Monday, November 12, 2007

2007 Rock Ledge Rumble 50k


I think the Rock Ledge Rumble 50k is now a tradition for me, this being my third finish in a row. I've never set what I felt to be a good time there and the last miles always turn into a death march, but the rumble is by far my favorite race. This year I was lucky enough to share it with Lindsay and her brother Jimmy too. This report is not really about me anyway - my big race of the year is over and this was just a chance to have fun with friends and to see Lindsay conquer her first ultramarathon - which she did gracefully and coincidentally in the same time that I ran the rumble in 2 years ago (also my first ultra). Lindsay definitely looked much better at the finish line than I did after my first time!


I'm really proud of her for toughing it out to the end. I didn't run the race with her because I wanted her to be able to finish without me egging her on (and whining about all my stomach pains). It was a hot and humid day and we were all suffering in our own ways, but when I passed her on the out and backs she always looked fresh. I think had her legs not cramped up she would have easily beat me!

The hero of the day, fresh off a blazing fast half marathon the weekend before, was Wasatch pacer and one of my best friends Joey Guajardo! Joey won the race with no competition in sight in a new course record of 4:16.


I really thought I was running fast during the first 8 miles until I saw Joey on the return leg of the first out-and-back: he was flying and already 3 miles ahead of me! By the time I finished, Joey had been hanging out at the finish line waiting for me for almost 3 hours. He didn't even look like he'd been running! Joey is a great friend and a huge inspiration to me, plus it's pretty cool to know an elite runner that is going to be famous some day.

Jimmy also did awesome at his first trail race. He finished the 15k in a speedy 2 hours on a tough course. It's great to watch friends get hooked on this sport. I think Jimmy is going to be some tough competition if he chooses to push his miles up to the ultra distances - he's already too fast for me on training runs.


Tom Crull - race director and one great guy - did an incredible job putting the race together. It was a lot of fun seeing all my friends from NTTR working at the aid stations. I felt a little guilty getting such great personal attention. I'm still walking funny today, but I'm already looking forward to next years rumble.

Me at the finish

Images by Brad Garrison

Monday, October 1, 2007

Memories of Wasatch

Just some extra photos Lindsay took that I didn't use in my race report. My knee is still aching 3 weeks later, but I've been dissecting my race and planning how I can do it better next year. Yay pain amnesia! This is one sadistic sport...

Running into Big MountainRounding the corner into Big Mountain at mile 39

Call from Alexander RidgeTelling the crew I might be a little late on Alexander Ridge

Mountain Dell ReservoirMmmm Water... the scenic Mountain Dell reservoir

Excited at LambsJoey can't wait to climb Bear Bottom Pass, I can think of things I'd rather do than run another 47 miles

Joey inspecting the drugsJoey inspects the drugs at Lambs Canyon (don't worry, its just Tums and Advil)

Approaching BrightonCivilization! Me limping into Brighton at mile 75

Leaving BrightonIt's hard to leave the party at Brighton: they have cots in the back

Victory noodlesVictory Noodles!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tour De Fleurs 20k

Last weekend I ran the 20k at the Tour De Fleurs at the Dallas Arboretum. I'm still recovering from my 100 miler two weeks ago but I decided to run it anyway to support Lindsay as she trains for her first 50k (and to stop moping around my apartment). I still have a bad case of runners knee and an oddly numb big toe but otherwise I was ready get out and run.

Joey graciously offered to carpool us out to Whiterock Lake and it was fun to see what we all remembered most from Wasatch. Parking is always a mess there, but the race organizers did a great job with this race. In fact, my only complaint was that there were too many aid stations - one each mile I think - and I felt a bit spoiled.

The race went fairly smooth. I was in pain due to my knee the whole time, but it wasn't bad enough to stop me. I'm normally not a fan of the flat and boring Whiterock Lake trail, but it was a great day for running - low 80s and sunny - and I had good company. Lindsay did awesome and she still had the energy to leave me in the dust the last mile. She will definitely be ready to join the ultrarunning ranks this November at the Rockledge Rumble 50k. Joey always amazes me. He finished sixth in his age group in about 1:24 (?). He is training to break 3 hours at the Whiterock marathon this fall and it looks like he is right on target.

I would definitely run this race again. Its always fun to run middle distance runs: they are short enough to attract a big group of people but still long enough that I don't feel guilty laying on the couch for the rest of the afternoon.

Monday, September 17, 2007

2007 Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run

BrightonSolitude ski resort and Honeycomb Canyon
Photos by Lindsay Johnston

My head reels as hands grab my arms and pull me up the last step of the Brighton lodge. Faces flash by but I don't recognize them at first. They might just be more hallucinations. My brain is processing much to slowly to keep up with the fast-forward pace of my crew and the crowd of people in the room. I think it's warm in here, but then I haven't felt cold in hours.

I suddenly see a scale at my feet. A person sitting nearby says something and the people grabbing my arms help me up. I know that salvation is near.

Thirteen pounds.

Thats all I have to lose to save face by being pulled from the race "against my will." I'm sure I've lost twice that in chunks of lung and brain already.


I'm ushered off the scale and over to a seat at the end of a long cafeteria table in the corner before I realize that I'm actually up a pound. Great, just great. I'm too tired to tell the people spinning around me that I want to quit. I know the expression on my face says everything. I just want to lay on the floor and sleep...

A week and change earlier my girlfriend Lindsay and I were taxiing to the gate of Salt Lake City International when it hit me. These mountains are big. Really big.

I grew up playing in these mountains. I've hardly missed a year when I didn't spend Christmas with my family trying to pack as much skiing as the lifts would allow into a too-short week. The long drives were always worth it and my brothers and I pulled into my grandparents driveway the same way we left it: exhausted. My dad is a mountain hard man and we lived by the old skiers' code of "first ones up the mountain and last ones off."

Over the last few years I've had an awakening of sorts learning to love the mountains by climbing and running them. My parents settled in Bountiful, Utah a few years ago and I've taken every opportunity to visit them and the mountains I love.

As I walked through the terminal though, I was afraid to look at the Wasatch front rising four or five thousand feet straight off the desert valley floor. I knew what I was there to do and I knew I could do it, I just wasn't sure how.

The Green AdjectiveDoing my best to keep my mind off the race

Lindsay and I instead spent the week doing everything possible to keep my mind off the race. Running with our new friend Jeff along the Wasatch Crest, rock climbing the classic granite cracks of Little Cottonwood Canyon with my pacer Rich and just generally enjoying the easy, routineless days we'd been missing in our busy lives. Two days before the race I picked up my last pacer Joey from the airport and introduced him to Utah. We all went out for fancy Chinese food and then worked on organizing my drop bags.

I'm not normally a neat or organized person, but the looming fear and anxiety of running my first 100 mile race was only abated by massive amounts of unnecessary preparation: elevation profiles with hand-calculated hill grades, excel spreadsheets with time and pace estimates, checklists for my checklists and even laminated, color topographic maps of the entire course shrunk and cut to fit in my backpack. My worrying grade school teachers would be so proud.

All the veteran runners I have talked to say to stay off your feet as much as possible the day before the race. The best way I could think of was to go rock climbing all day! It was very calming leading up some of my favorite routes on the smooth red quartzite of Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was also Joey's first time climbing out of a gym and I was so proud of him as he led his first climb: the Italian Arete.

After a very cathartic afternoon of climbing we drove over to the pre-race meeting. I planted my drop bags in the neat rows of the freshly sown field of multi-colored plastic bags. The weigh-in was next and I cringed as the digital scale read 191. For safety reasons they can pull you out of the race if your weight falls more than 7%. I could really stand to lose three times that.

I peeked into the bag that they handed me next: race number, safety pins, official race t-shirt and toilet paper. I love this sport. The humility was further reinforced as race director John Grobben briefed us about toilet procedures and said, "there are a lot of elite runners here today. Course record breakers and celebrities... and I'm not going to recognize any of them."

Race morning started like every other Saturday morning of the summer. Wake up before my body has time to figure out that it was ever asleep. Zombie into the kitchen to force down some food and then spend half an hour on the pot failing to empty my colon. My superhuman parents were already up and in their cycling gear ready to go. When people ask me how a mother could let her son run 100 miles, I remind them she will be on the back of a tandem bike with my dad riding the Lotoja: a 206 mile race from Logan, Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I think it "runs" in the family. My folks dropped me off at the starting line and left for their own adventure. It was a true starting line; a short cord tied between a tree and the check-in table. It was a spartan affair. Classic Utah sand-bagging. "Oh hey, it's no big deal. We're just going for a jog in the hills." Everyone hung out casually in clusters. You couldn't even tell who was a runner unless they wore shorts and the iron calf muscles gave it away.

With a quick countdown and a "good luck," John Grobben dropped the rope and directed us up a dusty jeep road into the early morning darkness. We undulated in and out of small valleys and drainages like a glow worm above the dot pattern of the city lights. I kept looking back to see the long line of light trailing me. It felt somehow magical, like we were ghosts running through the enchanted forest of a fairy tale. The pace was easy as the trail narrowed and squeezed us along. I hoped to keep it that way.

After four miles of fun the work started. We began the climb I dreaded most from the valley floor to the Chinscraper Ridge at the top. Even though I was moving slowly up the relentless 6000' climb I was still pushing too hard. Jeff and many other stronger runners passed me, never to be seen again. I still have so much room for improvement. As the sun crept up my tunnel through the scrub oak was illuminated, allowing me to turn off my headlamp. Looking down at the city below us meant instant dizziness, so I focused a few steps ahead of my feet and kept grinding ahead. The most feared part of the climb comes at the very top: Chinscraper. Chinscraper is a bowl so steep that it requires a class III rock scramble to gain the ridge. A fall could be fatal, or at least hurt a lot. It loomed huge in my imagination.

Climbing the penultimate hill, the real thing actually didn't look that bad. Chinscraper was about as big and bad as the approach to the real pant-soiling climbs I did earlier that week. Pulling up to the top, I was standing on a knife edge with Kaysville and the whole Great Salt Lake in front of me. It felt like the whole mountain could go tumbling into the sky at any moment. Gravity was playing tricks on me and I had to grab a nearby boulder to keep myself on the ground. The altitude was already getting to me. It was nice to finally be on rolling trail that I could occasionally run again, and I gradually started to recover from the long climb.

I ran along a trail fit for a mountain goat just below the top of the ridge for a few miles. Below me were funnels of rock ending at the top of the tree line. The ridges formed a wrinkled, green curtain that I danced along until a truck appearing suddenly around a bend broke the illusion. I reached the start of a jeep road lined with trucks parked precariously along the face. I couldn't imagine trying to do a three point turn here. The race director had set up a small water stop for us out of the back of his pickup at a knoll aptly named Grobben's Corner. It was disappointing to know that I had only covered a half marathon of distance, but I was looking forward to the gradual five mile long downhill ahead.

When the jeep road began to tilt downhill, I really let it fly. It felt great to be moving and for the first time passing people. I was in the zone thinking, "maybe this race wont be that hard after all," when a girl about my age in bike shorts ran past me. I tried to keep up, but my legs seemed like they had only one speed.

I was secretly hoping that Lindsay had ignored my plan and would be waiting at the Francis Peak aid station ahead. Alas, she had followed my instructions to avoid the nasty, switchbacked road to the aid station and I didn't see any familiar faces. The volunteers filled the void though, and were quick to grab my hand-held water bottle and pack to fill up. The volunteers throughout the race made me feel like royalty - hovering around me asking what they could do, bringing me hot chicken broth, grabbing my drop bag for me - I really looked forward to each aid station and it was always hard to leave.

Dead goatThe last runner that didn't make it

After refueling I started walking down a long, flat atv trail. There were plenty of people enjoying the sunny meadows on dirt bikes and atvs, and in the distance I occasionally heard the gunshots of hunters. Utah has some very loose land use policies and it's interesting to see the wildly different ways that people choose to enjoy the wilderness.

Rough atv trail eventually turned into rugged, freshly cut hiking trail. Even though I had mostly walked for the last few miles since the aid station, my stomach would not settle and things were sloshing around. The loose and wild trail was not helping either. Like the hills, my mood was like a roller coaster, and was bottoming out in a real low point. The trail crossed a stream and suddenly there were no more downhills. In fact, the trail was impossibly steep and went straight up for one mile. Well, they say it's a mile, but it felt like three or four. It was hard to enjoy the beautiful aspen grove I was walking through when I was in such a foul mood. I created a pacing chart that showed where I needed to be at what time and taped it to my water bottle. I realized that the sub-30 hour pace I wanted to be on to net me a better finishing award was not happening. Without any regret or ire, I gave up that goal for the goal of just finishing under the time limit of 36 hours.

Thankfully, the hill finally ran out of up, and I reached the Bountiful B aid station. I called Crew Cap'n Lindsay to let her know I would be on my slow pace. She was worried because the race website had yet to update with my current position and was relieved to hear that I was still on track. An aid station volunteer handed me a cherry popsicle and I enjoyed my treat as I walked down another dusty jeep trail. As I walked, I noticed a strange sound; an otherworldly cacophony of voices singing words I couldn't make out. As I rounded a bend I realized the noise was actually a herd of sheep nestled in a grove of trees bleating their hearts out. I have seen sheep before, but I never knew they could sing like that. I couldn't see the shepherd, but his conducting could use some work.

The sheep helped take my mind off of my own discomfort for a while, and soon I saw the Sessions aid station at the bottom of the hill. The folks there were very friendly and looked like they had camped overnight. They stuffed me fully of food and Advil and I talked to Lindsay on the phone one more time to let her know when to meet me at the Big Mountain aid station. As I began a short climb after the aid station, my mood began to climb with me. I was excited that I would be seeing my crew soon and for the next 11 miles the trail consisted of excellent ridge running. We ran along the top and sides of the spine of the Wasatch and I was having a blast. I started seeing and passing people that had passed me as far back as the beginning of the race. I saw the girl in bike shorts who flew past me earlier and she was looking pretty bad. She said she couldn't hold anything in her stomach down. I shared one of the little secrets that was passed on to me and gave her some of my crystallized ginger. I passed through the Swallow Rocks aid station in a blur, but I did notice its namesake: the pretty blue, red and tan conglomerate stone walls filled with nest-sized holes that must house swallows.

After another five or so miles of fun ridge running, I knew Big Mountain must be getting close. My excitement was building and I was longing to have Lindsay as a pacer so I would finally have someone to run with. I started winding down switchbacks and I could see the parking lot down below when suddenly pink flamingos began appearing along the side of the trail. As I turned down the final switchback there were kids dressed as pirates there to direct me across the road and into the aid station. I didn't get the joke at the time but Lindsay later explained that we were in Parley's canyon. Parley, parlay, get it? Yeah, that kind of high level humor was over my head after almost 40 miles of running.

Big MountainMy pit crew Joey and Lindsay change the tires and top off the tank

I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as Lindsay and Joey met me at the weight check. I weighed in, down only a pound. This is probably the first race I've run where I wasn't massively dehydrated, so maybe I'm starting to learn. The perfect 70 degree weather helped a little too. Joey took off my shoes and socks and cleaned off the black dirt and dust while Lindsay forced food and broth on me. I had gone from feeling like a turd on the trail to being a million dollar race car in the pit with a crew attending to all the details. Before I could get comfortable sitting down they lifted me back on my feet and Lindsay yelled, "219 out!"

Unfortunately, my stomach began acting up as soon as we left the aid station. Lindsay and I have been together long enough that I felt comfortable whining about every ache and pain. She is one tough woman though, and she kept us moving at a good pace. I was able to enjoy showing Lindsay the views of the Mountain Dell reservoir and the few wildflowers still hanging on. I also got some sick pleasure out of showing her the steep climbs and loose, butt-sliding downhills I'd been dealing with all day. Even though I had run this section a few months earlier and thought I knew it, the next aid station was still two hills further than it should have been. Finally the Alexander Ridge aid station appeared below us in a grassy field and we hurried down. At this point my brain had given up all higher forms of logic and reasoning, so I didn't even blink at the volunteers. A cowboy checked me in, and a bare-chested Indian in war paint and a skirt filled my water bottle.

Alexander RidgeRunning on the sky along Alexander Ridge

One of my original goals of the race was to be at the next aid station, Lamb's Canyon, before dark. As the hills caught fire with alpenglow, I knew that wouldn't happen. If we kept moving we would at least hit the 50 mile mark as the sunset. The hill ahead of us was a great place to make up time; a three mile long gradual, grassy uphill following a power line cut. My energy and mood was bottoming out again. I was really dragging as Lindsay did her best to motivate me. "Just one more rise. I'll let you rest at the top of this next hill." My lungs had filled with fluid over the course of the day, and it had become so bad that I could barely talk to Lindsay. She is a wonderful person to help me when I'm in such a foul mood. We finished the long grind of the power line trail and just started running down the other side when it got too dark to run without lights.

We caught a few last glimpses of the trees around us beginning to turn their fall colors as the light faded. The trail turned into a railroad bed that winds toward the Lamb's Canyon aid station, then cruelly away and finally dumps into a marshy single track heading the right way again. The last mile of single track was eerie. We ran through swamp grasses and crossed beaver dams under the light of glow sticks hung overhead to mark the trail. The glow sticks were like will o' wisps haunting the mire. We heard voices all around us but couldn't see anyone.

At last, we turned a corner and we could see the highway and the glow of the aid station above us. I could hear Joey yelling my name and found him entertaining my grandparents. I was really happy to see my grandparents there, they had to sit in the cold for hours waiting for me to show up. I was still feeling sick and I really wanted to drop out and go home, but Joey was looking forward to pacing me the next 22 miles and I didn't want to let him down. I figured that I could run with Joey to the next aid station 8 miles away and just drop there. Joey is always full of energy, and he brought twice as much for the night.

Do I have to eat it? Grandma and grandpa make sure I finish my dinner at Lambs Canyon

The course crosses under I-80 and begins a four mile climb up Lamb's Canyon that I was hoping to just walk up at a slow pace. Joey and I have been friends and running partners for two years, and the one thing he hates is walking. As we started up the road, Joey put his arm around my shoulder, and started pulling me up the hill at a fast power-walk. It was just what I needed. Even though I was still barely able to talk, let alone breathe, Joey did his best to cheer me up with raunchy jokes and stories that only he can get away with telling.

We made it to the top of the canyon to Bear Bottom Pass, and we had even started passing people again. My mood was picking up again and I was feeling good. As we started downhill, I began to notice the miles. My spirits were high, but I had to run gingerly because the pain was building in my knees. We ran down to elbow fork then turned back up hill for the three mile climb up the road to the aid station. We were having a great time, but we both agreed there is no way that those three miles were only three miles. That road goes on FOREVER. We found Lindsay at the top waiting for us at the Upper Big Water aid station and she refueled us both.

Desolation LakeRunning by the site of the Desolation Lake aid station and triage unit

Lindsay and I had just run the next 14 mile section the weekend before so I knew what was ahead. I knew the trail would be well groomed and not too rocky, but it would be another very long climb to get to the ridge at the top known as the Wasatch Crest. Joey and I continued our fast pace and we passed about a dozen runners until we got to dog lake. After the lake there is a short, steep downhill to give us a break during the long ascent. This downhill was were Lindsay took a very nasty fall on our training run leaving gashes in her knee and hands and dirt in her mouth. That hill wasn't done with us because my knees and quad muscles completely gave out on the way down. All the people I had passed in the last climb caught up and blew by me as I carefully side-stepped down the hill. Joey was waiting at the bottom with a concerned look on his face. It was going to be a long night.

I was still able to climb at a decent pace, and we repassed the same people as we climbed another few miles to the next aid station. Desolation Lake sounds bleak, but the aid station was alive and welcoming. There were tents, chairs and a roaring fire. I knew better than to sit near the fire - it's very hard to leave and run in the cold night air once you sit next to a hot fire in a comfortable chair. I sat near the edge of camp and the volunteers came over and brought me soup and filled my water bottles. These volunteers are really amazing because there are no jeep roads or atv trails they can take to get to the camp. They actually have to haul everything up on their backs for miles up steep hiking trails. They even haul in all the water, and there was plenty of it. The runners aren't the only ones doing something extreme at Wasatch.

Red Lovers RidgeThe lovers pose on Red Lovers Ridge with Park City below

After quickly refueling, we finished the last part of the long climb to one of my favorite parts of the course: Red Lovers Ridge. The ridge is a red colored rock like its namesake at almost 10,000' elevation and you can see everything from the top. To the east is a sheer drop into the Canyons ski resort with the lights of Park City below, and to the West you can barely make out the lights of Salt Lake City. I hope Joey gets the chance to see it again in daylight, but it was a magical experience seeing it under the brilliant stars. The stars were so vivid and bright that they didn't look real, it made me dizzy to look up at them.

The splendor was too short lived. We had a few miles of easy ridges to run along, but my quads were screaming and my mental state was rapidly deteriorating. The hallucinations were starting. At first they were almost unnoticeable. I would see a nice looking rock ahead of me that I could sit down on, but when I got closer it would turn into a bush. A few times I was about to sit down before I realized they were bushes hanging over long falls down the face of the mountain. The shadows scattered and morphed into things I could almost recognize. Suddenly, ahead a small black cat was charging straight at me on the trail. I jumped aside and yelped while pushing Joey in front of me. The cat turned back in to a shadow and disappeared. Lindsay thinks it may have been her parent's cat Boo keeping me company. I knew I was really starting to lose it, and my pace had slowed to a crawl.

We reached the Scott's Tower aid station and I promptly sat down. I didn't want to walk another step. Joey force fed me and pulled me back on my feet, but I was finished. The next five miles to Brighton are all downhill, and my knees and quads were screaming in pain. I was in agony with every step. I tried side-stepping. I tried walking backward with Joey to guide me. I tried putting my weight on Joey's shoulders while he walked in front. Nothing worked. Joey had an idea and ran into the bushes while I sat down to rest. After much rustling and snapping he came back with two branches that made perfect walking sticks. With my weight resting on the sticks, I was able to very slowly work my way down the hill.

Scotts TowerRunning above Park City near Scotts Tower on a training run

Halfway down, the dirt road joins the paved Guardsman Pass road. When we hit the road, all I wanted to do was just lay down on the gravel shoulder and sleep. It was about six in the morning and I knew my race was over. I sat down and told Joey to just go on to the aid station and tell everyone how badly I was doing. I felt sorry for him having to stay with someone as slow as me. Joey yanked me up and told me that he was not going to leave me and that no matter how long it took, he was staying with me and we weren't stopping. I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I grabbed Joey's shoulder so I could walk and close my eyes to sleep at the same time. If I didn't, I would weave back and forth across the road. I was seeing spectral hallucinations all around me. There was a floating red gate across the road that was just out of reach. It kept moving at my speed so I could never reach it. Joey and I were both cold and exhausted as Brighton finally came in to view. In training, I ran down this section at an easy pace and took less than an hour to cover the five miles. At a racing pace I could easily cover it in 40 minutes. It ended up taking over two and a half hours for me to limp my way into Brighton, and I made it just as the sky started to lighten.

At the weigh-in, Lindsay made me keep my backpack on. That and a badly adjusted scale meant no one was going to pull me out of the race. If I wanted to quit, it would be my decision. And as much as I wanted to quit, as much as I thought I had already quit, I just couldn't say the words. My mother had finished her bike race and rushed back in time to be at Brighton. She was about to tell me it was ok to quit, that 75 miles is a great accomplishment when Lindsay shushed her. A friend recognized me and came over to offer me a cot to lay on in the back, but Lindsay shushed him to, "he is not going to lay down, he is not allowed to sleep." Before the race Lindsay and I agreed that she could only let me drop if a bone broke through the skin. I was seriously considering having Joey break an arm for me with my walking stick. Lindsay refused to let anyone around me even say the word drop and only let me lay on the floor long enough to change my shoes and get a couple egg sandwiches in my mouth. I know that without such amazing people in my corner, my race would have ended on the dirty carpet of the Brighton lodge.

One of the hardest things I have ever done in my life was to walk out the door of that aid station. I knew that I wouldn't make it up the next climb - the steepest and highest climb of the course. I knew that my legs wouldn't work on the downhills. I knew that even if I did somehow make it to the finish, it would be after the cutoff time and it wouldn't even count. As I began slowly walking up the steep hill, something changed. I stopped caring. Or more importantly I stopped fearing and doubting. I didn't care whether I finished in time, or even whether I finished at all. I was going to push as hard as I could for as long as I could until either my body gave out or I crossed the finish line. It was as though I had broken through some barrier, or risen to some higher mental plateau. The pain was still there, but it no longer mattered. My knees ached, my feet were blistered, my lungs where filled with fluid and it didn't matter. 25 miles is a long way, but it didn't matter. The trail ahead was the roughest, steepest and nastiest trail of the whole course, but it didn't matter. I was going to finish.

Leaving BrightonLeaving Brighton as the sun peaks into the valley

My next pacer Rich let me get a head start and caught up to me quickly. We climbed one step at a time through the rugged and beautiful Brighton ski resort toward Lake Catherine. Rich is one of my new role models. He lives a few houses down from my parents and we met only a few months before the race. Rich has been climbing and skiing the Wasatch mountains his entire life. At every turn and hill, he had a story to tell about the area. He pointed out fun lines to ski in the winter, cirques where he witnessed avalanches, lakes he has taken groups of boy scouts hiking to. I was really struggling to breathe at this point due to the fluid in my lungs, asthma and the altitude. I would take a few steps, then have to stop and desperately gasp for air. Rich told me mountaineering stories like when he climbed Mt Rainier while he taught me how to pressure breathe. Pressure breathing is a technique high altitude mountain climbers use to force air into the lungs. You force the air out through pursed lips quickly. When you inhale, the air is forced into your lungs at a pressure similar to standing at an elevation 2000' lower. The pressure breathing hurt my tired lungs, but it allowed me to keep moving at a slow and steady pace as we continued to climb. I continued to pressure breathe for the rest of the race.

The sun dappled the huge granite boulder filled bowl just as we neared the top of Point Supreme - the highest point of the race at about 10,500'. Rich urged me to do some stretches, and he showed me how to stretch out my knees. As we started jogging down the other side of the pass, a miracle occurred. The pain in my legs was there, but almost unnoticeable. I was able to run again for the first time in about 30 miles. We started running and Rich suggested I try to keep my strides wide, so I did. We kept speeding up until we were sprinting down the hill. We began catching up to other runners so fast that they barely had time to jump out of the way. We shared encouragement as we passed by at mach speed. We flew into the Ant Knolls aid station at the bottom of the descent and I was finally starting to feel alive again. A man was sitting on a rock next to the tent playing a didgeridoo. At least I hope he was real. Rich made me eat some sausage, eggs and pancakes - something no one would ever have to force upon me in any other circumstances.

The last quarter of the course is arguably the prettiest part. Rich commented that when he paced the section before, both times he had done it in the dark. We were lucky to enjoy another beautiful sunny day running a great trail through aspen groves and along mountain goat trail above pristine canyons. Many canyons and ravines we ran through were almost untouched and the only sign of human presence was the trail under our feet. We quickly through the Pole Line Pass aid station and grunted our way up a steep climb called the Grunt. As we neared the Rock Springs aid station Mount Timpanogos came into view. Lindsay and I recently visited the Timpanogos Cave and learned a lot of the lore and history of the mountain. I also climbed it the year before and suffered through an epic July hail storm in my running shorts on it's summit. Seeing it again reminded me how much I love these mountains and how lucky we are to be able to spend time in them.

The Rock Springs aid station is another hikers-only camp that required many miles of hauling in gear. I was very thankful for the tent to sit under and the hand-pump filtered water they handed us. The volunteers at this race are so inspiring that my parents now want to volunteer at the next race to pay back the kindness they showed me. It was tough to leave the oasis of comfort, but Rich and I had a nasty six miles of trail ahead to knock out before the last aid station. On the race map this section is named Irv's Torture Chamber. I don't know Irv, but he must be one sick individual. This trail must only be used by us Wasatch runners once per year, because I couldn't imagine any sane day hikers willingly hiking it. It is never flat, always going up and down, but never smooth enough to get into a good rhythm. It also includes the two steepest, most rutted and rocky descents on the course back-to-back: the Dive and the Plunge. Each descent drops about 600 feet in a hurry, and falling would be a bad idea. I made it down both safely, but my legs paid for it. Rich was a great motivator. Every time I would walk an uphill without stopping or switch to a run as the trail turned downhill, Rich would give me some encouragement. "Good job" and, "You're doing awesome" were my little prizes, and I was working my hardest to earn them.

MidwayThe leaves began turning as Rich and I turn down the last mile of single track

Pot Bottom, the last aid station, was a welcome sight. I knew when I saw it that not only would I finish the race, but I would finish in time. Rich goaded me into slicing off 15 minutes here and 30 there. He would tell me at every aid station how many people I just passed and how much time I beat my schedule by. He was very positive and I really wanted tell him my own stories and ask him questions but breathing was so difficult that the most I could manage was to nod my head or wheeze a clipped laugh. The last seven miles of the course is mostly downhill, but they don't let you off that easy. There is one last 2 mile climb up a never ending jeep road first. I was starting to suffer from the heat of the sun for the first time in the race, and I was just ready to be done. When the climb finally ended we let it all out. We were really running, passing almost a dozen people. It was a treacherously rocky road, but my feet seemed to know where to go so I turned my head off and let my legs do their thing. As we hit the last mile of single track, I picked up speed. I was going to run every last step.

We wound through the wonderful gold and red fall colors and finally I saw the road. Lindsay and my dad were waiting to run in the last half mile of the road into Midway with us. They assumed we would be walking and they could barely keep up without their running shoes. At the last corner I saw my aunt Karen and aunt Marilyn, my mom and my grandparents all waiting with cameras and finally the finish line. I couldn't hide my smile as I raced under the banner and shook John Grobben's hand just under 35 hours after I started.

Almost DoneMy pacer Rich and my dad lead me into the finish. Dad wasn't expecting me to be running.

I went above and beyond what I though I was capable of, but I couldn't have done it alone. Of all the things I feel after finishing - pride, relief, exhaustion - the strongest of all is the love of all the family and friends that support me in my goals. Thank you everyone: my crew captain, pacer and partner in crime Lindsay Johnston is one tough woman. My pacers Joey Guajardo and Rich Lambert who I look up to. My parents who inspire me and show me by example that I can do anything. My aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews who show up to support each other for every event. My coach Tim Neckar who crafted the training program that made it possible for me to run all the way to the finish. The North Texas Trail Runners who always have time to take me for a training run or share their veteran advice. All of my friends who followed me online and let me know I could do it.

Dedicated to my Grandma and Grandpa Mills who passed on while I was training for this race. I know they are watching out for me and I now know that they passed some of their legendary toughness down to me.

FinishedI'm finally finished...
Ten Minutes Later...and I need a nap

Monday, July 23, 2007

Get High 50k

The inaugural Get High 50k started and ended at the bottom of the tram (8,100') at the Snowbird ski resort near Salt Lake City, Utah – and according to the race organizers the net elevation gain is zero and therefore the course was flat (although estimates put it at 21,000' total elevation change). I decided to run this race as a warm up for my first 100 mile race attempt this September at the Wasatch Front Endurance Run. Since this was supposed to be a training run, I wanted to start it tired and had a blast the two days before the race rock climbing, hiking and wielding a pickax while doing trail work. To add to the adventure I opted to not acclimatize to the altitude and catch a head cold with bonus sinus infection.

Waiting in line on the tram deck for my race packet was wild. I was surrounded by insanely fit people wearing t-shirts from other mountain ultramarathons they had run. At the table in front of me was Karl Meltzer: the masochist that designed the course and also one of the top ultrarunners in the world (he was looking pretty fresh after his 2nd place finish at the Hardrock 100 miler in Silverton Colorado – said to be the toughest 100 in the world). I was out of my league and feeling intimidated, but also ready to step into the unknown of my first mountain ultra.

Before sending us off, Karl held up two $100 bills that he offered to the first man and woman to get to the aid station at the top of the tram. I knew that wouldn't be me that day, but I can daydream...

The race started casually with a countdown followed by a short, mostly flat 2 mile loop that allowed everyone to spread out before the real climbing started. It was probably the only truly runnable terrain the entire race. We then immediately hit the single track and things turned steep. I'm not sure who built the first set of switchbacks, but I don't think they were meant for humans. The trail then opened up onto a dusty, rocky fire road that wound its way up through the Gad Valley to the top of the Gad 2 lift.

During all of the climbing I experienced what would be the pattern for the rest of the day. The longer I climbed, the more the altitude affected me. I would go from a quick power-walk to a slow-but-steady hiking pace to a step-breathe-step-breathe plod. It was like my heart was completely red-lined and it felt like it was about to pound out of my chest. By the time I reached the top of the first long climb, I was ready to drop out of the race, cancel my Wasatch 100 bid and get a refund and quit running forever. The only way I kept myself going through the day was to remind myself that if I can't finish this race, I don't stand a chance at Wasatch. I also tried to remember one of my new favorite running quotes:

You can never run a hill too hard, you will collapse before hurting it

The first (too) short downhill of the day went straight down a very steep ski run from the top of the Gad 2 lift to the bottom of the Little Cloud lift. They didn't even bother with a trail here, I don't think any sane hikers would use it. Instead they just placed flags every so often so you have something to steer toward as you stumble and slide down the hill.

We then climbed up to the top of the tram (Hidden Peak: 11,000) dropped down a few hundred feet to the Peruvian Gulch tunnel and through Mineral Basin back up to the top of Hidden Peak to our first aid station stop (they said this was about mile 9). The tunnel is a newer addition to Snowbird and was pretty cool. It has a conveyor belt (not turned on, just my luck) that runs uphill about 500 feet and drops you off on the back side of the mountain – allowing novice skiers to bypass the advanced terrain above the tunnel.

The next section was very cool and made up for the painful climb: we ran down a ridge from the top of Hidden Peak into a saddle and then climbed to the peak of Mt. Baldy (11,068'). I've always eyed this peak while skiing at Alta and Snowbird and wanted to stand up here, but the ski patrol keeps it closed off for the majority of the winter due to avalanche danger. I eyed the skiable lines down the rocky chutes with envy. We then dropped 500' down the other side of the ridge to Sugarloaf Pass on what was by far the most exciting decent I have ever run. There were volunteers from Black Diamond with climbing ropes rigged as hand lines because some sections were so steep and rocky that you had to down-climb them on all fours and on to either side there were sheer 1000' cliffs. Definitely not a good place to take a spill.

We next did a 5 mile loop down to the bottom of Mineral Basin (9500') and back up and through the tunnel to our second aid station. We went through fields of wildflowers, which were in full bloom for the race and were literally stunning – I had to just stop and look around at all the brilliant red, blue and yellow flowers that surrounded me.

The section that followed was my favorite part. We dropped down from the tunnel into Peruvian Gulch almost to the bottom, then turned onto the ridgeline trail. This trail was just spectacular (and ridiculously steep!) The trail went directly up the looming, rocky Peruvian ridge line that divides the Peruvian Gulch side of Snowbird from the Gad Valley side. The trail scrambled up boulders with cliffs and steep drops off either side and a few occasional scraggly looking pine trees to give you some shade. I probably had to stop and sit down 10 times on this section to catch my breathe, it felt like someone had turned all the oxygen off. I was so dizzy that I had to focus all my attention on each and every painful step to keep from going over the edge into the void. Despite my sluggish pace on the ridge, I am proud that I still managed to catch and pass a few day hikers :-). As you near the top of the climb, just a few hundred feet shy of the summit of Hidden Peak (and it's fully stocked aid station) the course takes a cruel turn and sends you back down into Gad Valley under the Little Cloud lift and then up a long slog through a huge talus field and on to the third aid station. There were a lot of runners coming the opposite direction in this section and it was discouraging because it meant that they were on their final decent of the day only 3 miles from the finish line (and about 6 miles ahead of me). I reached the 3rd aid station and stocked up on delicious boiled potato chunks dipped in salt (an ultra delicacy), gummy bears and grabbed some gu for the road. The odd thing about the aid station was that it was only about a hundred yard downhill from the top of the tram and the aid station that doubled as #1 and #4.

The last loop reversed the previous trip down through Mineral Basin and up to Sugarloaf Pass, then took a dip back into Mineral Basin and finally climbed a long series of switchbacks up a fire road to the top of Hidden Peak and the final aid station #4. Up to this point I was playing leap frog with a few other runners – they would pass me like I was standing still (and I usually was) on the climbs, then I would rocket past them on the downhills – and on this final climb we all stuck together and chatted. Well, chatted as much as you can while sucking wind. It was nice because I had been running by myself for a long time. One guy told me that the climbs on this race were harder than most of Wasatch and more on par with Hardrock, which was very reassuring. Near the top I starting feeling better than I had all day, picked up the pace and didn't see any more runners till the finish line.

The last 4 mile descent to the start/finish line was either thankfully/unfortunately all downhill, depending on the state of your quads. Mine were in ok shape at this point and I flew down the trail. It was great to see my dad about a ½ mile from the finish line (there to alert my aunts and my mom who came out to see me that I was almost to the finish) and I bombed down the hill past him to the finish at what felt like a blistering 6 minute mile pace.

It took me a full day before I could stand up again without crippling nausea, but now two days later I'm really glad that I pushed myself through all the difficulties and finished this race. I highly recommend checking the Get High 50k out, it is worth flying to Utah for. The course was excellently marked: there were ribbons and pie plates with arrows and volunteers there to direct runners at the more confusing intersections. Besides the views, the volunteers were the best part of this race – they took great care of me and were very friendly. I'm already thinking about how much better I'll do at next years race.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Waco 5-0 50k

Start LineYou think anybody wants a roundhouse kick to the face while I'm wearing these bad boys?

The Waco 5-0 50k has tormented me for the last year. I ran it severely undertrained and underhydrated in its inaugural year, and I am most likely the reason the time limit was extended from 9 hours to 10 - Waco, Texas is not as flat as you'd think. After a strong fall season finishing my first 50 mile in Palo Duro and a couple good finishes in some 50ks I knew I was ready to come back and redeem myself.

Lap 1

As I mentioned to Bill Rumbaugh and a woman running near us named Rebekah, the second loop of a race always seems completely new to me because I run the first loop staring at my feet trying to wake up. I've been told that Cameron Park is not a safe place to be after dark, but it is absolutely beautiful during the day. The dead fish smell of the first mile along the river bank I could live without, but once you hit the first hill you don't feel like you are in Texas anymore. The hill is on a trail named Highlander, and is one of the steepest hills I've climbed outside the rockies. I started walking as soon as I reached it, remembering how I went out too fast last year. I grinned as I watched a few people run past me only to give out halfway up (heh heh heh). Highlander switchbacks up and down and over a few bridges until finally topping out at a clearing with a baseball diamond and the first aid station.

The next section of the trail is easier with rolling hills through the woods. The course was very well marked with arrows and ribbons, but there are many trail crossings and if you're staring at the ground its easy to miss a turn. That had never happened to me in an ultra until now. As I was flying down a hill, I came to an intersection with tape marking the trail to the right, but an arrow on a tree pointing straight ahead on the trail I was on. A yelled to a group of runners ahead of me that had gone straight and we decided they were going the correct way. As we reached the 6 mile marker however, we knew we went the wrong way - we must have missed about an 1/8th of a mile. By then it was too late, so I let the volunteers at the second aid station at mile 7 1/2 know and hoped I could make up the missed mileage on the next loop.

The last section of the course is my favorite. After climbing a few short hills, you run right up to a point on top of lovers leap - a 60 foot cliff overlooking the river. This course would be pretty dangerous at night. A mile or so later and the scenery changes from cedar, juniper and mesquite to bamboo of all things. After an exciting downhill through the enchanted bamboo forest, you cross a road and hit the final hill and my nemesis: Root Canal. It's not very long but it really hurts (duh) and then its an easy quarter mile downhill on the road back to the start finish area. I finished my first lap in 1:50 which is a really good time for me even considering the 5 minutes or so I was short on the course by.

Lap 2

I pulled into the aid station and didn't waste any time getting my bottle refilled. Right as the aid station attendant handed it back to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a very fit, very fast, very scantily clad female runner go by on the road. This must have triggered some deep, dark caveman part of my brain and I gave chase. Wow, she was moving! She must have been a track runner, because we covered the flat first mile of the course in under 7 minutes before I lost sight.

Starting Lap 2Do not accept checks from this man

After a mile like that, I knew I had really put some ground between me and the handfull of runners behind me. I settled in to a strong power-hike up the switchbacks and started to zone out when I saw a flash of black behind me on the trail. No, It had to be a bird or something. The next turn, same thing. This time I knew it was human, but no way any 50k runner could keep up with me after my sprint! Maybe the whole Baylor cross-country team is out here today? The third time I saw her, I knew the game was up, I recognized the pig-tails of barbara(?).

Around the first aid station, she flew past me and I knew I wouldn't see her again until the finish line. I still managed a strong pace through the next section. Appearantly the race director Tim found the spot on the trail where we got mixed up before and put a few extra arrows on the trees. I'm glad he did, because I discovered that I had missed on of the best downhills on the course. After a short climb, the trail dumps into a long, snaking ravine shaped like a half-pipe. The trail banks back and forth up the sides and I couldn't help sporting a big, stupid grin as I swooped down it ahead of some bikers.

The rest of my second loop kept that same momentum and I came in at 3:50 slowing only 10 minutes from my first loop. The best part was having my girlfriend and pit crew Lindsay waiting for me after she finished her first trail run ever, the 10 miler, in just over 2 hours (way to go)! I filled my bottle, changed socks and grabbed a PB&J sandwich as I started my last lap.

Lap 3

I knew something was wrong as soon as I left the aid station. I was taking a Succeed salt cap ever hour, and drinking my entire 24oz bottle of water between every aid station, but as the temperature started to push toward the 80s I knew it wasn't enough. Unlike all my previous races, the onset of dehydration hit me fast and hard. Suddenly my head was spinning, my legs were overly tired and heavy, my stomach was sloshing and the air around me felt hot and stale. It took every ounce of energy to push up the steeper hills now, and I had to stop and catch my breath a few times as though I were hiking at altitude. It was a little disappointing to be reduced to a walk as a few people I had passed earlier now caught up to me.

I could tell that my stomach had stopped processing. I was still downing water as fast as I could, and I was now taking a salt cap every half hour but I had completely stopped sweating and was growing more and more nauseous. Everything came to a head right before the last aid station, and I pulled over and tossed my cookies - or gummy bears in this case. Immediately aftwerward my stomach felt much better, and in the aid station the volunteer Melissa, who saved my race the year before, took great care of me again and got me rehydrated.

FinishedI may look like a demented belly dancer but I feel like a blue-ribbon hog

I was able to make up the missed mileage from my first loop here as I got off course again, this time to the confusion of the runners ahead of me as I passed them going the wrong way. The dehydration had taken its toll, and I was not able to speed up by much, but it was enough. As I was running through the bamboo forest and about to start up Root Canal - I caught up to the two runners ahead of me. My competetive spirit from earlier was back and I chased them up the hill. I passed a gentleman in black halfway up, but the other guy saw me and sped up. He turned on to the road, and we both raced at top speed down the final stretch and under the finish line banner. I wasn't able to pass him, but I finished in 6:29 - a new PR by 1 minute! It was a great finish to a tough race, and afterward I was treated to grilled hamburger goodness and stories from the NTTR veterans in the pavillion. This is one race I can't wait to come back to, thank you Tim and all the volunteers for making it happen!