My Greatest Failure: Barkley Marathons 2016

You will note the heavy use of foreshadowing in this report.

I was anxious and elated when I found out I’d be running the Barkley Marathons for the first time. From New Years through March, I chose training over social life or sleep whenever possible. A typical peak training week for me involved four days in a row of two hours after work hiking on a treadmill set to 15% grade wearing a 16 pound weight vest, followed by maybe a day of rest, then two days of 3-6 hours of hill repeats at 20-40% grade in my fully loaded race pack. My recovery day would be spent on the treadmill, starting next week’s progression.

I’d never trained harder for anything, but I knew deep down it almost certainly wouldn’t be enough, especially after a minor knee injury during a February fifty-miler cost me a couple key weeks. At the same time, I knew I had to put that aside and believe that everything would come together and lead me to somehow become the 15th ever Barkley Marathons 100 mile finisher. The worst result I could imagine was having a perfect run at my loop or loops only to stop short, unprepared physically, mentally, or logistically for all five.

The good news is that this did not happen.

Whoever said Barkley was a cheap race is a filthy goddam liar.
Whoever said Barkley was a cheap race is a filthy goddam liar.

I arrived in the greater Wartburg metropolitan area a couple days early to give myself time to do a bit of last minute shopping and check out the park. I took a nice walk up to the lookout tower Wednesday, thinking it would help me get the lay of the land. Thursday I wandered up Bird Mountain, then around and back down to camp on Quitter’s Road. After all, this would be the only time I’d ever let myself run that particular trail.

When I got back to camp from my motel at noon on Friday, it had gone from nearly empty and quiet to packed and bustling. Not only runners and their crew but the media, inspired no doubt by the recent release of an excellent documentary, had descended en masse. There may have only been 15-20 reporters and documentarians, but they were pretty noticeable at a race capped at 40 runners. I do not question their presence, though. Those who succeed at the Barkley deserve to have their achievements shouted to the world.

Much is made of the sharp humor surrounding Barkley’s rituals. Like the rituals themselves, it seems to serve a purpose. If everything at the campsite were treated as seriously as the race itself inevitably must be, the atmosphere would be insufferable.

Similarly, our race director lazarus lake seems to have become some sort of larger than life Dr. Frankenstein figure in the eyes of the internet and the press. I think he enjoys that, though, so I won’t try to disabuse you of the notion.

Some pre-race highlights: receiving our race bibs (“BARKLEY MARATHONS: WHERE DREAMS GO TO DIE”) and computer projections (“Starchy Grant: Will not run reverse loops for religious reasons”). Finding a braille card in the race packet with a verbal warning that one of the books would in fact be printed in braille[1]. A cake at the campfire potluck frosted in bright sawbriers and big, cheerful letters with “GOOD LUCK MORONS.”


It didn’t take long before everyone knew who this year’s human sacrifice was. Amidst all the teasing, I never saw anyone being anything but friendly and patient with this person. I won’t out them, but I will say they ended up doing just as well as a number of other virgins.

As night fell, I lay down in the back of my rental SUV for a fitful night’s sleep, knowing it could be anywhere from three to fifteen hours before the race began. If I poked my head up, I could see lights moving around up at HQ, but I didn’t know whether it was a camera crew shooting B-roll or laz getting ready to blow the conch.

My all-in-one bed and aid station for the weekend.
My all-in-one bed and aid station for the weekend.

I woke up in daylight terrified I’d somehow missed it, but as soon as I poked my head up I could see another competitor moving around camp unhurriedly. After taking my time eating and changing into race gear, I wandered up to campsite 12 to see what was going on.

The moment I got there, lazarus lake emerged through a veil of license plates into a throng of cameras and boom mics. He looked at his watch, raised a conch shell to his lips, and…

Nothing. He laughed and smoothed out his mustache. On the second blow, there was more of a “pfffft.” “I had this working really great yesterday,” he said, and tried again. Finally, on the third or fourth blow, it was official: B minus one hour.

The only problem was now I had nothing left to do to prepare. I think I was interviewed three times in that last hour. The first filmmaker asked me to “stretch or do whatever it is” I normally do. I don’t usually stretch before a race, but it felt nice. Someone from CNN set his camera up and pointed it at me just as I pulled out a stick of Chamois Butt’r and used it as advertised. Given a few extra minutes with nothing left to do but obsess over pack weight, I pulled out that one extra Clif bar I’d stuck in the night before. That still left me with about 5000 calories: a solid buffer to get me through up to maybe 18 hours in case something went wrong.

It was even one of the good Sierra Trail Mix flavor bars.

At 10:42am the starting cigarette was lit, and we were off. As I passed the gate I said, “Thanks, laz. See you soon.”

My lungs had some trouble warming up on the first climb, and I soon fell to near the back of the pack, puffing on my inhaler[2]. I was determined not to be scraped yet if I could help it: I’d heard many times the importance of sticking with a veteran during your first Barkley run. Of course, I’d also heard how important it is to pick the right veteran.

I stayed with a small group down through Fangorn Forest to book one, then started flying down Jacque Mate Hill after Jim Ball when I was tripped up by my own veteran mistake. Honestly, not tying my shoes tightly enough is a rookie move, but I seem to make it at every race. My ankles were flying all over the place on this steep off-trail descent, and I knew I couldn’t wait long to stop and retie. When I did, Jim was long gone, and I was on my own.

I missed the boundary marker at the bottom, although I probably wasn’t off by much. Stupidly, I decided to press on and make sure it wasn’t around the bend before backtracking. After a bit, John Kelly came running up to me from a seemingly impossible direction, saying he’d just lost half an hour looking for book two. I told him where I was coming from, he pointed out Jury Ridge, and then he was gone.

At this point, I had a quandary. I could follow John up Jury Ridge to the top, then descend on the right bearing to begin Hiram’s Vertical Smile. However, I was supposed to take the North Boundary Trail up to Jury Ridge before dropping down. If I followed John, I’d be cutting the course, but if I backtracked I could miss it again.

This is when I made the first of two disastrous decisions: I backtracked partway, then began making my way uphill on a bearing to intersect the NBT. I believe this was correct, except for one little problem: I’d never seen the Boundary Trail before. I knew it was described as a candy-ass trail, but I didn’t yet know how liberal laz might or might not be with that description. So when I hit an old overgrown jeep road, I didn’t know if that was it or not, but I put my compass to work finding the right line to drop off Jury Ridge.

This, of course, had been the second disastrous decision. As I had reached neither the North Boundary Trail nor the summit of Jury Ridge, this descent led me to the wrong valley, where I spent a long time following plausible but hopeless directions to the next book.

Finally I realized my mistake and tromped on back up the hill. This time when I hit the jeep road I tried to use it to cut over to the NBT, but after a while it petered out on a little spur. As I was standing there working out my move, I saw the last thing I expected: runners. After all that, there was still someone out there behind me.

I cut over a few hundred feet to join Rhonda-Marie and her guide runner Christian on the sweet, sweet North Boundary Trail. They weren’t much for conversation, though, as Christian was busy describing trail features and Rhonda-Marie was busy listening. So I pressed on.

From there I had only a little trouble dropping down from the right place on the right line to the right spot to find the next book. However, I’d spent five hours in all between books one and two. With a 13:20 total cutoff to find all 13 books and get back to camp and begin loop two, my race was over.

I might have come to Barkley hoping deep down that I could pull off at least a three-loop fun run finish, but I also came knowing that, in truth, the odds were against me, as easier versions of the course have thwarted hundreds of better runners than I over the years. In truth, as much as I might have hoped it, that had never been my primary goal. I showed up at Frozen Head State Park with one thing in mind above all: to run until I was told I was finished.

So I pressed on.

Somewhere after book three, I almost started to feel sorry for myself. Then I remembered what it said on my race bib, and I started laughing instead.



It was long dark by the time I go to the Garden Spot, and I’d gotten a bit turned around and wasn’t sure I was in the right place. Before long a couple of headlamps came up the road: Jared Campbell and Gary Robbins, lapping me. I’m used to it from Gary, at least. I think he’s lapped me four times in all at HURT. They pointed out the book I was pretty much standing next to, and we got our pages and ran together to the water jugs where I let them go ahead without me. Jared was one veteran I didn’t mind being scraped by.

A few minutes later I saw three new headlamps coming toward me. A trio of runners I hadn’t seen since book one asked if I could help them find Quitter’s Road. I declined, but invited them to join me in looking for the next book. They declined.

Route finding on Stallion Mountain at night wasn’t easy, but I was starting to get the hang of following both my compass and tracks of the runners ahead of me. At the bottom of the Barley Mouth descent, when I saw a pair of headlamps shining up from below me, I was confident enough to call out directions before continuing on, amazed to be passing anyone nearly twelve hours into what should have been at most a twelve-hour loop.

But then I thought better of it. If there was someone else out there having as much or more trouble than I was, I figured I should at least hang out long enough to make sure they were OK. And anyway, I was no longer in any real hurry. Maybe we could team up and avoid any more major navigation mistakes.

This was either the best or the worst decision I made all weekend. If I had to lay odds, I’d say both.

Brad was a long-time ultrarunner who had been out to Frozen Head for the Barkley Fall Classic, but he had no wilderness navigation experience and he was having trouble with the climbs after his trekking poles broke somewhere around book one. Kimberly, on the other hand, was having more and more trouble descending as the course beat on her legs, and she’d lost her map. She’d also run BFC and, more importantly, last year’s Barkley, where she’d made it as far as Garden Spot, just a mile or so back up the mountain as the butt slides.

Together we moved on to Leonard’s Buttslide, one of the most enjoyable hills on the course, with one of the most elusive book locations. As we were searching near the bottom, John Kelly lapped us, and the four of us briefly worked together to find it. We would not be able to keep up with him on the ascent, but as with Jared and Gary a few miles back, this was to be expected.

Bobcat Rock, Hiram’s Pool and Spa, and Stu’s Folly gave us no trouble, but something went wrong with our next descent and we didn’t see the highway after crossing the river. Many important Barkley landmarks such as streams and trees can be easily misinterpreted, but Highway 116 is not one of these. We had just returned from a failed bit of scouting in one direction or the other when we saw a new headlamp getting ready to cross the river toward us.

It was Andrew Thompson, a past Barkley finisher. Surely if anyone knew where he was going, it was A.T. We followed him east along the south bank before, without a moment’s hesitation, he appeared to dive up a monumental climb.

All he had said was that were too far left – or was it west? – and we’d have to cut back over on the road. I felt good that I was able to keep up this Barkley legend on a relentless 30%+ grade, but presumably his legs had worked harder to cover more distance in the same time I’d been using mine. When he paused to rest against a tree I pulled out my map and checked our bearing.

“I think we’re here,” I said, pointing out a short cut close to the road, and he nodded. I was not yet able to grasp the magnitude of our mistake. Eventually I stopped worrying about keeping up with A.T. and waited for Kim and Brad to catch up, and after confirming he hadn’t disappeared onto an invisible highway just over the next rise, we turned around and descended well over 500 feet back the way we came.

Later, much later, back in camp, we would learn that A.T. had led us up Little Hell, once most notorious of Barkley climbs. It has not been on course for at least ten years.

Back at the river, we started over on our search for the highway, more methodically this time. We could only possibly be too far west or too far east, so all we needed to do was try one direction, then the other. We went west along the riverbank until we found ourselves at an impassable gorge. Somehow, I still could not bring myself to lift my eyes from a small area on the map surrounding our target to locate the matching terrain, but it would not have mattered much. There was still nothing to do but try the east.

We reached a confluence, and before we could reorient ourselves we saw a new pair of headlamps and made our way over to them. It was Ty and Jason, cruising on loop two. We all headed south to where we knew the road would have to be, although we were still a ways off from where we wanted to meet it. Ty and Jason left us at the road, running down the shoulder to the turn-out we’d been looking for.

Once on the other side, attempting to navigate the new hill beyond Testicle Spectacle, we caught up with them again and spent some time fighting through laurel thickets together. After a time Ty asked us if we’d gotten our pages from the book five minutes back – not what we wanted to hear. We must have been so intent on catching up to them that we went right past book seven.

There was no shortage of confusion and frustration as we worked to find our way back over the hump of the ridge, looking for a faint trail of footprints to bring us back to the most vaguely described book on the course. If it hadn’t been for Mig and Dale coming up the ridge for their second loop and passing us just after the book, we might have had to descend all the way to Testicle Spectacle before we could usefully retrace our steps.

As we reached the top of the hill, day broke. This was both a relief and an immense disappointment. The light would help immensely, but the sun had just risen on day two of our first loop, and we were barely more than halfway done.

Kimberly’s legs were not up for the short, steep descent above Raw Dog Falls, and she let herself sit and slide her way down the forest floor. This seemed to be working OK, but after I reached the bottom and began to scout ahead, I heard her call for help. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but when she called again I turned back to find a massive splinter a quarter-inch across sticking straight out of her lower leg.

“It won’t come out,” she said. I knelt down, counted to three, and pulled on it. She was right. I counted to three again and pulled again: my hand moved, but the splinter didn’t.

She didn’t seem happy with me at this point, but I apologized again, braced my other hand against her shin, and pulled hard and long. Finally, it popped out, and she had a new wound to join her brier scratches. We sat for a minute or two to recover, and then we pressed on.


We somehow missed Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall, which I regret, and while Brad split off to backtrack and find it, Kim and I chose to backtrack from where we were near the second highway crossing to book eight. Brad caught up soon after, but took his time following us back up to the highway and Pighead Creek. We were worried he was getting ready to give up. He thought we were getting ready to ditch him. Neither was the case.

As we climbed to the Prison Mine Trail, one of the easiest sections of the course to navigate, Kimberly nonetheless started to question our line. It didn’t seem right that we could be climbing so high, but still have Rat Jaw to come without a major descent in between. I turned back from my position in the lead and looked over her shoulder.

“This is right,” I said, “I promise. Look behind you.” Behind her was Jennilyn, coming around the corner as she cruised up the hill  on her way to finish up a successful second loop. Once again, I found myself picking up speed as I fell in with a runner who was lapping us, and once again it’s hard to say how much I let her pull ahead so I could stick with the other two and how much she simply left me in the dust. She was clearly a woman on a mission to squeak it in under the cutoff, though, and I won’t pretend I would have kept up with her for long.

At long last we reached Rat Jaw, and I whooped with joy and all but sprinted up the hill. I might have been fifteen hours behind schedule, but I had been waiting for years to climb this fucker, and I would be damned if I wouldn’t enjoy every minute of it.

Up at the lookout tower, some of the water jugs were still frozen even in full daylight. When the other two arrived, we started a careful accounting of our remaining calories. Kim and I were running painfully low – we’d already been rationing for a few hours – but Brad still enough that he offered to hand off a Clif bar or two. Stranger still, as I was counting up my few remaining gels and chews, he pulled a baggie full of mac and cheese out of his pack, complete with plastic fork, and passed it around. I only had two bites, but it was among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

This is the memory I will carry most clearly from my first running of the Barkley Marathons: the lookout tower is, aside from the first and last miles of the loop, the easiest place on the course to quit and take an easy trail back to camp. In spite of everything, in spite of Kimberly’s beaten and bleeding legs, in spite of Brad’s broken poles and slow climbs, in spite of my dead dreams and frustrated hopes, none of us quit. None of us even said the word “quit.” After all, no one had told us we were finished.

And so we pressed on.

Descending Rat Jaw we had the new experience of getting lapped by runners on loop three, each of whom had the bonus fun of climbing Rat Jaw from the bottom. When we saw John Kelly down near the prison, I jokingly asked him if he’d gotten turned around – loop three is run in reverse, and getting even that far is an accomplishment most Barkers don’t manage. I guess his mind was still on our chance meeting by a creek so many hours before – he thanked me for getting him straightened out. Well, you’re welcome, John.

Traversing the drainage tunnel under the penitentiary was fantastic. That might be the only time you hear me say something positive about prisons in America, so soak it up.

On the other side, I decided to try climbing the chute to keep my feet dry. First I tossed my poles up onto the lawn above. Then I tried tossing my pack up, only to have it land on my head instead. Twice. Finally I got it up (no comments from the peanut gallery), and started using my long neglected rock climbing skills to chimney up. It seemed to be going well until my hamstring cramped in a non-negotiable fashion two thirds up. I got my feet wet.

Climbing The Bad Thing, I somehow spaced on the fact that we were headed for the Needle’s Eye at the top, and so forgot a piece of navigation advice that would have saved us a few minutes finding book 11, but it didn’t turn out too badly. Descending Zip Line, however, we (okay, mostly I) made a bad decision that put us on a parallel line. While not so disastrous as descending to the wrong valley, this is perhaps the most confusing place to be. Your compass tells you you’re doing everything right, but the course instructions no longer match up, and instead of simply running downhill to the next landmark you end up scouring every tree for a hidden book when you still have half a mile or more to go. Near the bottom we bumped into Dale on his third loop, who helped straighten us out.

I don’t know if Big Hell is the hardest climb on the course, but with all its false summits, making it the last climb on the course is… well, clearly it was the right decision.

Somewhere around half or two-thirds of the way, sitting to rest and let the others catch up, I cried out with joy, realizing only a moment too late I might have given them false hope that I’d spotted the summit. In fact, what I’d spotted was just as sweet: a second gel left over in my pack. I could eat now, and again at the summit. I sure missed solid food, though.

Kim sat down next to me and ate some of the Clif bar Brad had given her. I might have been visibly drooling. It was even one of the good Sierra Trail Mix flavor bars, too.

Further up the mountain, we spotted Jennilyn descending the next ridgeline over and called out to her. It looked like she was heading the wrong way altogether, getting off to a bad start on her reverse navigation. Worse yet, when she met up with us, she told us she didn’t have a headlamp packed for the loop. Kimberly handed hers off without hesitation.

Finally, after more false summits than I can count, I spotted it: the final book. I grabbed it, tore out my page, and burst into tears. I was simply overcome. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t upset. I was just overcome with pure, unfiltered, unnamable emotion.

And then I ate my last gel, my very last literal ounce of food. We still had a few miles to go down the switchbacks to the campsite.

And so we pressed on.

Eventually we came out to parking area and a road. After more than 31 hours, it almost didn’t look right. Soon we were approaching the campsite, and we didn’t have any idea what kind of reception to expect, but before we got there Hiram, the many-year veteran who had scraped us so long ago, was high-fiving us out the window of his car. When we reached the bathhouse, in sight of our goal, we joined hands as we’d planned and started to run. With a small crowd that felt like a stadium around us cheering, we reached the yellow gate, and touched it, together.

Thirty-one hours, fifty-nine minutes, nine seconds. The slowest successful Barkley loop in history.

“Did we make the cut-off?” Brad asked.

laz, in turned, asked if we knew our pace. Officially, after all, we’d only covered 20 miles, although we guessed that in reality it was anywhere between 40 and 50 with up to 20,000 feet of climb.

Danger Dave played taps for us, one at a time, but before we left the gate I promised laz I’d had more fun Out There than anyone else that weekend. Maybe the five-loopers can contest this, but I still believe it to be true.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.
Finish photos care of Sean Ranney.

I try to learn something from every key race, and the lessons from this year’s Barkley will be stewing for years to come. Here, however, is one thing I learned for sure:

No matter how lost and hopeless I think I am, I can still be of use to someone else.

And I can still have a shitload of fun.

P.S.: If you’d rather hear me talk about this than read, I was interviewed for Ultrarunner Podcast. I don’t really advocate running badly as a route to stardom, but it sure beats not running at all.

1: Presumably in fairness to Rhonda-Marie, Barkley’s first blind runner.

2: I try to learn something from every key race. At Western States, I learned I have asthma.

My DNF is Bigger Than Your Finish: Bigfoot 200 2015-08-07

I’m 150 miles into the Bigfoot 200 and, remarkably, the only problem I have with my feet is that some asshole keeps walking on them. Over and over. Hundreds of thousands of times. Surely he’ll stop sometime soon, right?

The good news is that I have a brand new pair of running shoes, a full size bigger than I normally wear, waiting for me at the next aid station. The bad news is I still have to climb 2500′ feet up Elk Peak and a little ways down the other side before I get there. The climb isn’t particularly tough, at least not by Bigfoot standards, but it is full of maddening false summits, and I’m beginning to run low on patience. I find myself composing a Least Favorite Mountains List, Unabridged:

1. Elk Peak

I’m running with Heather, and at this point we’re pretty sure we’re the last two runners in the field. She runs out of water before me, so I share my last few sips with her. As we near the summit we can hear booming thunder from what we think is the next ridge over, but we can’t see the flashes to tell how far away it is or if it’s moving our way. By the time we reach the short, steep out-and-back to the exposed peak, there are dark clouds above us, but still no more than a few drops of rain, so we decide to leave our trekking poles behind and go for it. The approach is steep enough that on the way back down I’ll be grabbing onto tree branches to slow myself.

At the summit we can tell the lightning is still at least one ridge over, and I know from looking at the elevation chart earlier the Klickitat aid station can’t be much more than a mile away, all downhill. Still, it’s steep enough that it’s hard to go as fast as I want, and I’m thirsty enough that I’m starting to wonder if today’s the day I’ll find out what it’s like to drink my own urine. That thought is just starting to transition from a joke to a worry when I round a switchback and shout up the trail to Heather, “I see it!” A moment later my friend Bull is shouting my name as I come down out of the forest.

There was a certain rhythm to the Bigfoot 200: as the race wore on, each new segment would start out with a major boost from the aid station before it, but halfway through it would become its own distinct, increasingly epic, challenge. Difficulties came in all kinds of ways, but they came without fail.

Mile 30 came after several hours trekking through the blast zone of Mount Saint Helens, boulder hopping through a lava-rock talus field, then traversing steep canyons of ash as I circumnavigated the volcano. After crossing a series of shallow ashy washes, I discovered I was coming into the aid station from the wrong direction. This meant backtracking a mile to the turn I’d somehow missed, then running another five miles to complete that leg of the course correctly. This mistake only added two miles or so, but made for a couple of discouraging hours.

There’s a famous quote from elite ultrarunner Karl Meltzer: “100 miles is not that far.” And of course that’s bullshit, pure macho swagger. You can’t run 100 miles without some suffering, some risk, and a ton of commitment. After even having attempted a 200, though, he’s right. When you run a 100, you wake up, you start running, and at some point, you’re done. When you run a 200, you wake up, you start running, days pass, things change both inside you and out, you stop running whether or not you want to, and at some point, maybe, it’s done with you.

I got 90 minutes of sleep at the Coldwater Lake aid station at mile 46, the only full REM cycle I’d hit in the race, and left in time to enjoy the sunrise as I climbed out of the basin. The whole second day would be marked with spectacular alpine views (and the occasional stretch of treacherous footing). The second night would be marked by a light cold rain, and while it didn’t last long it soaked the long grass that stretched across the next few miles of narrow, rutted trail, soaking me with every step. This was the first major low point as I chided myself for ditching the rain pants from my pack at the last minute and tried to remember if I’d packed a change of clothes at the next aid station, mile 90.

Fortunately I had, and once I’d changed and relaxed in front of a propane heater for a few minutes I felt much better. I asked a race volunteer to wake me up after 90 minutes and went over to the sleep station to lay down. Unfortunately, they confused me with another runner and woke me after 45 minutes, and I got up groggy and confused, rushing to get out of there. I only made it a mile down the trail before I realized I needed more sleep. I pulled out my phone, set an alarm for 20 minutes, and was out like a light, but awake again long before it went off. For the rest of the race, the only sleep I’d get would be like this, in five to fifteen minute bursts on the side of the trail.

On the ride up from Oakland, I asked Bull why he runs 200s. He said it’s because he learns so much about himself. This would be his sixth in a year. I guess there’s a lot to learn, but not all of those lessons are easy, and not all of them are good.

It was the afternoon of the third day when I hit the Lewis River trail, a gently rolling path that winds its way through shady waterfall views and roaming packs of families and college students, none of whom can seem to understand why someone wearing a race bib would be moving so slowly. I couldn’t understand why the aid station would be taking so long to appear. When it finally did, I learned that I only had nine and a half hours to make it 19 miles, and over a mile uphill, to Council Bluff. I refueled and took off running, hooking up with another runner named Reed for four miles of steep rolling trails. Finally I realized I was overheating and sat down to rest, insisting Reed go on alone.

I was able to cover the next 15 miles in just enough time, blazing into the aid station ten minutes under the cutoff, only to learn that it had been changed after I left Lewis River. This meant I had plenty of time to rest up before heading back out. I should have used more of it.

The next section, even though it was relatively short and easy, was where things got bad. Even though it was not where my race ended, it was where I hit bottom. It’s because of what happened on my way to Chain of Lakes that I’m not sure 200 mile mountain runs like this are really something people should do. My experience might not have been typical, but from talking to other runners about what happens after three nights of running, it wasn’t too unusual, or even as bad as things can get. I’m still shaken up just thinking about it.

Sometime after sunrise, I made the left turn off a flat gravel road onto a narrow trail that marked the last two miles to the aid station. My sense of time was shot, but I knew that I was moving painfully slowly, and that for some time I’d been seemingly uncontrollably making strange sounds, grunts and hoots, as I made my way. Worse, I’d been talking to myself in a strange, antagonistic way that I felt somewhat disconnected from. The words coming out of my mouth weren’t a surprise, but they weren’t intended, either.

When I finally came to a sign on the trail saying there was one mile left to the aid station, I knew I’d missed the cutoff. I didn’t pull out my phone to check the time, I hadn’t done so for hours, and I couldn’t tell how high the sun was through the tall trees, but I was moving so slowly I had to be. It was decided. It was a fact, as real as if I’d just been told by the race director herself.

First I broke down sobbing, gutted that I’d come so far and now my race was over because I was just too slow. Then, for lack of a better word, I threw a tantrum, wailing and tossing my trekking poles around, tearing plants out of the ground and smashing them, like a badly behaved five year old. My rational mind was gone, worn away by 71 hours of continual effort and sleep deprivation, and I don’t much like what was left behind.

When I finally got to the aid station, I just sat down without speaking or looking anyone in the eye. I found out I still had two hours before the cutoff and, after all I’d just put myself through, I felt devastated. That meant I’d have to keep going and, worse yet, I’d have plenty of time to make it to Klickitat, where I’d have to keep going again. But after sitting, eating, and being around company for a while, I felt much better, and I wouldn’t go back to such a dark place again.

Sometime around mile 100 I realized my quads were starting to bother me for the first time, and I congratulated myself on how well I was pacing myself. If I was right and my pacing was good, my training was off. In either case, I was too slow. You can’t run a 200 mile mountain race with a 108 hour cutoff at a two mile per hour average and hope to finish. I’ve done great at tough 100s like HURT pushing the cutoffs this way, but in a mountain 200, the odds of nothing big going wrong over the course of four and a half days are practically zero. I came so close I can still taste it, but with the strategy and conditioning I started the race with, maybe that was the best I could ever hope for.

It turned out the real crux of the race would come after my bonus miles, after my frigid pants-wetting, after my long dark sunrise of the soul, after my least favorite mountain. If you talk to anyone who ran the late miles of Bigfoot 200, they will tell you about the horrors of the Klickitat to Twin Sisters leg: 5,000 feet of climbing, much of it in hands-and-knees steep bursts, over 17 overgrown, undermarked miles. I got to do it at night, alone, exhausted. Normally I enjoy this sort of terrain, but even at the moments when I was energized from a nap it was such slow going that I started to despair of making the 4:30am cutoff at Twin Sisters, mile 175.

At 4:00am, I realized that, without having seen any of the major course landmarks, the aid station could be half a mile or five miles away. I sprinted off down the trail, fighting my way through brush along a ridgeline, up and down steep rollers, finally coming to a stop halfway up a 30% grade at 4:30am. I hadn’t made it. They might have changed this cutoff too, or they might decide to let me through anyway, but either way I’d been too slow. I sat down to rest, and woke up twenty minutes later with my ankle hurting like hell. The adrenaline was gone; here came reality.

It turned out I was about three miles from Twin Sisters at a formation called the Cispus when this happened. A volunteer named Jim who had been walking another runner out from the aid station to the junction help walk me in, which was good, because even using my trekking poles as crutches I was moving about half a mile an hour. He confirmed that they had removed the cutoff; if I hadn’t made that last push and hurt my foot, I could have made it past Twin Sisters to the last two relatively easy legs of the course and a nearly guaranteed finish. Unlike when I’d convinced myself my race was over the previous morning, now I just felt drained.

Even though things did not go as planned, and I have serious reservations about putting the human mind through such stresses, a huge part of me is sad it’s over. I didn’t need to finish this one to experience incredible highs or to see miles and miles – hell, days and days – of unforgettable views. I don’t know that I could honestly recommend that anyone take on a challenge like this. I’ll be digesting this one for a long time. I’m also pretty sure this won’t be my last.

Thoughts on DNFing at Bighorn

I’ve been lax in writing up my race reports recently. Looking back, it all started a year ago when I finished Western States and realized I had surprisingly little to say about it: it went well, I had a great time, I’m glad I got to run States. Who cares?

If anything, I think it’s more important to reflect on and record the runs that don’t go so well, since these are the runs with the most, and most valuable, lessons to offer. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on my most recent DNF at the Bighorn 100.

1. Heat

I underestimated and underprepared for the afternoon heat. Most of my research led me to believe that nighttime cold was the biggest concern, especially with thunderstorms forecast this year, but the first day of the race was in the 80s and humid. I did no heat training in the last few weeks before the race. I felt relatively comfortable grinding up the first big climb, but I was not acclimated, and it cost me.

2. Hills

Over the last few months I’ve done tons of steep hills, but not a lot of long, grinding climbs. This helped me on the toughest part of the course coming up out of Footbridge on day two, but by then I was already too far behind.

3. Pacing

This was also a mixed bag. I started all the way at the back with the intent of taking it slow through the first long climb, but after a few miles I felt too good in spite of the sweat dripping down my face and tucked in behind a woman who was taking the initiative to pass slower ascenders, even though I knew better. Correlation may not be causation, but it’s interesting that we dropped together too, 70 miles and 25 hours later.

4. Altitude

The course wasn’t quite high enough (about 5000-10000 feet) to cause me altitude sickness, but it was certainly high enough to increase the amount of energy I burned, and I especially noticed on that first grinding 14 mile climb.

The long, hot, beautiful first climb of the Bighorn 100
The long, hot, beautiful first climb of the Bighorn 100

5. Salt

When I pulled into the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13, all of these factors combined to ambush me with the worst calf cramps I’ve ever had while running. I took a couple salt tablets from the water table, but somehow didn’t think to grab more for the trail. The cramping had subsided by the time I pulled into Cow Camp six miles later, though, so I didn’t think much of it and ran on through.

Maybe 200 yards out of the Cow Camp aid station, my foot caught a rock, and as I stumbled and tried to right myself not one but both of my calves seized up. As I rested in the dirt and thought about backtracking to pick up more salt, another runner tripped on the same rock and went down clutching his calf. Obviously whatever I had was going around.

6. Weight

My legs had recovered by the time I pulled into Footbridge at mile 30, but I was no longer as far ahead of the cutoffs as I wanted. I put on tights and a dry shirt, and loaded up my pack with nighttime gear.

Part of my plan for Bighorn was to test gear I’d use at Bigfoot 200 in August, so I didn’t want to go too light, but as I started the next long, grinding climb to the turnaround at Jaws, I spent some time thinking about where I could shave a few ounces.

Jaws, as I had been warned, was carnage. Runners who had arrived sometime before me were flagging down rides out or shivering by the fire talking about how there was no way they could make the next cutoff. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

7. Dolphins

About two hours and eight miles later, the leader of the fifty-mile race caught up with me as the rocky, rolling high country trail began to drop more steeply downhill. His race had begun an hour ago at Jaws. Not long after, the rest of the fast fifty-milers began streaming past me. Every last one of them was friendly and supportive.

I’d dreaded this moment. It had been bad enough stepping off trail to let all the faster, less doomed hundred-milers go by the other way as they came back from the turnaround before me. But now this, all these fast young muscular fucks, these, these sprinters–

A few days before this year’s HURT 100, I had the amazing privilege to be snorkeling in Hawaii near Kona when a pod of wild dolphins showed up at the reef and hung out for at least an hour thirty feet below us tourists. Every few minutes they’d come up for air, and if you timed and angled it right and kicked like hell, for a few split seconds it really felt like you were swimming with them.

That’s what it felt like, running down the mountain with these fast fifty-milers.

8. Liquid Lunch

When I bottomed out back at Footbridge, mile 66, I’d made up an hour on the descent. I ditched my night gear and began climbing three steepest part of the course, affectionately known as The Wall. From here the course ruled and gently ascended for seven or eight miles. I pounded caffeine and tried to stay focused.

In the hard push down the mountain, though, I’d had trouble getting enough food down, even in gel form. I normally avoid liquid calories like Perpetuum or Tailwind during ultras, preferring to keep things simple when I don’t have a crew, but they could have made a big difference here.

9. Dust

As my fourth or fifth wind died down, I rolled up on the dustiest section of the course, the same area my legs had been cramping the day before. I was able to put a stop some unpleasant coughing fits with my albuterol inhaler, but it thoroughly blocked my momentum. I now had a bit over two hours to go eight miles before the next cutoff, and I couldn’t seem to get started again.

10. Beware the Chair

When I pulled into the next aid station, still six miles before the 29-hour cutoff, I misread my watch and thought I’d somehow already missed it. It wasn’t until after I’d been sitting and resting for a minute that I learned I still had 90 minutes, but I no longer felt hopeful or motivated to keep going. In retrospect, making the next cutoff was unlikely, but certainly possible, and I wish I’d continued on as soon as I’d found out. Instead, I
hitched a ride on the back of an ATV once the aid station shut down for the day.

All in all, my biggest mistakes lay in underestimating the course and what I showed up expecting would be my tenth 100-mile finish. I know I’ll look back on the Bighorn 100 and remember the beauty of the mountains, but when I remember my disappointment, I hope to remember these lessons too.

More Hurt, Less Suffering: HURT 100 2015-01-17

I’m a sucker for HURT. I’m only a week out from my third running of one of the hardest of all traditional 100 mile footraces[1], and instead of moaning over the soreness in my feet or the mass of knots in my leg muscles, I can’t stop thinking about how much I love this event. The beauty of the Hawaiian rainforest, the difficulty of the steep, technical jungle trails, the enthusiasm of the hundreds of volunteers, and the challenge of the aggressive cut-offs add up to, for me, a nearly perfect event.

When I first ran HURT two years ago, I barely finished under the thirty-six hour time limit, and this is still one of the accomplishments I am most proud of. I returned last year under different circumstances, mourning the recent loss of a close friend, and to make matters, well, not worse but harder, I managed to give myself food poisoning the night before the race. That time, I only made it forty miles.

This year, I hoped to do better. With another two years of ultramarathon running under my belt, I was surely in better shape and generally better prepared than 2013. The odds that anything could come along and make me feel as bad as I did on race morning 2014 were slim to none. Still, there were a few variables. I’d taken some time away from training in the Fall after a vasectomy, after which I’d been too impatient to get back to running[2]. And while the weather in Hawaii isn’t the most unpredictable, with temperatures around 80 Farenheit and 100% humidity, getting some cooling wind or a perfectly still day counts for a lot. On the other hand, I’d heard plenty of horror stories of what happens to the HURT course – and the finishing rate – in the rain. Finally, my knee had been bothering me in the week before the race, leading to a high-Ibuprofen diet.

As it turned out, the weather would be near perfect, leading to a record finish rate of 50%. My knee wouldn’t complain once. And as for my training, well, surely there’s never enough of that.

More importantly, this year, there would be no sickness and grief. Instead, I showed up rested and relaxed from a week’s vacation over on the Big Island, my mind still more concerned with recent memories of hiking in active volcanoes, diving with manta rays and whalesongs, and snorkeling with wild dolphins than with the adventure ahead of me. If anything, I was afraid I was arriving a little too relaxed. Where was that nervous anticipation? I knew as well as anyone how hard this race could be. Shouldn’t I at least, you know, care?

In spite of having rented a room five minutes away, I showed up at the starting line with only a few minutes to spare. I’d almost waited too long to unrelax myself. But if I unrelaxed too far now, I’d burn out on the first twenty mile loop. I shrugged it off, found a spot at the back of the crowd, and waited for the official start. Working my way up slowly from the back had worked well as a pacing strategy at Western States[3], and I suspected it would work well again here.

It was remarkable how much easier even the first climb, Hogsback, was than last year. I guess the body really does like to have fuel and fluid when running up and down mountains all day. Last year’s first loop was harder than anything I would do this year, never mind the second.

By the end of the first seven-mile leg, it was clear that a few people (who I would pass on my way back up the mountain as I started the next leg) wouldn’t make it. Many of those who would end up dropping out were far better runners than I, already miles ahead. This is always very sad, especially to hear about on the course where there’s an intense camaraderie, but at the same time it is the result of the challenge that makes HURT so fascinating to begin with.

I was surprised to find myself a little slower overall than I thought I remembered from my first year, which was true for the first loop, but I was pacing myself better. I had trained better for the long, grinding climbs, and I wasn’t burning myself out by having too much fun on the early descents. I finished the first loop in about 5:30, and the second in 6:40, putting me about thirty minutes behind where I’d been two years ago. This got me back to the Nature Center just in time to start my first night loop.

Here, of course, is where the real fun begins. The jungle cover at HURT is thick enough to provide, effectively, an extra hour or two running without sun, and no hope of getting any help from the moon. With the tricky footing on most parts of the trail, good lighting is key. I used two headlamps, one of them around my waist, to give me good coverage of the terrain while keeping my hands free. However, it took me too long to realize that the batteries in the upper lamp were draining, which both slowed me down and helped make me drowsy. I’ve made this mistake before and know better, but since the light fades slowly there’s no way to be sure when the batteries start to go. This loop was much slower, taking me 7:49, a few minutes longer than in 2013.

Many runners find the fourth loop the hardest. Having fasted on caffeine before the race, and music during the day, I had a couple of extra boosts to keep me going. Unfortunately, I also ran into my first stomach issues at mile 67. Either the GU Brew at that aid station had been mixed too strong or it had settled and I’d gotten the dregs. In any case, it was much too salty, but I didn’t have enough plain water to get me to the next aid station without drinking a decent amount of it. It took at least 20 miles for my stomach to recover, and it might not have recovered fully until the finish. I’d hoped to start making up some time, but this loop took me 7:55, twenty minutes slower than 2013.

Now I was starting to get worried. Pacing myself for a fast finish is one thing, but pulling into Nature Center less than an hour ahead of the first cut-off is another. Hannah Roberts, the 2013 women’s champion, helped me rally and get turned around for loop five right away.

And it worked. I was able to jog up climbs I’d walked for the previous 80 miles, and maintain a 7 hour loop pace for more than 15 miles. By the top of the final climb up Mount Tantalus, however, the adrenaline was wearing off, my stomach was turning sour, and I was being passed by runners I hadn’t seen since the bottom of the mountain. This last turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When Franco Soriano passed me on his way to his first successful HURT finish, I shouted some encouragement, then fed off the intensity of the emotions I could tell he was feeling to ride an endorphin surge of my own. I ran after him the rest of the way up the hill.

It’s hard to describe how overwhelming the waves of emotion and endorphins can be late in such a difficult race, when the chemicals and hormones in your body are out of whack and your brain is both vulnerable and driven. When you reach the point that you know, finally, that you will finish successfully, it can be like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

I sprinted the last half mile to the Nature Center. When I kissed that sign to make my finish official, it felt like triumph, like redemption, like validation, like a million things I can never name.

I ran my final loop in 7:13, 1:17 faster than 2013. This year I finished the HURT 100 in 35:19:28, 17 minutes faster overall. I guess there’s something to this pacing stuff after all.

HURT 100 finish, 2015. Photos by Allen Lucas.

And then I hosed myself off behind the Nature Center and hopped on a plane for Oakland. I felt redeemed, and like maybe I was done with HURT. Maybe I’d find some other way to torture myself next winter.

We all know how long that thought lasted.

1: Leaving out self-supported adventures like Plain 100 and Barkley.

2: Pro tip: no, really, wait three weeks to run. Three. Not two. Three.

3: I never got around to writing up Western States. Long story short, it went great, and I was right about on track for a 24-hour finish when I had a severe asthma attack at mile 80. I walked it in from there and finish in just under 27 hours.

A Punchline Without a Joke: Plain 100 2014-09-13

Plain 100 2014

I have said before that there is no such thing as an easy 100 miler. Nor is there any such thing as a normal 100 miler. Plain 100 is less easy and less normal than any of the others I’ve run. This seems to be more the organic result of the personalities of Chris and Tom, the race directors, that of anything intentional, but there are many things intentional.

Thing 1: Directions to Deep Creek, the start/finish line, drop bag point, and “aid station,” cannot be found on the race website and were not given at the pre-race briefing. It’s not clear if this was intentional or an oversight, but as others had said in fewer words, if you can’t find a campground in the woods outside a tiny town in the mountains at the dead center of Washington State, you probably shouldn’t run Plain.

Many mountain hundreds start with a big climb right out the gate. Plain starts out gently, with six or seven miles of nearly flat dirt roads, first to the original starting line in town (or what passes for one), then up a slight rise to another campground.

Thing 2: Those miles don’t count towards the 100. The Plain course runs long, and not by a mere 0.2 or 2.0 miles like Western States or Bryce. Consensus and lore have it pegged at 106 miles, although some estimates go as high as 112. When the climb out of Deer Camp starts to get noticeable, you still have about 100 miles to go.

At Maverick Saddle, around ten miles in, I checked in with Thing 3, the Search and Rescue volunteers. They hang out at a few spots along the course with radios and trash bags to monitor runners’ progress and collect our trash.

Thing 4: You are not allowed to receive aid on the course from anyone who isn’t currently running the Plain 100. That means no aid stations, no pacers, no trail angels, no race photographers, no help from SAR. If you so much as ask them a question, they will remind you that hearing the answer means disqualification. If you go off course in front of them, they will wait until you’re out of earshot to laugh. I took an extra minute at Maverick Saddle to double check my map and course directions.

Thing 5: The course is not marked. There are no flour arrows, confidence markers, wrong-way ribbons, glow sticks, LEDs, or flagging of any sort set out. What you get are turn by turn directions and a low resolution map on the website. Anyone too lazy to buy or print something better would have to make do with the bandana silkscreened with the course map given out at check-in.

Soon after Maverick Saddle, the trail got steeper, tougher, and more scenic, with some nice views of sunrise over the Wenatchee Mountains and the other side of the Entiat range. This was the first of what would normally be three approximately 5000 foot climbs.

Thing 6: Normally, the second climb would take us 5000 feet up Signal Peak in only four miles. This comes at the start of a 14 mile dry stretch, and most runners reach it during the hottest part of the day, so it must be climbed under the weight of hours worth of water and, hopefully, at least half your food for the loop.

Thing 7: Technically, the rule is no aid except at Deep Creek, the start/finish/”100K” checkpoint. This means you must carry all your food and gear with your for as much as 64 miles at a stretch, assuming you don’t go off course for any bonus miles along the way, and all the water you might need between known stream crossings.

I felt every ounce of this weight when I landed badly coming down off a rock on the technical Hi-Yu trail and my lower back responded with an equal and opposite reaction. While I sat and stretched by the side of the trail I was passed by both Chihping and Noé, two fellow Bay Area runners I’d leapfrog with at the back of the pack for many hours to come.

Thanks to a couple of wildfires smoldering off to the north, the forest service had closed down part of the course, including the dreaded Signal Peak climb. This year’s alternate route included a seven mile loop through the high meadows near 6000 feet above sea level. I’ve never noticed any symptoms of altitude sickness below 9000 feet, but that doesn’t mean the thinner air can’t slow me down. It slowed me down.

Over the next ten miles, my back worked itself out, assuaging my fear that my race was already over. I caught up with Noé again and overtook him on a downhill section. He told me he was worried about getting lost and about falling — he’d only recently recovered from a bad shoulder injury. I slid and landed on my ass in the mud, laughing, as I took off ahead of him.

Thing 8: The trails are often kind of terrible. Where most mountain hundreds are run on trails maintained by and for hikers, these are mostly maintained by and for dirt bikers. Many sections had deep eight-inch wide ruts right down the middle of the trail, which got slick with mud up in the high meadows. Where switchbacks might otherwise provide perfect downhill running, concrete honeycomb was laid into the ground to prevent erosion while pummeling our soles and threatening sprains. Sometimes there were little jumps. On one particularly awful stretch of otherwise gentle trail, there were miles of whoop-de-doos, basically speedbumps that made it impossible to run with any kind of rhythm. Elsewhere nature provided, and the trail was simply covered with fist sized rocks.

Through the high meadow loop, I found myself slowing down, and it wasn’t just the altitude. I was eating a gel or a handful of trail mix or jerky every 20 minutes like clockwork, but I was still feeling hungry and drained. I rallied for the Whistling Pig Meadow downhill and the last, easier part of the Signal Peak climb that was still on the course, and even put in some good descending from there on some bad trail before bonking completely. This was the worst. Here I was on a five mile downhill where my whole race plan hinged on making up time, and all I could do was walk and feel sorry for myself.

Tearing down Billy Creek Trail with Glen Mangiantini. Photo by Chihping Fu.
Tearing down Billy Creek Trail with Glen Mangiantini. Photo by Chihping Fu.
Two miles downhill on this Billy Creek trail, a little after the Search and Rescue checkpoint and about eleven hours into the race, I let Chihping pass me for the last time and pulled off trail to take a giant dump. I started to piece together what was going on then: it was bright green. Like, greener than goose poop. Greener than a lot of the trail vegetation, and I was running in the Evergreen State. More to the point, the last time I could remember eating much of anything green was a giant spinach smoothie more than two days ago. Almost an hour and a half and only three miles down the trail, I took another giant crap, but this time it was two-tone: half bright green, half, you know, just kinda brown. Now it was all beginning to make sense: I hadn’t really crapped in a few days, and my gut was backed up enough that I wasn’t extracting nutrition from my food as efficiently as normally.

You know how a cat will fly all over the house like a furry little demon right after after it poops? It was kinda like that. I made a full recovery on the rest of the downhill, and began making up some solid time on the five miles out along the rolling Mad River trail. After only one or two, however, I was surprised to be overtaken by another runner – someone I hadn’t seen all day. He told me he was running the 100K, a shorter race that stopped after only this first loop, and gotten lost. He also told me that from what he knew, Noé and another runner named Don had gone off course, and I was now in last place for the hundred mile race. I hoped he was wrong, mostly for their sake.

The narrow trail here snaked along next to and above the Mad River, anywhere from zero to about 80 feet above the water with a steep drop off. For the first few miles the ground was soft, but it abruptly gave way to a carpet of fist-sized rocks. Nonetheless, I still felt great, finally running well, high-fiving runners I hadn’t seen in twelve hours who were coming back the other way and telling myself I could make it to the turnaround before putting on my headlamp for the night. I made it, but just barely.

Halfway back along the out-and-back, I was elated to see Noé headed toward me. He told me he’d been following Don when they made a wrong turn and ran about five extra miles. This was on the longest dry stretch of the course, so they’d run out of water, and Don had become dehydrated. Noé told me he had been leaning and falling over, but they’d eventually found a stream, then the right trail and recovered. I told him where the turnaround was and what to look for, and that he still had plenty of time to make the Deep Creek cutoff.

A mile later, I saw another headlamp coming my way, which of course belonged to Don. I told him I was glad to see him, asked how he was doing, and gave him the same information I’d given Noé. He only said “Yeah” or “OK” in response, which at the time I took as an indication that, like Noé, he was frustrated about having gone off course and lost so much time. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

Thing 9: Plain is not a fucking joke. When I saw Noé back at Deep Creek the next day, he told me he had essentially sacrificed the rest of his race to save Don’s life. Here’s what Noé wrote about it later:

Hours later when I was coming back from that out-and-back trail I saw Don who was in his way to that point, looking completely sick, leaning on his left side, clearly sign of dehydration. – He cannot be here, I thought, this section is extremely unsafe. – Noe, can I stay with you, I feel very dizzy and weak. I responded immediately – Of course, let’s go together. He was not really walking, he was dragging his feet making a great effort to put one foot in front of the other and some times losing the balance of his body, like nauseous. It was already dark and everybody was gone, that was a single, rocky and narrow trail, so there’s no much I could do, just escorting him and make sure that nothing worst happens. Moving at 50-55 minutes/mile and taking breaks. – That was ok, no rush, I said! We were in the middle of the forest, very remote area and there were absolutely no one nearby, just he and me.

At about 2 am. the temperature dropped down dramatically (probably to the 20’s) when suddenly Don lost the control of his balance and dropped off to the cliff. – OH NOOOO!!!! I yelled very loudly. At first I thought that he had hit on any rock or he was on the river or he was dead. NO, he was trapped on two fallen old trees very close too the abysm. That section was very steep and he was like 20 ft down from the trail. Has he a broken bone? Or maybe is he bleeding? He was responding to everything I was asking so I tried immediately to rescue him.

I don’t deny that I was also afraid to slip and cause a tragedy, my shoulder is not completely healed from a surgery and I still don’t have much strength, so slowly I went down grabbing my arm on some branches, grabbed his hand and start pulling him from the area. – Don, you need to be strong and help me, I said. – Come on, little by little he was moving and finally I got him to a safe spot, what a relief!

If Noé hadn’t been with him, and Don hadn’t had the presence of mind to turn back earlier, he could have been in much worse shape by the time Search and Rescue found him. Thanks to how well prepared Noé was, he was able to walk the rest of the way to them instead.

Thing 10: Aid is only allowed from other runners, which means the only aid station is allowed at Deep Creek. However, it’s not part of the race organization. Volunteers come out with a grill most years, but weren’t able to this year. When I pulled back into Deep Creek after midnight 20 hours 38 minutes, there was no aid station, only my drop bag and a camp chair.

Nonetheless, I was happy to see both Chihping and Glen (another runner I’d spent time running and leapfrogging with) still there. I hoped to get out of my chair fast enough to leave with one or both of them, but I had enough to do just emptying and refilling my pack, putting on the right nighttime layers and lights, and eating what I could before heading out that even my fast stop took about twenty minutes, and they were both gone.

Too bad, too. This was the section I’d been most worried about. While I’d had no real trouble navigating the first 100K, the start of the second loop is notorious for getting runners lost in the dark. It starts on a trail that runs parallel to a road, and there are many intersecting roads and paths. In theory, though, all I had to do was keep following the same trail for ten miles.

This all went to hell at Goose Creek Campground where in my infinite wisdom I decided to ignore a sign saying “<--- TRAILHEAD." This was obviously completely unhelpful, since I wanted to keep going straight. Instead I spent at least twenty minutes wandering around the campground, trying to figure out where the trail picked up without waking anyone up. I must have crossed over the trail at least once, completely ignoring it again, by the time I ended up out on the road. I knew this was wrong, but eventually decided to run along the road until I could spot the trail again just off to the right, cut back over, then retrace my steps. It would waste a lot more time, but I refused to finish Plain having cut the course. Eventually I decided it had been too long - I should have seen the trail or an intersecting dirt road by then - and decided to forge into the woods until I found it. I couldn't, at first, figure out why I was going down such a steep hill, or why I could hear water so nearby. How could there possibly be a river between me and the trail? It turns out running for 22 hours without rest can, in fact, take a toll on one's mental faculties. After more time than I care to admit, I realized I'd gotten turned around. Once I got back to Goose Creek, I had no trouble finding my way through this time. I now had about six hours to get to the next checkpoint, and I wasn't exactly sure where on the course that was. I figured I still had a shot at making it, but it would be tight. Fortunately, I was still moving well. I just had to stay focused and avoid doing anything else stupid. Oh boy. For the next eight miles, the trail continued to snake along parallel to the road before the last big climb up to Chikamin Ridge. At some point, the trail descended to what must have been a sharp bend that I didn't see right at the edge of the now paved road. I must not have seen the bend. what I did see was an obvious continuation of the trail across the road. At seven in the morning, I found myself in the middle of Grouse Creek Campground. It should have been immmediately obvious that I was off course, but I didn't think I'd ever gone off course, so I just thought the map was confusing and looked for where the trail continued. I wandered back and forth through my second campground of the morning twice before pulling out my compass for some clarity. It kept spinning. I turned it over and found a big hole in the base, where the water is usually held in. I dug my phone out of my pack and waited for GPS, glad I had it for backup. Finally I saw where I was on a topo map. Now that I'd stopped moving for so long, however, and the morning light had failed to find me in this steep mountain valley, I was shivering violently. I had only two hours left to try for the Chikamin Tie cutoff. I decided instead to head back downhill toward the Alder Ridge Search and Rescue checkpoint, which I knew I could find. The topo map showed a service road heading south from the campground that cut a more direct path than the asphalt, so I decided to follow it. Of course, the topo map on my phone hadn't been updated in a few decades, and a short ways out of the campground it became clear the service road I was following hadn't been maintained in about that long either. I found myself climbing over and around thick brush and trees along a steep cliffside. Eventually I gave up and scrambled up the cliff 100 feet to the road. Before long, without so much as a thumb, I was picked up by two other runners who had dropped before me. Plain is one of a small handful of races known as "graduate-level" 100 milers. I'm one of a few who learned why the hard way that weekend, although I certainly did not have it as hard as some. Still, for all its difficulty, it's an incredibly fun, beautiful race, and I'd be glad to go back anytime. I'll just make sure to doublecheck my map. And my compass.

Hurt and Loss: HURT 2014-01-18

This will be an unusual race report. It comes with a trigger warning. It discusses suicide in some detail, and vomit in some quantity.

I won’t say a lot about what makes the HURT 100 so beautiful, so hard, and so rewarding. You can read my report from last year for that. I will say that I was extremely excited to know that I would be running it again this year, and that I considered last year’s finish the hardest thing I had ever done.

Last year's finish. Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Last year’s finish. Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

Along with so many other things, that all changed approximately three weeks and five hours before the conch blew to start the race. Early on the morning of December 27 2013, or very late December 26 if you prefer, Conor Michael Fahey-Latrope killed himself. He was a close friend to me and a companion in adventures both well and ill conceived across the millenia.

I spent most of that night (or the next if you prefer) and the next few days at the scene, trying as best I could to help his bereaved wife and child, to sort through his possessions, to make That Phone Call to a number of our old friends. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but unlike running and finishing HURT I had no choice at all.

I thought about withdrawing from HURT. Funeral details were up in the air for a while, and it seemed like everything would naturally be chaos for weeks, months, forever. I was only just recovering from a minor knee injury and undoubtedly undertrained. A week after Conor’s death, under the strain of it all, I sprained my back changing into my gym clothes. I was drinking too much for the first time in eight years. I was a wreck all around, I knew it, and a stupid footrace didn’t seem so important anyway.

I guess I can be pretty stubborn sometimes. Once the funeral was confirmed for the weekend before the race and my back showed improvement, I confirmed my travel plans, had a new race shirt printed up, and announced I’d be running in Conor’s memory, to raise money for his daughter.


It must sound funny, but it was hard to leave Oakland and everyone I’d been grieving with on a plane to Hawaii in order to hob nob with friends and athletes I admired, all of them disconnected from this tragedy, and run the tough jungle trails I’d missed all year. I spent a lot of the first two days just re-learning how to hang out with people who weren’t in a state of shock. It was hard, but it was good. Like in ultrarunning, maybe I don’t always see a distinction.

And then, the night before the race, I did something stupid. I ordered the loco moco.

I can’t be completely sure if it was the onion, the meat, the gravy, or one of the eggs on top, but something gave me an unmistakeable case of food poisoning. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the rice.

I woke up about one a.m. with diarrhea. It came back an hour later accompanied by vomiting. The nausea kept me awake until I purged the rest of my stomach, but I don’t think I managed any more sleep before my 3:45 a.m. alarm anyway.

My usual morning prep time was at least doubled with some extra trips to the toilet, but I only puked once at the starting line. When conch blew at 6 a.m. and we began on our way up to the brutal Hogsback climb for the first time, my stomach felt even better. Maybe it would be okay as long as I kept moving.

Looking back, I’m sure it was only adrenaline that got me that far. Even before the top of Hogsback I slowed and fell to near last place. Shortly before reaching Manoa Cliff, I puked. By the time I reached the first aid station at mile 8, I was puking every 20 minutes. I couldn’t even keep ginger candies or plain water down. Aside from feeling sick and wasting time, I was losing calories, hydration, and electrolytes on a warm and extremely humid day. My only chance was to spend some extra time refueling at the aid stations, move extra slowly, and hope to climb out of the hole I was falling into if my stomach recovered. If.

At Paradise Park I knocked back ginger ale, broth, and devoured fresh watermelon, but just a few minutes up the easy part of the climb it started to come up again. I gave myself two minutes to rest on a new stone wall along the tourist path to Manoa Falls. Before I could get started again, two volunteers on HURT Patrol found me and walked with me up the switchbacks to the lower bamboo forest, where I took advantage of a slight downhill to take off running.

“Do it for Conor!” they shouted, having asked about my shirt. I had to wipe away the tears quickly to keep a clear eye on my footing.

It wasn’t long before they caught me again, clutching a couple stalks of bamboo and doubled over. So much for the watermelon.

At the mile 13 aid station, I stuck with ginger ale and broth. The station captain kept up a conversation while I sipped them to make sure I was lucid. I must have looked as good as I felt. I thanked him and grabbed another can of ginger ale to go, eying the calories on the label.

The steep climbs of the third leg helped put my predicament in perspective. Although my legs were fine, the climbs felt about as hard, and I was stopping to rest even more often, than on the fifth loop last year. On the other hand, having adjusted my pack to avoid any squeeze on my abdomen and having switched to an all-liquid diet, I was starting to puke less.

Back at the Nature Center start/finish aid station (mile 20), local volunteers and Bay Area friends checked in on me and helped me refuel. I guess I looked pretty bad. I thanked them and headed back out.

Photo by Allen "not that" Lucas
Photo by Allen “not that” Lucas


I only puked once on the next leg, a real turning point I was sure, but I was also pretty sure I’d just clocked my slowest marathon time yet, and it was getting dark already. Sometimes I do better at night on hot weather runs, but I wasn’t ready to try caffeine on my stomach, and it would be a long night without it.

My lowest point came two miles into the long climb out of Paradise. I’d only managed 30 miles in 12 hours. The math was clear, and it was against me. I had 24 hours left to run 70 miles, never mind the intermediate cutoffs. Even if I made a full recovery, there was no way I could make up the time.

I felt like a failure. I’d failed myself. I’d failed Finn and Daed. I’d failed everyone who had contributed to the memorial fund because I was running this thing, and everyone back home watching for my name in the online results. I’d failed Conor. Again.

In the dark of the jungle, I sat on the side of the trail and wept. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care who was disappointed, or how fast I ran, or if I finished, or how far I made it at all. I wanted my friend back. I could never run well enough or be good enough or do anything to make that happen.

After a few minutes I looked down at my GPS watch and saw something strange. It told me I was moving very fast, five-minute mile pace or so, and ticking off hundredths of miles as I sat there. I must have landed inches enough off the trail to convince it I had floated up the next switchback. I stood up and started trying to do just that.

This would be okay, I thought. It wasn’t about being perfect, about proving something, or anything more than trying in and with his memory. It was about showing that memory why I try so hard, why I wanted him to be able to join me and learn the same things the same way.

I’d long fantasized about Conor coming out to pace me for a loop at HURT. Even if it didn’t get him into ultrarunning, I knew he’d love the trail and I knew his athletic ass would leave mine in the mud. We’d talked often about what I got from the sport and how it inspired him.

“I think the hard and important part is to take that and apply it to the rest of your life,” he told me once about some hard-won running lessons. He could have some great advice for someone who couldn’t even choose not-death over death.

Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.
Food for thought at the Nature Center.

So I wouldn’t finish. So what? There’s no shame in a DNF done right. I’d keep going until someone made me stop.

When I got back to Nu`uanu at mile 33, the station captain told me I looked much better and congratulated me on my attitude. I drank some ginger ale, grabbed some gels and a can of juice for the trail, thanked him, and took off.

A mile out, I sat on a rock and cracked open the juice. As I started to drink, I was elated to feel something I hadn’t in over 24 hours: hunger.

A mile up Nu`uanu Ridge, it all came up again.

I started to ask myself, What would Conor do right now?

Yes, I was mad and disappointed, but I still loved and admired him. What might he do in a situation like this?

Conor would down whatever food was in his pack, puke it up, and sprint to the next aid statoin like nothing happened.

Conor would strike up a conversation with a stranger and find out what they think he should do.

Conor would quit.

Conor wouldn’t be here at all.

Conor would put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger.

I pressed on, stopping often to rest or to vomit. No matter how loud I turned up my earbuds, I kept hearing how he would have said, “Oh, no-oooh!” when I told him about this. I kept wishing more than anything he were there with me, or anywhere other than sitting on Daed’s shelf in an urn.

At last I accepted I would need to rest until my stomach could recover. It was almost midnight — 18 hours into the race — by the time I made it back to the Nature Center at mile 40. I lay down on a cot where Allen “not that” Lucas checked on me every half hour. After he left, a volunteer medic took over, waking me to sip broth every 10 minutes. Even without moving, my stomach didn’t start to feel settled until 6 a.m., but by then I was too weak and too dehydrated to press on for a third loop.

I’m sure I could have still made them pull me, but not in a good way. Instead I walked over to the timing table, told them I was done, and spent the next twelve hours slowly recovering and watching other runners come back in, victorious or otherwise.

As in my previous adventures, I learned a lot. Like Conor might have said, it wasn’t all about running. It didn’t pan out in the end, or really go well at all, but I’m glad I went.

After all, I didn’t want it to be easy, and I know Conor wouldn’t have either.

Dropping Down – Run d’Amore 2013-11-23

I signed up for this year’s Run d’Amore 100 mile run only a few days before the event secure in the knowledge it might not work out for me. I was drastically undertrained, with about fifteen miles under my belt in the previous month thanks to a string of minor injuries and illnesses. I had other races on my calendar for the following weekend, and wouldn’t want to push myself so hard I couldn’t recover within a few days. With a short lead-up I wouldn’t be able to quit caffeine in advance, normally a big part of my 100 mile strategy. Worst of all, on the Wednesday before the event I pulled an eighteen hour overnight shift replacing our office wireless network[1], so making sure I was rested for the race might not be possible.

Nonetheless, I showed up at Harvey Bear Ranch relaxed and excited. Run d’Amore uses the same course as Run de Vous, where I had set my sub-24 PR a few months ago, but they were changing it up this year. The standard version of the course was a nearly flat two mile loop run fifty times, but the new incarnation added a mile out and back along a fairly steep trail, which sounded great to me.

The loop course format lends itself to a great atmosphere, as the one aid station and drop bag location becomes race central. The short stretch of the course you get to look forward to every two or four miles is crowded with other runners you’ve started getting to know, their family and crew, the race directors, and the volunteers. The out and back section only added to this feeling since you can’t help but bump into most of the field during those two miles, no matter how far ahead or behind you are. What’s more, since Harvey Bear hosts three races in this format each year with many repeat runners, there’s a remarkably strong feeling of community around these events. Regardless of how my race went, it was great to run it with so many people I’ve seen there and at other runs in the Bay Area.

I started out relatively fast on fresh legs, worried I was starting too fast but, since I was thinking of it as a training run and didn’t have any particular goals in mind, I didn’t worry about holding myself back too much. I finished my first four mile loop in forty-five minutes, and only slowed about one minute per loop up through mile twenty. I enjoyed running the steep downhill sections on the trail section hard, but found myself having a lot more trouble maintaining a good pace through the end of the asphalt loop then I had at Run de Vous.

By around the 50K mark, I’d slowed to over an hour per loop, and I never managed to speed back up from there. I turned on my iPod and started taking in a little bit of caffeine much earlier than I usually would in a 100 miler.

As soon as night fell, the temperature dropped fast. I felt fine as long as I kept moving, building up a sort of bank of core heat from the downhill trail mile on each loop, but because of this I may not have put on enough layers soon enough.

I left the aid station at mile sixty shivering, with a cup of hot soup in one hand and hot coffee in the other. Once I’d finished them both I tried to move faster, but my right leg cramped up and I found myself limping instead. I decided to skip the trail and run only the asphalt loop – if I recovered, I’d make it up the next time around. If not, I’d take the 100 kilometer finish and call it a day.

It took me an hour to limp those two easy miles. When I got to the timing table and told them I was done, race director Alan Geraldi wouln’t hear of it. He suggested I take a nap and come back to it – even if I slept for three hours I’d still have plenty of time to make the thirty-six hour cutoff. I agreed, since a nap was next on my agenda anyway, but I didn’t see it in the cards.

Of course, when I got back to my car I found I’d left the map light on and the battery was dead, so I wouldn’t be able to run the heater before going to sleep. I crawled into my sleeping bag in the passenger’s seat and passed out for two hours anyway, then found a jump from Donato, the winner of the morning’s 50K, who had Kathy d’Onofrio[2], the co-winner of the 100 mile run passed out in his backseat. I hung out for a while eating and chatting, went back to my car to sleep until morning, got up to eat an amazing breakfast at the aid station, and cheered in a number of runners[3] before heading home.

It’s clear that undertraining and sleep debt were the biggest strikes against me. Still, I don’t think I would have dropped to 100K if I’d started the race committed to a 100 mile finish. Even if I hadn’t had my particularly low moment of shivering with a leg cramp until mile seventy, I might not have considered quitting so easily. But the race was a great experience overall, and I certainly got the kind of training I was looking for without taking myself out of commission for more than a couple days afterward.

As long as I continue to have no regrets, everything will have gone according to plan.

1: Systems administration might not always be the ideal career for an ultramarathon runner, but it turns out there are some overlapping skills.

2: After a huge early lead, she’d been caught at the end by Ed “Jester” Ettinghausen, and the two crossed the finish line hand in hand.

3: Including Catra Corbett, who finished her 100th run of 100 miles or longer that morning.

An Abject Lesson – Euchre Bar Massacre 2013

Don’t run Euchre Bar Massacre. It could easily kill you. That said, if Sean organizes it again next year, I’ll be back in a heartbeat.

This year I was one of three hearty fools to show up for the fifty mile division, while about a dozen runners made it out for the twenty-five. I arrived for the pre-dawn start in Alta, CA at the last possible moment, and missed most of the pre-race briefing. I’d made it home from work the night before later than planned, finished packing later still, and showed up at our group campsite nearby to sleep poorly in my car later than I would have liked, so while I was excited to get down into the canyon and start our adventure I was a little on the groggy side. It sounded like the briefing contained little key information that wasn’t also in the maps and direction packets we’d been sent a couple days ago, but I’d just have to hope that was true.

The first two miles were a steep downhill on the wide, groomed Euchre Bar Trail[1], which was fun, easy running for me, and for the first time in any race I had to force myself not to pass the leaders. This bottomed out 1800 feet below at a footbridge across the North Fork American River where some runners stashed a bit of their gear and food for the return trip, and the trail then veered east above the banks of the river itself.

After a couple of miles of rolling trail along the river, things would start to get interesting. After a short segment along a dirt road, the first climb would take us up the switchbacks of an unmaintained trail that at a few points was fully overgrown with blackberry vines. Judging by the scat in the neighborhood, bears had already taken care of the berries, but they didn’t take out nearly so many of the thorns for me.

The trail.
The trail.

About two-thirds of the way up, another group of runners caught up with me. They started to overtake me just as we reached the turn-off for Pioneer Mine, where we found our first book. In the tradition of the Barkley Marathons, each runner would tear out a page corresponding to their race number to prove they’d been their. Our inaugural book was the Kurt Vonnegut classic Breakfast of Champions. While part of me felt bad about mangling any book, let alone one I’d loved when I read it back in high school, I can’t deny that another part of me was just sad I didn’t end up with the famous asshole page.

The first book.
The first book.

From there, the instructions told us to keep switchbacking up the hill, vines or no vines. I followed the instructions a bit too literally when I angled into a sort of slanted T-intersection, and turned sharp right instead of continuing almost straight to the left fork. If I’d walked another few steps before making my decision I would have noticed a stick arrow laid out on the ground pointing the way. Fortunately, my trail disappeared after less than half a mile, but I lost a few more minutes making sure I hadn’t somehow walked off the main trail and lost sight of it.

Back on course, I was treated with my second fast downhill. As it turned out, this would be my last chance to make up any real time, and it wouldn’t be enough.

At the bottom of this jeep road, the trail followed a creek which fed into the American River. At the end of this trail I found book number two, Coast Road. From here the instructions said to tear out a page, fill up on water, cross the stream, and begin making my way up Ebeneezer’s Highway:

“Scramble up the bank on the other side of the river and continue up the hill by the steepest route possible for 1500 vertical feet. Go straight up, if you angle to your left you will go around the top and cause yourself extra distance, and if you go to the right you will head up the canyon and have extra climbing. There are a few trails you will cross, ignore them and keep going straight up through the manzanita stands until you get to the clearing at the top of the climb.”

Easier than it sounds.

The first few hundred feet were at a grade of over 50%, and covered in new pine mulch and chipped slate. The surface improved to dead leaves and loose soil, but the grade did not change significantly for the first 800 vertical feet. At one point I made the mistake of veering off to the left for only a few feet, and found myself rock climbing a short ways instead. My hiking poles were often useful here, as I could jam them deep into the top soil, but sometimes I was better off scrambling with all four limbs.

The start of Ebeneezer's Highway.
The start of Ebeneezer’s Highway.

Just as the climb started to soften a few degrees, I heard other “runners” nearby off to my right. I reached a level trail intersecting my path in the middle of a manzanita grove, and followed it over to find Mark, the director of the almost equally absurd Me-Ow Marathons, and his daughter Lorelei resting up mid-climb. They were surprised to see me and not another runner, Kirk, who had been with them for much of the race so far. Lorelei said she planned to drop when she reached the 25-mile turn around point at the top of this climb. She was acrophobic, and didn’t want to descend Ebeneezer’s. I couldn’t blame her. I was a little worried about descending it in the dark myself, something that seemed certain at the rate I was going.

The two of them continued along the trail to look for a way up that skirted the dense manzanita grove, while I decided to stick closely to the instructions. The climbing wasn’t quite as bad for the second half of the 1500 vertical feet, but it was still steep, and I often found myself crawling under manzanita branches that tore at the fabric of my pack, if not my skin.

When I knew I had to be nearing the top, I heard voices through the brush, and figured I must be reconverging with Mark and Lorelei again, but it turned out to be Ginny and Eric on their way back down from the turn around. They had bad news for me: I was already twenty minutes past the first cut-off, and had a good ways to go. They estimated it had taken them about an hour just to get back down to where we were from the turn-around checkpoint, and at the rate I was going uphill I knew that meant more than an hour for me. I figured that even if Sean wanted to be flexible, I’d drop down to the twenty-five mile course: I probably wouldn’t have the energy to push on steadily enough to meet the later cut-offs for the fifty regardless.

Finally, the scrambling of Ebeneezer’s Highway topped out at Humbug Ridge. There was another 1500 feet to climb, but it was so gradual they were even able to build a fire road on it. And then fill that fire road with deadfall, forcing me to hike through the woods off to the side, but this was still a welcome relief. By the time things truly leveled out, I had climbed far enough that I could feel a difference in the oxygen level for the first few minutes.

Approaching the flatter Italian Bar road spur, I looked up from the trail to see a massive pile of bulldozed deadwood. As I continued along the trail around the pile, I heard two gunshots, far closer than I ever want to hear gunfire without knowing its source and direction. I called out immediately. A moment later a man walked over from behind the pile. “Are there any more runners coming behind you?” he asked. I told him I had no idea and kept going up the road. A moment later, the gunshots started up again behind me.

Just around the corner from the turn-around, I bumped into Mark coming back the other way. Apparently his route had worked out well. He told me Sean, the organizer, had run off to chase down Kirk, who had missed the last turn on this dirt road for the turn-around.

At fifteen miles in, a collection of drop bags and camp chairs in a remote parking lot was a sight for sore eyes. Lorelei was already there, and Sean and Kirk showed up soon after I started refilling my pack. As I’d predicted, Sean offered to let me continue, but I opted instead to make the return trip with Kirk, even though he told me he’d be a bit slower with some foot issues. I’d already missed out on meeting my original goal for the day, and I was fine with having a good adventure and training run out of it.

On our way back down Humbug Ridge, we started chatting, and I should have paid more attention to what Kirk had to say about how the morning went for him. Running past the turn-around hadn’t been his only navigational error. When we started to approach the section where we’d need to drop down and descend Ebeneezer’s, he suggested we begin our descent early and angle off to the right, cutting a more gradual line down the hillside. I hesitated, but not enough, before deciding it was worth a try, since after all I just wanted a good adventure and good training out of it. Worst of all, I failed to check my map and my compass to see that rather than cutting across and hopefully rejoining the line we’d taken up the cliff, we were dropping off another side of the hill altogether.

The descent wasn’t easy, but it was far too easy compared to the trip up. That should’ve been our first clue. Our second clue should’ve been that we didn’t encounter any manzanita. Finally, you’d really think we would have noticed that it was too wide and flowing a bit too much in the wrong direction to be the creek we’d crossed before. You’d think.

Your author, lost and blissfully unaware.
Your author, lost and blissfully unaware.
And his companion for this ill-fated journey, greater-than-or-equally lost and unaware.
And his companion for this ill-fated journey, greater-than-or-equally lost and unaware.

Instead, we continued under the assumption that we had arrived back at Humbug Creek, and somewhere above the other bank if maybe a bit off to our right we’d find the trail we took to get there, or the jeep road we took to get to that trail. So we made our way upstream until we found a spot to cross and attempt to climb up to a road that wouldn’t be there, up a steep bank and overgrown bank, scrambling again at times, or carefully navigating over loose rock, looking for game trails that would take us in what we thought would be the right direction. It took about forty-five minutes of this for me to finally behave like a sane person, pull out my map and compass, and figure out that we were going in the wrong direction altogether. We must have somehow crossed the river, not the stream, and there was nothing but more hillside along this vector as far as ink met page. We decided to focus instead on getting back down to the river from where we were before the sun finished setting and try to work out a better plan from there.

At one point as we were climbing near a rocky outcropping, something gave way under Kirk who was uphill from me, and I heard him land hard. I called out to ask if he was okay when the dust had literally settled. He replied that he didn’t think anything was broken, maybe a little sprained. Now the situation was starting to worry me, but there was nothing to do but press on.

Back at the river, we decided to continue downstream as close to the water as possible. Before long we expected to find the mouth of the creek we’d meant to cross originally, and from there it would be easy to get back on course. Unfortunately, staying on the riverbanks proved more difficult than we hoped. The October flow was low and gentle, exposing many of the sandbars, but the banks themselves often turned into jumbles of boulders or smoothly carved granite. When we couldn’t boulder-hop, we crossed to the other side, waded down the middle of the river, or scrambled back up the cliff for a ways, again searching for game trails, dodging loose rocks, and sometimes enjoying the distinct pleasure of clinging to blackberry and poison oak vines for dear life.

Of course, our difficulties didn’t end their. On top of compounding minor injuries, Kirk’s headlamp was not up to the task. It’s good that he had one, but his lightweight cap-mounted model was better suited to neighborhood jogs than wilderness pathfinding. When I suggested we ford a deeper section of the river, I learned that he couldn’t swim, which at last explained his discomfort with many of the crossings I’d found easy. At times I worried he was on the verge of panic, and to be honest it was hard to blame him, but when he was moving he was moving well, so I tried to make sure to keep us moving. We both tried to keep the jokes going, at least most of the time.

Now that we had a plan, the “breadcrumb” map display on my GPS watch, which can be unfortunately confusing on its own, seemed to be showing us that we should hit the mouth of the creek any time now. Within half a mile. Within a quarter mile. Maybe a tenth of a mile, it’s too close to be sure. Okay, maybe I was wrong about that, but it must be around here somewhere…

Eventually I realized we must have somehow missed Humbug Creek. Looking at the downloaded data afterwards, I would see that we did a remarkable job of climbing up above the opposite bank for just long enough to stand no chance of seeing it at night, but it may have deposited enough debris in the river to help us make that decision. Once I’d come to this conclusion, I spent about a minute comparing map, compass, and watch while Kirk was catching up behind me, then started taking off up the hill instead of following the river. Not two minutes later, after I was back on the Euchre Bar Trail, two miles from the footbridge.

We spent hours looking for Humbug Creek, only to literally miss it.
We spent hours looking for Humbug Creek, only to literally miss it.

As good as it felt to reach my drop bag at the fifteen mile point, it felt even better to reach the gear Kirk had stashed at the bridge. I asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to head up Nun’s Finger for book number three, a climb even steeper than Ebeneezer’s Highway. He was sure.

That last 1800 foot climb back out of the canyon might not have been fast, but after travelling five miles in as many ours in, on, and above the North Fork American River, it felt pretty good to me. A few feet from the top we saw a couple lights coming down the hill toward us and called out. It turned out to be Ginny and Eric, who’d been waiting up at the trailhead, in contact with Sean. They had intermittent reception, and they’d be able to let him know we were both OK.

Although we’ve both talked about coming back next year, so maybe “OK” is just the slightest overstatement.

Don’t run Euchre Bar Massacre. You’ve surely got too much to live for. Otherwise, I’ll see you there.

[1]: The “bar” in many trail names in the American River area refers major sandbars, which were among the most exciting geological features around in gold mining days.

Revisiting Hard: Headlands Hundred 2013-09-14

Headlands was my first hundred mile run a year before in 2012, and would be my fifth a year later. I came into the weekend excited to relive the course and to see how much better I could do avoiding my rookie mistakes. I also ran it expecting too much improvement, and worrying too much about my target time instead of the adventure I had set myself on – a journeyman mistake.

At the seven A.M. starting line, things looked pretty different from last year. The race sold out weeks in advance, and there were hundreds of runners milling about for three different distances. Last year the run had been canceled and reinstated at the last minute, leading to a more anemic attendance but intimate feel. I showed up with time to spare for once and had a few minutes to catch up with co-RD Maureen Brooks, and Alex Mares who had finished a few minutes behind me last year. I bumped into at least five runners from Run-de-Vous, only a month before.

Foreshadowing is a hell of a thing. In the first four miles, I passed a couple of runners in the fifty mile race. One of them said to the other, “Don’t worry about the people ahead of us now. We’ll mop them up later on.” I thought, “I know this can be a hard course, but I hope I don’t liquefy.”

Six miles in I was taking it slow up a hill and chatting with another runner about scuba diving. When I introduced myself, the runner who was passing us at that moment said it was my blog that had inspired him to sign up for the full hundred miles. I felt proud and inspired in turn, but twenty-nine hours later when I saw him staring at the ground waiting for a ride back to the start from the mile eighty-eight/ninety-six aid station, I wasn’t sure how to feel.

As I cruised along the meandering uphill trail out of Pirate’s Cove to the north, I couldn’t help keeping an eye out for whales while trying to mind my footing. The scenery there is always enough of a hazard to begin with.

Bombing down the steep and rutty fire road into Muir Beach at mile eight, I was treated to the unusual view of an empty Muir Beach thanks to park renovations. I always seem to like that trail better on the way down.

After climbing up and along Coyote Ridge, winding down Miwok back into Tennessee Valley, and slogging up the Marincello trail, the course hits a six mile out-and-back section of mostly single track that starts out overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on the SCA trail ridge and turns around at the base of the bridge on the Sausalito shore. Long story short, it’s scenic as fuck, but stepping aside for other runners can be tricky along the cliffside switchbacks, especially early in the race when all the fifty-milers and marathoners are still sharing the course.

By the time I made it down under the bridge the first time at mile eighteen, my lower back and left glute were bothering me. I needed to stop a few times to crack my SI joint (under the tailbone) and stretch out my hamstrings. I was delighted to find the issue gone by mile forty. Either the problem fixed itself, I stopped feeling it, or I stopped feeling it until it fixed itself.

Coming down Bobcat Trail to the road at mile twenty-three, I was surprised to pass Tony Dunnigan, a faster runner I’d met trying to get myself killed in the woods at night. He was limping, and blood was pouring out of his knee – he’d taken a fall (“power-kneeling”) and ground enough gravel into the skin that he couldn’t bend it, even though he was otherwise fine. It was a good reminder to me that no matter how much experience I might gain running, with so many thousands of steps the occasional fall is inevitable. In fact, I’d spaced out and tripped on the sidewalk near my house only a week before, myself.

The Rodeo Beach mile 25/50/75 aid station, which doubles as the start and finish line, is the most dangerous place on the course. Here is where you check in, fill your bottles, and reverse direction for each subsequent lap, but also where you quit, limp over to your car, and drive home instead of running through the night. I’m always certain to make my stops here as short as possible.

Heading back out, it wasn’t long before I approached the bridge again. The weather was completely clear, giving me a perfect down on the north end of San Francisco and a bay filled with boats for America’s Cup. I have a few criticisms of the event and its effects on the city, but I wouldn’t complain about the view.

The clear weather also meant that although the day wasn’t egregiously hot, there was no relief from the sun. The Headlands are often a damp, foggy experience at any time of year, but even as the evening began aid stations were shoveling ice into our bottles and packs.

You’d think I’d know this course by now, but apparently I didn’t know it well enough to spot a well-marked turn at mile forty-eight. You’d think I’d know better by now, but I ran a full mile downhill before accepting my mistake and turning around. Fortunately I was feeling good and moving well at the time, but with this died my intermediate goal of finishing fifty miles before dark. I turned my headlamp on for the first time as I was descending to Rodeo Beach.

For much of the night, however, the sky was clear and the moon bright enough that I wouldn’t need it, at least when hiking uphill. At one point, when climbing up Coyote Ridge at mile fifty-nine, the reflection of the moon off the Pacific was so bright I thought my shadow must have been thrown by the headlamp of someone catching up behind me. It also stayed warm enough that I wouldn’t need a jacket until just before dawn, a complete difference from last year’s shivering in the dense fog banks on the SCA trail ridge.

By the time the sun rose again it seemed as though I might still have a shot at my ultimate goal of thirty hour finish, even after getting in my bonus miles, but my quads were starting to stiffen up, making it hard to lift my legs when hiking up hill or even jogging on the rare stretches of flat trail. I was still able to make up a lot of time flying down longer descents, but my attitude was getting worse. For the first time, I was thinking, a hundred miler was more suck than it was rewarding for me. I guess I’d already forgotten about the first twenty miles, and miles forty through sixty, and I’d already made my mind up about the rest of the race. This is where a good pacer might have done me some good.

I was right about one thing, though: there was more suck to come. A few aid stations in a row didn’t have quite what I wanted, and I used this as an excuse to under eat. By mile ninety-four, when the new day had started to heat up, my stomach was fed up with water and gel chews. Finally, I stood by the side of the trail high above Pirate’s Cove and forced myself to vomit.

I didn’t feel good enough to start eating again, but I felt good enough to run the rest of the way into Tennessee Valley at mile ninety-six. I collapsed in a camp chair, and unexpected tears of relief filled my eyes. I’d made it here, so I knew I could make it the rest of the way. For the first time all day, I felt like I remembered why I ran these things. A volunteer named Marissa came to my rescue straight away with cup after cup of broth. Fifteen minutes later I was back on my feet and stumbling toward the last big climb up to Wolf Ridge. I’d already left thirty hours behind, but I’d still be able to finish.

One very long mile up the trail, two runners who weren’t in the race passed me coming down to Tennessee Valley. The second of the two, Alisa, offered to run with me to the finish, an impromptu pacer. I’d never really run with a pacer before, even for three miles, but I’d take any help I could get. She ran off to tell her friend before turning around to catch up.

In the meantime, I noticed my left hand was puffed up to the point that I couldn’t see my knuckles. Some people see this kind of swelling routinely in ultramarathons, but it was new to me, and I know that it can be a sign of overhydration, hyponatremia, or most dangerously of both. I knocked back the last three salt pills in my pack, and went the rest of the way with only a few sips of water. I doubted I was in any serious danger, but I was spooked nonetheless.

I had more trouble beginning the descent to Rodeo Beach than I remember from last year. From the top of the winding road at Wolf Ridge, it looks so close, but impossibly far below – indeed, the last mile and a half drops almost 900 feet to the finish line in a mix of smooth running and washed out high-stepping stairs. For the final half-mile descent, however, I was suddenly off and running. The pain started to wash out of my legs as tears filled my eyes, not just from the familiar joy of finishing but something else this time. There was a great sense of relief as well. This hadn’t been my hardest or even my most painful run, but in crossing the finish line I felt as though I’d put closure to a very real struggle with my own mortality.

I finished the 2013 Headlands Hundred in thirty-one hours and forty-one minutes, well behind the thirty hour goal I’d held too firmly in mind, but almost an hour faster than the year before. After swallowing a few cups of electrolyte drink and some salty potato chips, I crawled into my car for a nap. I was sorry to miss some of the last finishers coming over the line, but sometimes consciousness is simply overrated.

I learned a lot from my first running of Headlands Hundred, all of which has helped me in the four other hundred milers I’ve run since. I thought I’d learned a lot that would help me run it a second time, but I let myself forget the most important lesson: Headlands Hundred is a hard goddam race.

Now at least HURT 2014 oughtta be easy, right?

Cement Posts and Silver Buckles: Run-de-Vous 2013-08-17

From the outside, ultrarunning may look like monotony. To the runner, it is a series of interleaved challenges and endless surprises.

I had little idea what to expect from the Run de Vous 100 mile run. The course was simple: a two mile asphalt loop, with narrow dirt and gravel strips along either side, and a gentle hill at the start of each lap. Access to an aid station and my drop bag every two miles would make logistics simpler than the mountain races I’m used to, and the completely runnable terrain would make be sure to make for a faster time.

Still, I was just coming back from a couple minor injuries after Bryce. My foot was fully recovered, but I knew I’d have to stop to stretch my back often assuming it held up at all. Thanks to recovery time, I felt undertrained. Worst of all, I’d never run more than about 15 miles of flat or paved track, never mind both.

That’s right, I skipped road marathons and went straight for a paved 100 miler. Because I’m smart.

With the path running through a cluster of tents and shade structures for runners, pacers, and crew near the aid station and timing booth, race central reminded me the slightest bit of a back street at Burning Man or Occupy San Francisco in its heyday. It didn’t hurt that there were trays and tables setup with sunscreen and mysterious food-like concoctions, exhausted and sun-fried runners looking for ways to help out, and the same sweaty people kept stumbling through every twenty to sixty minutes.

As the race began at 6:00 am on Saturday, I tried to focus on pacing myself and learning the course. I had no hope of being the fastest runner there, but I had a shot at running the smartest race. In trail runs, my only advantage usually comes from my ability to run relatively fast down steep, tricky terrain, and that wouldn’t be a factor here at all. Good pacing, quick aid stops, perfect nutrition, and cutting the shortest line possible on each lap would be the ticket. Not to mention a whole lot of caffeine.

The first quarter of the race went well. I moved easily, and I think I paced myself fairly well. I settled into a routine of walking a short section of the gentle hill after the aid station and trying to run the rest of the course. I became familiar with the undulations of the track along the irregularly shaped loop, which would help me keep my laps short at night. I had a nice view of a coyote padding through the fenced in cow pasture in the center of the park.

From around miles 28 through 40, I had a much tougher time of things. The heat reached the mid 80s, and there was absolutely no shade along the course. My hamstrings felt like cement pillars, and I feared that with my lack of training for this kind of race, I just didn’t have the conditioning I needed for them to recover. For a while, I thought about dropping.

It occurred to me that I’d experienced this kind of doubt before. It occurred to me that this new kind of challenge was exactly why I’d signed up, and I just needed to get myself through the worst part of it. Finally, it occurred to me that things felt pretty bad, but they weren’t getting worse. Based on the emotional and somatic ebbs and flows of my previous 100 milers, I figured that meant I’d come out the other side feeling great. I’m glad I had that presence of mind, because I was right. I came into the aid station at mile 40 just as it was starting to cool off a little, had some watermelon, and felt revived.

I was still having trouble keeping up a running pace, though. Mostly I kept an eye on my watch and if I couldn’t keep moving faster than a fifteen-minute mile, I’d take a short walk break. It wasn’t until around night fell, the temperature dropped about ten degrees, and I finally figured out the course that I was able to start making up time.

For 19 of the last 20 laps, I walked all of the first third (or two-thirds of a mile) from the aid station to the bench at the crest of the hill. From there, I was able to run the rest of the way in, every time.

It was also around then that I realized if I could maintain this average pace of under fifteen minutes per mile, including my walk breaks and aid stops, I had a shot at finishing in under 24 hours total. I didn’t know if I could maintain it or not. Was I running too much, too hard?

For most of the night I ran under the nearly full moon without my headlamp. Sometime in the small hours, the hillside tore open with the howls of coyotes. I thought about grabbing my headlamp for the next lap, but saved it for moondown after all.

For the first time since I started running 100 mile races, I stopped worrying about finishing and started worrying about finishing fast. Headlands, HURT, and Bryce were about survival. This was about running.

I became obsessed with time, wanting to take less than 30 minutes on each loop so I could build up a margin that I felt certain I would inevitably need. After my watch gave out at mile 82, I would ask for the time each time I came in to finish a lap. After hearing a few disappointing but misleading answers, I started asking for the exact time.

With six miles left to go, I knew I would pull it off. I’d thought about aiming for twenty-four hours when I toed the line, but it had seemed like a fantasy goal until the final forty miles. Now it seemed certain. Walking up the gentle hill after the aid station, I experienced a rush of emotion and unbidden tears of joy, as intense and as beautiful as nearing the finish of my first 100 almost a year before.

I ran all of the 50th lap.

I finished in 23 hours, 31 minutes, and 35 seconds. It was my first sub-24 hour finish, and my first top ten finish as I placed eighth overall.

With a few naps mixed in, I stuck around to cheer for as many of the incredible people who were still out there running as I could. Less than a full lap behind me was 13 year-old Miguel Vivaldo, who would set a new world record as the youngest sub-24 hour 100 mile finisher. I don’t know what distance she was going for, but I was told that one woman who was walking the course had had chemo the previous Monday. Several people kept pushing for a 100 mile finish straight through to Sunday afternoon, when temperatures were in the 90s and there was still absolutely no shade on the course.

Race director Rajeev Patel would say Run-de-Vous is “about you,” but I’m pretty sure it was about them. I feel great about what I pulled off last weekend, but those people are just amazing.

Split times, for posterity:
10.05 miles: 01:47:00
20.10 miles: 03:45:00
30.15 miles: 06:06:00
40.20 miles: 08:50:00
50.25 miles: 11:22:00
60.30 miles: 13:59:00
70.35 miles: ????????
80.40 miles: 18:58:00
90.45 miles: ????????
100.5 miles: 23:31:35