Waiting for the race to start…
This was it: the Wasatch 100. The race I had been preparing for since early summer. I’m going to start by fast forwarding 20 hours into the race…
There I was, mile 64. It was about 1:30 in the morning and pitch black except for the light coming from mine and Andrew’s (my pacer) head lamps. I was at 9,500 ft elevation, and the only thought in my head was getting off that dang mountain. The back of my right knee was swollen, and my knee would hardly bend at all. I had a stick in each hand that I used as crutches to keep me moving forward. My body was so sick of Gels and Water with Nuun that I didn’t think it would be possible to stomach another. I wasn’t very coherent. I had gone through the same motion for hours upon end. Thud.. plant my sticks in the ground, hobble forward a bit. Repeat. I wondered if this was similar to what it felt like for pioneers coming across the plains. This wasn’t what I had been expecting.
Now let’s take it back many years to when I was instilled with a fascination for ultra running. Back to when I was still fresh in High School. I was a pacer for my High School coach Ty Draney while he did the Bear 100 miler. I started pacing him after mile 80 and would bring him through to the finish. It was one of the more memorable experiences I had from my childhood. I remember how cool and raw it felt. We were tackling mountains in the dead of night. The sun came up just as we began to descend the last slope toward the finish. It was awesome. At least… it was for me. I was a pacer and only had to go less than 20 miles. I should have paid more attention to Ty’s condition as he neared finishing 100 miles. It’s rough.
So now, over a decade later, here I was at the starting line for my first 100 mile race. The race started at 5:00am Friday morning and I waited there with my parents, who would be crewing me. The mood was light. I was still able to smile. We had prepared everything: drop bags, my camel pack, socks and shoes. I didn’t know what to expect of myself going in but if you could finish the race in under 24 hours you were given “Cheetah” status. So that’s what I aimed for.
With my parents at the starting line of the race
They did the count down and we were off. Everyone was talking and conversing. I found a buddy that had signed up for the race with me and we chatted for a while. Everything was good. The pack thinned out a bit as we came to the base of the mountain and we began climbing. We would climb 5,000 ft in about 5 miles, straight up the mountain.
I made it to the top right as the sun was rising and it was cool to look back and see the valley being lit up and the endless line of headlamps bobbing up the mountainside. I turned and began running along the ridge. ‘This is great’ I thought. This was exactly the kind of stuff I loved to do. I think I was in about 15th place overall for the first 20 or so miles of the race.
My High School coach Ty had told me to take it very easy at the beginning and practice patience. But I felt like I was already running at a snail’s pace and I couldn’t imagine me going any slower. We had a long downhill section so I clicked off some faster miles. 7:30, 7:14, 6:59. The pace was super comfortable and I didn’t see any benefit in going slower. This was great! This was everything I had imagined. I spent less than a minute at all the aid stations and just kept moving. I would take a gel every 45 minutes and keep up with the water and electrolytes.
I started running into trouble after mile 20. My legs began cramping a bit and I had to take it down a notch. I walked all the uphills and focused on taking in a lot of salt. People started passing me but I didn’t think too much of it.
Coming into the aid station at mile 31
I met my parents at mile 31. I was still hurting from the cramping but it wasn’t terrible. It was good to see them and I took a little longer at that aid station. They gave me more salt and made me eat more food. It was starting to get hot so I took another water bottle and went on my way. I didn’t know at the time that when I would see my parents next I would be in such a miserable condition.
Changing socks at the Aid Station
So I kept clicking through the miles. There isn’t much to say about miles 31-45 except that I just kept a pretty constant pace. The cramping wasn’t really going away but I could deal with it.
I rolled into mile 45 where I was met by my brother-in-law Andrew. He would pace me for the next 22 miles. I was walking a little more gingerly than the other runners at the aid station, but still I didn’t think much of it. I took some more salt, drank some more Pepsi (which tastes so good during an ultra run), and I was on my way with Andrew right beside me.
We passed through the 50 mile mark in good time. I completed the first 50 miles in under 12 hours which was still on pace for what I wanted.
It was right after the 50 mile mark that everything started to fall apart.
It started with me bonking. We were making our way through some switchbacks and my skin started to feel tingly and my head started to get hot. I was getting light headed. We were moving along and suddenly I couldn’t take one more step. I stopped, the edges of my vision began to turn black, and I just kind of slumped over and lay on the side of the trail.
I didn’t know how I was going to go on. I couldn’t get going. All I could do was lay there. I was totally out of it as I just kind of stared into space. Andrew tried to get me to take more gels and I eventually did so.
I decided I would try and just get to the next aid station. When I had somewhat recovered we kept moving. The trail dumped us off on the road that would take us to the next aid station. It was there that we ran into the Eastern Washington University Coach. He passed us and saw that both him and I were wearing the same shirt. A Big Sky Conference sleeveless top. He asked who I ran for and I said I used to run for Weber State. We had a good chat with him and talked about the conference and we explained how I had bonked and was having a hard time. He said “our brain is a sugar monster and we have to feed it!” He assured me I would come back from the bonk and gave me some of his water with some sort of electrolyte concoction.
He was right. I did come back from the bonk. A mile or so later I got my wits back and my energy levels were up again. Unfortunately my legs weren’t coming back. They continued to get tighter and tighter.
We made our way to Big Water Aid Station, while quoting Lord of The Rings. There are so many appropriate LOTR quotes you can whip out during an ultra race. The most accurate one is probably when Frodo and Sam are struggling to make it up Mount Doom: “Do you remember the taste of strawberries, Mr. Frodo?”
50 miles in, everyday comforts seemed like such a foreign and far-off thing. A warm bath and just relaxing on a bed seemed like it was something that was too good to be true.
We got to Big water Aid Station and realized it had taken us almost 4 hours to go just 8 miles. 2 miles per hour… Maybe it was best if I pulled out of the race there. Things weren’t getting better, and on top of that, it was starting to get dark and I didn’t have any cold weather gear. My jacket and gloves were in a drop bag at the next aid station. We hadn’t planned on me getting into Big Water this late.
While we were thinking about how and if we were going to go on without cold-weather gear, a lady came by and dropped off some hoodies, saying we could drape them over our legs to keep warm. Andrew and I looked at each other… then put on the hoodies and booked it out of there! Well, I say booked it, but more like I hobbled out of there as fast as I could. I bet I just looked like an old man who really had to pee. We told ourselves we would return the hoodies at a later station, and started making our way towards Brighton, where my family would be waiting.
The next 14 miles were one of the most miserable times I’ve had in a very long time…
I definitely couldn’t run anymore. The cramping had only gotten worse and now my leg started to swell and I was losing flexibility in my knee. Night fell upon us and we turned on our dim little head lamps to be able to see. I could only go one speed, and it wasn’t fast.
All hopes of finishing the race were dashed at this point. My legs couldn’t move and I didn’t want to risk any chance of a longer-term injury. My goal had gone from: finishing in the top 15, to finishing under 24 hours, to just finishing… and now my only goal was to get off the mountain.
When my legs got really bad Andrew went into the woods to try and find some sticks to break off for me to use as hiking poles. A couple of runners passed by and saw Andrew in the woods breaking branches. I’m sure they were pretty confused. “What are you doing!?” They asked him.
“I’m breaking sticks!” Andrew responded as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. The runners probably thought he was a runner who had snapped and gone crazy. They shrugged their shoulders and continued on their way.
The sticks actually helped a lot. I could take the weight off my legs and use my arm strength instead. We were able to go a little faster.
Still, hours would go by and we would only cover a few miles. Andrew was good at sticking salt tablets, gels, and Nuun water in my hand to make sure I kept taking them. I would mutter obscenities under my breath at him though. Here I was hobbling along like a 100-year old hermit, while he was prancing around, enjoying the trails and making me eat pills and gels.
Somehow we made it to Desolation Lake Aid Station. There was a big fire going and I limped in as they brought me warm soup. I was a wreck. That’s where I met ‘my shoulder devil’. He was an aid station worker and he got right in my face. “How are you doing, champ!?”
I muttered “not good” as I clung to my cup of soup.
“What’s your name!?”
“Trevor,” my ‘shoulder devil’ put his hand on my shoulder. “You are going to make it through this race. You got this man! You can do this!”
I wanted to punch him in the face.
“Here, take this.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a vial of a weird salt/water mixture. He squeezed several drops into my mouth. “This will help with the cramping. It’s my special recipe. Just keep eating and drinking and you got this!”
He was a very motivating person, but in my state I just wasn’t having it and I just wanted to be out of there and be on my way to Brighton. Brighton… where I could finally let all this go and be done.
“You got this!” My shoulder devil yelled again as I shuffled out of Desolation Lake. Andrew and I started climbing some switch backs. It was about 8-9 miles to Brighton. I continued the all-too familiar process of planting my sticks, hobbling a few steps, repeat.I was glad to put that Aid Station behind me, and I could just focus on…
“Trevor! You can do this man!” Out of nowhere suddenly my shoulder devil was there again! I was a quarter mile from Desolation Lake and there he was on the side of the trail, cheering me on! “You can do it! You’re a champion!” How did he get there? Who is this guy?
I still wonder if that guy was really real.
On we went, covering ground little by little. Brighton was visible now, at the bottom of the mountain. We could see the bright lights.That’s where I could finally stop…
We made it to the last Aid Station before Brighton. We huddled around a heater inside a tent while they brought me ramen noodle soup. Another ultra runner was in the corner, curled up in the fetal position while his pacer was trying to keep him from falling asleep.
“How many miles until Brighton?”
“5 miles. 3 of those miles are on trail, then you make it to the road where it’s another 2 miles to Brighton.”
I looked at Andrew and told him to run ahead. Get to Brighton and find my family. Tell them to take the car and drive to the trailhead where the trail meets the road. That’s where I would meet them and finally be done. He asked if I was totally sure I wanted to DNF (Did Not Finish). Yes, I didn’t think twice about it.
So Andrew sprinted ahead. I gathered my two sticks and started crutching my way down the mountain. The process was still slow and miserable. At one point and older runner lady probably in her 40’s or 50’s passed me and said: “Oh, you’re doing great honey, keep going!”
I looked over at her with the wrath of a thousand bee stings, and I just wanted to exclaim “I’m a nationally ranked runner!” But it was no use at this point, I already looked pretty pathetic. She passed on by and continued down the mountain while I continued my crippled pace.
I realize there are a few levels I draw from when I’m racing. The 1st level is my training and fitness. If my training has been going well and I’m fit, then I’m confident. 2nd level is my athleticism. Even if training hasn’t been going well, I’m naturally pretty athletic and can do well for myself. 3rd level is being mentally strong. Even if I’m hurting I can be mentally strong, be positive, and know I can make it through this.
63 miles into this ultra race I found out there’s a 4th level I had to dig down to. At this point, everything else had failed me. My training and fitness? I hadn’t done enough coming into this race. I wasn’t prepared. My athleticism? My knee wouldn’t bend. My athleticism wasn’t helping me now. My mental strength? The only thought in my head was to get to Brighton. I wasn’t being mentally strong. So the only thing keeping me going and and getting me through that stretch was the 4th level I found. And I call it the Human Spirit. When everything else fails you, there’s still the will to keep going that will push you forward. You do it because you must.
It took me a full hour to cover that last mile but I made it to the road. My family met me by the trailhead, and in the words of my sister, I looked like: “that one monster from The Dark Crystal.”
Hobbling into Brighton…
I’ve never been so relieved to be done racing. I slid into the car and we went back to Brighton where I filled out the DNF papers. My friend Mike Hardy was there, too. He was supposed to pace me from Brighton to the finish. Part of me is glad he didn’t have to put up with me for that stretch but it still would have been fun to have him as a pacer. He had to wait a long time at Brighton Aid Station where he described the atmosphere as “a base camp for Mt. Everest.”
Eating up at Brighton with pacer Andrew
Overall it was a pretty extreme and emotional night. I wasn’t expecting the race to be like this. It was a humbling and learning experience. Once again I rediscovered the thrill and raw experience of ultra running that I had felt long ago, but it was different now that I was doing it for myself. It hurt… a lot. But it’s rewarding, and it takes you to limits you don’t normally have to confront, and that’s good.
There’s no one else I would rather have done it with than my family. Having them there made the trek that much more meaningful and I’m glad they shared in a bit of the agony with me. It was something that I could learn and grow from, and possibly tackle again some day in the future.
Posing with my walking sticks the day after the race