We had just zipped up our sleeping bags when we heard it. The sound of a cowbell ringing and the swelling chorus of people cheering which marked the finish of the first runner. In around 19 hours this man had managed to cover 100 miles of mountainous landscape. He had climbed 23,000 vertical feet and had been able to descend a similar amount. And right now, at his moment of triumph, I lay defeated in my sack.
We awoke that morning at 4am. Rain was falling on our tent and in the light of my headlamp I could see my breath. I gathered my things and ran to the car. As the heater began to breathe warm air, I changed into my running clothes. They were cold and felt damp in my hands. Amy climbed into the front seat and helped me to get organized. I ate some rice pudding and a banana while completing a final survey of my drop bags and waist pack. Then Amy drove me the half mile down the road to the starting area.
Other runners were huddled under tents and awnings. There was a large aluminum pot of hot water simmering over a propane burner. Using a long ladle, people were filling their cups; mixing in instant coffee or hot chocolate powder. The glare of headlamps illuminated the falling rain. We all waited for the race director to start the race. He waited for first light.
The course was changed this year to eliminate some of the truck trail in favor of single track. The previous course was too easy. It just wouldn’t do. The race motto had to be maintained, “Moderation has its place. It ain’t here!” Essentially the course consisted of three loops. The first loop was 11 miles bringing us back to the start and our first aid station. The second loop was 22 miles again bringing us back to the start. The last loop made up the remaining 67 miles.
I was trying to be conservative in my pace and I believe that I was. I came through the 33 mile mark in seven and a half hours. I had power walked 75% of the climbs and was holding back on the descents. At 4.5 miles per hour I felt like I was right on track. The third loop began with a 2.5 mile climb followed by about a 5 mile descent on very rocky technical trail. This in turn was followed by a nearly 10 mile long ascent at an average grade of 8.5%. I came through the big climb and was still on the 4.5 miles per hour pace.
Although I was sweating during the climb, I was also getting chilled. At about 5,000 feet of elevation we passed through a low cloud bank and it was quite a bit colder at this height. By the final summit at 5,800 feet you could see the cloud layer down below and the nearly full moon was visible through a partly cloudy sky. With 55 miles completed I was looking forward to a 7 mile descent to the next aid station.
Be careful what you ask for. Instead of being the opportunity to bank some time with a conservative, but still faster down hill section, this descent became my undoing. When I tried to run, even at the slowest speeds, my legs would just not function. My quads were shredded from the previous 10,000 feet or so of descent and 15,000 feet of climbing. I was reduced to walking. It took me nearly two and a half hours to get to the aid station and by the time I arrived I was shivering uncontrollably and showing signs of hypothermia. Not being able to generate heat from running and a wet base layer left me exposed.
At the aid station I ate some warm soup and stood next to the propane heater. I took stock of my situation. I was about 61 miles into the race. I had to walk the uphill sections which I had planned on doing. I now had to walk the downhill sections. I could still run on flat ground, but there wasn’t any more to be had. I did the math. I had plenty of time. I could change my shirt, warm up, and walk to the finish before the 34 hour cut off.
So I made my decision.
Let me just say that something not being “worth it” to me does not mean that I think it isn’t “worth it” to someone else. It doesn’t mean that I don’t respect someone else for their accomplishment. I have huge respect for people that climb Mount Everest. I have no interest in doing it. I have huge respect for people that cycle across the country. I have no interest in doing this. I have huge respect for people that finish 100 milers even if they walk the last forty miles. I have no interest in doing this either.
I chose not to continue because even if I finished it wouldn’t measure up to my expectations for myself. For me running has to involve running. I can accept that in ultra distance races, with extreme amounts of vertical, mere mortals have to power walk up hills. It makes sense. Your heart rate is still elevated, it gives your running muscles a break, and it is just plain more efficient. But I can’t accept having to walk down hills or on flat ground. It is after-all a race. It is an ultra “running” event. Am I weaker or stronger than other ultra runners for having this view? I don’t know. I do know that they will each have their own opinion on that question. I know that some of them that will disagree with me have a 100 mile finisher’s buckle to their credit and I don’t.
So where do I go from here? I know I can “run” 100K events and I have another one in January where I want to improve my time. How about choosing an easier course for another 100 mile attempt? I wish I found this interesting because I am much more confident in my ability to complete it. But if it isn’t hard, mountainous, technical terrain it doesn’t grab my attention. It doesn’t stir my emotions or ignite my passion. For me the pain isn’t worth the gain. It has to be “EPIC!” and “EPIC!” is in the eye of the beholder.
So I will put another hard 100 miler on my schedule for later next year. I will search for ways to build my downhill endurance as I have been able to improve my climbing endurance. I will think about, and strategize, and contemplate, and theorize obsessively until I figure it out. I won’t stop trying to run a hard 100 miler until the flame of desire flickers out. But for now it has just been fanned by the elusiveness of the goal.