceed. As I checked out of Swallow Rocks, I double checked to make sure the aid station radio operators made note of my bib so my crew would be cleared to leave Little Dell and meet me at Big Mountain. The volunteer said "as long as there is no traffic, they'll be waiting for you". What?! No one mentioned that was a possibility at any point!

I pounded down the trail from Swallow Rocks to Big Mountain, now totally exposed in the heat along high ridges as I made another mental checklist for my aid station: change shoes, gel on my feet, Vitargo for calories, Bio Steele for some amino acids, Vespa, re-stock food, pick up a pacer, and sun screen. Whew! The final stretch down to Big Mountain is a pretty steep decline and I kept it easy, while trying to keep from having runners chase me down. I arrived in the aid station and found no one waiting for me. Standing like a lost dog, I finally just filled my own water bottles and wandered around for a minute until my crew finally recognized their stray. We nailed everything on the checklist, but it wasn't quite as systematic as I planned because I had three of them taking care of my needs and things felt a bit frantic. Nonetheless, a continued display of patience on a long stop. The only slight mix up was two scoops (280 kcals) of Vitargo instead of one. Hello gut bomb!

Drinking 280 Kcals of Vitargo at Big Mountain

Big Mountain Aid Station
Little Dell Reservoir, where my crew waited for me

Big Mountain to Lamb's Canyon

Leaving the first big aid station of the day with my first pacer was a nice boost. Steve was marveling at the beauty of the course and we chatted about what they'd been doing for eight hours, ESPN's reaction to the Broncos game, and his traffic warning on the drive up from Arizona. Other than Steve's company, this section was only really memorable for the heat. The weather was about as perfect as a hundred mile runner can ask for (70s as highs and 40s as lows), but the heat of the day was fully exposed and I baked a bit. Steve did what a good pacer should and kept checking on nutrition. On track, spot on in fact. I nibbled my way toward my 3500 calorie goal for the day. I felt strong and ran steady the final double track stretch into Lamb's Canyon at a good clip and found my second pacer, Chuck, waiting for me.

Getting ready to leave Lamb's with Chuck

Lamb's Canyon to Brighton

Chuck and I took off out of Lamb's and right onto pavement for almost 2 miles before turning onto the Lamb's Canyon trail. This is when the course really showed off its beauty. Wow, one of the most beautiful climbs I've ever done. Chuck would stop to take photos and then run to catch me. Better, the trail was benign single track, a nice reprieve from the rocky track I'd faced much of the day. Thanks to the uplifting scenery, the cooling temps, and my new pacer, I began pushing the climb and catching runners with ease. But, just after the summit, Wasatch showed her teeth as Chuck and I endured one of the many very steep, rocky declines. I'd much rather go uphill than down those things. (I pretty much go at the same pace down something like that anyway.) I took this opportunity to whine to Chuck that I'd been facing these types of descents all day.

Following the nasty decline, we found ourselves on Mill Creek road, another stretch a 3-mile stretch of pavement. Once again, I enjoyed the reprieve and worked a run-walk up the hill toward Upper Big Water. Chuck and I talked about the possibility of future 100 mile races, but the topic wasn't super pleasant as the enormity of this task was just setting in... so many miles done, so many to go. The negative thoughts started swirling. Chuck's upbeat comments about my race were met with negative comments from me: "it always changes at night". And nighttime was coming for me. We had a brief stop at Upper Big Water as I took in some broth and a gel and we moved on to the Big Water trail. This was the first time I saw Aime Blackham, whom I'd trade positions with all night. She was hiking well. I'd push a bit of running. We played leap frog now and for hours to come.

As we made our way toward Desolation Lake, one giant positive was the light. We would pass Dog Lake in the light, something none of the vets I was running with 40 miles ago thought possible. I was moving well and making up ground and we ran nearly 60 miles before sundown. We found Dog Lake (and a dozen or so hikers along the way). Then we found the confusing turn the race vets had warned me about. The course remained unbelievably beautiful through this entire section. I could definitely see why there were so many hikers in the area. Finally, just before arriving at Desolation Lake, Chuck turned on his headlamp for us both. I would wait to turn mine on at the aid. Desolation Lake was when I really started getting low. Nighttime was here; the real work was to begin.

We headed out of aid and down some good trail, then some Jeep road, then some pavement on our way to Brighton. I didn't even stop at Scott's Peak aid station, not needing much and wanting to get to Brighton. But, things were starting to spiral. I was tired, needed to use the bathroom, and my thoughts turned negative. I didn't even enjoy the easy section of pavement into Brighton. (I was happy that Chuck had 7 or so miles of easy pavement in his 22 mile section because he has to run 100 miles a week later!)

I immediately went into the Brighton Lodge with a similar checklist to that which I had at Big Mountain. But, sitting in the back of the lodge (the "morgue" as they call it), I was yawning. "I want to go to bed. What am I doing here. Why do I do this?" My crew could see the lack of energy. My sister was concerned. Chuck tried to be nice and helpful -- in between his mouthfuls of snacks -- but I just gave a snarky goodbye as I walked out into the night. This was close to as low as I'd ever been in a hundred. Despite my constant complaining about my Ak race vest, I made the decision to keep it on to carry cold gear and food. Patience.

I walked out of the lodge and instantly began shaking. Five minutes ago I was totally fine, but sitting in that warm lodge warmed me and now I was cold. I had my sister go get my gloves from the car. Without much hesitation or any mention of quitting, I headed up the hill with Steve once again pacing me.

Just after Dog Lake

View from Lamb's Canyon Climb

Brighton to Top of Wall

The climb up Catherines Pass was nasty: technical, steep and cold. Making matters worse that the backside of the summit was one of a few famous descents on the course. The descents at night were awful and the dust made it impossible to breath or see. I would often pass Aime uphill only to be passed by her downhill, in a trail of dust from her and her pacer. Fortunately, my energy was better and my self-talk was overcoming the negative thoughts: "don't be a wussy" (clean version), "you picked this fight, finish it", "runnable trail will come". Grit. Despite the improvement in outlook, we were moving at a snail pace, way off target for my overall goal thanks to Catherines and the quad blasting descent. I didn't let it bother me much, taking comfort in the knowledge that I was moving as well as I could and was still chasing down runners, something Steve smartly kept pointing out to me.

Steve and I arrived at Ant Knolls aid station and I sat down briefly. This was yet another thing I hadn't done much of in previous hundreds. Patience. Thanks to a couple of Tylenol at Brighton, my legs weren't overly stiff and I took a short break to rest. The aid station was quite a scene all lit up at night with a red carpet leading in.  I ate some solid food, mumbled to Steve and just left, forcing him to chase me down the trail a bit later.

I started to run for 2-3 minute spurts whenever I could and we began making up time, bringing the average pace since leaving Brighton toward 20 min miles. There was some up, some down, and a ton of rocky single track. Pole Line Pass was big because the 75 mile mark was a major mental milestone -- only a marathon to go. I once again briefly sat down and had some broth. A volunteer told us that we'd have to cover 10 miles before another real aid station. "What?! What about Rock Springs?". "Rock Springs is barely a trickle, you'll have to go 10 miles". Ugh. Steve encouraged me that the good news was that would be mile 85 and the home stretch. "Three hours and you'll be to mile 85, AJ". Off we went down more rocky single track.

Steve and I both thought it was kind of eerie that we could feel the vastness around us but could see nothing. Somehow I wasn't cold, long ago shedding all my layers of clothes and now in a t-shirt and shorts. I chugged a Redbull as I ran for some energy and calories and we continued to pick up pace, running as much as I could. We found Rock Springs and it was a (limited) aid station! Sweet relief. I filled my water bottle, mumbled (like a jerk) to the aid station volunteer "bib 97 out". Gratitude fail. Rock Springs volunteer, if you are reading this, I am sorry!

Our relief for finding the aid station turned to disbelief as we were greeted with two steep sections of down hill, "The Glide" and "The Plunge". The Plunge is a steep, slippery, dusty, rocky descent and complete torture on 80 mile quads. It is 23% grade down and I mostly walked it and tried to keep from sliding or falling. Aime and her pacer came flying by one last time, leaving Steve and I choking on her dust. Literally.

We arrived at Pot Hollow and I had to empty all the dirt from the dusty descents out of my shoes. I ate some solid food and put on my arm sleeves as I was finally cold. We walked out of the aid station onto a smooth jeep road. It was such a relief to be done with those descents! Then the road turned down and we began to run/walk. Our section pace (approaching 20 miles) was now heading below 19 min pace. It seemed a struggle for Steve and I both, but I kept pushing more and more running. It would be light soon and I'd have my sister to pace me the final stretch. It was obvious now the jeep road, while becoming rocky, would last all the way to Stanton aid station and we took advantage. A short stay at Stanton to fill water and Steve texted my sister to tell her we'd be to Top of the Wall soon. The last bit of jeep road was rocky and we didn't run as much as I would've liked, but we did enough. The exchange point was a little confusing and we searched around until we found my crew and I changed pacers for the final 8+ miles.

Ant Knoll Aid Station in middle of night

Top of the Wall to Finish

Leaving Top of the Wall, I wasn't sure what to expect from my sister as a pacer, but I did have a pretty good idea about the course. At Western States last year my sister pushed pretty hard to run. One of the bits of knowledge I picked up from course veterans earlier in the day was that the first section down from here was steep and rocky. I warned her that I probably wouldn't run much of that initial portion but planned to run some after. We settled into a wog and moved efficiently -- but not overly fast  -- while we caught up on the craziness of the last 24 hours and laughed a bit. We'd run here and there and she pointed out every rock. The light was starting to come up and I was energized. A little over a mile later we arrived at the final aid station. I took a bathroom break and re-grouped for the final stretch.

As we left, the aid station volunteer told us there were 5.8 miles to go and told my sister it was "runnable", confirming what I'd heard earlier in the day. We started jogging and I asked her for the time of day. "6:50 am", she responded.  "If I make it to the finish by 8 am, I could break 27 hours", which I always felt was a worthy goal. My sister responded to my thinking out loud, "let's do it, you just have to average 10s". Tens after 94+ miles? We'll give it a shot.

I accelerated and the first mile was 9:41. It felt like tempo pace, but maybe I could hang in there for a few more miles. The second mile was 9:37. Now it was starting to hurt. "What time is it? Maybe I can just average 11 min miles and get it". "Just keep running, you're doing great", she said. A little hill and the third mile was gone in 10:37. It was really starting to hurt now. My knees were screaming at me. Both hips were on fire. Burning up in arm sleeves, I actually started to drinking water again. My sister slowed down to take a text and was having trouble catching back up to me on the uphills. The fourth mile came and went in 10-flat. "I must have it in the bag now, right?" My sister was no longer with me, getting just to within shouting distance to tell me the time. Without complete confidence, I kept running because I was not 100% sure how far I had left. There was some more uphill and the pain was becoming intense. I started crying, but I didn't want to stop until it was done. I prayed for the strength to keep running. I prayed in thanks for the amazing day, my friends, and the gift of running. The fifth mile went by in 10:12 and we arrived in a picnic area (Soldier Hollow Train Station) and I was sure we were at the finish. Nope, we had to run on the road and to the park. My sister was now back ahead of me and encouraging me but I couldn't see the destination on the horizon. Finally, I could see the finish line and I asked her "is that it?". "Yes!" One last time I accelerated and left her on my way to the finish, crossing the line at 7:48 am (26:48). I immediately covered my face in a rare display of emotion and then bent over exhausted.

Emotional (I think?) at the finish

Exhausted and thankful to be done

The A-Team. I've been fortunate to assemble an talented group of running friends.

My sister: master crew chief and hard ass pacer
The dust!!!
We posed for some finish line photos and then headed back to our ski condo to eat, sleep and catch up. Later we went to the awards ceremony and enjoyed the picnic put on by the community. That is the kind of thing I love about old school ultra.

I feel very satisfied with this race, possibly my best 100 ever (Ultrasignup agrees). I suppose I subconsciously always wanted this race to turn out well to redeem my lousy attitude at The Bear. I settled that day and took the easy way out, walking the last 25 miles while pouting. Today, I battled to the finish. I am exhausted from the years of training and racing and really not sure how many (if any) hundreds I have left in me. However, this is the worst time to really think much about that. I'll wait for those decisions until lottery season comes. For now, I need to register for Boston and celebrate another great year of racing, perhaps my best ever. And, I need to just be dad on the weekends.