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.

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.

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.

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

On Fumes – Bryce 100 2013-05-31

One of the strange and scary things about hundred milers is how quickly even these monumental undertakings can start to seem routine. Bryce 100 was my third such race, and the third in only nine months, and I went into it excited, yes, but without any of the existential terror that accompanied my first two. Fortunately, all I had to do to cure this condition was run the thing.

I expected Bryce to be the easiest of my three hundred milers by a fair margin. Headlands had been my first, and I’d packed a number of big rookie mistakes into a rugged course with 20,000 feet of climbing and eked out a 32.5 hour finish just under the time limit. I’d been much better prepared for HURT, but it’s an extremely technical course throughout that never stops rising or falling, with a total of close to 25,000 feet of uphill gain. There were different estimates for the elevation gain at Bryce – not only was this the inaugural running, but there had been several late course changes – but the consensus seemed to be settling on the neighborhood of 19,000 feet, which I was sure I could handle well under the 36 hour cutoff.

More interesting would be the actual altitude of the course. The first eighty miles were all above 8,000 feet, with a peak elevation of around 9,500. I’d done some recent training runs at around 8,000 feet in Yosemite, and I knew the thin air could slow me down on long ascents, already a weak point in my running. If that was the worst of it, though, I figured I’d be in good shape, and hoped to finish in around thirty hours.

When race morning arrived, we gathered at a parking lot for an ATV trail about fifteen miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. For most of the race, we would be running above the park, farther west on the Paunsagaunt Plateau. Due to limited space at the actual starting line, we’d be shuttled up from the parking lot. However, there was only one school bus (that I saw) running up the bumpy dirt road, and more than two hundred runners who needed a ride.

With forty of my closest friends, I jumped into the back of a twenty-four foot U-Haul for the trip. I clambered up onto “Mom’s Attic” to make room for more runners, and threatened a quick stage dive. The truck started its way up the dirt road, and immediately filled with dust, looking for all the world like a crappy Burning Man art car. Fringe sporting event or conceptual art prank, on those trails my lungs would be full of dust by the next morning regardless.

Most of the first sixty miles were single track forest trails, so it took a while for the 210 or so starters (including forty 100K runners) to spread out. As soon we started to get some space between us, traffic backed up as runners all stopped to take pictures where the Thunder Mountain trail opened up to views of nearby pink rock hoodoos and the sweeping pine forest of the lower plateau. I commented to another runner that my time would only be improved by the fact that my phone’s battery had died overnight, but in truth I never stop to take photos during a race anyway.

I rolled my ankle coming into the first aid station at mile ten. I don’t know if it was here or later on that I hurt my foot, but by the next morning it would be a major problem.

Although I felt like I was pacing myself well, it only took a few hours for my legs to start feeling fatigued, which I attributed to the altitude. I never had trouble breathing, headaches, or worse symptoms of altitude sickness, but I simply wasn’t sucking in enough oxygen to give my my muscles all the energy they needed. Worse, after the first 50K we climbed to above 9,000 feet and stayed there for about five miles, and here is where I really felt the effects. Although the terrain was pretty easy, I slowed to a crawl and started to fall asleep on my feet, a feeling I’ve never had before so early in a race. I resorted to caffeine at the next aid station, far sooner than I’d planned, which meant I’d be stringing myself along on stimulants for closer to twenty-five hours than the maximum of twenty I’d hoped for.

Another descent, another climb, and before long I was summiting Pink Cliffs, the high point of the run. At 9,500 feet, I expected to have more problems with altitude, but the ascent and descent were short and sharp, which I dealt with better. In the meantime, I did my best to savor sweeping views across the plateau, Bryce Canyon, and on beyond Zion.

Coming into Pink Cliffs at mile 45. From the Bryce 100 Facebook page.
Coming into Pink Cliffs at mile 45. From the Bryce 100 Facebook page.

Ten miles later, coming back up to the Pink Cliffs aid station after the turnaround, the sun disappeared and the temperature on the ridge plummeted in fast winds. The high school class out volunteering would spend their night not only making soup for us, but struggling to keep their shelter from blowing over. Shivering, I changed into a pair of tights, a long shirt and a light jacket, and made the mistake of changing my shoes. The first pair still felt good, but I thought a new pair would feel even better – two miles later I regretted it, but I was stuck with them for the rest of the race. Maybe that’s what put my foot over the edge from aggravated to injury, but it’s hard to tell. Certainly, they were less comfortable and left me with a couple of raw spots.

As soon as I started moving again and dropping down from the ridge, I warmed up and didn’t have any more problems with the cold that night, even as the wind continued. Now and then it would pick up and send a dust devil skittering off like a trail spirit in the glow of my headlamp.

Shortly after sunrise I came up to the last familiar aid station before splitting off on the twenty mile finish leg of the course. I was handed a hot banana pancake and a cup of foul instant coffee (manna nonetheless) to eat on the go as I made my way up a dusty dirt road before beginning a long descent toward the next aid station, the King Creek campground where I’d spent the previous night.

Toward the end of this long dirt road descent, my foot finally gave out. I’d been feeling discomfort or occasional pain from the front of my left ankle now and then for I didn’t know how many hours, but as long as I was careful to land on the front of that foot it seemed okay. Now it was overtaking me, and I was slowing to a walk even on gentle downhills. By mile 85, the morning was heating up, and I found myself presented with an unexpected climb up the (beautiful, but in the moment resented) Keyhole Arch trail. For the first time in a hundred miler, I found myself doubting my ability to finish the course. I spent some time sitting on a log when I knew I could have been climbing, just waiting, for what I don’t know – for my foot to heal, for endorphins to go back to masking the pain, for myself to start caring again as much as I had only an hour before.

Once I started moving again, all I needed was to crest the hill for my problems to sort themselves out. I was able to really start running downhill again, free from pain and full of energy, excited by the familiar location of the campground and the knowledge that it signified the final leg of the course. Eleven more miles. After the day and the night I’d already been through, I could crawl eleven miles if I had to.

Except that the day was getting ripe, and hot, and the rest of the course was almost nothing but dusty dirt roads, free of shade. When I finally found a good downhill stretch, I started running hard again, but found at the bottom a water stop I’d forgotten was on the course, which meant I still had five miles to go. I pressed on slowly, resting a couple of times in the rare spots of shade, pouring out a little bit of water over my head as I went elsewhere.

Finally, when it seemed I couldn’t possibly be more than a mile from the end, I picked up and started running again. It must have been fairly slow, but to remember the actual mechanics of running after so much time on my feet is always amazing. Only that one mile stretched into two, then three. Thanks to the last course change, the final leg of race had turned out to be thirteen miles instead of the planned eleven.

No matter. I kept running until I saw the finish, and then I even managed to pick up speed, crossing that arbitrary line in the sand with everything I had left in me, arms wide in celebration.

Every time I run, after all, that’s the real point: everything I’ve got. In running all day, all night, and into the next day, I keep learning more about what that is.

It turns out sometimes that being hurt, being tired, feeling like the world and the sun are coming down on top of me aren’t so bad. I’ve just got to know where I’m going and remember to breathe.

We Wouldn’t Want it to be Easy: HURT 2013

There’s no way to understate this: the HURT 100 is hard. I ran it well, and up to a certain point I think I ran it smart, and it’s still only due to the help of the amazing race volunteers and fellow runners that I was able to make it through to the end. If it had been a hotter year, I might not even be able to say that much, and most of us who started the race this year couldn’t.

I came in knowing it would be hard, and I was neither disappointed nor underestimating the task. That wasn’t exactly the same as being prepared for how hard it would be. No matter how much I’d read, how many videos and photos of the course I’d looked at, the true relentlessness of the run wouldn’t sink in until I’d run at least one full lap.

It was also one of the most intense experiences of my life, maybe least of all physically. People who talk about ultrarunning being a mental sport but haven’t run HURT might just be repeating filtered wisdom from someone who has. Esthetically, it was beautiful and haunting and unforgettable. Emotionally, it was deep and raw and tough and sweet, and I’ve cried less over break-ups than I did over finishing successfully.

In brief, the HURT 100 is run on five loops of a 20-mile course which climbs Honolulu’s Mt. Tantalus three times on each loop. If you’re familiar with Honolulu, Tantalus is due north of Waikiki, and you may have been there as a tourist to see Manoa Falls or Round Top Drive (both on course). If not, just know that Tantalus is steep as hell and covered in dense Hawaiian rainforest. In total, there’s just a few feet shy of 5,000 feet of vertical climbing per loop. This means the average grade on the course is close to 10%.

That’s not what makes it hard.

A couple days before the race, I went out for a preview with Ken “Running Stupid” Michal and co. We hiked and ran the shortest of the three legs of each loop, from Paradise Park through Pauoa Flats to Nu`uana-Pali Drive. Even though Ken, like me, was only in town for race week from the Bay Area, he was able to give me a lot of good tips. This year would be Ken’s fourth attempt at finishing the full hundred miles, so there might not have been a better source of info on what could go wrong at HURT and how to persevere.

Each of three legs of the course finishes a 12 to 1600 foot climb at Pauoa Flats, a roughly quarter-mile section of trail that flips open the dictionary to the word “gnarly” and asks, “Are you sure you really wanted that? Because I can keep going.” True, there are a few spots where the ground isn’t literally coated in Banyan roots. Yep. There are a few.

That’s not what makes it hard.

By the time we made it to Nu`uanu (the end of the second leg) I had a better understanding of what I’d be up against, and of all that Ken had pushed through over the past three years’ runs, but still no true grasp of the weekend ahead.

I showed up on race morning rested and excited. The run starts at 6am, which in January means more than an hour of darkness still lay ahead. I waited at the back of the pack, which would help force me to take it slow up the first climb, a steep hill just around the corner from the starting line called Hogsback. When we topped out at Round Top Drive (just before Pauoa Flats), I took advantage of my better downhill running speed to pass more than a dozen people, landing solidly in the middle of the pack by the first aid station.

On the climb back up, almost half of those people would pass me again, since I tend to be a slower uphill runner. This didn’t matter much to me, since I would overtake them at the Flats or coming down the other side by the time we got to the other station. In some cases, we would leapfrog each other this way predictably for as much as 80 miles. The majority of the trail is technical, requiring close attention to your footing if not the copious roots[1], slick rocks, and dangerous drop offs, with occasional scrambles or two-foot high step ups. This hits everyone in their weak spot, whether it’s ascending or descending or just staying upright.

No, that’s not what makes it hard either, but we’re getting closer.

I caught up with Ken at the top of a steep scramble (coming up to Bien’s Bench) after the second aid station. I was a little worried that I was going out too fast on the first loop, but my pace felt comfortable there, so I took his encouragement to pass instead of running with him for a while. I’d be seeing plenty more of him, anyway. On our way up we met another repeat attempter Jennifer-Anne on her way down, already, as she put it “puking out.” She’d get back to the start and spend the rest of the weekend volunteering. Some of it in a giant cockroach costume.

I finished my first loop in 5:15, refilled my bottles and turned around for another climb up Hogsback. Now in the daylight, without the big crowd at the back and the excitement of the early going, I could learn to hate this hill. Between the heat of the day and the encroaching fatigue, I still felt generally good but my ascents were already getting much slower. All told, the second loop would take me about 75 minutes longer. With 40 miles done and the night about to begin, I was starting to worry that if my time kept dropping off, in the end I would too.

This is precisely what makes HURT so hard.

No other mountain hundred I know of has such aggressive cutoff times tuned precisely to chase down mid-packers like myself. I have no doubt that Hardrock is a tougher course, considering it climbs an additional 8,000 feet and summits the odd 14,000 foot peak for a lark, but with 48 hours to finish most runners never need hurry just to meet the time limit unless something goes wrong. HURT, however, has a 36 hour time limit, with hard cutoffs throughout the last loop starting at 29 hours in.

This means that even if you make all the cutoffs with time to spare, you never really get a chance to stop worrying about them. You can’t rest for longer than you absolutely need to. You can’t slow down, zone out, and coast along one of the few relatively easy section of trail. You have to stay focused on running your best for as long as 36 hours [2].

Although I didn’t get to enjoy as much scenery, the nighttime portion of HURT might have been my favorite. Things cooled off enough on the third loop to offset most of my encroaching fatigue, and the rainforest has its own kind of beauty by headlamp. I’ll never forget the sound of wind picking up in the giant bamboo groves high above Manoa Falls. My third loop took 7:43, or again about 75 minutes longer than the previous loop.

On loop four, I deployed my Caffeine Strategem. I’d stopped drinking coffee a month before, and quit caffeine altogether a week after that. I cracked a 24-Hour Energy and mixed it into one of my bottles of electrolyte drink, and sipped it on my way up Hogsback. By Pauoa Flats I was flying over the roots and crooning along with my iPod at top volume (my apologies to any delicate eardrums I may have passed on the way). I refilled that bottle with Coke at the bottom. All told, I moved up 15 places and ran my fourth loop ten minutes faster than my third.

Early on loop five, though, the wheels came off. I took it slow up Hogsback as the second day of the race began to heat up. By the second half of the first leg’s climb, I was feeling a little queasy, but I took some ginger and tried to push through it. I let another runner and his pacer push me to run the rest of the climb faster than I usually would have, and just before the top I pulled over and insisted they run on. I tried to force myself to vomit but nothing would come up. Well, that was dumb.

With four miles left to the first aid station of the loop, I was dehydrated. I had some water in my pack’s hydration bladder, but for whatever reason it wasn’t tasting good to me and I could only get small sips in irregularly. Neither electrolyte drink nor Coke was at all palatable, and I did my best to force as many sips of water as I could, and maintained my pace for the rest of the leg, finishing with a good downhill run into the Paradise Park aid station.

Where I asked for water, and collapsed on the pavement.

The HURT volunteers jumped to my aid and saved my run. I was given cup after cup of cool water (the first of which I couldn’t keep down). A cold towel was placed on my head. Someone sat with me and rubbed my back and shoulders while someone else got me a cup of cold vegetable soup and refilled my pack. After maybe ten minutes when I was ready to try moving on, two of them walked up the road to the trailhead with me. I was still unsteady for another mile or so, but I absolutely owe my finish to them.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

Shortly thereafter, a runner coming into the aid station who had already timed out and was just completing her 67-mile “fun run” handed off her trekking poles to me. I don’t know what difference they made for my overall time since I’m not used to running with them and they interfere with my fast downhill style, but they were great for that uphill section while I was still shaky after letting myself get so low. I owe another big thanks to #55.

The next leg was by far the slowest of the race for me, at barely over two miles an hour. It was the only time I dropped more than a couple places. At the final aid station, I was fairly sure I’d make it as long as I kept pushing, but I had an eye on my watch climbing back out again and was just as worried about the few runners left behind me. At one point, ten minutes after leaving the station where the cutoff would be coming up in twenty, I remember bellowing up the trail, “Ken! You’d better be up there and you’d better be running hard!” Not two minutes later he and his pacer came running down past me, looking as determined as I’ve ever seen anyone.

After I met Franco Soriano sitting on a rock, timed out a mile above the last checkpoint, I cried thinking about how hard he’d fought and how close he’d come. Many runners quit at mile 67 if they think the cutoffs will be too close. Franco made them chase him down.

Shannon MacGregor caught up with me on the steepest part of the last climb, and we pushed each other along. He ran on ahead to Pauoa Flats, where I limped in thinking I was alone and stopped to stretch. I stretched one quad, and screamed. I stretched the other, and screamed. I leaned against a root to stretch each calf, and screamed twice.

From thirty feet down the trail, I heard, “Fuck!” It was Shannon, sitting on some roots. “My blister just popped!”

We pushed each other along a little bit more, to the end of the last extra bit of climbing up to Manoa Cliff, and Shannon ran on down ahead. I didn’t have the legs for it yet. I packed up my poles, and shuffled along for most of the descent, until the last mile, and suddenly I was off. It seems to happen to me for the last mile of every run – I just smell the finish and remember how to run. I tore down the last bit of trail, over the bridges, and into the Nature Center right behind Shannon. There was still a big crowd hanging around to cheer for me as I reached the finish sign, which I touched, kissed, hugged, and sobbed over.

Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.
Photo from @HURThawaii Twitter stream.

We wouldn’t want it to be easy, indeed.

I guess I passed Patrick Castello on my way in, and he finished another minute behind me. I never saw him.

Eight minutes later, Ken crossed the bridge and rounded the corner into the Nature Center. I have never seen an ultrarunning crowd go wild like it did for him as he successfully completed his fourth attempt at the HURT 100 with fifteen minutes to spare.

What makes HURT so hard is not just the distance, the terrain, the course, the footing, and the heat, but the fact that it’s meant to be nothing less than the hardest challenge it could be. What makes HURT possible to run is not just the dedication and the passion of each runner, but of the entire network of HURT runners and volunteers, all 300+ of them.

Mahalo. `Aole makou e ho`ohikiwale kela.

[1]: I know this may sound like a lot of other trails, but let me put it another way: there are actually brief sections where the trail itself goes over roots. The footing includes no dirt, rock, gravel, or artificial walkway, just a mass of gnarly uneven toe-stubbing fascia manglers.

[2]: Of course, if you’re a faster runner you have to spend the whole run worrying about running your best while focusing on your footing. Unless there was one I didn’t hear about, this may have been the HURT 100’s first year without a broken bone.

Redefining Hard: Headlands Hundred 2012

On Saturday September 15th, 2012, I finished my first hundred mile run. I can summarize the experience for you in three words: it was hard. I never expected it to be easy, but I was blown away by how much of it actually was easy for me, and by how many unfamiliar and unexpected ways it was just so difficult.

The Headlands Hundred was a last-minute sign-up for me. It wasn’t until the Monday before the race I was sure I’d be able to take the following Monday (the day after I would finish) off work and that I wouldn’t be interfering with outside plans. I’d been training pretty hard for the last few months, both for the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 and my waitlisted entry to the HURT 100 next January, and I’d finished strong at the Marin Ultra Challenge fifty miler in June, but a last minute sign-up to a hundred miler is no joke. I had five days to get my shit together, which meant no time to even think about picking up help in the form of a pacer or a crew. It was just me, a drop bag, a brand new pair of shoes, and the world’s best aid station volunteers.

Headlands is not the hardest hundred-mile course out there[1], but it’s probably on the harder side, and a number of people commented on how ambitious (or worse) I was to make it my first. The trails are mostly non-technical fire roads, but they can get nasty in their own way with plenty of loose rocks, ruts, and some severe camber. The four-lap course makes planning easy, but passing through the Rodeo Beach start/finish area at the halfway and three-quarter mark is a severe psychological challenge. The Bay Area weather was characteristically mild this year, but the nighttime fog was thick, cold, and made headlamps almost useless at times (think high beams). Toughest of all, the total vertical gain of over 20,000 feet is distributed almost evenly across five climbing sections per lap, with only about two miles of flat running.

I started out trying hard not to worry about making time or passing anyone, and focused on keeping a slow and steady pace. I did a better job of this than on any previous race or even training run, with my guideline being not to ever let myself feel like I was working. I finished the first twenty-five mile lap in 5:40, which was a bit faster than I’d hoped for, and the second after about another seven hours, which put me about fifteen minutes behind June’s (steeper and poorly paced) fifty miler. This was when most people picked up their pacer[2] (or their first of two), and was almost exactly when the sun finished setting.

I’d heard plenty about how much nighttime slows you down on hundred milers, and I’d done some recent nighttime trail runs that I thought would help me prepare, but I was shocked by how quickly it made such a huge difference. The first problem was that I could no longer make up much time on the downhills, since my speed was limited not by downhill running skill but by the range of my lights, which was only compounded by the fog. I was able to overcome some of the visibility issues with my backup handheld flashlight, but by about mile sixty I started feeling pain in the front of my right ankle on descents unless I was very careful about maintaining a forward posture, which is hard to do when you’re going slowly and carefully.

What I was least prepared for was how tired I got, and how quickly. I’m normally more of a night person, but being out there in the wilderness with few electric lights quickly put me on a different rhythm, never mind that I’d been awake since five A.M. and running since seven. At every aid station I came to, the first thing I asked for was caffeine. Then I checked my water.

Nonetheless, I was amazed at how well it was all going and how easy it all felt, right up until it wasn’t. I can pinpoint fairly well when this run became the hardest thing I’ve ever done: somewhere between mile 62 and mile 63, climbing up the Marincello Trail for the second time[3]. It was after one A.M., it was dark, it was foggy, it was getting cold as I neared the ridge, and I felt like I was falling asleep on my feet along what always feels like an endless rise. For the first time, I was moving slowly enough that I started to worry about making the cutoff times.

A few miles out from the start/finish area, I heard a wild cheer go up when the winner came in. Julie Fingar came in after 21 hours 20 minutes, setting a new women’s course record and proving that she’s following in the legendary Ann Trason’s footsteps not only as a race director but as a woman who can take the overall crown. I literally only saw her out there in flashes.

I made it to Rodeo Beach for mile 75 with 75 minutes to spare, poetically, but that certainly wasn’t enough time to set my mind at ease. I just had to hope that when the sun came up I’d be able to pick things up a little. To make heading back out on my fourth lap that much harder, the second place finisher and first-place man Karl Schnaitter came across the line as I was changing my flashlight batteries.

Sunrise did very little for me. It was on the first big climb after daybreak that I hit the lowest point of the race, and seriously considered turning back. I had no caffeine left on me, and Rodeo Beach was still a little closer than the next aid station at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge[4]. Finally, I figured out how to set a five minute alarm on my stopwatch, and curled up in the ditch at the side of Bobcat Trail. It didn’t make all the difference, but it made enough to get me through the rest of the climb.

That was the only sleep I got, but the rest of the course felt pretty much the same. Each of the four remaining climbs just got harder and slower, with more pauses while I leaned over on my knees to recoup. About halfway through the lap – mile 87 or so – was when the weird, tough, and somehow good emotional stuff started to come.

I’ve been through these rolling endorphin surges on some of my hardest runs before, but this time I started figuring out a little bit about how to use them to my advantage. When I started to grind to a halt during the climbs, I would visualize some detail about finishing, and sometimes – not reliably – I would find myself bowled over in a surge of emotion. Sometimes I would start cackling, sometimes sobbing, but it was almost uncontrollable and it was just incredibly good. Best of all, it made my legs feel like new and gave me enough energy to get through a good chunk of steep hiking.

Coming out of the last aid station at Tennessee Valley at mile 96, I had about 90 minutes left on the clock, and only one more climb to go. At this point there was no reason to doubt I could do it, but I was just moving so slowly, and nodding off so often, and the trail was so much longer than I remembered… At one point I picked up a stick from the side of the trail and beat the crap out of my quads and calves for a minute as I walked along.

Finally I found myself back on Wolf Ridge, and I knew I was home free. All the exhaustion and even the pain in my ankle melted away and I started really running, faster than I had at any time in the last 98 miles. As I made my way past Fort Cronkhite to where I could see the finish line tent, I started hurtling down toward the beach below. I ran like my life depended on it, and I ran with tears of joy streaming down my cheeks.

I finished in 32:34:01, twenty-six minutes ahead of the final cutoff of thirty-three hours. I placed sixteenth out of seventeen finishers. I was sad to see Nadia Costa miss the official finish by only eight minutes – she impressed me immensely by making up a lot of time on her last lap after technically missing the cutoff at mile 75 – and inspired by Alex Mares, who just kept hiking after his knee gave out at mile 40 to come in with nine minutes to spare. There were twenty-seven starters in this year’s hundred mile run.

Although I did it alone, I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the new operators of PCTR who scrambled to put this event on so well, and even more so to the sleepless volunteers they rounded up. To whomever went out and marked the trails with glowsticks to counter the fog, I owe you a debt of gratitude and the drink of your choice. I’m also very thankful to the encouragement I got from the group at Run 365, from Lauri who was out there crewing Julie Fingar, and from my indescribably awesome partner Robynne. I’m not entirely sure where I got the overconfidence to do a stupid thing like this, but I’m sure you all helped.

[1] If I end up doing HURT, some would say that one is in contention. Sure, it sounds tough, but then there’s always Hardrock. And we don’t even talk about the Barkley Marathons in polite company.

[2] Now that I know how rough those late, exhausted hours can be, I see the value of a pacer. Everyone running past me with their own made me think of that old Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul and everyone else gets to play with theirs, but poor Bart has to row his own boat in circles alone.

[3] The Headlands course follows “washing machine loops,” sending you back out in the opposite direction each time, apparently for ease of high-fiving.

[4] The course may be tough, but it’s nothing if not scenic. And tough.