Coming Home: Vermont 100M

I’ve been waiting a long time to run the Vermont 100. This is true in a narrow sense: I registered in late 2019 but rolled my entry over twice due to Covid cancellations in 2020 and 2021. But I also grew up in Vermont, and have wanted to do this race since I started running ultras a decade ago. It would be a good opportunity to do a race while visiting my mom, who still lives in Brattleboro, and to see an unfamiliar corner of my home state on foot. So, after two years of waiting, I was glad to hear the race would resume this year.

Vermont is a venerable race by ultra standards: over thirty years old, and one of five potential legs of the Grand Slam. It’s also unusual in that most of the course is on dirt roads rather than trails. These are not the fire roads most Californian runners know, but rather the hard-packed dirt roads Vermonters still live along and use to get around. (It’s a rural state.) Most of the off-road sections are on private land, and the race director, Amy Rusiecki, is clearly at pains to maintain the local landowners’ goodwill. Among other things, this means there is no course map or GPX that would enable runners to explore the course beforehand. In that spirit, I also won’t post my GPS track, but it’s probably fine to reveal that the course starts and finishes in a large meadow on Silver Hill Road in West Windsor and traverses an area bounded by Windsor in the east, Cavendish in the southwest, and Pomfret in the north. There’s a short stretch of road — maybe a quarter-mile — that you run twice, in opposite directions, but otherwise the course has no backtracking or repetition.

The course has a modest 17,000′ of elevation gain, and while there are a few sustained climbs, it’s mostly rolling. A few hills are steep or technical enough to mandate hiking, but on the whole, it’s very runnable. That’s both a blessing and a curse: while runnable courses are fast, all that running is hard on the legs.

One other interesting feature of Vermont is that it’s also a horse race. The horses run the same course as the runners but start an hour behind. The fastest runners never see the horses, but most will be passed by at least some equestrians during the race. During the pre-race briefing, Amy mentioned that runners in the 18 to 22 hour range — where I expected to be — would interact with horses through most of the race.

I flew in on July 5, as I wanted to spend some time in Brattleboro before the race. I spent the next ten days doing short, easy runs from my mom’s place, swimming in the nearby West River, getting to know mom’s new cat Lola, and otherwise just relaxing. The time passed quickly, but I felt well rested by the time the race arrived.

View from a West River bridge
Lola trying to stare the door open
Live music at the Whetstone

Megan arrived on July 14: she’d agreed to crew a few aid stations and pace me the last 30 miles. The plan was straightforward: I’d head up to Silver Hill on Friday (July 15) to check in and hopefully sleep a few hours at a nearby Airbnb. Megan and mom would follow on Saturday and would meet me at the Camp 10 Bear aid station (mile 47), Margaritaville (mile 59), and Camp 10 Bear again (mile 70). Megan would pace me from there, while mom would head back to the Airbnb. Hopefully I’d finish in time to sleep a bit afterwards and catch the post-race breakfast on Sunday.

I arrived at Silver Hill meadow on Friday afternoon. It was quite a scene, with two large tents — one for check-in business and one for meals — and a large area where runners could camp. I picked up my bib and swag, left my pacer’s bib and crew vehicle tag in a “Will Call” box, and grabbed some pre-race dinner to go. This race, for those who care about such things, is very vegan-friendly. This is true of both the aid stations and the meals, where the two vegan options — sweet potato salad and quinoa salad — were both outstanding (with a little additional salt and pepper). I headed to my Airbnb, which was only a few miles away as the crow flies, but about a 30-minute drive on windy dirt roads.

Sleeping before this race was always going to be a challenge. The race starts at 4:00am; we were required to check in (again) no later than 3:45; my Airbnb was a half-hour drive from the start, and I’d have to walk 5-10 minutes after parking. I planned to leave the Airbnb by 3:00am, and since I don’t wake up quickly, I set my alarm for 1:45 — about an hour later than I usually go to sleep. If previous experience was any guide, I’d probably wake up before then, so the best-case scenario was maybe two hours of sleep. Surprisingly, I felt pretty relaxed about this. I’d slept well the whole previous week, so I figured I’d be ok whatever happened the night before. And the start was so early that I figured sleep deprivation was par for the course. After my experience at Bighorn, I swore off edible marijuana the night before races, but I did smoke a lot to make myself sleepy, sitting in the back yard watching the fireflies and the stars. I ended up sleeping about two hours, which proved to be fine. In fact, I was amazed how much better I felt than I had at Bighorn: apparently it helps to not be drowning in THC (smoke leaves your system a lot faster than edibles). It also helped that Megan made me a playlist for the race. I couldn’t listen to it during the race, as headphones were not allowed, but it got me going beforehand, especially Metallica’s Master of Puppets (the list had a Stranger Things theme).

I made it to the start without incident, and at 4:00am we were off. The early miles passed in a blur: it was dark, and the first few miles were on a trail through the woods, so I mostly watched the ground to avoid tripping. I also watched my pace. After Bighorn, I decided I needed to run more intentionally: there’s nothing wrong with running by feel, but there’s something to be said for having a target pace. I aimed to maintain 11:00-minute miles for as long as possible, which translates into a finish time of 18:20. I didn’t think that was realistic, but I did think an 11-minute pace was gentle enough that I would slow gradually rather than catastrophically later on. Realistically, my “A” goal was 12-minute miles overall, which would get me to the finish in 20 hours.

The first five miles were mostly downhill, so I was under target pace. That seemed fine given the downhill, and in any case I didn’t wholly trust my watch. My GPS didn’t lock on until mile 4, and my watch typically overestimates distance (and pace) until the GPS locks on. By that time, it had gotten light, so I got my first views of the course. By now we’d exited the forest trail and were running on dirt road. Nothing particularly noteworthy here, but it was a nice morning, and I was glad to see the sun rise.

I noticed early on that this race was more social than most. The wide dirt road made it possible for multiple runners to run abreast, and I chatted with several people over the next few miles, including a fellow Californian from Thousand Oaks. I found, as is usually the case, that my pace was more variable than most: I’d fall behind others on the uphills and then fly by them on the downhills. Some of those downhills were pretty long and steep, and I wondered if I was killing my quads by taking them too fast. But so far, everything felt fine.

At some point the dirt road became paved, and we entered the town of Taftsville. We turned right onto Route 4, then immediately left through a covered bridge over the Ottauquechee River. After another left turn, we continued along the river for about a mile before heading uphill again. Not long afterwards, maybe 20 miles in, I was passed by the first horses.

Since I had a crew, I used only one drop bag, at the Pretty House aid station (mile 21). I reached Pretty House at 7:55, averaging 11:04 per mile. That matched my watch pretty closely, so it seemed my watch was accurate so far. I grabbed the contents of my drop bag — two smoothie flasks and an apple turnover — and hastened on my way. The road leaving Pretty House was, well, pretty, with nice views of the surrounding hills. I ate the apple turnover on my way out and decided it was a good call: the pastry was a little dry, but the apple filling was perfect.

The view from Pretty House
On my way with apple turnover in hand

I reached the Stage Road aid station (mile 30.5) at 9:50, averaging 11:28 per mile. My watch was off by now, saying I’d gone 31.1 miles at an average pace of 11:15 per mile. A 0.6 mile discrepancy over 30 miles didn’t seem too bad, considering my GPS didn’t lock on until mile 4. Hopefully it wouldn’t get worse. I quickly refilled my flasks with Gatorade and moved on.

Leaving Stage Road, the course went up a steep trail through the woods. Here I passed a rider — Keri (I think?) from Philadelphia and her horse Boy — that I’d see off and on for the rest of the race. She’d done this race multiple times and was clearly a fan. She mentioned that the number of entrants was down this year due to the high cost of travel, which explained why there were only 264 runners at the start instead of the usual 450 or so. I pulled ahead of them on the uphill, but they quickly passed me again once the trail leveled out. That sums up the human-versus-horse dynamic: we move better up hills and on technical trails, but the horses beat us on the runnable flats.

A few miles later we passed an unmanned aid station — some water jugs and coolers filled with ice — and I decided it was time for the ice bandana Megan had loaned me. This is basically just a bandana with a large pocket: you fill it with ice and tie it around your neck. This supposedly keeps your core temperature down, or at least makes you feel cooler. It seemed like a good idea, as today was supposed to be in the mid-80s, with 75 percent humidity. I scooped ice out of the cooler, filled the bandana, and tied it around my neck. A few seconds later, I desperately wanted to take it off, as the ice was painfully cold. But that was the point, after all, so I gritted my teeth and kept going. My neck soon got comfortably numb.

We ascended a trail through the woods, and I chatted with another runner for the next couple miles. Mostly about running stuff: pacing (he was hoping for sub-24), poles (he’d gotten permission to use them here, after dark), and other races (he liked Leadville but criticized the lack of qualifying requirements). His watch was four miles ahead of mine, so I wasn’t the only one with GPS problems. We laughed every time his watch told him he’d clicked off another 5:30 mile. My own watch was doing weird things, too: the laps were out of sync with the cumulative mileage, so, for example, it would announce my time for mile 37 when the watch said I’d only run 36.5.

As the miles passed, I realized this race inverted my usual preferences. I generally love single-track trail but am not wild about fire roads, much less real roads. Here, the opposite was true. The roads were a scenic mix of picturesque farms, meadows and hills, and dry stone walls crisscrossing the land. In contrast, the occasional trails were unremarkable green tunnels through the woods. I did like the rough grassy paths cut through hilltop meadows, which, being out in the open, offered some of the course’s better views. But these meadows swarmed with hungry mosquitoes and flies, so I didn’t stop to take a lot of pics.

Typical roadside scenery
Farm after farm…

Meadow trail with bug bomb
Horses and walls
Lincoln covered bridge in Woodstock
Green tunnel

At some aid station — I don’t know which — I stopped to refill my ice bandana and found that it had developed a large hole. When the volunteer poured ice into the pocket, it just spilled out the other end. I tied a knot in that end, which closed the hole but made the now-shortened bandana hard to tie around my neck. After some fumbling, I managed to tie it in a way that seemed secure. For good measure, I also took out my hat and filled it with ice.

All this ice seemed to be doing its job: I felt comfortably cool. The day actually seemed cooler and drier than the forecast, but it’s possible I just felt that way because my head and neck were encased in ice. In any case, I was glad to have it. My only complaint was that my shirt and shorts were soaking wet from melting ice. The liner in my shorts had become useless — it wasn’t holding anything in place — because it had gotten so stretched from being constantly wet. This seemed like a fair price for staying cool, however, so I didn’t give it much thought. I considered changing clothes when I first saw my crew, but decided I’d wait until Megan started pacing me, when I’d hopefully be done with the ice.

I thought about how different this race felt from Bighorn one month ago. Overall, I felt much better: I wasn’t stoned or hung over, and it wasn’t brutally hot. On the other hand, my legs felt a lot more tired. Bighorn involved a lot of hiking, but here I’d been running more or less constantly since 4:00am. I’d be fine for some miles, but I wondered how my legs would feel 80 or 90 miles in. I was pleased to finish Bighorn with legs not screaming in pain, but I didn’t know if that reflected my conditioning or the not-very-runnable course. If nothing else, I’d have the answer to that question by tonight, as this was the most runnable course I’d done since Rio Del Lago.

I was looking forward to seeing Megan and mom at Camp 10 Bear #1 (mile 47). It would be nice to get another set of smoothies, as well as other food I’d left with them. But more importantly, it would be nice to reach the “crewed” portion of my race, with the moral support that entails. I’d get a longer-than-usual break at Camp 10 Bear, after which I’d just have to tough out another 11 miles before seeing them at Margaritaville, followed by another 11 miles to Camp 10 Bear #2 — after which I’d have a pacer. Breaking it down that way, the rest of the race didn’t seem that hard. I just had to reach Camp 10 Bear.

After a rather long stretch on Route 106, we hopped onto a wooded single-track that eventually spit us out onto Jenne Road — the last stretch before Camp 10 Bear. My watch error had clearly grown, as it told me I’d reached the aid station a mile ago. Still, we had to be close. We approached the Jenne Farm, reportedly the most-photographed farm in the world. Having seen half a dozen very similar farms in the last nine hours, I suspected this was less because it’s exceptional than because it’s somehow ideal-typical. Still, it’s a nice farm.

The much-photographed Jenne Farm

The course was becoming more crowded. We’d now merged with the 100k runners, for whom Camp 10 Bear was the first aid station. From here on out, I’d see more runners than before, but the majority would be in the 100k. Someone next to me asked “Is that a Moab hat?” I replied that no, it was from Canyons 100k. The runner, a young woman named Kris, was someone I’d been going back and forth with for maybe the last 15 miles. We were going about the same pace, so we ran together to Camp 10 Bear. She struck me as unusual in at least two ways: first for being young (ultrarunners skew older), and second for pacing even more conservatively than me (she didn’t catch me until mile 30-something). The combination of being young and pacing conservatively is especially rare — it takes time to learn one’s limits — though probably less so among women than men (women are known to pace themselves better). I later learned that she’s a pretty serious athlete who’s not only doing this year’s Grand Slam but is also a world-champion obstacle racer. In any case, she looked strong almost 50 miles in.

We reached Camp 10 Bear at 1:36, averaging 12:09/mile for the race so far. I was fine with that: it put me close to 20-hour pace, although I doubted I’d run the next 53 miles as fast. By now, my watch was way off, telling me I’d run 50 miles at an 11:34/mile pace. That was kind of disconcerting: the watch had added 0.6 miles in the first 30 miles, and another two in the last 17. Not only was the discrepancy increasing, but it was doing so at an accelerating rate.

I found Megan and mom by the side of the road, along with the other crews. It was a relief to see them, and to sit down. “Can I stop now?” I asked them. I felt ok, but my legs were tired. Megan told me not to worry about that; we can push through such things. I swapped out my flasks while Megan got me some Gatorade packets, GUs, and another apple turnover, and mom prepared an avocado wrap: half an avocado on a sweet-potato tortilla with a lot of salt. I took a big swig of homemade sports drink I’d made from pineapple juice, sugar, salt and ginger. Not bad.

Me, my sports drink, and mom’s thumb

I ate the wrap while Megan and I walked away from the aid station. It was amazing, the best thing I’d eaten all day. I told Megan I liked the course, but “It’s a lot of running.” A spectator overheard me and laughed: of course a 100-mile race involves lots of running? True, but some more than others. I told Megan I’d see her at Margaritaville and continued on.

Shortly after leaving Camp 10 Bear, we hit a long, steep trail through the woods. I’m not sure how long it went on, but it seemed interminable and racked up a lot of elevation gain. This was the most hiking I’d done all day. Somewhere along this stretch, my watch hit mile 52.5, which — after subtracting 2.5 miles — I called the halfway point. My time now was 10:20, so I was still on sub-21 hour pace. I still held out hope for that goal, but a lot would depend on how the course evolved. Like, how long would this hill go on?

We eventually crested the hill and got back onto roads. At some point Keri and Boy caught up with me again, and we chatted a bit until Boy picked up the pace. I tried to get a picture of them, but I had trouble unlocking my phone — as I had all day — because the fingerprint sensor was wet from melting ice. By the time I unlocked it, I just got this:

Bye, Boy

There was a lot of back-and-forth in this stretch. Kris and a few others passed me; they’d disappear into the distance; I’d catch up with them; they’d disappear again. This went on for miles. But eventually I saw a large meadow on my left and knew I was close to Margaritaville. I’d been here the day before, as my Airbnb was only a quarter-mile from the aid station.

Keri and Boy reach Margaritaville…
…followed by me

Approaching Margaritaville, I saw Megan and mom on my left. I handed my pack to them and told them what I wanted, then went to use a porta-pottie. I wasn’t desperate to use one, but we’d been instructed not to relieve ourselves on private land, so I figured I’d use it while I could. Returning to the aid station, I got my pack from Megan and another avocado wrap from mom. Megan said they were going to hang out at the Airbnb. I was glad they had that option, which would probably be a welcome break from sitting at aid stations all day.

As I walked off eating my wrap, I was reminded how small the ultrarunning world is. “You’re a long way from home!” a spectating couple said to me. I responded that I grew up in Brattleboro but now lived in California, wondering how they knew where “home” was to me. They said they lived in Reno and had seen me around the circuit. I didn’t recognize them, but I’m guessing they’d seen me at Castle Peak, which is close to Reno. In any case, I found it strangely comforting to bump into someone from “home.”

Kris caught up with me shortly after leaving Margaritaville, and we plodded up the hill. Shortly thereafter, we encountered a group of equestrians. The views here were lovely, so I stopped to take a pic.

Horses above Margaritaville

We made good time for the next few miles, continuing up South Reading Road and then down Grasshopper Lane. After the previous stretch, which included a lot of uphill, it was nice to be cruising along downhills and flats. We quickly reached the Puckerbrush aid station, where I think Kris stopped and I didn’t. In any case, I didn’t see her again until after the race.

As I ran, I found myself thinking about my light belt: the one indispensable thing in the hands of my crew. I’d meant to get it from Megan at Margaritaville, on the off chance they missed me at Camp 10 Bear #2. Oh well: they’d been to Camp 10 Bear already, so there was no reason anything should go wrong. Nothing I could do about it now, anyway, so I put the thought out of my mind.

After some miles on the road, we turned onto a trail through the woods. I would have been happy for the change except that it felt a lot more humid among the trees, and certainly more buggy. Before long I found myself hoping we’d hit road again soon. At some point I noticed a faint chafing sensation in my groin area, so I reached down to investigate and OWWWWW!!!!!! Wow, that hurt. I’d developed my first-ever case of, um, ball chafing. Before the race, I’d applied vaseline to all the areas I might normally chafe, and those spots were doing fine. But apparently running all day in soaking wet and stretched-out shorts had caused chafing in places I hadn’t thought to treat. Megan later said that ice bandanas have been known to cause chafing problems, but that was wisdom for another day. For now, I wasn’t doing too bad as long as I left that area alone, but the chafing worried me. A lot can happen in 30-something miles.

My legs were now sore enough that running downhill was hard, so I took an ibuprofen. I also took two caffeinated GUs. Caffeine and ibuprofen are a miracle combination that always give me a new lease on life, and they delivered for me now. By the time we hit the road again, I was running comfortably and fast. I reflected on the inconsistencies in our drug-testing regime. Were I someone who got tested, I’d be banned from every race because of the cannabinoids I always use to fall asleep. Yet these drugs are, in my experience, probably performance detractors.* Meanwhile, I’m free to take as much caffeine and ibuprofen as I want, even though these clearly enhance performance. I’m not saying anyone should ban coffee or NSAIDs, but a little more consistency, based on actual performance research, would be nice. As it stands, anti-doping authorities seem to have a dual mission: policing performance enhancement, on the one hand, and enforcing national drug laws, on the other. So you end up with unfortunate cases like Sha’Carri Richardson being suspended for using marijuana after her mother died.

*Except insofar as they help you sleep, but no one bans sleep aids like Ambien. I’ve heard people argue that cannabinoids can reduce pain and inflammation, but ibuprofen they ain’t.

I bombed down a long gentle hill, feeling good. Ahead of me I saw a guy with bib 185 on his back, who I’d run with early in the race but hadn’t seen in many hours. I flew by, and ten minutes later reached Camp 10 Bear. I gave my number to the aid station volunteers and looked for Megan and mom, but couldn’t see them anywhere. Where were they? I circled the aid station but couldn’t find them. This was bad: they had my light belt, and I couldn’t continue without it. I asked the volunteers if crews might set up anywhere else, but they said all crews should be here. Someone suggested that maybe they went to the mile 47 crew location, about 100 yards down the road? I ran to where mom and Megan had been earlier but found no one, and ran back.

I walked around feeling helpless and uttered a couple of F-bombs. A volunteer asked if I was ok, and I explained that I was stuck here without my light. I cursed myself for not grabbing it at Margaritaville: if I had, I’d have continued on my own. As things stood, my only option was to wait and hope they showed up soon. I texted Megan “Where are you???”, but there was no cell service here.

I needed a plan. First, find some lubricant to deal with the chafing. I quickly secured a tube of vaseline and applied that liberally. Next, see if anyone has a spare light lying around. This seemed like a long shot, but I had to try. As I was explaining my predicament to a volunteer, I spied Megan and mom down the road, coming from the area I’d run to ten minutes earlier. I ran to them, visibly agitated. They’d dallied too long at the Airbnb and hadn’t expected me to arrive here this soon: the Margaritaville-to-Camp 10 Bear stretch was faster than Camp 10 Bear-to-Margaritaville. But, whatever: they were here. I grabbed my spare shorts from Megan and ran to the porta-pottie to change while she swapped out my flasks. I changed my shirt quickly, pinned my bib to the new shirt, and we were off.

How much time did I lose? I arrived at Camp 10 Bear at 6:40 and left at 7:00, so I was there 20 minutes. I’d been getting in and out of aid stations quickly all day — and left about five minutes after Megan and mom arrived — so I’d guess the delay cost me around 12 minutes. Not the end of the world, and in any case I was glad just to be moving again. The worst part of the whole episode was not knowing how long I’d have to wait.

We moved quickly at first, as I felt some urgency to make up for lost time. But I soon relaxed, realizing we still had 30 miles to go. We hit a long single-track uphill and hiked, while Megan explained the aid-station mishap and I talked about my race so far. I was glad to be with Megan, and glad it was still light. She’d flown from California just to pace me, so I wanted her to see at least some of the course. I’d hoped to reach this point an hour earlier, but we still had two hours before it got dark.

Reaching a road, we continued uphill and caught up with runner 185, who’d passed me while I was at Camp 10 Bear. I greeted him, saying “Haven’t seen you since this morning!” He responded that I was looking good, and I started to say “You too!” but hesitated because…well, he didn’t. I know what it’s like to break down, and that’s how he looked. Maybe I should have said it anyway, but it felt transparently insincere, so I just wished him a good race and moved on. He ultimately DNF-ed, dropping at mile 88.

Megan and I were making good time, enjoying the evening light. She’s paced me at previous 100Ms, and this was certainly the best experience so far. I’m usually in so much pain by this point that I can’t do much except swear and make guttural noises. Today felt more like a training run; we were running and talking easily. I wondered how long this could go on. Right now I couldn’t imagine feeling awful, but experience told me I would before the end.

Still feeling good at mile 73

We stopped briefly at the Spirit of 76 aid station (mile 76), where a volunteer from Oregon said she recognized Megan from some race. Mt. Hood? Waldo? Bigfoot? Who knows: there are lots of races out there. We continued on and, seeing that the trail went into the woods, finally donned our light belts. There was still some light in the sky, but it was fading fast.

Last light

Once the sun set, it was really dark. No streetlights, no moon, nothing but the light from our belts. I turned mine off briefly to admire the sky, which was clear and full of stars, before deciding that running in total darkness wasn’t a great idea. We were still maintaining a good pace, passing lots of runners (mostly 100k), and I occasionally had to remind myself there were still miles to go. I’d taken two more caffeinated GUs a while back, which helped a lot, but I hoped those would be my last. It sounds silly, but I was already thinking about post-race sleep and didn’t want to overdo the caffeine.

The next couple aid stations are jumbled in my mind. We hit one at mile 83.2 — they had a sign announcing this — which, according to the aid station chart, should have been Cow Shed. It probably was, but then I’m not sure what to make of another aid station that was actually in a cow shed. Oh well: it didn’t really matter, since there was nothing to do but keep running. I checked my watch mileage at the 83.2-mile station, and it said 90.3: now seven miles ahead.

The vaseline and new shorts at Camp 10 Bear had helped a lot, but my chafing was getting bad again. We passed an unmanned aid station with a tube of vaseline, so I re-applied. I also drank a lot of Coke, since I’d started to feel sleepy since the sun went down.

I reached Bill’s aid station (mile 88) still feeling good. I really needed solid food at this point — I hadn’t had any since the avocado wrap 30 miles ago — but I didn’t think I could handle anything dry or chewy. Fortunately, they had a big bowl of cooked ramen noodles, which you could mix with either veggie or chicken broth. I gulped down several cups of ramen and veggie broth, which seemed about the best thing I’d ever eaten. I liked the vibe here: it was well-lit and cheery, and someone was playing a guitar. As I refilled my flasks, I regaled a volunteer with my chafing woes. Maybe TMI, but she seemed amused.

Shortly after leaving Bill’s, as we crossed a meadow in the dark, the moon came up, red from the humid air. It was a striking sight, but not one my phone’s auto settings could catch.

After leaving the meadow, we headed up a long, steep hill. And then, everything changed. Up to that point, I’d been feeling good: a little tired from running 90 miles, but nowhere near collapse. Now I suddenly felt really, really bad. My legs were still doing ok, but I was tired and had, almost in an instant, lost the will to keep going. I still can’t explain the sudden change. Maybe sleep deprivation had just kicked in, or the caffeine was wearing off. More caffeine would probably have helped, but I thought we were fairly close to finishing and didn’t want to take more. And I was having other problems: the chafing was getting worse, and the itchy rash that had been flaring up sporadically since Bighorn had returned, irritating my leg. I struggled on to the next aid station.

My watch said I’d run 102.5 miles. Guessing it was 7-8 miles ahead, I thought I had maybe five miles to go. So when a volunteer told me I had another 7.5 miles, it hit me like a gut punch. She qualified her statement, saying their aid station (Keating’s) had been moved some way along the course, but I was now inconsolable. My reaction says a lot about the power of expectations. Objectively, I was still doing pretty well: I typically feel this bad by mile 80 or so. But I’d gotten it into my head that I had only five miles left, so adding 2.5 — a 50 percent increase!! — really threw me. Heading up a single-track hill, I told Megan I couldn’t run any more and trudged slowly along.

My trek through the woods was an orgy of whining and self-pity, but we soon reached a sign saying it was only 0.4 miles to Polly’s, the final aid station. At Polly’s they said we had 5.5 miles to go, and this put some wind back in my sails. I thought the Keating’s volunteer must have been wrong, since it seemed a very short hop from Keating’s to Polly’s. But according to my splits, that hop took me 33 minutes, so it probably was two miles. In any case, I was feeling a bit better now. It probably helped that I’d drunk a ton of Coke at Keating’s, and took another caffeinated GU. But knowing that I was really and truly in the home stretch helped even more.

I was now able to run again, albeit slowly. A few miles from the end, Keri and Boy passed me for the final time. The horses have to stop for medical checks every 20 miles, leading to a lot of back-and-forth. Keri said she’d see us at the finish and vanished up the hill.

Keri had told me earlier that this race has a fast downhill finish. I wasn’t seeing it so far: in fact, we found ourselves climbing a long single-track through the woods. The course was marked with glow sticks, and we could see them high above, letting us know we’d be climbing for a while yet. But eventually we reached the top and began running downhill. A sign told us we had one mile to go, then half a mile. The course was now marked by glow sticks immersed in gallon jugs of water, giving it an eerie Halloween-ish feel. That last half-mile seemed pretty long, and I joked that in ten minutes, we’d see a sign telling us we had a quarter-mile to go. But at last the finish came into view, and we were done, in 22:11.

Amy was at the finish line congratulating each runner as they came in. She gave me my belt buckle and custom shorts, and I thanked her for a great event. I moved past the finish line and hugged Megan, thanking her for helping me through. Those last miles were hard, and while I would have finished on my own, I might well have walked the last 7.5 without Megan pushing me along. But I was even more grateful for her sharing the earlier daylight miles, which made them so much more fun.

We made our way to the tent to get some food. I saw Kris there and stared dumbly: I was a bit disoriented but also wasn’t sure if it was her. (It’s funny how you can run next to someone for miles without ever really seeing their face.) I also couldn’t figure out when she’d passed me, until I realized she must have done so during my hiatus at Camp 10 Bear. In any case, she said she’d had a strong finish. She’d crossed the line 17 minutes ahead of me in 21:54, good enough for 5th place.

We drove back to the Airbnb, which took a while after a couple of missed turns. It was after 3:00am by the time we got back, and by then I’d started to shiver. When your cooling system has been going full blast for hours, sometimes it keeps going, and you get cold. I took a hot shower, which helped temporarily (but was hell on the chafing), but soon returned to shivering uncontrollably. I wrapped myself in warm blankets, which helped, and eventually got to sleep.

Was I happy with my race? Absolutely: this was one of my few goal races for the year, and it went as well as I could have hoped. I was well-trained and well-rested going in; I felt good almost throughout; I handled the heat and fueling well. I missed my “A” goal, but in retrospect 20 hours was unrealistic, and I can’t think of anything that would have gotten me there. Despite starting faster than usual, I maintained my pace reasonably well, moving from 70th place at Pretty House to 43rd at Camp 10 Bear #2 to 27th at the finish (out of 264 starters). The only thing that could have gone better was, obviously, the delay at Camp 10 Bear #2. I’m pretty sure I’d have broken 22 hours without it, both because 12 less minutes would have put me under and because, if I’d been that close, I would have had more motivation to push it at the end. But really, what’s the difference between 21:59 and 22:11? (Short answer: a whopping two places.) I wouldn’t have traded my pacer and crew for those 12 minutes, and every race needs some drama and a good story. I’m even glad I finally felt shitty at the end, as I wouldn’t have missed that peculiar pleasure of pushing through the pain and despair.

I was also happy my legs held up well: it seems I can run a runnable 100M without breaking down. My six long races earlier this year no doubt helped. That said, this race was hard on my legs and feet. They’re always puffy with inflammation after long races, but this time was particularly severe. My feet looked awful three days later, but were back to normal within a week.

My feet after three days (L) and seven days (R)

As for the race itself: Two thumbs up. I won’t say everyone should do it: if you really hate running, as opposed to scrambling over single-track passes, this race is probably not for you. But even as someone who prefers single-track, I thought it was worth doing. It’s a different kind of race, showcasing not the wilderness but the unique ways Vermonters have tamed it. You wouldn’t want every race to be like this, but since most are not, it’s something new. I was impressed by the race organization: the course was incredibly well-marked (as you’d hope in a race without a map or GPX), and the aid stations were well-staffed and well-stocked for (I think) all dietary tastes. And the race had a great vibe. It’s been running for so long that it’s a local institution, and many locals turn out to support it: kids cheering you on or offering candy, homeowners spraying you with a garden hose.

Some races stay with you long after you’re done. After Bigfoot 73, both Megan and I felt like we were swimming in images for days afterward, still out there in the Mt. St. Helens wilderness. For me, Vermont was like that: days later, I was still mentally there. This is partly because the stress and intensity of long races heighten your emotional experience, making everything more vivid. There’s a reason some former addicts treat ultrarunning as their new drug. But this doesn’t always happen, and it happened here mostly because I love Vermont. I’ve always seen my childhood home as an oasis where time passes slowly, if at all, and if this sounds like nostalgia, it’s also a physical reality. Between 1900 and 2020, California’s population grew more than 2500 percent, from less than 1.5 million to almost 40 million. Over the same timespan, Vermont’s population grew only 87 percent, from 344,000 to 642,000. In an alarmingly short time, I’ve seen California (which I also love) ravaged by drought and wildfires and blighted by badly managed growth. Meanwhile, Vermont feels much the same as it did decades ago, and decades before that, except the general stores now sell kombucha and quinoa salad. Many locals would no doubt disagree, but that’s how it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong: the world needs its Californias. But I find refuge in its Vermonts, and I’m sure I’ll be running here again.

Bighorn 100M (June 17, 2022)

The Bighorn 100M had never been on my radar, but when Megan suggested we do it, I immediately agreed. I mean, why not? I had no other plans for mid-June, and a long run in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains sounded fun. I didn’t know anything about the race, except that it’s famous for its mud. That’s not a plus for me, but it couldn’t hurt to try something new.

The race follows an out-and-back course that starts a few miles west of Dayton, arcs northwest to an inflection point at Sally’s Footbridge, then turns sharply southwest and climbs to the turnaround at the Jaws aid station (mile 48). You then retrace your steps to the start and continue another five miles to Dayton’s Scott Bicentennial Park.

Half of the course’s 20,500′ of elevation gain is packed into a few sustained climbs: about 4,000′ in the first 7.5 miles (most of that after mile 4), a more gradual 4,000′ between miles 30 and 47, and a steep 2,200′ between miles 66 and 70. The altitude ranges from just over 4,000′ at the start/finish to just under 9,000′ at the turnaround. There’s mud in various places, but the worst of it is concentrated in the few miles before and after the turnaround.

Before the race, a friend advised me that trekking poles were “100% mandatory” because of the mud. I’ve never loved poles, but in this case that sounded like good advice, so I spent late May and early June practicing with my Black Diamond Carbon Z’s. I warmed to them pretty quickly: they gave me a boost going up and cushioned the impact coming down. I also got a Salomon quiver to hold the poles when I didn’t need them, which I figured would be much of the time.

The only other advice I got on this race was “Take care of your feet.” Another friend had had a bad race here because the constant slogging through mud and water had left his feet waterlogged and chewed up. I packed an extra pair of shoes and socks for my drop bag at mile 66.

On Tuesday, June 14 we flew into Denver — which, though a six-hour drive from the race, allowed us to drop Megan’s mom off at a friend’s in Loveland. After spending Tuesday night there, we drove the remaining five hours to our Airbnb in Sheridan. This place, located on an alpaca farm, was one of the nicest Airbnb’s I’ve stayed in — and I’ve stayed in some pretty nice ones. The lodging itself was great, but what really stood out were the sweeping views of the Bighorn mountains and the animals: three dogs to greet you whenever you stepped outside, alpacas and horses to feed and pet, and well-loved free-ranging hens to provide as many guilt-free eggs as you want. This video of Megan’s nicely captures the vibe (watch to the end, which is pretty entertaining):

The Bighorns
The henyard
Shaggy waiting patiently for some apple
Tina waiting less patiently
Hurry up!
Tina not loving the apple core

On Thursday I got up, made myself some coffee, and went outside. Our host Cristine was already doing some farm work, so I chatted with her for a while, then went back inside and made myself another cup. I generally have two cups of coffee in the morning, but — being a lifelong insomniac — I’ve recently tried to make it as weak as possible, particularly the day before a race when I hope to get to bed early. In this case I couldn’t regulate the strength, as our place only had a Keurig coffee machine, and I used Starbucks pods. I probably should have noticed that the Starbucks coffee was waaaaay stronger than my usual, but I was on autopilot and drank my usual two cups without thinking about it.

A couple of hours later, I noticed that my back was really tense and sore. Weird, but I chalked it up to pre-race nerves. I spent some time foam rolling my back to try to work out the tension. Megan and I spent the day leisurely doing pre-race stuff: preparing food and drinks, organizing our drop bags, foam rolling, etc. After an early dinner, we headed to Sheridan to check in, leave our drop bags, and go to the pre-race briefing. It was around then that I realized I felt….wired. Like, really nervy and alert. Only then did it occur to me that I’d consumed way too much caffeine that morning, probably two or three times my usual. That explained both the tension in my back and my jittery mental state.

Well, shit. That was inexplicably stupid, given that I’m usually careful about these things. I think the whole farm atmosphere was so relaxing that I’d forgotten my usual pre-race concerns. In any case, I’d just have to hope my usual solution worked — the usual solution being to knock myself out with edible marijuana. Most nights, I take one capsule that contains 10mg THC / 10mg CBD. If I’m particularly concerned about getting sleep, I’ll take two capsules. If I have to get to sleep much earlier than usual, as I usually do before a race, I’ll take three. Bighorn has a late (9:00am) start, so I didn’t have to get to bed that early, but I decided to play it safe and downed three capsules at the pre-race briefing. Megan drove us back, and we watched a couple episodes of Stranger Things before heading to bed.

Unfortunately, going to bed did not make me sleepy: I still felt wired. When 10pm rolled around and I still felt wide awake, I decided to take a fourth capsule. I’d never taken four of these before, so this was a gamble, but the alternative was probably lying awake all night. For good measure, I decided to just keep drinking beer until I felt tired enough to fall asleep. By midnight, I’d chased my 40mg THC with five beers. That finally knocked me out, and I managed to get 5-6 hours of sleep.

When I got up the next morning, I was messed up. A bit hung over from the beers, but also in a thick THC fog. I stumbled around getting ready. As I was putting on my shoes, I looked down at them and exclaimed “Oh my god!!!” Megan, alarmed, asked me what was wrong, and I said never mind. For some reason, I thought I’d brought the wrong shoes — a pair of Inov-8’s I’d decided against — and panicked, thinking I’d have to run 100 miles in the wrong shoes. That kind of sums up my mental state.

My back felt itchy, and when I looked in the mirror, I found it covered with ugly red hives. I have a hyperactive immune system and have occasionally broken out in hives due to stress. I didn’t feel especially stressed about the race, but my THC-induced mental state had apparently triggered something. (Footnote: as I write this two weeks later, I’m still sporadically breaking out in itchy red rashes. Whatever I set off that day is taking some time to settle down.)

I was clearly not fit to drive, so Megan drove us to the start. The drive was beautiful — a windy dirt road through the foothills — but also terrifying for me. Every time we went into a turn, I clutched the seat, thinking we were going too fast and would fly off the road. Megan, for the record, is not an aggressive driver, so this was clearly the THC talking.

Our harrowing drive

We arrived safely at Scott Park, where we’d catch a bus to the start. While it may seem odd to take a shuttle for five easy miles — aren’t we supposed to be runners? — this was the only way to finish at Scott Park and still cap the race at 100 miles. I applauded this decision, knowing from experience that I tend to resent every mile beyond 100. Besides, the road from Scott Park to the start wasn’t exactly Bighorn’s trademark “Wild and Scenic.”

We reached the Tongue River Canyon around 8:30. It already felt hot. Our race date coincided with a record-setting heat wave sweeping the American west, and the Bighorn mountains seemed to be at the epicenter, as measured by temperature anomalies:

The forecast predicted a daytime high of 99F on race day. On the plus side, the heat would dry up some of the mud, but on the downside, that’s pretty damn hot.

I was still having trouble functioning like a normal human being. Megan seemed amused by my condition and said “I think you better stick with me.” I replied that I wasn’t sure I could.

At 9:00am we were off. The race begins on a flat fire road through the canyon, flanked by picturesque rock formations. I was a bit conflicted about how to start: I always like to start slow, to get a good warmup, but I knew that in just over a mile, we’d be funneled onto a long uphill single-track where passing would be difficult. There was case for getting ahead of the pack to avoid this bottleneck, but I felt so out of it that I decided to just go slow. We’d be out here for 100 miles, so there’d be plenty of time to speed up later on.

We quickly reached the single-track and began to climb. And climb. And climb. That first uphill was long and steep, but I was wrong when I said passing would be difficult: with dozens of bumper-to-bumper runners in front of me, it was impossible. Oh well: I was ok with the pace for now, which was so slow that my heart rate probably averaged around 90, and I was able to trundle along in a half-awake dream state. I knew Megan was further ahead in the pack, pulling away from me, but I hoped I’d catch her somewhere down the road.

No passing here

The steepest part of the climb lasted about four miles, rising almost 3,000′ over that stretch. The climbing per se wasn’t strenuous, due to the slow pace, but it was really hot. It was also really humid, something I don’t handle well: I’m used to having my sweat evaporate instantly rather than dripping down my face. I was glad when we crested that first climb, especially since the higher altitude brought a nice cool breeze. We took a steep downhill to the Upper Sheep Creek aid station, where I stopped briefly to fill a flask and put some crushed ice in my hat. It was almost painfully cold, but nice to have ice water dripping down my face and neck. We then climbed gradually to the Dry Fork aid station at mile 13.5.

I’d pulled out my poles at the start of the climb and had used them continuously since, digging in and pushing on the uphills and trying to cushion my descents. They seemed to help, although — given how much work my arms could realistically do — I suspect I was also getting some kind of placebo effect. Regardless, I was glad to have them: it was nice to feel like my legs weren’t doing all the work.

Enroute to Dry Fork

I reached Dry Fork at 12:26 — twenty minutes behind Megan, though I didn’t know it at the time. As soon as I arrived at the tent, a volunteer handed me my drop bag. Whatever else one might say about this race, it has some of the best-organized aid stations I’ve ever seen. At Dry Fork, volunteers with walkie-talkies let the aid station know who’s on the way, so they have your drop bag waiting for you when you arrive. I fished out my flasks filled with orange/pineapple/banana and orange/peach/mango juice, and liberally re-applied sunscreen. I couldn’t see my face, but given how my arms looked — solid white — I assumed my face looked cadaverous as well. A volunteer said “Well, you won’t be getting burned out there!”

Unexpectedly, I also refilled my hydration pack bladder. Given that I also had flasks, I’d expected the bladder to last until Sally’s Footbridge at mile 30, but it was already dry. Maybe I was drinking a lot, but I also suspect that, because I’d stuffed the pack with gear before filling the bladder, the latter couldn’t expand to fill. In any case, I was concerned about water because, after three and a half hours of running, I still felt no need to pee. It’s hard to overstate how weird this is for me. I usually drink a lot of fluids in the morning and start the day overhydrated, so I’ll typically stop and pee at least three times in the first two hours of a morning run. Today, nothing. Maybe it was the heat, but I also worried that last night’s beers had left me dehydrated, and I’d failed to compensate. I couldn’t change that now, but resolved to hydrate as much as possible in the coming miles.

Leaving Dry Fork, I actually felt pretty good. The THC fog was starting to recede; I was waking up; and we still had a refreshing breeze. It also helped that the first few miles after Dry Fork were an easy, runnable downhill. I stowed my poles in my quiver and clicked off some easy miles. The only downside to this stretch was that it got hotter as we descended: the wind disappeared completely, and the temperature rose by what seemed like 20 degrees in the space of just a few strides. This was fine for now, but as the race went on, I often wondered how this section would feel on my return. The thought of climbing this hill in the next day’s heat, 80 miles in, kind of scared me.

Hands free!

The next 12 miles were gently rolling and pretty. We passed through some beautiful meadows filled with wildflowers, mostly lupine and mule’s ears. It was around here that my running “cohort” began to form: people I’d see again and again for the rest of the race. For the most part, we weren’t running together: we just maintained similar enough paces that we’d pass each other repeatedly for the next 80 miles. There were two guys in matching Hawaiian shirts, one guy in Hawaiian shorts (who, it turned out, is actually from Hawaii), one guy in orange and red, and one guy in gray. I never learned any of their names and creatively referred to them as Hawaiian Shirts, Hawaiian Shorts, Orange and Red, and Gray.

My cohort
Orange and Red ahead of me
Lupine and Mule’s Ears

After this rolling stretch, we began the steep descent to Sally’s Footbridge. Parts of this descent were dry, with good footing; parts were very muddy; all of it was steep: almost 2,000′ in three miles. I used my poles as much as possible to spare my legs. We were mostly in the woods, so there wasn’t much to see, but we did get some nice views down to the Little Bighorn River, which we would soon follow for many miles.

The Little Bighorn from above

Reaching the Little Bighorn, we crossed Sally’s Footbridge and reached the eponymous aid station. I got my drop bag and pulled out two more juice flasks, but otherwise felt unsure what to take. My stomach is usually well-behaved during long races, but the heat was definitely causing some distress. I’d recently tried to eat an Aussie Bite, and trying to swallow something that dry almost made me throw up: I had to fill my mouth with water to choke it down. My usual go-to foods — dates and boiled potatoes — were going down ok but had no appeal. Basically, I got a little queasy at the thought of eating anything solid. I was glad to have the juice flasks, as well as several Gatorade packets to refill my flasks, but this wouldn’t be enough to get me through the race. Staring into my drop bag, I decided to take some potatoes, dates and Gatorade, but left the Aussie bites.

I’d also stashed some warm clothes — a long-sleeved shirt and gloves — as we’d been repeatedly warned that the temperature could drop into the 30s at night at the higher altitudes. Standing there in 90-something degree heat, however, it didn’t occur to me to take them. I put some more ice in my hat, swigged a cup of ginger ale, and moved on.

A few hundred yards of fire road ended at a single-track trail that paralleled the Little Bighorn. We’d follow this river more or less closely for the next dozen miles. The trail was rolling, but the net uphill was almost imperceptibly gradual: about 4,000′ over the next 18 miles.

The Little Bighorn from below

Perhaps a mile after Sally’s Footbridge, I realized I hadn’t seen a course marker since…well, Sally’s Footbridge. That’s a long time without a confidence marker, and it started to worry me. I didn’t recall any intersections — certainly nothing marked — but I still found it disconcerting to go so long without a marker. Was I running farther and farther off course? How long should I keep going without seeing a ribbon? Another mile? Two? This is ordinarily where I’d pull out my phone and consult the course GPX. But for whatever reason, Bighorn doesn’t provide a GPX file, and I hadn’t taken the time to make one myself. I stopped running several times, continued forward, then finally decided to turn back. I retraced my steps for maybe a quarter-mile before I encountered a Hawaiian Shirt. “Are we on course?” I asked. “There’s nowhere else to go,” he replied. That wasn’t super reassuring, but I turned around again and continued forward.

After another half-mile, we encountered two more runners coming back in our direction. They had the same concern as me, saying they’d been a quarter-mile ahead but still hadn’t seen any ribbons. Orange and Red felt we should keep going, but the other runner continued back toward Sally’s. Gray said he’d done this race two years ago and was sure we were on course, as there was no other route up the Little Bighorn. That was good enough for the rest of us, and we forged ahead.

Which way?

Two miles after Sally’s, we descended a rocky section of trail and were greeted by…a race photographer. Hooray! We all let out a cheer, relieved to finally know we were on course.

Three cheers for photographers!

With the weight of uncertainty lifted, the running became easier. I don’t remember the next five miles that well: more rolling trail through river canyon. At one point Orange and Red asked for my advice on using poles: he was using them for the first time, and since I was, in his words, “clearly a pole master,” he wanted my two cents. I told him that was funny, since I was also a first-timer and couldn’t say much. Still, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the poles and was already having a hard time imagining life without them. The only downside was that I was starting to develop blisters on my hands, and I wondered how bad those would get.

After crossing the first of several rudimentary log bridges, the trail opened up again into some nice wildflower meadows. It was well into evening by now, and some storm clouds had begun to form. I didn’t especially want to get drenched, but I was happy it was cooling off.

These were good miles. I wasn’t moving fast, but I didn’t care. I kept telling myself “I’m just going to enjoy this.” My only well-defined goal going in was to keep my legs feeling good the whole race, and so far they were. This didn’t feel like a race so much as a leisurely and somewhat dreamy amble through the wilderness. My only real nemesis during these miles was an earworm. Megan had played the Encanto soundtrack on our drive to Sheridan, and for some reason the title track had gotten stuck in my head. It’s not a bad song, but also not one you want to hear over and over again for hours. I wished I’d brought headphones and some music, just to kill the earworm. Without them, I’d just have to wait for it to die of natural causes.

At mile 40 we hit the Spring Marsh aid station. This was my favorite of the race, not because of the fare (although that was fine) but because of its picturesque setting in an alpine meadow with sweeping 270-degree views. The tents, which could be seen from some distance, had an oasis-like feel. I refilled my flasks with Gatorade, ate a few banana chunks, and moved on.

Spring Marsh

More meadows, more woods, more log bridges. It started raining several times, and I nearly put on my jacket, but held off, as it still seemed too warm. Fortunately, the rain never lasted long. Still, the trail got muddier and muddier as we ascended, and I gave up on trying to keep my feet dry: I was splashing through mud puddles every few steps.

As I approached a large rock, Hawaiian Shorts suddenly emerged, holding a bag of toilet paper and proclaiming that he felt ten pounds lighter. I hadn’t seen him since he’d passed me ten miles earlier, and he did seem energized by his pit stop. We ran together for a while until we suddenly saw the lead runner, Shane Rominger, speeding toward us on his return from Jaws. I looked at my watch, which had just recorded mile 42. Holy crap! The Jaws turnaround was still six miles away, which meant that Rominger was at mile 54 exactly 11 hours in: just over 20-hour pace. That’s not in course record territory, but it seemed impressive given today’s heat. I later learned that Rominger paid a price for his fast early pace: he eventually crashed and had to lie down beside the trail for an hour and a half, still winning by 28 minutes.

Hawaiian Shorts was nipping at my heels, so I stepped aside and let him pass. He gradually disappeared from sight. Not long after, I arrived at the Elk Camp aid station (mile 43.5), a small outpost in the woods. I asked if they had veggie broth, and when they said no, I asked if they had hot water, which I could mix with miso soup powder I’d brought. They said yes, but then I realized I hadn’t grabbed the miso back at Sally’s and wouldn’t get another chance until the turnaround at Jaws. We made a date to make miso soup on my return. I asked if they had potato chips — I was clearly craving salt — but they said no, and suggested I try some Saltines.

A good friend of mine relies heavily on Saltines late in his races, so I figured this was worth a try. Having now tried this, I can’t understand what he sees in them. As soon as I started chewing one, it turned into a dry paste that sucked all the moisture out of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow it without water to wash it down. After struggling through one more, I vowed never to eat a Saltine again.

As we ascended, we encountered more and more snow. I couldn’t decide what was worse: postholing in the snow or wading ankle-deep through the mud. Equally slow, I guess. By now it was dark, so I’d taken out my headlamp and put on my jacket. My memory of this part is fuzzy, maybe because there wasn’t much to remember: snow, mud, fallen trees to climb over, all at a glacial pace. I encountered more and more people coming in the opposite direction, which suggested I was nearing the turnaround. I exchanged greetings with some inbound runners, then heard Megan’s voice: “Yuch?” She was on her way home. She wasn’t in the best of spirits, saying her legs felt really bad. We talked for a minute, and I said I’d love to run with her, but she was now three miles ahead of me and catching up would be hard. We went our separate ways.

Not long thereafter, the trail spit us out onto a fire road, after which a mile of easy jogging brought us to Jaws. This was a big mental milestone: not quite halfway, but the beginning of the return trip and the end of a really long climb. I was looking forward to some downhill. First, however, I went to the aid station tent and retrieved my drop bag. I picked up my last two juice flasks, a few more potatoes, the miso soup packets, a warm PrimaLoft jacket, and my light belt and batteries. I left the rain pants and warm hat I’d stowed there: no way I was going to need those.

I’ve looked better

I spent 15 minutes there refilling my bladder, drinking some miso soup, and eavesdropping on conversations. I heard one runner tell a medic he hadn’t peed in eight hours: yikes. Another said he’d had trouble keeping food down, and a volunteer said many people had similar symptoms due to the heat.

I grabbed two cheese quesadillas on my way out and ate them as I walked away. I wasn’t having trouble keeping food down, but getting it down was another matter, and I desperately wanted to eat something solid. I wasn’t in danger of bonking — I’d put down a lot of liquid calories — but it’s possible to be well-fueled and hungry at the same time. My stomach felt gnawing and empty. In retrospect, I should have been eating more bananas, which always went down well. But my mental gears had been grinding slowly all day, and I kept figuring out what I’d wanted at the last aid station five minutes after leaving it. I choked down the quesadillas and started running again.

The first few miles after Jaws were much the same inbound as outbound: snowy, muddy and slow. As I trudged through the muck, I heard Hawaiian Shorts behind me: he said he’d downed some caffeine and gotten a second wind. I mumbled something about holding off on caffeine for now, as we weren’t even half done, and I didn’t want to caffeinate myself for the next 14 hours. But as I watched him pass me and bound ahead, I wondered if I was making the right call.

As the snow got sparser and the trail got drier, the running got easier. We were now going gently downhill; it was cool; and I felt better than I had all day. I’d hit muddy patches from time to time — and at one point slid down a hill in my search for firmer ground — but otherwise I was making good time. I felt optimistic about catching up to Megan, thinking my fastest miles were ahead. Less promisingly, it got warmer as we descended, and I soon had to stop and take off my jacket, as well as my headlamp, which was giving me a headache (and wasn’t adding much to the light belt anyway). So much for those freezing temperatures: I was running in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of the night while still above 7,500′.

My watch died around this time. The battery should last 30 hours in Ultra-Trac mode, so I was surprised to get a low battery warning after only 14.5 hours. Apparently I’d switched out of Ultra-Trac mode at some point and forgotten to switch back. Oh well: I wasn’t paying much attention to my pace anyway, and the miles would pass with or without a watch. I turned the GPS off.

Returning to Elk Camp at mile 52.5, I asked for hot water to make miso soup, but they had none. They did have lentil soup, so I sipped some of that. A volunteer told me I was making good time. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I said “I feel good — that’s what’s important.” I thanked them and moved on. A few minutes later, I regretted not eating more lentil soup. I’d wanted broth and drank only enough soup to satisfy my craving for salt, but this was real food that went down easily, and I felt stupid for not having more. This is one reason people have pacers: to act as your brain when your own becomes dull and slow.

The next 3.5 miles to Spring Marsh continued to be runnable, and I made good time. At some point I heard someone greet me from behind: one of the Hawaiian Shirts. We ran together for a while, and I asked if he knew how far it was to the next aid station. He said he thought it was close, and as we crested the next hill, we saw it below us in the distance, glowing with strings of lights. I wish I’d taken a picture, as it looked kind of magical, but documenting the moment wasn’t top of mind.

Spring Marsh had both veggie ramen and veggie broth. I drank some of the latter, refilled my flasks with Gatorade, and moved on. Almost immediately after leaving, I regretted not eating any ramen, which sounded really good. Once again, my brain was five minutes behind where it needed to be.

A mile or so later, the trail crossed a small creek. I stepped on what seemed to be a solid-ish chunk of dirt and grass, only to find it less than solid: my foot shot out from under me, and I fell backwards into the creek. No harm done: just wet and muddy all over. I picked myself up and moved on.

Something happened to me around this time. I got really tired: not I’ve-been-running-too-long tired, but I-really-just-want-to-close-my-eyes-and-sleep tired. My body still felt surprisingly good, but I was losing the mental game. I started thinking about the miles still to go, which seemed increasingly long. I toyed with the idea of quitting — what was the point of those last miles, anyway? — but knew I’d regret dropping out while still able to run. My lack of clear goals didn’t help me here: I’d told myself I just wanted to enjoy the race, but now that I wasn’t, I felt kind of adrift.

Worst of all, once we returned to the canyons, it got warm. Not warm enough to be a problem, but enough to make me think — repeatedly — about what the next day would be like. I thought again about the long hill from Dry Fork and how hot it had been the previous day. The thought of doing that climb in tomorrow’s heat was oppressive. I was violating a cardinal rule of ultrarunning: stay in the moment and don’t think about the miles ahead. But fatigue and heat had me wallowing in negative thoughts. Several people passed me during this time.

In my last hundred-miler, I’d started taking caffeine around midnight, which helped a lot. It was now 3:00am, and I still hadn’t taken any. I’d left my caffeinated GUs in the Sally’s and Dry Fork drop bags, thinking I should hold off until late in the race, but those weren’t my only options: the aid stations had Coke and other caffeinated drinks. Why didn’t I avail myself of this? In part, I was too stupid and sleep-deprived to realize there was an available remedy for sleep deprivation. But I also felt a need to detox from the previous day’s substance abuse before putting more junk in my system.

At the Cathedral Rock aid station (mile 62.5), I asked for hot water, hoping to make miso soup. They didn’t have any on hand, but a child volunteer said he’d boil some for me. I didn’t really want to wait around for water to boil, but…whatever. I didn’t care much about time any more. I refilled my bladder, made and drank some miso soup, surveyed the snack options, found none of them appealing, and continued on.

The next 3.5 miles to Sally’s Footbridge are a blur in retrospect, but they seemed long at the time. I don’t remember anything particularly bad, or particularly good: just running slowly through the dark. I passed a few runners and was passed by more. Finally, Sally’s Footbridge came into view.

I retrieved my drop bag and sat down. Gray was sitting next to me. He said that Orange and Red had dropped out: the mud and water had been too much for his feet. A volunteer said lots of runners had been dropping out due to trench foot. My feet were doing fine, but I still changed into the dry shoes and socks I’d left in my drop bag. I put my wet shoes into the bag along with my warm jacket — which I clearly wasn’t going to need — and retrieved the caffeinated GUs I’d left there. This wasn’t a complicated set of tasks, but somehow it took me a long time. I spent minutes staring stupidly at my drop bag, wondering what to do. I felt like I was moving underwater. I decided to use the porta-pottie and took my time there. By the time I left Sally’s, I’d been there a full 40 minutes. That’s not such a long time if you need to lie down and recover from some serious physical ailment. It is a long time to putz around aimlessly because you feel you have nothing better to do.

It was almost 5:00am when I left Sally’s, and starting to get light. I turned off my light belt shortly thereafter. The climb from Sally’s was as described on the outbound journey: partly dry, partly muddy, all steep. But harder going uphill. Still, it almost felt good to put in a hard effort, as opposed to the monotonous droning I’d been doing for hours. At least the exertion helped wake me up. I took two caffeinated GUs on my way to the Bear Camp aid station (mile 69.5), which also helped. I wasn’t wild about these GUs: they had only 20mg of caffeine each, or one-fifth of an average cup of coffee. But maybe it was just as well that I’d have to eat a lot of them to get my caffeine fix.

I stopped briefly at Bear Camp, drinking some veggie broth and eating some watermelon. There was a bit more climbing after that, followed by a long, rolling stretch. With the sunrise and some caffeine in my system, I was starting to enjoy myself again. The wildflowers I’d noticed earlier looked even prettier in the morning light.

Good morning

One other thing lifted my spirits: although the sun was rising, it was actually cooling down! This was partly because we’d left the heat-trapping canyons, but also because a lot of cloud cover was keeping things cool. The dread I’d nursed last night turned out to be not just pointless but also groundless. I felt silly for causing myself so much angst about nothing, but was glad to be proven wrong.

I took two more GUs enroute to the Cow Camp aid station (mile 76.5), where I swigged a cup of Coke. The caffeine was starting to kick in, and I was feeling much better. I wouldn’t say I was energetic, but I had no trouble running the parts I considered runnable. This included most of the six-mile stretch to Dry Fork, which I ran with a Canadian named Todd. I was grateful for the company, as talking helped pass the time, and we pushed each other along. It didn’t seem long before we saw Dry Fork on the ridge ahead.

Interestingly, there were a lot of runners moving along that ridge. Bighorn is a trail festival, with 52M, 32M and 18M races alongside the 100M. As we approached Dry Fork, the 18M runners were just heading out, forming a long column we had to cross. We darted through them to the aid station tent, where I was greeted by Hawaiian Shorts, who I hadn’t seen in over 11 hours. I grabbed my drop bag and sat down.

While I was filling my flasks with Gatorade powder, a volunteer told me my girlfriend had recently been through. I asked how long ago, and he said about an hour. That turned out to be wrong — according to the aid station data, it was more like an hour and a half — but it was just as well the volunteer got this wrong, as the shorter estimate gave me some motivation. I was feeling pretty good, and I thought it was just possible to make up an hour over the remaining 18 miles. Worth a try, anyway. The volunteer filled my flasks with water; I wished Todd and Hawaiian Shorts a good race and was on my way.

By mile 80 of a 100M — and usually well before that — my legs are typically screaming in pain, and I have trouble managing even the slowest of jogs. Today was different. My legs were tired but free of pain, so I could run as fast as my remaining energy allowed. I can’t say I sprinted away from the aid station, but I did manage to jog the uphill fire road and accelerated once I hit the downhill single-track. A column of 18M runners stretched before me as far as the eye could see. This was also a new experience: passing dozens of young, clean, fresh-looking runners at the end of a 100M. You might think the 18M runners — who at this point had run maybe two miles — would be moving faster than those finishing a 100M. But most of these runners were novices, and I was hitting the back of the pack first, so they were moving pretty slowly. Constantly passing on a single-track was kind of a pain, but it also kept my mind occupied. I really enjoyed stabilizing myself with poles on this winding downhill stretch, feeling almost like I was skiing. Only when the vegetation got too thick did I pick up and carry them.

I hammered it pretty hard to the Upper Sheep Creek aid station (mile 87.5), at which point the course turned abruptly and steeply uphill. I dug in with my poles and hiked as fast as I could, mentioning to someone along the way that I’d thought we were done with uphills. He said this was the last big one, followed by a few miles of tough downhill. I replied that I was fine with downhills.

That was true until it wasn’t. The first mile or so of downhill was on a fire road, where I could stride out and pass people easily. Then we got funneled onto a single-track, where the passing became harder, but I was still having fun. I recognized the fields of lupine from the previous morning and stopped to take a last pic.

After a while, however, this downhill indeed got tough. It went on, steeply and technically, mile after mile. It would have been physically stressful even if I’d been running by myself, but navigating the trail amidst the 18M runners made it more challenging still: lots of braking and accelerating. I worried that, after preserving my legs for 90 miles, I was going to trash them on this last downhill. So I was relieved when the descent finally ended at Lower Sheep Creek.

I asked a volunteer how far it was to the finish. “11 miles.” What?? How could that be? Had I really only traveled 6.5 miles since Dry Fork? I’d thought I was further along, but since I only knew the mileage for the drop-bag aid stations, I took the volunteer’s information on faith. Feeling demoralized, I jogged away from the aid station at a much reduced pace. I’d worked really hard to cover those alleged 6.5 miles and needed to regroup.

The 2.5 miles to the next aid station were an easy, rolling trail through the Tongue River Canyon. Although we’d come through here on our way out, the views in the return direction were more impressive — probably the most striking of the whole race. I gave up on pushing hard and took some time to admire them.

At the Tongue River Road aid station, a kindly volunteer sprayed me with cold water. I refilled a flask for the last time and asked what the course looked like from here. A volunteer told me it was an easy five miles of dirt road. “And then what?” I asked. “Then you’re done,” he said. Whew! I’d been misled at the last aid station, where I’d actually had only 7.5 miles to go. That’s a weird mistake for a volunteer to make, but oh well. Feeling relieved, I picked up the pace.

Those last five miles were hard. Partly because long flat roads are monotonous, but also because, down here at 4,000′, it was once again really hot. The sun was out in full and the humid air felt thick. I forced myself to keep running, poling myself along. The poles weren’t doing much, but I’d gotten so used to them that I kept them out: I’d used my quiver for maybe five miles of the whole race. We passed a final — I think unofficial — aid station that was handing out popsicles. I would have liked one, but my hands were full with the poles, so I said no thanks. “1.7 miles to go!” they said. That was encouraging, so I dug deep and pushed on. Before long the dirt turned to pavement, and after a few turns, I ran through the finishing chute in 28:49 and was done.

I wandered around looking for Megan — who had finished 49 minutes earlier in 28:00 — feeling hot and disoriented. Finally I saw her walking toward me, visibly limping. Apparently that last downhill had been hard on one of her ankles: ironically, the good one she hadn’t sprained six months ago. I lay down in the grass, hoping to rest at last, but it was so hot and muggy that lying there felt intolerable. Megan suggested we move into the shade, which seemed like a good plan until I noticed the Tongue River flowing by the park. I walked over and immersed my legs in the cold water, rinsing off the mud. I splashed water on my arms and neck, then plunged my head into the water. That helped; I now felt cool enough to rest. We got some food and drink at the post-race BBQ, picked up our drop bags, and drove back to our Airbnb. I did the driving this time, seemingly in better shape than the previous morning, although still meandering a bit from fatigue. We both crashed pretty hard back at the farm, although I’d make one more drive that day, to pick up a pizza in Sheridan.

The next morning we both felt pretty good. Our legs seemed fine, although Megan was worried about her ankle, which had swelled noticeably. That was interesting: she hadn’t rolled it, but that last downhill clearly gave it a beating. My own feet had started to get puffy from inflammation, as they always do after long races. I went outside to drink my coffee and was greeted by the dogs, two of which jumped onto the bench beside me.

We cleaned up the place and wandered down to see the alpacas, who’d been rounded up for shearing. We’d hoped to see them get sheared, but the shearer was running late, so we just said our goodbyes.

‘Bye Shaggy
‘Bye rescue hen

Was I happy with my race? It was a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I was slower than I’d hoped. I think I was in good shape going in, so this probably reflected other factors: the heat, being hung over, a lack of clear motivating goals, and so on. It did seem to be a tough year for everyone, with a slowest-ever average finishing time of 31 hours and a DNF (Did Not Finish) rate of 44 percent (134 finishers out of 241 starters). On the other hand, I was thrilled that my legs felt good at the end. I haven’t done many 100Ms, but my legs have always hurt by mile 80, and I generally spend those last 20 miles afraid that I’m causing permanent damage. I’m not sure why this time was different. Maybe my spring races — two 100Ks and three 50Ms in February, March and April — left my legs more resilient. Or maybe it just helped to go slow: this was my first 100M with lots of hiking, and almost four hours slower than my previous personal worst. I’ll get another “test” in two weeks, when I run the Vermont 100. Vermont is a famously runnable course, so I should know by the end which of these factors mattered most.

Whatever the reason, I was glad to finish strong. I gained 46 minutes on Megan in the last 18 miles: not enough to close the gap, but not bad. My last leg compared well with the rest of my cohort, too: I ran the last 18 miles 92 minutes faster than Hawaiian Shorts, 23 minutes faster than Gray, 27 minutes faster than Todd, and faster than both Hawaiian Shirts (though both finished ahead of me). These are somewhat arbitrary comparisons, but it seems I’d left a lot in the tank, maybe too much.

I’m still figuring 100Ms out, but these are my main take-aways:

1. Don’t OD on caffeine, marijuana and alcohol the day before the race. (Who knew?)

2. Run more aggressively. I’ve recently doubled down on the idea that you can’t start long races too slow. I still think this idea has merit: it’s not clear that (highly) positive splits should be the norm in ultras when the fastest marathon times are based on even splits. However, fast marathoners also don’t strive for steeply negative splits, and it’s certainly easier to shave an hour by running 36 seconds/mile faster for 100 miles than 3 minutes/mile faster for the last 20. There’s also a mental argument for running faster earlier: it’s motivating to hit your target pace and demoralizing to fall way behind it.

3. Have a clear B goal. I had a woolly, implicit A goal going into this race of 24-25 hours. But when I realized early on that this was out of reach, I reverted to the obvious C goal of just finishing. It might have been helpful to have a B goal of, say, 27 hours, just to focus the mind. It’s hard to push through all those miles when you don’t know what you’re pushing for.

4. Spend less time at aid stations. I don’t know how much time I spent at aid stations altogether, but I’d be surprised if it was less than two hours. That’s too much.

5. Take caffeine earlier, if needed. My race fell apart when I got sleepy during the night; maybe caffeine would have helped. There is a counter-argument, of course: perhaps I’d have ended up like Hawaiian Shorts, who surged after taking caffeine at Jaws only to die hard at the end. But my gut tells me drowsiness is a bigger problem for me than getting carried away, so I’ll be packing stronger GUs (with 40mg caffeine) for Vermont.

6. I love poles!

Would I do this race again? I won’t say “no,” but I probably won’t be back soon. The scenery was pretty but not spectacular: it didn’t wow me like, say, Bigfoot 73. (It’s a beautiful area, but I actually found the views on our drive to the race more striking than those along the course.) And the course’s challenges were hard without being exciting. In some races the slow, technical sections are the highlight: think the Palisades at Castle Peak or the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête at Ben Nevis. These obstacles slow you down but are also thrilling and epic. The biggest obstacle at Bighorn is the mud: a challenge to be sure, but not one I found uplifting. But, who knows? I could see myself coming back, if only to hang out with the alpacas.

Spring Trifecta? Lake Sonoma, Canyons, Miwok

My spring race schedule was pretty demanding, with five 50M/100K runs in eight weeks: Marin Ultra Challenge 50M (March 12), a 54-mile “Birthday Run” (March 27), Lake Sonoma 50M (April 9), Canyons 100K (April 23), and Miwok 100K (May 7). In the grand scheme of things, this lineup wasn’t that tough: nothing like Dean Karnazes running 50 marathons in 50 days, the “marathon monks” of Mt. Hiei traversing a 30-mile trail every day for 1,000 days, the “Onion Slam,” or other insane challenges I could cite. By ultrarunning’s odd standards, I wasn’t attempting anything that hard.

But still. The above examples are so extreme that it’s clear what lies in store: a long process of breaking down. My own schedule was just forgiving enough — two weeks between each race — that I wasn’t sure how it would go. In the most optimistic scenario, two weeks would be enough not just to recover but also to reap the training benefits of the previous race. In this “building up” scenario, I’d start each race stronger than I’d been in the previous one, and my progress would look something like this:

Building Up

In the less optimistic — but maybe more realistic — scenario, two weeks wouldn’t be enough to recover fully. In this “breaking down” scenario, I’d start each race weaker and more tired than I’d been in the previous one. If, for example, two weeks was enough for a 90 percent recovery, I’d begin the first race at 100 percent physical capacity, the second at 90 percent, the third at 81 percent, the fourth at 73 percent, and the fifth at 66 percent:

Breaking Down

When talking with friends, I made the appropriate noises about not being sure how my body would hold up, how this would be a great training effort no matter what, etc. Like most males, however, I tend to overestimate myself, so I inwardly believed I’d build up. The first two runs bolstered my confidence: MUC felt good, and the Birthday Run two weeks later felt fine. It didn’t occur to me then that “fine” meant about 90 percent, or that this might not be a great sign.

Lake Sonoma 50M (April 9)

The day before Lake Sonoma, I started to worry about breaking down. Throughout the previous two weeks, I kept hoping another few days would bring a full recovery, until I no longer had a few days left. Lying in bed in the Cloverdale Super 8 the night before, I texted Megan: “I’m not super excited about running. I think I’m just still tired.” She assured me it would be fun and that I’d have a good time once I got started. I wasn’t so sure.

I felt less sure when I got up at 3:00am, having slept maybe three hours on and off. I’d had pretty good luck with sleeping before my last few races, but not this time. Oh well: could be worse. I drank an unhealthy amount of coffee, got myself together, and headed off to the race.

LS is a big, competitive race. Until 2021 it was a Golden Ticket race, promising the top two male and female finishers automatic entry into the Western States 100. This is no longer the case, but the race still draws a lot of fast people. For me, this makes it easier to tune out other runners and run my own race, since I’m not competing in any meaningful sense. My own race, I guessed, would be pretty slow. Aside from being tired going in, I had Canyons 100K only two weeks later and wanted to spare my legs for that. That said, I wasn’t sure exactly what “slow” meant. I ran this race in 8:40 in 2019, and that was an objectively bad race due to major GI problems. I felt less strong going in this year, but maybe I could pull off a comparable time if other things went well. So, I hoped for something between 8:30 and 9:00, but that was secondary to my main goal of running comfortably throughout.

Two other things about LS: it’s beautiful and hard. Even in a dry year like this one (and most of the last twenty), the hills around the lake are green in early April, and covered in wildflowers. Idyllic, if you don’t mind running 50 miles. The course is an out-and-back that skirts part of the lake, and while there are a few big hills, it’s mostly rolling. I used to think this would make Sonoma easier than races with big, sustained hills like MUC. However, I’ve come to believe that the constant up-down-up-down is actually harder on the legs. Long, sweeping downhills allow you to build up momentum and log some fast miles with little effort. In contrast, LS’s downhills often let you accelerate for only a few seconds before braking hard and running uphill again. Accelerate, brake, climb, repeat, again and again and again. Hence the race slogan, “Relentless.”

The first 2.4 miles are on a paved road: this allows the runners to spread out before hitting the single-track, where there is little room to pass. I ran the first two miles or so with Anya — a BRC acquaintance I’d run into at the start — before picking up the pace on a long downhill. I always like to start slow, but I was a little worried about getting trapped behind too many runners. Passing on the single-track really is hard, as the trail is on a steep hillside and often bordered with poison oak.

After entering the single-track at mile 2.4, I started wishing I’d run the road stretch faster. Once on the single-track, runners began sorting themselves into single-file groups of half a dozen or more. The speed of each group was dictated by the front runner’s pace, which on downhills was often painfully slow. I really hate being forced to run slowly on downhills, as I actually expend more energy braking than letting gravity do its thing. For the next ten miles, I alternated between patiently waiting for a passing opportunity, then surging by a column of runners when the chance arose. This is not my favorite kind of running, but fortunately the pack had thinned by the time I reached Warm Springs Creek around mile 12. In 2019 — though still a drought year — the creek had been high enough to warrant a rope line to help runners cross. No need for that this year: the water was only ankle-deep. I splashed across and continued past Warm Springs aid station.

Getting my feet wet, barely

After Warm Springs, the trail began to open up a bit. We got some good views of the lake, which was pretty but catastrophically low. I know I talk about the drought too much, but it looms over everything here. Old, dead and whitened trees poked up through the lake’s shallower parts: submerged long ago when the valley was flooded but once again seeing the light of day.

The single-track rolled along for some miles, alternating between open hills and forest, before eventually reaching an uphill fire road. Not long thereafter began the long, hard climb to the turnaround at No Name Flat aid station. On this uphill, around mile 22, I caught up with Megan’s friend Verity. We ran together and chatted for a bit: she was also doing Canyons and taking it easy today. I reached No Name ahead of her, but she left before me, as it took me awhile to refill my pack and flasks. I also got some ice to put in my hat, as it was pretty warm by then.

My cumulative time was 4:40 when I left No Name. If I maintained my pace, I’d finish in 9:20. I thought I might yet do negative splits, as there’s slightly less elevation gain on the return, but time would tell. After the long climb to the turnaround, it was nice to get an extended downhill, although I would have preferred a gentler grade. The descent was so steep that it forced me to brake, using energy to go slower. I passed Verity again around mile 30.

It was a relief to get back on the single-track. More pretty rolling, mile after mile. Although I was backtracking, I was struck by how different the course looked from the opposite direction. No view in particular jumped out at me — so I didn’t take a lot of pics — but it was uplifting to see so much green.

I refilled my flasks at Warm Springs, and filled my hat with ice. I might have overdone the ice, as my hat was now precariously perched on my head, and I had to hold it for a while so it wouldn’t fall off. But, it was nice to have ice-cold water melting on my head as I tackled the home stretch. Because that home stretch, though only 12 miles, felt pretty long. I was hiking more and more hills, albeit at a good pace, and abandoned my hope of negative splits. Still, I was glad to see that my legs were holding up ok after all my recent long runs. I was still running the flats and downhills well.

The last miles were hard but not tortuous. I was a little disappointed when I passed the 8:40 mark — my last time on this course — still some miles from the finish. But, I reminded myself that I had no real aspirations for today beyond getting in a good, solid run. The thought of relaxing with Megan at the finish pulled me along, and I managed to put in a good effort through those last miles. I finished in 9:36, glad to be done, and glad to get my bottle of Wilson winery’s zinfandel.

Canyons 100k (April 23)

In the two weeks between Lake Sonoma and Canyons, I started to wonder if I was up to this. I ran less and less between races but felt more and more tired. After MUC, I did half a dozen moderate runs and still felt good on my Birthday Run. After that, I did only four really easy runs but still felt tired at Sonoma. After Sonoma I decided not to run at all, hoping a complete rest would allow me to recover for Canyons. Would that be enough?

As the race approached, I didn’t know. I felt exhausted for almost a week after Sonoma, and even looked exhausted, with persistent dark circles under my eyes despite sleeping well. My body seemed to be telling me it had had enough. I felt normal enough the next week, but since I didn’t run, I had no idea how my legs were coming along. I’d have to find out on race day.

For those who aren’t familiar with Canyons, it’s a big and competitive race. It’s a Golden Ticket race, giving the first three male and female finishers entry into Western States. That’s always attracted a strong field, but this year Canyons became even more of a draw through its inclusion in the new UTMB World Series. UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) is arguably the world’s premier ultrarunning event, and as with Western States, you need to get past the lottery to get in. The World Series races offer everyone incentives on that score: non-elites get running “stones” (i.e., tickets) for the lottery, while elites can hope to win automatic entry. All of which meant that this year’s Canyons field was bigger — nearly 700 starters — and more talented than ever. Neither the size nor the quality of the field had much relevance to me, but the energy surrounding the race was palpable. This was a big event.

Canyons is also a pretty tough course, with around 15,000′ elevation gain in 100K. It starts in Auburn, in the Sierra foothills, and finishes in the mountains at China Wall, for a net elevation gain of almost 4000′. In between, it descends into and climbs out of the American River canyons multiple times. Both the descents and the ascents are steep and grueling: the downhills in particular take a toll on the legs. Last year’s race left my legs feeling trashed for two weeks. I’d trained more this year, however, so I hoped my legs would hold up better.

Megan and I spent Friday night at the Rodeway Inn, where we’ve stayed many times before. When you’re an ultrarunner based in Northern California, Auburn is hard to avoid. The self-described “Endurance Capital of the World” is home to numerous ultrarunning events, including the Way Too Cool 50K, the Rio Del Lago 100M, Western States, and of course Canyons. After checking in, we picked up our race packets at the expo in downtown Auburn. UTMB’s influence was already visible: whereas last year’s race started outside town at Overlook Park, this year’s would start right in the town center, where several blocks had been cordoned off. There are valid concerns about UTMB’s dominance of the ultrarunning world, but they do know how to put on an event.

I woke up early, after only a few hours of sleep. Megan and I drove to the start and left our drop bags before heading off again to park. That proved more difficult than we’d expected, as the various downtown barricades (apparently unknown to Google Maps) blocked our initial attempts to drive to the Overlook parking area. We ended up parking on a street close to downtown and jogging to the start.

The start was quite a scene, with hundreds of runners crowded into the starting chute. We spotted our friend Dan and chatted with him while waiting for the gun. Although I felt tired, the crowd’s excitement was contagious, and I felt cautiously hopeful as we headed off at 5:00am.

The early miles were uneventful: I jogged along slowly, not feeling great, but hoping my legs would eventually warm up. My legs always feel crappy for the first few miles, so it would take at least that long to assess how well I’d recovered. In the meantime, I enjoyed the early morning sights: a full moon over the American River, canyons filled with fog, and eventually a nice sunrise.

At mile 7 I passed Megan, who had stopped at the Mammoth Bar aid station. Soon after that, the course began to climb. I was well warmed up by now, and increasingly aware that I hadn’t recovered from my recent races. I had no aches or pains yet: just a deep fatigue in my legs. But, I reminded myself that ultras sometimes bring second winds: last year, I’d started the Bigfoot 73 feeling dead from a 100-mile race two weeks earlier, but I finished that race feeling great. I’d just have to hope for something similar today.

The miles rolled on. I’ve run these trails many times, in races and Western States training camps, so it was hardly a voyage of discovery, but it was still nice to see the canyons and the rolling green hills.

Megan caught up to me shortly after the Drivers Flat aid station at mile 15. I told her my legs already felt awful — a lot like the last ten miles of Lake Sonoma. I couldn’t help contrasting how badly I felt today with how much better I’d felt at a similar point in MUC six weeks earlier. Megan told me there’s no point making such comparisons, which is of course true. We ran together for a short while until she pulled away.

I don’t recall much about the next 15 or so miles to Foresthill. This stretch has a few significant climbs and a lot of up-and-down rolling. It’s dense and green and choked with poison oak. I watched some other runners blithely run through the branches crossing the trail, and winced inwardly every time. I myself probably looked silly doing my usual poison oak dance, twisting and dodging every few steps to avoid the detestable leaves. What can I say? I hate poison oak. Otherwise, I didn’t have a lot of thoughts except “I can’t believe how bad I feel this early in the race.” The first half of Canyons is the easy part, and I already felt wiped out.

I straggled into Foresthill (mile 34), where I was glad to stop and retrieve some smoothies from my drop bag. I chatted with an aid station volunteer and continued on. My legs still felt terrible, but I was glad to be starting the second, more mountainous part of the course. I hoped that, with a little more hiking and a little less running, I’d get that second wind.

One thing at least was encouraging. Although I felt more tired than the previous year, I wasn’t in any pain. Last year my knee started hurting from Foresthill on, and I’d had to take a few ibuprofen to finish the race. So far, I felt no need for that. This isn’t to say that my legs felt good: I jogged the runnable downhills to Michigan Bluff (mile 40) because real running hurt too much. This sucked, as this was a stretch you’d ideally like to run fast. But at least I wasn’t in acute pain: just standard ultra achiness, though miles earlier than I’d have liked.

Soon after Michigan Bluff came the first real canyon descent. This hurt. I thought again about how much worse I felt than I’d hoped. My spring training was supposed to make my legs impervious to these downhills, but I actually found them harder than last year. I was glad to reach the canyon floor and to start ascending the other side. At least at first: the ascent got old as it dragged on and on. It was a huge relief to finally reach the Deadwood aid station at mile 46.

Just before Deadwood, I took my first caffeinated Gu, then another. This helped a lot. I also finally broke down and took an ibuprofen, which also helped. Between the caffeine and Vitamin I, I felt like I could run again, and I actually had a pretty good time on the (admittedly easy) five-mile Deadwood loop. When I returned to Deadwood at mile 51, I was looking forward to the final stretch.

A note on mileage: as the race went on, my watch’s mileage got further and further ahead of UTMB’s. I was about a mile ahead of the course description at Foresthill (34 versus 33), and two miles ahead by Deadwood 2 (51 versus 49). I’d ordinarily chalk this up to watch error, but I compared notes with multiple runners along the way, and all of our watches said the same thing. So I’m guessing my watch readings were correct — good enough for this post, anyway.

Leaving Deadwood, I began my last big descent into the canyons. This one was also steep and brutal, but with caffeine and ibuprofen now in my system, I enjoyed it more than the previous one. I was feeling, if not great, at least better than I’d felt all day. The proximity to the finish no doubt helped: eleven more miles didn’t seem so bad. I reached the canyon floor feeling reasonably good, crossed the rickety bridge, and started up the other side.

The climb out of the canyon was long and hard, but I expected that and was fine. I did not expect to keep struggling even after reaching the top. I remembered the last few miles being easy and runnable, but that’s not how they felt today. A recent snowfall had transformed those last miles: snow lined the trailsides, and snowmelt formed deep puddles in the trail itself. The options were basically to run through the puddles or go off-trail. I attempted a third approach, using the small strip of dirt between the puddles and the snow. This didn’t work: I immediately slipped and fell into the surprisingly deep puddle and was soaked up to my waist. After that, I alternated between splashing through the mud or trudging through the snow.

I later learned that these last few miles were everyone’s slowest. Elites and ordinary runners alike moved only half as fast through this stretch as they’d averaged for the course as a whole. Pretty ironic, since this was the flattest stretch since Michigan Bluff, but that’s how it goes. The mud and snow affected everyone, so it probably didn’t change anyone’s place that much, but it did make the home stretch hard.

At some point I started hearing finish-line sounds wafting through the woods: music and speakers announcing the finishers. I couldn’t decide if this was encouraging or frustrating, since I figured sound carried well out here and might still be far off. Another runner and I joked about how the sound was taunting us. But shortly thereafter, big Hoka banners began to appear, and I was relieved to see the finish line come into view.

Megan greeted me at the finish: she’d finished about 20 minutes before me, and Dan 10 minutes before her. It was a huge relief to be done, and to have friends to hang out with after a long, hard effort. I told them this was the hardest sub-100 mile race I’d ever done: not the course per se, but the experience of running the whole thing on tired legs. I put on multiple layers of warm clothing — I remembered the finish being very cold last year — and sat around waiting for veggie broth and a veggie burrito, both of which had inexplicably run out. Once they finally arrived, I felt complete. (If nothing else, ultras help us appreciate the little things.)

My time of 13:32 was actually five minutes faster than last year. I’d wondered beforehand which of two effects would dominate: being better trained this year, on the one hand, and being more tired going in, on the other. As it turned out, those two things more or less cancelled each other out. It wasn’t exactly the race I’d hoped for, but I took it as a good sign that I was able to beat last year’s time despite being so tired throughout. That said, I told Megan I had doubts about doing Miwok in two weeks, and she advised me against it.

As noted, Canyons is a big, competitive race, and this year more so than ever. Adam Peterman and Jazmine Lowther set men’s and women’s course records of 8:31 and 10:01, respectively. That’s extraordinary, given how much those last muddy miles slowed everyone down. More generally, for both men and women, five of the six fastest-ever times were run this year. Ultrarunning is still a young sport, but it’s maturing pretty damn fast.

Miwok 100K (May 7)

I’ve wanted to run Miwok for years, ever since I first paced Megan there in 2017. It encompasses the most beautiful parts of the Marin Headlands and Mt Tam, at a beautiful time of year when the coastal hills are green and covered with wildflowers. I’d entered the lottery multiple times but somehow never got in. This year there was no lottery, and I was delighted to finally sign up. It was actually the first race I registered for this spring, and the one I’d most wanted to do.

Unfortunately, Canyons and the previous races had left me pretty wrecked. I now had an answer to the “building up versus breaking down” question: I was breaking down. There was probably more to this than physical fatigue alone. For the last month, I’d been struggling to complete a difficult revise-and-resubmit at a prominent journal. I’d expected my race schedule to facilitate work: I’d run a race every two weeks and work a lot in between. But I felt so exhausted after every race that I struggled to get work done, and the constant fatigue and stress were getting me down…really down. I felt tired and depressed. The thought of doing another race so soon seemed odious. I could probably have slogged through Miwok, but it would have felt like a death march — hardly the experience I’d hoped for. So, I decided to pull the plug and leave Miwok for another year.

I’m happy with this choice. I ran only three times in the month after Canyons, which allowed me to recover and focus finishing the R&R. Getting that off my plate was a huge relief, and I felt better immediately. Now I’m four days from the Bighorn 100-miler in Wyoming, and hoping those four spring races have left me in good shape. We’ll see.

Would I attempt a race schedule like this again? No. I’m sure some people find it rewarding to complete a grueling race series, but I myself care too much about my performance in individual races to enjoy this kind of challenge. I don’t find it enjoyable to run on tired legs, or to fall short of my performance goals. I registered for all these races in large part because I deluded myself into thinking I could recover faster than I actually can. It was a worthwhile experiment — I now know my limitations better than before — but going forward, I’ll probably do fewer races — like, one per month? — and try to do them well.

Early Spring 2022

My last two years, like everyone’s, have not gone according to plan. I began 2020 by signing up for a ton of races, only to see them all canceled. I was optimistic about 2021–which got off to a good start–but ultimately scaled back my racing and training due to wildfires and work. Given this track record, approaching 2022 with any kind of ambition seems like hubris. But hope springs eternal, and regression to the mean is a real thing, right?

In any case, I have a lot of races lined up: Lake Sonoma 50M (April 9), Canyons 100K (April 23), Miwok 100K (May 7), the Dipsea (June 12), Bighorn 100M (June 17), Vermont 100M (July 16), and SwissPeaks 100K (September 2), to name just the ones I’ve already paid for. The three April-May races–which are only two weeks apart–worry me a bit. Last spring I did Canyons alone, and that left my legs trashed for at least two weeks. I’ll need to recover faster this year, so this spring I decided to prioritize resilience: that is, my ability to run a lot without breaking down. I’m sure there’s some science on how to do this, but I don’t like to think about training too much, so I’m just going to go for volume, i.e., a lot of long runs. So far, this has included the Ordnance 100K, the Marin Ultra Challenge 50M, and–the crown jewel–a self-supported 54-mile run around the East Bay.

Ordnance 100K (February 5)

I’ve now done Ordnance four times: in 2015, 2018, 2020, and 2022. It’s a small, low-key race, but one of my favorites. The course begins at the Laguna Seca racetrack just east of Monterey, and makes its way around Fort Ord National Monument. It’s surprisingly diverse: you get sand dunes, oak forests, hillsides covered with chaparral, and open foothills with expansive views. This year’s course was different from previous ones: due to permitting issues, the RD eliminated a long stretch of bike path and rerouted the course along a ridgeline. This added 1.5 miles and 1500′ of elevation gain, for 62.5 miles and 8,800′. Not what you’d call a lot of vert, but enough to keep things interesting. If you look closely at the elevation chart, you’ll notice that miles 21 to 40 look exactly the same as miles 43 to 62. That’s because the lower, southeastern loop is repeated twice.

The race started in the dark at 6:00am. I started slowly, as usual, and ran a few miles in my own little world before seeing the sun rise.

About three miles in, I caught up with Mark Tanaka, a regular at this race. I’d met Mark during this same race seven years earlier: it was my first 100K, and he coached me through it for fifty miles. This year we ran fewer miles together, but I enjoyed chatting with him about optimal pacing, health issues (Mark is an E.R. doctor), and conspiracy theories. However, a race is a race, and around mile seven I wished Mark a good race and picked up the pace.

My favorite part of this course is the oak forest in the first ten or fifteen miles. In the early-morning light, the oaks and lace lichen feel ghostly and magical.

The first 30 miles passed uneventfully: I was running slowly but felt good. Around mile 30, the new course change took effect. Instead of continuing down a fire road to the bike path, we turned right on a single-track that led up into the hills. We then continued along a ridgeline until reaching the long out-and-back down to the Toro Creek aid station. Although the out-and-back was hard–two miles of downhill followed by two miles of uphill–I really liked the course change. The now-omitted bike path was always my least favorite part of the course, and it was a pleasure to run instead along a pretty, rolling ridgeline. I hope Inside Trail sticks with the new course going forward.

Until now I hadn’t thought much about other runners: my cardinal rule is “run your own race.” However, the out-and-back provided an opportunity to assess my standing, since I’d be able to see anyone ahead of me coming up the hill as I went down. At least, I’d see them if they led me by less than 3.5 miles–the length of the out-and-back–and I doubted anyone was that far ahead. However, although I looked carefully for 100K bibs, I didn’t see any. I didn’t know what to make of that. I doubted I was in first, but I didn’t expect Alex Kramer–who I guessed was the strongest runner there–to be already so far ahead.

I saw Megan at mile 40, where she was volunteering at the Laguna Seca aid station. I’d originally hoped she’d pace me for this race, but she sprained her ankle badly in January, so seeing her at the aid station was the next best thing. I asked her what place I was in, and she said third. “Really?” Alex was apparently 40 minutes ahead, which explained why I hadn’t seen him on the out-and-back, but who was second? Megan pointed at someone just leaving the aid station and said he was in second place. That confused me: Why hadn’t I seen him on the out-and-back? Had he skipped it? I’d actually been thinking about this, as the new course was potentially confusing, and some runners I’d thought were close behind me were nowhere to be seen on the out-and-back return. But there wasn’t much point in worrying about it, so I pushed on.

Around mile 45 I glimpsed the second-place runner–Luis Tapia–ahead of me. I gradually gained on him over the next few miles and caught up around mile 48. I could now see his bib clearly–pinned to the back of his hydration pack. “Now I understand!” I shouted. He looked back: “What?” I explained that I’d been looking for 100K runners on the out-and-back but didn’t notice him, presumably because his bib was on his back. Luis said he’d noticed me. We ran together briefly, then I started to pull away. “I’m sure I’ll see you again,” I said. “I don’t know…you’re looking pretty strong,” he replied. He then added, jokingly, “What the hell, man? I’ve been in second for the last 40 miles, and you’re gonna take it away?” I laughed, but yeah, that was the plan.

Once I’d passed Luis, my race changed. Specifically, it got a lot harder. Until then, I’d been running my own race at a leisurely pace. Now, I was determined to put some distance between myself and Luis. There were still 15-ish miles left, and I didn’t relish the thought of running neck-and-neck with someone else the entire way. I figured if I sped up now, I could establish an insurmountable lead and then relax for the final miles. It wasn’t long before Luis was out of sight, but that didn’t mean much, as we were now on a winding single-track where I couldn’t see far behind. The single-track eventually gave way to a wide fire road, where I could see that I’d opened up at least a quarter-mile gap. Still, that’s not much in a long race.

Heading down the out-and-back for the second time, I saw Alex coming up the hill. “Awesome job, man!” I said. “You’re winning by miles!” He smiled and ran on. I was happy for him, but also happy that I’d gained some ground: he was now leading by less than one out-and-back. Still a lot, but I’d closed the gap by pushing the last six or seven miles.

I stopped briefly at the Toro Creek turnaround to drink some ginger ale, then headed out again. As I started up the hill, Luis came charging down. I cheered him on, but I was dismayed to see him so close behind. I’d been pushing the pace for some time, but he had risen to the challenge and wasn’t falling far behind. So much for relaxing the last few miles. I hurried up the hill.

Return from Toro Creek

Running up a two-mile hill more than 55 miles into a race is hard. But I still hadn’t left Luis convincingly behind, so I kept at it. I didn’t allow myself to look back, not wanting to look like I was worried. Finally, after cresting the hill and turning down a single-track, I glanced back. I could see Luis in the distance, maybe five minutes behind. Not bad, but not yet time to ease up.

I really like the last five miles of this course: runnable single-track that winds up, down and around rolling green hills. I kept on pushing, no longer worried about being caught, but wanting to finish strong. I saw Megan again at Laguna Seca, only a few hundred yards from the finish. She ran most of that distance with me; I crossed the finish line and was done. When Luis finished seven minutes later, I gave him a fist bump and thanked him for pushing me. I meant it: I owed my strong finish to him. As for Alex, he’d finished 34 minutes ahead of me and had already left.

My time of 10:49 was my slowest ever at this race, but it wasn’t comparable with previous ones due to the course change. My gut feeling was that this was my second-best performance, behind my 9:45 in 2020. But, whatever. I felt I had a good race and was now in better shape for my April-May trials.

As usual, Megan and I spent the night down there, had breakfast in Pacific Grove the next morning, and took a stroll alongside beautiful Monterey Bay before heading home.

Marin Ultra Challenge 50M (March 12)

The Marin Ultra Challenge (MUC) is another standby, being both local and beautiful. The course begins at Rodeo Beach and gives runners an outstanding tour of the Marin Headlands and Mt Tam. Along the way, you see the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, and miles of California coast. There’s a reason Inside Trail describes MUC as “our premier Marin County long distance trail race.” I didn’t think much about whether to do MUC this year because…of course I was going to do it. Why wouldn’t I?

I didn’t have a lot of goals this year, except to get in another long run before my April-May races. If I clocked a good time, so much the better. I told a friend beforehand that my point estimate was 8:15, with a 90 percent confidence interval of 7:45 to 8:45. That seemed reasonable, as my previous time on this course (in 2018) was 8:10. I’d run 7:42 in 2019, but that year’s course was cut due to flooding, so the time didn’t mean much.

The last time I ran this race, I relied mainly on smoothies for fuel. That often works well, as it’s an easy way to get both calories and fluid. Unfortunately, that day was rainy and cold–not great for chugging down mango juice. So this year I tried something new: potato puree. Boiled potatoes are one of my race staples: they provide complex carbs, are high in potassium, and when salted also provide sodium. The only catch is that I sometimes have trouble eating them during a long race, particularly if it’s hot. By boiling and pureeing them, I hoped to combine the starchiness and saltiness of potatoes with the drinkability of a smoothie. It seemed worth a try. I cooked four large russet potatoes and one Japanese sweet potato, and blended them with salt to roughly the consistency of a running gel. I was able to fit them all into four large flasks:

Potato puree

The race started just after sunrise, at 6:30am. The course begins with a lot of climbing: almost 900′ in the first mile and a half. This consists of a somewhat gradual road followed by some very steep steps. I’m always struck by how many people start their races too fast, and this was on full display at MUC. As I jogged slowly up the hill, I was passed by many people breathing loudly and hard. I’m not generally inclined to give racing advice–everyone has to find their own way–but I think it’s safe to say that you should not be laboring in the first two miles of a 50-mile race. Keeping it easy, I finished the first climb toward the back of the pack and began the two-mile descent back to sea level.

I briefly saw Megan at the Conzelman aid station (mile 6), where she was volunteering. I didn’t stop, but she later mentioned that maybe 50-60 people had gotten there ahead of me. I continued on to the SCA trail, which on a clear day offers great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Today was not a clear day, at least not yet–nothing but fog, and a lot of wind.

I finally picked up the pace nine miles in, on the long descent down Marincello. While I always take uphills very easy, I like to take advantage of long, runnable downhills, where you can let gravity do the work. In my previous MUCs, I’d clocked at least two sub-6:00 miles per race: one on the long Miwok downhill from miles 2.5 to 3.5, and one on Marincello from miles 9 to 10. This year I’d resolved to show more restraint, as that seemed fast even for a downhill. I coasted down Marincello as effortlessly as I could, but still clocked a 6:10 mile. I guess I can only go so slow on a hill like that.

After passing through Tennessee Valley, I began the roughly three-mile stretch along Coastal to Muir Beach. This is one of the nicest parts of the course–hilly technical trails and great views up and down the coast–but the day was still foggy, so I mostly kept my head down and focused on the trail.

After Muir Beach, Redwood trail takes you to Heather Cutoff, a series of switchbacks that gradually ascends to Coast View. Coast View then continues the climb to Cardiac. I passed many people along this stretch, although I still didn’t have much sense of my overall place. I stopped briefly at Cardiac for some ginger ale, then continued on. I worked on the potato flasks I’d started with, as I planned to replace them on my return to Cardiac in ten miles. I was liking the puree so far: I mean, it’s salted potatoes without the chewing.

From Cardiac, the course follows the Dipsea to Stinson Beach, where a few blocks of road running lead to the dreaded Willow Camp fire road (dreaded because it climbs 1800′ in two miles). The road stretch is maybe the least interesting part of the course, but this year it proved surprisingly troublesome. From Highway 1, runners are supposed to turn right on Belvedere and continue around the bend onto Buena Vista. They are NOT supposed to go up the Matt Davis trail, which has a trailhead on the north side of Belvedere. I was therefore surprised when I found that trailhead marked with two orange ribbons, one on either side. This clearly pointed runners up Matt Davis.

Knowing this was wrong, I scanned the street for other ribbons but saw none. Had there been a last-minute course change? I pulled out my phone and checked the course GPX. It said to take the road, so I did. After turning right onto Laurel, I was relieved to see ribbons again. I really hate wondering if I’m on course.

A minute later, I encountered some race volunteers driving the other way. I told them about the Matt Davis ribbons, but they had apparently already heard, as they were on their way to fix them and place a blue ribbon at the trailhead (blue indicates “wrong way”). I was glad they were on it, but I wondered how many runners had been misled by what I assumed was course sabotage.

I got a preliminary answer a few minutes later, when I reached the Willow Camp aid station. Will Gotthardt, who was working there, asked if I knew what place I was in at Cardiac. I didn’t. He said only two runners had passed by Willow Camp–putting me in third–but those two had been fourth and fifth at Cardiac. The first three runners to reach Cardiac had not been seen. It seemed certain they had followed the ribbons up Matt Davis, which was unfortunate for everyone involved. Willow Camp is the course’s toughest stretch, and taking Matt Davis instead cuts a lot of distance and elevation gain: 1.75 miles and 692′, to be precise. In other words, this was not an innocuous detour, and would one way or another affect the outcome of the race.

This kind of situation has no winners. I felt bummed for the lead runners, who were just following the course markings and would be disappointed when they learned of their mistake. I felt bummed for myself, since now I’d never know if I could have caught any of them. I run more conservatively than most, so I’d been hoping to catch at least some of the leaders later in the race. Maybe I could have, maybe I couldn’t, but now the question was moot. I felt bummed for Tim Stahler, the RD, who would somehow have to deal with this. I wondered–not for the first time–what kind of asshole does this shit for fun. This race wasn’t a big deal to me, but there were many people out here–some running their first 50M–who had trained hard for months just for this. Do the people who sabotage courses think about this? For that matter, what do they think about?

I made my way slowly up Willow Camp, taking care not to push it too hard. About two-thirds of the way up, I heard two women behind me: one who would be the first female finisher and another who would finish fourth. I chatted with them about the course confusion, and they were surprised to learn that I thought it was sabotage. They thought it was just bad marking, but I couldn’t imagine any race volunteers being that incompetent.

I left them behind after reaching Coastal, which is mostly flat or gently rolling. The skies had cleared by now, and I took my first and only picture of the race:

The view from Coastal

The trail to Cardiac was an easy cruise. I finished my potatoes along the way. I grabbed my remaining two flasks at Cardiac, but wished (as Megan had predicted) that I’d instead packed a couple of smoothies. The potato puree was great for the morning miles when it was cool and foggy. But now that the sun was out, I craved something more thirst-quenching. Note to self: choice and variety are good things. I use my drop bags sparingly, so it’s silly not to give myself more options.

I enjoyed the next cruisy stretch along TCC: easy running through the redwoods. On the technical descent down Bootjack, I was surprised to hear the first-place female (Samantha Bear) behind me again. I hadn’t seen her since Willow Camp. We ran together for the rest of Bootjack and up Ben Johnson, talking about East Bay running (she lives in El Cerrito), pros and cons of living in the Bay Area, and NIMBYism. At some point, however, I realized her uphill pace was too fast for my comfort, and I wished her a good race. She said I’d probably catch her on the downhill, but I wasn’t sure. Ben Johnson was taking a toll on my legs.

I didn’t see Samantha again until the Deer Park aid station. She was leaving just as I arrived. I gulped some ginger ale and moved on, up Miwok and onto Dias Ridge. I got a big mental lift when I reached the high point of Dias and began the long downhill to Highway 1: a winding stretch with fantastic views toward the coast. I’d also taken a caffeinated Gu, which I reserve for late in the race, and that put some additional wind in my sails.

Approaching Muir Beach, I saw Megan in the “Team Yuch” t-shirt she’d made in 2017 for the Waldo 100K. She’d finished her aid station duties and had run the 10 or so miles to Muir Beach so she could pace me the last 10 miles. (Yes, I realize I’m lucky to have a partner that will do all this.) We headed out, past the Green Gulch Farm and up Middle Green Gulch trail. I felt pretty good at this point and tried to maintain a solid pace up the hill. We were down to the last 10 miles, so it was time–maybe past time–to stop being cautious and run some fast miles. Megan and I talked about the course mishap: she mentioned that the leader, Jonah Backstrom, had reached Muir Beach an hour and 15 minutes ahead of me, and also far ahead of the second-place runner. I figured the Matt Davis shortcut was worth a good 30 minutes, but that still meant Jonah would be leading comfortably even if he’d stayed on course. As for the second and third-place runners, I couldn’t say.

While climbing Middle Green Gulch, I noticed Samantha on the trail ahead of us. We gradually gained on her and finally caught her on Miwok. We were down to the final miles now, and I was trying to run fast, with a lot of encouragement from Megan. We bombed down Miwok to Tennessee Valley, moved quickly up Old Springs, then slowly and laboriously up Wolf Ridge, the last big climb. I breathed a sigh of relief after cresting Wolf Ridge: we were done with climbing and now had two miles of nearly uninterrupted downhill to the finish. This is one more great feature of this race: unless you’ve completely trashed your legs, you can always finish fast. We pushed it down the hill and were done.

After finishing, I mentioned the course sabotage to Tim. He said he was pretty sure he knew who did it. Thinking he meant a volunteer, I said “So it wasn’t sabotage?” He replied that it was most definitely sabotage: he’d marked that stretch of course himself. Apparently there’s a resident of Stinson Beach who doesn’t like runners passing by her house: Tim thought she’d moved the ribbons to send everyone up Matt Davis. Somehow this seemed worse to me than my imagined scenario of teenagers messing up the course for fun. Stupid kids will be stupid kids: it’s unfortunate but comes with the territory. But for an adult to do this just because she doesn’t like a couple hundred runners (this isn’t a big road race!) passing by, once a year, on a public street, when the race organizers have spent good money on a permit–that’s just unbelievably obnoxious and petty. Bay Area NIMBYism at its worst.

In the end, Tim decided to disqualify the three lead runners. That probably wouldn’t have been my choice: I’d have been more inclined to assign a penalty of 30 or 40 minutes. However, these are hard choices, and I respect Tim’s decision. RDs face a lot of pressures, and sometimes get unwarranted flak, because you can’t always please everyone. And it’s true that the race website and pre-race emails cautioned runners to study the course–and download the GPX–because course sabotage is a real thing. In any case, the DQs meant that I finished third. I’d have preferred a worse place in a race that went smoothly, but c’est la vie: I’ll still take the $150 for third place.

On the whole, I was happy with my race. My time of 8:35 was 25 minutes slower than in 2018, but I’m four years older and honestly didn’t push it that hard this year. I was pleased to run negative splits–4:25 for the first half, 4:10 for the second–and to finish strong. I felt good and enjoyed the day. That’s enough.

Yuch’s Birthday Run / Dan’s Farewell Tour (March 27)

Megan recently asked if I could give up races. I suppose the answer has to be yes–ultramarathons are hardly a necessity–but I’m also not sure why I would. Races allow us to see beautiful places on foot, whether it’s the Rockies, the Scottish highlands, the Mt St Helens wilderness, the Swiss Alps, or what. They motivate us to push ourselves. They help build friendships with other runners. So, races have a lot to offer. That said, there are other ways to get these things. The most obvious alternative is the long adventure run: rim-to-rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon, the Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainier…and the long run Megan, Dan and I did on my 53rd birthday.

This run was conceived as a way to give Dan a last tour of the East Bay before he moves to Switzerland in June. Dan found a 100-mile route already worked out by someone else: we took the first half with minor changes. We settled on the last weekend in March for several reasons. The East Bay is still green at that time, and the wildflowers are at their peak. It’s a month before the Canyons 100K–which Dan, Megan and I are all doing–and so an ideal time for a long training run. For me, that weekend was the midpoint between the MUC 50M (March 12) and the Lake Sonoma 50M (April 9), so it maximized my recovery time. When it landed right on my birthday, I shamelessly named it Yuch’s Birthday Run and trimmed the distance to 53 miles, one for every year.

The route passes through my three favorite East Bay parks: Briones, Mt Diablo, and Las Trampas. Although I’ve done a lot of running in all three, I’ve never tried to connect them. Fortunately, doing so is easy thanks to the Briones-to-Mt Diablo and Las Trampas-to-Mt Diablo regional trails. Those connectors were terra incognita to me, so I was looking forward to checking them out.

Since this was a point-to-point run, we needed two cars. We met at the finish–the Valle Vista staging area in Moraga–at 6:30am, then took my car to the start: the Mt Wanda trailhead in Martinez. We were off and running by 7:15. Although we expected rain, the forecast said it wouldn’t start until evening, so we hoped to finish before the rain arrived. That morning was cloudy, but it was nice to see the sun peeking under the clouds.

Our first leg took us through Briones, which was hilly and green. The views from Table Top trail were spectacular: Mt Diablo in the distance and wildflowers everywhere. We came across a lone newt. California newts were ubiquitous here only seven or eight years ago, but our ongoing megadrought–the worst in at least 1,200 years–has taken a severe toll. Nice to see a few still hanging on.

Only 20 more miles to Diablo summit

We continued along Briones Crest until we reached the Lafayette Ridge Trail, which would take us out of Briones and down to Lafayette. This roller coaster of a trail is one of my favorites: the exaggerated hills look like something from Dr. Seuss.

Still a long way to go

Lafayette Ridge took us to the start of the Briones-to-Mt Diablo trail. After a few blocks of road running, we turned east onto a dirt single-track. Overall, our route to Diablo involved surprisingly little road running–maybe half a mile in all. We spent a few miles on paved bike path, stopping in Larkey Park to use the bathrooms. Otherwise, we were pleasantly surprised by how much of the connector consisted of dirt trail.

We left the connector trail near Castle Rock regional park, running southeast on Stage Road to Burma Road. (“Road” is a misnomer here: these may once have been fire roads, but they’ve been substantially reclaimed by nature.) Turning onto Burma Road, we began the ascent up Mt Diablo. For those who don’t know Burma Road: this is a steep route up the mountain. The road begins at an altitude of 600′ and ends–with detours on Angel Kerley and Mother’s Trail–three miles later at 2800′. 2200′ in three miles is a lot. As you might expect, this stretch involved some hiking, but also some treats like the mysterious koi pond.

From Burma Road, Deer Flat Road took us to Juniper Campground. This was our first water stop, and we all refilled our packs and flasks. As we headed out, we compared notes on how we felt: tired and stiff all around. It’s amazing how a short rest can cause your muscles to stiffen up, and how hard it can be to get moving again. (Hence the hallowed ultramarathon advice: “Beware the chair.”) But in fairness, we had now covered more than 26 miles and 6000′ of elevation gain, so we could forgive ourselves for feeling fatigued.

Heading up Juniper Trail, we began the final climb to Diablo’s 3,849′ summit. This went quickly, and we soon reached the summit parking lot. We headed up the observation tower, spent a few minutes eating our sandwiches, then headed back down to the parking lot to refill our flasks again.

It’s interesting to watch the climate zones change as you move from west to east. The moisture here comes from the coast, and every successive range of hills blocks a bit more water. Despite the drought, Briones and Las Trampas are still lush and green. Diablo is not much further to the east–ten miles as the crow flies–but the grassy hillsides on Diablo’s western flank are already drying from green to gold. East of Diablo, things are drier still: nothing grows on North Peak but shrubby chaparral.

North Peak seen from Diablo summit

As we left the summit, we were all looking forward to our next leg. Not only were we heading back to (literally) greener pastures, but the next six or seven miles would be varying degrees of downhill: our reward for the brutal climb. We bombed down Summit Trail all the way to Ridge View. I’d never run Ridge View before, but I’d suggested it to limit the route to 53 miles, and it turned out to be a really nice single-track.

Ridge View Trail

From Ridge View, we turned right and ran along Wall Point Road for several miles: a rolling fire road with great views down to the ridiculously large mansions in Alamo. We spent some time talking about those mansions: who owns them, why anyone would want a house that big, and so on. This was an easy and pretty stretch, with abundant wildflowers of all kinds. Wild mustard was ubiquitous, and we all ate some leaves and enjoyed the horseradish-like jolt. Dan even decided to take some home.

Crossing under Highway 680, we once again marveled at the East Bay trail system. It’s remarkable that, in a metro area with more than eight million people, it’s possible to plot a 50-something mile run that’s almost entirely on dirt trail. Even the stretch through the town of Alamo consisted mostly of leafy dirt trails routed between residential backyards. We hear a lot of well-deserved criticism of state and local governance, but the architects of our regional park system got a lot of things right.

At mile 41, we entered Las Trampas: our final set of big hills. After a mile or so on the Virgil Williams trail, we hit the big climb up Del Amigo. This and Sulphur Springs would take us to Las Trampas Ridge, the first of the park’s two big ridges. This was hard climbing, but the wildflowers lifted our spirits.

From Las Trampas Ridge, we descended to the Bollinger Canyon staging area, then began the climb to Rocky Ridge: our last big climb! This was also hard, but made easier by knowing we were almost done. The top of Rocky Ridge was cold and windy, but we still took a moment to savor the views. Diablo had receded into the distance, much as it had been that morning, and we discussed how monuments like that lend perspective to these long runs: a sense of where you’re going and where you’ve been.

Bollinger Canyon from Rocky Ridge
A last look at Diablo

The wildflower display on Rocky Ridge was sublime, especially when the sun briefly broke through. My phone can never really capture what it’s like to be there, but I gave it my best shot.

Back to the Bay

A few more rolling miles took us to the home stretch: the King’s Canyon Loop Trail, which runs alongside the Upper San Leandro reservoir. Dan picked up the pace noticeably here. Megan and I tried to keep him in sight, but I wasn’t inclined to kick it in too hard: I had Lake Sonoma in two weeks and also wanted to take some last pics.

We reached Valle Vista around 7:30–perfect timing, as the sun had just gone down, and the rain had just arrived. We got into the car just in time to avoid getting soaked. I’m not big on birthdays, but I have to say that I really can’t imagine a better one. In the end, according to our watches, we’d run 54 gorgeous miles with 12,500′ of elevation gain. I’ll call that a good day.

On returning to Martinez, we learned that nothing in this world is perfect. While we were out running, someone had broken into my car–for the second time in four months. Each time, someone had smashed a rear window and flipped the back seat forward to examine the contents of the trunk. Each time, the burglars apparently decided I didn’t have anything worth stealing. I actually had a lot of camping gear in the trunk, which makes me wonder what these people are looking for: big bags of cash? In any case, I wasn’t thrilled to find my car window smashed, especially since it was now raining hard. But we’d had a good day, and I wasn’t going to let these morons ruin it. I reminded myself that I could afford the repair, and whoever did this probably had a pathetic life. We met Dan at Los Moles, a Mexican place in El Cerrito, and had a nice post-run meal.

I still see no need to give up races. On reflection, races and adventure runs seem more complements than substitutes: the former help you find your limits, while the latter provide more time to socialize and take pictures. But if I had to give up races, I’d be fine as long as I could keep doing runs like this. So, who’s up for rim-to-rim-to-rim?

Late Summer/Fall 2021

Castle Peak in less smoky days

It turns out I am not good at maintaining a race blog. In my defense, I didn’t have much to report in the second half of 2021. It’s a cliché to say that races are a metaphor for life, but honestly, my 2021 race season felt a lot like the year as a whole. My early-summer races (Black Hills, Bigfoot), like the illusory end of Covid, promised a great year ahead. Then came the delta wave, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the West Coast’s now-annual fire nightmare, supply-chain woes and inflation, the Democrats’ never-ending (until they ended in failure) negotiations over Build Back Better, the omicron wave… Yeah. Admittedly, most of this had nothing to do with running, but the wildfires did: they led me to skip one event (Desolate Peaks), cast a pall over another (Castle Peak), forced the cancellation of my fall goal race (Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe), and generally made running unpleasant for a while. Between the smoke, cancelled races, and a busy fall at work, I kind of gave up on running. So, 2021 in a nutshell: promising start, disappointing end.

That’s not to say late summer and fall were a total loss. In lieu of real training, I signed up for a lot of small, local races in the hope that the occasional hard effort would keep me in shape. Those races turned out to be a lot of fun: it’s nice not to worry about travel, lodging, or your performance. In the end, I found–much like Candide–that things were not so bad, even if we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. At least, that’s how I felt about the running: don’t get me started on the other stuff.

Castle Peak 100k (August 14)

I’ve always liked Castle Peak. It’s beautiful, set in the mountains above Truckee and Donner Lake. It’s tough, with some gnarly technical parts and lots of elevation gain. It’s local, which means I can get there easily and usually have friends in the race. It’s well-organized and has a fun vibe. I had a blast at this race in 2018 and 2019 and expected the same this year. However, things did not go so well.

As the race approached, it wasn’t clear whether it would even happen. The wildfires were bad this year–they’re bad every year these days–and the RD said he’d cancel the race if the AQI was above 150. (For those who don’t obsessively watch the AQI for 3-4 months every year, 150 is the threshold between “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and “unhealthy.”) This seemed reasonable, and I was glad there was a clear rule (which is not always the case). However, the prospect of cancellation–and the alternative of running in not-necessarily-dangerous-but-still-unpleasantly-smoky air–made it hard for me to get that excited.

I felt even less excited on race morning. On the plus side, the race went ahead, as the AQI hovered right around 150. On the minus side, I didn’t sleep at all the night before. As a night owl, I often have trouble falling asleep in time to…well, sleep before a 3:00am alarm. This time, I took an unusually high dose of edible cannabis to make me drowsy, but to no avail. So, I arrived at the start feeling both exhausted and very stoned. I nonetheless chugged along half-awake for some hours, running the familiar course on autopilot, and taking cheer every time I saw Megan and Dan at the aid stations.

It got hot: mid-90s. The smoke got worse, with the AQI around 170 most of the day. The ridgeline from Basin Peak to Castle Peak, which usually offers spectacular views, didn’t offer much today but smoke. I kept running, not well but sustainably. Then, as I approached the Soda Springs aid station at mile 47, it occurred to me that I could drop. I was only a few miles from the start/finish where I’d parked my car, so this would be my last chance. If I kept going, I’d be committed to doing another mountainous 18 miles. I didn’t see the point. I’d done this race twice before, so I didn’t feel I had anything to prove. I’d seen those last miles in much nicer conditions. It was hot and smoky, and I felt as crappy as the air looked. Sleep deprivation, heat, smoke: I probably could have handled any two, but not all three. I saw Megan at the aid station and told her my thoughts. She encouraged me to continue, saying we could all run together. I replied “It’s not gonna be fun.” And with that, I watched Megan and her pacer disappear up the hill.

A spectator who overheard our conversation offered me a ride back to the start/finish, which I gratefully accepted. I grabbed my car and drove back to Chris and Tim’s cabin, where they graciously let us stay. I took a shower and lay down for a while, feeling ok about my decision. Then I drove back to the finish to wait for Megan and Dan to come in.

While waiting, I felt my first pangs of regret. It’s tough to hang out at a race finish after you’ve DNF-ed. The RD, Peter Fain, asked me what happened, as did Let’s Wander photographer Jesse Ellis. They were both nice and understanding, but it was hard not to feel some shame. The ultra ethos tells us to tough things out, and celebrates all runners who finish, no matter how slow. Sitting around at the finish showered and clean while Megan and Dan were still out there didn’t sit well with me. When I saw them come in, hours later and in the dark, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been with them.

It wasn’t a great day, but at least I learned why people hate to DNF. I’ve DNF-ed before and felt comfortable with my decision, but in every case I’d dropped because of an injury that left me no choice. This was my first “voluntary” DNF–the first time I’d dropped simply because I felt bad–and that felt bad. Lesson learned.

Double Dipsea (August 28)

The Double Dipsea involves running Marin County’s seven-mile Dipsea Trail twice, from Stinson Beach to Mill Valley and back again. This takes you through open coastal headlands, redwood forests, and up and down a lot of stairs. Like its forebear, the Dipsea Race, the DD is handicapped: runners get head starts based on their age and gender. As a male aged 50-54, I get a 14-minute head start. In 2019, that was enough to win the race with an actual running time of 2:06. I doubted I’d repeat that feat this year: although I’d run some decent mileage over the summer, I hadn’t attempted anything short and fast in some time. On the other hand, I did break a rib in 2019, when I collided head-on with another runner eight miles in. Perhaps I could squeak out a decent performance again if I avoided broken bones.

This race is usually in June, but Covid concerns pushed it to late August this year. This had a couple of consequences: it was hotter than usual, and also smoky, as fire season was well underway. This didn’t advantage or disadvantage anyone in particular, but I expected the finishing times to be slow.

Things felt pretty good for the first two miles, up the coastal stretch and the Steep Ravine steps. However, as soon as I crested those steps, I felt a blast of warm air. Seriously, the temperature probably rose 15 degrees in just a quarter-mile as we moved inland. It remained hot, dry and a bit smoky for the rest of the race.

I passed Megan, who started five minutes ahead of me, shortly before reaching the Dipsea Steps. I reached the Mill Valley turnaround in 1:04, three minutes slower than the previous year. I briefly hoped that the slower pace would allow me to run the second half faster, but I quickly abandoned that hope when I started back up the steps. My legs felt tired: maybe some lingering fatigue from Castle Peak two weeks earlier, or maybe just out of shape. I slogged through the second half in 1:11 to finish in 2:15, almost ten minutes slower than my previous time. Good enough for fourth overall.

As expected, this year’s times were slow. The fastest actual running time of 2:10 would have been the 18th fastest time in 2019. This partly reflected a weak field, but I suspect the heat also played a role. I’ll ascribe three minutes of my slowdown to the heat, with the other seven minutes due to poor training (and two extra years on my legs).

Megan finished shortly behind me in fifth place. She slowed down this year as well, though not as much as me. No matter: we once again nabbed the couples trophy and then went for a swim in the Pacific–one perk of doing the race in August rather than June.

Berkeley Trail Adventure 50k (September 17)

This race, in Tilden and Wildcat regional parks, is right in my backyard. I’ve volunteered there twice but had never run it, mostly because I run these trails all the time. But since I’d barely been running since my aborted attempt at Castle Peak, I figured this was a convenient way to get in a solid long run. And I do mean convenient: an 8:00am start only 20 minutes from my home! Really, I don’t know why I hadn’t done it before.

The course is pretty straightforward: a loop around Tilden, then a loop around Wildcat, then another loop around Tilden in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, everyone managed to go off course because someone had come out in the middle of the night and sabotaged the course markings. Whereas the yellow ribbons should have led runners straight down Seaview, someone had moved them all so they first took runners along the unnamed single-track that parallels Seaview and then down Upper Big Springs. Why do people do this? Your guess is as good as mine.

Due to my usual slow start, I was well back in the pack when we hit the course sabotage. Having looked at the course map beforehand, I was pretty sure we should just continue down Seaview. But everyone else was taking the single-track, and the ribbons were there, so I followed along sheep-like. Fortunately, I asserted myself when we reached Upper Big Springs, and told anyone who would listen that that was the wrong way. The runners around me followed my lead, but I later learned that many had run all the way down to the Arroyo aid station, where they were then told to go back up.

That was maybe the most noteworthy part of the race. Otherwise, it was just cruising along on familiar trails. I had no idea what place I was in until I caught the lead runner around mile 18. We ran together until we reached the Nimitz Way bike path, at which point I slowly pulled away. I ended up finishing first in 4:52, about five minutes ahead of the guy I’d passed. It was nice to win, but my time was objectively slow. That’s fine: my only real goal was to get in a good long run, and BTA was perfect for that.

IPA 10k (September 25)

The IPA 10k had not been on my radar–10k’s in general are not–but Megan and I noticed it while biking through Sebastopol. We’d been picking wild blackberries along the Joe Rodota bike path and decided to stop at The Barlow, an outdoor market in Sebastopol, for food and cider. While there, we noticed a flyer for the IPA 10k and beer mile. It looked like fun: the 10k was followed by a beer festival and a beer mile that promised world-class competitors (yes, there are world-class beer milers). We’d been hoping to add more short, fast races to our training schedule, so we signed up.

The race itself was not that memorable–I mean, it’s a 10k on city streets–but it was true to its spirit throughout. When we entered the starting chute at 8:00am, we found it lined with cups of beer and cider for the runners. We all took a celebratory shot and were off. I expected to be slow, and I was (37:41). That was fine: I was happy just to do something resembling speed work. Megan was more ambitious and hoped for a PR, but she suddenly felt sick only a quarter-mile from the finish and had to stop and puke. Not sure if the pre-race cider got to her or what, but that cost her the PR.

After finishing, we hung around the Barlow waiting for the main event. We grabbed breakfast with Megan’s friend Sophie, who happened to be in the area, then sampled some of the numerous beers on offer. At noon we headed back to the starting chute to watch the beer milers warm up. For those who aren’t familiar with beer miles, they require runners to chug a can of beer (no shotgunning or can-crushing allowed) before starting each quarter-mile lap. To be good, you have to be both a fast runner and a fast drinker: the best beer milers drain each can in less than ten seconds. (For comparison, my own drinking times range from 18 seconds on the first lap to over a minute on the fourth.) These guys were good: the winner, Phil Parrot-Migas of Canada, won the event in 5:45. That’s a far cry from the world record of 4:28, but in fairness, Phil had already run (and won) the 10k that morning in 30:59.

Would I do this again? Sure, why not? It’s a fun way to get in a good tempo run and try some new beers.

Diablo Summit Stomp 30k (October 23)

This is another local race I’d never bothered to try. I’m glad I did: it’s a great race. The 30k starts at Castle Rock regional park in Walnut Creek, then heads southeast to Mt Diablo via Rock City (a jumble of sandstone formations, not an actual city). From Rock City, it goes straight up the Summit Trail to Diablo summit, then comes straight back down. So, twelve miles of more or less continuous climbing followed by seven miles of fast downhill. Good for those of us who like to get our medicine out of the way.

I felt pretty good the whole way, leaving enough in the tank to bomb the downhill return. I was surprised when another runner passed me near the end of the downhill stretch: I typically pace more conservatively than most people, so I’m not used to being passed near the end. But, I hung with him on the flat finishing stretch and passed him with maybe a mile to go, finishing second. The race turned out to be surprisingly close–surprising because I hadn’t paid much attention to other runners–with the winner only a minute ahead of me and the third-place finisher only fifteen seconds behind. I was glad I’d been pushed over those last two miles, which I otherwise would have treated as an easy cruise.

This is a small, low-key race, but I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good 30k. It’s pretty single-track all the way; the long climb is a great workout, and bombing straight down Diablo at race pace is about as fun as trail running gets.

The Dipsea Race (November 7)

I have lots to say about the Dipsea, but maybe some other time. It’s one of my favorite races, but this year’s race, like many pandemic-era events, felt a little off. Maybe it just felt weird doing it in November rather than June; maybe it was the unexpected course change; maybe the lack of an awards ceremony and the usual pomp and circumstance. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right head space because I didn’t train for this race as I usually do. Whatever the reason, this year felt less eventful than usual.

For those not familiar with the Dipsea, it’s a handicapped race in which runners get varying head starts depending on their age and gender. As a 52-year-old male, I got a seven-minute head start, up from six last year. My main goal was to get a black shirt by finishing in the top 35. I’d black-shirted the last three years in a row, going from 22nd to 19th to 15th. I figured gaining a minute would allow me to continue my streak and hopefully improve my place.

My race didn’t go badly, but I felt sluggish the whole way. I kept thinking “I really should go faster,” but I was either unwilling or unable to do so (not sure which). The only really noteworthy thing happened about a mile from the finish, where we would ordinarily bear right to take the third official shortcut that bypasses “the Moors.” This year race officials had blocked that way, so runners had to continue on the Dipsea all the way to Stinson Beach. I’m still not sure what happened there, but the course change made it hard to compare this year’s times to previous ones.

I ran my slowest time ever: 1:00:54. The missing shortcut probably accounted for 30-45 seconds, but my time was unusually slow even taking that into account. I did maintain my black shirt streak, barely, finishing 27th. I was happy about that, though less thrilled to drop 12 places even while gaining an extra minute head start. But, you get what you pay for: I didn’t train much this year, and it showed.

The after-party was more subdued than usual, as the race organizers canceled the usual awards ceremony out of an abundance of pandemic caution. However, it was a nice day to hang out with other runners, and the organizers did gather a few black shirts (those who hadn’t left already) for a post-race pic.

All told, an enjoyable day, but lacking the usual buzz. I look forward to a more normal year in 2022.

Mt Tam Trail Run 50k (November 13)

This race packs about as much scenic beauty and diversity into 50k as it’s possible to do. Starting and finishing at Stinson Beach, it takes you through the redwood forests of Steep Ravine and Muir Woods, the coastal headlands of Diaz Ridge and Coast View, and gives you a great downhill finish on the Dipsea. It’s just a great course. I’d only done it once before, in 2014, and I remember having a pretty bad race. I started out too fast and died hard in the second half, finishing in 4:49. I was in worse shape now than in 2014–not to mention seven years older–but I hoped that smarter pacing might still allow me to improve on that previous time.

I started slow, as usual, and generally felt fine, although my legs were a bit tired from doing the Dipsea six days earlier. I caught up to my friend Dan just past Cardiac and ran with him along the uber-cruisy TCC and down Bootjack. However, he was moving too fast for me up Ben Johnson and soon left me behind. I wouldn’t see him again until the out-and-back to Muir Beach, where he passed me on his way back. A short while later, I passed Megan on my own way back, just a few minutes behind.

I hadn’t been feeling great since Ben Johnson, which took a lot out of me. However, I got a second wind on my way up Heather Cutoff, a series of sharp switchbacks that takes you gradually up to Coast View. I’m not sure I was actually getting stronger, but I passed a lot of runners who seemed to be getting weaker, which gave me at least the illusion of running well. I was feeling pretty good by the time I got to Cardiac for the second time. I maintained a good pace along TCC and Troop 80, both of which are beautiful, runnable trails. Down Sierra and Camp Alice Eastwood, back up Ben Johnson to Cardiac, and then down the Dipsea for the final stretch.

The last stretch of Dipsea has wide open views toward the coast, and I noticed another 50k runner walking an uphill stretch a few hundred yards ahead. He looked back and saw me as well, and started running. I caught him about 200 yards from the finish, but he turned on the speed and finished a few seconds ahead of me. Or so I thought until the chip times were revealed. Turns out he started well ahead of me, since I was tied up in porta-pottie lines and started at the back of the pack. So in the end, I finished 12 seconds ahead of him, in 5:00:44. Dan had finished 11 minutes earlier, and Megan crossed the line 17 minutes later. I didn’t manage to equal my previous time, but between my age and lack of training, I think I did about as well as I could.

After a quick rinse in the Pacific, we sat on the beach and ate Baja Fresh burritos–Inside Trail’s post-race standby these days–and drank a few beers. We talked about Dan’s upcoming move to Switzerland and discussed races we could all do there. A few days later, Dan and I had both signed up for the SwissPeaks 100k, and Megan later followed suit. I’ll take it as a positive sign that we all finished this race wanting to do…another race.

California International Marathon (December 5)

I’ve done CIM a bunch of times. Not sure exactly how many, but a lot. I like this race because it’s a fast course at a cool time of year that takes me through my old stomping grounds in Sacramento. I’ve PR-ed on this course several times, but I wasn’t expecting much this year. All things equal, I expected to be at least five minutes slower than my course PR of 2:48. All things were not equal, however: this would be my first time running CIM in the Nike Vaporfly, the shoe that returns so much energy that it prompted World Athletics to institute new running shoe regulations. Relative to my previous road shoe–the minimalist Altra One–I’d guess the Vaporfly buys me around five minutes. I ran a 2:47 at Napa in 2020 despite not being anywhere near PR shape (and Napa is a slower course than CIM). So, I figured I might “PR” at CIM this year even if I couldn’t PR.

My training leading up to the race was not encouraging. I’d done a few tempo runs and struggled to run even a few miles at my marathon pace. I also hadn’t done much mileage in months, relying on races for the occasional long run. Given that, I was pleased to find myself maintaining a respectable pace quite easily in the early miles. I hit the halfway point in 1:24 still feeling good, and I thought a “PR” was in reach, since I’ve always run negative splits on this course. Unfortunately, my lack of mileage began to show around mile 20, when I began to struggle. The last few miles were really hard: it’s been a long time since I felt this weak in a late-stage marathon, and I was steadily slowing down. I was relieved when I finally saw the capitol and Megan cheering me on near the end. I finished in 2:50–not a bad time, but after adding the Vaporfly minutes, probably seven minutes off my course PR. That’s ok. CIM will always be there, and I think I have at least one more PR in me. Or at least a “PR.”

Woodside Ramble 50k (December 18)

I have a soft spot for Woodside. I ran these trails–in Huddart and Wunderlich parks–frequently in college and always loved them. Huddart’s cavernous redwood forests are just as beautiful as Muir Woods, but much quieter and more peaceful. I did my first trail race (a half-marathon) in Woodside, so that’s where my trail adventures began. The Woodside 50k was the first race where both Megan and I placed first, which is a nice early-relationship memory. I imagine I’ll keep coming back as long as this race sticks around.

Before this year’s race, Megan noted that my previous two times on this course were 4:04:17 (2013) and 4:04:15 (2015). She asked jokingly if I expected to run 4:04 again this year. My short answer was probably not, as I wasn’t in that kind of shape, but who knows?

Me, now. My race was fine: I felt good throughout and enjoyed every mile. It was a beautiful, clear and cold day. Megan volunteered at the King’s Mountain aid station (miles 11 and 18), so I got to see her twice during the race. But my time of 4:35 was definitely not up to par. On the plus side, it felt pretty good not to kill myself, and to pass a bunch of people in the last five miles. So I wouldn’t have run it differently, even if I could have–which seems doubtful.

Because we’d arrived late in the morning (my fault, as usual), Megan had to take my car to her aid station. That was fine except that the car contained all my warm post-race clothes: a concern, since it was cold and windy, and Megan wouldn’t return for some time. I found a sheltered and sunny lawn behind the bathrooms, where I meditated for 30-40 minutes. With the wind blocked, the sun was intense enough to keep me warm until Megan returned. We got lunch in Palo Alto, met up with our friends Kate and Noel, and made a brief detour to Stanford’s main quad, which I hadn’t seen in ages. A perfect end to my racing year.

Bigfoot 73M – July 10, 2021

Photo by Riley Smith Photography

For those who don’t want to read a long race report, I’ll cut to the chase: Bigfoot 73 is the most beautiful race I’ve done. To be clear, many races have beautiful and memorable spots. Most also have a fair amount of “filler”: nondescript stretches where the miles drag on. What makes Bigfoot stand out is that almost every mile is amazing. It’s an almost uninterrupted feast for the eyes. I’ve done other races that have this quality, like the Ben Nevis Ultra. But Bigfoot also stands out for its diversity. It has a little bit of everything: boreal forests, desert landscapes, snow-covered peaks, mountain lakes, spectacular wildflowers, lava fields, and the constant, looming presence of Mount St. Helens. It’s a hard combination to beat.

My decision to do this race was kind of random and last-minute. I’d never heard of it before, although I knew of its better-known cousin, the Bigfoot 200M. I had originally planned to do the Vermont 100 on July 17. However, Vermont was cancelled for a second time due to Covid-19, so I began searching for a replacement. That’s when I found Bigfoot 73. The pictures of the course looked amazing, so I asked Megan if she’d be interested in doing it. When she said yes, that was that.

Although I was excited about the race, I was also a little apprehensive because I’d done the Black Hills 100M two weeks earlier. That race was hard on my legs, and I doubted my ability to recover in time. I did two easy 10-mile runs the week before Bigfoot, and neither was especially reassuring. My left foot was still a little sore–it hurt badly for the last 40 miles of Black Hills–and while it was fine on those recovery runs, small pains can become big in the course of a long race. More importantly, I just felt tired. Ten-mile runs shouldn’t feel hard, at least not with a 73-mile race three days away. I wasn’t worried about my race performance per se: this wasn’t a goal race, and I was fine with being slow. However, I did want to finish the damn thing and ideally see a lot of the course in daylight, since the views were kind of the point. I could only hope three more days of recovery would be enough.

We flew into Portland on Friday, picked up our rental car, and drove up to our Airbnb in Ariel. For us, the logistics were easy: about an hour to fly to Portland and another hour to drive to Ariel. We made ourselves a nice pre-race dinner of roasted vegetables and chickpeas, prepared our drop bags and other race gear, and went to bed.

About that race gear: the race has a long list of mandatory gear that must be carried at all times: jacket with hood, emergency blanket, whistle, long-sleeved insulated layer, full-length pants, hat and gloves, 500 extra calories, headlamp and/or waist lamp. Some of these are no-brainers, but some seemed a little excessive, given the forecast: clear skies, highs in the 80s, and lows in the 50s. I don’t love having such a bulky and heavy pack if I don’t need it, but given the recent ultrarunning tragedy in China, I understand why RDs would be cautious.

Race morning went smoothly, although it took us a little longer than expected to reach the start because we missed a turn. This whole area lacks cell service, and I forgot to download Google maps before coming up here–a rather stupid oversight, since I did download Gaia maps for the course. Still, we reached the start in plenty of time.

A little info about the race: the 73-mile course is a figure-8 around Mt. St. Helens and the Mount Margaret Backcountry. The lower loop of the figure-8 circumnavigates Mt. St. Helens; the upper loop circles Spirit Lake. It’s this figure-8 structure that makes the race so spectacular, as you get to see Mt. St. Helens and Spirit Lake from every angle and from various elevations.

My GPX of the course
Course profile

Going in, we didn’t expect the course profile to be that challenging. The race has 14,410 feet of elevation gain, which is comparable to Canyons 100K and Castle Peak 100K. Since the Bigfoot gain is distributed over 73 miles, this implies a gentler course. What these overall numbers didn’t convey, however, was how technical the course would prove and how slow even some flat stretches could be.

At 5:30am, we were off. It was clear from the start that the last three days hadn’t done much for my legs: they still felt dead. So I started slowly…very slowly. I watched Megan vanish into the distance and wondered if I’d see her again. I suspected not: she was both well-trained and well-rested, and seemed likely to finish well ahead of me. I was fine with that, although I hoped I wouldn’t make her wait too long after the race. It occurred to me that I should have given her the car keys so she could get into the car when she finished.

The first two miles were pretty pedestrian: a long gradual ascent through pine forest. After a few miles the course began to open up, and we got our first views. The sun rose above the surrounding mountains, and the trail was flanked by otherworldly white flowers growing on long stalks. Megan later identified them as bear grass. To me, they looked like something out of Dr. Suess.

A promising start to the day
Bear grass along the trail

The course continued to climb steadily, with over 2,000′ of gain in the first five miles. We then had a few more runnable miles through pine forest before we encountered our first lava field. This was slow going, as there was no trail to speak of, and we were mostly hopping rock to rock. Fine with me: my tired legs appreciated any opportunity to hike.

Approaching the first boulder field
Picking my way through. Photo by Riley Smith Photography

Around ten miles in, I took stock of how I felt. Still tired, but able to maintain this slow pace. Left foot sore, but not getting worse. Probably a decent chance of doing the whole race. I should mention that, at this point, that wasn’t the only option. If things got bad, I could drop down to the 40-mile race, which consisted of the southern loop of the figure-8. I didn’t want to go there, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the whole course. But depending on how things went, I might have to consider it. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to make that decision until the Windy Ridge aid station at mile 30, so I resolved not to think about it until then.

Twelve miles in, I reached the short out-and-back to the first aid station. I was surprised to pass Megan on her way out: I thought she’d be farther ahead. I reached the aid station, topped up my flasks with water, and continued on my way.

I whiled away the next few miles by doing math in my head. I was starting to feel better about my foot–which wasn’t getting worse–but I still felt tired and slow. If neither condition changed, I figured the worst-case scenario was averaging 4mph for the rest of the race. That would get me to the finish in 18.25 hours, i.e., by 11:45pm. That wasn’t my dream scenario: it meant doing many miles in the dark and possibly making Megan wait for hours. But it was better than dropping down to the 40. I began telling myself I could do this if I just kept it easy and slow.

Around mile 15, the soreness in my foot got worse. This worried me: there were almost 60 miles to go, and I didn’t want to run that far on a bad foot. I started thinking again about dropping down but reminded myself I still had 15 miles to make that decision. A lot could change in that time, so I put the matter out of my head and ran on.

A few miles later, we got our first truly spectacular views. The course ascended up one side of a wide volcanic canyon that afforded great views of Mt. St. Helens and allowed us to see maybe half a mile ahead. I looked for Megan on the trail above me, saw someone who looked like her, and waved. The small figure waved back, then continued running. I was glad she was still in sight: if I could hold this gap, I wouldn’t keep her waiting too long at the end.

One of many great views on this stretch
Megan far above

I passed a guy who’d stopped to take a picture and said “It doesn’t get much better than this, huh?” He agreed. But as I emerged from the canyon, it got better. The dry volcanic dust gave way to green grass and wildflowers, and the trail became gentle and rolling. Running along the canyon rim, I noticed a large cloud of dust below, then heard an unmistakable sound: rockslide! It wasn’t near the course but served as a good reminder to be cautious on the loose volcanic soil.

A taste of wildflowers to come

Miles 20-26 (or so) brought a wholly new landscape. We’d seen pine forests, boulder fields and mountain views; now we headed into a flat desert plain with Silver Lake in the distance. Parts of this were very runnable; others were not. There were no big hills to speak of, but the terrain was often rocky enough that running was hard even on level ground. I didn’t mind. I reminded myself to keep it slow and easy and enjoy the race. This was easy to do, as the beautiful surroundings kept my mind in the here and now.

A new phase of the course
View to Silver Lake
Lupine and paintbrush

Around this time I began to notice two things. First, my foot had stopped hurting. That was a huge relief, more mental than physical. The soreness had never been bad, but the fear that it would keep getting worse kept gnawing at my mind. I now felt confident that the foot was basically fine. Second, I’d been passing people: maybe a dozen over the last ten miles. I wasn’t speeding up, but they were slowing down. I patted myself on the back for pacing well and reminded myself to keep doing what had worked so far.

Feeling optimistic, I reassessed my goals for the race and began repeating them like a mantra. First, finish all 73 miles. Second, finish them in time to get a good night’s sleep. Third, enjoy the race. I probably repeated these words another five hundred times before the end. They seemed realistic: 4mph would accomplish all three, and I was still well ahead of that pace. I also made a mantra of my race strategy: Easy. Keep it easy. Keep on keepin’ it easy. This was of course Caballo Blanco’s first dictum in Born to Run. I wasn’t thinking about this at the time, but credit where credit is due.

The last two miles before Windy Ridge were on a wide dirt fire road. This wasn’t my favorite stretch, although the views were still impressive enough that I took half a dozen pics. Perhaps a mile from the aid station, I passed the first runner on his way back: a guy in an orange shirt. I didn’t know if he was actually the first runner, or just the first I was in time to see. Nor did I care: if there was one thing I wasn’t worrying about today, it was my place. Still, force of habit led me to count the other runners coming up the road. I passed another three or four before reaching the aid station and saw another three or four there. I figured I was in 8th or 9th or 10th place. I was surprised I hadn’t seen Megan yet, as I assumed she’d be on her way before I reached Windy Ridge.

Coming into the aid station, I saw Megan. It was nice to talk to her for the first time since the start. I said I was in for the whole 73: although I felt tired, I wasn’t having any problems that warranted cutting things short.

Megan had been there a while, as there was a lot to check off before heading out. This race has only four aid stations: Blue Lake (mile 12), Windy Ridge (mile 30), Norway (mile 50), and Windy Ridge again (mile 59). The next stretch to Norway was not only the longest–20 miles–but also the most exposed, and at the hottest time of day. Taking a few extra minutes to prepare was the smart thing to do. I refilled my hydration pack’s bladder and retrieved a few things from my drop bag: two large flasks of mango smoothie, a quart bag of boiled potatoes, a smaller bag of dates, and my Sawyer Mini water filter. I also slathered on a second coat of the SPF 100+ sunscreen I’d left in my bag: excessive, maybe, but this was going to be a hot, sun-baked stretch.

I left Windy five or ten minutes after Megan. I did not feel great as I headed back up the fire road. It was hot and I was tired. I looked forward to getting off this fire road and back onto single-track. This happened two miles later, to my relief. The trail slowly arced around the southern edge of Silver Lake, providing more great wildflower views.

The next five miles were tough. No big ascents or descents, but the terrain was rolling and very exposed. I’m not sure if it was the heat, but it felt hard and slow. At times the trail would disappear into dense vegetation, and only the ribbons placed every few feet at eye level signaled that a trail was even there. (Kudos to the RDs and volunteers for marking this stretch and the rest of the course so well.) My confidence faltered a bit, and I started to wonder how long this would take.

I pulled out my boiled potatoes. After my aid station experience at Black Hills, I decided not to count on aid stations any more. (Ironically, the ones at Bigfoot were excellent.) Megan and I had made a big batch of boiled potatoes the night before and packed them in our drop bags. In the past, I’d used larger potatoes and cut them into chunks, but this time we decided to use tiny red, yellow and purple creamer potatoes. That was a good call. Potato chunks can easily disintegrate, especially when smashed around in packs and drop bags. These small uncut potatoes were sturdier and remained intact. I’d coated mine with olive oil and salt, which was also a good call, although I wished I’d used more salt. It was a welcome change from the sweet stuff I’d been consuming, and I ate the entire bag as I ran along.

At some point the course began to climb, and I once again had great views of the surrounding area. More and more of Silver Lake came into view, as did Mt. St. Helens, and I could see what I thought was Rainier–but was actually Mt. Adams–across the lake.

Silver Lake with Mt. Adams in the distance

Although I was climbing steadily, I started to feel stronger–better, in fact, than I’d felt all day. It wasn’t so much a second wind as a first. A lot of things came together, I think. I’d passed the halfway point and was glad to be over that hump. I was now committed to doing the whole race and not wasting mental energy wondering if I should. The views gave me a huge lift. I looked up toward the top of the pass and again saw Megan above me. We waved at each other. A little while later I reached the top of the pass, where the trail passed through an eye in the rocky ridge.

The next few miles were amazing. We hear a lot these days about “flow states,” in which we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget all else. I felt like I was flowing. The running was easy; the views were great; and I basically forgot this was even a race. Confident now that I’d hit my goals–finish, and finish in time to sleep–I was able to just relax and enjoy the views. I felt grateful to be out here.

That said, it was pretty hot. Although the temperature wasn’t that high–low 80s–the trail was completely exposed, and the sun was relentless. By now I’d begun to pass the occasional snowfield, so I started scooping up snow and putting it in my hat to cool my head. That felt good. I wished I could get the snow to melt down the back of my neck rather than into my eyes, but I was pretty happy to have it melting anywhere.

Rounding a bend near mile 40, I suddenly saw Megan by the trail ahead. She’d stopped to filter some water at a snow-fed stream. We greeted each other, and she asked if I wanted to run together for a while. Of course! I filtered some water for myself, and we moved on.

We ran together for the next ten miles, to Norway aid. These were fun miles. We compared notes and agreed that we loved this race. We’d been having similar days: drawing strength from the views, feeling better as the race went on, feeling like this was more an adventure run than a race. We stopped at all the snowfields to put more snow in our hats and shorts.

The last mile before Norway is a steep descent. On our way down, we passed two runners heading up. One was the orange-shirted guy I’d seen leading the pack out of Windy. He looked in bad shape. We encountered no more runners before reaching the aid station. For the first time that day, I started wondering: what place am I in? Thanks to the long out-and-back down to Norway, I knew there weren’t any other runners less than two miles ahead of me. So either someone was even farther ahead than that, or I was in third place. But, whatever. I reminded myself that I had only two goals–finish, and finish in time to sleep–and ran into the aid station.

Norway was a pretty sleepy place: two volunteers and no runners. I grabbed my drop bag and retrieved my two smoothies and another bag of potatoes. I began putting my empty flasks into the drop bag, then remembered what Megan and I had discussed as we ran. We realized that getting our drop bags back after the race might be more trouble than it was worth. The race finish was over 30 minutes from our Airbnb, so we’d have to kill over an hour tomorrow just driving out there to get the bags. That seemed unappealing, so we decided to leave anything disposable in the drop bags (Clif bars, Gatorade packets, sunscreen, GUs, etc.) and to carry with us anything we wanted to keep. A fine plan in principle, but our packs were getting pretty full. In addition to all the mandatory gear, I was now stuffing mine with empty flasks and extra pairs of socks.

I was ready to leave before Megan, but I’d planned to wait so we could continue to run together. However, Norway’s biting flies changed my mind. They were nasty little things, and the longer I stayed there, the more they swarmed around and bit me. I told Megan “I gotta get out of here.” She told me to go ahead; she’d catch up. I figured she would, as she’d been the stronger runner all day.

The climb out of Norway was long and hot. The course occasionally went through overgrown and humid sections, as well as a few steep and technical ravines. I was glad when it once again reached an open hillside with views and a runnable trail. I thought again about my place and again admonished myself not to. Two goals: finish, and finish in time to sleep. But just then, I saw another runner on the trail ahead of me: the orange-shirted guy again. He seemed to be hiking full-time now; I caught up to him quickly and passed. I now knew of only one runner ahead of me, although there could have been more.

After another long descent, the trail spat us out onto a wide paved road. I checked my Gaia map and verified that the next two miles would be paved. I ordinarily hate running on pavement during trail races–or in general, for that matter. However, after all the technical and overgrown stretches I’d just gone through, I welcomed the chance to jog along a paved road. Even one that went relentlessly uphill, as this one did.

Two miles later, I’d had enough of road and was glad to get back on single-track. The trail briefly ascended through dense trees, then opened up shortly before Windy aid at mile 59. The course was now above Silver Lake again, which shimmered in the evening sun. A cool breeze blew off the lake. This was also an uplifting stretch to run.

Approaching Windy 2. Photo by Riley Smith Photography
Megan in pursuit. Photo by Riley Smith Photography

I spent very little time at Windy 2: just enough to grab my last two smoothies and the used flasks I’d stashed there earlier. My pack was getting really full. I thanked the volunteers and left. I wondered if Megan would catch up to me, but I was starting to doubt it, as I’d been moving well since Norway.

As I left the aid station, I noticed that I was starting to see 40-mile runners: some still heading toward the aid station, others leaving it behind. That made sense: since the 40-mile is a subset of the 73-mile, the first and last 20 of both races are the same. Most of the 40-milers were walking, which also made sense: if you were still at the 30-mile mark more than twelve hours into the race, you probably weren’t running.

Two miles out of Windy, the course left the fire road and took a single-track up a ridge. This was also a beautiful stretch. Someone had rigged up “steps” in the really steep parts, consisting of two cables and wooden slats. These were helpful–much better than trying to hike the loose volcanic soil. Reaching the top, I found spectacular views of the mountain’s old lava flows and the surrounding plain. It felt exhilarating, and I exclaimed “This is so awesome!” aloud.

Old lava flows

The next few miles were a blast. The trail was rolling for a while, and flanked by more beautiful wildflowers. I passed a few 40-milers. With only tennish miles to go, this felt like the home stretch, and I was tempted to push it a bit. But, I reminded myself I’d gotten this far by taking it easy, and that’s what I mostly continued to do. The rolling trail gave way to an extended flat stretch, where I managed an 8:30 mile–my fastest that day. Looking at my watch, I began to think I could break sixteen hours. All I had to do was average 12-minute miles for the rest of the race, and that seemed realistic right now.

More paintbrush
Fastest stretch of the course
Goodbye, sun

The fast miles didn’t last. The trail become rockier and took us across several steep volcanic ravines. There was nothing tricky about these, but I was surprised at how close the trail often ran to the crumbly looking edge. A fall here wouldn’t kill you, but it could definitely mess you up. I hiked down one side and up the other, thinking that maybe I wouldn’t break 16:00 after all.

First ravine, looking downhill
First ravine, looking uphill

Soon after the ravines, the trail became more runnable and also more green. The bear grass here was spectacular, covering the hillsides as far as the eye could see. I was making good time now and again toyed with the idea of breaking 16:00.

I soon abandoned those thoughts once and for all. The course led to another boulder field. I’m not sure if it was harder than the first one, but it sure felt like it. My balance was not what it had been, and I felt strangely incompetent hopping from misshapen rock to rock. The course ribbons were hard to follow here, so I relied on my GPX to stay on course. At least I wasn’t the only one moving slowly: I passed many 40-milers here. One asked if I’d heard the bear. “Bear?” I asked, just as we heard a roar from the woods below. “That bear,” she said.

At least I’d be through this boulder field before dark. I thought of all the runners who’d be doing it in the dark and wondered if Megan would be one of them. I had no idea how far behind me she was: five, ten, twenty minutes? For her sake, I hoped not far. Navigating these boulders in the dark wouldn’t be fun.

I was relieved to finish the boulder field and return to the trail. Things didn’t get much faster, however, as the trail remained so rocky that running was mostly out of the question. I picked my way down and finally left the rocks for the woods.

When I entered the woods, my world suddenly got very dark. I turned on my LightBelt and kept running, past the 40-milers who now seemed to be everywhere. I was now in the home stretch: just a few miles of runnable downhill through the woods. There were no real challenges here, except that I had a hard time seeing the course markers. The ribbons were hung at eye level, above my light belt beam. There weren’t many wrong turns to take, but I consulted my GPX frequently just in case. At one point, maybe a mile from the finish, my Gaia map told me I’d gone off course. According to the GPX, I’d missed a turn maybe a quarter-mile back. I ran back up the hill to the alleged intersection and found…nothing. The trail I was “supposed” to take didn’t even exist, so I ran back down the way I’d come and eventually found some course markers. This was my only navigation failure of the day, and while it hadn’t cost me much time–maybe seven or eight minutes–I felt annoyed to have gotten confused on the most straightforward part of the course.

Five minutes later, I was done. I hadn’t broken sixteen hours, but I wasn’t too far off, at 16:25. I finished in third place overall: not bad, considering I’d spent the first 25 miles wondering if I could even finish. All I really cared about, though, was that I’d run all 73 miles and seen most of them in daylight: that was more than enough. I thanked the finish line volunteers for an amazing race. Thirty minutes later, Megan finished in 16:55, the first-place female by nearly two hours.

I took a few things away from this race. First, localized pains sometimes go away. I’d spent a lot of early miles obsessing about my sore foot, mostly because I assume these things just get worse. This kind of catastrophizing is not helpful, so it’s good to know they sometimes get better. Second, the Nth wind is a real thing. I’ve heard a lot about ultrarunners getting their second or third wind, but I mostly haven’t experienced this: for me, fatigue usually leads to worse fatigue. I’d never imagined I could feel so much better at sixty miles than at ten, but now that experience will stick with me. Third, you can only infer so much from an elevation profile. Megan and I both assumed the last miles would be fast, as they were mostly flat or downhill. But some of the flattest parts–the boulder fields–were also the slowest. Finally, sometimes you run your best race when you stop caring about the race. What got me through this race was enjoying the experience, and it’s hard to see how pressuring myself could have been anything but counterproductive. It’s true that, in this case, my tired legs and low expectations helped me to approach this race as a fun run. But it’s probably worth striving for the same mindset even when one has competitive aspirations. Because, in these long races, the biggest competitive boost may come from having a good time.

I realize there’s a lot of redundancy in this post. I’ve used the same adjectives–beautiful, amazing, spectacular–many times. Maybe I need a thesaurus, but this was also how I felt about the course. I don’t know if I’ll do this race again, but I’ll definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a great mountain ultra. In fact, Megan and I could think of only one thing that would make it better, and maybe put it on the ultrarunning map: someone needs to put on a Bigfoot suit and occasionally appear to runners along the course. Not too close, not to all the runners, and maybe not even in every race. Just often enough to get the rumors going and keep them alive.

Black Hills 100M – June 25-26, 2021

Pre-race jaunt around Devil’s Tower

I’ve been running ultras for almost ten years, but this is my first race report. I never thought to write one earlier in part because…well, I never thought of it, but also because I trusted in my ability to remember things. I’ve realized, however, that I do not actually remember things that well, and this limits my ability not just to reminisce but also to learn from experience. So, better late than never. If I find the time, I may go back and write up some previous races before my memories fade entirely. But for now, this seems like a good place to start.

I first learned about the Black Hills 100M when I asked my friend Garret about his 2021 race schedule. The race hadn’t been on my radar, but it seemed like something I might want to do. It fit into my schedule, three weeks before the Vermont 100. I figured a low-pressure 100M would be good preparation for Vermont, although that turned out to be a moot point when Vermont was cancelled (again) due to Covid-19. I’d seen a bit of the area before–driving through the Badlands, Grasslands, and Black Hills–and it seemed worth exploring on foot. I was really into the HBO series Deadwood and thought it would be fun to stay there for the race. Unlike most 100-milers, which start at ungodly hours, Black Hills started at 10:00am, which would allow me to actually sleep the night before a sleepless night on the trails. All good reasons to sign up.

Black Hills would (optimistically) be my first completed 100M in almost four years. My history with 100-milers didn’t augur well. I ran my first–Rio Del Lago–in 2015. Although I trained well for that race, I pulled a hamstring only two weeks before, and that injury ultimately led me to drop out at mile 95. I completed RDL in 2016 and 2017, but I can’t say I felt great either time. In 2018, I trained my ass off for IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival) and went into that race with high hopes. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle badly only 12 miles in and had to drop at the next aid station. Six weeks later I attempted RDL–mostly to get a Western States qualifier–but found that my ankle was still not healed enough to run 100 miles, so another DNF. In 2020 I drove out to IMTUF again–a rare race opportunity in that pandemic year–but by race day, the wildfire smoke pouring in from Oregon and Washington was so thick (AQI around 300) that I couldn’t even see the nearby mountains. All-day races in toxic smoke are not my thing, so I packed up and drove home.

This is all to say that I have limited experience with 100-milers, and most of it has not been great. I’ve certainly questioned whether I’m built for this distance. My comparative advantage has always been in shorter, faster races, although I’ve gravitated to longer stuff as I’ve gotten older and slower. The experience of running 100M is, for me, qualitatively different from running, say, 100K. By the end of a 100K, I feel tired. By the end of a 100M, I feel damaged. It’s the difference between fatigue and actual pain. My legs just don’t deal well with those extra 40 miles, and I tend to run the last 20 in constant fear that a muscle or tendon is about to snap. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I haven’t trained well; maybe I’ve paced my races badly; maybe I’m just not built for this distance; maybe it’s because the only 100M I’ve finished (RDL) is relatively flat and runnable. (Paradoxically, flatter courses are harder on the legs because you don’t relieve the repetitive stress of running by hiking the steep, technical parts.) Maybe, as some have pointed out, running 100 miles is supposed to hurt. With more explanations than races, I can’t say why this distance is so hard for me. At the least, Black Hills would give me another data point.

My pre-race training was neither great nor bad. Like a lot of people, I slacked off during the pandemic because there weren’t any races to train for. I only started running seriously again a month before the Canyons 100K (in late April), when I realized I wasn’t prepared to run 100K. Canyons went fine, although my legs definitely felt the effects of my hiatus: they felt more beaten up than usual and took longer to recover. In the intervening two months, I didn’t have time to do the high mileage I would have liked, but I did get in a number of good long runs, including a 45-mile run around Point Reyes on June 8. That run felt good, which gave me a real confidence boost.

Then, two days later, things took a turn for the worse. I drove up to Davis (about an hour away), spent two hours in a dentist’s chair, then drove home and did a kettlebell workout. Maybe I was stiff–from driving, the dentist’s chair, the long runs, not warming up properly, or all of the above–but for whatever reason, my right hamstring started to hurt during the squats and lunges of that workout. I should say that that hamstring is a chronic concern: I pulled it in 2013, again in 2015 (right before RDL), and again in 2019. It’s always there, but I manage it by warming up well and not launching into hard efforts I haven’t trained for. Mostly, it’s fine. It had been fine for some time, but now it was sore only two weeks before Black Hills. It got worse over the next few days, as Megan and I went up to Truckee to do some last training runs in the mountains. After a few days of that, it really felt bad.

I should also say that I never know what to think of these pre-race pains. If you Google “taper crazies,” you’ll find all kinds of posts and podcasts about how your mind messes with you prior to a race. A common theme is that you should ignore the “phantom pains” that inevitably arise around this time. It makes sense: you’ve trained hard for a long time; you’re invested; you really don’t want anything to go wrong. So your mind fixates on every little ache and pain and probably gives them more credence than they deserve. I certainly experience this. I pulled my hamstring (for real) a month before the Castle Peak 100K in 2019, but although I fretted endlessly about the ache throughout that month, the hamstring held up fine during the race. A month later, I had some mild foot pain going into the Ben Nevis Ultra, which morphed into sharp, stabbing pain only a mile into that race. I actually thought about dropping out–I didn’t want to get stuck in the Scottish highlands with a bad foot–but I decided to keep running, and that pain soon went away, never to return. So, I’ve learned to regard pre-race “injuries” with some suspicion, although this never puts my mind wholly at ease. If you’re wondering why I’m recounting all this, it’s because Black Hills provided some valuable new data on this score.

Anyway, this is where I was going into the race. As for the adventure itself: Megan and I flew into Denver on Tuesday, grabbed our rental car, and drove to Cheyenne that evening. Our main observation about Cheyenne–which applies to South Dakota as well–was that we didn’t see a single mask the whole time we were there. Laramie County has one of the lowest vaccination rates, and one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates, in the country. Yet no one anywhere–supermarkets, restaurants, liquor stores, etc.–seemed inclined to mask up. (We visited a liquor store because Wyoming is apparently one of those states where you can’t buy beer in the supermarket.) Megan courageously wore her mask into most of these places, while I abandoned mine for fear of getting dirty looks. Another observation is that this is a pretty meaty part of the country, which is not great for a strict vegetarian and aspirational vegan like me. We ordered veggie burritos for dinner, but learned after getting back to our Airbnb that they were full of meat. After another order and another trip to the Mexican place, we eventually got to bed.

On Wednesday we drove to Deadwood via Devil’s Tower, where we’d planned to do a short run. Coincidentally, we happened to be passing Devil’s Tower at exactly the same time as my brother Ben and his family, who were enroute to Yellowstone. (Even that coincidence only worked out because they needed to stop for a few hours to get their brakes fixed.) We didn’t see them for very long–maybe half an hour before we all went our separate ways–but it was great to see them for the first time in a year. Megan and I then did our run, which was really nice and gave us great views of the Tower from all directions. I was happy to find that my legs felt good.

Later that day, we checked into our Airbnb in Deadwood. Deadwood is an incredibly cheesy and touristy little town, where all the menu items seem to be named after prominent characters (some historical and others less so), and you can see a faux shootout on Main Street every afternoon. Still, it’s a fun place for a short while. We went to dinner at the Nugget Saloon, got some good beer and a Trixie (the only vegetarian pizza on the menu), and heard our first live music in over a year. We then retired to our Airbnb, which was frankly awesome: the whole top floor of an old Victorian.

Downtown Deadwood (or Leadwood, or Deadville, as some would have it)
The Nugget Saloon

On Thursday we decided to take a scenic drive around the Badlands. On the way, of course, we passed innumerable billboards advertising Wall Drug. If you’re not familiar with Wall Drug…well, you don’t need to be. But it’s unavoidable. I’d resolved not to go there, as we didn’t have a lot of time and I’d been there before. But after passing the 100th or so billboard, we eventually decided to stop so Megan could align her expectations with reality. Also to get the prominently advertised free ice water. Upon parking, I said “Ok, it’s 10:50. We’re back here in ten minutes.” And we were. Just enough time to see some good kitsch and to find the legendary ice water.

The fabled Jackelope
Free ice water!

Next stop: the Badlands. I’d been here before, but I’d forgotten how vast and spectacular they are. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

On our way back from the Badlands, we picked up Garret at the Rapid City airport. We drove directly from there to the race check-in at the Sturgis RV Park, where Garret was also camping. It was raining intermittently by now, so Megan and I both volunteered our Airbnb’s sofa bed. Garret declined, and we didn’t push the matter, as we figured everyone has their pre-race rituals that they like to maintain–I certainly do. (That said, we later felt that maybe we should have pushed a little harder, when we got a text from Garret from inside his rainy tent.)

So, the race–this is a race blog, right? I slept unusually well–maybe six hours–the night before, thanks to the race’s late start. That was a huge plus, as it meant that I at least started the race feeling fresh. I was driving myself to the start in Sturgis and leaving Megan behind, so we reviewed our pacing plans. The plan was for Megan to start pacing me in Nemo, mile 67 of the race. The catch: how the hell do you get to Nemo? Megan couldn’t drive me to the start and take the car to Nemo, as we’d then be without car at the end of the race. If I dropped Megan off there before the race, she’d be sitting around in Nemo all day (and much of the night). Fortunately, Black Hills Grab-A-Cab was willing to take Megan there for a reasonable fee, so problem solved. We debated exactly when she should arrive there and settled on 9:30pm: that would leave plenty of cushion even if I somehow managed 11-minute miles. That seemed unlikely but not impossible, as Black Hills is a pretty runnable course with only 16,000 feet of elevation gain.

After arriving in Sturgis, I chatted with Garret for a bit, and then we were off. I had only one real strategy: make sure it never feels hard. If it does, back off. I always start races slowly these days, as my old legs need a lot of warmup. I’ll often pick up the pace after the first few miles, but I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted it to feel easy, whatever that meant.

The first mile or so of the race was on a paved bike path, after which we joined the Centennial Trail. The race is an out-and-back: 52.5 miles to Silver City, then back to Sturgis, almost all on the Centennial Trail. So, it’s 105 miles rather than 100, but who’s counting? (As it turns out, me, especially later in the race.) I don’t have much to say about the early miles except that they felt easy. I stayed well back in the pack and sometimes felt a little frustrated when I got stuck behind people who were going too slow. However, I figured this was probably a good thing, as it forced me to save my legs for later.

The out-and-back course
Bear Butte

The landscape opened up shortly before the first aid station at Alkali Creek, and we got some nice views of Bear Butte. I didn’t stop at this aid station, or the next, as I planned to keep running to my first drop bag at mile 17.5 (Elk Creek). I caught up with Garret around mile 14 and ran with him to Elk Creek, where I grabbed the smoothie flasks I had stashed in my bag. I didn’t see Garret leave, but he must have left before me, as I caught up with him and several other runners around mile 24. By this time the scenery had changed: the single-track trail resembled a green tunnel that reminded me of the Appalachian Trail. Lots of trees, lots of poison ivy, some nice wildflowers, not a lot of views. It was pleasant enough, and I enjoyed running through the rolling terrain. I felt like I was running well: the pace felt easy, and my legs felt light and relaxed. I recall saying to Garret that the pace felt good and that I hoped to maintain it for the whole race. That statement would prove hopelessly naive, but hey, you need some optimism to do these things in the first place. We climbed gently for a while, then emerged onto a ridgeline that offered some nice views.

View from the course

Somewhere along this ridgeline I decided to speed up a little and left the group behind. This wasn’t a goal, but I wanted to run at a pace that felt natural, and I was inclined to go slightly faster on the downhills than the others. This was fun until the single-track trail became a wide ATV trail. Then it became less fun. The ATV section started maybe five miles before Nemo (mile 38) and continued until Pilot Knob (mile 45). Pretty much all of those miles sucked, especially the stretch between Nemo and Pilot Knob. The trail / fire road had been totally chewed up by ATV wheels, leaving ruts and muddy puddles everywhere to dodge. There were rocks all over the place, some of which were loose and some of which were firmly embedded in the ground–as I learned when I stubbed my toe on the latter several times. I hated this part of the course. The only relief from the ATV trail was a brief paved section in Nemo, where I texted Megan “Nemo 1!” Despite the exclamation point, I wasn’t feeling excited by now. I was starting to feel tired, only 38 miles in. The ATV track had left me feeling grouchy. I was a little behind 12-minute pace, which meant that, even if I maintained it, Megan would be waiting a while in Nemo. I doubted I could maintain it. If Megan had been driving herself, I would have told her to arrive in Nemo later–10:30 at the earliest, but probably later than that. However, we’d already made arrangements with the cab company, so I said nothing and just hoped for the best.

The seven miles from Nemo to Pilot Knob sucked. I guess I already said that, but they really did. So, I was glad to get to Pilot Knob, where I knew the single-track would resume. I wanted salt, so I grabbed a big handful of potato chips at the aid station and continued on my way.

What followed were 7.5 miles of pretty single-track. The change of scenery lifted my spirits almost immediately and lessened the fatigue I’d been feeling for miles. As any ultrarunner will tell you, these races have a large mental component, and it’s amazing how physically irrelevant factors–the scenery, the prospect of seeing your pacer, actually seeing your pacer, etc.–can turn your race around. I don’t know that my race turned around, but I was feeling better than I had for miles. It was getting late, but I still hoped to reach the turnaround before dark, so I pressed on at what seemed like a solid but sustainable pace.

The only thing that bothered me at this point was the person I came to know as “trekking pole guy.” I don’t use trekking poles myself, but I have nothing against people who do–except that sometimes those poles can get noisy. For several miles, I’d been hearing the clack-clack-clack of poles not far behind me, and it was getting on my nerves. This actually led me to run faster–maybe faster than I should have–just to escape the noise. I eventually did, but at a cost: I’d broken my Golden Rule of “run your own race.” This is one reason I mostly race alone: I find it hard to run with others without it subtly affecting my pace, whether it’s because I’m stuck behind someone on a downhill or feel pressured to run faster because someone is right on my heels.

The last few miles before the turnaround at Silver City included a long, steep downhill. While descending, I passed the leader coming in the other direction. I figured he was a good five or six miles ahead of me, which is fine, but it reminded me that I’d probably leave Megan waiting for quite a while. I continued down, stopping only to put on my headlamp, which I’d brought in case I failed to reach the turnaround before dark. (My primary light, a LightBelt, was in my drop bag in Silver City.)

About a mile before the turnaround, it started to rain. I’ve had some bad experiences with rain: for example, at the Never Summer 100K in 2019, it started to rain, but I chose not to don my jacket immediately in the hope that the rain would be brief. Big mistake: not only did the rain get harder, but it eventually turned into hail. By that time I was freezing, and because I was then wading slowly along what had become a muddy creek, I couldn’t get warm even with my jacket on. Better to avoid that, I thought, so this time I stopped and put my jacket on. It was the smart thing to do, but this time the rain stopped almost immediately, and my jacket began to feel very hot. So, another stop to take off the jacket and put it back in my pack.

Soon afterwards, I reached the turnaround at Silver City. There was a small hut there with the drop bags and aid station stuff. I was relieved to reach the halfway point, and to take a break while I retrieved my light belt and other gear. I chatted with the friendly aid station volunteer and ate some more chips. It was around now that I started to notice that the aid stations were not all I’d expected. The final pre-race email said that “Aid station fare will be the standard ultramarathon buffet of fruit, chips, candy, cookies, potatoes, meat, pb and j, bread, and some soup for the night hours.” To my mind, the most important items on that list are the potatoes and soup, which I would definitely want during the night. During the warmer daylight hours, I mostly consume sweet stuff: dates, clif bars, smoothies, etc. Later on, and especially as it gets dark, I need more starch and salt. Boiled potatoes are an aid-station staple, and they were mentioned in the email…but so far I hadn’t seen any. Hadn’t asked yet about the soup, but I would soon find out.

As I moved toward the door of the hut, trekking-pole guy asked if I was leaving. I said yes, wondering why he wanted to know. I hoped he wasn’t looking for a running buddy and hastened on my way.

Heading out again felt hard. I felt tired thinking about the big uphill ahead and retracing all of my previous steps. But, that was the only way back, so on I went. Only a mile or so from the turnaround, I passed Garret coming down the hill. He was moving well and seemed in good spirits, so I wondered if he’d overtake me at some point. I figured he was 30-40 minutes behind me, but that’s not much with over 50 miles still to go.

The hill actually wasn’t bad. It was long and steep, but this gave me a much-needed opportunity to hike for a while. Unfortunately, I once again heard trekking-pole guy close behind me, so I picked up my pace to escape the clack-clack-clack. I guess he was also tired, because I soon left the noise behind and never heard it again. I feel bad complaining about this–I’m sure he was a nice guy, and poles are perfectly legitimate trail gear–but my tolerance for many things declines pretty sharply in the second half of a 100M.

On my way up the hill, I decided it was time for self-medication. My left foot had started hurting around mile 50: an unfamiliar pain in the arch that I hadn’t felt before and couldn’t explain. A cramp? I don’t know. It was mild at first but had steadily worsened over the last five or six miles. It still wasn’t terrible, but I knew ibuprofen would take time to kick in, so I figured I should take one now. I also decided it was time for some caffeine. I ate a “coffee collection” Clif bar with 65mg of caffeine.

The next five miles to Pilot Knob were great. The caffeine kicked in; the ibuprofen alleviated my foot pain; the hiking had given my legs a break. I ran. I was probably only doing 11-minute miles, but it felt fast, and I was glad to be running again. The moon rose, beautiful and huge. I could probably have taken a good picture if I knew how to use my phone’s camera, but this is what I got:


I reached Pilot Knob feeling good. I asked if they had potatoes. No. Veggie broth? No, just beef ramen or something like that. The aid station volunteers were all very nice, so I hate to say this, but…WTF?? Veggie broth and boiled potatoes aren’t hard, and I was really craving both at that point. Fortunately, they did have some cheese quesadillas, so I grabbed one of those and ate it on my way. I almost immediately regretted not taking more, as that first one went down all too quickly.

The ATV trail to Nemo was as bad as I’d remembered, but worse the second time around. I kept looking at my watch and realized I’d be lucky to reach Nemo before 1:00am. Poor Megan! If she’d gotten there at 9:30 as planned, that would be a long wait. Nothing I could do, though, except keep going.

My foot started hurting badly despite the ibuprofen, so I took another, as well as a caffeinated Gu. The caffeine helped, but the ibuprofen did not. Or at least not as much as I’d hoped. It worried me that I was still 40 miles from the finish and experiencing foot pain that two ibuprofen couldn’t mask. What did that mean? What kind of damage might I be doing to that foot? This was starting to feel like my previous 100M experience: I felt damaged and concerned. Only this time, it was happening with 40 miles to go. I tried to focus on the thought that I’d see Megan soon, which I believed would somehow help.

Reaching the paved road to Nemo was a huge relief. At last, I’d see Megan and have someone to help me through my pain…or at least someone to hear me whine about it. I reached the aid station a little before 1:00am and saw her. It didn’t heal my foot, but it did help. I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the rest of this alone.

Nemo aid station

I still optimistically hoped that Pilot Knob was an anomaly, and that some aid stations would have potatoes and veggie broth. Sadly, Nemo did not. So I filled my reusable rubber cup with pretzels and snacked on those as I walked away with Megan. She had been there for hours and was cold despite her down jacket. This surprised me, as I was in a t-shirt and shorts and felt fine. But of course, I’d been running while she was sitting and waiting for me. I felt bad about that: I don’t think I could or should have run faster, but I probably should have known that I had no chance of arriving there anywhere close to 9:30. Chalk it up to inexperience, I guess.

The next five miles of ATV trail were predictably hard. I don’t remember what Megan and I talked about. I was too tired to talk much, and I imagine most of what I said was whining and swearing interspersed with the occasional guttural cry. Megan has paced me for both 100Ks and 100Ms, and while I think I’m a reasonably pleasant runner in the former*, I know I’m not much fun in the latter. Megan usually joins me in the final stretch, and by that time I’m in my own world of pain, making a lot of unpleasant noises and just trying to get by. I did the only thing I could, which was take another ibuprofen.

*With the exception of Castle Peak 2018–sorry, Dan!

It’s hard to overstate how relieved I was when we finished the ATV stretch and returned to single-track. It was uplifting to ascend once again to the ridgeline, where we got a nice view of the valley under the bright moon. My foot still hurt, but at least I wasn’t dealing with rocks and puddles any more. (Although even the single-track seemed a lot rockier than it had earlier. A lot of things look different at mile 70 than at mile 30.) Despite the foot pain, I’d maintained the ability to run downhill, so I tried to take the downhills as fast as I could. One long downhill stretch brought us to Dalton Lake (mile 74), where, predictably, they had no potatoes or veggie broth. One volunteer said “We have bacon!”

It started getting light really early, maybe 4:00am. By 4:30, it was light enough to turn off my light belt. I’d never run through the night before, except as a pacer: my only other 100M, Rio Del Lago, starts at 5:00am and is runnable enough that I can finish around midnight. I’ve heard a lot about how sunrise lifts your spirits and recharges your batteries. I did not experience this. But then, my problem was less general fatigue than localized foot pain, which the sun did little to dispel. Still, it was nice to see the world around me again.

Centennial trail marker
Wildflowers galore

Not much to say about the rest of the race except that it was hard. I still managed to run downhill but found myself walking more and more of the flats as well as the uphills. It got really sunny and warm, and the sight of Bear Butte under bright sunlight pulled me at least partway out of my pain cave. The last miles were really quite lovely, and somehow looked different than I’d remembered. Megan gave me an encouraging “good job” every time I managed a sustained run, which I appreciated. Once we’d passed the 100-mile mark, I did start to get a little resentful about those last five miles. Isn’t 100 miles enough? Why do I need another five? I know, I know: almost no 100M is actually “only” 100 miles long. But as I said, my tolerance for a lot of things goes down.

Bear Butte again

About two miles before the finish, Megan noted that I could break 25 hours if I tried. I’ll admit this had occurred to me as well: most ultrarunners know round numbers are meaningless but simultaneously care about them a great deal. I made a halfhearted effort to push the pace, but I also wasn’t sure it was worth it because we really didn’t know how far we still had to go. Megan urged me on, and when we finally reached the bike path, I managed a pretty decent pace for a little over a mile. I reached what we thought was the 105-mile mark in under 25 hours, but the finish was still not in sight. Then we finally saw it, maybe half a mile away. My response was immediate: I stopped running and walked. I knew Megan was disappointed, but that finishing push was exactly that: the effort one makes when the finish line is in sight. I’d been doing that for over a mile, and I was done. I did manage to jog in the last quarter-mile or so, mostly because there’s something ignominious about slowly walking to to the finish line. Despite my fatigue, I smiled a bit when I saw a large snake on the path to greet me.

Finish line crowd support

I was glad to be done. Megan gave me a hug, and I choked back a few tears. I’m not typically emotional at the end of a race, but this one was really hard. Fatigue, pain and worry about my foot had been building up for hours. I don’t know exactly what I was feeling, but whatever it was wanted to come out as tears. Still, I wasn’t about to cry in South Dakota of all places–I mean, this ain’t California–so I pulled myself together. Megan and I drove back to Deadwood, showered, tried (and in my case, failed) to take a nap, then drove back to Sturgis and had dinner with Garret: Impossible burgers for all. Garret stayed at our place in Deadwood that night, so we were all able to have a post-race beer at a local brewery before calling it a day.

My time of 25:03 was…fine? Having run so few 100Ms, and only one race in the last year and a half, I didn’t know what to expect. It was harder than I’d expected: despite running as easily as I could early on, it still got hard. But maybe that’s just how 100Ms are. My splits didn’t seem bad–11.5 hours for the first half, 13.5 hours for the second–although I still feel like better pacing should permit even splits. Mostly, I felt grateful to be done, and glad to have another hundo under my belt. I suspect a lot of my difficulties simply reflect my lack of 100M experience. My hope is that every race will help my legs handle this distance: that’s what happened with 50Ms and 100Ks. I’m doing Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe in the fall, so we’ll see.

I took two things away from this race, both of which only became clear in the following days. First, I really should learn to disregard pre-race pains. My hamstring, which worried me so much over the previous two weeks, didn’t bother me at all during the race. Moreover, even the soreness I’d felt vanished completely once the race was done. I’m pretty sure running 105 miles didn’t magically heal that hamstring, so I’m left to conclude that most of that pre-race soreness was just mental bullshit. This is what I’d already been telling myself, but this race reinforced that belief. Second, I need to stop being so afraid of in-race pains. I was really worried about my foot: it genuinely hurt, and running 40 miles on a hurt foot while managing the pain with ibuprofen seems…unwise? Maybe it is. But it felt fine later that day and continues to feel fine. Some mild soreness persisted for a couple weeks, but nothing that justified my worst fears of torn muscles and tendons. So it seems that sometimes pain is just pain. Remembering this could make my races a lot easier, since the pain itself usually bothers me less than the fear of what it might portend.

Next stop: Bigfoot 73 in two weeks!