2011 Bear 100 Race Report
"What the hell IS this?" I thought to myself during my increasingly desperate, wincing death march on the long descent towards Fish Haven, finishing the last 5 miles of what would be my first 100 mile run. This no longer seemed like a race. Hell, it didn't even seem like an athletic event. My heart rate was about 100. My quads and feet just were no longer able to withstand the pounding and not having consumed any significant calories since mile 75 had left me weak, reeling, and woozy. In all honesty, I could have been passed by 30 people on this stretch and not really cared: my mental state and whole being (what was left of it anyway) was just focused solely and intently on putting one painful foot in front of the other to simply get this thing done with. On paper it looks pretty decent: 2nd place and a 21:18 finish. The first person perspective of those last 25 miles told a different story however.
I had spent about a good amount of time on this last 15 mile stretch heading the wrong way at several junctures and then backtracking and I was now paranoid about being off course. (This time off course was significantly less than Nick Pedatella, first place finisher, who lost what must have been close to 1 hour in those last miles and still managed to pass me again going about twice as fast as I was). I had left my written course directions at the last aid station accidentally, emptying them out of my waist pack with a bunch of unused GU and Shot blocks that I had no chance of being able to ingest given my compromised GI system. As I hit pavement, in my semi-delirious state I was certain it was only a quarter mile or so to the finish. In reality it was 2 miles on dark, deserted country road. Running along I became increasingly certain that I was off course and doomed to wander around the rest of the night looking for the damned finish line. In retrospect I could have used a pacer just for this reason: my running pace probably wouldn't have been faster but having had a working brain out on the course, even in a different body, would have been nice. I remembered Mindy Campbell describing how in a previous year Jared had finished to find just Leland Barker asleep in a sleeping bag with a sign-in sheet so I wasn't expecting much as far as finish line hoopla. I came across a lodge on Fish Haven Rd with a big sign welcoming "Bear 100 Runners." Thinking it might be the finish line I weaved my way down the long driveway and entered the building. "Hello? I'm finished!" I called out hoarsely. No response. Someone probably turned over in their bed. My neurons fired in sludge, muffled sparks. Turn around, back out the driveway, back down the road, finally to cross highway 89 and find the finish, this time with cheering spectators including my sister Zoe and Billy who had graciously come out to support me that night for those last painful miles.
If I were to have written a race report from mile 65 it would have read something like this: "What's the big deal with these 100 mile races anyway? This isn't bad at all, just a nice mellow jog in the woods."
I'd do a mile marker by mile marker summary but the whole thing can basically be boiled down to this: a relatively quick and easy 70 miles followed by 30 miles of slow death. People say that if a 50 mile race is like 2 marathons then a 100 mile race is like 4 50 mile races back to back but that's inaccurate. It's exactly like running 100 miles, it's just that the 2nd 50 is much harder. This is the same pattern with the marathon, its just that when you extrapolate the existential suffering of the final 6 miles of the marathon to the scale of 100, rather than lasting 35 minutes it lasts 6 hours.
People talk a lot about mental toughness in 100 mile events as well and I suppose that this has got to be a significant part of it. But it felt like that aspect never really entered the equation. I never thought about dropping out- although I did have moments where I realistically considered the likelihood that it might take me 10 hours to cover the last 25 miles. I never felt particularly tough or weak- rather, I just did what my body was capable of doing at any given moment. At times this was running effortlessly up hill at a quick pace. At other times it was weaving back and forth across the trail in a drunken walk of 2 mph.
I've done a range of different endurance sports and I love the idea of comparing them. I'm always trying to identify what was harder- a 170 mile road bike race with big climbs or a 50 mile running race, a road marathon or a trail 50k, a 1500m track race or a 100 mile mountain race. Before my thoughts turned solely to feeling sorry for myself I did have a productive bit of thinking in the early going and developed a preliminary rating scale for overall difficulty of endurance events which I will have to spell out in more detail in a later post. Suffice it to say, these are not easy questions to answer, nor is there a linear relationship between length of the event and difficulty or level of suffering.
While I'm musing, it seems to be fashionable in writing race reports about never-ending extreme endurance sufferfests to speak at length about insights or personal growth sustained on the run. I've always been a bit dubious. Sure, I've learned plenty of things about myself during athletic events and I learned plenty during this one- it's just that the scope of these insights is pretty circumscribed around a few variables which generally involve some fairly generic and unsurprising observations about what happens to my mind and body when I collectively put them through the wringer. This can be interesting stuff, for sure, but more on the level of frank, clinical appreciation for the kidney rather than an asymptotic approach to some deep underlying metaphysical truth. I will say that I have never felt as raw physically and emotionally during a race as I did both during and after this one. Even several days out I can feel a deep emotional vulnerability and sentimentality and I broke out in tears of gratitude this evening with my family.
So, rather than give a play-by-play I'll do some general impressionistic brush strokes of what I took away from those couple days.
1. An unbelievably beautiful course in remote wilderness. I had multiple transcendent moments in the first 50 miles with some of the most profoundly euphoric moments I have ever experienced while running. I was thinking a lot about Ada (whose 1st birthday party I was planning on attending only hours after finishing back in SLC) and Bethany (who had supported me in doing this race despite the fact that it overlapped with her mother's visit and the logistics of this party), and how spectacularly lucky I was to have them. And how spectacularly lucky I was to be able to do this with my body and get a chance to run having not been able to do Wasatch. The combination of these thoughts, the beautiful fall colors and spectacular terrain, the comraderie of other runners, and the experience of doing this simple activity that has been an intrinsic part of who I am and how I make my way in the world was quite intense for me and I teared up multiple times with goosebumps. (1)
2. The comraderie of other runners.
While I am a competitive moth#rf*$ker and get huge amounts of motivation and pleasure out of just competing with other people, in this event I got the most satisfaction and meaning out of running with other folks and working together. This included a stretch early on with Mick Juryneck that in retrospect I wished lasted longer and then a long 40 mile stretch with Gary Gellin. I can't overstate how helpful running with Gary was. When I caught Gary at mile 40 or so there was the initial sizing each other up, competitive vibe going on. He was peppering me with questions about my PRs and racing experience. Over the next 40 miles however we truly evolved into a team. I would be faster at getting out of aid stations and would walk until Gary caught me. He navigated the course flawlessly and walked for a long stretch after mile 75 when I was on the verge of puking and could not even muster verbal responses to him and his pacer. I felt pangs of guilt and remorse when at around mile 80 I pulled off ahead of him as he walked slowly downhill nursing a hurt knee- particularly as he had clearly been the stronger runner all day to this point. Earlier on we would come into aid stations and I could barely muster shoving my water bottles in the direction of a volunteer with a grunt while Gary would be exuberantly chatting away and cracking jokes. I know I would have finished much slower and likely spent considerably more time lost if not for Gary. I seriously spent a lot of time during the last 5 miles wondering if I should just pull over, plop down, and wait for him to catch up so we could finish together.
3. Zoe and Billy.
I ran this race without pacers and had no crew until seeing Zoe and Billy at Beaver Creek Campground at mile 85 where they were cheering and giving me support. It was a huge boost to see them there and then again at Gibson Basin at mile 92.5. They took care of me at the finish line where all I could do was moan semi-incoherently and then drove me back to SLC in time for Ada's party.
4. Leland Barker.
I got a really good feeling from this guy immediately on meeting him. He gave off a mellow, Zen-like contentment that made me feel really good about doing this race. We exchanged only a few words:
Me: "Hi, I'm number 462, where do I sign in?"
Leland: "No sign-in. You can pick up your bag over there."
In line with this laid back approach, this race gets some flack for minimal marking of the course. It also seemed that vandalism of existing course markings was also at play. This certainly played a factor not only for me but for other runners as well, many with much more significant time lost. But I knew this going in and, truthfully, should have been better prepared with knowledge of the course beforehand. I also continue to love the low-key, low-maintenance, make-your-own-adventure nature of some of these ultrarunning events which just reinforce the basic nature of what we are doing and why. If you want to run PRs, run fast, compete neck in neck with minimal other variables to contend with, and have total control over the race environment there is a way to do it: it is called Track. I did plenty of this equally absurd pastime through highschool and college and have made a concerted effort to never again have anything to do with measuring distance, split times, pace, etc.
5. Pre-race time with Jeff Bertot, Naoki Ouchi, Chris Helfer, Mindy Campbell, and Tetsuro Ogata. It was great to ride down with Jeff and Naoki (eventual 4th place finisher!) and pick their experienced brains for advice on surviving 100 miles. Chris, Mindy, Tetsuro, and I stayed in my friend Peter's Logan home the night before which was perfect and right next to the start. One of the most impressive performances of the day was Chris Helfer who completed 100 miles having just started running this past spring. Over the last several months he has turned himself into a fit endurance athlete who I have trouble keeping up with on daily runs and he persevered in this race to finish despite having bad foot problems from mile 30 on as well as a scary asthma attack in the last 15 miles.
(1) Hard mother-fu*%ckers can still tear up and get goosebumps.