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

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

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

1. Elk Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on DNFing at Bighorn

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

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

1. Heat

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

2. Hills

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

3. Pacing

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

4. Altitude

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

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

5. Salt

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

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

6. Weight

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

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

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

7. Dolphins

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

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

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

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

8. Liquid Lunch

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

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

9. Dust

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

10. Beware the Chair

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

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

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.

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.

Running to O’ahu

I’m writing on the plane to Honolulu. In five days, I’ll be running my second hundred miler, the HURT 100. This one has a reputation. It’s been a long, fun, and sometimes ill-advised journey to get here.

I don’t know what it was exactly that possessed me to sign up for this race. I’d recently completed my first fifty miler, and I was pretty sure I wanted to try a longer distance someday, when I saw an email announcing that sign-ups would be open soon. Maybe that timing was enough. Deciding to take on the HURT 100 was bad enough, but deciding to take in on as my first?

People often roll their eyes when I mention it’s a hard hundred miler, as though running a hundred miles is already such an impossible feat, there couldn’t possibly be much delineation. Among ultrarunners, though, HURT has a reputation, and not just because of its cutesy intimidating name. It never stops climbing or descending, and by the time you’re done you’ll have climbed 25,000 feet. It’s in the Hawaiian rainforest, which means tricky terrain full of roots, rocks, river crossings, and endless mud, not to mention heat and humidity. If all that weren’t bad enough, the time limit is set tight at 36 hours. I’ve talked to people who have squeezed in finishes close to 48 hour cut off at Hardrock 100 in the high San Juans of Colorado, bagging 14,000 footers and struggling for air as they go, but timed out at HURT. One of them repeatedly on both counts.

So it sounded hard, sure, but it sounded amazing. The rainforest would be beautiful, and my favorite kind of running has always been on gnarly technical trails. I’d just have to get better at climbing. Endlessly.

Sign-ups opened at the end of July, and I surprised myself by forgetting to hover nervously before clicking “Submit.”

When they ran the lottery two weeks later, I only landed a spot on the waitlist anyway. Worst of all, I was #28 on the list. Judging by the last two years’ waitlists, I was just on the cusp – I’d probably get in, but I might not, and I had about four months of uncertain traning to slog through until I’d know for sure.

I lasted about three weeks. I didn’t stop training, but I found another race. Last year’s (2012) Headlands Hundred has been cancelled, then out of the blue reinstated under new management. It was only a week away, but I signed up and got my gear together.

Okay, sure, I was probably undertrained and hadn’t really tapered, but I figured whenever I ran my first hundred miler, it would be hard, it would be impossible to fully prepare myself for, and to some degree it would just have to suck. I was right on those counts, and fortunately it was also amazing. I learned a lot from Headlands that I don’t think I’d have any hope of getting through HURT without. Like that you need more than a week to prepare for a hundred miler.

Headlands left me with a little bit of ankle pain that I took too long to get diagnosed. Specifically, I waited until after Firetrails 50 a month later. Rather, I waited until after a few weeks of recovery from Firetrails 50. Oops. No damage done, but I might have missed out on some good training time.

Finally, in December, I moved off the waitlist to the entry pool. I ramped up my hill training, and started using the steam room or heading out for long runs with extra layers of fleece. Even in California, heat training takes work in the winter.

I joined a few other HURT runners and like minded fools for a forty mile nighttime training run in the mountains the weekend before Christmas. It all had a bit of a Tolkien feel as the eight of us set out into the woods at dusk. Two would turn back before it was (okay, got) too late. One would be separated from his companions and become horribly lost. Of course, I was that one.

At a certain junction where the trail apparently crossed the road, I was just a little bit behind another runner. I thought I saw his headlamp bounce off down the logging road which went down the hill off the road to the right instead of crossing. Something about it didn’t look right to me, but I couldn’t find where the trail was supposed to go, and I was pretty far ahead of the pack behind me, so off I went instead of waiting. Oops.

The problem with logging roads at night is that they are in fact a maze of twisty passages all alike. That there were no trail markings on any of the intersections was my second sign that I’d gone wrong. That I hit a dead-end at the stream with no crossing that didn’t involve a twenty foot drop was about my fourth. That I tried to backtrack to the road and ended up in someone’s backyard was actually pretty funny, but when I ran back down the road to where I’d gone wrong I still couldn’t see how I went right. So I went back down the logging road. Like a boss.

Eventually I figured out that if I gave up on finding the trail and ran along that road, I’d find the main park entrance, which also happened to be our next major landmark on the trail. I lucked out and managed to pick up the trail from the road sooner than that, only two miles up, but all told my foray in logging added six miles to the run and I no longer had any hope of catching up with the group.

We’d had a lot of rain that weekend, so the stream crossings were high. The majority had footbridges or were still small enough to feel quite safe, until I got to one about five miles from the end of the trail where the bridge was out. I didn’t know the area well enough to trust that I’d be able to backtrack and use another trail to get out (as half the group did), and backtracking all the way to where I could thumb a ride or otherwise find help could have meant risking hypothermia. Instead, I pulled out a perfect example of don’t try this at home, and crossed hip-deep white water solo at 4:00 am five miles from the trailhead.

The first step was cold, but protected and still. The second step was into rushing water that wanted to suck me down stream, so I plunged my foot all the way in until I could wedge it into the rocks below. From there I could grab a boulder that was just submerged, and leverage my way up onto an exposed rock for steps three and four. Step five was onto a mossy boulder on the far shore, but I only had a one-inch ledge. I grabbed the top of the boulder at my full armspan with my fingertips, grateful for some rusty rock climbing experience, and, fatigued from forty miles of night running but terrified of falling backwards, hoisted myself over the top.

Five more miles of easy running, some urgent I’m-okays from the stupid smartphone and a nap in the back seat, and I was starting to feel better about my chances of getting through this HURT thing.

All I’ve gotta do is run smart. That shouldn’t be so hard, right?

Missing the Turn: Yosemite 11/23/2012

The day after Thanksgiving, while many of countrymen apparently were lining up to fight over consumer electronics, I took advantage of the extra day off work to wake up at 4:30 AM and drive straight to Yosemite National Park. My plan was to run that day, camp that night, run the next day, and then drive home. Depending on how much time I had on Friday, I would either go for a long but gentle run on Friday followed by a short but steep run on Saturday, or vice versa. Yosemite had a few tricks up its sleeve for me, and things did not work out exactly as planned, but for such a loosely planned solo trip I have no real complaints.

I made it to Hodgdon Meadows inside the park boundaries and had my camp setup by around 9 AM, but with one key element missing that would come back to haunt me later: no firewood. I figured I’d either swing down through the valley for dinner or stop at the Crane Flat gas station after my run to pick some up since gather wood at such a heavily used campground is a bit of a fool’s errand. Judging by the temperature at that hour, it was going to be a chilly evening, and I was definitely going to want a fire to sit by before crawling into my tent.

The good news was that with such an early, I’d be able to get my long run in that day. The route I had picked out would take me from the Foresta trailhead on Big Oak Flat Road up and over the sub-alpine shoulder of the north valley wall to the summit of El Capitán ten miles out, where I would have my lunch and turn around.

I started my day heading up switchbacks at 5,000 feet, through scrubland that was burned out twenty years back, with views of the eastern side of Yosemite Valley and the snowy mountains beyond. A couple miles later I was weaving through dense pine with a couple of trick stream crossings. cruising along but struggling a bit with the thinner air.

At four miles I came to the only major junction on my map. The trails here were clearly marked, both on paper and in the real world. I took the right branch, which was marked El Capitán. Unfortunately, there was another turn off to the left which I never saw (even on the way back, when I knew to look out for it) and the more obvious path I stuck to is not marked on any of the four maps I looked at that day, so I didn’t know to watch out for a second junction. By the time I realized I was headed toward the base of El Cap rather than the summit, I was worried about how long it would have taken to backtrack and finish out the run rather than continuing on and turning back at a good halfway point.

I had hoped to run on the North Rim Trail, but instead found myself descending 2,000 feet on Old Big Oak Flat Road, once the main route into the valley. As it has been so thoroughly abandoned, it looks as though the park service is trying to encourage reclamation of some the upper sections of the paved road. For me, this meant jumping and climbing over downed logs and whole trees for more than a mile, which look as though they will be left to mulch.

The reason Old Big Oak Flat Road can’t be used anymore is that most of a half-mile section was completely buried in rockfall in 1945. This doesn’t make for good hiking, let alone running, and seems like a good invitation for a permanent road closure. This is probably why they don’t bother putting it on any of recreational maps, which is why I wasn’t watching out for my turn off to the North Rim Trail.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
Can you spot both trail markers?

Even with all the downed trees and the growing suspicion that something wasn’t right, I had a great time cruising down the busted old road until I hit the wide, exposed, somewhat unnavigable and slightly terrifying talus field. I’ve been rock climbing and boulder hopping before, but this wasn’t clearly stable. There were occasional ducks to mark the general direction across the slope, but they were very hard to pick out in the monochromatic jumble. When I finally emerged from the rockfall, I popped out about sixty feet uphill from the road.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
I generally prefer trail running to road running to running sixty feet above the road.

On the way back I tried a different tactic, sticking with the road and ignoring the markers, which seemed to get me through with far less boulder hopping. However, it quickly became clear that I must have skipped the biggest section of scrambling by emerging into the woods below the road. After scrambling up a steep embankment, it seemed I was off by at least 100 vertical feet.

After all the unexpected climbing, both on my feet and all fours, the last leg of the run was harder and slower than I’d hoped for, and I finished the last two miles in the moonlight. I quickly changed into warmer clothes and headed back in the direction of my campsite, stopping only at the Crane Flat gas station. They were closed – there would be no firewood for me.

I was uninjured. I felt accomplished, but also exhausted. Yosemite and I had fought each other to a draw. Did I really need another day of this?

By the time I got back to my campsite it was 6:30pm, dark, and getting cold fast. I quickly broke camp, packed up the car, took some caffeine and drove back to Oakland. This might not have been the best decision at that moment, but at least I knew where all my turns would be.

Zero Per

Heading down a narrow switchback through the tall brown grass this evening meant suddenly and utterly commanding the attention of a beautiful blacktail buck…

Heading down a narrow switchback through the tall brown grass this evening meant suddenly and utterly commanding the attention of a beautiful blacktail buck. Oddly enough, my first wish was for a camera, and not for any other sort of point-and-shoot. Sport hunters may always confound me; I’m pretty much OK with that.

The meadow around the bend was so thick with fauns and doe that I gave up my run and crept along on tip-toe for a good half mile. Jogging back uphill along the park’s most out of the way paved road, I spotted another young six point buck, maybe ten feet out into the brush, who watched me warily as he grazed and guarded two smaller family members. It wasn’t until I’d been standing still and watching silently for a few good minutes that I noticed the two older males, big and gorgeous creatures, seated in the tall grass, absolutely still. None of us moved until another group of humans came up from behind me, making a racket. As the last of the deer turned tail, I bolted uphill too, along the road instead of following them into their copse. I’d been just fine with my previous pace of zero per, but the run had to end sometime.

On the other end of the scale, something clicked on a short downhill section about a mile later, and I found a new top speed at 13 mph (albeit unsustained, to say the least), but I did so while feeling stable and without stressing my knees. A common mantra in trail running is to go for “LSD” (because we’re all, apparently, easily amused hippies) – Long, Steady Distance – and I won’t claim to know of anything better when it comes to building up pure endurance, but even without interval drills and fartleks, there can be great joy in the extremes.

Trail running, at its best, is hardly all about the speed, but we do come out here for the trail, and we come out here to run, after all.